I spent much of the first few months of this year fascinated by the unfolding events in Ukraine and so it was with great excitement that I made my way across the border into that strange and mysterious land a couple of weeks ago.
It is one thing to see it mentioned on CNN, one thing to read a few articles, one thing to do some basic poking around on Wikipedia. But it is quite another thing to actually see it for yourself.
Indeed, it was quite another thing altogether.
The border, as if cooperating on a celestial level, was marked by a dense fog. I sat in the darkened silence of a large coach bus (Ro: autocar), almost all of my companions Poles, comfortable with the similar language spoken by their large neighbor to the east. Sprinkled throughout the bus were a few other random foreigners, a Turk, a strange and compact man from the Republic of Georgia, a backpacker fresh off the plane from California, and me.
A steely eyed young soldier entered the bus first once we finished clearing the procedure of a routine check by the bored Polish border guards as we left Polish territory. Across the line, everything changed immediately.
The young Ukrainian soldier who got on our bus was all business, his automatic rifle strapped across his chest, the glint of the barrel menacing as he stalked up and down the aisle, looking each passenger in the face. What he was searching for, nobody knows, but it was clear that Ukraine was not on its way to becoming a second Disney World.
After a few boring hours, with suitcases randomly hauled out and searched, and several long hard stares at the guy from Turkey, we were finally given the all clear to roll on through into Ukrainian territory. The sun was rising and the fog hugged the empty fields, making my first entry into Ukraine ethereal.
A kilometer or so later we made a pit stop at a gas/petrol station. Instead of the familiar brands I had become used to, this one was called WOG, which in English is an archaic racist term for a person of color. There was no racism here, however, just business, and all of it printed in the hard unforgiving fonts of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Polish is a colorful and sometimes unpronounceable language but for the western visitor at least it is written in an alphabet one can read. Cyrillic is another matter entirely, curlicued “backward N” letters jostling with H’s and P’s.
It was a fun curiosity to study Russian over the years, pulling up the occasional website or blog post, but once we crossed the line into Ukraine there was no more joking around. Even an international word like “Coffee” (КОФЕ) takes a moment to parse out before you can read it as KOFE (in the Latin alphabet).
Likewise, it’s one thing to know the word toalet (WC/toilet) and another thing entirely to get your eyes to convert туалет into something you can actually comprehend.
As the bus pulled onto the road, it was immediately evident that we were in a different country. The road was narrow and in bad condition.
As the sun rose over the fields, I saw many men “herding” small flocks of geese down the side of the road. The houses looked softened, weathered, humble and human. For the first time since my odyssey began, I started to relax, recognizing a familiar cousin of the Romanian countryside I have grown to love.
In Poland there were famous brands and products, familiar to people from America to Italy to Romania and beyond. Here though, in Ukraine, nothing was familiar. Billboards (Ro: panouri) flashed by, the blocky Cyrillic font advertising brands of dairy products I had never heard of. There was also a great deal of fuss being made about evacuators, which took me a long time to parse out meant “tow trucks”, as in the machines that can pick up and removed parked cars. Apparently it’s good business in Ukraine.
My last scrap of normality was the bus ticket in my hand, printed nicely by a computer in both Polish and English, listing my arrival time in Lviv at 6:00 am. It was over 40 minutes later when we pulled into the “station” and everyone got out, my clue that we had arrived. I scurried around to the other side of the bus, watching as the driver hurled bag after bag onto the concrete. Luckily, my backpack was ready for such abuse and so my belongings escaped unscathed.
I once wrote an extensive explanation of inter-city bus travel in Romania (expanded upon and updated in my book) and how chaotic and crazy it is, and definitely not recommended for anyone who doesn’t speak Romanian. Let me say that everything goes double for the bus “system” in Ukraine.
Do you remember how you once learned a little Russian? Time to recall it in a hurry, son, because you are now past the line. There is no German, English, Spanish, Romanian or anything else from the “west” being spoken here. It’s western Ukraine, and they’ll take Polish over Russian, but in a pinch they can also get by in Czech/Slovak and Slovenian. Guess what? You don’t speak any of those languages.
In Russian so rusty it was flaking off in large, clumsy chunks, I attempted to figure out how to get to the train station. All the familiar terms you know for a train, from “tren” and “treno” to “gare”, to German terms like “zug” and “bahnhof”, are useless here. The word for a large transportation station is (phonetically) vauxhall and the word for train is po-ezd.
After an embarrassing conversation where I could barely find enough words to string together a sentence, I managed somehow to convey to the taxi driver that goddamn, Lviv is a huge m-f–king city. He nodded enthusiastically and began telling me how there were over a million people living there. At least a mill, and it left me wide-eyed with wonderment at just how little I knew about a city so enormous and clearly so grand and culturally rich. The boulevards were wide and long and my eyes wondered at all of the things that I saw.
