Thursday, September 16, 2010

Krakow, Poland to Lviv to Odessa to Simferopol to Bakhchysaray to Simferopol to Kiev, Ukraine

I apologize in advance for how long this post is! Skip around to different cities- I titled them in bold.


Sorry for the extreme gap between posts. Since I left off from my last post I have spent five out of eight nights NOT in beds, and am about to get on an overnight (though only about four hours in flight time) flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. As you can see from the title of this post, I’ve been quite busy getting to know the Ukrainian long-distance transportation circuit. We’ll get there eventually, but for now: Krakow.

When I arrived in Krakow I walked over to Greg & Tom’s hostel, which had been highly recommended by some friends who I’d met in Warsaw. Greg & Tom’s includes breakfast, dinner, and snacks, and often free vodka and activities, and in general had a great vibe. However, they were full for the night other than an above-the-budget private room, so the guy there helped me look up another hostel in the city. For anybody going to Krakow, I would highly recommend Greg & Tom’s—dinner smelled delicious and the guy was very helpful despite the fact that I was not paying him anything! I ended up staying at Mama’s Hostel, which turned out for the best as I met the coolest family there, the Crockfords. The two parents, Andi and Kevin, and their 19-year-old daughter Rachel, had all sold everything and left their lives outside Seattle, Washington behind and had been traveling through the middle east and Europe for the past six months and had travels throughout India and Southeast Asia planned still—and possibly elsewhere—for the next year or more! Their blog,, is cool, so you should all check that out. Kevin and Andi bought Rachel, me, several Aussie guys and a bunch of British guys who were in Krakow for a couple nights solely to party—all of whom were staying at our hostel—wine and pizza, and we all had a great night. I didn’t get much sleep at all, and only had part of the next day to see Krakow, but it was cool seeing some of the old city at night with new friends.

After packing up way too early the next morning, I said goodbye and headed over to the train/bus station to book my ticket to Lviv, Ukraine. My bus turned out not to leave until nearly 10pm, so I lugged my stuff back to the hostel, said hi again to my friends from the night before, then headed back out to check out some of the city and find some real food- I had subsisted off of bread only the day before. I ended up giving up on the food hunt fairly quickly, and headed to the Subway next to the hostel. Subway has a very distinct smell, which is funny to encounter when you’re halfway around the world. I headed up to Wawel Castle—the sun was behind clouds again, so, of course, I got lost—and then around to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter that has become a sort of indie/artsy area with a lot of cool galleries, cafes and cars painted funkier than the Minga van! I was pretty wiped out, though, and as it was the Jewish high holidays at that point none of the Jewish buildings (including the country’s oldest standing Jewish synagogue) were open to explore, so I headed back to the hostel. The Crockfords and I spent the day hanging out in the common room as they too had a train to catch that evening, and we ended up making friends with a new group of English guys in Poland to party. Around 8pm we said goodbye to all of our friends at Mama’s and went out to dinner on the main square. It was cool talking to Rachel’s parents and hearing more about their adventures. Other than two guys from Florida who I also met briefly at Mama’s, these were the first Americans I had met (and I haven’t met any more since) on my trip, so it was also cool to talk to people from “home.” We sat at dinner a bit too long, and I ended up running to make my bus.

Like my first overnight bus trip to Albania, this bus crossed the border around 2am, and people were talking on it too much for me to sleep the rest of the time. The Poland-Ukraine border is notorious for giving difficulty to American travelers, but other than the two hour wait (I had heard it could take up to six) it went very smoothly and much too early in the morning I found myself on the outskirts of Lviv, the supposed “new Prague” of Ukraine. The outskirts, however, look more like a series of crumbling concrete Soviet prison cells, and at first I was a bit disheartened. It took hours to figure out the public transit system there, but a 20 minute mashrutka (shared mini-van with a set itinerary) ride cost under $.25 US, so it was all good. When I got to the city center, I asked directions from a guy coming off the mashrutka with me, and he ended up being an off-duty policeman (supposedly—I never gave him a bag to carry despite his offers because his “badge” looked more like a really poorly done computer printout. Then again, that’s probably what real police badges look like in Ukraine). He literally walked me to the doorway of the hostel, despite him speaking no English and me not speaking Ukrainian or Russian. I quickly realized that it would be a challenge to navigate here more so than any other place I’ve been alone, because the alphabet is Cyrillic, not Latin, and peoples’ second language is Russian, not English. I spent that morning wandering around Lviv, and though the sun was out I still had a hard time navigating because most of the street signs were in Cyrillic. Lonely Planet does not offer Cyrillic translations of their maps, which are pretty useless when you butcher the transliterated pronunciations anyways.

