Look around Europe, Stage #5

Kraków to Kiev

Here I go, off to Kiev. I’ve wanted to go to the Ukraine, Kiev in particular, ever since the first time I played an arrangement of it’s Great Gate, although then in my naivety I thought Kiev was a part of Russia. In my defence that was in about 1985 so it was still part of the Soviet Union and visiting seemed pretty impossible then. Fiddler on the Roof is also my all time favourite hangover viewing and kicked off my general pedestrian interest in klezmer music. Now I just want to try a chicken Kiev in it’s hometown and see whether on not it can live up to my huge gluttonous expectations.

I learned a little bit more about the Ukrainian people and what they have lived through during a recent CPD course at work. I’m ashamed to say that this was the first time I’d ever heard of the holodomor and a little of the history of displacement and persecution that the Ukrainian people have had to survive as well as the ongoing issues in the East. Coming from a nice safe little town in Scotland, the strength and resilience that the people must have needed and need to survive is completely beyond my understanding. All those terrible years of Scottish suffering at the hands of the English was a bit before my time and Boris hasn’t kicked in yet.

After doing a bit of Google research I decided that driving there was probably not the best idea. I’m not sure how current most of the information was but I’m terrified of doing something irreplaceable to my van due to bad roads and potholes, and when I googled ‘driving in Ukraine’ this came up:

As I’m not entirely sure that my insurance covers me outside the European Union although my breakdown cover does, I decided to catch a train.

I’m a massive train lover in a not-very-informed type of way. Although I am generally ashamed of the UK rail system, I still do love the decadence of just getting an a vehicle and relaxing until it reaches it’s destination; it’s like a licence to nap without guilt. My new found discovery that first class can occasionally be affordable (or only very slightly more expensive than standard) still makes me as excited as a small child on a first adventure.

I’ve no idea which trains are which or how fast they go, I just like the ones with enough leg room. I’ve done a couple of epic train journeys; the trans-Mongolian route from Moscow – Beijing and Amtrak’s Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles and loved every minute of both of them. The American one was great in that all meals were provided and I had my own tiny room. That bunk was definitely invented with the napper in mind; you could essentially stay in bed all day and watch the amazing views, even the food could be ordered to the bunks. The one thing that drove me mad about Amtrak was the fact that every one of their trains that I took was at least two hours late.

A view from my couchette while crossing Arizona

My Trans-Siberian experience was a truly great adventure. Being in Russia for the first time alone was my first experience of being in a country where English is not widely spoken and so I just had to get over myself and have a go. By the time I got to Siberia I could at least buy water and noodles from a kiosk in perfect Rusglish.

I personally don’t think anyone can say that they’ve travelled by train until they’ve travelled in a platzkart carriage. I found it fascinating to see the way the Russian people travelled, often with their kids and always with a huge amount of luggage. The first lady opposite me spoke a small amount of English which was good as she helped me communicate with the provodnitsa and explained that she thought what I was doing was fairly dangerous. She was the last person I spoke to in English until I caught the train from Irkutsk to Ulan Batar three days later.

The view from my platzkart bed

I had such a great time and have so much more to say about that trip that I think it deserves a post to itself at a later date.

I got a tram to Kraków Główny and after a long wait finally managed to find my room/bed after what was a potentially quite a stressful situation. A huge train pulled up to the platform with carriage numbers ascending towards the back of the train. When I got to the end it was only carriage 19 and I needed 24 so I tried to ask any number of random train guards and they all shrugged at me. I don’t think it helped that my electronic ticket was in English. Finally I legged it to the front where there were men in different uniforms; I think maybe the sleeping part of the train is somehow separate or maybe it drops the other part off along the way. There was an American lady who was equally confused and the guard seemed a little unsure as well, but we both appeared to have three man bunks to ourselves so all seemed promising. A random man asked to take a picture of my train ticket and stole my linen pack. I’m not sure what harm he could do with this but I was slightly concerned.

At the last stop in Poland, Przemyśl Główny, two young men knocked on the door and my solitude was ended. It didn’t help that I was fast asleep and also in the wrong bunk. I didn’t sufficiently wake up to try and converse for a few minutes, but when I did they didn’t seem to mind too much that I was already settled in the wrong bed. As soon as I managed to drift off again the Polish border control came to see if we were all legitimate and then on the other side of the border a gentleman from the Ukrainian military didn’t seem to believe that it was me on the passport. By the time all of this had finished it was coming on to towards 4 in the morning and in another two hours or so we were in Lviv. The bed was very comfortable, it’s just a shame I had so little sleep. It turned out that the man who photographed my ticket has something to do with the train, so that was all good too.

My companions left the train at Lviv and so I tried to grab a little bit more sleep as the train wasn’t departing until after 11. I’d arranged with my new American friend to go and have a look around after we’d both had a nap so we found our way out and had a wander around. Lviv seems like a really fascinating place. It was a bit careworn in a rather delightful way, but I think we probably missed the more modern centre. I could have spent all day exploring the streets but we settled for a coffee and a croissant before we headed back to our train. On pulling up to the platform another two passengers arrived at my little door – I really don’t like the three bunk bed style of carriage, especially when I’m supposed to be on the top.

Some type of establishment in Lviv

The journey from Lviv to Kiev was around five hours but luckily one of my new companions was a very interesting and pleasant gentleman from the Netherlands who spoke amazing English. We chatted away until the last hour or so when my napping instincts kicked in until we got there. We parted company and I found a metro station to take me to my hostel which was just off Independence square. What a place that is!

Maidan (Independence) Square

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