Protests, funny old cars, smoking trains, buses blowing up, crazy taxi drivers, hitchhiking & stopping a car by showing off a sexy body! It’s all happening in the Uzhhorod area of Ukraine!
Monday 17th February 2014: journey to Uzhhorod
I was absolutely bonkers on going on this trip with the recent events of the local people in Ukraine protesting about the current government and how they want to be in the European Union and have better business links. The government back in January signed a deal to have better trading links with Russia, and there was a major uproar about this. Since then, Independence Square in the capital, Kyiv has become the protesters headquarters by making a city out of tents, fights have broken out and the European Union are thinking about imposing sanctions on the government. Well, this wasn’t going to stop me. I was on my way to Uzhhorod.
My flight out of Luton airport in England was delayed by thirty minutes due to fog, which was not a problem. When I arrive at Debrecen in eastern Hungary, I would have an hour to get out of the airport, jump into a taxi, find a cash machine, buy train tickets and catch my train to the town of Zahony on the Hungary-Ukraine border. The flight managed to make up some of the lost time and touched down in a dull looking Debrecen with grey skies, dull grey buildings and miserable looking people greeted me upon arrival. A quick exit through the airport, into a taxi, got my cash from a nearby supermarket and I was at the main train station in the centre of town in no time. In general, everything was going to plan, I brought my train tickets (with some help from my Hungarian friend Edit who is based in the UK, wrote down some translations for me about buying the right tickets etc) and I didn’t have to wait long for my train.
Then it all went downhill from there. The train advertised on the old flicker-board which advertises departing trains displayed a thirty minute delay but this was not a problem because I still had time to make my connecting train at Zahony. Thirty minutes later, the board advertised a sixty minute delay, then a ninety minute delay and finally a 120 minute delay. I stood on the concourse at Debrecen station for a very long time and my feet were aching. I couldn’t understand the announcements being made and when I spoke to staff, no one spoke English, German or Russian. I put all the delays down to ‘Hungarian problems’. I made a rash decision as I noticed a train going to Zahony which would stop at every single lamppost on the 118 km (73 mile) journey.
The train got me to my destination eventually but how bored I was. There was nothing to see out of the window, just flat fields, no trees, two major towns, a few villages and that was about it. I was so miserable but I was happy when I stepped onto the platforms at Zahony. I knew I missed my connecting train by at least two hours (thank you Hungarian state railways) and the next train to Chop (which is located inside the Ukrainian border, which is about 4km away on the other side of the River Tisza which separates the two countries) was to depart in four hours time.
I didn’t want to hang around so I decide to walk to the border crossing for road transport which is about fifteen minutes away. Zahony is a very small town where I saw a few apartment blocks and a nice church before reaching the border crossing. I got stopped by a control officer who told me that I couldn’t walk across the bridge and that I had to try and get a lift. My first time trying the hitch hiking method it was to be and after trying every car and lorry waiting to pass the control points, I had no luck. Three Ukrainian ladies in their early twenties walked up from the direction of where I just walked from and they also needed to get across the border. In broken Russian, I explained what I was doing and I asked them if I could join them if there was enough room in the vehicle to get us across the bridge if we managed to stop someone. Five minutes later with no joy, the sexy lady who was about my height, long black hair, thin and really beautiful big blue eyes decided to undo her coat, lifted up her jumper and showed off her huge breasts to an approaching car to grab the driver’s attention.
This worked and with the driver still blinded from what he saw, we all jumped into his car. I sat in the front seat and spoke to the driver in broken Russian until we got to the border control point. While he was out of the car dealing with our passports and customs check, I kept looking at the sexy Ukrainian lady who lifted up her top and I just couldn’t stop laughing. We had trouble communicating but gave me the look with the impression – ‘it worked didn’t it?’ and smiled. Crossing the bridge and entering the Ukraine, we pulled over and dropped the girls off who then jumped into another car who was waiting for them. I convinced the driver to take me off the main road into Chop itself which wasn’t a problem and after a quick Russian language lesson (as it has been a few years where I needed to use the language), we pulled up outside the train station where we said our goodbyes.
