Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back to Poland

All that was left for my final day was to retrace my steps to Poland and to go home, a travelling day. I posed for a photo wearing an old Soviet military uniform in the hostel and took a few photos, including an odd one of a portrait of Lenin on the wall which had his eyes obscured with a bit of black tape. The marshrootka back to the border was much more comfortable and I had a seat all the way.
I crossed the border with minimal fuss and waited for the minibus back to Przsmysl. It was here disaster struck although I was unaware of it at the time. Once back in Przemyl I went in search of a Polish post office in order to send back the vodka and a few other items as my bag was way too heavy. I opened my small day bag that I just use for a guidebook and wallet and immediately sensed something was missing. I had been carrying a substantial sum of euros in it and when I opened it they were not where I expected them to be. I emptied the bag but my fears were confirmed, they had been pick pocketed. I know I had them in Ukraine on the border as I had them easily accessible in case the border authorities wanted to know how much foreign currency I had. I searched and searched again but I knew they had gone. Either stolen by the hordes of street hawkers that surrounded me by the bus, or more than likely, by a professional thief on the bus. We were literally crammed in so tightly it was dangerous. I could see my bag but my arms were pinned to me so I can only assume I was pick pocketed there. Professional thieves target foreigners on these buses and despite taking reasonable precautions it appeared I had become yet another victim. Devastated I decided to pick myself up as best I could and at least report the matter to the police. I felt very stupid that I had allowed it to happen but it had. The police were good and thorough and I was especially grateful to an administrator who stayed with me the whole time and translated my statement to the policeman. He even arranged a lift for me to the train station in time for my train to Krakow. I was quite surprised to find myself in the back of a Police meat wagon with bars on the windows as my ride to the station.
Well that was the very unsavoury end to my Ukrainian adventure, I had a great time but the theft will mean my last memories of the trip were not good ones and the memories and feeling of it will remain for a long time.

Walking tour and a memorable evening.

I wanted to make the most of my last day in Lviv as tomorrow would just be a travelling day to Krakow to fly home. To really get under the skin of the city I had decided to follow a walking tour, not one of those for geriatric coach parties following a leader holding an umbrella aloft but one you follow yourself looking out for landmarks and sights along the way. I love doing these as they can be a challenge but are also very rewarding when you finish them.
I wasted an hour in the Lviv post office trying to post home two small bottles of Ukrainian vodka – it’s illegal apparently- and set off for my walking tour which began by the dominating Shevchenko monument in the central part of the city on Prospecto Svobody. Just by the monument was a small street market, I spied a book on a stall which was obviously quite old but appeared to have the actor Tom Cruise on the cover, none of the cyrillic text looked like his name so I sneaked a picture, anyone reading this please let me know what you think!
On the front The guidebook said it should be a two and a half hour walk, due to more utter bewilderment with the alphabet and a totally inadeqate and at a times completely inaccurate map it took nearer five. Once I followed a complete loop which unexpectedly dumped me almost back at the start of the route when I expected to be miles away. Halfway through the tour I had the option of a long tiring climb up a steep hill to The High Castle and promised spectacular views or bypassing it altogether and heading into the Old Town. Despite being very tired in the heat I did the climb and was glad I did. After a steep climb up a mountain path I saw that the real climb was still ahead via around 200 steps on a steep metal staircase to the very top. At the top of the staircase and almost delirious thought heat exhaustion and dehydration I approached someone walking towards me to ask the route to the very top. I just gesticulated wildly to the top as I could barely speak and assumed he was Ukrainian and was delighted to hear he was English. He said he was fairly sure of the way to the top so I followed him. He was a really nice bloke, his name was Thomas and he was from Nottingham and travelling independently through Europe just like I have done many times. We enjoyed the view from the top and he decided to join me on the concluding part of my walking tour.
After completing the tour, which I determined to do I suggested a beer and Thomas suggested going to a underground Ukrainian Nationalist bar called Kriyivka or ‘Bunker’ in Ukrainian. I had heard of this totally unique bar and had been planning to go there anyway so I readily agreed. This isn’t just any bar, to gain admission to the very hard to find cellar you have to give the password “ Slava Ukrainie” to an AK47 toting guard on the door. He then gives you a free shot of Ukrainian medivuka and you descend into the basement and to a truly brilliant place. We had a nice and very cheap dinner and several very nice local beers.
Along the wall by the bar were a few guns which customers were allowed to pick up for photos, so of course we couldn’t resist. It was great fun and I got some truly memorable photos. We changed seats in order to listen to and watch a traditional Ukrainian folk group perform some very nice atmospheric music. At the back of the room was a large group of people who cheered when they heard we were English. After a while we agreed to join them at their table and our already memorable evening got even better. They were half English, half Ukrainian and from the Midlands enjoying a week back in Ukraine with family. They kept jumping to their feet and singing traditional Patriotic Ukrainian songs very loudly complete with table thumping and endless supply of alcohol. They encouraged Thomas and me to help ourselves to whatever food and drink was on the table. I tried Pigs Ear and it was disgusting, I ended up throwing it under my chair when they weren’t looking! I asked if there were any songs they knew which a non Ukrainian speaker could at least try to join in with. Instantly they knew one and gave me and Thomas one word which we were to sing at the end of every line they sung. It really was great fun and a great experience, even though I had no idea what I was singing!
After the Ukrainian Brits had abruptly left, I would have bet anything on them staying all night, I decided to go back to the hostel as I had a relatively early start the following morning. It was an extremely memorable evening and one I’ll never forget.

