My Wandering


Back to Life (Russia and Ukraine)

August 2001


The Ukrainians however came for the passport check and - again - I was the only weirdo to have the passport stamped. This time I had to pay USD 3 health insurance. I think that the quantity of paper they gave me was worth more than that amount. Then the sun rose. A strong shining sun, so different from the grey sky in Moscow. After another cup of tea - actually the tea was nothing outstanding, but I loved those cute cups - I ate for a while. Then I waited for Kiev to show up.

It eventually did. A strange feeling overwhelmed my mind. Maybe because of the big and so confusing - at the time - station, which was under reconstruction. Maybe because of the fact that I was - once again - switching countries very fastly. All that I can say now is that I made my way to the station and quickly found the timetable board, wrote down the two night trains to Odessa and walked away. After a short walk, I found the booking office downtown and bought my ticket. Pretty expensive, I might say. But life goes on. And so I did. I then discovered a very strange and altogether impressive city. Kiev was - indeed - partly a product of the Stalinist Era. That could be easily noticed by the way some avenues looked, with massive buildings and wide sidewalks. But Kiev was also a city of lovely small and narrow streets, peacefully located in quiet neighbourhoods, with plenty of cafes and terraces. And maybe the most important thing - Kiev was a holy city, home of so many outstanding churches and monasteries...The first I visited was called St. Sophia and - before going inside - one could not ignore the music playing. At first I thought there was some musical background that the people working there thought as appropriate for tourists. But I was wrong. Under a big and old tree there was an even older man sitting on a bench and playing a bandura, singing altogether. He was fascinating, looking exactly like a Leonardo da Vinci fresco. He seemed to perfectly fit under that tree, with his white beard and long grey hair. He was slowly moving his fingers over the instrument and his voice was filling the cool morning breeze. People were coming and going, some were giving him money, some were ignoring him and some others were smiling at him. He used to stop singing only to offer a big, heartly smile to some children passing by with their parents, or to set the instrument. In that fascinating, fairy tale-like atmosphere, I went inside the main church. The Byzantine mosaics and the painted altar were nothing new to me, however the church was very interesting: probably the massive golden columns from the altar made me like it that much. I have to admit that I however found of greater appeal the much newer - but so beautiful - Michailovska Cathedral. It harmoniously blended the typical Gothic contre-forts with the Byzantine painting and interiors. Then, the great location, on a hill top, and the beautiful blue outdoor painting - giving the impression that it was a staircase to Heavens, made the image complete.

Then I walked through the Khreshchaty Park, just to find one of the two so typical communist - and so typical stupid - monuments in Kiev: the Brotherhood Arch (the other one was the Motherland Statue southwards). That was supposed to be a proof of the solid relation between Russia and Ukraine...hmmm, and ignorant me, I thought that the roads, planes and trains were links enough, there was no need to build a stainless steel arch in Kiev; at least they could have built in between Kiev and Moscow, that would have been something! In the same park I then noticed the blue - and so impossible to visit - Maryianski Palace, then I went to Lavra, the oldest and so vast monastery in the city. Before going inside, I had thought that Kiev was a pretty ignored jewel, due to the many rumours, to the hard to get visa and so on. And indeed I could not notice more than 10-15 foreigners all day long. But Lavra was full of pilgrims. Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, the pilgrims were pretty annoying, to be honest. They stack to the group leader and would stay like that for ages. Especially in the caves where the monks had been mummified, this was unpleasant, to use a nice word, there was not room enough for people to pass by them, they kept on glorifying the mummies and kissing the glass covered coffins or touching some icons on the walls, probably as a result of some local beliefs that they were wonder-making. Call me ignorant, but I think that belief lies in people's souls, and not in a piece of wood or in a brick. Evening was coming - once again too fastly - and I slowly walked towards the busy station, with a brief stop on a bench close to the University, where I got almost lost in the mass of smoke produced by the trucks passing by. Then I moved on, just to be swallowed by the big mass of people in Kiev Passajerskaya. People, pick up trucks, scaffoldings, workers, cars everywhere and blackboards with the train timetables written in chalk, the station might have looked a mess to someone, but it looked fascinating to me; it was even more alive and more vivid than if it had been completed and functional... As for me, another train, another night, who knew what the next day was to bring? Well, the next morning started with a loud - and refreshing - Tom Jones' "Sex bomb" in the wagon's radio system. God, if only Stalin had heard this, he would have twisted in his grave like a propeller. Eventually the train arrived in the station. The weather was beautiful. I walked through the city. There was nothing particularly stunning about Odessa. It had however a nice quarter with late 19th century - early 20th century facades. Later on, trying to find the railways booking office, I got lost and ended up in Odessa railways depot. It took me quite a while to get out because I could neither stop and ask the guards that were strangely looking at me because of the backpack, nor go away as fast as I could, as I did not know the way out. Eventually the labyrinth was over and, after an exchange of good willing smiles and signs with the lady in charge, I got a ticket for the - hopefully - right train, the one to Lviv.