It was now dark; no street lighting to show me what was on Bereg Street, the main street in the town. The only cash machine I could find was in the train station and it rejected my card, but luckily I had some loose change and small notes from my last visit to the Ukraine, four years previous. It wasn’t long before I boarded the bus to take me to the town of Uzhhorod on the Ukraine-Slovakia border. The bus journey was a long, bumpy ride on uneven road surfaces but to kill time, the girl sitting near me knew I was an outsider and started asking me questions in her excellent English. Every other question was the same one, ‘Why the hell are you in this part of the country again?”. Eventually the bus pulled outside my accommodation and we said our goodbyes. It was now late at night and was very thankful when my head hit the pillow.
Tuesday 18th February 2014: first day in Uzhhorod
The day started in the north of Uzhhorod near the border crossing for road transport heading into Slovakia. As it was daylight, I was amazed to see the town surrounded by small mountains to the north and east, so I took a bus to take me to a small hill where the university is located. It is here where I had excellent views of the surrounding area, the airport and of course, Slovakia. Here I took time out by sitting outside one of two Orthodox churches I came across and taking in the views on this crispy cold morning. From the university I headed back towards a centre where I found a soviet-style amphitheatre with a beautiful curved metal-skinned roof. Also lots of vodka bottles to be found in the seating area and used condoms, nice.
In the centre I saw the beautiful administrative building with a nice square in front of it and some soviet-style statues dotted around the place. There has been protesting here recently and some people are still camping out in the square, getting ready for the next protest. Further on I was walking along the northern shoreline of the River Uzh, which flows through the heart of Uzhhorod, where I came across the longest linden-alley in Europe. The 2.2km long alley is littered with beautiful trees and is a nice walk by the riverside. I didn’t walk the 2.2km and probably did around 400 meters before turning back into the main part of the centre where I managed to grab lunch in a bar/restaurant.
In this empty establishment I met a young local girl who I got talking too. A small petite person, thin, short blonde hair, a nice smile, you get my drift. Her name was Myroslava, a university student in her early twenties. We got talking and eventually we both had lunch together, where with my main meal I also had possibly the worst onion rings known to mankind. I also asked for a local Ukrainian beer but this did not happen and got some Russian liquid instead which just didn’t taste right. We got on very well and she decided to hang around with me for the rest of the day as she had no studies. Walking up the hill on the eastern side of the centre, along beautiful cobbled streets, we took in the nice looking Greek-Catholic church where Myroslava stated that her sister got married here recently.
At the top of the hill is the castle. From the outside it looks like any other run down castle in western Europe which was built and also mostly run by the Austrian-Hungarian empire. A fire in the 17th century ravaged the grounds and most of the buildings got burnt down apart from the outer walls. There is a Soviet style building in the centre which kind of spoilt the ambiance of the place with many rooms turned into a museum with many paintings, weapons and clothing. Underneath the building in the courtyard is a dungeon where many drawings on the wall shown how people were killed if there did naughty things and also drawings of ladies being raped and then killed for their crimes. Back outside I took in wonderful views of the nearby Carpathian mountains, which are not as high as it’s cousins in nearby Slovakia and Poland but still gave the area a nice relaxed feel about the place.
Over drinks later on that evening I invited Myroslava to come to L’viv with me the next day and we got the train tickets sorted out. An early start was planned, so we left each other for the evening. Back at my accommodation, I had no water, I mean, no hot or cold water. Somebody stated to me that it was government cutbacks on the economy and the water is switched on during three different time periods a day. I would go to bed feeling and smelling bad and brushing my teeth whilst rising out of bottled water was not in my plans.
Wednesday 19th February 2014: L’viv
Meeting at the train station at stupid o’clock, Myroslava and I boarded the 05.40 train to L’viv, a journey which would take over five hours from Uzhhorod. The scenery was pleasant once the sun rose as the train trundled through the mountains passing villages with wooden buildings and barrels of hay dotted around everywhere in the fields. There were plenty of woodland on the mountains, a great place for brown bears to live but I didn’t see any.
