A Story Without Pictures

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Ukraine  ,
Monday, December 3, 2007

I have stopped in Lviv hoping to see a bit of Ukrainian life outside the capital, plus its conveniently located just a couple of hours ride short of Krakow in Poland, where Claudie and I arranged to meet as her African adventure has now come to a close.

The hostel here is owned by a quiet(ish) and funny Australian expat, Eddie, tired of his job in logistics who moved to Ukraine and set up the business a few months ago. While normally a local owner is required to provide good insights into things to do in town, Eddie has been no slouch with suggestions and - it being deep in the off season - has been almost a free tour guide.

Normally a city can be pieced back together in my memory from photos taken - here there were only two. Most of the experiences were not really camera appropriate. Plus I had fallen victim to a dodgy internet cafe and viruses every memory stick and camera in the area, putting me in a decidedly anti-camera frame of mind.

Not camera appropriate? Day one saw us on an Eddie-led venture to the banya, the traditional Russian  bathhouse experience. A Ukrainian banya is exactly how one should picture a the laundry in a 40 year old Soviet jail. Concrete floor, walls and ceiling - all showing the discolouration of decades of heated, humid, fetid air and cumulative millennia of sweat. Fittings that have seen no trace of renovation nor repair. Bodies engorged for far too long on borscht, dumplings and booze. But what it lacked in day spa finesse it admirably made up for in atmosphere, and it felt as if everyone there was discussing politburo business and plotting big trouble vor Rocky and Bullwinkle, blissfully unaware of the vast changes in the outside world.

The core of the banya experience is the sauna. My last sauna experience was about 10 years ago, and I don't remember them being quite this hot - hot enough to deliver a noticable shortness of breath and a mild amount of discomfort. Saunas get hotter the higher up you go, and pretty soon I moved down to be the sole occupant of row one, aware of twenty pairs of ever judging, ever disdaining eyes in my back. To pair with the heat, in the main room previously described is an ice plunge pool. Handy hint for future travellers: screaming like a ten year old girl on the initial plunge attracts unwelcomed attention. I was with a Dutchman, Marek, and I think we were both of the view the locals should suspend judgment of our girliness: at least for the duration of the time they were going to spend rubbing massage oil into each other's very overweight and all too nude bodies.

Returning to the steam room, you proceed to the soft wooden wall to find your pre-purchased birch branch, which has now had a chance to soften in the steam after your initial 25 minute (recommended)/ 10 minute (actual) steam and subsequent ice bath. I favoured self flogging at this juncture. An enormous man was offering to beat the hell out of me, but I demurred. The principle effect of the flaying is to simultaneously open up your pores while maximising the heat around you. Eddie accepted his offer, and found the third benefit is the local's evident joy at just getting to dish out a flogging. Back and forth we went between steam and ice. My wouldbe torturer explained that 2 minutes in the ice bath yielded maximum effect. The main effect I noticed (after an excellent, near hallucinogenic 90 second stay) was a total ceasing of function in my hips like my entire ass had gone to sleep. Odd, and worth the $4 price of admission.

So, you understand, no photos.

Moving on, my two fellow hostel residents also felt like a home cooked meal, so we went to the markets. Fresh produce aside, Lviv markets are tremendous for their biscuits, the unit of measurement for which appears to be the Metric Garbage Bag. Handing over a small note hoping for five or six biscuits to accompany a tea, the owner proceeded to grab astounding handful after mesmerising handful and give me half a shopping bag full. We fed them to everyone, including staff and delivery people at the hotel, for about $1. The quality of the biscuits cannot credibly be described, leading me to conclude (sample, n=3kg) that Ukrainians are world leaders in high quality, high volume biscuit production. Alas, pictures of biscuits, particularly eaten ones, are quite boring, so this is another experience sans photo.

Leaving Lviv, three of us took Eddie's advice to head to Poland via the walking border, just for the everyday experience of it all. While on the train the border is just a random delay of indeterminate length, on foot you experience every step of Ukrainian pig becoming Polish sausage, mostly metaphorically.

The Ukrainian border experience is hugely worthwhile, for all the wrong reasons.

The bus to the border town which I still can't pronounce was only ten hryvna ($2.20) despite coveringa lot of distance: a price which was sufficiently unsatisfactory for one passenger that she engaged in along and loud berating session with the driver about her fare which he engaged in response with full unfettered voice. Most of the other passengers found it funny. Maybe it was just nervous laughter as we averaged 110 km/hr onthe icy roads.

At the border itself - open 24 hours they advertise - it looked like a petrol queue with cars parked and abandoned in the line to go through the vehicle crossing. However, the pedestrian way through no man's land is easily found and we ambled down until we found a selection of doors and queues by which to exit Ukraine. The right hand queue was plainly for suckers - several hundred people long and clearly a six to eight hour undertaking. The central queue was mysteriously filled with people who had got bawled out by border guards and then chosen to create this queue in the middle of nowhere and weather the ongoing harangue. The left hand side had an unlocked door, was unmanned, and seemed to be the path for those entering rather than leaving. Inviting, but always the risk of crossing without getting an exit stamp and creating a whole new raft of problems.

For any future travellers, the left door is the correct door.

