Lviv, a hilly city in western Ukraine, first came onto my radar after reading Heart My Backpack’s glowing post about her time there. Lviv is about an eight hour bus ride ($26 USD) from Kraków, so it was an easy addition to my route. Overall, I very much enjoyed my time in Lviv, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated and frazzled by the time I finally got there.
The story starts on the Polish side of the Poland-Ukraine border. When giving everyone back their passports, the bus attendant didn’t hand me mine and told me that the official would like to speak to me outside of the bus. I diligently exited the bus where a smiling Polish border patrol officer waited for me.
“How did you get into Poland?”, he asked nicely.
“I took a bus from Prague. I can show you the ticket if you need me to?”, I nervously answered.
“Oh, no! No problem. Here’s your passport back”
Phew. I was glad that was resolved quickly and easily. I got back onto the bus, and listened to music while I waited to get to the Ukrainian side. The bus attendant collected our passports again. Note: Ukraine is visa free for Americans. When the Ukrainian officer got on the bus to return them to the passengers, she glanced from my face to my passport picture no more than three times before deciding that I didn’t look like my passport picture, and gestured (none of the officers on the Ukrainian side spoke any English) for me to exit the bus with her.
This is when my anxiety really started to rise. I was trying desperately not to think about what I would do if I was left at the border with no cell signal and limited data on my phone. The officer lead me to an area outside of their outdoor office. She and the other officers then gathered around me in a semicircle while they passed my passport around. One of them instructed me to smile (I am smiling in my passport photo) and when I did, they all erupted into laughter. I am really sensitive to people laughing at me, and I can’t explain how uncomfortable this made me. Honestly, it was rude and unnecessary. I wanted to tell them that, but 1. It would have been useless due to the language barrier and 2. I still needed them to let me across the border. I ended up showing them my drivers license as a second form of ID, and they stamped me through.
When I got back on the bus again, I wished that I had a friend to vent to. This was an instance where solo travel really sucked as I had no one to hash out my feelings with in the moment. Throughout all of my travels, this was the first border crossing where I remotely had any trouble, so I guess I earned some traveler’s stripes? Ha.
A similar story to the above happened to me a few days later on the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Hungary border, so suffice it to say that I’m not exactly itching to cross into or out of Ukraine by land any time soon.
When I finally made it to Lviv, my saint of a couchsurfing host picked me up from the bus station after waiting nearby for the 2.5 hours that the bus was delayed. If it wasn’t for my amazing host, I’m nearly sure that my experience in Lviv would not have been as positive as it was.
Lviv is a beautiful and cute city, though rough around the edges which makes it feel more real and raw than most other European cities that I’ve been to. While strolling through the city center one afternoon, I kept remarking how stupidly cheap everything was. And each time I did this, I would have to remember that this is the result of a struggling economy of a country currently at war, and that the prices are not cheap for most locals in the slightest. It was very sobering, and I hope that the situation there improves soon.
The main religion in the Ukraine is Eastern Orthodoxy, and I happened to be in the country during the days leading up to Orthodox Easter. While eating dinner with my couchsurfing host one night, we observed a church procession, and I stumbled across an Easter market in the center the next day. Made up of two long rows of wooden cabins, the market was selling everything from sinfully delicious baked goods to candles to clothing to sausage. I LOVE markets, so I was in heaven.
Up next: Budapest!
Have you been to Ukraine? What was your experience like?