L’viv is always a city I wanted to explore in the Ukraine with plenty of history and beautiful architecture. History was being made at the moment with a lot of protesting in the west of the country located here as it is the biggest city around. Arriving at the Soviet style train station with steel girdlers holding up the glass station roof, we took a really old run down tram to the centre where a ticket cost about the same price if you brought wind from a Danish person standing next to the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. The tram trundled along cobbled stone streets where at one point it nearly went head-on with a Lada (an old style Russian car make) whose brakes just didn’t want to work. Passing beautiful Christian churches and Soviet statues, along the street where many ‘young’ people with Ukrainian flags heading to the centre. I kept an eye out for any trouble but the main concern when I saw a young man with a mask on and a baseball bat in his rucksack.
Disembarking the tram in the old town, the first place we took in is Rynok Square with very nice buildings dotted around, one of which was made out of black stone slabs. I could see the city is more geared up for tourism with many souvenirs shops, restaurants, bars and even a tourist information centre. I was shocked to see public toilets here and when I went in, it wasn’t a hole in the floor either. How times are progressing here. Walking north-eastwards through the streets we reached Vysokyi Zamok park where the High Castle is located. There is 244 steps leading up to the castle so I decided for a bit of my running training to run all the way up but failed with around forty steps remaining.
It was then a long walk around the hillside to get to the top of the castle. To be honest, it wasn’t a castle but the remains of a tower. Nevertheless, the views here are fantastic despite the low clouds covering most of the city. L’viv is a huge city to what I could see but most of it was littered with Soviet-style apartment blocks. The centre itself is quite small. About the centre, I also noticed that a lot of the architecture is based on when the Polish folk had the city in their hands. Many countries have had L’viv as their city in the past, the Austrians, the Hungarians, the Polish, the Germans, the Russians, and so forth until reclaim by the local people of the Ukraine.
Back in the centre and walking past the opera house (which is indeed another beautiful building) we landed up on the main boulevard on Svobody Avenue where there is a beautiful green space, trees and benches in the middle for pedestrians to enjoy, but at the southern end of the area is where the protesters were gathering around the main stage. There were religious leaders giving speeches to the crowd and whilst standing there, many more people were turning up with flags to protest. I kept an eye on things, quite a few policemen looking on and a water canyon could be seen on the side streets. With the scene getting more restless and loud ‘noises’ to be had, we ran into a restaurant on one of the nearby streets.
Whilst outside the building the protesters were getting noisier with a lot of shouting and screaming to be heard, we decided to let the time past (and the protesters to calm down) by having a late-lunch, early dinner. I love this part of the Ukraine, I didn’t really have to worry about what I was spending. A steak, fried potatoes and a beer cost me an amazing €4. I just couldn’t spend the money. Once again, no local Ukrainian beer and had to make do with one of the famous brands imported from nearby Czechia. What a shame but I did enjoy and the steak was nice.
I noticed the time and pointed out to Myroslava that our train was about to depart shortly and if we missed it, then the next train was during the night at some godforsaken hour. The problem was that the train station is over 2km away from the centre and we had twelve minutes to play with, so jumping into a taxi parked on the pavement, we told the driver the situation and that was it, full speed ahead, having several near head on collisions with other cars (and one with a tram on the tram line), up the kerb, jumping red lights and trying to be like Nigel Mansell on drugs on the long straight road on the approach to the train station. I was a little bit shaken up but the driver got us to the train on time and he got a nice little tip from me.
It was time for another long train journey back to Uzhhorod and whilst talking to Myroslava who has never met anyone from outside her country and discussing what else there is to do in the region which I could do the next day, I noticed a lot of people standing near the doors at the end of each carriage, smoking away their cheap nasty tobacco with the smoke blowing into the seating area. It was disgusting, shouldn’t the Ukrainian government take care of this more than signing business deals with Moscow?
