Dec. 23 – Krakow, Poland
The train pulled into Krakow at 6:30 this morning. I clattered down foggy, cobblestoned streets into the old town, wondering at its elegance and wintry beauty. Such a contrast to the size and pace of the other cities I’ve visited.
At the Kiev station, a traveler told me it would be cheaper and faster to take buses across the Ukraine-Poland border, rather than the train. I took her advice, which still meant a ten-hour rail journey to L’vov. Western Ukraine was picturesquely ugly. Tall, skinny, trees. Plank-fenced, snow sprinkled villages of grey-brick houses. I imagined it had not changed in 40 years, though it probably had. My compartment mate this time, Konstantin, was a nuclear safety engineer from Sevastopol in the Crimea. My conversation-without-language-skills are improving, and I was able to understand that Ukraine’s base energy needs are all covered by nuclear power.
I knew nothing about L’vov or the bus-to-border system, and half expected to spend a frustrating time looking for the connection, perhaps at the other end of town. In the event, the so-called “marshrutka” was right in front of the station and cost the equivalent of $4. For a bit more than an hour, the minibus bounced and shuddered through the night, passing illuminated statues of the Virgin Mary and convenience stores on the way to the border. I eventually found the pedestrian checkpoints and did an awkward luggage-dragging shuffle through the turnstile to leave Ukraine, and again to enter Poland. The Polish customs officer made me open my suitcase, and poked my clothes:
I shook my head.
I shook my head again and we both chuckled. I guess I didn’t look like a smuggler. He waved me through and called forward the next in line.
As I walked into Poland, long lines of Ukrainians headed for home in the opposite direction, pushing shopping carts crammed with goods. I looked in vain for a bus among the money-changing shops and shashlik stands. A dark figure approached, asked if I wanted a lift – an “unofficial” taxi. I accepted, with the optimism/fatalism of one getting into a stranger’s car at midnight headed somewhere he doesn’t know.
Fifteen minutes later I was at the small railway station of Przemysl, with a ticket to Krakow. I had a two-hour wait in -2C temperatures. There was a semi-heated waiting room, but it contained three slumped, muffled, snorers. I preferred to pace on the platform, while occasionally drunks stumbled past, one couple arguing loudly. The train to Krakow took four hours. I slept poorly, contorted on the bench. When three others came into the compartment, I did not sleep at all.
In Krakow, I had four hours until check-in, I strolled the park that encircles the old town. It’s a popular dog walking area – I saw alert German Shepherds, a loping Weimaraner, two frantic, hapless Dachshunds colliding. A pale sun rose through the bare branches over the Wisla river, casting its rays on the old castle wall’s red bricks. More about the town, in Christmas spirit, tomorrow.