Berlin→ Kiev→ Odesa→ Simferopol→ Yalta→ Dnepropetrovsk→ L'viv→ Uzhhorod→ Kosice→ Olomouc→ Liberec
Time: Summer 2003
Day 1: Berlin→Kiev
The train left shortly before midnight and was quite a surprise. We expected an old Russian train - instead, we entered a modern train, painted blue and yellow, the Ukrainian colours. Inside, everything was pastel turquoise, which was definitely offending my eyes. Each compartment had three beds and was very narrow. All that was left from the good old Russian trains was the smoker's corner at the end of the carriage. We shared the compartment with an ancient woman. Luckily she was very kind and didn't snore.
After a short night in the hamster-box, we arrived Warsaw shortly after six in the morning. A few hours later we passed Lublin. The further we went east, the poorer and more rural it looked outside. Shortly after 1 pm we finally reached the border. Getting out of Poland was no problem at all - as always. But what about the Ukrainian border? We'd heard many wild rumours about bribes and persecution and so on. Nothing. They'd only frisked grandma (she was a Ukrainian going home, with four large bags, all of them seemed to be heavier than her) and showed no interest in our luggage. My companion had to pay € 13 for the ridiculous special health insurance, but we knew about that already before.
The customs' lady showed more interest. Watching her behaviour, I concluded that she worked as a dominatrix in her free time. 'Where's ye whip?' I wanted to ask, but the train went on already and so she had to leave. Two hours of gauge changing plus one hour time difference, and so it was already 4 pm when we continued eastwards. From now on, the speed was considerably slower and left us with enough time to notice that the villages outside looked substantially poorer. There was a longer stop in Kovel, where we had our first surprise. The train station was very modern and clean. I was looking for an exchange booth, but I couldn't find one. A young woman approached and asked whether I want to change money. The rate was o.k., still I didn't really trust her. And so I only changed € 10 and got 58 Grivna. Shortly before midnight we arrived - on time. Although late at night, many passengers were hanging around inside the huge station. Without the slightest idea where to stay, we wandered around, changed some money and realised that there's no place to stay around the station. Our guidebook (a Japanese one) wasn't really helpful, and there were no more buses or subways running.
Standing in front of the train station pulling a helpless face helps almost everywhere. A taxi driver asked in Russian whether we were looking for a room and how much we would pay. 200 Grivna for two persons. A phone call. 'Ladno!' (okay). For 20 Grivna (way too much, but that included some kind of provision as he explained) he took us to the place which was only one kilometer or so away. The building was quite large and streets around it pretty dark. So was the corridor. As in Russia, there was a porter at the entrance of the building. Is this safe? Who might lurk inside the apartment? No one. Another man showed us around. It was a rather big apartment with lots of furniture, a kitchen, one bathroom and one toilet, even clean towels and so on. We'd planned two days for our stay in Kiev. 'Call this number before you leave and put the key below the window in the corridor', the man said and disappeared after we gave him the money. Fascinating - we could demolish the furniture, throw the TV out of the window, spill red wine all over the carpets and slowly proceed to another place like locusts - it wouldn't matter, because they didn't even know our names. They trusted us, and sure as eggs is eggs we didn't want to disappoint them.
Day 2: Kiev
After realising that we are in Kiev, we hit the road. Kiev? Monasteries! The old city centre! What else? We had no clue. The metro (subway) took us to the centre of town for 50 Kopinok. It was a bank holiday, the weather was perfect and so the mob ruled the streets. All means of transportation were hopelessly overcrowded. Kiev is nice - especially the azure St. Michael monastery with its golden domes beneath the blue sky. But I didn't really feel like I wanted to stay much longer in such a big city.
|One of Kiev's splendid monasteries|
'Carpe diem' was the slogan of the day (well, actually of all days) and so we took in as much as possible.
We walked all around the town. At dusk we ended up at the train station again to get our tickets for
the next day. It didn't take long to buy the tickets, but I'd rarely seen such a hostile counter clerk.
We were curioused about the ticket price. € 7 only to Odessa - it's even cheaper than in Turkey!
