After Warsaw, my next stop was Lviv, Ukraine.
I was warned not to drive into Ukraine, by someone who went to high school with me and I had remembered that she had gone to Ukraine a few years prior – she said the border, especially between that of Poland and Ukraine, could take a very long time, and that between Belarus and Ukraine could potentially be fairly dangerous and sketchy.
The bus I was on wasn’t anything special – musty, old, dirty, and there were very few of us who were on the bus, and no one who spoke any English.
When we got close to the border between Poland and Ukraine was when I first realized just how long it’d take. The line was backed up for miles – so I frantically searched how long it could take to get through, and stumbled upon a trove of articles all stating the same thing – in short, a long time. But some mentioned taking days – literal days – so truckers and drivers, often bring beds or blankets, especially at this checkpoint – the busiest between Poland and Ukraine, but also one of the smallest, with only a handful of people checking the cars for drugs, weapons, etc. (since Ukraine is a non-EU country and Poland is in the EU).
After waiting what seemed like an eternity – around two hours, to be exact, a police car came up to the side of our bus and motioned for us to follow it. Now me, not speaking any Ukrainian, and the other few people, not speaking any English, had no way of communicating, so I had no clue what was going on.
Thankfully though, the police car took us right up to the front of the line, where we were checked. We had to go through a few different border control areas/drugs/weapons checks, each of which we had to get off the bus for, but there were scattered “rest stops” because the wait at the border ended up being a few extra hours as it is. Every single time, I was confused as to whether or not we were actually REQUIRED to get off, as sometimes it would just be for the Ukrainians to have a smoke break.
Only one person that I met spoke ANY English, and it was limited at that, but it was one of the soldiers who checked my passport. She was very friendly, albeit incredibly intimidating – Ukrainian Border Police are terrifying – but she was very curious as to why a young American would be traveling alone to Ukraine. I mentioned that I’d wanted to go for awhile and had finished studying in Austria, which she thought was cool, and that was it!
So the bus continued driving, and immediately upon entering Ukraine you could definitely tell it was different. There was Ukrainian agricultural propaganda – huge billboards or statues, with workers and names and scythes, etc. (which I thought was SO COOL!), and the roads and buildings were much more dilapidated. But it was incredible!
When we finally got into Lviv, our ride became much more rough. There were essentially no traffic lights (or laws, it seemed) – our bus ended up going into oncoming traffic for a short while, and hopped on the curb for a bit as well, and cars wouldn’t stop for pedestrians, nor for other cars. It felt a lot like what my brother had described of China, except instead of taxis it was whole buses.
Our bus ended up dropping us off at the wrong station – not an error in translation on my part, but the driver’s fault (or laziness), which was confirmed when I finally got to my hostel. But before that, I had to walk almost 6 miles with a heavy backpack through a city I didn’t know in the heat, because the bus had dropped me off at the train station instead of the central bus station.
I called my dad during my time walking to vent my frustration, and after hanging up got more of a chance to see the city – it felt a lot like Vienna, oddly enough, but run-down and weary. It was a really interesting feeling that I got as I walked down the streets; it felt busy but in a very… foreign way. Whereas Vienna, or Paris – they’re busy, they felt “easy,” whereas Lviv was fast-paced, chaotic, but still with much of the same building style. It was really fascinating, and I’d highly recommend visiting Ukraine at some point to anyone who is reading this.
I ended up making it to my hostel, which was on a main shopping street in the Old Town, and checked in. The workers weren’t the friendliest, but it was alright – I got into my room, showered/washed up, and started to check out the town. I looked up some places to go in the city – and interesting place I found was this underground bar thing, where you had to knock on the door and say “Glory to the Heroes – Glory to Ukraine!” to enter (in Ukrainian), but I decided against it, but it was just interesting to read about it. On that note, Lviv apparently is vehemently anti-Russian (I learned this in Brussels, which I’ll touch in on the post for that), and there’s a huge movement in western Ukraine for more “Ukrainization” – i.e. promoting Ukrainian language over Russian, Ukrainian music and festivals, etc. I wandered around for a little while but heavy rain hit and I was driven back to the hostel, where I got dinner: chicken in cider, roasted in honey, lemon, and served with apples, rosemary, and mashed potatoes. It was incredible, and super cheap! I also got a beer – which turned out to be 1 Liter (A LITER!!) for just a few Euros. The hostel, too, was incredibly cheap – for someone who was living on a budget, Ukraine was PERFECT.
