No sleep till Poland

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.

So nice, I ate there twice

Dec. 22 – Kyiv, Ukraine

“Experience Kyiv”, the city map proclaimed. Inside, plenty of colour ads promoting a Ukrainian natural resource, all trying to one-up each other:

“24 h massage”
“Erotyc [sic] massage. All girls talk in English.”
“24 h massage. Only the best Ukrainian lady. We speak English.”
“Professional & erotik [sic] massage. All girls are experts with certificates.”

A certification process?! I’m sure that has been made into a film.

But I had a more pressing, non-euphemistic appetite. For breakfast, it would have been quick and easy for me to step into the McDonald’s or Subway – they were both in my line of sight from the hotel entrance. But I was not that desperate yet, so I began to walk around the Maidan Nezalezhosti. On this immense square, six roads and three metro stations converge. There is a gilded column, a profusion of Christmas lights, a subterranean shopping mall from which a giant soccer ball protrudes. Ukraine and Poland will co-host the 2012 Euro Football Championship.

I kept going and got to a grocery store and grabbed some bread, salami and raisins. I walked the aisles, while through the audio system Michael Bolton’s agonized voice gave me incentive to leave. My groceries were for the journey ahead, so I returned to the broad boulevard looking for a place to eat. At random, I turned onto a laneway.

Food is important to the traveler. No sustenance, no legs. No legs, no walk. No walk, no see. But it’s not just the calories. If it is tasty and you don’t feel ripped off, it can be memorable. I happened upon a large eatery called “Ukrainski Stravi”. Inside, traditional Ukrainian décor and staff dressed in costume. I liked that it didn’t feel like a tourist gimmick. The other patrons around me were locals – families, workers on break, students. You take a plastic tray, go to the buffet and (in my case) point at an item and get if from the server. Beet salad, borscht, fresh garlic bread, pierogies with sour cream. There were also eggs, sausages, shashliki and vegetables in a variety of combinations. And when I returned in the evening; stew, bread, more pierogies and another pastry. Turned out the evening dumplings were sweet. It was awesome, and astonishingly cheap ($7) meal. The beer ($1.25) was produced on-site.

Kyiv is worth a longer stay, but I keep rolling today before noon. If things work out, I will report from a new country tomorrow.