Fear and Loathing in Ukraine

27th August-1st September, 2012

“Why are you travelling with me?” asks Alex. I think hard. “Well, sometimes I wonder that myself. I think, why am I doing this? I’m completely miserable. But then something amazing happens and we have some awesome adventure and I realise that actually, I’m enjoying myself.” “Yes, with me it’s the same”, he replies.

We thought it would be easy to get from Warsaw to Liv in a day, even with hangovers like woolly mammoths. We were wrong. Our last lift of the day collects us from a darkening corner of highway somewhere in the East of Poland. “Are you going to the folk festival?” they asked us. “Err, no?”

Apparently we were wrong. We were going to the folk festival, we just didn’t know it. Our lift drives us to a small Polish village, close to the Ukrainian border. The words “folk festival” bought images of marquees, outdoor stages and beer tents to my mind, so Alex and I are both surprised when we arrive at the village pub.

Our driver has suddenly become our host, introducing us to various bearded musicians – some from Poland, some Ukraine or Russia, others from the U.S.A. or U.K. He’s modest, but it’s clear he is well-respected at this gathering of what I’m slowly coming to suspect are quite probably some of the Poland’s – if not the world’s – top folk musicians. I haven’t a clue who any of them are.

We spend the night amidst other folkies in a school gymn nearby and cross the border into Ukraine the following morning.

Sleeping in the school gymn

Rumours circulating the internet suggest travellers crossing into Ukraine are sometimes questioned on the border about where they will stay. Rather than mention couchsurfing, I’ve found a hostel in Lviv with some interesting sounding reviews. My favourite is this:

What a sty! So cramped, could hardly turn round. Floors thick with grime. Reception w/foul, sewage odor. 1 toilet (broken seat). 1 shower available in filthy, mold-caked tub with a ratty curtain. Refrigerator out of service. “Massive” common room? Completely filled with bunks for rent. “Smoking on balcony”? Blocked by more bunks. “FREE BREAKFAST”? a plastic bag of cold, dry toast largely untouched for days. Contrary to ad: no games room; no cable TV; no restaurant. “Hot tub”? It is to laugh!

Somehow, this makes me want to stay there. It will give me something to write about.

We find Hostel Roxelana from the map on the website, despite being marked in the wrong place. It’s true, the hostel is inside an old castle, but it’s only one floor of the building. We squeeze down the corridor and a very nice receptionist shows us around. All the rooms run into one another without doors and every room is completely filled with bunkbeds, like a jigsaw. The hostel website boasts a sofa for every bed and most of them do seem to have one sandwiched tightly in-between. For tramps like us though, it’s grand. We have hot water, a bed and a toilet, what more could we want?

Hostel Roxelana

What to do on our first night in Ukraine? Get drunk of course. We find a small bar down a side street with rock muic playing. Perfect for the first round. The second round takes more searching and is less than perfect: big, crowded, expensive. By the time we get to the third or fourth place we’re hitting the vodka. In Ukraine you buy vodka in centilitres and it comes in a jug.

To pass the time and make the drinking more interesting, I introduce Alex to the concept of dice games. It’s been some years since I drank with dice, but I carry one with me while travelling. It helps a lot with those tricky decisions.

We make a list of 6 options, three each:

  1. Make Jo eat cheese
  2. Another bar
  3. Ask someone what to do
  4. Order more vodka
  5. Go home and sleep
  6. Go to a strip bar

Alex rolls and we both stare: 3. We look around. There are three guys drinking together on the table behind us. With another slurp each for courage, we approach them and introduce ourselves. I can only imagine how this might sound. In their eyes, we are basically clueless tourists who have such limited imaginations we have resorted to asking complete strangers what to do on our first night in town.

The man who is apparently in charge of the group and who has spent some years living in Ireland, decides that we should walk to the top of the hill that overlooks the city. Grand. We buy a round of beers for the friends while waiting for the Leader to finish chatting up the counter girl downstairs. On the way up the hill, the Leader lectures me on various topics and a political debate ensues. “Are you having a political debate?” Alex throws his arms to the air. “Why?” Why do you always have to have a political debate??” I shrug – “He started it.”

Later, I will squeeze Alex’s hand: a gesture intended as a subtle clue that I’m not completely happy in the company we’ve chosen. He explodes, furious with me for turning the fun into politics. Somehow, this is destined to end as it always seems to: with me drunk and crying. I storm off, hide in a bush and find my own way home across town. Alex rolls in late, his pupils black with rage.

