As the army fatigue and Ushanka-wearing officer scrutinized my passport his gun brushed my arm. I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into…

Whenever we visit somewhere we always look for wider exploration possibilities if the time allows. With 7 days in Krakow, my partner and I felt we had plenty of time to see the city along with Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Saltmines. But after pondering the map for a while we noticed the Ukrainian city of Lviv was withing striking distance from Krakow. It felt like a great opportunity to check the reality at ground level (versus how the Ukraine is portrayed in the media).

Travelling from Poland to Ukraine — from Krakow to Lviv (and back) — turned out to be just as much of an experience as our time in Lviv itself. This article is both a guide for others wishing to take the same route/trip and also a report on the strange, wonderful and sometimes scary journey we had into the unknown and the thoughts it left us with.

Planning

For a while the internet proved little help. The distance on the map wasn’t much more than DC to New York or Manchester to London. But this was Eastern Europe.

As the region is so cheap, my initial thought was to look for trains instead of coaches. To my astonishment, the train and the coach appeared to take the same amount of time. The price was also quite expensive, an overnight sleeper train in shared compartment would set us back over £120 (roundtrip), which we couldn’t justify for one day; add that to the fact the time tabling wasn’t really looking great for us.

Booking the tickets

All photos by the author.

Looking for alternatives in the form of a coach/bus brought up many fruitless searches. Most of the coach companies operating out of Poland only traveled either west out of the country or internally.

I thought perhaps this was a sign we should steer clear of the route, but we were bullishly determined to see this misunderstood and mysterious country.

I happened upon a Ukrainian travel website, Tickets.ua. In the end it was pretty straightforward to use and book tickets. The website was in Russian, but the Google Chrome translation was close enough for us to figure it out. But the ticket-buying page, on the other hand, couldn’t be translated at all — the essential information was in Cyrillic.

We ended up paying £60 for two round-trip tickets. For an adventure of this magnitude, you can’t get much cheaper.

It was a strange feeling, standing in the Krakow bus station knowing that in just 24 hours we would be back in the same spot, but not knowing at all what those 24 hours had in store for us. We were nervous and excited say the least, having heard a mixture of horror stories and glowing recommendations. It really makes you think about what most people do in an average 24 hours and how fast that time normally goes.

Before the trip, most of the people we spoke to in Krakow were cagey — to say the least — about our trip. Our attempts to get currency also ended up being a saga in itself. The Ukrainian Hryvnia is pretty much worthless and most countries don’t stock it at all. It was impossible to find back home, so we waited until Poland. Here again, it was in short supply. After visiting a tiny and not-all-together legitimate bureau de change, the little old woman behind the counter managed to cobble together a grand total of £30 after spending almost an hour in and out of the other nearby booth.

The bus station

When we got to Krakow bus station there were no signs for our coach on any of the information screens or above the stalls. I began questioning the legitimacy of the Ukrainian website when no one seemed to even recognize the company or the route, even a policeman.

We came across a Ukrainian couple with the same tickets as us. In broken English, she managed to explain that the bus was late and should be here in a little while. In the end, the bus was 30 minutes late which given the distance it had covered (it is on the Kiev-Warsaw route), I guess isn’t all that bad. Apparently it is rare that is does actually turn up on time and pretty much operates outside of the official channels.

The coach was a “regabus” (the return being a “Sinbad”) and was actually quite comfortable, although it didn’t have a toilet and we only stopped once during the whole 9 hours! (We weren’t allowed out at the 4 hours border crossing.) It was no “Greyhound” or “National Express,” but it was better than what we expected.

The border crossing

Perhaps we should have done some reading up beforehand as it turns out this particular border is quite notorious, but I guess the adventure is in not knowing! I’d checked the visa situation before and holders of UK passports are allowed into Ukraine without a visa; this is also true for US passports and the majority of Europe (Australian and New Zealand passport holders do need a visa).

The crossing into Ukraine took around 3.5 hours and involved a lot of nervous waiting time and not really knowing what was going on at all combined with armed guards taking our passports. It turns out this border crossing on average takes around 3 hours…so that explained why the bus journey was scheduled to take so long. Although 9 hours is 9 hours whether moving or not.

First up was the rather young and keen Polish officer with his massive peaked hat who stamped the visas. Sounds simple but my passport has seen better days and took a while to swipe, all the while the officer was looking at me with increasing suspicion. I do have a Russian visa in my passport and got interrogated at JFK because they were convinced I was Russian. The guy didn’t speak a word the entire time he was on the coach, only to ask me if I had ever been to the Ukraine in a thick Polish accent after many attempts to scan my passport!