First Day In Lviv

First full day in Ukraine
I slept really well, probably due to having the whole dorm to myself. Probably slept a bit too well in fact as I forgot to change the time on my phone ahead one hour so the 10am alarm clock was actually 11am and I lost an hour.
My main priority was to just explore the city on foot and just experience the charm of the city. The Polish peole from the day before had hinted as possibly meeting up today but I had decided I wanted a day alone to explore. I hadn’t heard from them prior to leaving the hostel. Gabor did eventually text me but I chose not to reply immediately, I wanted to be alone and my time was limited and precious. I decided on two excursions as well which were recommended by my Lonely Planet Guide. It said “don’t even think of leaving Lviv without visiting the Lychakiv Cemetery, described as the Pere Lachaisse of Eastern Europe. Never having visiting the more famous Paris Cemetery I had no idea of comparison but with a write up like that I had to give it a go. I really should stop giving Lonely Planet so much credibility. I had never heard of anyone buried there, not even Ivan Franco which LP picked out as a highlight and very important figure. A lot of the gravestones were very impressive but very quickly I became bored as one grave merged into another so after about half an hour I turned around and left, quietly regretting having devoted so much time to visiting the place.
It was now past lunchtime and having passed on the pathetic hostel breakfast I was starving so I stopped in the Old Town for lunch at the Korzo ‘Irish’ pub. Half decent food, ridiculously slow service and a clich├ęd Irish music CD seemingly on repeat greeted me for the next hour.
I had decided to visit the Robert Dom’s Beer House next, a brewery of Lviv’s oldest beer Lvivske. There is a museum attached with tasting included in the £1.20 admission. I got ridiculously lost and disoriented trying to decipher the Cyrillic road signs against my map and had almost given up when I found it. The museum was interesting but the tour was only in Russian and Ukrainian so I just wandered around the exhibits and proceeded onto the tasting. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the ‘tasting’ was two full pints of different types of beer rather than the shot glass size tasters I was expecting.
Pretty tired by this point I returned to the Kosmonaut to relax prior to dinner. I got chatting to an American guy called Scott and a Dutch woman who seemed to be together. They invited me to join them for a drink which I did. It soon became apparent that they weren’t a couple but the American guy was desperately trying to impress her, it would’ve been funny if his attempts to impress her weren’t so vomit inducing. Still they were interesting company. He had lived in Ukraine for two years as a church Missionary and was fluent in Ukrainian and was very useful in communicating with the bar staff when necessary. I hadn’t learnt my lesson in not treating Lonely Planet as Gospel and had decided to go the highly recommended Amadeus restaurant and they decided to join me. It was tough to find but the food was well worth the effort.
My first impressions of Lviv was that it was a very pretty city but not as stunningly beautiful as I had imagined. The architecture reminded me very much of Gdansk and Poland in general, which is a reminder of the fact that Lviv has only been part of Ukraine since 1945. I had a great day exploring the old town and getting a feel of the city and am looking forward to one more full day tomorrow.