It would’ve been nice to stay there and explore Lviv but I had to get to Cernauti. The absolutely gargantuan main train station (Vokzal) of Lviv was clearly built by the Soviets because it was damned imposing. It was also a carbon copy of the Vokzal in Volgograd that I saw in December 2013 getting blown up by a terrorist bomb.
Unlike in Russia, in Lviv there are no security measures to enter the main hall of the train station but there are a lot armed soldiers/police milling around. In all my time in Ukraine I never saw any police or soldiers really do anything, but there were a hell of a lot of them, especially compared to all of the other countries I’ve been to recently.
The main hall of the Lviv vokzal is complete chaos. There are large electronic signs flashing information about the trains and loud, booming announcements over the speakers about trains arriving and coming. Surprisingly, the announcements were being made in both Ukrainian and perfect (digitized) English. Likewise, “airport style” signs were everywhere in the train station pointing to such common necessities as the toilets and the waiting rooms, etc.
Signs and digitized announcements aside, it was Ukrainian (and Russian) only when it came to dealing with actual human beings. Random queues (lines) were forming at the various ticket windows. Just as in Romania, there is no rhyme or reason to how the lines form. You just pick one and it’ll probably be fine for the ticket you want.
After about 20 minutes of slowly pushing my bags closer to the ticket window, something happened abruptly and the teller got up and closed her window. The Ukrainians in front of me all began to yell and protest but it was to no avail. We all split and started scrambling to get in the back of a new line.
When it was finally my turn, I quickly found that English was useless. In my halting Russian I managed to tell her that I wanted the 10:45 am train to Cernauti (Chernavitsi). She replied in rapid Ukrainian from behind the thick window that there was no more space on the train but she could sell me a ticket on the 5:45 pm train to Chernavitsi. I nodded my assent and gave her 50 hryvna.
But cash isn’t enough to buy a train ticket in Ukraine. You have to tell the teller your name. Regular Ukrainians just pass their buletin (ID) through the window so the teller can type their name into the computer. I only had my passport but it was buried in my bag. The teller didn’t want to wait and so she told me to just tell her my name. I shouted it out as best as I could.
My favorite souvenir so far from my wanderings is that train ticket, valuable to me because I love how the lady tried to phonetically type out my name in Cyrillic after hearing me shout it through the thick glass.
I then went over to the information window, hoping perhaps to find someone who spoke English (or a western language) and find out if there was some kind of way to get on the morning train. I knew the evening train got to Cernauti super late and I didn’t want to be wandering around a new town at that hour.
The lady at the information booth spoke only Ukrainian and Russian. She couldn’t understand me and so I held up my ticket to the window so she could see what I was talking about. She excused herself and then left the booth, coming back a moment later with a magnifying glass. She held it up to her side of the window and squinted. She then nodded and sat down, typing in her computer. Sadly, she confirmed to me that there were no more seats available on the morning train.
What to do?
I exited the vokzal and surfed my way across the broken concrete and other obstacles and made my way over to the other vokzal, this one for the aftobus. I found a short yellow bus that was just about to take off for Cernauti and so I queried the driver in my pitiful Russian. The cost was 110 hryvna but it would get me there some time after 4:00 pm instead of 11:30 pm, when the night train would arrive. And so I instantly agreed and then hopped aboard my first Soviet-era bus.
The outside had one lone phrase in (pseudo) English, the words “AIR CONDITIONING” written in big letters, but the rest of the bus was a blizzard of Cyrillic, including the obligatory religious paraphernalia, icons, a cross and even a Lord’s Prayer, all tattered but still faithfully proclaiming in Ukrainian that our only source of protection and safety on the journey would be heavenly.
The rest of the available decorating space was taken up with patriotic Ukrainian slogans and a big placard with Svoboda’s official sign on it (Svoboda = hard right nationalist political party). The driver also had no fewer than three Ukrainian flags suction cupped onto the inside of the windshield.
I had used Russian to buy my ticket but the driver showed me no hostility whatsoever. In fact, on many of the stops he would tell me dyesit minut, meaning 10 minutes. But the conversation amongst all the passengers was in Ukrainian and there were some frowns all around when an elderly Russian-speaking lady got on the bus when we were driving through a quite rural location.
For my money I got neither a ticket nor a receipt of any kind. None of the passengers ever did either. By pure luck I had gotten on at the very first stop of the bus’s route and so I had a seat. Unfortunately, one of my bags took up all of the available overhead shelf space and so I had to sit with my enormous backpack on my knees.
The heat was outrageous and we lurched and wheezed our way out of the enormous metropolis that is Lviv. At random corners and intersections, the driver would stop and people would get on the bus, throwing a set amount of cash on the gigantic square Soviet gearbox. As the driver chugged his way out of town, he would simultaneously make change and pass the bills back to the passengers.
Just as in Romania (and nowhere else that I’ve found in Europe), don’t think that because you paid for a ticket that you get a seat. Despite my backpack digging into my knees, I was grateful at least I wasn’t swaying in the aisle.