Then, hey, I was in Odessa (so what!?) and I had to do one thing: put my feet in the sea... Not that I like the sea too much but, as I was there anyway, that was probably worthy. So I walked and walked and eventually I walked some more until reaching a beach, under a very hot August sun. The breeze was light and the water - as hot as it can be. I walked on the shore for some score minutes and then I got bored, walking away. Odessa had meanwhile changed. In the morning it hadn't been that crowded and it had looked like a relaxed country town, but now the streets were filled, the trams were packed, there were lots of people at the terraces and in the parks. I stopped for an hour or so close to Richelieu's statue and kept on looking towards the busy harbour. People coming and going, merchandise coming and going, ships heading to God knows what marvelous country that I was eager to explore... Then the time came to come back on the ground and to go to the station. As always, that is a pleasure, something not to be missed for anything in the world. I was facing a new side of the trip. Until now I had only used coupe wagons in the countries in former USSR where I had travelled. But this time I had a ticket for what they called "platzkartni". I did not know what this was, but I knew one thing: it was cheap and local. And cheap is good. Local means the best there is, so this was to be fine. Going along the platform where the - he he - train to Warsaw was, I kept on looking and counting, then looking again. And counting again. My ticket stated quite clearly that I had seat number 12 in wagon number 28, yet there were only 17 wagons on the train. I went back and forward for a couple of minutes, then stopped and started a logical - if possible - deduction process. It was obvious that neither the PKP, nor the ZSR (Polish, respectively Slovak railways) wagons were mine. Then, there were only 15 wagons left, some of which had - thank you, God - number plates on them. Some others had coupes and they were out of question as well. Eventually, when this so-called "logical process" was completed, I ended up with two wagons that had neither number and destination plates, nor other identification on them. So I picked the one that was the last in the whole train (and the worst looking) and went to its conductor. It took him a long while to open his mouth and even longer to say something, but, from his mumbling, I understood that it was the right one. It was an open wagon with benches on each side, benches that could be used for sleeping. Russians certainly knew how to use the space, as there were over 100 such beds in the wagon, compared to the only 36 beds in a coupe wagon... The whole place was soon packed with people, from old "babushki" to workers or ladies with noisy children. After a short delay, the train eventually started. There were roll-up mattresses on the benches. I had one of the places up. We rolled the mattresses and people began eating, chatting or singing; some others lay down for a nap; after all it was almost 09.00 PM. After putting my backpack on the even higher luggage shelf, I was peacefully sitting on my bench when, all of a sudden, a big fuss and quarrel started. People weren't happy about something for sure. The conductor came, he checked the tickets, then pointed at the mattress and sharply said something. Yes, money for the sheets, that was clear. I asked him "skolko?" and he yelled God knows what. I know some Russian words and some numbers, but that was in Ukrainian, and, worse, it was in yelled Ukrainian. It is basically close to Russian, but the accent and pronounciation are pretty different. I told him I do not understand and his answer was another yell, then another one. God, that made me feel at home, in Romania!

