The Journey west

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August 11th 2004
Published: September 21st 2018
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Baku to Polish border

Didn’t really notice what time we departed, but it was just after 2pm when they fed us – lots to eat, Tony had beef stroganoff & I grilled chicken. They gave us an English magazine about the Ukraine to read, which had lots of articles in it. The pilot had announced during take-off that we would be landing in Baku, Azerbaijan, before heading to Kiev.

5:20pm saw us landing on the tarmac at Baku, following a small jeep that the words “FOLLOW ME” written on the back (!). We had flown over the Caspian Sea & seen many many oil rigs, as many as 15 in one spot – oil had spilled over the water in some areas, creating an ecological eyesore. Flying over Azerbaijan was not much better, a barren, desolate area with hundreds of oil wells – who would want to visit here?? The pilot advised us we would have a 45min wait before departing for Kiev – we don’t know why we are here, no one has got off the plane, so its not for the passengers; we all have to stay on board.

6:30pm found us still sitting on the tarmac, so did 7:00pm – getting restless now, & would like to know why we are still here. Tony found out that Baku Airport refused to give them clearance to take off – who knows how long we will sit here – who knows why we aren’t allowed to leave? The crew eventually let us off the plane, we weren’t allowed to go anywhere, we just had to stay very close to the plane, but it was good to be able to stretch our legs – Tony happy to be able to say he has set foot in Azerbaijan!

Eventually a jeep arrived on the horizon that contained the pilot – must’ve been okay because everyone cheered & started to get back on the plane. We finally departed at 7:50pm – Tony stressing that it would be midnight when we arrived in Kiev, until a stewardess told him the time in Kiev was only 4pm. Even so it was still 2 ½ hours of flight time – everyone was starving as we hadn’t eaten for over 6 hours, but we were told there was no food available(!) – instead they gave us all alcohol – red & white wine, vodka – went straight to the head on an empty stomach.

Finally landed in Kiev about 7pm & again had to go through immigration – our bags were already going around on the carousel, so we had no wait there. Out in airport arrivals Tony disappeared to change some money & got accosted by the usual touts who wanted to drive us to Kiev (we were 50kms out) for about 250 Hryvnya ($70) & put us in a hotel for USD40. Unbelievable, there must be tourist out there that are dumb enough to use them or they wouldn’t be there. Walked outside & found a bus that would take us to the main train station (our hotel is just down from there) for 10rph ($3) – bit of a price difference.

Bus ride took about ½ hour, it’s now growing dark, but we can tell we are definitely in Europe now, with the forest coming right down to the freeway. Dropped off at the train station & had to put our backpacks on as we have a short walk to the hotel – we don’t know anything about this hotel, we just have the name on our Letters of Invitation (we are not obliged to stay there) & as we don’t have a Lonely Planet or Let’s Go for the Ukraine, don’t know where else to stay. It wasn’t a long walk to the Express Hotel, but it was a struggle because it was all uphill – when we got there it was 9:30pm – our bodies are tired as they believe it to be 1:30am. The hotel is expensive but we got the cheapest room for 320rph ($88) & that includes a toilet but no shower – still way over our budget but we are so tired & don’t know where else to go – will worry about that in the morning. Both starving but too tired to go anywhere to eat – sank into the seriously comfortable soft beds.

Wednesday 4th August –Ukraine

Woke up about 6am; bodies confused & aching. Breakfast included again, so at 7:30am we went & had a buffet. Not bad & we pigged out as much as we could to fill us up for the day. As soon as we had finished we set out to find the Ukraine National Tourist Organisation (listed in the magazine we had got on the plane) in hopes
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Sophia Cathedral
they could find us a cheap hotel. Armed with a city map we picked up at the airport, we walked around the streets of Kiev – very European with small streets, old buildings & cobblestones.

