Published: May 10th 2008
May 10th 2008
From East to West, Kiev to London
Big Ben and the Eye of London in the distance
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by”… and wouldn’t you know it, I landed myself in backpacker hell.
Leaving the Middle East and touching down in the former Soviet republic of the Ukraine has proved to be a logistical and communicational nightmare. Actually, it all began when I nearly didn’t make it out of Cairo due to the fact that my plane ticket had a different date than what was confirmed in the system. When I changed the dates of my last two flights in order to stay an extra two weeks in the Middle East, I was unable to get the paper tickets changed. This usually isn’t a problem because the airline’s system confirmed that I was booked on the flight and they simply should have printed a new ticket, but this company (Aerosvit) was run by former Communists. I fortunately made it on the flight to Kiev, after a long hassling from the airline, and was advised to visit the Aerosvit sales desk upon arrival to have my final ticket reprinted. This didn’t turn out as easy as I’d hoped. I soon learned that the people running the sales desk were
going to be no help at all. Barely speaking any English, they told me that I couldn’t reprint a ticket and I was stuck with the original departure date of May 9th. The problem lay in the fact that the system now confirmed me on the 24th of May and not on the 9th. I asked which flight I was really on, the 9th or the 24th, and the ladies told me that I had to go visit the head office downtown, because they couldn’t (or just didn’t want to) help me. It was a mess. I had somehow managed to get myself in what I now refer to as “Airline Limbo.” I had a ticket to a flight that I wasn’t confirmed on and I was confirmed on a flight that I had no paper ticket. The ticket issue was definitely a problem, but it soon became the least of my worries.
Before leaving Cairo, I signed up for a website called CouchSurfing.com
in the attempt to lessen my expenses while in Eastern Europe. What this site consists of is a group of people willing to offer up their couch for someone passing through their home country. I
joined up and by the next morning a girl in Kiev had contacted me and found me a place to stay. The girl was too busy with work to host someone, but she knew of an American photographer who was working in Kiev and was willing to let me sleep on the couch of his newly rented apartment. Hours before leaving for my flight, I obtained the contact information and was all lined up. After arriving in Kiev and being blown off by the Aerosvit sales force, I exited the airport to catch a bus to downtown. This is when I realized that communication wasn’t going to be as easy as most other countries. The airport was 45 minutes away from town and a taxi ride was far too expensive, so I eventually found a bus that was headed to the main train station and hopped aboard.
Two hours after landing in the Ukraine, I found myself the only English-speaking person on a ragged bus headed to the train station instead of trying to meet my contact Donald. I attempted to call him from a pay phone, but it was impossible because everything was in Russian. I even had
a taxi driver call the number from his cell phone, but all he got was an unavailable message (no voicemail). With no earthly idea where to even begin to go in the city to meet him, I figured that a trip to the train station would be the best option. I would be able to purchase a ticket to Romania or Moldova, and at the same time, get myself into town where I would eventually reach my contact.
The Kiev train terminal was my first big taste of what traveling through the Ukraine was going to be like. I thought that after all of the traveling I’ve done over the last year that I would no longer experience culture shock…but I was dead wrong. Communicating and finding your way around in the Ukraine is just as hard as or even harder than my experience in China. The main difference is that I look like the locals here (maybe a slight bit sexier) and I couldn’t spot one single backpacker or traveler to converse with. I walked straight to the Information/Help Desk at the station and soon learned that they too didn’t know a single word of English. The thing
about Russians…I’m sorry, Ukrainians (they hate that…ha!) is that most of them don’t even attempt to help when you ask them for assistance. As soon as English left my lips, I received an emotionless expression, they snarled the word “Het,” which means “No” in Russian (pronounced “knee-yet”), and they walked off and out of my helpless situation. The main problem was that everything was written in Russian Cyrillic and there wasn’t a single word of English posted anywhere. I didn’t know which line to get in (and there were many), which destination said Bucharest, Romania, or how to communicate anything I wanted (what class, time, destination, etc.). After two hours of walking around with my luggage on my back trying to find one person who spoke English, I finally gave up and walked my exhausted tail out the station completely defeated. Note that at this point, I had not slept since the day prior because I’d sat at the Cairo airport (unable to sleep) all night to catch my early flight.
Outside of the station, I finally found a taxi driver who spoke a little English and I had him call my contact Donald again. To my elated relief,
Donald answered and we found a place to meet. Long story short, we hooked up with no problem, went back to his posh little apartment that was costing him over $100 a night, and I didn’t leave for a couple of days. The Ukrainian spring I found myself in resembled something of a Tennessee winter with highs around 45 degrees Fahrenheit accompanied by a nasty drizzle. The rain came down non-stop for my entire second day, which was Ok since Donald had internet. I was able to contact my Russian friend Vika who I’d met in India and asked for some tips (since she was born in Kiev). I also contacted the travel agency (Airtreks) that I purchased my ATW ticket through and updated them on the situation. All in all, I was simply thankful to be hanging out with my new friend Donald who is an amazing photographer and ex-Special Forces Marine. We had some good conversation and I even picked up some more tips for my photography.
My time in Kiev soon began to brighten as the sun appeared and erased away the gloom. I decided to get out and see what the city was all about.