I settled down for the night, fell asleep, and in the morning, woke up bright and early to see more of the city. I started out with breakfast – cheese curd pancakes, with mango sauce and sour yoghurt, with lemon and blueberries. Maybe I just got lucky, or maybe it’s the culinary scene in Lviv, but it was INCREDIBLE. Delicious, healthy, and really, really cheap!
After breakfast, I went through Old Town and saw a huge band playing outside; it was traditional, very Slavic-sounding music, and everyone was in traditional dress. I can’t include the video because I don’t have enough space in WordPress to do so, but if I upgrade my plan, I’ll try to remember!
I stopped by most of the main sites – the central square (Rynok Square), the Gunpowder Tower, the National Opera, the Palace, and so-on. It was such a cool city – it felt so… not touristy? – and I LOVED this aspect of it.
I found Ukraine – and Lviv – particularly interesting because of the fact that it is currently a warzone. There weren’t many moments that it really struck me, but the constant presence of soldiers & armored vehicles (which you’ll see later) was definitely a reminder.
There was also tons of anti-Russian propaganda, as evidenced in the photo above with the “Pray for Ukraine” sign in the main square – I wish I could read Ukrainian to read the long mural on the wall, but I have no clue what it says.
After wandering for awhile, I stumbled upon a Ukrainian market. It was raining, so it was a nice way to shelter myself from the rain. It was really fun to walk through the crowded alleyways and see the old babushkas selling produce, or flowers, or just smiling and waving on the street.
As I continued walking, I passed the palace, which had a large poster listing out political prisoners being held by Russia.
Unfortunately, the rain came back incredibly hard, and I started on my way back to grab my stuff to head out to the bus station and to Warsaw – by this time it was around 3:00 or 4:00, which meant I’d been wandering for around 7 hours. On the way back to the hostel, though, I passed this huge plaza, where there was what looked to me to be like a Christmas market. Tons of people in Old Town (and really, throughout the city) were dressed in traditional clothing, so I was a little confused. I strolled through the market, then found a group of young Ukrainians – about my age, I guessed – who were hanging out near a stage, so I asked them if they spoke English (they did), and what was going on. They explained that it was their “traditional outfit” day, or Vyshyvanka Day (the third Thursday of May), where they wore the national costume of Ukraine and Belarus.
I hung out at the plaza for a little while and listened to the music – it was an interesting blend of Ukrainian traditional folk music and pop, which was pretty… unique, to say the least, but fun nonetheless.
I headed back to the hostel, grabbed my stuff, tried downloading an app to get a taxi for like $2, but ended up not being able to download it, so I had to walk most of the way in pouring rain to get to the bus station on time. The hostel workers said a taxi shouldn’t be more than $3, but I ended up getting scammed out of $13 because I needed to get to the bus station in time so I took a taxi regardless.
The bus stop itself felt SO Ukrainian, if that makes any sense. It was like the old Soviet half-circle bus stations (modernized, of course), but the amount of people sitting outside, squatting, smoking, was just ridiculous.
I frantically searched the building for someone who could speak English and help me buy my ticket, and I had to go through 3 non-English speakers to find one. She was really excited to help me, because, as she mentioned, she hadn’t had an American stop by her company in quite a while. So I got on the bus, and the bus driver was SUPER friendly, as was the ticket person. The bus driver gave out the wifi passwords and even gave us little postcard-sized pictures of him, standing in front of his bus, one hand waving, the other giving a thumbs-up. It was adorable, to be honest, and the guy very obviously loved his job, which made me really happy. I kept it in my wallet, because I thought it was HILARIOUS, but also so I could recommend his company later on if you visit Ukraine. I unfortunately lost the card, but I remembered the name of the company: Toucan (or Tucan, I think they may have misspelled it) Buses. I did a Google search of the company and nothing comes up, so I’m sure it’s probably just something in Ukraine or Poland, but the company was fantastic. Excellent customer service, free wifi, clean buses (even though it was a little cramped and stuffy), and right on time. If you’re travelling out of Ukraine, I would highly recommend this company!