Nearly had a heart attack when we were crossing the street & cars stopped for us – we are so used to being abused & tooted at, it’s a pleasant surprise. Already we think we are going to like it here. Found the Tourist Organisation quite easily – the woman at the front desk had no English but was helpful enough to find someone who could – again a refreshing change from horrible Kazakhstan. The guy who helped us didn’t fully understand what we wanted – we explained USD60 a night was too much for us but he came back with hotel brochures all in the same price range. He also gave us lots of maps which will be helpful, & told us about a bookstore where we might be able to find a Lonely Planet. All our hopes are pinned on finding a LP now, with its listings of budget accommodations – if we are unable to find one, we will have to leave the Ukraine. NEVER GO TO A COUNTRY WITHOUT A GUIDE BOK!!!!

As we were walking down Prorizna Street, we passed an STA Travel Office – we decided to ask them if the knew of any budget hotels as they cater mainly for students & backpackers. The girls were extremely helpful & although there are no hostels in Kiev, they managed to secure us a self-contained apartment for 4 nights for 740rph ($205) which works out to be around $25 each a night for us – a much more affordable option!

We can relax a bit now, so we then walked down to Khreshchatyk, the main shopping area to find a bookshop. A very nice area, also known as “Kiev’s Champs Elysees” with historic architecture & lots of shops. Found the central Post Office & a McDonalds (two actually) but still no bookshop – walking around saw several boys with exotic monkeys on their shoulders & then was approached by another who had the most gorgeous owl – obviously you posed for photos with them (felt sorry for the owl, should be asleep poor thing).

Giving up on the bookshop we caught a cab for 20 rph($5) back to our hotel to check out. We had a hotel ring a cab for us at noon, & we were soon on our way to our apartment, which was about a 10min drive away. Our apartment in number 47/9 Kutuzova Street & even though you have to climb 4 flights of stairs to get there, the apartment is big & airy. The girls were cleaning it when we arrived, but soon gone once the 4-day lease was signed.

We have an oven, but the stove part is full of paper bags, sheets & toilet paper – obviously they prefer you not to use it – but there’s no grill & we don’t have a toaster either – looks like cornflakes for breakfast again, but at least we have a fridge & a kettle. Spent the afternoon working out some sightseeing routes – I had to hand wash our clothes in the bathtub – our washing is strung up all around the apartment – makes us feel like real Europeans!

Thursday 5th August –Kiev, Ukraine

Big day of sightseeing planned today; first we need to work out how to get into our apartment building – when we came home last night from McDonalds, the building door was shut – Tony tried the code he was given but it didn’t work – we ended up banging on the door & an absolute shrew of a woman who lives on the ground floor let us in with a torrent of abuse – an absolute cow who retreated behind her slamming door. There was a man downstairs clearing up rubbish & he helped us, apparently you have to push all 4 numbers at the SAME TIME, not individually as we had done.

Travel throws all sorts of challenges at you, our next task was the subway; we knew we had to buy a token for 50 kopecks (-13c) & also that we had to change lines, but to our dismay, once we had descended 2 huge escalators that took us miles underground, we found everything written in Cyrillic, no English anywhere. With the assistance of the stout guard ladies who are at the bottom of each escalator, we managed to get on the right trains (where we found the stations written in English – why not have it on the platform??). To disembark we counted the stops & crossed our fingers & managed to arrive at our destination. The subways are all lined in marble with fancy chandeliers & oh so clean, but the trains are old & hot.

We emerged at Maydan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) where the GPO is – again we trued to find a bookshop – this time we went the other direction where we found a bookshop but no Lonely P’s – giving up on that temporarily, we set off on foot to Podil, where the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Museum is. On the way we visited the extremely impressive St Michael Golden Domed Cathedral – a very beautiful sight – much better than Kazakhstan – we had a brief look inside at the gold altar & religious murals on the walls & ceiling.

From there we walked straight up Andrivsky Uzviz, which was lined on both sides with souvenir stalls. Spent a while looking at things here, plenty of Matryoshka dolls & painted eggs, exquisite lacquered boxes & wooden mace. Whilst doing this we took in the beauty of St Andrew church, a 17th century baroque church, and of Andrivsky Uzviz itself, which is cobblestoned & full of quaint old buildings.