During my tour, I made a pit stop at the Aerosvit main office and finally talked to a person who attempted to help me. I soon learned that the Ukrainian side of Aerosvit had different regulations than that of the department in America. In order to obtain my paper ticket, I would have to pay a hefty fine and I was unable to change the flight to an earlier date because everything was completely full until mid-June. I wish I would have known all of this prior to making the changes, but there was nothing I could do but deal with the circumstances. My new choices were as follows: pay the fine and fly out on the 24th of May or purchase a new flight and pick my date and country of departure. After weighing my options and costs, I soon found that it would be cheaper to purchase a new ticket. The fact was that I still had to buy a ticket from New York to Knoxville when I returned so I factored that into the equation. Soon after much internet and train schedule research, I decided to fly out of London straight to Knoxville (to save on transportation
costs back to Kiev). The ticket issue was somewhat resolved so now I had to refocus my efforts on getting a train out of Kiev to Romania.
One thing I learned in China was that the best way to get around in a country where no one has a clue what you’re saying is to have someone who does have a clue right it all down for you, so that’s what I did. Donald’s Hungarian friend Barbie (I can’t pronounce her name so I just called her Barbie because she looked like one) spoke Russian and assisted me in writing down every question I may encounter in Cyrillic. Then, I simply walked up to people and handed them my piece of paper and hoped that Barbie didn’t play a trick on me and write something perverted. Soon after shoving my paper around the ticket office, I had a train booked for the following day out of the Ukraine. I was relieved, but I also began to see a side of Kiev that I enjoyed, even though I couldn’t talk to anyone.
Due to the number of countries, cities, and things I did over the next two weeks, I've
decided not to go into detail but simply keep this part of my trip for myself. I moved too fast and was way too tired to write everything down, so I decided to sum it all up in a short poem I wrote during my down time on the rail. I know guys…barf…you don’t have to read it, but it was the easiest way for me to sum up my experience and not ramble on for pages.
In twelve tiresome days, I made it across eleven countries and rarely laid my head to rest in a bed (those numbers don’t count the four days spent in Kiev or the five days in London). In order to save money in a section of the world where an American dollar is like a peso, I took numerous night trains and even slept in the train station at one point. Actually, the 24 hours spent in the Berlin train station wasn’t premeditated, but happened because I didn’t plan for the first of May holidays which filled every hotel from here to Timbuktu. Besides that little mishap, everything ran rather smoothly. After the Ukraine, the communication and ease of travel became no problem
whatsoever. Besides being a little on the expensive side, the trains were easly booked and plentiful. The further I drifted west the more expensive everything got, so I began to move faster and sleep on trains more. In the end, I made it across Europe with some money to spare (which is good because I have no job to return home to) and a better understanding of the history and culture of Europe.
Before I leave you with my sappy poetry, let me quickly run through my travel path and the locations I visited from the Ukraine to the UK. The following stops are in order of travel: Kiev, Ukraine - Bucharest, Romania (longest rail section at 28 hours) - Brasov (and Bran), Romania (the Transylvania region) - Budapest, Hungary - Bratislava, Slovakia (where I visited my old friend Matt Yoder who I haven’t seen since high school) - Vienna, Austria (via a boat ride down the Danube River) - Prague, Czech Republic - Berlin, Germany - Amsterdam, Holland - through Belgium and France to London, England (via a night bus through the English Channel Tunnel). I know, it was too much too fast, but I had to do
it that way or else I couldn’t afford it. I did see a lot though and spent at least a day or two in each place (except Belgium and France of course). If I had to honestly pick one word to describe my travels through Europe it would have to be “exhausting.” Cash me out; I’m done… now get home so I can sleep in my own bed and not move for a week. Nah, I’m kidding, it was all very great. I really got a mixture of European culture, and at the same time, enjoyed the picturesque scenery of the countryside through my train window. All in all, it was short but sweet.
Now I’ll leave you with my verse and paint you a picture of my time in Europe. Note that I will post one more journal entry following this one to sum up my trip around the world, so this isn’t goodbye yet. Take care and I'll see you all very soon.
East to West on the European rail
My journey’s end I soon will tell
A stranger in a foreign land
Whose tongue they do not understand
By day and night I traveled swift
Through lands whose borders once were rift
Past slopes of green and fields of yellow
The Rapeseed’s brilliance is sharp but mellow
Gothic castles dot distant hills
From purple lilac fragrance spills
Cathedral spires pierce the sky
On clover fields the shepherds lie
Windmills dance before the sun
As it sets and colors run
Across the sky and slowly fail
To invite the moon whose beams fall pale
Brilliant stars wink overhead
Horizons tinged with fading red
Clouds of gray floating high
Their somber mood paints the sky
Showers rain and wet our May
Gusts of wind lift leaves to play
The sunshine brightens up the day
Bringing smiles with every ray
I began from Kiev to Bucharest
Through Transylvania to Budapest
Bratislava, Vienna, Prague, Berlin
London, Brussels and Amsterdam
A candle service by Orthodox
The dance of Prague’s tower clocks
A cruise down Danube’s mighty stream
My time in Holland was like a dream
Berlin’s history and darkened past
Romania’s sacred Easter mass
St. Michael’s majestic golden domes
Winding streets of cobblestone
Hungary’s soothing thermal baths
The Red Light district full of laughs
Vienna’s famous art display
Klimt, Manet, Van Gogh, Monet
Bohemian spirits floating free
In a land that’s gained its liberty
Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance
Stilettos worn by Russian blondes
Dutch brunettes in skimpy thongs
Famous Lagers, light and dark
Czech’s first Pilsner, the German’s Bock
The Netherland’s Gouda, the Slovakian’s beet
The Hungarian, German and Austrian meat
So much food and brilliant wine
From Russia to the Atlantic side
To find the origin of our time
I found the Greenwich Meridian line
Down to the second of the hour
It brought me past the London Tower
On the Thames and by Big Ben
London’s Eye, around it spins
My time for travel has come to end
What lies ahead will all depend
What life’s dance will bring my way
I’ll clasp my hands and simply say
Thank you God for every day
There are more photos below