Since I began my trip, numerous people have asked me what it is like to travel as a backpacker and how I specifically get from one city to another. My usual response is “it depends,” but such an answer is far from satisfying and doesn’t serve to clarify anything. In reality, every leg of my trip is different and when I travel there are so many variables to account for that I simply figure things out as I go. I've tried creating travel itineraries, but they are usually rendered useless within a few hours when my situation changes unexpectedly. While the majority of my transit stories are not particularly fascinating for readers back home, Ukraine threw me a few curveballs that I think my readers back home may find rather entertaining.
So to the three people out there that still read this blog, this one’s for you!
…I’m being optimistic, there’s probably less than three.
Contrary to what you hear on the news, the entire country of Ukraine is not engulfed in war. In fact, the vast majority of the country is simply going about their normal lives, business as usual. If you keep up with current events unfolding here in Ukraine, you likely know the fighting is isolated to the East, but what you probably don’t know is where the city of Lviv is located.
I’ll give you a moment to Google it… go on… here’s a link if you’re feeling lazy.
See? Opposite side of the country. Take a deep breath - I’m fine.
As safe as it may be, my arrival into Ukraine was nothing short of entertaining. My adventure to Lviv began with an overnight bus from Krakow that I purchased through a questionable website that departed at 11:00pm. When I arrive at the Krakow bus station that night I couldn’t determine which bay my bus is scheduled to depart from. I attempted to ask for help but my efforts were in vain - the people who could help didn't speak English and my fellow English speakers were as lost as I was. Eventually I saw an unmarked, white bus pull into the station with a tiny little Ukrainian flag in the window – it was at least worth a shot.
As the bus made its way around the station and parked in an empty bay, I peered through the window to see if the word “Lviv" was written anywhere in the front window. I’ve noticed that even if I don't speak the local language I can usually decipher which bus/train/plane I need. Every language I’ve seen so far uses the Latin alphabet and the pronunciation of most letters is similar enough to English; it’s not hard to figure out that "Köln" means Cologne or “Warszawa" means Warsaw – all you have to do is sound it out more or less.
This; however, was not one of those times.
There were three languages marked on the bus: Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian - and I knew none of them. Usually there is at least one language that I can figure out, but I was really up a creek this time around. In that moment I realized just how far away from home I really was and how little I knew about the culture I was heading into. I adjusted my strategy to more of a shotgun approach and began asking every single bus that drove by with a little Ukrainian flag if my ticket was valid on their bus. Don’t give me more credit than I deserve, this equated to me approaching the driver, pointing to my ticket, and then receiving either a nod or a shake - that’s it. After numerous failed attempts, I finally got the nod I was looking for.
The ride itself was dull, overcrowded, uncomfortable, and the cabin reeked of cigarette smoke. Overnight buses suck. Overall the right was uneventful, even at the Ukrainian boarder, and when I awoke early the next morning we were parked in a dilapidated bus stop. Still groggy, I looked around and assumed this rickety old station was not mine - surely my stop was the next one, we were a whole hour ahead of schedule! I waited for people to get off the bus and after five minutes, the driver entered the front of the bus holding by backpack in the air uttering some unintelligible phrase in Ukrainian which I assumed meant, “Whose bag is this?”
Shit, this is my stop.
I exited the bus ashamed I almost missed my own stop, but the feeling was quickly overshadowed by the fact that I had no earthly idea where the hell I was. The station had definitely seen better days and for some absurd reason was designed in a pseudo art-deco-like style. Back in its glory days, I imagine this station would be right at home next to the hotels and restaurants on Miami Beach, but thanks to years of neglect it felt more like building out of a Bioshock game. Across the street I saw a plethora of old, abandoned buildings adorned with broken windows and graffiti while the adjacent freeway was packed with of soviet era cars racing into town.
What have I gotten myself into?
I first needed to figure out how to get into town, but where do I even begin? Looking around in astonishment, I noticed every sign was in either in Ukrainian or Russian and neither was of any help to me. I wandered around for a few minutes until I found a ticket booth and asked where the buses into town were. Naturally, the lady spoke next to no English so I proceeded to dance around trying to communicate “town center” to her through hand gestures. I quickly created a line behind me of irritated commuters, but eventually the idea was transmitted successfully (don’t ask me how). She pointed in the direction I needed and wrote down the bus number on a piece of paper.