Thursday 20th February 2014: Mukachevo
After a long lie in and a short taxi ride from my accommodation to the bus station, I met up with Myroslava around lunchtime. We were talking the previous night and recommend that I should go to a town called Mukachevo to see a beautiful castle located on a hilltop on the edge of the mountain range. She had no studies today, so once again I asked her if she wanted to tag alone. Boarding a minibus we were made to stand for at least thirty minutes out of the hour journey which was a bit uncomfortable but other people standing up didn’t seem to mind.
At the bus station where minibus littered the area on the uneven road surface where potholes the size of huge creators were dotted in various parts of the road filled with water, we decided to take a taxi to the castle as it was over 2,500 meters walk plus the castle was on the hill top. To be honest I was being lazy and I noticed the only taxi at the bus station was a Lada. I always wanted to take a ride in a Lada and I got my chance. The journey to the castle wasn’t a bad one to be honest but going up the hill the Lada struggled but eventually we got to the summit.
Palanok Castle (otherwise known as Mukachevo castle to the locals) is one of the best preserved castles I have seen in this part of Europe and the complex consists of three parts, the high, the middle, the lower castles as the three parts are built on different levels on the hill side or on the actual summit itself.
Built in the 14th century for the Hungarian family known as the Aba’s, the castle has been in Hungarian hands for many centuries, the castle was soon turned from state family home into an European political prison. It was then turned back into a stately home with the higher castle being the most decorative and as the years wore on, more fortresses were built on the outside making the castle one of the best fortresses in the area. We walked around with plenty of underground passages to take in and around 130 rooms to take in which most of it is now a museum. I loved the courtyard and the view from the East Bastion where amazing views of the mountains and surrounding town and villages were to be had.
We both decided that we should walk back to the centre as it was a really nice day, the sun was out making an appearance and there was a gentle breeze in the air to mix in with the crispy frosty air. At the bottom of the hill I stated to Myroslava that we should walk across to the other side of the road where there is a pavement to walk on and also we could see oncoming traffic. We crossed and twenty seconds later there was a huge mighty explosion behind us. A bus has lost one of its back wheels which had blew up and bounced across the road. If we were there twenty seconds earlier I was wondering if the bus would have hit us as well. Both of us were shook up but the driver just got out of the bus, tried to resolve the problem as if nothing had happened and had the look of ‘I got no care in the world right now’.
The walk to the centre was a long and boring one with not much to see but in the centre of town there are some nice buildings to see, mainly churches but a nice clock tower points upwards on one side of the small square. The town wasn’t bustling with people as it was late afternoon and after a coffee in a bar it was time to head back to the bus station which was quite a walk. Back in Uzhhorod it was time to have another steak meal in a restaurant on the outskirts of town near my accommodation but on entry to the establishment, I did ask if the restaurant was open for business as there were no other customers in there. I am glad we decided to stay as the steak was cooked perfectly and was mega-cheap. Also I managed to try an Ukrainian beer for the first time and my response, well, it wasn’t that great.
Friday 21st February 2014: Chop to Debrecen
A very early start as I had a flight from Debrecen, Hungary before lunchtime. Myroslava met me at my accommodation and ordered me a taxi to take me to Chop on the border of Ukraine/Hungary for a train to take me across the river. The taxi which stood outside the accommodation at 04.30 (local time) was a Lada! I thought I had my fun in a Lada the previous day but this morning was not the time to have some fun. I had at least forty minutes to get to the train station to do passport checks/custom clearance then board the train. Sitting in the back seat and out onto the main road heading south, the Lada was reaching top speeds of 45k.p.h. It was a very slow journey and I was a little bit worried when the driver kept missing turnings and when it was time to do reserve movements, or turning left or right onto other roads at junctions, the Lada would just stall. The gear changing kept making loud crunching noises and this was making me worried as I knew if I miss this train, then it would be the hitch hiking methods again at the road control area.