Eventually he calmed a bit and showed me 7 fingers: OK, man, 7 hrivna, it wasn't that hard, see?! In the whole wagon no window could be opened. I was lucky that I had the place up, as I was with the head next to the window, so that there was a light draught and I could breathe. This ride certainly made my trip worth as this way I could see and feel the way the locals lived and travelled. I woke up at 6 AM or something of the kind and, a few minutes later, I noticed that the train was slowing down. "Ternopol", one of the people said. A chat friend of mine had mentioned the town, so I grabbed my backpack and got off the train. Beyond the small and busy station, the streets were almost empty and the centre, despite the few Stalinist-like buildings, was pretty. Old 19th century buildings with lovely balconies filled with colourful flower pots, a nice central church and a very light traffic made my hour and a half in Ternopol the much needed rest after those days of traveling through busy cities. I then went to the station and got a ticket to Lviv. The platform was filled with people (oups, weekend coming, beep beep!) and once the train got there, they all rushed to the wagon door, bumping into each other and kicking their way to the front. Especially those "babushki", the old ladies, were really strong, despite their slim look; they were making their way by pushing their huge luggage (God, what were they carrying there? Their whole family probably...) into the others. If this was the way locals lived, then why not? I joined the "happy" crowd, put my backpack in front and struggled to get to the door; only this way I managed to get a seat in the train. Then the train started and I enjoyed rural Ukraine from the window for the next 2 hours and a half. Or, at least, I tried to enjoy it, as I had the seat next to the door leading to either the toilet and the small passing hall smokers used. And of course - so much like in Romania - nobody used his/her hand to close the door, but rather a push or a foot to slam it shut. Eventually we arrived in Lviv. The station looked renovated and fresh. They even had English plates for "platform", "exit" a.o., but the international tickets office was only marked in Ukrainian. The lady there needed about half an hour to tell me what I already knew, that the wagon to Burgas, via Bucharest, was only working three times a week, meaning the next day. It took her another half an hour to have the reservation printed. Then I went to discover Lviv. It looked as if it had remained in between the Two World Wars, with those old dusty streets, with big smoky trucks and a lot of people bumping into one another on the narrow sidewalks. The shops looked old and the attendants - bored and sad. Even the way most people dressed was old-fashioned. Everything could be sold or bought in the street, from fresh milk and apples, to electronic games and a wide range of clothes. The old tramways, the net of wires spread above most streets, as well as the so old tanks from where they sold kvas (which was much better in Kiev), these all made the city look very picturesque. A slice of history. There were harmonica and guitar players in the street and if we add to that the August sun and hot, dry air, we have the perfect image of the old part of the city. I went up on the hill that had used to host the local castle, and provided a great view over both new and old Lviv. Then I came down and started the tour. The city was amazing, it was not a perfect copy of Krakow, it was much more. From the various churches there, I liked at best the Catholic Cathedral and the Armenian Church, as they were both very old and particularly interesting, preserving the original features very well.

However maybe the best thing around was the way the old facades looked. I kept on walking from place to place until evening came and caught me in Ivana Franka Park. I went down to the big Svobody Boulevard and stayed there for a while, then bought a plastic bottle of beer (well, what about that, Romania was not the only country where they had beer bottled in plastic...) and then kept on walking in the old streets. At a certain moment I stopped close to a terrace where there was a lot of music and stayed there until, at about midnight, two policemen came and asked for my ID. I thought it was to be the 1000 time when I had to explain to a policeman that Romanians also travel for travel's sake, not only for some peculiar reasons. Yet there was no need for that, they looked into my passport, checked my train ticket, briefly looked into my backpack for drugs and walked away. The terrace was getting empty and I thought of going to the centre again, on the way to the station waiting room, where I wanted to spend the rest of the night. There were still people wandering. I sat on a bench and, all of a sudden, a guy approached me saying - as always - something I did not understand. The only thing I realized was that he was neither alone, nor good-willing. I don't know what was worse: being basically surrounded by 5 blokes twice as strong and big as I am, not speaking the damn language, being alone in that country (meaning what everyone at home had warned me about) or staying in the streets at that hour. Maybe all of them, maybe not. Or maybe the worst thing was that I had on me the train ticket, the passport and the last money, never mind the other stuff in the backpack. After all, life is a matter of hazard anyway. And one should keep on playing until the last card. So I did. I told them I spoke no Ukrainian. Then, replying to their question, I answered I was Romanian. What could be worse than that? Maybe being a Romanian in Ukraine, hmmmm... They obviously wanted money or valuables, which they clearly specified in English (hey, there was someone speaking English in Ukraine!), and simply replying "no, please check on the man next bench" was not much of a realistic option. I put my hand in the pocket and gave them a few coins I had. And I absolutely avoided speaking English. I then started a long sad story in Romanian, also using some Russian words. I was a poor student from Craiova. Not Bucharest. Bucharest - rich, Craiova - poor. And I did not have any other money. My papers and the train tickets were in the station, due to some problems. As the story was said, my watch was no longer on my hand. Meanwhile, all of a sudden, my both feet started to tremble to illustrate the fact that I was in no nice situation and that I was poor. Poor than Ukrainians. Poorer than all living souls - despite the fact that even then I felt rich, as I always feel when traveling. My audience was however kind of impressed. They had probably presumed I was from the rich West and not from Romania, which was more or less in the same hole as Ukraine, from the economic point of view. At a certain moment, a couple of street singers with a guitar crossed the alley, probably going home after a day's performance. Two of the gang boys picked their guitar and only after long negotiation and a couple of songs, they let them go. Actually this is what life is about: a long negotiation with own-self and a bunch of songs, both sad and happy, to ease the passing time. The gang eventually let me go, entirely without my watch and partly without my optimism. All that I remember now is that I found the way to the station very fastly. And sat on the stairs in that smelly waiting room until dawn.

