Heading southeast to Ukraine

Lvov Eaglets Cemetery

I collect four of my friends to go to Ukraine. The train goes across Poland. It starts northwest to finish southeast, directly from Szczecin to Przemyśl, which is good as it stops in all our cities on the way. The ten hour journey to the Polish-Ukrainian border passes fairly quickly. All the time we enthusiastically talk about the upcoming trip. None of us has been in Ukraine before, so this trip promises to be interesting.

It seems to be the problem to get from Przemyśl to the Polish-Ukrainian border. I ask the driver how much would that be for a transfer to the border. Fifty, he says. What does the answer actually mean?

The confusing moment lasts until we find that we one way we pay only half a złoty per person, which is around fifteen US cents.

It may be some kind of grant towards local little cigarette smugglers or simply the strong competition. We arrive at the border at Medyka (approximately 15 km). The passage through Ukraine is quite lingering. Losing attention for a while can cause five people in front of you to suddenly become a dozen or so. After an hour we are on the Ukrainian side. We easily find a local bus stop. Marszutka, the minibus, is among the most accessible and popular means of transportation around Crimea. For 20 grivnas we approach Lviv.

A large dose of sightseeing in Lviv

The menu at McDonald’s

We are in the center of Lviv and have not the slightest idea which way to go and where to find an accommodation. We ask a kind grandfather who recommends us a good place to sleep, which happens to be a small guesthouse. There are only three beds, which we combine so there is a room for five of us.

An old fashioned trolleybus takes us directly to the city center. I ask the old man riding beside me if you can drink an alcohol in public places in Ukraine. The expression on his face reveals big surprise. What a stupid question with an obvious answer. Outside drinking here is as natural as chewing gum. Let’s take on a night tour.

Lviv nightlife flourishes.  Freedom Avenue (Prospect Svobody) becomes our landmark.

This is quite a lively place, a perfect one to make new acquaintances. I can see here lots of Lviv residents hanging out, drinking and enjoying their time before going to the party. We take a pleasant walk to admire architecture, slightly obscured by trees. We spend most of the evening in this area, visiting strange nooks, coming in for a beer in different pubs and getting to know random, but very friendly people. In one bar we are proposed to drink for the friendship of two nations. One of the Ukrainian guys takes out a bottle of vodka "Perlova" from behind his back and says, ‘to je dla vas’ (this is for you). He hands in the gift which we start to drink with new friends. What a sheer coincidence I have a birthday today. Quite late on Tuesday night the center becomes empty, still it leaves the impression that even the darkest streets are safe. Some people are drunk, they are usually friendly and try to start up conversation, being hardly able to form a sentence. My opinion about the availability of alcohol reaffirms. No matter which abandoned kiosk with windows and doors closed you visit, it will always be open for you, even at the latest hour possible. A knock is enough to get you beer.

The next morning we visit historical city. Lviv is full of all sorts of sculptures, monuments and streets full of charming houses. There is also a large number of green squares and open areas designed for pedestrians, which adds a lot of urban space. We visit the Cemetery of Lvov Eaglets. Unfortunately we are too late and it is already closed, however it takes a few extra grivnas for the guard to let us in. Every graveyard monument is unique; some represent people in various positions; other illustrate different symbols. Some statuettes along with tombs form quite complex structures. Afterwards we visit the Lviv University. Right at the entrance there is a statue of the former rector of the university, who happens to be Karolina’s uncle.

We have a dinner in bar Hit, which has been recommended to us by a few people met on the street. Modern styling and a relaxed atmosphere feels like enjoying Ukrainian cuisine. In the evening we visit Club Millennium.

This is by far the biggest club in Lviv, thus the most popular. I suspect the club owes its success to pricing policy as girls come always for free. Guys pay depending on the day of the week 20-40 grivnas, which is as for Ukraine quite a lot. All of us enjoy our Wednesday party. It is thanks to the good music, friendly people and nice atmosphere for making new acquaintances. It appears that many people have some Polish roots, so it is possible to keep talking our mother language.