Ahead of me I could see the lampposts switched on and bright orange lights dotted around the horizon. I looked out of the back window and the area was total darkness. Does the Ukrainian officials switched off the electricity as well in these areas? Eventually the Lada pulled outside the train station in central Chop and we walked into the main booking hall (which I didn’t see a few evenings earlier), and I was impressed with the Soviet paintings above the cashiers windows, showing hero soldiers in their war against the Nazi Germans.
I said my goodbyes to Myroslava and headed into the custom area where straight away I was kicked back out into the ticket hall. I already had a train ticket which I bought in Hungary the other day with Chop to Debrecen as my route. I was frogmarched to the ticket office to buy another ticket to get me to Zahony in Hungary, just 4km away. I kept protesting and arguing the fact that I already had a ticket and why the hell should I spend 0.50€ on another ticket. It was the principal and with Myroslava looking on, she couldn’t understand why the officials were making me buy another ticket. Anyway, I brought one, said my goodbyes again, gave the custom official a dirty look and then went through to the platforms and boarded my train. The train departed and headed out of Chop and across fields towards the river. Just before the bridge the train slowed right down and an official came out of a hut with a torch to check underneath the train to make sure no one was escaping the country.
The train pulled into Zahony train station so I was back in the land of the European Union with no problems. Passport and control checks done on the train and I managed to find my intercity train with no problems. I was the only passenger on the train and it felt well spooky, all quiet, darkness and myself, I looked like a zombie. Eyes shifting everywhere when I heard something strange.
The journey soon passed by and I arrived in Debrecen with a few hours to spare before I had to go to the airport. Walking out of the station, I headed north along Piac Street to the main centre of the city. First impression is that it looks like a very dull city with old (plus new) trams and lots of Soviet style apartment blocks dotted all around the place. The further I walked, the roads improved, the buildings looked newer and modern department stores came into view.
More beautiful buildings with nice architecture came into view, one with a clock tower but at the northern end of the street is the impressive Reformed Great Church of Debrecen with its two black domes on two towers overshadowing the square below. I walked around a bit longer, looking outside the museum buildings and along pavements next to busy roads which is in much need of repairing. Debrecen is the second largest city in Hungary after the capital but seriously, the centre of town wasn’t that big and did most of the sights before most of the local people started their working day in offices and shops. I found a McDonalds for a late breakfast (as I have been up for five hours by this point), but as well as food, some much needed free WIFI for my phone was to be had and I killed a lot of time in here before heading off, grabbing a taxi and flying out of the airport heading back home to Luton. Everything went to plan on the way home which I was impressed but I was totally shattered when I walked back into my home mid-afternoon.
I totally enjoyed this trip, there was drama, there were good times, there were crazy times and there were sad times. I will never forget this trip. My thoughts are of those being killed in Kyiv when I was in L’viv, seeing video footage of local people being hit in the chest with bullets by professional snipers ordered by the president. The Ukraine is an European country and to see scenes like this in the 21st century is upsetting. The last time anything like this had happened was in Bosnia in the 1990’s. A few things have happened in the Ukraine as I am writing this and I really hope the country can now move forward, make the right choices and do what is right for its citizens. I hope there will be no more killings and for some reason I hope the corruption is now finished within the political circles but I can’t not see this happen.
This was my second trip to the Eastern European country and is one which has to be visited. It is different to other countries in the region, like Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Poland etc, the country is still establishing itself from the bad times and is moving on, very slowly. The people are fantastic, the food is basic but filing (but please improve your local beers!), there are some amazing places to visit and beautiful mountains to look at in the west, whilst there is so much history within and surrounding the capital. The events recently shouldn’t put off visitors, it certainly didn’t put me off and I was in safe hands with the locals. A big thank you to those who helped me out there and taking care of me, I will never forget you.
