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The Surprising Story Behind Ukraine’s 'Tunnel of Love'

It’s one of the most photographed places in Ukraine. Visitors travel from around the world to see the famous tree tunnel running through the small western town of Klevan. As RFE/RL’s Amos Chapple discovered when he explored the site, Ukraine's “Tunnel of Love” can reportedly trace its origins all the way back to the tensions and secrecy of the Cold War.

A young Ukrainian couple walks hand in hand along the railway line. (This summer scene was photographed in 2012). The neatly “trimmed” appearance of the tunnel is thanks to a prospering business which operates 24/7 at the far end of the track. 
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A young Ukrainian couple walks hand in hand along the railway line. (This summer scene was photographed in 2012). The neatly “trimmed” appearance of the tunnel is thanks to a prospering business which operates 24/7 at the far end of the track. 

This is the Odek plywood factory, in the village of Orzhiv. Birch trees from across Ukraine are trucked in…
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This is the Odek plywood factory, in the village of Orzhiv. Birch trees from across Ukraine are trucked in…

... then turned into plywood panels. The factory produces plywood for the West European market.
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... then turned into plywood panels. The factory produces plywood for the West European market.

Finished plywood panels are loaded onto these containers, and their journey to western Europe begins.
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Finished plywood panels are loaded onto these containers, and their journey to western Europe begins.

With a toot of the horn, the Odek factory train sets off. It’s bound for the Klevan railway junction, seven kilometres from the factory. There the containers will be transferred to a freight train and hauled west along the main trunk line.  
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With a toot of the horn, the Odek factory train sets off. It’s bound for the Klevan railway junction, seven kilometres from the factory. There the containers will be transferred to a freight train and hauled west along the main trunk line.
 

Mykola Havrylevych is one of four train operators who drive the famous route. Depending on how much plywood there is to transport, the drivers might make the run to Klevan several times a day, or not at all.
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Mykola Havrylevych is one of four train operators who drive the famous route. Depending on how much plywood there is to transport, the drivers might make the run to Klevan several times a day, or not at all.

For the first few hundred meters the railway line looks much like any other, but soon the trees close in. The reason for this, according to local journalist Alla Sadovnyk, dates back to the Cold War.  
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For the first few hundred meters the railway line looks much like any other, but soon the trees close in. The reason for this, according to local journalist Alla Sadovnyk, dates back to the Cold War.
 

Close to the factory, the railway splits and (left) runs to a military base hidden in the forest. Photographing military sites during Ukraine’s current war footing isn’t wise, but a glance at Google maps shows large numbers of military vehicles on the base. Sadovnyk says during the paranoia of the Soviet era, trees were deliberately planted alongside the track to conceal the transport of military hardware.
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Close to the factory, the railway splits and (left) runs to a military base hidden in the forest. Photographing military sites during Ukraine’s current war footing isn’t wise, but a glance at Google maps shows large numbers of military vehicles on the base. Sadovnyk says during the paranoia of the Soviet era, trees were deliberately planted alongside the track to conceal the transport of military hardware.

As the train nears Klevan, Havrylevych keeps a sharp eye on the track. Tourists, surprised by the train’s approach, crowd the track to take pictures.  
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As the train nears Klevan, Havrylevych keeps a sharp eye on the track. Tourists, surprised by the train’s approach, crowd the track to take pictures.
 

Last year a 38-year-old Japanese woman was struck by the train, fracturing her hip. But the train operators say this was a freak event and they’re not concerned about growing numbers of tourists.
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Last year a 38-year-old Japanese woman was struck by the train, fracturing her hip. But the train operators say this was a freak event and they’re not concerned about growing numbers of tourists.

For Serhiy Lostuk, here photographed in 2012, it’s quite the opposite: The 31-year-old, who today assists Havrylevych, says: “I like that the people come to take photos, it’s nice when people take an interest in our work.” Another worker in the factory echoes the sentiment, saying “people come from all over the world to little Klevan, of course we’re happy about that.”
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For Serhiy Lostuk, here photographed in 2012, it’s quite the opposite: The 31-year-old, who today assists Havrylevych, says: “I like that the people come to take photos, it’s nice when people take an interest in our work.” Another worker in the factory echoes the sentiment, saying “people come from all over the world to little Klevan, of course we’re happy about that.”

But the factory managers know that the tunnel they have helped shape is now bigger than their own authority. The tunnel has no official protection and in 2013, the year after this picture was taken, there was an outcry when several trees were cut down to aid passage of the train. Not a tree has been touched since.  
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But the factory managers know that the tunnel they have helped shape is now bigger than their own authority. The tunnel has no official protection and in 2013, the year after this picture was taken, there was an outcry when several trees were cut down to aid passage of the train. Not a tree has been touched since.

 

For 23 year old Halyna Savchyn, who traveled with her friend from their home town of Chernivtsi for this photoshoot, the tunnel is a source of pride for a country battered by current events. “It’s something beautiful, and it’s ours.”
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For 23 year old Halyna Savchyn, who traveled with her friend from their home town of Chernivtsi for this photoshoot, the tunnel is a source of pride for a country battered by current events. “It’s something beautiful, and it’s ours.”

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