My first encounter with Ukrainian food was at a popular cafeteria-style eatery around the corner from my hostel. My meal cost… $3.50! It was very exciting. I also laid out my wet laundry when I arrived at the Kosmonaut Hostel, where I was staying, and thanks to my new mesh laundry bag (thank you Patty!) none of it was mildewed. After two nights of practically no sleep I gave up on doing anything productive and spent the afternoon writing my last blog post (which, as you can tell, required too much brain power for that day), catching up on some emails, reading up on Ukraine, downloading photos from my camera and skyping/fb chatting with my friends from home. A guy I met at a conference in Brazil a couple years ago, from Gambia, sent me a message, and I realized I had a connection there for later this year! Very cool.

I slept 14 hours that night, and was therefore late checking out, but it ended up not being an issue. Somewhere between the sticky wooden floors, funky smell and the fact that it was located in Ukraine, I didn’t get the feeling like the Kosmonaut was too popular a place. I bought my overnight train ticket to Odessa, and for a first class berth it only cost about $15! As you can probably tell, the prices in Ukraine were a major hit for me. I also walked up a hill and into a church, where you could light candles for prayers. I’m not a religious person, really, but coming from a family of semi-pyromaniacs, something about lighting candles always seems nice to me, and I lit a few as prayers for several people who have recently passed away in my life.

Walking around Lviv I realized that, just as Warsaw had been the city of black high heels, Lviv was the city of stiletto-heeled boots. How all those women made it across obstacles courses of crumbling roads, cobblestones and multi-story, elevator-less buildings day after day was beyond me.

Later that day I gathered my pack and things I had left at the hostel—I’ve found that hostels are really great about letting you use their facilities and leave your bags behind when you arrive early or leave late due to overnight transportation—and headed around the corner to catch the tram to the bus station. It was quite a packed tram, so I figured that, like the mashrutkas, you could wait until the crowd had thinned a bit to buy a ticket. I ended up getting pulled off the tram by two undercover cops after a couple of stops. It was one of those moments where you just act as stupid as you can manage and hope that you don’t end up in jail. I had to pay a fine of 20hry, which is about $2.50 USD, and they pointed me to the next tram going the same direction with a brand new ticket. It was hard not to laugh. The fine was probably more like 10hry for locals, so if this was Lviv’s attempt to crack down on crime, I could see why international mafia rings were still in business.

That night’s train ride was quite pleasant, though I had begun to feel the symptoms of some variant of a cold virus earlier that day. The train compartments held four bunks, and I was assigned a lower bunk so I stored my backpack in the bench underneath. It was actually quite a secure system, as somebody would have to lift both me and the bench to access the bag. There was only one other passenger in my compartment, a grandfather named Anatoly who tried to buy me a beer from the food cart and then showed me pictures of his baby granddaughter, Katya, and his two daughters, on his cellphone before snoring the night away. I kept reading Everything is Illuminated, then turned off my light, put my computer, phone, and passport behind my pillow, and did my best to sleep for as long as I could. Usually I am exceptionally good at sleeping on overnight buses and trains, and this bunk came with a mattress pad, blanket, pillow and sheets, so it was a lot more comfortable than I expected, but I always worry that I’m going to oversleep and wake up several cities beyond where I intend. I needn’t have worried, though, as the train car’s overseer knocks on your door about half an hour before you arrive. The bathroom, though entirely metal, was stocked with toilet paper and soap, and seemed fairly clean. At this point, I was quite looking forward to my next train ride in Ukraine!