When we actually entered Ukraine, a huge man in army fatigues with a rather large automatic rifle and obligatory fur hat came on to collect our passports. I got the feeling this route didn’t see many British passports and he made sure to thoroughly inspect ours… and the various visas and stamps they contained. With a bundle of passports, our standing out against all the Ukrainian and Polish ones, he took our passports off at gunpoint.

At this point it was 4am and we were tired and beginning to feel a little nervous. Would our Russian and US stamps make us suspicious given the political climate in Ukraine? Would our lesser seen British passports make us a target?

Two other officers proceeded to pull a couple of men off the coach with some force; who they were or why we have no idea, but we they never returned to the bus. At this point everyone but us received our passports back and we expected to be the next to be pulled off the bus…maybe this was one adventure too far? Another anxious wait ensued as several people seemed to be coming in and out of the room they were holding our passports in. I knew my passport wasn’t in the best of conditions being almost 10 years old and wondered if it looked suspicious to them as it has in Moscow. Thankfully the guard eventually handed our passports back over–his gun grazing my arm. The coach pulled away and our passports were stamped…we were in!

First impressions of Ukraine and the drive to Lviv

I wasn’t prepared for the sights outside of the bus windows. I had been told Lviv was very similar to Krakow, but really, outside of the city, this was far from the truth. I wondered, looking out across the foggy and dusty landscape, if we had made the right choice coming here. It all seemed so desolate and in all honesty, a little sketchy especially after what felt like a close call at the border! The roads went from multilane motorways with hi tech lights and signs to crumbling through-ways which seemed to be the only “tarmacked” surface for miles.

The houses and farms we came across all seemed self-built and more resembled shanty towns than the grand polish country houses we had left behind. Packs of dogs, Chickens and Goats roamed these dotted settlements, it felt like a step back in time to the time of the Soviet Empire. From the modern cars of Poland to the dusty relics of Ukraine. Inexplicably dotted between the soviet blocks and rural settlements where grand gold domed churches and soviet era Gagarin sculptures which seemed vastly out of sync with the lives of the locals.

It was approaching 8am as the light finally came up and all signs turned to Cyrillic. People lined the streets waiting for the local bus. Everything looked grey and dusty; the fog didn’t help, even the their clothes looked washed out and faded. I had expected to see another developed and confident eastern European country as we had experience with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. But instead, this resembled the sparse decaying remains of an ex-soviet state still battling to overcome its oppressor and thrive on its own.

The recent political event and Russian’s insistence on controlling this country then seemed to come even more into focus. How could such a large and sprawling country with such poverty and a weak economy overcome the powerhouse that is Russia?

There were also great dense forests made up of the same tall white birch I had seen on our long train journey from the airport to Moscow centre a few years earlier, dotted with random people standing by themselves and staring into the traffic seemingly miles away from any form of civilization. I spotted an older man who had removed both his shoes and shirt and stood by the edge of the woods, all alone, stretching up and down. It reminded me of the people I saw from the train in Russia, who sat by themselves in the woods drinking vodka by a fire. At times this country seemed wild, barren, and desolate filled with people who existed in a world away from where we came from.

Pulling into the bus station it was clear we were not actually in the centre of Lviv, or at least we really hoped we weren’t. The big soviet monstrosity of a bus station was pitched a good few miles out in a rough looking district composed mainly of tower blocks and run down social housing. Communicating with anyone here was a real challenge with most people having little or no understanding of English and even less willingness to assist, we even had someone wave in our faces whilst shouting “немає” or in other words, NO! That we could understand. For a moment we thought we were stranded in the bus station, surrounded by an intimidating group of people with our foreignness becoming increasingly evident.

The rusting buses were quite disorganized and with no way to tell where they were headed or how to buy tickets we opted for a taxi. We ended up paying 60 UAH…which worked out to be around £2.50.

The drivers thought were haggling with them when in reality we just weren’t sure what they said and increasingly seemed annoyed by our presence. We inadvertently drove them down from 80 to 60 which we eventually settled by writing into the dust on the, at least 30 year old, taxi window. We soon learnt on this 40-minute journey that there seems to be no actual rules on the roads in Ukraine.