Completely exhausted, we were slowly walking back to 'our' apartment. While walking, we
looked for a restaurant, but all we could find were pubs. Dozens of pubs, but they don't sell food. Finally we
entered a dubious café and ordered a pizza, sausages and more. Everything was microwaved.
The pizza was flabby and less than 10 cm in diameter, the topping was somewhat... I did't want to find out.
The sausages weren't much better. Somewhat frustrated we left the place and bought some Wareniki
(kind of pasta filled with cabbage) and sour cream - what else did we have the kitchen for?
At night we experienced a Ukrainian-style firework. Once in a minute, two or so fireworks shot skywards and exploded. The alarm system of a car next to the block seemed to be too sensitive. After each explosion, the car alarm started for a few seconds. This weird cacophony went on for half an hour...
The first impression was a good one. I didn't expect such a modern and cosmopolitan place. Kiev is quite charming. Most Ukrainians seem to be very friendly people, although staff can be nasty. All in all we'd got a good feeling, although we missed the thrill we had in countries like Georgia. Not even the border was adventurous (which of course is a compliment). After one single day, we'd already forgotten about all the bad rumours we heard before we came.
Day 3: Kiev→Odesa
Getting up early, cleaning up the mess - wait a minute, aren't we on holiday!? - and going to the train station. And so the day started. Before leaving Kiev, I called the owner of the apartment to let her know that we are off. Of course she didn't speak English. However, I managed to tell what I wanted to tell. We grabbed some food and got on the train which was coming from Moscow and leaving on time. And so we started 9:30 am. I wanted to travel during the daytime so see some of the landscape. What a silly idea - the landscape didn't change at all for the next ten hours. At least it was May and everything was in full bloom.
It was only the two of us in a 4-bed-compartment, and this shouldn't change for the rest of the journey. Relaxed travelling so to say, if there wouldn't be the unbearable heat inside the compartment. The train stopped for a longer time in a small town in the middle of nowhere. We used the time to escape the stuffy compartment and got off the train. That was a mistake. Within seconds, we were surrounded by hawkers. Half of them sold oily smoked fish, the rest drinks and small snacks. The fish was threaded and the entire thread was quite long, so most of the fish was dragged in the dirt of the platform - another way of breading fish... The hawkers even outnumbered the passengers (at least those stepping out of the train). This wasn't Kiev. This was another, very poor world. In a country called the Ukraine.
|Somewhere between Kiev and Odessa|
We arrived on time again in Odessa - at around 8 pm. Many old people were lurking around the train station
offering private accommodation. We asked one or two of them about the location. "In the suburbs"
they said. No, we didn't want to do this. After the long train ride, we deserved a large supper and a walk.
We took the tram to the centre. The first hotel was booked out. Staff sent us to another one. It looked
very old and elegant and definitely expensive. Still we dared to ask for the price - € 22 for a double!
Wow. We accepted gladly, because it was already late. The double was actually a suite - a huge anteroom,
a huge sleeping room and a bathroom so big that I had to look for the toilet... the whole suite was spotless
clean and somewhat stylish.
Feeling pangs of hunger, we left the hotel immediately and walked to near Deribasivska, Odessa's most elegant boulevard. We had a large supper, Ukrainian cuisine!, which set us back € 22 incl. drinks. It seems like it's easy to burn money in Odessa. Atmosphere around Deribasivska reminded us of the opera square in Yerevan - lots of neon signs, open-air bars and restaurants. Definitely a place to have a good time.
Day 4: Odesa
After a night in a hotel like this one has to be in a good mood. We had planned to leave Odessa on a night train. We asked at the reception if it would be okay to store the luggage until the evening. It was okay and even free of charge. Odessa wasn't awake yet. The streets were empty and the air was fresh. I was stunned - Odessa is a very beautiful place. I wouldn't have the smallest problem to live in Odessa, provided that it's the centre of town. Potemkin's steps, the opera and so on are very interesting, but it's the overall picture of the town that fascinated me. But it's hard to believe that there are more than one million people living in this town. Well, later on we saw the dreary, endless suburbs. Seldomly I'd seen such a big gap between the centre and the outskirts.