When we arrived in Odessa my first course of action was to buy a train ticket to Crimea—for that very night. I had decided that I wanted to try to hit up as many of Ukraine’s hotspots as possible, either a very ambitious or very stupid goal, as it required spending the majority of my nights in Ukraine on trains or buses. But after my first experience with Ukrainian trains, I figured it wouldn’t be too bad, and besides, most of my contact with locals occurs while navigating various forms of transportation. My train ticket to Simferopol, which is the main transport hub of Crimea, cost less than $4, which was both exciting and suspicious—it was an equally long journey as the last, but it was suddenly a quarter of the price? Having no means of communicating with the ticket saleswoman, I just smiled and nodded.

Lonely Planet says there is a cheap train station hotel in the station’s main building, but either nobody working there knows of its existence, or it has shut down recently, because it was nowhere to be found. After leaving the train station I decided to walk to Lonely Planet’s top hostel pick, the Black Sea Odessa Hostel, about a mile away, to stow my bags for the day and maybe even use their shower. Odessa enjoys a warmer climate than the rest of the country due to its seaside location, so despite the early time of day the walk was a bit less comfortable than I would have desired. And then I got very confused. Lviv’s major streets had been transliterated into Latin letters, but Odessa’s didn’t bother. It being 9am on a Saturday, very few people were up and about, and most of the people who were awake seemed not to have gotten home the night before (Odessa is a bit of a party town). After walking into somebody’s apartment, thinking it was a hostel, I discovered that the Black Sea Odessa Hostel was either out of business or had moved locations—the woman drinking her coffee said, “Hostel—no!” Eventually I realized that I was literally going in circles and the heat didn’t help, so I snuck into an all-night sushi bar/karaoke club’s bathroom, which, as expected, had just been cleaned for the day. I proceeded to spend about thirty minutes brushing my teeth, washing up as best I could, changing clothes and repacking my bags, as well as clearing my head, and then snuck back out of the bar. I love doing this! (Sushi, by the way, was the thing to eat in Odessa—and most of the rest of Ukraine. Coffee shops have it, pizza places have it, and there are more sushi restaurants than Ukrainian restaurants in busy/tourist areas.) I walked down the block toward a park, thinking that at the very least I could find a shady bench to sit down at for a while, but at the corner I saw a sign for a hotel! Excellent! I walked in and asked if I could, by any chance, drop my bag off with the bellman for the day. The concierge told me rather rudely that I could arrange it with him for a tip, and so I did. I emailed my dad asking how much I should tip the guy, not wanting to offend anyone but also not wanting to overpay just to appease a snappish hotel staffer’s ego. When I walked out of the building, free of my pack’s physical burden, I opened my lonely planet pages to see if the Mozart Hotel, where I had left my bags, was listed. Turns out I had chosen the fanciest hotel in the city! No wonder they didn’t like the look of an un-showered backpacker ☺ It also said the Mozart was known for its irritable staff, so I felt better.

By this point it was nearly lunchtime, and I had only eaten a couple of hardboiled eggs for dinner/breakfast on the train, so I sat down at one of the few establishments that was open that early in the day (menus are only distributed once you have sat down, a fact my waitress pointed out in a similar tone to the Mozart’s concierge. I think the city was full of irritable people—or maybe it was just that they all had to get to work on a Saturday morning) and was directed to the vegetarian dish- literally a plate of vegetables. That, a cup of tea, bottle of water and a dessert pancake nearly finished my food budget for the day. Odessa, it seems, is both an irritable AND expensive city! I spent the rest of the day reading on the Potemkin Steps, walking across the “mother-in-law-bridge” to which couple’s attach padlocks to symbolize their relationships, trying to find cheap food and a place to exchange the rest of my Polish money, and avoiding a lot of sketchy people. By the time I left I was quite glad I had not stayed the night. Odessa was not my cup of tea—at least not during the day. I picked up my backpack from the bellman at the Mozart Hotel and walked back to the train station by way of a McDonald’s. Though I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s since I was little (there is nothing vegetarian besides—debatably—the French fries and dessert), they tend to have semi-clean bathrooms and are pretty much everywhere. A lot of Ukrainian toilets are squat-style, which is fine, but usually means the floor is too wet/gross to put down a backpack, so I strategically placed myself by the handicap stall knowing that would have to have a “real” toilet. Also before I boarded my second train of the day, I tried to purchase a bottle of water. Because it’s written in Cyrillic and fizzy water is at least as popular as still water here, I have taken to keeping my old empty bottle so I can match up the letters with those on the new bottle. That or I try to hand-gesture “no bubbles,” which works surprisingly well.

