The fun began with our night train from Krakow to Lviv. Our compartment was so ridiculously small and had three beds stacked on top of each other.
There was barely enough room for our luggage, and all of the bedding looked as though it was from the 1920's. Luckily, we had a really nice roommate named Andre from Portugal, who studied at Cornell and now works for the NIH. Definitely made for some good science conversation. The excitement continued when we reached the border between Poland and Ukraine. The train conductor woke us up to check for our passports, then the Polish border control stamped passports, then the Ukrainian immigrations officers confiscated our passports for a while and returned with them after about 20 minutes (stressful). The whole process took about 2 hours, which is obviously a pretty solid portion of our 6 hour train ride/night of sleep. Needless to say, we slept for about 3 hours in total. The worst part is that we had to take the same train back from Lviv to Krakow, but more on that later.
We arrived in Ukraine at 6 AM, got off the bus in a big hurry, and walked into the bus station. It was seriously like being back in Latin America, but without the language advantage. The Lviv train station in the morning was SO seedy-- there were creepy people everywhere trying to sell us stuff and herd us into their taxis. People were yelling everywhere in Ukrainian, and none of the signs were in English. This was particularly troubling because Ukrainian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet (like Russian), so it was pretty much impossible for us to figure out what to do or where to go.
I had to use the bathroom after the train, because the train bathroom was totally appalling. Turns out that the bathroom in the train station was even more horrendous, and it cost money to enter and to use toilet paper! Plus, the toilet was just a hole in the ground with little ridges next to it where you were supposed to put your feet. Blah. After the bathroom ordeal, we decided to go find the hostel and buy our train tickets to Poland at a later time (bad idea).
We wandered around for about 30 minutes trying to find the tram station and get on the tram. Then we got off about 5 stops too early because we had no idea what we were doing, and had to wander around lost for about 2 hours before we found the hostel. Disastrous-- my back will probably never recover.
But when we got to the hostel, there was free breakfast waiting for us! Fancy breakfast too-- three eggs and toast with black and red caviar. Caviar is a big deal here. I had never even seen caviar before this trip-- it just doesn't make its way into US cuisine. We met a nice man from California who gave us the low down on Ukraine, which was very helpful. He had been travel ling for over a year-- I already feel like I've been Europe forever and it has been less than 3 weeks.
Anyway, he warned us that it might be difficult and time consuming for us to get train tickets, so we decided to cruise then head to the ticket station (different from the train station) to get our tickets back to Poland.
We found out that the ticket station was closed from 2 PM to 3 PM, so we went to Old Town to get our bearings and kill some time. Old Town is very different here than in the Baltics or Poland. The buildings are much older, but no less beautiful.
The weather was pretty Grey on Friday (4-15), but the colors were still wonderful. I wish our big cities in the US were this beautiful. We found the train ticket station, and then our troubles really began.
We stood in line for almost an hour, just to be told by the lady (in half English, half Ukrainian) that we needed to go to the main bus station to get our tickets. So we decided to try and walk to the train station (stupid), and walked forever before realizing that we were on the wrong road. So we took a tram back, wandered around trying to find the right tram to the train station, failed, then walked down the right road for another 2 miles.
After finally finding the station, we stood in line for another eternity to find someone who spoke English, only to find out that our train was sold out of 2nd class berths. All they had available was first class (twice the price) and trains for the next day (not express, so 10 hours instead of 6). The lady at the window sent us to the bus station to ask about a bus, but the ladies at the bus station sent us right back to the train station! We couldn't really tell if there wasn't actually a bus from Lviv to Poland or if they just didn't understand what we were asking. Both seem equally possible.
We went back to the same lady at the train station, who got really frustrated with us and sent us upstairs to a different ticket booth where people spoke English. So we had to start the whole process from scratch, but at least this lady was nicer. We decided to just take the 1st class compartment in the night train, especially since the first train ride was so brutal. Dad tried to give her a credit card, but it turned out that they only took cash because most of the transactions are under the table to avoid taxes!
Thankfully, there was an ATM downstairs in the train station, so we went downstairs, pulled out a TON of Ukrainian hyrvnias, and headed back upstairs to pay. I took a picture of the Ukrainian money because there was SO much of it-- the exchange rate is 8 hryvnia to 1 US dollar. Needless to say, we are exhausted just from buying the ticket.
So after dropping a bunch of money on train tickets, we wanted a bargain dinner. We went to a little place next to Lviv university and feasted on Ukrainian favs for 8 dollars US. Excellent deal! Then back to the hostel to get some sleep for the first time in 3 days. Our hotel was definitely a party joint where other travelers were trying to meet each other and hang out, so I think Dad was pretty unhappy about the situation.