After about an hour or so we found ourselves at the bottom of the street & discovered we must have walked straight past the National Museum of Ukrainian History – unperturbed we pressed on to Podil, where we had a beer in an outdoor café & walked around in circles trying to find the Chernobyl Museum. We ended up asking a lady who worked in another museum where it was & she walked out into the street & pointed & babbled away (you can see how frustrated some people get when they try to help us yet can’t speak our language – some try so hard).

With a bit of luck we found it – admission was 5rph ($1.40) & unfortunately all exhibits were in Russian – almost a waste of time – sad to see photos of all the children who died & mutated animals born afterwards – one puppy had 8 legs – a couple were growing out of it’s back (this was an actual exhibit) plus photos of a cow with two heads & a foal with deformed legs – also babies with deformities – really awful.

From the Chernobyl museum we walked back up Andrivsky Uzviz (worked up a sweat) & found the National Museum of Ukrainian History – this cost 3rph (-84c) & had some excellent exhibits, but again, no English – makes it very frustrating for us, as we would like to learn about the history. Still, we enjoyed looking at the suits of armour & archaeological relics. Then it was downhill to Sophia Cathedral, which although impressive, had too many entrance fees – one to the grounds, one to the bell tower, one to the cathedral itself, so we only went into the grounds & took some photos.

Both feeling tired now – past 5pm & we have been going for over 6 hours – legs & back sore. Tackled the subway home safely & stopped in at McDonalds to buy ice-creams, at least everyone there speaks English. Collapsed on our bed but felt we had a good day.

Friday 6th August –Kiev, Ukraine

Still no Lonely Planet so Tony rang a travel agent to arrange “cheap” accommodation in our next stop, L’viv. The best they could come up with was USD54($74) a night, still too much. Decided to do a bit more sightseeing, but first stop was the GPO to send some parcels home. What a nightmare, took nearly two hours to do a simple thing, now we realise how efficient the Chinese were, we were in & out in 15 mins in China Post!! It was so frustrating, no one spoke English & all the forms were in Cyrillic/French – we had to list every single thing in the boxes & even then they wanted us to write it in Cyrillic – we finally managed to get it done, although Tony’s parcel has gone surface & mine went air mail!

Nerves feeling rather frayed by now – simple things become so hard when you don’t know the language. Spent an hour upstairs in the GPO in their internet café before tackling the main train station to buy tickets to L’viv for Sunday. Caught the subway to the train station & then faced the total confusion of buying tickets – didn’t know where to go so spent ages queuing up at information where we were then directed upstairs & again felt lost but kept walking until we found ticket offices. Didn’t know which window to line up at so again, lined up at information, where they told us to go to window 41. So off to window 41 we went, where the old bitch behind the counter looked at our request & waved us away.

Feeling frustrated & somewhat hopeless, we were saved by a man nearby who rang a friend on his mobile who explained that the tickets were all sold out. He was very helpful & saved us from jumping off the nearest balcony. The man to whom the phone belonged spoke a little English & got quite excited when we told him we were from Australia – his sister lives in Sydney. He wrote down “bus station” for us in Cyrillic, as this now looks like our only option to get to L’viv – thanking him for his help, we left the train station & managed to catch the subway home. Feeling really jaded we called in to a local supermarket to pick up supplies – noticing some roast chickens on a rotisserie, we attempted to buy one, but the man wouldn’t give us one, so we gave up – not only do they not want to post our parcels, they refuse to sell us train tickets & now they won’t let us have a chicken!! We walked home feeling very down – on the way a bug bit me on the arm which was really painful – we have both had better days!

Saturday 7th August –Kiev, Ukraine

Have planned another day of sightseeing. Slept well but we are both really tired still. Luckily everything we want to see is within walking distance of our apartment, so we don’t have to tackle any public transport, which is a huge relief.