Waiting by the departure board for the platform number to come up, I befriended an old woman also headed to Simferopol. She spoke no English and had a name I can’t pronounce, let alone transliterate, but she helped me figure out which car I was in—the last one—and gave me a pretty clear non-verbal warning that I was in for a rough night. She was right. My sign-language for “first class” had apparently been interpreted as “first car” by the ticket saleswoman earlier that day, so I was stuck in the last train car—the worst of the lowest class. Despite flimsy walls/windows/doors, the car maintained a temperature about 15 degrees higher than the surrounding land. Luckily I arrived at the station early, so I managed to secure a bottom bunk (easier for luggage security plus the added benefit of not stepping on people trying to climb into your bed). This car had a similar layout to my first class train car, except compartments were not closed off and the “hallway” was lined with more bunks. And it smelled like it cost ¼ of a first class ticket. At first my four-bed section was home to myself, a nun (not lying), and a middle-aged woman who literally wiped down her bunk before getting in it (at this point I thought of a conversation I had years ago with Rebecca Kantar and Jackie Assar about wiping down public toilet seats before using them—they did and were very shocked that anybody didn’t). However, the nun inexplicably left after a few minutes, and soon after a herd of Polish backpackers squeezed down the hall with their out-of-date packs. This was okay. One of them spoke a bit of English and they were friendly enough, in an Eastern-European type of way. Then, a couple of seedy-looking, mid-thirties, fake-brand-name-jeans type of guys with no bags (?) sat down at the foot of my bench and proceeded to hit on me and the two Polish girls sleeping in the hallway bunks. This was not so cool. I feigned a complete lack of a sense of humor and became very interested in my blackberry, hoping they would move on, but the Polish girls seemed very interested, unfortunately, so I went to the bathroom (this one lacked a functional door, let alone soap or toilet paper, just to give you a sense of the difference between train car classes) and when I got back I switched into an upper bunk, which was an additional 10 degrees warmer due to the elevation gain. But when it comes to falling asleep inches away from a seedy guy or failing at sleeping a safe distance from him, you always choose the distance.

Getting into dirty, chaotic Simferopol after this overnight transportation marathon was not so fun. Though I really needed a bathroom, the only one at the train station lacked non-wet floors to put down my bag, so I gave up and headed over to the mashrutkas. I wanted to go to Bakhchysaray, a supposedly very cool little town with a well-preserved Tatar palace and some cheap sleeping options. I found a mashrutka but made the mistake of not confirming the price before getting in, and then I confirmed the price with a guy who ended up not being the driver, so I had to pay 40hry instead of the usual 15-20hry for a ride of a similar distance. Though this is only about $5 instead of $2 to $2.50, there are few feelings worse while traveling than knowing you got screwed for being a foreigner. After this incident, I had no interest in getting on another mashrutka, so I asked directions from some people waiting at the local bus station, and headed out. I ended up on a deserted—like, no cars, people, or even stray dogs deserted—country road, so I asked the first person I saw for directions. Turns out the word for “palace” is very similar in Ukrainian/Russian, so I had less trouble getting to the main street by the palace after that. This mashrutka cost 2hry, as most local ones do, but squeezing myself, plus my pack, plus my two small purses/bags into an already packed mini-bus was, well, challenging.

