I can’t believe we’ve spent six weeks in Ukraine already. In those weeks, we’ve changed location NINE times. And getting to those places was often real work. A trip of just 99 miles (from Bukovel to Chernivtsi) took all day and four buses, crammed in, on bumpy roads, with thick pollution spilling out the exhaust pipes and pouring in through the windows. To catch one of our buses, we had to read signs in Ukrainian Cryillic and flag down the one we needed. Somehow that worked out.
My response to everything lately has been, “I’m tired.” But not tired really, just burnt out.
We’re finally getting to go back to Romania now. We’re lingering at the border for the next two days. I teach Mon-Wed, but have Thursday off so that we can travel all day that day when needed (which is every Thursday. XD) Thursday also happens to be the day we can legally cross the border and get back to Cluj-Napoca.
Romania’s tourist visa kicked us out of the country at the end of July. We wanted to return to Romania and continue renting the apartment we were in, but as per the visa rules, we had to stay out of Romania for 90 days before re-entering.
We were being forced to travel. And to be honest, after seven weeks in the same place, we were getting antsy anyway.
These past 90 days were supposed to be a super fun, fast-paced jaunt around many of the EU Schengen countries we hadn’t seen. We planned to check a whole bunch of countries off our list. Thanks to our lovely new friend whom we rented from in Cluj, Romania, we’d leave our big backpacks behind and travel light.
It started out according to plan, but as always… plans change. We zoomed through Hungary, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, and Poland before I got a message from my friend Louisa.
Louisa is a Dutch friend I made at the start of our travels in Jerusalem, Israel. We did some sightseeing together and she treated Grace very kindly.
While in Zakopane, Poland (beaauuutiful place), Louisa sent me a message asking if my family and I would go with her to Portugal for six weeks this winter. The warmer weather improves her health. At first I thought, bummer, that won’t work. Portugal is EU and our visa time will be up by winter. But we decided to talk with Louisa further and hear all the details.
After crunching numbers… we could do it! We would have enough visa days if we left the EU the next day. And so we did.
Thankfully, Lviv, Ukraine (one of the rare non-Schengen countries in Europe!) was conveniently a not-too-long-except-for-the-wait-at-the-border bus ride away. (Take the train if you want to go Krakow –> Lviv without waiting at the border for hours. Will write a lil guide soon.)
That’s how it began. That’s why we’ve been here, in the large, obscure country I’ve heard so little about, instead of gallivanting around EU Europe.
I am so glad it worked out this way! As much as we really loved Poland and would have liked to travel around there longer, by the time Louisa messaged us, I had already had my fill of Western Europe. Hungary, Austria, Germany… they’re great in so many ways and beautiful. I’m sorry, don’t kill me for it, but it just… just gets so boring! Everything looks the same after a week or two.
There’s another reason we didn’t feel comfortable in Western Europe, a problem poorer Eastern European nations, or strong-minded Hungary aren’t dealing with so much. But I’ll go into that more if (*when*) I write about our time in Austria and Germany.
Where we went in Ukraine
Lviv X2 (cultural capital- nicest city in Ukraine)
Ivano-Frankivsk (heart and soul of nationalist feeling. Very pro speaking only Ukrainian, no Russian)
Yaremcha (A small town at the start of the Carpathian mountains)
Bukovel (ski town recommended many times to us in the Carpathian mountains)
Chernivtsi (a “city” or big village near both the Romanian and Moldovan borders. Reminiscent of Lviv due to all the Austro-Hungarian buildings. The city celebrated it’s 610th (0r something) year while we were there.)
Kamienets- Podilskyi (Hometown of two of our friends, hosts Ukraine’s most famous castle and a hot air balloon festival three times a year.)
Mukachevo (Town recommended for visiting the Transcarpathian region, which is the corner of Ukraine that lies on the border with Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland! People come here to hike the mountains, and see the lakes and nature.)
Solotvyno (Border town..)
Getting around Ukraine
A couple stood in front of us, already at the train ticket window, or “Kasa.” They were dealing with a ticket lady who hadn’t taken her happy pills. Wow, was she in a bad mood. Surely speaking English to her wouldn’t help things.
“Speak to her in only Ukrainian!” My mom said as we approached the scary lady behind the glass.