A coffee on the way out of Lviv. We didn’t drink much on the last night: only two beers and two double vodkas each. This is what it has come to. I feel there is a hole inside me where my heart used to be. Alex thinks I should see a psychologist. I don’t know what I think he needs, but something. I miss everyone. I miss cuddles and kindness. I miss Rainbow brothers and sisters, anarchist comrades, true friends. Most especially, I miss lovers. I miss loving and being loved. Ukraine feels very cold, despite the blazing sun.

Somehow we find our way to Ivano-Frankovsk. It takes a little more than forever. There are zombies at the train station. One lumbers towards us with a hunched shuffle and dead eyes, his hand almost on me before Alex notices and gasps. We both stare, horrified, at the man as he mumbles something that would be unintelligible in any language. He has skin peeling off his arms and face. We both shake our heads at him, look at one another as he lumbers away. “My god,” Alex whispers. “That is the most broken person I have ever seen,” I whisper back.

There are no trains or buses going our way. It’s late again, of course. We shelter from the zombies in a small cafe. What to do, what to do? It’s several kilometres to the edge of town: far too far for these exhausted bodies to lug backpacks. “How much do you think a taxi might be?” We’re breaking all our rules now. A very nice man in the cafe calls a taxi for us, settles a price. When the taxi arrives, Alex orders me not to speak at all. An English accent could inflate the price to triple. He speaks to the driver in Russian. We drive until the houses thin out and trees and fields appear. Alex tells the driver to stop and I wordlessly get out. “What did you tell him?” I ask. “I told him we live here” – Alex indicates one of several unfinished houses set back from the road.

I awake hot and sticky and climb from the tent to find the sky a vibrant blue. I wake Alex for the fourth time and we saunter out of our hiding place, back to the road.

A deep blue Moskvich Aleko covered in flowers pulls over. The guy is a Trancendental Meditation teacher and a yoga instructor, living in Georgia. He lectures Alex on the benefits of these in Russian as we lurch down the road. This car is a real Soviet relic with windows that don’t quite close and a driver’s door that doesn’t quite open: I love it.

Trancendental Meditation teacher and his awesome car

Somehow the trancendental meditation teacher convinced us to visit the most touristic place in Ukraine: Bukovel ski resort. It’s shit. Really shit. Not only have they wiped over the nature and overlaid it with a clone town of plastic-looking wooden chalets and pricey restaurants, it’s the off-season and nobody else is here.

We go up and down on the ski-lift, eat some food and walk out of town.

We thought Poland was slow. Ukraine is another level. Our driver out of the ski resort sends text messages on his phone as we grind along bumpy, pot-holed roads. We narrowly avoid collision, first with a couple of sauntering cows, next with two horses cantering toward us. We swerve around them. Alex turns to face me for a second and we catch one another smiling. More cows: a whole herd this time, lumbering along without a care. Two women follow some way behind, carrying baskets and chatting. Our driver crosses himself as we pass another of numerous small church-like constructions. It looks just like I remember Romania: giant haystacks, quaint decorative houses, the odd horse and cart plodding along. We’re high in the Carpathian Mountains now, in the Verkhovyna region, once part of Romania. The tarmac road ends suddenly, runs into a dirt track, then back into asphalt again. Even Romanian roads aren’t this bad.

Our driver stops the car and buys woollen socks from a woman weaving by the roadside. He climbs back in and hands them to me: a gift. I’m smiling the rest of the way to Chernivtsi.

Woman weaving by the roadside

8 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing in Ukraine

  1. This blog post is really well-written :) It kept me very entertained! Love the folk festival….only by hitchhiking do we have such random advetures!! x

  2. Fuckin’ hell! Fear and loathing… being completely miserable, then not – drinking vodka by the centilitre! Well being a slav I know all about that… sound like you’re doing the hell realm of outer rushen for “real”! Bless the zombies of Ivano-Frankovsk if there’s nothing else we can do for the blighted souls, fuck, makes me angry and sad, but I’d probably be chilled to meet one. Possibly a chernobil worker??? Are you going south (to turkey) or east (to Georgia? Russia?) Take care of yourself love ~ imagine hugs from me ~ love xxxxxxxxxx

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