Monday, September 7, 2009

Lviv, Ukraine

Tired of overnight trains or buses, I decided to spend an entire day (10 hours) traveling by train from Kiev to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine. The ride was enjoyable as the platzkarnty was not full and I got space to lie down. I spent the time gazing out the window at the lush, flat Ukrainian plains and brown-roofed village homes and observing the scores of sellers parading their goods down the aisle. I also read quite a bit on Central America, my next big destination.

A side note is that the ticket-buying process at train stations is quite intriguing. First of all, one lines up (and boy the lines are always long!). However, one needs to navigate to the correct window (domestic, international and others) of which are signed only in Cyrillic. Each window has different operating hours with 1-hour lunch breaks and several 10-minute “technology” breaks, meaning that one could wait quite a while to buy a train ticket.

Lviv is a city that has both Polish and Austrian-Hungarian influences in its culture and architecture.

Similar to Brasov, I did not expect to see such “Western” architecture there. Many of these buildings were run down, which gave the city an authentic feel. I enjoyed wandering down the cobbled-stone streets and admiring Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical churches and buildings. One favorite building of mine is the 13th century Armenian Church, which is quite different from the rest inside. There were few tourists there, which made the trip even more real. Moreover, similar to other Eastern European cities I have visited, I appreciated the many trees and parks in the city.

The only negative aspect of my stay in Lviv and in Ukraine was the weather. It rained during the 3 days I was in the Ukraine. Each day, it rained throughout the day and the sky was overcast. I didn’t expect the weather to change so quickly for the worse once September began. I also observed plenty of yellow leaves. I can imagine how gloomy, cold and miserable winters in the Ukraine can be!

Once again, I decided to take an overnight train, this time from Lviv to Krakow, Poland. Looking at the map, I thought the trip could be completed in 4 hours, but was told 10 hours. I soon realized why as we were stuck at the two borders for 5 hours and 40 minutes, a record for me! (This even beats the 3-hour plus delay I experienced in Skopje, Macedonia.)

At the Ukrainian side of the border, the immigration officer tried to find something wrong with my passport by saying that my additional visa pages in the middle of the passport looked suspicious. (I guess they wanted to find something wrong with someone and since everyone else on the bus was either Ukrainian or Russian, I was the obvious target.) However, I held my ground and told him it was officially placed there by U.S. immigration authorities. After a few more minutes of trip detail interrogation, he stamped my passport and let me go.

On the Polish side, we waited even longer. This was because the immigration officers had to scrutinize the visas and invitations of the Ukrainians and Russians. I wonder how it is the other way around, let’s say, if a Westerner entered Russia. After the lengthy immigration process, everyone had to leave the bus with all of his or her luggage. The bus was searched and our bags were inspected. I wonder if this is something that occurs on the border between Schengen and non-Schengen countries. Thus, even with the extra bus journey time buffered in for the border crossing, the bus arrived at Krakow almost 2 hours late!

One last comment is that I am starting to realize the benefits of the EU for travelers. Besides the common currency that saves both time and money, lack of border controls saves a lot of time. As a frequent traveler, I cannot wait till the entire continent is in the EU and when the entire world is visa-free (my lifelong wish!).

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