On showing our passport to a soldier he pointed us to the right hand queue, but placed us sportingly about two thirds of the way along so we wouldn't have to wait too long. This causes zero animosity among those you have so grievously queue jumped - they merely waved cheerily and grinned in welcome in response to our fawning and perplexed apologies. After about 20 minutes another soldier - who had been standing 2m from us the whole time - pointedly furiously at the front of the queue, where we were welcomed in the queue jump by all and sundry moving their bags and making way for us. Odd.

Odder still was that the middle line of yelled at but resilient miscreants then got priority service as the centre door sprang open unprompted and the crowd piled into a passport control office literally splitting at the seams with its plastic fascia peeling off and the structural styrofoam popping out. The queue gradually worked its way through, but seemed to mysteriously top itself up at regular intervals. From nowhere.

That 'nowhere' was people heading in through the lefthand door then turning immediately through an unmarked door to their right and emerging in the controlled section. After a fairly pleasant hour the turn of we in the right queue duly came and we all surged in to the tiny demountable.

This is a superb exercise in workflow: two channels have been built, two passport officers were on duty... but at work in the same channel, separated by a rusty turnstile. I was served by the person in position one, and my presentation of such an exotic passport (read: any non Ukrainian passport) caused the guard to pause in his steady faux Pringles consumption and leaf through every page. Which is fine, except, that window was precisely mid turnstile,so people moving to passport officer two had to wedge past me and my backback and the old heavy iron turnstile barrier to get by.

It was interesting to see the passports of the other travellers. None with any luggage of course, and all with full passports showing page after page of entry and exits neatly lined up in their documentation, as each day they moved a carton of cigarettes across the border.

Its amazing that a simple government regulation creates this amazingly tedious employment for 1500-2000 people. A packet of L&M cigarettes is around 5 hryvna ($1.20) in Ukraine, and 8 zloty ($3.90) in Poland. So walking across a carton of cigarettes can yield a $20 income... more than the daily average here. Piles of abandoned cardboard carton packaging in the border queues attest to both profitability and the traders' brand loyalty.

The clever, however, know that real profitiability lies in getting more than the standard allowance through. One option here is to tap away at the corners of all the individual packs and then squirrel them into your naturally bulky winter clothing: the objective being to round and smooth the otherwise square objects so you pass a patdown search. So a genuine traveller at the border is a curiosity to all and sundry, while for me it was like being immersed in a large, pointless, but quite comical game. There was no other traveller with luggage there besides Elise, also from the Lviv hostel.

The great thing is that the game is conducted in very good humour. No one expects a foreigner to get caught up in it, so fellow border crossers wave you forward. The EU passports queue is used to rarely that it was locked - and locked in a way that says the line is there purely because the border guards' manual stipulates you build one - but you are vocally encouraged by the waiting masses to climb the five foot fence (with pack and daypack), and there is a guard in that lane 20m further on who greets you in perfect English and makes the standard border guard enquiries about your onward travel such as one would find anywhere in the world. Anywhere meaning places where the main aim isn't grey market commerce.

The border guards have their successes, as evidenced by male youths running back up the queue trying to sell their overlimit component, pack by pack, to people in the queue who can then tape a surplus pack or two to their legs. At least this was logical. Along the length of the queue were people attempting seemingly futile escapes under the fence to the flow of people the other way. Its not normally funny to watch an old man on crutches peel back hurricane fencing to roll under an obstacle, but here - with a soldier feverishly blowing a whistle and our would be escapee looking up with big hurt eyes suggesting he was merely having a lie down and what's the big deal? - you are encouraged to laugh.

Laughter was the order of the day for all concerned. The queues are dense, surging yet somehow immobile, and all the people management devices and barriers are straight from a cattleyard. There were periodic explosions of shouting as police waded into rulebreakers, an aggressive interjection followed every time by a wave of laughter from the crowd. These people, collectively, are not mere random travellers in a throng: they are each others' co-workers.

As the queue thickened near the final entry hurdle into Poland, large hands appeared on my pack to ensure I was in no doubt that queueing was still 100% not required of me as tourist. It was a wonderful, giving, welcoming gesture - although with a wall of people in front of me and nowhere to go, that was not a widely shared sentiment.

Finalities completed, I popped out into the third of three queues where new entrants were being frisked and generally heavily gone over by Customs agents. Every pocket patted, every stuffing squeezed, every shirt raised to check for contraband. My giant backpack and overall 20kg of encumbrance yielded a single question and a delay of less than 5 seconds. Clearly they have their own racial profiles at this border.

Emerging in Poland provided every inch the feeling of emerging in not just the free world, but the rich and decadent world. Poland, pauper of the EU, source of concern to other states who fear floods of emigres fleeing harsh circumstance, was in this instance on the strong side of the ledger. Where on the Ukrainian side agriculture seemed an impossible and soul destroying endeavour, traversing the Polish side of the border zone revealed neatly ordered plots popping out hearty crops. Green, lush, ordered Poland.

Crossing into Poland from Ukraine has been great to do once. But once only I think. For anyone tut-tuttingthe queue jumps mentioned here, a word of caution: I think it would take 12-14 hours to traverse without accepting this local custom. Another great experience, just no photo to remember it by.
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