Now we're making progress.
I happily made my way to the local bus stop on the side of the freeway when it hit me - I don’t have any money to pay the driver. I had Euros and Polish Złoty, but it that might as well be toilet paper here in Ukraine. I needed Hryvnia (pronounced “grief-na”), but where the hell am I going to find it? Surely there was an exchange booth somewhere in the station, but after scouring the place I didn’t find any and the people loitering around the station were of no help to me.
As such, I decided to wait at the local bus stop until another unfortunate soul found themselves without cash to pay the driver. Sure enough, after fifteen minutes of waiting I saw one of the bus drivers give the cold shoulder to a man trying to get on his bus. While I didn't hear a word of their conversation, it’s amazing how much you can read just from body language – I knew that man was in my exact same situation. I watched him step down from the bus and followed him like a hit man stalking his next target. Making sure to keep my distance, I followed the man down a dark, narrow corridor in the bowels of the bus station that I would never have thought to look in. Lo and behold, there was the exchange booth I was looking for!
I gave my Euros to lady behind the counter and she uttered something to me in Ukrainian that I didn’t understand. She saw the look of confusion plastered across my face and repeated her statement to no avail. I didn’t really care what the exchange rate was or if she ripped me off, I just needed enough to get a bus into town; surely whatever the lady gave me in exchange for fifteen Euros would be enough. Again, she repeated herself and then went to her calculator and typed in “240” thinking that it would clarify matters.
Sure, why not, 240 is a big number - it should at least be enough for the bus.
I nodded eagerly at the sight of the money and she proceeded to count out a surprisingly giant stack of cash for me. I went back to the bus stop, found the bus I needed, and asked the driver how much - he held up three fingers. You’re kidding me! I exchanged fifteen Euros for 240 Hryvnia and the bus was only three! Even with the crap exchange rate I invariably got at the booth, the bus cost less than a quarter!
Delighted, I boarded the rusty old bus and took my seat across from a quintessential 80-year-old Eastern European woman wearing a head scarf and just smiled. Unfortunately, my joy was short lived when I realized I didn’t know what stop to get off at. I had the email confirmation from the hostel I booked in Lviv on my phone, but the street names were written in Latin script and all the signs were in Cyrillic script. Looking around at my dilapidated surroundings full of rundown buildings, graffiti, and broken windows, I figured anywhere was better than where I currently was. Since I knew my hostel was in the city center, I looked out the window and waited patiently to see tall buildings.
My plan was flawless.
Like in all old European cities, I expected the town center to have a few tall churches and a bell tower or two that I could see from the bus. Twenty minutes later, my patience prevailed and I found myself in what appeared to be a well-maintained part of the city full of people walking about. I got off the bus at an arbitrary stop and proceeded to wander around (what I hoped was) Lviv for the better part of an hour and a half looking for my hostel. I eventually stumbled upon the city’s main plaza, Rynok Square, and walked down every adjacent avenue in town until I finally found my hostel. Success! I dropped off my things and went to explore the city since I couldn’t check in yet. When I exited the hostel I picked a direction at random and three minutes later I found myself standing at the exact same bus stop I got off at over an hour ago!
Okay so maybe not the best use of my time, but at least I finally arrived in Lviv!
One of my biggest issues with my old job was how everyone said what they loved most about their job was how “challenging” the work was. I heard this year after year, but I never once understood how the work was challenging. Either the people I spoke to didn't know what it meant to be challenging or I have a very different interpretation of the term. Anybody can sit in front of a computer working for 12+ hours a day. In the end, it’s just all a matter of how much crap you're willing to put up with from your client, arbitrary deadlines you can meet, meeting you can set up, and slides you can put together - I fail to see the “challenge” in all this.
Instead, imagine getting stranded in a dingy, run-down old bus station all by yourself in the middle of Ukraine, a strange, foreign country you've never stepped foot in before. Your goal: get to your accommodation before the sun goes down. You have no idea where you are, don't know where the city center is, can’t read/speak the local language, don’t know where your hostel/hotel is, have no access to Internet, and you have no money. The only thing you do have is a backpack and four hours of sub-par sleep. Nooooooow… GO! (oh, and try to have fun while you’re at it.)
…now there’s a challenge!
Welcome to Ukraine!