Our trip back was a lot more frustrating, though.
When we were going through border control, we had to do the same amount of stops, but the line on the Ukrainian side was equally long as it was from Poland to Ukraine. We ended up getting stuck at border control, where I really had to use the restroom, but we were stuck on the bus for what felt like forever. When we were finally allowed off, the border control person wasn’t nice at ALL and was skeptical that I’d only been in Ukraine for one day. Eventually, however, I was let through, but our bus was stuck for HOURS in a shed thing that some buses and trucks had to go through, which I assumed was to check for drugs. They had checked our bus with dogs and police, but it was moved from the original spot to this shed, so I’m assuming(?) someone was smuggling something, or there was a suspicion of it, because we were stuck until almost 3 am.
Eventually, we got back on, and we were on our way to Warsaw, and I got much-needed sleep on the bus.
When I got into Warsaw, the first thing I did was head to the Uprising Museum.
This museum was really cool – it was about the rebellion against the Nazis occupying Warsaw, and how the Soviets let them down afterwards. The museum was quite incredible – probably one of my top museums ever visited – it was modern, but had TONS of artifacts and loads of information. They even had a 3D-redone film from flyover footage after the war showing the razing of Warsaw by the Germans, and it was absolutely heart-wrenching. Reading the experiences of various Poles was, despite the heartbreak, quite inspiring. Normal people, thrown into an abnormal situation of horrendous proportions, trying to change the tide of history in their favor and risking their lives in the process. I would HIGHLY recommend the Uprising Museum – it’s really well-done, and well worth the visit.
After the museum, I headed to the Old Town. I ended up meeting a Polish local, named Weronika (pronounced Veronica), who showed me around town for a little, to her favorite spot to hang out. We talked for a long time and learned all about each others’ lives, and she bought me a drink and a HUGE Milka bar (I’ll include photos for reference), and ended up buying me a magnet bottle opener from Warsaw too! It was an incredibly friendly gesture, and it definitely makes me want to go back to Warsaw – thanks again Weronika!
Warsaw’s Old Town is SO cool. Definitely underrated – I never would have visited had my dad not told me to visit – and so, so, so gorgeous. The multicolored buildings, the city walls, the old architecture – everything was just so quaint and fun.
Weronika took me to her part of town; she paid for the train ticket and showed me her old school and introduced me to her friend, Robert. Whereas Weronika is from Poland, Robert is from Romania, and he was on a study abroad program with Erasmus (the European study abroad program). Funny enough, Robert was born on the same day I was, the same year, and almost the same time exactly – he’s a little over 45 minutes older than me (which, granted, isn’t exactly the same, because of time difference). I hung out with Robert and Weronika for a long time – most of the afternoon – and we exchanged stories and listened to music and just chilled. Robert lives in a military school, so we heard gunshots ALL through the time I was there (turns out, the firing range is in the forest right next to his dorm room). I didn’t get to take a picture with Robert, because he didn’t want one, but it was a really enjoyable afternoon spent with the two of them, and I was told that if I come back to Warsaw, I have a free place to stay with either of them! (And I offered the same for Portland/Sacramento!). Unfortunately, since we were just hanging in a dorm room for the afternoon, I didn’t take any pictures, but it was so worth it in the end – the friends I made and the time I had in Warsaw definitely make me excited to someday go back.
Weronika and Robert were going to a concert that evening, so I headed out to the train station and had to stay there for a few hours while I waited to hop on the train to Germany: Dresden and Heidelberg!
З любов’ю зі Львова/Z miłością z Warszawy/Mit Liebe aus Lviv und Warschau,
SONG RECOMMENDATION: “Full Catastrophe” by Summer Salt. A sign of what’s to come in Brussels!