Sunday, November 27, 2011

What dreams are made of.

So I'm not exactly sure where to start. My last post was from Budapest. The start of our trip had begun, we were in a new eastern european city and life was peachy. We were about to cross the border the following day with our preconceptions of Ukraine firmly planted in our minds. We had no idea how much our minds were going to be blown the following day. Now it wouldn't be fair to cram our entire trip to Ukraine into one long post. I'm having a hard time containing my excitement without blurting it all out in one post as I tend to do. Instead I will break it down to a few episodes of travel, even though we've been back for a few days now.

So where do I begin? Well we rolled into Budapest and stayed at the Aboriginal Hostel. I would highly recommend them with their clean rooms, comfy beds, awesome staff and amazing free breakfast (Fresh waffles first thing in the morning!). We explored the town, ate ourselves silly on goulash and the following morning piled back into the car in preparation for out departure to the border town of Zahony/Chop. Three and a half hours of driving on amazing hungarian highways made the time fly by. Smooth highways, great signage, first world gas stations every ten kilometers with proper facilities made the drive nice and easy. As we neared the border we realized things were all about to change.

Welcome to Ukraine sucker!

I'm always a bit bummed out that you're not allowed to take photos or video at border crossings. There's always shitloads of confused people running around trying to get their dilapitated cars and documents in order for the crossing into the next country. Since joining the European Union a few years ago, Hungary now has to maintain strict border security to limit access to the other E.U. nations. Fortunately at this point we were heading in the other direction. Hungary was more than happy to stamp us through and push us forward to the Ukrainian border crossing. It became evident to us quickly that the border layout itself was haywire. The crossing itself is over a river with a long bridge connecting Hungary and Ukraine. As you drive up to the bridge, there is a serious lack of signage to indicate which lane you should be in as you cross. Unfortunate for us we happened to take "truck lane" across the bridge only be to be stopped by a border guard in a fluffy hat communist hat. As he yelled at us in Ukrainian, we indicated with universal hand signals to "go backwards". The only issue is that the bridge is at least 200 meters long. Asshole. So we backed the car ALL the way back down the bridge instead of him letting us merge into the other lane. Right before we reached the other end of the bridge, a truck drive decided to pull in and start honking his horn for us to go forward. Greaaaaaat. We drive all the way back across the bridge and arrive to more yelling and hand signals until the guard finally shakes his head and finally accepts our passports. Thank god. Until we realized these guys were just doing "pre-checks". The actual border crossing was 100 meters further. We were waived through to the next station where the car was searched, all our documents taken and more questions asked. I've got to hand it to Katarina on this one, she used her croatian language and struggled to understand and sort everything out. Then we hit a speed bump. We weren't sure if they were feeling us up for a bribe or were actually angry that we didn't have a "letter of consent" from Katarina's mother that allowed us to take the car for two weeks. As they stood there with our documents in their hands, the ukrainian winter breeze freezing us to death and their "less than satisfactory" look on their faces we wondered if we had money whethere sliding them a bribe would actually make things move faster. Fortunately what seemed like a senior official stepped in, took our documents and added Kats name to the border documents as "owner of the vehicle". Thank goodness. After a minute of standing around in the cold, making sure we could leave we jumped back in the car and continued through the checkpoint. Once we were out, we pulled over, took a deep breath and with sweaty palms I snapped this picture of the "welcome to Ukraine" sign.

We were in.

A quick stop to grab some snacks and a road map and a gas station and we were off to Lviv. At this point my opinion of Ukraine wasn't that great. The amount of stray dogs running around everywhere was concerning, especially when we saw a pack of dogs gang up and attack another dog right in front of the car. As we stopped in the town of Chop, we were surprised by the old car, horse drawn carriages and car eating potholes that greeted us. The drive to Lviv was 5 hours of driving through the Carpathian mountains in the darkness.

When it comes to driving manners, Ukrainians have none. The difference between extreme wealth and poverty is very evident especially once you leave any of the major cities. Expensive cars pass you like rockets as their owners don't care for road rules. Road rules are to be ignored in Ukraine as you can bribe any of the police officers you may run into along the way. Caught driving at 160 km/h? Toss the officer a 100 Hryvna bill and drive on! Driving defensively is mandatory as yahoos from all over are constantly passing everybody at high speed. We drove cautiously through the carpathian mountains at night as the road was stating to freeze and the occasional light snowflakes fell. Thankfully other than the massive potholes that bottomed out the suspension and scraped across the bottom of the car, it was a smooth drive into Lviv.

That was until we got to Lviv.

A Lviv road under construction.

The street of Lviv are made of small bricks. Probably laid 200 years ago, they don't seem fit for small cars to drive on. Never have I seen such uneven streets in a city. At this point every kilometer we seemed to bottom out the car suspension on the bumpy streets, crossing tram tracks that seemed to stick above the street by 6 inches and in potholes that seemingly swallowed the whole tire of the car until the frame hit ground. Fortunately we made it into city center, pulled the car onto the curb and found a parking spot. Finding the hostel was not an easy task as I managed to goof up the directions on my iphone and copied the wrong information. Fortunately Lviv is a very safe and pretty city. Even the police officers were friendly when we asked them for directions, pointing us to the proper street without asking us for a bribe! We made it to out hostel and spent a few nights at the "Kosmonaut". Full of old soviet relics including a machine gun on the wall, a space helmet and plenty of military memorabilia it was quite the character hostel! We crashed easily that night, ready for another few days in Lviv. We were officially in Ukraine and it felt GREAT!

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