Diplomatic visit to Ukraine during the war: how world leaders travel by rail and what their preferences are

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Diplomatic visit to Ukraine during the war: how world leaders travel by rail and what their preferences are

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Despite the war, world leaders and celebrities continue to come to Ukraine to meet with the country's top leadership and discuss various issues. However, now that there is a ban on air travel in the country, guests have to travel to Ukrainian cities in the elite carriages of "Ukrzaliznytsia".


In an interview for BBC Ukraine, Ukrzaliznytsia train conductor Tetyana Kogut, who has been working for the company for 18 years, and since March 2022 in the elite carriages that transport the leaders of countries and celebrities who come to Ukraine during the war, said that how world leaders travel to the territory of our state during martial law.


According to Tatiana, currently, due to the threat of rocket fire, the trips are strictly classified. In particular, a maximum of a dozen people know about the flight, route and influential people sitting on the train, the carrier says.


"When we go to a train station abroad, we don't know who we're following", - she says.


Railwaymen call the trips of world leaders by train to Ukraine "iron diplomacy", and during the full-scale war, the company formed its own team of diplomats who accompany the guests throughout the trip.


It is these people who create comfort for world leaders and celebrities while they are on the road. Sometimes, leaders even embody quite interesting wishes of influential people and perform unusual whims.


Why do stars and world leaders prefer to travel by train?


Food for VIP guests of "Ukrzaliznytsia"


During their stay on Ukrzaliznytsia trains, guests can taste Ukrainian cuisine from the famous chef Yevhen Klopotenko. The menu includes various dishes, including borscht, syrnyky and vereschaka.


"Cheesecakes are a hit story. We take them on every flight, everyone wants them, they order them, they also ask for extras, in particular, Blinken",  said UZ employee Oleksandr Shevchenko.


There are also special wishes. For example, the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is a vegetarian. But ex-Prime Minister of Great Britain Boris Johnson is not against tasting lard.


At the same time, American businessman Howard Buffett, the son of one of the richest investors in the world, on the contrary, prefers American cuisine and asked to have food delivered to him from McDonald's or Dominos.


In addition, the food is served with wines specially selected by the sommelier for each guest.


"For example, we treated Boris Johnson with wine from varieties that grew in the occupied Kherson region at the time, the British delegation even took this bottle with them", - Shevchenko says.


The hostesses set the festive table. They received training in serving from Klopotenko to know how to best combine dishes on the table.


"We tell them "smachnogo", "bud laskya" or "please" if the delegation doesn't understand", - Tatyana says about communicating with foreign guests on board.


If a deeper conversation starts, translators are always nearby.


The hostesses also serve tea, of course, in branded iron cup holders from "Ukrzaliznytsia". Many people ask to keep them as a souvenir, says Shevchenko.


A curious situation occurred during Boris Johnson's visit. As you know, politicians usually do not go alone, but with their special services, security, etc.

As Dmytro Bezruchko, head of the transport planning department, told NV, when Johnson first traveled by train, the UZ did not take into account that the British would all drink tea with milk as one, and it ended even before crossing the Polish border.


"I had to wake up the chief of one of the border stations at 4 in the morning to provide morning milking for the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom", - says Bezruchko.


The most memorable visits of "Ukrzaliznytsia" to Ukraine during the war


Politicians usually take night flights. They often transfer to trains from the plane, and after getting to know each other, being treated to refreshments and reading reports (the carriages have starlinks), they go to bed.


Before resting on the train, distinguished guests receive gifts. As Tatiana tells, the leaders of countries and stars are given cups, sometimes paintings.


In addition, guests can borrow books from the mini-library, which must include an English-language collection of President Zelenskyi's speeches.


For example, during a trip to Ukraine, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had a bouquet of irises waiting in the carriage. Next to them was a card thanking them for their support and the IRIS-T air defense system and saying Liebe in der Luft (Love in the Air) in German.


"We all have a common love for irises, whatever you do," is how "Ukrzaliznytsia" described the interior prepared for Steinmeier's trip.


It is interesting that Chancellor Olaf Scholz was transported in a wagon of German assembly. It is a little different from the usual ones, there you can see the inscriptions in German.


"We at the railway try to come up with something for every flight. For the Czech delegation, for example, we made postcards with a little mouse from the Czech cartoon Zdennyk Miller with words paraphrasing the names of the series of the cartoon - "How a little mouse helps friends". There were drawn air defense systems and other equipment that The Czech Republic handed over to Ukraine", - Shevchenko says.


In addition, to make the trip unforgettable, Ukrainian perfumers even developed the so-called aroma of Ukraine for the diplomatic carriage, which "invigorates and evokes a feeling of courage."


"They also leave us souvenirs, it's nice", - says Tatyana. "I have all kinds of badges, a scarf from the European president, a t-shirt from the president of Slovakia, Zuzana Chaputova. Their delegation wore the same t-shirts, and now I have one."


According to company employees, the last visit of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Ukraine was remarkable. As the train passed the railway bridge at Irpen, which fell into the river during the fighting and was later rebuilt, the British Prime Minister asked if the train could be slowed down to examine the object. Obviously, this is not easy to do.


"But for such cases, we, representatives of the management, are on board", - Shevchenko says.


Tatyana recalls the first time she saw Boris Johnson. It was April and his first unannounced trip to Kyiv.


"I look, and a person appears on the platform, whom I had previously only seen on TV, - laughs Tatiana, telling the BBC about her first meeting with a politician. - And you think, how? It's impossible!"


"Until I started driving them, communicating with these people, I thought that they were somehow insidious. Boris Johnson is a very wonderful, friendly person. The second time he came, I was with Scholz, and the third time I got to see Johnson again, he even welcomed me remembered", - the guide recalls.


Director Sean Penn, who is making a film about the war in Ukraine, decided to rebuild the route during his visit. His wish was to spend the day in Lviv, although at first this was not in the plans.


At 9 o'clock in the morning, the national anthem of Ukraine is played at railway stations, and it was just such a moment when the Irish band U2 was on board one of the trains.


The musicians came out to listen to the anthem. Ukrainian soldiers were standing on the platform, and after the national anthem, Bono and the guitarist Edge came to meet. They talked, and the soldiers told that they had recently lost their comrades. After the conversation, Edge, who always had several guitars with him, returned to the wagon, took one of them and presented it to the soldier. I hugged him and the train moved on.


Tatyana says that at the beginning of the war, almost all guests stayed in Bucha before coming to Kyiv.


"Guests are impressed, they say, how is this even possible, the killing of children... It's a shock for them. They say they're trying to do everything to stop it", - the guide says.


Tatyana remembers how surprised she was when the Indonesian delegation, which was traveling in a compartment to Kyiv after a trip to Moscow, even suggested that she wear a bulletproof vest. They were so worried that they didn't even sleep on the way.

Tatyana was especially remembered by the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. She remembers her as a wonderful, soulful woman who was struck by the fact that railway workers are not afraid to work despite the threat of shelling.


"When we said goodbye, she had tears in her eyes. She said that everything will be fine with us, the war will end", - she says.


The woman talks about many of her famous passengers as good acquaintances, has many photos to remember, and assumes that she will see some of them on the train even after the victory.


"I don't think that all of them will transfer to planes so easily", - the guide says with a smile.



Photo: Ukrzaliznytsia