Ukraine crisis: Ghost train from Moscow to Donetsk

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Media captionSteve Rosenberg: A usually busy train is remarkably empty

At Moscow's Kursky Railway Station I get on board Train 77. Minutes later we're moving: 12 carriages creaking, clanking. It's as if they're in pain as they push away from the platform.

My destination is Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Normally I'd fly, but fighting has closed Donetsk airport.

On Train 77, I expect the journey to take at least 19 hours. That leaves plenty of time for conversation.

I get chatting to one of my fellow passengers, an accountant called Yuri. He's not travelling all the way to Ukraine.

But he has strong opinions about what's happening there.

"It's a civil war. In eastern Ukraine people are fighting for their freedom," Yuri tells me.

"If they ask to become part of Russia, Russia should say yes, because we're one big family."

Three hours later, it's the first stop, Tula. I jump down on to the platform to buy some sweet-smelling local gingerbread filled with jam. This will be my dinner: Train 77 doesn't have a restaurant car.

Image caption There is plenty of time to put your feet up

Back on board, something has changed.

As the intercity rumbles through the Russian countryside, curiously I'm now the only passenger in the whole carriage.

I investigate the next carriage: it is completely empty. Suddenly 77 feels like a ghost train.

"It's sad, isn't it?" says the guard in my carriage.

She tells me that at this time of year her train is normally packed with Russian holidaymakers heading to the eastern Ukrainian resort of Mariupol.

"Now, people are too scared to go. Who wants to get shot going to the seaside?"

Off route

But there are some passengers who remain on the train. In another carriage I meet Nastya and her three-year old daughter Taisiya.

They are travelling to Mariupol, because that is where they live. They have been away visiting relatives.

Image caption The tranquil landscape conceals the fact that there is shelling and shooting in nearby flashpoints

"Back home people are upset and scared," Nastya says. "We must get back to our family. We're hoping for the best but fearing the worst."

The nearer we get to Ukraine, the more surreal the journey becomes.

When the train stops in Belgorod at three o'clock in the morning, a man walks into my compartment and tries to sell me a toy: a fluffy hamster that repeats everything you say to it.

When I politely decline, he whips out a doll and a radio in the shape of a car.

Then the border guards come knocking.

First the Russians. They quiz me about where I'm heading and why, and scan all my documents.

Further down the line, the Ukrainian border guards board the train. They ask me to open my cases and show them proof of a Donetsk hotel booking.

We push on through eastern Ukraine.

Out of the window there is no sign of shelling or shooting.

It is a picture of tranquillity: cows grazing in the fields, people on bicycles, old ladies tending to their allotments.

But the unrest in eastern Ukraine is affecting the route. Train 77 used to make stops in Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Horlivka - towns that have become flashpoints for conflict. A detour is required.

At one point the train makes an unscheduled stop at a village station. The guard tells me she doesn't know which route the train will take from here to Donetsk. It depends on the latest security situation.

Eventually, twenty one hours after leaving Moscow, we pull into Donetsk station and I leave my empty carriage.

As long as the conflict in eastern Ukraine continues, the trains out of here will have far more passengers than the trains coming in.