When I got to the center of Bakhchysaray, I realized I was truly in a village. Having needed a bathroom for hours and hours I headed into the palace complex and used theirs, then sat on a bench and looked up where I could stay for cheap in my guidebook. There were two options: one, a small hotel with private rooms for a little over $10, and one, a sort of hostel/campground thing that cost a little under $10. Neither of them seemed particularly easy to find, and as the Bakhchysaray pages in my lonely planet did not include a map (note to self: never find yourself map-less in a place that does not use Latin letters), I figured I would go for the cheaper one. This choice led me through the village, past the school, up a very long hill lined by crumbling houses and trash-filled fields, around a bend and finally, finally, up to the complex that was “Prival,” my choice of residence for the night. More similar to a deserted RV park/family camp than anything else, Prival employed, believe it or not, an English speaking staff-member who had just returned from working on Cape Cod! All of the questions I had been saving up over the past 48 hours ended up flying out of my mouth, so that by the end of our conversation I knew how to say “first class to Kiev,” that trains were busier than buses at this time of year, that you had to ask to enter the shower building, that breakfast was included, and that you could find traditional Tatar food at most of the restaurants in the village. Her name, too, was Katya. It also turned out that their were no dorm rooms, so I got my own private room, heinously decorated in a brown, floral motif with sparkling (yes, sparkling) wallpaper. I spent about twenty minutes lying down on the floor, that was how tired I was. I was also still feeling pretty sick from my earlier-contracted cold, and knew that I only had one shot at showering (you have to pay extra for more than one shower), so I made myself get up and walk back down to the village. It turned out that Tatar food, for vegetarians, means canned mushrooms and olives, sliced packaged cheese, and homemade bread. I had thought that at least the bread would be interesting, as it had been translated into “bread on fire” on the menu, but to no avail. The waiter was very confused that he had a customer, and asked what compelled me to walk up the 20 feet from the main road to his restaurant. Bakhchysaray is the subject of many Crimea bus tours, and not many tourists leave the main street, which I found rather sad. I headed over to the palace, a well-preserved (possibly artificial replica?) building. I knew that tours were in Russian only, so I just slipped in to look around, but I chanced upon a group of English school children and tagged along on their tour. After hearing the guide tell a kid curious about how a structure could be created without nails “trust me,” I realized I would probably be better off exploring on my own. The complex was not very large, but I was glad to have seen it, as Crimea was a stop on the Silk Road, where I will be headed as I explore Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and China this fall!

After the palace I ducked into the local supermarket/convenience store and bought a refrigerator-cooled cherry juice (juices in other countries are always more exciting, like real pomegranate juice in Israel), then decided to walk down the main road for a while in hopes of seeing a monastery built into a cliff. Lonely planet was awfully vague about directions in this area, as it didn’t say which way down the road I ought to head, but I figured that if nothing else it would be a pleasant walk. Bakhchysaray resembled Goreme, Cappadocia, Turkey, if not with quite as spectacular rock formations. I eventually arrived at a touristy-looking cluster of buildings, but as nobody spoke English I could not determine if I was near the monastery and decided to turn around.

Back at the hostel I brought my “shower ticket” up to the front desk. After the initial frustrated yelling on the part of the woman at the front desk, she cracked a smile and took pity on me, showing me to the shower building. Now, I have gone weeks without showering, bathed in rivers and lakes, in water brown with mud, and in public hammams in the Middle East, but this was a special experience. Four shower stalls lined up to face the door, with no curtains, gates, or coverage of any kind between you and whoever happened to peak through the doorway. This was not an all-women’s shower. Rust and dirt covered all of the water fixtures and decaying, splintering crate bottoms served as platforms in the shower. After the initial surprise (the rooms were quite acceptable and the grounds well-kept), I thought practically, and realized that nobody else was in there. I found a key that fit the padlock and locked myself in the building, praying that nobody else would need a shower while I was in there, then headed for the stall in the furthest corner, and therefore the most hidden from the door, in case anybody else with a key decided to come in. The shower ended up being quite pleasant, and I fended off a few people trying to come in by yelling in garbled English, which definitely put them off. Dried off, I tried to find dinner up by the hotel, but the only person around who spoke anything other than Ukrainian or Russian spoke only German and French. I got directions to a supposed restaurant up the hill further in a mix of French, German, Ukrainian and Russian- needless to say, I did not find this restaurant. Eventually I realized that the on-site bar probably served food, but it was pretty busy entertaining a tour group’s worth of very drunk Ukrainians, so I gave up and headed back to my room, where I ate a banana and some cereal I had with me, and watched the only thing I had on my computer- Glee. A lot of backpackers, even solo travelers, would jump at the chance to have a private room at this price, but I honestly prefer a dorm—even one with snoring, smelly, or awkward roommates—because you get to meet people.