On the road by 10am & our first stop was Kyiv Pechersk Lava Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries of Old Rus. We found it easily as it’s a huge complex with 100 buildings – there must have been at least 5 gold domed churches inside – again getting around was hard, with all signs written in Cyrillic, so we didn’t know what we were looking at, although the churches are truly beautiful.

We went into one large domed church that was holding a service, all the women wearing headscarves & crossing themselves over baggy eyed pictures of Christ. We then paid 3rph (-84c) to climb the bell tower – 269 steps in total, on a spiral, wooden staircase. Hard work but views from the first level were great, & from the highest level that we were allowed on, fantastic – took some photos of Kiev.

After an hour & ½, we walked back to our apartment to discover a small shop underneath (we had always turned left, not right!) so we bought bread, cheese, butter & tomatoes (Tony confused the woman, when he asked for 2 tomatoes, she came back with 2 kgs!!) & made sandwiches for lunch.

After lunch we set out to find the Kvyv Fortress, which was about a 10 min walk in the other direction. We found the fortress quite easily, but it was a bit of a letdown, most of it is now a military hospital & the rest is a museum, which at first, we were unable to find. There are walls around the fortress with cannons on top, but apart from that, not much else. When we did eventually find the museum, it was closed! Typical – we ended up walking back to our apartment & stopping for a beer on the way, which was icy cold – makes a change from other countries where the beer is warm. Tony went to the supermarket & came back with frozen pizza & frozen chips, so we cleared the oven out & had a really nice dinner – might as well self-cater while we have the chance!

Both of us still have the worry of how we are going to secure bus tickets to L’viv tomorrow – It’s going to be a matter of crossing our fingers & hoping for the best, I think.

Sunday 8th August –Kiev – L’viv

Got up early, wanted to be at the bus station before 9am so that we are on the first bus to L’viv. Phoned for a taxi from an advert in an English-Ukraine magazine, but this turned out to be too hard, despite the ad saying they had English speaking drivers etc. no one could understand what we wanted & because we couldn’t provide a telephone number (we didn’t know the phone number of the apartment) they refused to send a cab. Ended up hailing one in the street & got slugged 20rph ($5) for a short ride – although this is not expensive by Oz standards, it’s probably3 times what we should be paying.

Struggled through the bus station with our backpacks & found the ticket window – thankfully the woman was friendly & helpful & we managed to buy two tickets to L’viv. Only problem is the bus doesn’t leave until 2:15pm – about a 5 ½ hour wait, so we returned to our apartment (via another rip-off cab) as we can stay there until noon.

Spent the time watching a documentary on Dingoes (dubbed in Ukrainian) & eating fried bread, before returning to the bus station just after 1pm. Nothing special about the bus station except it has poker machines everywhere. Tony found out that we had to catch our bus out the front, so about 1:50pm a bus turned up that was ours, it was quite nice, a luxury coach & although there are a few people on it, it’s not full. Two guys in front of us had McDonalds & the smell made us very hungry although we had only just eaten. One thing we have noticed about the people of East Europe – they all seem to have really bad BO – they stink.

We departed Kiev at 2:15pm & it seems L’viv is 570kms away, meaning we will arrive about 111:30pm. Our bus has a hostess that gives you tea & coffee & snacks, but she doesn’t speak English so she ignored us (although I think she misunderstood us when we shook our heads – we thought she was asking us if we were Russian) but at least the played some decent movies on the video –(Pirates of the Caribbean beats Chinese dancing girls any day) these were very badly dubbed but at least we could still make out the English.

The journey was very pretty, the woods come right down to the motorway & in several villages we saw huge stork nests on top of lamp posts – wish we had been able to take a photo, they were an incredible sight. Made several stops along the way at various towns & the next time our hostess came around she gave us two teas & some bread & cheese – not much but filled a gap. Managed to sleep a bit on the bus – no one sitting behind us so we could lay our seats right back.