Poland to Ukraine overland

My journey to to Lviv in Ukraine wasn’t what you could call a straight forward journey. I would fly to an obscure city in South East Poland called Rzeszow (pron. Sheshov), then take a ninety minute train to an equally impossible to pronounce city very close to the border called Przemysl (pron. Prashemesh). From there it’s a fifteen minute minibus to the border town Medycka where you alight and just cross the border into Ukraine on foot. The last stage is a 2 hour minibus- called marshrutkas- to Lviv. Sound simple? Read on.
I found the route on Wikitravel after finding out that flights to Lviv were very expensive and direct trains and buses from Poland coming with horror stories of up to nine hour delays at the border where officials check for illegal goods on this notorious smuggling route. The trains have the added problem of a two hour wait to change the wheels to the Ukrainian gauge. The convoluted route has the bonus that individuals crossing the border are rarely delayed longer than 30 minutes and western passport holders are sometimes rushed through as they are considered less of a smuggling risk.
I really don’t like just using cities as a jumping board to get elsewhere, I believe that everywhere at least warrants a bit of exploring, but unfortunately with Rzeszow that’s exactly what I did. I took the airport bus to the main station and eager to push on to Lviv I decided to jump on a soon to depart train to Przemsyl as I didn’t know what delays might be awaiting me at the border.
The third stage of the journey from Przemsyl to the border wasn’t immediately obvious. I had to make sure I got the domestic bus that just takes you to the border and not a bus going to somewhere in Ukraine. I eventually found one after stopping to eat a rancid looking burger in a grill in the bus station. The minibus was ridiculously overcrowded and for the start of the journey I was crouched in a very uncomfortable position holding my bag until I somehow found a way of positioning myself between it and the window. I got chatting to a nice Polish guy on the bus who says he was also heading to Lviv. He had never done the journey before either so we said we’d help each other out if necessary. The 20 minute journey was quite uncomfortable but we got to the border amid scenes of dozens of middle ages women flogging bottles of vodka and cheap Ukrainian cigarettes, I was harassed immediately after getting off the bus but just walked past them looking for the border. I expected it to be just there but it wasn’t, it was a walk of about a mile along a concrete path with high fencing both sides. First I cleared the Polish immigration and effectively EU immigration and then walked about 500 metres through neutral border territory to the Ukrainian frontier. After a few pointless questions from the border woman, including “Are you afraid on going to Ukraine alone?” I was stamped into Ukraine and my 37th country. A proud moment! Myself and the Polish group bought a few drinks at a dingy cafe in the dingy border town of Shegyni and walked up the road to the bus station, hoping that Wikitravel had its facts right. It did and a bus was about to depart but I suddenly realised I had no Ukrainian money. Luckily the polish guy Gabor offered to pay for my ticket and I would pay him back when we got to Lviv. The fare was only 15 Ukrainian Hryvna which is about £1.20, not bad for a 2 hour bus ride! I was a little concerned when I saw the bus; it was the same size as the bus from Przemysl to Medycka and with probably more people trying to get on it. I squeezed on it right at the back and had to stand for at least an hour, desperately trying to hold on along probably the worst roads I have ever experienced. We got to Lviv eventually and despite the appalling roads I even managed to doze off for a while, after I managed to get a seat of course. All that was left now was to get some money and get to the Hostel Kosmonaut which I had prebooked, relax and reflect on a quite unique and memorable journey.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ukraine, eventually....

Thanks to an embarrassing oversight I am writing a pre trip post rather than a first day in Ukraine post. I was convinced I was flying today and thought it was a glitch in ryanair's booking system that wouldn't let me check in. When I dug out my flight itinerary I realised it was for the 10th, not 9th... Easily done, well that's what I keep telling myself.

My quest to go to every country in Europe continues tomorrow with country number 37 and Ukraine. I actually consider myself to be on 39 as I'm counting The Vatican and Monaco but my good friend Adam whom I'm in a unofficial number of countries race with doesn't count them. So until I get official word from the UN it'll be number 37.

I guess some of my countries have been a little shameless, 1 night visits sometimes, Portugal springs to mind and Finland even less,but with Ukraine and Lviv I am genuinely excited about seeing this city and experiencing Ukrainian hospitality and culture.
I have an interesting journey to Ukraine , via south east Poland and a Ryanair flight to Rzeszow and then a overland route that I discovered off Wikitravel, maybe not the most reliable source of information but it should be an interesting few days into the unknown. Watch this space for updates.