|The famous Potemkin's steps in a mirror|
The centre, the steps and everything else are within a small area. Around luchtime we stopped at an Italian restaurant and that was a real surprise - genuine Italian food and good service. Somewhere in the centre, a camera team stopped us. They were aiming at visitors of Odessa. In Russian. I didn't believe in stammering something in Russian in front of a T.V. camera, and so I told him in Russian (on air!), that my Russian wasn't very well so I would prefer English. Or German. Or Japanese. Whatsover - not Russian. Guess what they did. They run away! That's what I call merciless investigative journalism! Good job, boys! Interviewing visitors and being surprised to meet one... It was already late afternoon when picked up our luggage and walked back tot he train station - pretty exhausted by walking countless kilometers in the heat of the day. The train should take us to Simferopol on the Crimea peninsula, but this time it wasn't kupe but an open-plan carriage called platskartnyi. Inside it was very hot and stuffy. Soon we talked to some other passengers and played with a child sitting next to us.
Day 5: Simferopol→Yalta
Platskartnyi, are quite comfortable, but the heat is unbearable in summer. After two hours at most of dozing, we arrived around 8 in the morning in Simferopol. The air was already very hot. A cup of coffee, strolling around the station and off we went again. We took an old trolleybus crossing the mountains and running all the way to Yalta. More than two hours later we arrived. We found a hotel in the centre of town soon. "Sorry, we only have suites left" they said. Now, how much would that be? € 24. Even with air conditioning! We were dead tired, and so we decided to stay. The hotel is old, big, clean, conveniently located and has a nice balcony facing the central square. Not a bad choice... In the afternoon, we went for the Livadija-Palace and somehow struggled along to the famous Swallow's nest. We could see the famous castle from the bus station, but there was no hint which direction to go. After thirty minutes we'd noticed that we were walking the wrong direction all the time. And so we went back but it was already getting dark. That's what I call bad luck.
At night we tried a restaurant facing the beautiful waterfront promenade of Yalta. A nerve-racking band free from any talent tried to perform. We on the other hand tried to order some of the dishes listed in the menu. "Nye yest" (don't have it) repeated the suspicious waiter like an endless tape. Instead, he offered the most expensive fish dishes. What a brazen person! We could have murdered someone for a dinner, but we couldn't stand this guy. And so we left without eating. But: There was a cover charge because of the 'music band', and so we had to pay an incredible amount of € 5 for two beers. The name of the restaurant should be mentioned: Jaila. DON'T GO THERE!
|Swallow's Nest Castle at the Black Sea|
According to our map, there's a restaurant offering Georgian cuisine nearby. I liked the food in Georgia. Halfway, an extremely enthusiastic waitress tried to change our minds. She was just great - a funny and actually somehow honest person. And so we gave in. We were the only guests, and - of course - there was a 3-men-band playing only for us. The food was great, and we ordered many dishes...and many drinks. All in all a huge and very tasty supper. We were curioused about the bill. 105 Grivna (around € 17, well, it's Yalta and it's summer). However, we won't forget the excellent and funny service. Tipping is not as usual as it is in other countries. Still, I paid 115 Grivna. The waitress took the money and came back after a minute, telling me that I was wrong. "No, not 115 Grivna, 105! Here's the 10...". Wow! "Keep it" I said, and she looked happy like a child receiving a new toy. That was already incredible, but it got even better - she went straight to the band, sharing the tip with them (watching this, I regretted to have given her a 10 Grivna tip only - it was all supposed to be hers). The restaurant is a bit hidden, but I can only recommend it! The name: Marina .
Day 6: Yalta→Dnepropetrovsk
One day is definitely not enough for the Crimea. Actually we wanted to spend some more days around Yalta, but we had had an appointment in Dnepropetrovsk. The day before, I tried to call my friend in Dnepropetrovsk to let him know when we would arrive. I'd forgotten that the '8' must be dialed before the number when it's an outside call. And so someone else (coincidentally having the same name!) picked up the phone. I tried to convince him that he must be the person I was trying to call. After a while I believed him. And tried again. It was him again. He seemed to be a nice person - he called my name and patiently explained what I'd had to do to call someone outside the city.
|Flat, flatter ... Northern Crimea|
We took the train to Dnepropetrovsk all along the Dnepr river, which was dammed up here and there so that we couldn't even see the other side of the river. For a few kilometers, water was on both sides of the tracks. What a strange feeling to cross the water by train! And - for the first time in the Ukraine we could see some clouds.