We have definitely not been meeting other travelers-- Dad does not seem to be even slightly interested in being social. Oh well, I'm sure we will meet tons of people once Jenna and Adrienne/Jeremy arrive. And at least we were on the 7th floor, so it was pretty quiet. We are getting pretty good at lugging the backpacks up multiple flights of stairs, but it is still pretty painful.
We woke up at 11:30, which means we missed breakfast by about an hour, which was okay because we illegally stole breakfast the day before. We went to a little cafe for lunch and got a giant feast for about $4 US per person! Traditional Ukrainian food is pretty similar to Russian food-- lots of stuffed pancakes and dumplings, but all of the Ukrainian food is drowning in butter sauce. Excellent! Good thing we are walking literally all day, every day, or this butter might catch up to us.
After lunch, we decided to try and climb up to the "high castle." We climbed up a huge hill to find an old restaurant that we thought was the castle for a while.
We were so confused as to how the castle could be so new/boring, but then we walked around the side of the building and found another huge hill to climb! I'm not sure we ever actually found the castle, but we did climb up a thing that looked a bit like a castle turret that had been buried for a long time.
Regardless, the views were pretty nice. It was obvious that Ukraine hasn't quite fully capitalized on their tourist attractions yet-- most of them were partially obscured by trees and all of them were tainted with power lines. So expect plenty of trees in front of the focus of my pictures, haha. Also hilarious was the number of women at the top of the hill that were wearing stiletto heels!
It was really freaking hard for us to climb the hill, and we were wearing practical shoes and have the advantage of altitude endurance! I would have to be carried up the hill in stilettos. We got really nice pictures from the top, and it gave us a really nice perspective of Lviv.
Lviv is about 5 times bigger than I expected it to be. The guidebook makes it sound really small and quaint, and the map in the book is totally minuscule, but it is gigantic!
After the hill, we walked to St. George's Cathedral, which was perched on top of another hill. We trekked up and walked around the grounds for a while, then peeked in for a few minutes to watch the service. It was so beautiful-- there was an entire choir of church boys singing and lots of lit candles and incense.
Obviously I couldn't take a picture of it, but it was beautiful. We also got a nice unobstructed view from this hill, and the lighting was much better so that was definitely worth it. On top of clouds, Lviv seems to have a fair amount of air pollution, so the sky was difficult to photograph.
We had dinner at a very popular sushi restaurant near our hotel. Sushi in Ukraine is so cheap! We got a giant plate of various types of sushi-- 38 pieces total-- for about $20 US! And it was the best sushi I've ever had. The restaurant itself was really bizarre. They played the entire Owl City CD almost 3 times while we were there.
The song "Fireflies" played twice, and I had some pretty good flashbacks of Jenna dancing around and singing that in our kitchen. Jenna-- it would be so funny/mortifying to do something like that here. If you behave even slightly out of the ordinary, everyone around you glares like you have some horrible disease and you are an embarrassment to society. Manners and propriety seem to be very important here (and in Russia), and you seem to be ostracized more extremely if you step out of line than back in the US. Probably has a lot to do with this region's communist history.Someone we met in the hostel told us that he was using the arm rest at a train station while sitting next to some lady, and her husband came up and hit his arm away because he was using more than his share! Pretty extreme, but at least people know to behave.
We headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags and go back to the train station for the 3rd painful time. At least we knew how to get there, after many trials and tribulations. We were able to sneak into the lounge (which they also charge admission for, just like the bathroom), so our wait for the train was pretty comfortable.
Then our train arrived 30 minutes early, so we were able to get comfortable in our first class compartment. First class is so much nicer than second class. We were totally astonished.
Our compartment had only 2 beds instead of 3, a private bathroom, a TV, heating and AC, and little toiletries kits! What a huge improvement from our last miserable experience on this train. However, getting out of Ukraine was even harder than getting in. First, Ukrainian immigration checked our passports. Then, Ukrainian customs officers checked our passports again and searched around the compartment for contraband items.Next, Polish immigrations checked our passports. Last, Polish customs searched around our compartment. So we had four interruptions, making sleep basically impossible. At least we were in a nice compartment! So now we are in Krakow again, but more on that later. до побачення!
Being in Ukraine feels pretty similar to being in Central America. Nothing about travel ling in Ukraine ended up being easy; everything was logistically difficult. Even the city itself has like 6 different names, which made booking travel extremely tiring. And I thought the last country transfer was exciting... HAHA! Getting from Krakow to Lviv was absolutely comical.