As always, time is a healer and I did not intend to spend my last day in Ukraine in a station, no matter how much I like the trains. I headed to the centre. The old narrow streets smelled like beer and they were filled with all sorts of packages, bottles and other garbage. The city hall employees were sweeping the pavement and so they did with my thoughts. The city was slowly coming back to its senses. God, it felt so different from Krakow. Totally different. Like in other places, the so many years of communism resulted in human relationships almost exclusively based on interest and the change 10 years ago had done nothing good in this respect. Like in Romania, there were mainly two kinds of people (if we cut the "nouveau riches"): the poor, simple and "common" people, going on with their lives as they had to and as they had done for ages, fighting every minute to get a pass for the next minute of survival. Then there were the desperate. People not knowing what to do. People without hope or - anyway - without any zeal, without any purpose in life. If a country like Russia was going on due to a still well established power people were still aware of, smaller countries, and especially poorer countries had lost the sense of own-self and were - at that moment - doomed. Beyond the nice words, the promises and the sparkling government windows, reality lay in the poor village cottages I saw from the train and in the almost ruined old quarters, like most streets in Lviv. That made Lviv different from Krakow. The same things that had made one city prosperous, had made the other one a relic: the former glory, the tourist industry and the fame. While the cities had had a quite similar touristic potential, due to similar values, Krakow was in a country that knew how to exploit tourism. Therefore it was one of the nicest places to be in Poland and in Eastern Europe. People were nice, offering rooms, beggars were kindly asking visitors for a dime. The streets were neat and there were live concerts in the central square all summer long. Hotels were full and people were happily spending a fortune to buy all the stupid kitsch one could think of. On the other hand, Lviv was poor. The streets hadn't been repaired ever since World War 2, the trams were dirty and old, people looked at visitors with both envy and a badly targeted interest ("you are rich, you bastards, meanwhile we work for nothing"). The situation was quite familiar to me from another medieval city in Romania, Brașov, where the tourist industry struggled somewhere between bankruptcy and miserable rip-offs. Getting back to Lviv, except for the few Poles going there through their own travel agencies (therefore the profits turned mainly to Poland), the hotels were almost empty. During my 2 days in the city, I only noticed 3-4 Italians, a bunch of Americans and some groups of Poles. The old inhabitants were wearing pre-historic rotten suits and were probably glorifying the old times over a chess game in the small park in front of the fancy Hotel Grand. Meanwhile, in the narrow streets nearby, 40-50 years old Volgas or Moskvitches were passing by, making the old pavement tremble, stirring a lot of dust and producing enough noise to give the impression they were locomotives instead of simple cars. Phrases like "we shall do it, we have great potential, we must succeed" could not stand a chance against people's sad faces and against their sorrows. Only once in a while they would turn their heads after a big and sparkling Polish coach and they would pathetically nod, without being able to either take advantage of the situation, or change it. This was Lviv, the city I saw behind the nice Svobody Boulevard, up the hill or - worse - down the valley, where the new quarters lay. Later, trying to get some rest from the city noisy streets, I went in the park up hill again.