“Uh, I’ll try,” I managed.
I smiled and said as much as I could, which was a limited, few words. We could only hope it would help.
“Dobre den! Moshna bud laska maty tre bilete?” (Good day! Can I please have three tickets? …but very incorrectly.)
She seemed to ask where we wanted to go. Yaremcha, I said. She looked satisfied and typed away on her computer. Phew! Everything was good. She found the train tickets we wanted.
But then she started talking again, quickly, with absolutely no body language for me to read save a cranky expression.
Ooooh. Passport. That’s comin’ through loud and clear.
Oh well, we tried to not wake her angry side, but guess it couldn’t be avoided that day.
She scanned our passports and wouldn’t hand them back until we paid, which is, ya know illegal for her to do. We paid. Soon enough we had our tickets. another exchange accomplished with only one word of English!
We took the train twice (Ivano-Frankivsk –> Yaremcha & Lviv –> Mukachevo.) The rest of our journeys were done by marshrutka, the local buses. There really are no other options that I’m aware of, unless you rent a car or get lucky with Blabla car (ride sharing.) You can hitchhike, but we thought that hard to do with the language barrier.
We met an Indian guy who said Ukraine’s roads looked like India’s. When we met up with Ukrainian friends that we made in Cyprus they said, “We told you about our bad roads, remember? XD”
The bumps in the road (literal bumps in the road) didn’t bother me, except for that one time I was in desperate need of the bathroom… XD Ugh.
Thank goodness we traveled with small bags for this trip, because I don’t know if we could’ve taken buses with our 70L backpacks. The marshrutka allowed only enough space for you to sit and put a bag on your lap. Then the isles filled with people who’d stand and hang on. There usually weren’t any storage areas under the bus or in the back.
The buses were slow and the routes weren’t at all direct, but I think the trains were probably slower. However, if it’s cool with you, overnight trains are a great way to kill the time. You’ll sleep on a bed that looks like this (picture below.) We didn’t go anywhere especially far (like to Odessa), so we only traveled during the day.
The worst part about traveling through Ukraine for me was definitely the pollution. The air you breathe always smells of bus fumes, or coal, as the trains run on coal, as do much of home heating systems. If you wipe your finger on a car, it’ll come away pitch black.
The pollution was bad, but so was the corruption in Ukraine. These would be the main cons for me. The pros would be the people and the prices. The internet was also pretty great; I didn’t have much trouble finding places to teach (unlike Canary Islands…) It was the cheapest country we’ve traveled through, and we’ve been to Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia.
I’m really glad we had so much time to travel through this country that had been such a present curiosity in my mind.
In a lot of ways, it looked like Asia, as far as the poverty levels and development went. Yet the mindset of Ukrainians was decidedly European (but yes, with some roughness characteristic of Russians and Eastern Europeans) affording them with more capitalist methods and success, and consequentially, comforts. (Fun fact: Import costs to Ukraine from the EU are so high that McDonalds actually uses local meat and vegetables for their Ukrainian “restaurants.”)
Ukraine wasn’t as different as I was expecting. But that’s probably because I’ve been on the road for a long time now. Surely if I’d never traveled and came straight from the US, I would be in full culture shock.
A Ukrainian girl I met in Lviv said she’d like to visit India. She wanted to see a place that was poorer than her home.I think she doesn’t need to visit India. (Unfortunately) she has many countries to choose from if that’s what she wanted to see. Poverty isn’t just what you don’t have; it’s also a mindset.
I found Ukrainians in Western Ukraine (we didn’t travel farther east than Kamianets) to be kind, welcoming, and helpful. They’re hard-working, with a passion to be independent from Russia, and improve their homeland. I noticed a “can-do” attitude that was often lacking in Southeast Asian countries.
People truly make or break a place. I don’t care what exotic pictures you show me of Morocco. I don’t want to go back. The people there treat you only as a walking wallet and try to scam you at every corner.
If I’m really honest, if the people of Ukraine weren’t as wonderful as they’ve been to us, I might not have cared much about the country and the poverty would have been quite hard to take.
But surrounded by good people, we had the stamina to truly explore these six weeks. I’m leaving with a heart that’s willing and wanting to come back sometime again.
Thanks for having us, Ukraine! ^_^