Time travel to Odessa

The famous Potemkin Stairs in Odessa symbolize the entrance to the city

The train from Lvov to Odessa takes around 12 hours. Kupe class cars are very comfortable. This is a four-bed compartment closed from the inside. We have enough time to talk a lot, play chess and card games. Two bottles of Nemiroff, a very good Ukrainian vodka (the largest distilling company in the country) make this journey as short as an instant. In one of pizzerias we try the unpasteurised beer ‘Bile Nefiltrovane’ for the first time. The inscription in Cyrillic might look really mysteriously for those who don’t know the alphabet. First glimpse doesn’t give any clue on what it might mean. The unpasteurised beer is unclear and has an unusual taste because of the different brewing process.

In the center we see a large mixture of people. Some of them might come from the Middle East, Mongolia and countries surrounding the Black Sea. Odessa inevitably leaves the impression of time travel to the era of pirates and the great maritime expeditions. We find funny guy offering a pictures with monkey performing show. He works in a rather twisted way. Seeing the lack of interest in the monkey, he switches to repeating over and over “helo, friend! friend! lizard!” and he takes out a huge lizard from his shoulder bag. We walk down the famous Potemkin Stairs in Odessa. These 193 stairs symbolize the entrance to the city. Down there we approach morskij wokzal, the harbour.

Between water and pebbles ….

We met the maritime high school girls dressed in black and white distinctive uniforms. A few news students are coming to change guard shift at the obelisk. An hour-long walk takes us to the beach. It turns out that a few days ago there have been cold water currents on the Black Sea, so the water has barely 14 degrees. It doesn’t matter, as we are going to swim anyway. The sun is scorching; on the beach there is a lot of Ukrainian girls topless. In the early afternoon thick clouds cover the sun and it gets cold, too bad. We are just on time to catch our train to Simferopol, a city in the middle of the Crimea.

Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea

One of many Lenin monuments

This time we decide to take much cheaper train type, called plackarta. It is an open space sleeping car with no individual compartments, that is the main difference compared to the kupe type. The journey passes as quickly due to some interesting things happening. During our search for a restaurant car we pass through eight plackarta. cars. Suddenly the train stops, so I go outside. I have my eyes wide open to this amazing view. There is an incredible number of homemade food stands. At each of the small stands there is one babushka, often with a little granddaughter as a helper.

My mouth  is watering to smell a full range of delicious-looking Ukrainian dishes. There is a grilled meat scent mixed with words "kartoszku, kartoszku …” (potatoes, potatoes…..) aired from the next stand. We get a sensational dinner (pork, salads, kartoszku) and a cold beer for the equivalent of two dollars.

Later the evening we meet Cezary Pazura, a famous Polish actor, who is also on his way for holiday in Crimea.

In Simferopol we grab the trolleybus to Aluszta. Altogether it makes quite a long journey, so all of us are tired. I meet an old man on the trolleybus who happens to be an expert chess player, one of the Grandmasters. Grandmaster is the second most prestigious title (other than World Champion) awarded for achievements in chess. The title is held by as little as nearly a thousand people in the world.

According to our expectations, there are lots of babushkas offering cheap houses in Aluszta. We take on an accommodation which is not luxury, however it has three rooms, a small kitchen and even smaller bathroom. The village at first glance appears to be interesting. It is very picturesque, situated right on the Black Sea coast, wedged between  the area of plateaus and mountain landscapes. Aluszta’s rocky beaches imply much better visibility underwater. The first two days we have a problem with entry into the water, which has only 13 degrees.

Fortunately, the next night a warm current rises the water temperature up to 24 degrees. The place has a lot of tourist attractions such as observation of distant objects on the sky through telescopes or taking pictures with a wide range of stylish backgrounds. Put on goggles and helmet to ride historic high-performance cars, take a rifle with your hands and observe the wildlife or dress up like a queen and participate in scenes from the medieval opera. Besides that along the pretty long sidewalk there are lots vendors offering grilled seafood, Armenian kebabs and cold beer. Without any doubt the most popular form of entertainment is karaoke. It is here that whole evening drunk Russians try to sing clumsily, whoever sings louder wins.

