All Shook Up in Ukraine

In 2006, which feels like a million years ago, I went to Ukraine for a weekend. It was an eventful two days, and I’ve just come across the pictures on a photo disc (that’s how old-fashioned we’re talking about here), so let me tell you all about it.

My Polish person and I were holidaying in the remotest corner of his country, and we spent our days moving between the three cafes and two pizza parlours the town had to offer. There really wasn’t anything to do. Feeling adventurous, we exchanged some money (I’ve long forgotten what the Ukrainian currency is called) and took a bus to the nearest train station because nothing is easy when you are young and poor and have no car. We waited for a train that was doing runs across the border, but not much further. When the train turned up, it was easy to see why nobody would want to go longer distances in it: It was practically falling apart in front of our eyes. Inside, it looked like this:

Interior of Polish-Ukrainian border train, old and dilapidated
I’d call that well-used.

As the train slowly (very slowly) moved towards the border, we took some pictures, and I mused on how far we’d come in East Germany, where trains were brand new and worked properly. My Polish person didn’t seem so surprised at the state of things. Clanking and groaning, our train reached the border, and several Ukrainian border guards entered. They all looked like extras from every James Bond movie ever, and they took everyone’s passport without saying a word. We had to fill out forms stating the reason for our visit and our destination (needless to say, we hadn’t booked a hotel but merely gone online and looked up the address of one). The train had stopped, and there I was, without a passport, unable to speak Polish or Ukrainian, and holding on for dear life to the man next to me who spoke both. When the train started moving again, the movie extras returned, and with them my passport, now with a brand new Ukrainian stamp — this was the first and only time I have ever left the EU. We arrived in Khyrov, where we found a minibus, a retired German minivan, that took us to Lviv. The journey was equally adventurous: I was convinced I’d found out that cars drive on the left side of the road in Ukraine, until I realised that a) the potholes on the right side could have swallowed a minibus whole, and b) we didn’t encounter a single car, so the side of the road really didn’t matter. The radio was playing 70s pop, and old men with scythes were eyeing us suspiciously from the fields. Magical.

We arrived in Lviv, where nothing made any sense, because I don’t read Cyrillic.

Street scene in Lviv, Ukraine: Tram and car, apartment block
I like to think it says something sarcastic about ignorant Western tourists on the side of the tram.

I got to use a toilet that was just a hole in the ground, but at least it had a door. We walked through town, found a hotel, and spent the next 24 hours sightseeing. Lviv is beautiful.

Narrow streets in the old town, Lviv, Ukraine
Not pictured: Trams at breakneck speed

Square with museum in Lviv, Ukraine

We briefly contemplated taking a faster train back to Poland, but all the trains in Lviv go east, either to Kiev or Moscow, so we found another minibus and went back to Khyrov. After walking around the village twice and buying tacky cartoon postcards in the only shop, my Polish person bribed a shopkeeper to let me use the toilet because I had developed a fear of station toilets. That’s how it’s done, apparently. When we finally entered the station building, we were treated to a display of half-dressed women of all ages frantically stuffing cartons of cigarettes in their underwear. Many, many cartons. Turns out it’s quite a lucrative business to smuggle cigarettes into the EU. You learn something new every day. After a while, we found out that the train was delayed, and nobody could say if it was going to turn up at all. It was getting dark. In the village square, the local drunks were starting to fall off their benches. We sat and waited.

Surprisingly, the train arrived some time after nightfall, and this time, it quickly filled up with people. As soon as we started moving, the show started: All the women (there were very few men) took out their screwdrivers and started unscrewing the train. They opened every air vent and wall panel, seatback and armrest and filled the empty spaces inside with their cigarette cartons. Then they quickly screwed everything back together. And just as well, because we had reached the border. The train stopped, and here were the Polish border guards this time, not looking quite so menacing, but also not stupid either. Calmly and with obvious practice, they took out their own screwdrivers and lovingly unscrewed every air vent and wall panel, every seatback and armrest again. They collected the cigarette cartons they had found (eyeing us all suspiciously), and screwed everything back together. They let us all wait for another half hour, and then the train started moving again. And all the women took out their screwdrivers again to look for the cigarette cartons the border guards had not found. Meanwhile, we had calculated that in its lifetime, our train had been unscrewed roughly 65,000 times; suddenly, the fact that it was moving at all, slowly or not, seemed like a miracle.

We arrived in Poland in the middle of the night, found a taxi in front of a bar and its driver in the bar, and convinced him to leave his beer and drive us back to our hotel. It was all downhill through the mountains, and I have never been so scared in my life. The next day, we had a long lie-in. Had we gone out early in the morning, we would have seen all our fellow travellers from the day before, selling their cigarettes in the market. I often wonder if the people who smoke cheap smuggled cigarettes have any idea where those cigarette cartons have been.

By Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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