The next morning I headed back to the bar for breakfast—it turns out you only get one egg included in the price of the room, but I wrangled two—where I met a woman from Crimea who, from what I could understand, had returned a week earlier from Silver Springs, Maryland, where she had lived for nineteen years, in order to get acupuncture from a Korean doctor working out of Bakhchysaray. Have I mentioned how strange Ukraine is? It was nice having English-speaking company, though.

I headed down the hill after breakfast to catch a mashrutka to the bus station on the “highway” (I’ve come to find that there are very, very few actual sections of highway in Ukraine), from which I caught another mashrutka to the outskirts of Simferopol, and then another one to train station. I did all of this navigating with hand gestures and a lot of confusing names- sometimes saying I was headed to Kiev did the trick, but other times it just made people think I was crazy, like I thought Kiev was down the road. These mashrutkas were packed to the brim, and as a passenger with a backpack, I was shunned to possibly the worst spot on the vehicle, on the stairs by the back door. The other passengers literally pushed me out the back of the mini-bus, which at first concerned me a great deal as I thought I was being told I could not ride the bus at all with a backpack. It was around then that I yelled for the entire bus to hear “does anybody speak English?” and there was a resounding groan that seemed to indicate, “Oh, great, we’ve got an American on board.” In addition to getting crushed by the door several times, I also had to disembark every time anybody from the back half wanted to get off.

At the train station in Simferopol, I was told by two separate “kasa” or ticket desks that there were no trains to Kiev. Luckily, I had discussed this with my Cape Cod friend Katya the day before, so I headed across the street to a very crowded bus station, only to be told in Ukrainian that there are buses to Kiev, but they only depart from the other bus terminal, across town. I deduce this from the ticket saleswoman’s tone of voice and words that sound like the Ukrainian words for bus station, central, Kiev, which I have become familiar with, and some hand gestures. Lovely.

I walk into a convenience store and wait until the cashier has a free moment, then asked how to get to the bus station, using a garbled version for the Ukrainian word for “bus station” and then repeatedly shaking my head when she pointed at the building behind her, saying “Kiev,” again and again until she understood and wrote down the numbers of the mashrutka I had to take and also the Ukrainian word for bus station, which she seemed to think I needed help getting across, despite my best efforts at speaking Ukrainian. This little slip of paper led me to the city’s other, much less crowded bus station, at which I purchased a ticket for a bus leaving that afternoon and arriving in Kiev the next morning. At this point I was not feeling too great, with a pretty bad sore throat and a lack of real food (vegetarians and Ukrainian train/bus station food don’t mix), so I tried to find snacks for the bus but ended up with old fruit and cookies, neither of which helped. The bus, at around $22 US, was my most expensive transportation in Ukraine, and not my best experience in the category so far. I tried to find a bathroom at one of the earlier breaks, and an elderly couple seemed to be looking too, but as it turned out the station did not have one. The elderly couple was taking care of business behind some bushes, but I did not want to be caught running behind the bus with my pants down, so I re-boarded the bus and waited for the next stop, in a couple hours, passing the time by emailing some friends on my blackberry, listening to the music my brothers gave me before I left (Sam Adams—thanks Ben!) and reading the archives of Texts From Last Night when I had enough service. I tried to sleep, and must have succeeded, because halfway through the night the young girl sitting next to me transformed into—not exaggerating—a guy that looked like a sumo wrestler. He was HUGE. I went back to sleep, and when I woke up he was seated a few rows back, next to somebody else—no idea why, but I was very grateful.