While I was sitting on the ground and eating, an old man approached. Jesus, I think I was a better tourist attraction than Lviv itself, everyone was coming to me! Anyway, this old man started a long monologue whose main idea was - as far as I could get it - the health disorders that might occur from sitting directly on the cold ground. After the lecture was finished, we started a very interesting chat about politics. He used to say something and, if I understood, I used to answer briefly. When I could not get the idea, I used to reply with "da". But his considerate intention of taking care of the others was nice. And that made me feel quite at home again. Now you meet the worst people ever, trying to rob, mock at you or take advantage of you, and the next thing you meet the nicest people on Earth, ready to go to the moon and back for you. Fair enough. I spent a few hours in that park, it was very nice and quiet, far from the "madding crowd" in the centre. Then I went down, spent the last dime on some bread and tomatoes, then I wandered through the streets. It was incredibly hot. Eventually I went to the station and spent quite a long time there, enjoying the image provided by trains arriving and departing. People coming, people going, trains from Warsaw, Budapest, Moscow or Donetsk. It was amazing and altogether fascinating. And, most of all, I came to like their huge bags. Oh, God, I shall never understand what and why - why, why, why - would anyone carry a 1-2 cubic meters pack all though the country. I don't think that the prices could be that different, to justify such an effort, especially as most of them were old babushki with a child after them as well... I can't remember when time passed by and my train arrived. I was to share the compartment with two Lithuanian women. In the morning the weather was much different from one week ago, when I had crossed the border the other way. The sun was up in the sky this time, but it was not a happy sun, as I was going home. This time I crossed the Ukrainian / Romanian border, I fully understood why the travel guides warned about the possibility of a bribing necessity when going to the former USSR republics. The customs officer came to me, politely asked me where I came from and what my travel purpose had been, then she left me alone, without even looking at my backpack. The gang boys had probably told her that I was the poor Romanian, I was not an outsider to the region. As for the two ladies - definitely looking more decent and proper than me (they had had, for sure, a shower in the last 4-5 days, unlike me, besides they had a business visa for both Ukraine and Romania) - the customs officer searched through all their luggage for 15 minutes or so, she even looked into their books and magazines. Eventually she pretended they were carrying a sweater or something of the kind, that had a label on and could not be taken out of Ukraine without paying for it. Stupid reason to ask for a bribe. She told me to go out of the compartment and, when I returned, one of the ladies was closing her wallet. Clear enough. Then the Romanian customs officers came, together with the extreme heat. I don't and will never understand why there was a need for 3 subsequent passport checks, except for the fact that we were entering the Balkans. Instead of having a person entirely checking up things, they had three persons partially checking things up.

The way home was not too long, as I slept most of the time. I was not the same person that had left Bucharest 8 days and a half ago. I no longer had the watch that had joined me in every trip for the last 5-6 years, instead I got some memories that would join me for the rest of my life. The trade had been an even one for sure. I would like to go back sometime. To wander in the Moscovite metro for a day, beginning with the people going to the early shift and ending up with those returning from the late shift. I would like to go back to that girl in Moskva Kievskaja station with a big "thank you" and a bunch of flowers. I would then like to visit the countryside, to live like the locals in Ukraine. To drink that great kvas once again. To go back and buy something from those poor babushki in the stations. And eventually I would spend a lifetime listening to that old man playing the bandura in front of St. Sofia Church in Kiev.


GOING BACK 2 (you are here)

Beyond anything else, one of the happenings I shall never forget about Ukraine took place in L'viv, some years ago. First, I was almost robbed by a gang, however their human nature got to the surface like oil in water, as they eventually let me go. And the following day, not far from that place, an old man came and started talking to me, just out of the blue, telling me it is unhealthy to sit on the bare ground. Things that tell me more about a country than any superb church or palace (which Ukraine anyway has plenty of).