Arrived in L’viv just before midnight, a bit later than expected, bus station almost deserted but a few taxis around. Drove to one hotel named on our Ukraine letter of introduction, the Zamok Leva, which looked really nice, more like a mansion than a hotel, but when Tony went inside to enquire about the price, it was too much at USD70 ($97) a night, so we ended up going to the Hotel Dnister – US54 ($74) per night (270 rph) but we are going to stay for 3 nights. Staff very friendly & have good English, even for 12:30 am!!!

Monday 9th August – L’viv

Had a decent sleep but still tired, struggled to get out of bed at 9am to make our complimentary breakfast – best thing about Ukrainian hotels, breakfast is always included in the price & is always a buffet, so we ensure that we eat as much as we can. Good breakfast, excellent choice.

After breakfast armed with a map we bought at reception, we set off to explore L’viv. Although we couldn’t see much when we arrived last night, we could tell the city was pretty. By daylight this proved to be true – L’viv is a very leafy, quaint, cobble-stoned medieval town, with a lot of sights. Popped into an Internet café to do some banking & then found a travel agency who we hoped would help get us train tickets to Krakow. The girl was very helpful & told us the bus was much cheaper (by about 200rph - $55) – she told us how to buy tickets & wrote the address of the bus station in Cyrillic for us. We need to arrange a tour to a nearby castle, so we will have the girl arrange that for us too.

We then went to a café opposite (it was past 1pm) & after finding out the menu was all in Cyrillic, we stood there & looked at what people ordered before spotting a man with mushroom crepes walk by. After a lot of pointing & smiling, the women worked out what we wanted & cooked it for us. The crepes were 8.50rph ($2.40) which included 2 bottles of Coke – food seems to be cheap here, it’s just accommodation that has been our biggest expense in the Ukraine so far. I didn’t really like my crepe so Tony ate it.

After lunch we found a taxi (he actually used his meter!) to take us to the bus station – it cost about 14rph ($3.80) so the guy who drove us last night didn’t rip us off too much by charging us 20rph ($5). Buying the bus tickets was a breeze – no queue & one of the ladies spoke English, so the whole process took 5 minutes & when we left the bus station we knew what bus, what time, what seat etc – Tony gave a huge sigh & said: “If only they could all be that easy!” We had asked our cabbie to wait, so he drove us back to the centre of L’viv & dropped us off at the Arsenal Museum.

The Arsenal Museum has a very large collection of weapons through the ages & it was presented well but again, all in Cyrillic, so we were unsure of which country they represented – some were easy to work out eg: Japan, Spain but they were many we were unsure of. However, it was an excellent display & we enjoyed walking through it very much. Admission was 1.50rph (-40c) so even better.

When we finished we walked around town enjoying the atmosphere & architecture – got a bit lost even though we had a map, so had to ask for directions to find that we weren’t that far from our hotel. Walked back through a beautiful park & sat outside in their bar for a while before taking a short walk to a nearby shop for supplies. We had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant – absolutely superb mushroom soup (Me) & borscht (Tony). The main meal was Chicken Dnister – a huge chicken breast stuffed with pears, cheese & spinach – really yummy – had a glass of wine each & Tony a Jim Beam which pushed our bill up to 107rph($29). Feeling bloated but satisfied, we crawled into bed.

Tuesday 10th August – L’viv

Want to do more sightseeing today, so after another filling breakfast, we set off towards the city centre. First stop was the travel agents to organise a tour for tomorrow, but the cost was quite high 500 rph ($138) for both of us, but we will have a private car & an English-speaking guide for the whole day.

After we had done that we set off to explore some more of the city, our first stop was a nearby Armenian church which was really old & has original frescoes, the oldest in L’viv. From there it was an uphill walk to Vysokyi Zamok, a large park with a lookout – spent some time walking around the park & walked to the top of the lookout which provided a panoramic view of the city of L’viv. We could see a spectacular green domed church, so we decided to walk there.

