Even after doing research and finding many sources online to show how safe a country is, many people unfortunately are stuck with the hurtful and strong opinions western media portrays of countries in conflict, war, and tough political negotiations. Ukraine is one of these countries. When I began my travels, I had an urge in the back of my mind to visit this mysterious place that my grandfather had come from, but was taken aback by all the negative stereotypes and mainstream media coverage of how “dangerous” the country was. It turns out, after doing more research into outlets such as Reddit where locals can actually write their opinions and narratives, the western side of Ukraine is very much alive and well, going about daily life as normal, regardless of how badly the war near the border with Russia has affected their already low socioeconomic status. Knowing that the country would probably pose many bullets I would have to dodge in a language barrier/cultural way, I began to teach myself the Cyrillic alphabet in hopes that I could find a cheap flight from Turkey, as I was living in Istanbul and it was only two hours away.
Doing some scanning of flight deals on the web, I came upon a roundtrip ticket from Istanbul to Kiev that I couldn’t pass up, and began to formulate my plans of places I was interested in seeing within the country. First off, my love of urban exploring and all things abandoned has always put Chernobyl high up on the list of places I want to visit, so researching and contacting a company that does day tours was a must. After talking to a friend who had previously been traveling in Ukraine coming up from the border with Romania, I found out about another town called Chernivtsi which was known for its beautiful Austro-Hungarian architecture and historic university that is still running today. Looking at pictures, my mind was already set on it being a place I would visit; a detour before the old city of Lviv in the northwestern part of the country close to the border with Poland. Then, I would take a train back to Kiev after a few days in Lviv for my Chernobyl tour, do a necessary trip to Zhitomir and Troyanov, the county and town where my grandfather and his father grew up two hours outside of Kiev, and finally go back to Kiev for a few days before flying home to Istanbul.
Through contacting many individuals in my places of interest on couchsurfing, I was able to make quick friends who helped me reserve tickets online for trains, gave me precautions about traveling in their country, and recommended places I couldn’t miss. Arriving in Kiev early in the morning, I had already made a rough plan of the places I wanted to see before my eleven hour overnight train to Chernivtsi left around eight at night. After being dropped off at the main train station from a steaming hot bus with the sun relentlessly burning the side of my face, I was ready to walk around and sightsee. The day was spent wandering around historic streets and purposely trying to get lost, but unfortunately Kiev is a very easy city to find your way around. With so many historic landmarks, once you find one you are able to gauge where in the city you are, and retrace your steps back to other areas.
I wanted to see St. Andrew’s, an old Baroque Church that overlooks the historic Podil neighborhood down a sweeping road known as Andriyivskyy Descent, an area where people sell local crafts and war memorabilia. On the way there, I met a girl named Olena pictured in the photo below whose first question upon finding out that I was American was “why did you come to this country?” Without hesitation, I told her that I wanted to see how positive and beautiful the country was compared to its shattered image in the media, and a huge smile lit up her face. She then told me how she had a sister living in NYC and she wished more Americans would have the courage to see past the negative media bias. Making my way to St. Andrew’s, I was astonished by its beauty and the fact that there were literally five other tourists there. Once I went inside and payed the fifty cents (!!!) fee to take photos, I was even more astounded by the intricacies and details in the architecture. From the view outside, I spotted a quaint café down the street with a sign on it showing a pumpkin, and I was automatically convinced to go. One of my favorite parts about fall and Chester County back home is the emphasis on fall flavors during this time of year, and if there was one thing I was missing in my life living abroad, it was pumpkin flavored everything. I settled for a delicious homemade pumpkin soup that came with two pieces of warm focaccia bread covered in melted cheese, and I was in heaven.
The rest of the day was spent walking around and finding beautiful architecture, trying street foods and drinks, and getting myself acquainted with the metro in the city, as I would be using it for the next couple days when I came back from Lviv. Luckily, not only was the metro easy and well laid out, but it only cost about fourteen cents per ride (with transfers included). Can’t go wrong with that. Before I had to make it back to the train terminal, I read about a microbrewery that was a twenty five minute walk away from the station and lauded as one of the best in the country, so I had to give it a try. After getting myself lost (but close) to where the brewery was, I asked a friendly face on the street for directions and he walked with me to where I needed to go. I immediately sat down and ordered a sampler of the six different types of beers they had on draft, and was pleasantly surprised by their Hefeweizen (wheat beer). I also was craving a burger, so I ordered one that came inside a pink bun.
Full and content, I made my way back to the station and bought a water previous to the long journey I was about to take. Grabbing my bag from the locker room where I had stored it all day, I went back into the terminal and was able to find the electronic sign displaying Chernivtsi/Чернівці́. When the train arrived, I walked from one train car to the next trying to find which cabin was mine, and although none of the attendants knew English, they pointed me to the correct place I needed to go. Getting inside, I was roomed in a small compartment with four beds and three Ukrainians who spoke no English. Making my bed on the top bunk, I stored my belongings in a carved out area next to my bed above our sliding door, read a little bit, then tried to sleep. Each time I would fall asleep or be close to passing out, the train would run over a bit of track and begin a series of shakes that felt as though we were going to topple off the line we were on. It was definitely a different experience to get used to, and I had to trick my mind into believing that trains normally feel as though they are going to fall off tracks when running in order to get a couple hours of sleep.
Waking up to the brisk cool air that was blowing into our corridor at around six thirty in the morning, I was excited and ready to see a new city. Asking around to make sure I got off at the right stop, I learned (once I had asked five to six people) that we would be arriving in forty minutes to our destination. Giving my used sheets to the attendant, I was delighted to find out that there was free tea, which was a great way to warm up in the chilly corridor while staring out the windows to watch the sunrise. Arriving only a couple minutes late, I stretched my body as I tiredly stumbled off the train in Chernivtsi, ready to sightsee for the day before taking another slightly shorter (only five hours!) train to Lviv.
