For those of you out there who are unaware, there are no direct trains or buses between Lviv, Ukraine and Zagreb, Croatia. I'm almost positive this little factoid will be of absolutely no value to anyone, but I wasted several hours of my life to come to this conclusion, so I'm going to throw it out there and hope someone finds it useful. From Kiev, I took a rather uneventful train back to Lviv for a few days to relax and figure out my logistics for Zagreb, but after wracking my head for hours on end I realized it was a hopeless endeavor. The only option for me to get to Croatia was via Budapest, Hungary where I could transfer to a bus that would take me the rest of the way to Zagreb.
There are worse places in this world to have a layover I suppose.
My overnight train from Lviv to Budapest was incredibly enjoyable and probably the closet I’ve ever come to a "first class" experience since I started this trip. The cabin I was assigned to had a large couch that converted into two beds, a small desk with a hidden sink under the top, a small fold out chair, and a closet - it was my little home away from home! The couch was rather uncomfortable, but once I put on the fluffy padding, sheets, blanket, and pillows I was given the stiff couch turned into a respectable bed! Even though the decor made it feel strangely like I was spending the night at my grandmother's house, the entire cabin was mine for the entire trip!
Yes, this is my definition of luxury... oh, how my standards have fallen.
That evening was easily the most relaxing and comfortable transit experiences I've encountered thus far on my trip. I wrote to my heart’s content, read, sipped on tea, and even got to spend a few hours chatting with a local Ukrainian girl, Tina, who was taking a weekend trip back home from Lviv. The following morning I woke up surprisingly refreshed even considering the terrifying 3am border check and the intolerable noise when the engineers adjusted the train's running gear to accommodate the European track gauge.
Fun fact #2: The train tracks in Ukraine are spaced differently than in Europe.
Of what use this will be in your life, I don't know, but there you have it. You're welcome.
The border check on the Ukrainian side took well over two hours for some absurd reason and when the guard first entered my cabin I was beyond terrified. Thanks to all the noises and passing lights, I fell sleep with my mask and earplugs on, so when the guard entered my cabin to check my passport I didn't even notice her. She proceeded to turn on the lights, but to no avail - I was still fast asleep. The first thing I remember was someone forcefully slapping my foot and when I removed my sleep mask there was an imposing (and rather irritated) border guard standing in my doorway decked out in full military attire, wielding an automatic rifle, and angrily yelling something at me in Ukrainian. Terrified, I instinctively handed over my passport without question or hesitation. For the next twenty minutes I sat aghast in my cabin waiting for my heart to slow down and get my passport back before falling asleep again - this time sans ear plugs.
Thankfully, I made it through to the Hungarian side without issue and was able to get a decent night's sleep all things considered. I woke up the following morning, continued reading my book while sipping on tea the train host kept feeding me, and gleefully watched as the world passed by. The entire trip I assumed the teas were free like the soda, coffee, or tea passed out on flights, but I was sadly mistaken. At the end of the trip the train host came to my cabin, looked at me, and said something incomprehensible to me in Ukrainian, but I did understand one word - Hryvnia (i.e. Ukrainian money; pronounced "grief-na"). I realized in that moment that the teas were in fact not free and there was one small issue.
I had no cash.
I stood there completely dumbfounded about what I was supposed to do. I got rid of all my cash back in Lviv and I didn’t have a single Hryvnia to my name. How am I going to explain to this man who speaks no English that I don’t have money to pay for his teas? Even if can get cash from an ATM at the station, how can I communicate that to him and how is he going to trust that I will even return?
I went in search of another person on the train that could translate for me and tell the host that I intended to pay my debt - which collectively amounted to less than $1. I asked a young man in the cabin next to me if he spoke any Ukrainian and quickly realized that he too was a tourist who knew as much of the language as I did. We spoke for a moment and I found out the man was from Cologne of all places! I told him my issue and without hesitation he offered me his remaining 55 Hryvnia since they were of no use to him in Hungary. I was beyond grateful! This complete stranger just offered to help me out – granted this amounted to less than a Euro - but he offered it to me without hesitation and expected nothing in return.
Naturally, I couldn’t let this act of generosity go unnoticed. After settling my debt, I chatted with my new friend, Pascal, for the remainder of the trip and over breakfast after we arrived in Budapest. The topics ranged from life in Cologne and the US, various travel stories, economics, tips on where to go in China, and even how to circumvent the three-month limit on a Schengen Visa (this last one would have been more helpful three weeks ago when I was in Krakow). Before we parted ways I gave him 1,000 Forint (~$3) as a token of my appreciation for pulling me out of what could have been a bad situation and we agreed to meet up for beers later that evening.
I've been to Budapest once before during my six-month exchange program in Milan back in college and since this visit was incredibly short (<20 hours in total) I didn't see much of the city. It was surreal to walk through town and see the old Széchenyi Chain Bridge and Buda Castle again nearly five years after my first visit with Andrei and Joe. It's really incredible how quickly time passes by. Instead of exploring Budapest again, I was on a mission this time around; I needed to buy a compact sleeping bag (so my next homeless experience would be slightly more tolerable) and figure out logistics for my connecting bus to Croatia all before meeting up with Pascal for beers and trying to get a few hours of sleep.
Honestly, I wish I had more time in Budapest just to hang out with Pascal.
After getting four hours of drunken sleep (I'll never be able to drink beer like a German) and a mild crisis at 6:00am when I almost missed my bus, I am now officially off to Croatia! I had absolutely no intention of ever visiting Croatia on this trip, but since I've heard so many rave reviews of the country I figure it is something I can't miss out on. This is the first country I visit completely on the recommendations of my fellow travelers and while it will be hard for any country to live up to such high expectations, people swear by Croatia, so I trust them.
Let’s see what Croatia has to show me!