We arrived in Dnepropetrovsk in the evening. A giant train station. Everything outside the station was definitely built during Stalin's reign. Our friend picked us up with his car. With high speed and without fastening the seat belt (not necessary in Ukrainian cities) we rushed along the Karl-Marx-Boulevard. Many neon lights and shops - a real big city. I was surprised. I expected a somehow dull and frustrating place.
Day 7: Dnepropetrovsk
After dragging several kilogramm of dirty clothes to the laundry, we went to the train station to get our tickets for the next train ride. We didn't manage - the train seemed to be sold out. During our walk through the town, we saw two different faces of the town. One was full of luxurious boutiques and bars, the other one showed pure poverty. However, the centre of town is very green and somehow beautiful, although there aren't any very old buildings. In the afternoon, we went to the "Mining University", because our friend was teaching German there. The university is quite nice and the students as far as I could see them were very motivated. I took over my friend's class for half an hour and it was fun.
|Missiles vs new church|
After school (a déjà vu - aren't we on holiday!?) we went for the
"Panorama of the liberation of Dnepropretrovsk from Nazi-Germany". A step back in time.
Lots of propaganda, praising a bloody victory in a 2 against 1 battle with regard to the number of troops taking part.
The guide tried hard to translate a few words into English. "The hero over there is still alive!" or
"Look! The pilots of those two planes were brothers!!!" ... Long live the Red Army!
At night we went to a nice restaurant and got some beer for the way home. Beer seemed to be the most popular drink, which is quite amazing - many years ago, there was no beer at all. Everyone seems to drink beer. Even young mothers - the offspring at the right hand, a bottle of sparkling barley juice in the left hand. Much beer = many bottles = lots of weight. This logical conclusion gave way to plastic bottles. And so 1 and 2 litre bottles became quite popular. The statement "Darling, I'm just having ONE more beer before we go" gets a wholly new meaning!
Day 8: Dnepropetrovsk
Another extensive walk through the town brought us to the "Monastery Island". There it started to snow - hundreds of poplars delivered a thick white carpet. Allergy sufferer's paradise. On the island we had a Russian-style shashlik, which strongly reminded us of other trips to Russia, Georgia and Armenia. Russian shashlik - that's large chunks of juicy meat with onions, bread and more. Very pure but very tasty. Shashlik can be found all over the former Soviet Union.
|Good times: Hanging around in parks, playing chess|
In the afternoon we'd got the rare chance to see something like a newcomer festival inside the Palace of Culture. The atmosphere was good and the crowd was cheering - some of the bands and artists were quite interesting. But we fled the building when the Dnepropetrovsk version of Backstreet Boys jumped on the stage. That was too much... At night we met an American colleague who made Dnepropetrovsk his home for some years. There aren't many foreigners in town, and so there's only a small but interesting group of expats. We enjoyed our drinks and chat, but unfortunately we had to leave at 11 pm. Since we couldn't buy a ticket for the direct train to L'viv, we had to buy tickets to Kiev first. We'd had lots of fun in Dnepropetrovsk - it was almost like 'real' holiday with relaxation and so.
Day 9: Dnepropetrovsk→Kyiv→L'viv
I'd rarely had such a good night in a train - the compartment was rather cool and quiet. Although we were warned that this train often delays, we arrived on time in Kiev. Immediately we bought the next train ticket to L'viv, where we wanted to arrive the same day. We had around one hour left before departure, but all we could find was a fast food restaurant serving Ukrainian food, such as Borschtsch, Wareniki and Piroschki. I know exactly why I don't like fast food - it was really bad.