It was only a short walk downhill to the church & it was absolutely beautiful inside, so we managed to take a few photos of the interior & exterior, before stumbling across a small market that sold arts & crafts & Ukrainian souvenirs. Had a quick look around before walking back to the Internet café to send more emails. We wasted our time here as the service was so slow we both only managed to send one email each in the whole hour we were there. Very frustrating, but what can you do?

Walked back to the hotel through the park & then decided to visit the restaurant for dinner again – our stomachs must have shrunk over the past 5 months, as we both had soup & steak & returned to our room absolutely bloated – all we could do was lie on our beds & groan!!

Wednesday 11th August – L’viv – Krakow

Checking out today & moving on to Poland, but first we have our guided tour of the castles. Met our guide at the travel agency - her name is Natalia & thank God she doesn’t have BO. About 10:30am we were on the road to our first ‘castle’ which is 75kms away – apparently, we will cover a distance of around 200kms today. Quite a nice day, the sun is shining & it’s not too hot.

Our first ‘castle’ was Ole’sko Castle, high on a hill but resembling a French chateau more than a medieval castle; although apparently in the 14th century was a powerful fortress before becoming a stately home in the 16th. Obviously, the Ukraine lacks funds for restoration, as most of the castle had been turned into a section of the L’viv Art Gallery, so there were mainly art works on display, but these were still interesting & very, very old – majority were icon paintings & sculptures. There was also some furniture on display, an excellent wooden table with a map of the ancient world carved on it. Down in the basement there was a special exhibition on that we had to pay extra for 1rph(-30c) (admission to the castle itself was only 1rph). Our guide wasn’t happy that we had to pay extra, but we were – the exhibition was on various instruments of torture & was the most interesting thing we had seen so far! Things like iron maidens, racks, spiked wheels of death – probably the biggest exhibit I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, our guide was more interested in showing us a boring well that was down there, so she didn’t bother with the torture devices – we still managed to sneak in a few photos though.

After spending 1 ½ hours at Ole’sko, we went to Pidhirtsi, which was a 20 min drive away. Pidhirtsi Castle dates from the Renaissance & during the Russian occupation it was used as a sanitorium, before being destroyed by fire. At the moment it is still in disrepair, but the Ukrainians ae trying desperately to restore it but have no funds. Of course there wasn’t much to see inside the castle itself except
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Zolochiv Castle
for some marble portals & fire places – this was definitely more of a “palace” than a castle, Ukrainians have a funny idea of what a castle should be. Our guide explained that Pidhirtsi was once the biggest palace in all of Europe, although we are a bit sceptical about that. Pidhirtsi was very run down but you could see it had once been a place of great grandeur, including its own impressive church.

Our next stop was Zolochiv Castle, again under renovation & again, more of a stately home, built on a hill being once surrounded by bastions. Part of the “castle” was erected to look like a Chinese Palace, but it didn’t look Chinese to us. Zolochiv Castle is unique because it was the only European castle to have a toilet!

It was now past 3pm & time to return to L’viv. Disappointed by the drive back as we were hoping to see some more storks & their nests, so we could take a photo, but it wasn’t too be. Our guide had been talking about the pleasures of Ukrainian food, so we asked her to recommend an authentic Ukrainian restaurant.

When we arrived back in L’viv, the driver stopped at a nearby restaurant & Natalia came in with us & helped us order before departing. We had an excellent traditional meal of rolled chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms & the whole meal only cost about $1 for both of us.

After our meal we walked back to the local craft market & bought some souvenirs, before spending an hour on the Internet (successfully this time) & then returning to our hotel for a few beers. We collected our luggage & asked the hotel to call us a taxi to take us to the bus station at 8:30pm.

We didn’t have long to wait for our bus to Krakow – it departed dead on 10pm – not a luxury coach but nowhere near as bad as a Chinese bus. Arrived at the Ukraine/Poland border at 11:30pm & this is where our nightmare began – we waited & waited & waited.

Additional photos below
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21st September 2018
Sophia Cathedral

We were in Kiev and never made it out of the airport. This is lovely. Next time we will have to stay longer!

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