When I arrived in Kiev, I looked at a map and found that I was on the opposite end of the city, so I decided to try to find the metro, which would take me to a hostel I had looked up while on the bus. There was supposed to be a subway stop right by the bus station, and when I asked directions people seemed fairly secure with their pointing and hand gestures, but as I walked across a bridge into the clover of one of Ukraine’s few real highways, I knew that something was wrong. I doubled back and headed through an underpass I thought might lead to a metro station, but which ended up taking me into a parking lot/food market and a bunch of old people shopping for groceries. However, there seemed to be a bus stop, so I pointed on my map to the metro stop near my hostel, trying to pronounce it, and a couple of people pointed to the nearest metro stop, which this bus would stop at, right when the bus arrived. I was a little hazy on the directions but I had to go to the front of the bus to buy my ticket (no more near-arrests for me), and by the time I boarded it I had forgotten what my helpers looked like (I had been focusing on the map), so I sat down. After a couple of stops I asked a woman across the aisle, and she pointed out that we were at the metro stop, but the doors closed before I could get off! She said something along the lines of “yell at the bus driver and he’ll open the back doors again” but I didn’t see how that was feasible given my lack of Ukrainian, so I just waited until the next stop then doubled back. And it was, in fact, the metro station! Excellent. I bought a token and headed down the double-time escalators, then had a split second to choose between subways going in opposite directions. Turns out I chose the correct one, and in a few minutes I was back on the streets of Kiev, trying to figure out road signs in Cyrillic. Ukraine is a funny place; when I ask waiters for checks, or hostel owners for maps, or ticket salespeople for tickets, I get snapped at; when I ask convenience store workers for mashrutka directions, or fruit salespeople for the name of the street I’m on, they’re very sweet and helpful. I eventually found where I’m staying, the international youth hostel Yaroslav, a tiny, depressed type of place, but acceptable for my purposes: R&R. I arrived too early in the morning to get my bed, so I asked a guest hanging out in the common room which way to head for food, and he pointed me to a street with a lot of restaurants—the first of which was a franchise of the same chain I had frequented in Lviv! I headed in and got some really good pancakes among other things, then headed off in the direction (or the direction I thought was correct) of the Hyatt, where my second passport containing my visas to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and China was supposed to be shipped to. The direction was more or less accurate, but having left my map at the hostel I double-checked with a hotel on the street I was walking. They gave me a map and told me “the distance is not walkable,” which I laughed at internally, as I had found few distances that were not actually walkable. When I looked at the map outside, though, I realized that between me and the Hyatt was a forested hill, and the funicular that normally connects each side was in disrepair. There was one street, however, that seemed to connect the bottom to the top, so I headed for it, not realizing that this was one of the oldest streets in Kiev and quite famous. The Hyatt was in a notably nicer area of town than my hostel, though even in that area there was a surplus of litter and a general feeling of grittiness. Possibly the nicest hotel in Kiev, I was not surprised by the clusters of men in business suits or security guards, but what did strike me, after weeks of sleeping in train cars and on bunk beds in small rooms, was the vastness of the lobby. The concierge woman who helped me (in a sort of “we all know you aren’t supposed to be in here” way) required ID to obtain my package, which, as I had told her, was a passport. I was a bit confused by this proceeding, and struck by the irony of requiring ID to receive ID, but realized I had my driver’s license from home, so it was not an issue. Outside the hotel I opened the package and checked over my visas, which were all in order (WAHOO!), even the Uzbekistan one for thirty days, which was not supposed to be issued at all (according to websites, officials, and private visa service providers—I have a very persuasive semi-diplomat father who is particularly good at, you know, breaking rules).

I sat on a bench outside the Sofia Cathedral- Kiev has a LOT of ornately decorated churches- and then headed back to the hostel to “rest,” as my family and friends had ordered me. Six hours later, around 8pm, I woke up! I went back to the cafeteria and got some dinner before going back to bed for another eight hours, and then resting in bed this morning. I met one of my roommates, a guy from Nice waiting for his visa in order to meet up with his girlfriend in Moscow. It seems that Europeans have it easy when it comes to visa processing—they can get a lot of their visas processed while anywhere on the continent. I showered and headed back to the cafeteria for more pancakes, then packed up and have been sitting here for over two hours, writing this ridiculously long blog post. It has actually served me very well to have to catch up on all this writing, as otherwise I would have forced myself to explore Kiev and not “rest,” as I have been ordered. I am now on my third bottle of water and fourth cup of tea since I got here. I’ve also cleared out my trip’s supply of Nyquil and am nearly halfway through my Advil/Tylenol/Dayquil. But I do feel a bit better! As this hostel does not have Wi-Fi, I’m going to head down the street to a cafĂ© to post this and grab some lunch, then rest my way through the afternoon until I head to the airport for my late night flight to Uzbekistan! Hope I haven’t bored you all too much- this post is 10.5 pages single-spaced of less-than-perfectly-edited English!

Until Uzbekistan…


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