The next surprise wasn't a good one either. We had to share the train compartment with two other men. Thanks to all the travelling, I'm quite used to different odours like garlic and more. However, the two men's body odour was beyond imagination and extremely offensive. Imagine a mixture of weeklong unwashed clothes, cold sweat, garlic, alcohol and feet. Got it? Multiply it by ten. It smelled somehow sour. To make things worse, the two men started to eat selfmade jellied meat, drank vodka and beer. Even after five hours the smell remained strong. I tried to sleep to flee the odour, but no way - after the vodka and the beer, both men started a snoring contest. What could we do? Let's spend the rest of the journey in the restaurant! According to our conductor, there's a buffet carriage. Halfway, another conductor threw open the door and hit my companion. As if this wouldn't be enough, she immediately started bawling at us: "What do you want?"..."To the buffet!"..."It's closed! Get off!"... "Our conductor said it's open!"..."What an idiot! And now *&@$ off!". Gawd! No food. A stinking compartment. Aggressive conductors. What a pathetic journey! We were overjoyed when we finally arrived L'viv at around midnight.
Our friend's colleague was waiting for us at the station. We hadn't met each other before and went to his apartment by car. The apartment was somewhere in the middle of a very dark living quarter outside the centre. After spending many hours in the smelling compartment, we were yearning for a shower, but this wasn't possible - in L'viv, there's only water from 6 to 9 in the morning and in the evening.
Day 10: L'viv
The time the water flows determines the rhythm of the day. Although going to bed late at night, we got up at 8 am so that we could take a shower. We continued the day with a nice breakfast. From the balcony we could see the barracks of a military base right in front of the house. There's nothing better than watching soldiers doing their morning exercises while sipping a coffee - a nice feeling to know that oneself is through all of that.
Somehow we managed to get to the centre of town with a marshrutka (shared taxi). A very beautiful town indeed, with many Polish tourist groups running around. But it was not just the centre but also other places such as the near and very old cemetary that were impressive. And this is really the same country as the area around Dnepropetrovsk!? We couldn't believe it. Everything was completely different. Most of the old buildings were in a good condition. Almost no dilapidation (compared with other cities!) on the one hand, no exaggerated reconstruction and care on the other hand. Just the way I like it...
|A flock of little angels in Lvov|
We were walking for hours and hours to see as much as possible. And still we'd got the feeling that we missed a lot. Because of the perfect weather, we didn't visit any museums. In the evening we opted for a fish restaurant. A slice of bread topped with real caviar as a starter (for € 1.5!) is what I call a good start for a dinner. The main itself wasn't too bad either. Our host offered us to show as around at night but he couldn't promise, and so we waited in vain until 9 pm. There was no more marshrutka running to the suburbs. The apartment was far out of the centre, but we walked a while to relax. Halfway, we saw a taxi and presented our city map to the driver. "There we want to go!" I tried to explain, and he started thinking. It took quite a while, and he turned the map upside down several times. Now what is he doing!? After a while, he asked "How do you want to get there!?". What a question. "What about your taxi?" I asked, and he bursted out laughing. What a strange man.
Day 11: L'viv→Uzhhorod
It was Sunday, and so there was only one train a day to Uzhgorod at the Slovakian border. Unfortunately, this train started at 7 in the morning. The same procedure as every time: Before getting on the train, the conductor checked our passports. There, he found the Armenian visa. He turned to his colleague and said "Look! They're travelling the Ukraine on an Armenian visa!" He didn't seem to be the brightest person around, and so I showed him the Ukrainian visa. A young couple was already sitting in our compartment. The woman explained that both of them would be really tired and therefore she would like to sleep. So, what's the problem? Then she claimed both lower beds. And where did she think were we supposed to sit for the next 8 hours? A short quarrel between the clever conductor, the couple and us, and the problem was solved - we got another compartment. There, a kind young man was sitting inside.
|Through the Carpathian Mountains|
Crossing the Forest Carpathian mountains was fun - lots of green, some fields, old villages, snow-covered mountains. The first mountains we could see after leaving Yalta. Then we entered another vast plain. Hungary must be close. We stopped in Chop at the Hungarian border and left the train for a short walk. A weird Ukrainian approached and started chatting with us. He was strange somehow and followed us for half an hour, but all in all he was a nice person. Still we were glad when the train went on.
