15 June 2011

Tattoos and Gunshot Wounds [Ukraine] Part I

As my loyal readers know, the Ukrainian visa was a B*TCH to get... expensive and time consuming. And even though I didn't want to, I had this 'it better be worth it' mentality. After spending a day here, the thought never again entered my mind.

So let's start at the beginning... The journey from Brasov in Romania to L'viv in Ukraine was only about 700kms in length, but it took me close to 22 hours to complete. First I took the overnight train from Brashov to Suceava, a town about 30kms shy of the Ukraine border. The distance between these two cities is only about 400kms, but somehow the trip takes 8.5 hours. I actually managed to get a decent amount of sleep; I had a cabin to myself, the guard only came to check my ticket once, and there were no border crossings (so no passport checks).

I arrived into Suceava before 8am and had only a very hazy idea of how to get across into Ukraine. All I knew was that there was a bus at 1pm, but it was also possible to get a mini-van or shared taxi , which left whenever they were full. I read conflicting information on the net, some said they left from beside the bus station, others from outside the Bazar. Anyway, I walked out of the train station into... nothingness. We were nowhere near the city. I crossed my fingers and jumped on a local bus I hoped would take me somewhere near town. I got off at a stop that looked like it might... I dunno actually. I just got off! I tried to find information about the bus station or Bazar. I found the Bazar on a bus route map, so I jumped on and made my way there.

At the Bazar there were a few cars and taxis sitting around outside, but nothing that resembled a mini-bus. I tried asking at the bus stop but no one seemed to speak English. I then tried my best 'wander around looking like a lost tourist', to no avail. I walked to the parking lot (gravel patch) beside the Bazar and asked a random guy. He could not speak English but I had my destination (Chernivtsi, just over the Ukraine border) written down. He motioned for me to follow him. Finally! Someone who knew what I was talking about. He walked around to a few guys and asked, but it seemed as though no one was heading there. He then directed me to some dodgy looking dudes at the back of the parking lot, then walked off in the opposite direction. I thought 'what is the worst that could happen?' and gave it a try...

I get there and show them my note with 'Cernivtsi' written on it. An old guy points to his car, and signals on his watch that he is leaving in 30 minutes. WIN! I keep asking how much, and he keeps motioning with his hands not to worry about it. He also keeps trying to get me to put my backpack in his car, and I say not until we have agreed a price. Hmmm, a little dodgy? This goes on for pretty much the full 30 minutes, when he finally says 40lei or $10. I open my wallet, all I have is 25lei and a bit of change (in total about €6). He takes it and we are off.

The journey to the border was pretty quick... The problems started when we got there. I exit Romania without any problems, but entering Ukraine is another story. I have already told you about how much trouble I had getting the Ukraine visa, and that in the end my host, Zlaty, in Sofia (Bulgaria), made me a "fake" hotel booking and tourist voucher. So they wanted to see the tourist voucher. I told them that I gave the only copy I had to the Ukraine Embassy in Macedonia (which was true). It went back and forward for a while, before they asked for the name of the hotel I had the tourist voucher for... A pretty reasonable request, I mean, I was meant to be staying there, surely I would have the name! But of course I could not remember it... We were in a bit of a stalemate. I was just about to go and try to find Zlaty's number and give them a call to see if they could email me the invitation (if she still had it) or at least give me the name of the hotel. There were several things running through my mind at this point, mainly worrying about not finding Zlaty's number, and if/when I did, the border guards calling the hotel to find no such reservation existed. After a few minutes of stressing balls, they shook their head, gave me a 'stupid tourist' look, stamped the passport and handed it back to me. Sweet!

But of course it was not over yet... They came to check the bags, and one of the border gaurds gave me a grilling.
Guard: Do you have any drugs or firearms
Me: No, nothing.
Guard: Do you have any marijuana on you?
Me: Nope.
Guard: Look at me when you answer.
Me: OK, No, I don't.
Guard: So where is the marijuana?
Me: I don't have any.
Guard: Why do you keep looking away? (he was a little intimidating... I mean, he had a big gun!)
Me: I'm not! I don't have any marijuana.
Guard: Where do you hide the marijuana?
Me: I don't have any marijuana!
Guard: OK so where are the drugs?
Me: I don't have any drugs.
Guard: Hmmmmm, OK.

After that we were finally free to go! The journey up to Chernivtsi was fairly quick, and the guy dropped me at the train station. I hadn't eaten all day and was starving, so I went across the road to a small restaurant/cafe. I ordered a cheeseburger and a beer... the beer was great, but I have no idea what was in the cheeseburger. The meat was pretty much huge chunks of gristle and fat, mixed with some other strange brown stuff. While ordering, a Ukrainian guy latched on to me and started having a conversation. You would think after the first five or ten minutes he would catch on that I did not understand a word he was saying and leave me alone, but not this guy. His total English vocabulary was 'My name is Andrew'. After I ordered he came and sat at my table for a good 45 minutes while I ate and drank. He would not leave! He just kept talking in Ukrainian, saying 'My name is Andrew' and showing me his tattoos and his gunshot wounds (not kidding). My side of the conversation consisted of smiling, nodding, and the occasional 'I have no idea what you are talking about'. The only way I could escape him was to get up and leave, and even then he followed me outside. How do I attract these people?

I had to wait about an hour for the train to L'viv. It was actually really comfy - there are no seats, everyone gets a bed, and they even give you sheets and a pillow. I mean, it is VERY basic, an feels like the train is about 50 years old, but it was more comfortable to sleep in than all the other trains I have travelled on so far. I finally arrived in L'viv at about 8:30pm, after 22 hours straight travelling.

L'viv has to be one of the coolest cities I have visited so far. The old town is a UNESCO heritage site... not just one building, the whole area! It is really beautiful. It also contains some of the most amazingly decorated churches I have ever seen, easily comparable to those in Rome. Besides that, it is quite a funky place; lots of cool bars and cafe's.

In L'viv I was staying with Yahuen, a Belarusian guy now living in L'viv. He was awesome; really friendly and helpful. Most evenings we went out with his friends for a meal and drinks. I had planned to stay in L'viv a little longer than I did... but after speaking to them about all the other beautiful places in Ukraine I decided I should probably keep going. I was a little disappointed... L'viv is such a great town to both sight-see, or just chill out in coffee shops and bars whiling the day away.

I spent most of my time in L'viv wandering around the old town. I'm not going to recount all the places I visited, because that would be boring. Just take a look at the photos. One place I will mention is Lychakiv Cemetery, one of the oldest graveyards in Europe, apparently home to over 300,000 graves. The strange part - it is like a huge jungle! It is so overgrown I don't think there is any maintenance at all. But that makes it quite cool... I think would be a nice place to be buried, in amongst the wilderness. There is one place in the cemetery that is extremely well maintained... the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów. This area is for those that died in the Polish-Ukrainian War and Polish-Soviet War between 1918 and 1920. About 3,000 graves in total. One strange thing - they charge you to get in... It is not a lot, but still, I thought that was weird to charge admission for a cemetery.

OK so this post is already huge, so I am going to continue my amazing adventures in Ukraine another day...

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