Arriving in Lviv we were greeted by one of the most beautiful cities we have ever visited, honestly it felt like other country to that of the border, rural and bus station regions. We still got some funny looks when we spoke and it still felt quite alien and frankly odd to be in Ukraine given all we had read and seen, but this was the place I had been promised when we booked those tickets. A grand old historic city with sights aplenty and almost no other tourists in sight… and the cheapest place we have ever visited. If really felt like Krakow or Prague before the tourist boom, an authentic and honest look into these ex-soviet states of Eastern Europe and their fascinating, proud and intense culture.

The thing about travelling to these places and seeing them first hand is that the propaganda surrounding travel seems to unravel. Travel is about experiencing new feelings and having your preconceptions blown out of the water. It’s about opening your mind to new cultures and new perspectives, stepping out of your normality and embracing someone else’s.

The return journey

After an exhausting day getting about Lviv we headed back to the bus station, and hailed a taxi not far from the main Rynok square. This time the driver was much more approachable and tried his best to converse with us in a mixture of broken English and German whilst explaining to us that he had only been taught Russian in school as he put it, “for political reasons.”

Shorty and the taxi driver with his little Ukrainian flag, these guys are very proud of their country in Lviv.

What was refreshing when we spoke this guy is that he had no idea where we were from, you get used to being easily identifiable as “British Tourists” and it’s hard to be anonymous, but to him we could have been from anywhere. He seemed fascinated by the fact we were from Manchester, how strange that you are here he remarked whilst reeling off the names of Manchester United players…we didn’t have the heart to tell him we support Liverpool and Arsenal.

It’s funny, he was trying to explain what the specialty of the military academy we passed was using his limited English and German, struggling to find one that fit, eventually coming up with the Polish for umbrella which is Parasol… Oh Parachute we said, to which he laughed and said, oh, it’s the same in Ukrainian and Russian! “парашут” (parashut).

The driver was fiercely proud to be Ukrainian and his little blue and yellow flag was a clear sign of his allegiances. His son, he explained, was over in Donetsk “defending the name of his people.” Here the personal realities of this country at war really hit us.

On the way back, the border crossing took over 3 hours. The border going back into Poland was much more controlled as it is also the border of the EU and notorious for smuggling. I had expected our return to the EU to be a simple process of stamping us back into what was our territory without question given our British passports.

However, once again they would come under scrutiny, this time from a large and intimidating woman who we could see from the partially transparent window scanning and stamping each passport out of Ukraine…until it came to ours, which she left on one side for further inspection.

I could see it was my passport she was holding up to the light for another look. When the armed guard returned and the driver handed back our passports but mine wasn’t on the pile, again! Now would my Russian visa in this tatty passport cause a problem for my exit from this country? Did they want to keep me and question us why we had been to Ukraine after Russia?

Around 90% on the bus were Ukrainian and required a visa, and they didn’t just scan them! The bus driver had checked everyone’s passports before we got on and when he came to us it was another curious incident where we tried to explain that we didn’t need visas as we have EU passports. He didn’t understand a word we said and all he saw was a passport he didn’t recognize with no visa. He walked off with them and found a passenger who uttered something to him in Ukrainian the only word of which I understood was something that sounded vaguely like “Britannia.” We had hoped the polish border guards would be a little more familiar with them.

This time two polish guards, along with their guns, got on board to check and stamp visas and passports. And of course when it came to us instead of just scanning and saying OK as we expected, they took them away AGAIN; we didn’t see them again for another two hours.

Several people were being dragged off the bus at this point by the guards, along with their belongings, most returned after a couple of hours but some didn’t! Apparently one was a Turkish national who it seemed would be interrogated before being allowed into the EU. Every inch of the bus was searched this time, under the wheels, the overhead lockers and between the seats for stowaways. It certainly isn’t easy to make this crossing unofficially.

Finally over the border and it was another four hours to Krakow and time to relax and reflect on a country most will never see, a beautiful and surprising city and a border crossing we won’t forget in a long time.

Final thoughts

If you are in Krakow and feel the need for extra adventure or are just traveling across Eastern Europe, I would wholly recommend this trip. Take the bus and experience this wonderfully different county for yourself. Its experiences and memories like make travel so special.

It felt like we had been in a time warp when we got back to the station; we could have been gone for days or just seconds. It’s that sense of the fluidity of time which travel gives you which I really love, because I honestly didn’t care what time or day it was, just that we had had one of the most memorable experiences of our lives and with each experience you gain you get the confidence to explore further and further.

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