However, when I went to purchase my ticket in the station (which didn’t accept credit cards, even though there was a sign on their window showing that they did), I realized that I didn’t have enough money. To my dismay, the two ATM machines in the station were turned off, so I asked the attendant the closest area to take out money, to which she pointed and said “town.” I began the climb up the large hills that one has to trudge up to get into town from the station, and immediately saw a corner store close by that had an ATM inside. After what looked like the machine finishing my transaction, it gave me an error message stating technical difficulties, so I had to find another machine. Finally, after about a half an hour hike up the road, I found another ATM from a well-known Ukrainian bank, and took out money. When I was finished the transaction, I was 200 hryvnia (~10 USD) richer than before, but a large message came up on the screen (all in Ukrainian) and wouldn’t give me my card back. My heart quickly sunk and I looked around to see three kids that appeared to be a couple years younger than me drinking coffee nearby. I walked up and tried to explain the issue to them, but two didn’t speak English while the other remained silent. After a bit of panic, the one who hadn’t spoken came over to the ATM with me and translated the message which had asked me whether I wanted to input a code for making sure no one could steal my credit card info. He then told me that all I had to do was exit out of the option, and my card was returned. Breathing a sigh of relief, I thanked him profusely and then went all the way back down the hill to purchase my ticket.
Walking back up the hill again after finally acquiring my ticket, I spent the next two hours wandering the streets, and then sneaking into the Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University. This school was the main reason I planned to come all the way to Chernivtsi, due to its fascinating history of changing the language that courses had been offered in three different times (German, Romanian, Ukrainian) in its past hundred and forty years of existence. Not only is it a UNESCO-world heritage site, but the architecture strongly reflects the Byzantine period, and is among some of the best eclecticism style that remains in the world, let alone that I’ve ever seen.
After seeing as much of the inside and outside as I could, I found a quaint little coffee shop near the school that had been recommended to me by a couchsurfer, and sat there long enough while editing photos to eat both breakfast and lunch. The girls working were probably around my age, and kept putting on amazing tunes, to the point where I was Shazaming every single track. Seeing my fascination, the girl whose music it was came over and gave me her USB stick to download the playlist. So if you’d like an awesome electronic/indie/Ukrainian playlist of tracks, let me know and I can happily share it with you.
Walking back up the hill again after finally acquiring my ticket, I spent the next two hours wandering the streets, and then sneaking into the Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University. This school was the main reason I planned to come all the way to Chernivtsi, due to its fascinating history of changing the language that courses had been offered in three different times (German, Romanian, Ukrainian) in its past hundred and forty years of existence. Not only is it a UNESCO-world heritage site, but the architecture strongly reflects the Byzantine period, and is among some of the best eclecticism style (insert link to wikiarticle) that remains in the world, let alone that I’ve ever seen.
After seeing as much of the inside and outside as I could, I found a quaint little coffee shop near the school that had been recommended to me by a couchsurfer, and sat there long enough while editing photos to eat both breakfast and lunch. The girls working were probably around my age, and kept putting on amazing tunes, to the point where I was Shazaaming (insert link) every single track. Seeing my fascination, the girl whose music it was came over and gave me her USB stick to download the playlist. So if you’d like an awesome electronic/indie/Ukrainian playlist of tracks, let me know and I can happily share it with you.
Realizing I had about an hour before my train left to Lviv, I still wanted to check out the abandoned Jewish cemetery on the other side of town, as it was supposedly one of the largest in Eastern Europe. Of course, with the lack of street signs in most small cities, I got myself lost again and asked two girls who didn’t know much English if they could help me. Luckily, one of them, named Natasha understood English, and was walking the same direction as where the cemetery was to catch a bus back to her house after school. We began to talk and with the help of google translate were able to communicate well. It was nice to meet a local who was interested in American culture and learning more English, and I told her about my experiences with couchsurfing, which she had never heard of before.
Departing from where Natasha needed to take a bus, I walked up the main street which the cemetery was on, passing many villagers and citizens selling local produce. I wanted to buy everything as enormous bags of potatoes, beautiful ripe tomatoes, and many colors of peppers flashed by my peripherals. When I had finished walking past the hustle and bustle of the market, I looked to my left to see the remains of grave markers being devoured by vines and bushes. Walking a bit further up the street, I went inside the entrance and saw the ruins of an abandoned synagogue, next to rows upon rows (I mean thousands) of grave stones. As I sauntered into the premises and spun around three hundred sixty degrees to look around me, I came to the realization that I was probably surrounded by the ancestors and early family members of many of my Jewish friends. During this time, I took a moment to reflect on how important it is to not forget where we’ve all come from.
Checking the time, I realized that I needed to get to the train station, and began walking back. On the way, I picked up some water, chips, and a beer to relax and enjoy during the five hours I would be in transit. Going through the same process of trying to find my cabin, I was lucky to have an attendant who understood more English than the one on the previous train, and she physically showed me where my bed was. Since it was not an overnight train, I decided against paying the extra money for blankets, sheets, and a pillow, but after growing tired and drowsy from walking around all day, and with none of my three other roommates in my cabin, I resorted to taking a pillow that was on top of my bunk and passed out for a couple hours. I then wrote and read until I arrived in Lviv, where I was to stay with Yosyp, a guy I met through couchsurfing whose apartment was directly next to the Opera House in the center of the city. More to come in the near future….