We descended into the expansive countryside, tracts of corn and sunflowers on the side of us, the roads in horrific condition, the bus jostling its way to random stops and the corners of fields, where again people would clamber on and fork over various rainbow colored hryvna notes to the driver. His right hand had different notes between his fingers and he would deftly pass back the correct change as he swerved around large holes in the road.
The passengers were sometimes talking amongst themselves but I honestly couldn’t understand a word. I had plenty of time to watch them mop their brows, the heat almost intolerable. Perhaps one day in a long-lost era there had actually been a functioning air conditioner in that bus but it surely wasn’t working the day I was on it. The Soviet engineer had neglected to provide windows that could open and so we were effectively locked inside an airless box while the hot summer sun beat down upon us. Spasiba, you bastard.
I let the sweat roll down my face and soak my T-shirt, figuring it was useless to try to fight it.
A soldier in his full uniform had been on the bus since the beginning. He rode with me the entire way to Cernauti and I kept wondering whether he was being “mobilized” or whether he was paying for the ticket out of his own money for some personal reason, the uniform notwithstanding.
The soldier’s uniform was a fairly modern form of camouflage, the one that looks kind of “pixellated”. His boots looked okay but it was clear that his pants were not “bloused” properly into the boots. He had a bilingual patch on his uniform shirt that identified him as a border guard. The patch on his shoulder, that of a Ukrainian flag, was tattered and quite old.
The soldier himself, though, was a young man in top condition, his toned and tanned arms shooting handsomely through the sleeves of his shirt. He looked like a minor Superman, young, hale, hearty and fit for a proper fight. I saw many such young men in Ukraine (although not all of them in military uniforms) and I instantly realized why there was so much “fuel” for all the fighting going on in the distant east of the country. In Ukraine there is apparently a surplus of healthy young men with shaved heads and piercing blue or green eyes.
There were a few babushkas who rode the bus with me, a few weathered old peasants with their overstuffed plastic bags, a few bored teenagers from the village hopping the bus to get to the nearest city. At one point, inexplicably, a young MVD (national militia/police) officer in uniform got on the bus. We picked him up in a fairly rural location and took him for about 10 minutes, where he got off the bus, again in a fairly rural location. Was he on duty? Where was he going? I’ll never know.
Between the isolation and the heat, the uncomfortableness of the seat and the heavy weight of my backpack, I didn’t have much to do except marvel at some of the passengers who got on the bus. I saw several women dressed elegantly in going-to-town dresses, make-up barely withstanding the heat. Sometimes they would get on the bus from the side of a field and yet they were dressed to the nines for an evening on the town.
The soldier found himself sitting for a while next to a young woman with almond-shaped eyes and so he struck up a conversation, eventually swapping phone numbers with her. A very stout middle-aged woman informed me of something lengthy in Ukrainian. I just nodded politely, fascinated by her mouthful of bright silver and gold dental work. All along the route, every bared arm I saw bore the tell-tale mark of a childhood vaccination shot.
A young woman came to sit next to me, delicately wedging her purse in front of the seat. She could barely fold her long legs to fit but somehow she managed, a heavily bejeweled smartphone lying on her lap. She tapped on the screen with her manicured nails and although I couldn’t read one word, it was evident that she was having a lengthy Whatsapp conversation with a guy.
I assume that the man in the tiny avatar picture on her phone was the one who had given her the ring because she constantly turned and twisted her hand to admire it. Judging by the people I saw, in Ukraine it was far more common for couples to wear simple bands, but this young lady had a ring with several inlaid stones, each one catching the bright summer light as she held up her hand.
After a while, the Whatsapp conversation ran out of steam and the young lady snapped her phone closed and slid it into her purse. She then withdrew a fairly large book and opened it on her lap. With the bus jostling and rumbling over the bad roads, I don’t know how she did it, but soon she was lost in the magical world of her book.
I glanced over, not expecting to recognize or understand what she was reading. But to my surprise, I easily parsed out the name of the book – Garri Potter. Remembering that the Cyrillic Г sign is “G” in Russian but “H” in Ukrainian, it only took me an additional second to realize that the woman next to me was reading a Harry Potter book by J.K. Rowling.
My head shot back, my spine tightening as I realized just how far that story had traveled. A young Scottish mother, alone in a cafe with her infant child, invented a magical world of children at a boarding school. And that story got written down, published, read, made famous, profitable, translated, contracts signed and somewhere a Ukrainian firm had printed it out, purchased or obtained by a young woman who was now reading it and enjoying it on a rattling bus.
The imagination needs no residency papers, visas or entry permits. It flies around the world and kindles the spirit of all of the people it touches. When you sit down to create something new, you never know whom it will will reach and connect with, and how far your ideas will travel.
Writing is an amazing, furious, intense form of art and it did my heart good to see that humble story reach out and touch that young woman from Ukraine, giving her pleasure on an insufferable bus ride.
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