Around three o'clock in the afternoon we arrived in sunny and hot Uzhgorod. The first people we saw where gypsies or very poor people. Everything was different... We bought a city map since our guidebook didn't give any information on the town. We walked to the centre in hopes of finding a hotel - nada! We asked some people, until someone could finally answer. The hotel was booked out. But the receptionist was very friendly and made some phone calls to find us another place. It was far outside on the top of a hill, but we were very surprised: A very new hotel with large, bright rooms, air-conditioning (!), refridgerator, TV and so on. And it was even cheaper than the hotels on Odessa and Yalta.
We used the afternoon to walk around the small but lovely city, which cannot be compared with L'viv or any other city. Because we were pretty exhausted from the train ride and the long walk, we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, which we usually avoid. But we shouldn't regret it - there we'd got the best food ever during our Ukraine trip.
Day 12: Uzhhorod→Kosice (Slovakia)
We got up late and walked to the post office first, then to the border, which was only 4 km away. Many cars were waiting in line. There were too many buildings to find out where to go first. An officer helped us, handed out a talon, which needed to be stamped here and there. Since we didn't have a car, we could proceed quickly. The man behind us gave his passport and a few bills inside the passport to the inspector - thank you, the next one please. Fortunately we didn't need that, the customs inspector was not interested at all in our luggage. 10 minutes later we'd crossed the border and looked back for a last glimpse at the town, but Uzhgorod is behind a hill and so we couldn't see it.
The Slovakians didn't let us wait and were very friendly. All in all it took around half an hour only to cross the Ukrainian-Slovakian border. We changed the remaining Grivna to get some Slovakian money and started walking. All we could see was a very small village, and that was it. No bus station, nothing. We wanted to hitchhike, but for around one hour, not a single car came along. After more than one hour, we'd reached a bigger village with a bus station.
|Uzhgorod has a laid-back, nice atmosphere|
For around € 3 per person we could even go all the way to Kosice, which took around two and a half hours.
We were starving - we hadn't even had breakfast - and went to the restaurant inside the
train station of Kosice. In front of the train station, two old men beat hell out of each other, one of them
trying to imitate Bruce Lee, but not very successfully - next to them a squawking old bag.
They were surrounded by a cheering crowd. Let the games begin!
In contradiction to the Ukraine, there's a tourist information that can arrange private accommodation. We ended up in a pension near the train station, € 22 for a small room. I talked to the owner of the pension, a nice woman, and noticed that my language processor was broken - I mixed Czech, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian words to say what I wanted to say. She understood, at least she looked like she would, but after a while she asked "What language do you speak?" I couldn't give a clear answer. "Must be Polish, ey?" she guessed. At night, our neighbour, a man, made a dubious approach and showed me more than clearly that he would like to spend the night with me. I should better lock my door tonight, was my last thought before I went to bed.
Kosice is beautiful. There's a colourful water conduit feeding some beautiful fountains, dancing to the music and lit up colourfully at night and much more. A compliment to the mayor - at least the centre of town (I don't know about the rest) had been reconstructed successfully. Unfortunately it was Monday and all sights were closed.
Day 13: Kosice→Olomouc
|Olomouc has some lovely alleys|
Day 14: Olomouc→Liberec
We could go all the way from Olomouc to Germany within one day, but there was no reason to hurry. And so we only went to Liberec near the German and Polish border. Another rewarding destination - the old city centre with it's excellent town hall was well worth a visit. And so we could avoid a culture shock, since Liberec is heavily influenced by Germany.
Day 15: Liberec→Halle (Germany)
Unfortunately, this was already our last day. We went to the German border town Zittau and asked for a connection to Halle. The price was quite a surprise - € 21 for the two of us, discount ticket! On the other hand we had to change trains 5 times to cover the 300 km distance.
All in all this was a very nice trip. I really wonder why there are almost no people opting for the Ukraine. We'd heard many bad things about the Ukraine beforehand, and sure it makes a big difference whether you are just jumping from sight to sight or trying to establish a business. However, right now it's travellers paradise. Accommodation and transportation are ridiculously cheap and most people are very friendly and open-minded. Although L'viv and Yalta are very beautiful, indeed - my personal favourite is Odessa.