Yalta church

The other day we take a trip to Yalta. This place is notorious for being the most expensive city in the Crimea, as it sees many wealthy Russian tourists from Moscow. Right in the city center, on the big square you would see a prominent statue of Lenin, the founder of communism doctrines.. Ironically, it lies next to McDonald’s restaurant, a pathetic symbol of capitalism. It is also worth to visit the churches and stylishly designed restaurants located next to or relatively near the coast. Water in Yalta is nice, so without thinking we go swimming.

Mountain Czatyrdach

Our plan for today is to reach the summit of Czatyrdach, the second highest mountain in the Crimea. You can select one of several routes to the top depending on the difficulty. Our approach takes roughly three hours. At the top you can see the mountain’s splendor, picturesque landscapes and deep abyss.  At the top we enjoy Bile Nefiltrowane, our triumphant beer.

So close and such a long journey

Return trip is definitely not the shortest one. Including waiting time for further train and bus connections it takes about 50 hours to travel straight from the Crimea Peninsula to Poland. Me come by a bunch of bargains. On one station we buy five kilos of grapes for about 10 grivnas. Another two meals include half a bucket of tomatoes (the only thing offered at one station) and delicious homemade Russian dumplings. It is worth mentioning that there are three advantages of buying food at the railway stations in Ukraine. The meals are always hot, fruit and vegetables are always fresh and beer is always cold.

We do the last shopping in Lviv before entering Poland. I try another delicacy at the station, ‘green soup’, or rather green borsz in Ukrainian. It is still before eight in the evening, so we hope to catch the train on Polish side, which leaves in less than three hours.

Few hours later… still on the line to cross the border.

Making it in three hours has happened to be a nonchalant, purely unrealistic assumption. As a result it takes us a bit the less than ten hours, eight of which is a substantial delay at the border. Instead of easily catching the evening train, we barely manage to make in for the one at five the next morning. The final ten hours on the train left and we are home.

A few interesting facts:

Crimea nightlife
  • in many stores they still use the abacus; as well as the handheld scales at markets
  • on the Polish side of the border you might see piles of adhesive tape used to tape on yourself the packs of cigarettes in places invisible to the customs officers
  • some buses in Lviv have gas cylinders on the top
  • babushkas are indispensable. Those old ladies provide cheap accommodation, food at the stations and ensure that the beer you get is cold

  • oldschool style timetables can be found at the railway stations. The machine looks like a one-armed bandit and it works pretty simple. You just press desired letter, say ‘M’, it takes a while for thick plates to rotate for the required page, so that you obtain information on trains to Moscow, Minsk, etc.
  • I recommend to take U.S. dollars or euros with you. Currency can be easily exchanged; good deals are available in many places but the direct surroundings of train stations etc.
  • Crimea has the world’s longest trolleybus line in operation
  • water in the Black Sea can change the temperature by more than 10 degrees just overnight (due to currents)

Sample prices:

Daily budget (sleeping, transportation, food, attractions): 100 – 150 UAH ($ 20 – $ 30 USD)
Lunch at a cheap restaurant: from 12 UAH
Babushka’s lunch at the station 9 UAH
Shrimp snacks: 4 UAH
Beer in a shop: 2-4 UAH
Beer at a party: 5-8 UAH
Vodka 1 liter: 15-30 UAH
Cigarettes: 1-5 UAH
Train kupe from Lviv to Odessa about 70 UAH
Tram in Odessa: 0.50 UAH
Train plackarta from Odessa to Simferopol 40 UAH

Marszutki, local bus connections from 2 to 5 UAH
Budget accommodation in Lviv 33 UAH
Sleeping in the Crimea at babushka’s place $30 for 5 days

September 2006