Checkpoints, gunfire and a night train: Five days in Crimea

The long trek from Sevastopol to Donetsk
The long trek from Sevastopol to Donetsk

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Story highlights

  • CNN team joins international observers trying to get into Crimea from Ukraine
  • They are turned away at a checkpoint but the CNN team later makes it over the border
  • After five days, they have to decide the safest way to get back again -- and decide on the train

It was 4am when, still half asleep, we bundled ourselves into a van and headed to the southern Ukraine city of Kherson.

We had spent the night in Odessa, famous for its giant stairway featured in Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film, "Battleship Potemkin."

And while we hadn't awoken before the sparrows just to go sightseeing, our diligent fixers unexpectedly took us on a tour of the apparent back streets of Odessa.

They assured us it was the quickest way out of town, but I was anxious because we had just three and a half hours to reach Kherson where we'd be joining the 43 observers from the Organization For Security and Cooperation (OSCE) international observer team as they attempted to cross into Crimea.

The delegates were all from various militaries. Punctuality had been drilled into them. They would not wait for a late television crew, even if we had been given exclusive access to their convoy.

When we arrived in Kherson, the OSCE observers were getting a briefing about their planned route to Crimea.

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Yes, they expected to meet armed pro-Russia military forces.

No, they did not like their chances of getting through, but it was their mission to try.

Were Crimea warning signs missed?
Were Crimea warning signs missed?

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OSCE monitors denied entry into Crimea
OSCE monitors denied entry into Crimea

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For almost three hours, we drove in a police-escorted convoy through sparse countryside and dilapidated Soviet-era towns.

It was a joy to see the Black Sea but at the same time, I felt some trepidation as it indicated we were approaching the Chongar checkpoint and we really didn't know what to expect.

We knew the men guarding the checkpoints up ahead were armed with assault rifles. The OSCE delegates we were travelling with were not carrying weapons and the Crimean authorities had made it clear they regarded any attempts by the OSCE to enter the peninsula as a provocation.

The team of observers had already been blocked on a different route to Crimea the previous day. This was their second attempt.

One delegate told me he was anxious about trying again. Another said the delegation needed to be more forceful this time.

At first our convoy was met with celebratory scenes of people waving Ukrainian flags but the atmosphere changed further down the road as we approached the Chongar roadblock.

The men guarding it were indeed armed and wore balaclavas and military fatigues with no insignia. They stood below Russian flags.

Along the roadside, signs warned of land mines.

While the armed guards looked threatening, they were remarkably calm as they faced not only repeated demands from the OSCE observers but were taunted by pro-Ukrainian protesters who had followed our convoy.

"This is our country. We will kill you," shouted a particularly irate elderly man.

A shake of the head was the only response he got from one of the masked guards.

For two hours, the OSCE officials repeatedly pressed their case, insisting they had a right to enter Crimea, but eventually they decided their efforts were futile.

The armed men would not budge. The weather was turning foul. The delegates turned their convoy around and headed back to Kherson to assess their next move.

We, however, stayed on. Our man and wife fixer team had suggested they try to get us into Crimea.

And they were successful but not before a hairy moment.

As we waited to be waved through, two shots were fired. Up ahead, we could see gunfire smoke near a car waiting to pass from Crimea into Ukraine.

The pro-Russian forces manning the checkpoint immediately assumed defensive positions and stood back to back, weapons at the ready.

But they remained calm, relaxed even. These masked men may not be wearing insignia but their discipline indicated that they had military training.

After a few minutes, they waved us through.

As we passed the white sedan that had been shot at, we could see that no one in the vehicle was hurt, but the front tire had been shot out.

Hostile reactions in Crimea

After five days in Crimea, our team was due to head back to Kiev.

But on the eve of our departure, Simferopol airport was closed to all flights except those to and from Moscow.

We would have to look for alternatives. By car or by rail.

A road trip would mean at least 10 hours of driving with no guarantee we would get through the checkpoints set up by pro-Russian forces between the Crimean peninsula and Ukrainian mainland.

We had witnessed one of these gunmen shoot out the tires of a vehicle trying to cross into Ukraine at a checkpoint in Chongar. We didn't want to risk a similar situation.

During our travels through the region, reaction to our cameras wasn't always positive. In Odessa we faced some aggression and were told that some pro-Russia activists did not look favorably on American-owned networks.

So with road travel struck off the list, we turned to the train timetables. So it seemed, had everyone else wanting to get out.

The Kiev-bound service was booked out but we managed to snare the last tickets on a train to Donetsk, another region in eastern Ukraine which identifies more strongly with Moscow than Kiev.

So we boarded the Sevastopol-Donetsk express at 7.55 p.m. and immediately negotiated our way into first class to accommodate the 12 bags of camera equipment and personal luggage that we'd been dragging around the countryside from Kiev, to Odessa, to Simferopol and Sevastopol for the past seven days.

The train conductor kindly gave up her two-bunk cabin for us and no doubt spent a restless night in an upright chair.

That's not to suggest that we slept any more soundly. The heating was turned up to asteroid temperature and our kindly conductor woke us at 2 am to fetch her cigarettes that she'd left in the cabin.

I guess she needed something to get her through the discomfort.

Still, it was a markedly better and safer way to travel than by car. The carriages were full of young families and senior citizens heading to the Ukraine ahead of Sunday's referendum, there was a plentiful supply of tea with lemon and sugar, and at $15 for a standard ticket and $40 for first class, it was a bargain.

It was also hassle-free. Despite reports of pro-Russian forces inspecting trains in Crimea, our only visitor was a young mute man who wanted to sell us night lights.

We are now all proud owners of these small glowing souvenirs of a journey that may have left us parched from the heat, but which gave us one of the few remaining routes out of Crimea. At least until after the referendum on Sunday.