My second trip to Uzhhorord – 1st – 2nd July 2014
My second trip to western Ukraine was an unplanned one as I was in Slovakia but with most trips, plans changed and I decided to see my friends once again in Uzhhorod which lies on the western border of the country with Slovakia, with the Romanian and Hungarian borders to the south and the Polish to the north. In this part of the Ukraine, life hasn’t changed that much with the crisis in the other end of the country (since I last went to Ukraine, Crimea is now part of Russia and a civil war/rebel war is breaking out as I predicted and Putin is probably pulling all the strings as he wants Ukraine to pay an unpaid gas bill and also wants to punish the country as Ukrainian people have been stealing the gas – don’t ask, this is what has been happening and a few Ukrainian people have shown me evidence that this was happening, anyway, I am not getting involved in political debates).
I spent a good time with my friend Myro (and a few others) who has just received her diploma from the Uzhhorod university. To celebrate I treated the guys for an evening meal out and brought three main meals, two desserts and about fourteen drinks (a few of them cocktails). Now, as I was here back in February I noticed there was quite a huge difference with the currency exchange rate and I was paying a lot less for the goods than I did. The crisis in Ukraine has had a huge effect on the currency and economy. For tourists it’s fantastic and I was living like a king again but how long will the Ukraine be like this? (I paid £14 – $20 for the above meals and drinks).
During the day time I also managed to do a little hike north of the town near a village called Nevytsky. The terrain wasn’t really mountainous but more like rolling hills with a lot of forestry. During the hike I managed to check out a ruined castle (called Nevytsky castle) perched on top of a hill. The tower still stands in the heart of the complex but no staircase for visitors to go to the top of the tower. It was quite pleasant walking around in the middle of the day, heat from the sun at its strongest but apart from that there were no other sights (or people hiking) to be seen. (If anyone is interested, it takes about 30-45 minutes from Uzhhorod to Nevystsky).
I had a problem getting back to Kosice in Slovakia (where my flight departs from to get back to London) as I missed the bus to take me there from Uzhhorod. I landed up sleeping on a sofa at my friends apartment, taking a taxi (a lada) at stupid o’clock in the morning to a small border town called Chop, then taking a local train over the border in Slovakia (where the border checks took so long) and then change for another train which went at a stupid low speed all the way to Kosice but I still made my flight with a few hours to spare.
Košice – Thursday 3rd July 2014
On my way back home to the UK from Uzhhorod, Ukraine, I stopped off in the city of Košice located in Eastern Slovakia and is the country’s second largest city in population. The airport was a 10km taxi ride for me but I managed to have a few hours spare to walk around the city and take in the sights briefly whilst also grabbing some breakfast.
After a long delay at the border control (Slovakia/Ukraine border about 100km away), the train ride was a long and slow journey. Looking out of the window, the rain was lashing down and the only view I had was fields and a few buildings. The train pulled in around 0700, walking from the train through the main concourse, the station was very run down and grey. I was just happy to leave the place.
The first sight out of the main doors was a view of trams, buses and a line of taxis. A few scruffy people were sitting on the floor, begging and other people were dressed in suits and holding briefcases, dashing their way through the crowds to get to their place of work. I never let first impressions let me down and I was right.
I walked straight past the tram and bus station, following signs, over a bridge which had a busy main road underneath and then I arrived in the centre. It wasn’t like any other centre, by the looks of the city I have arrived in Krakow in Poland. A lot of the buildings I saw were old but very impressive. I walked down the cobble streets passing many bakeries and gift shops selling wooly jumpers (despite the fact it was now summer) and I came across one of the most impressive cathedrals in Europe known as St Elizabeths. This cathedral is also the largest church in Slovakia as well as being the most easternmost Gothic churches in Europe. Built in the 13th century, the cathedral is surrounded by a huge square and a garden which makes this part of the city very picturesque.
There are many other beautiful buildings which some have paintings on describing what the building was used for or describing an historical event. I was fortunate to have some time here and I loved taking photos of the buildings. I found my walk a fascinating one, a walk which I felt like I was wandering around a town in medieval times expecting dragons and knights in gleaming shiny metal armour to pop out at any moment. Like I mentioned, I didn’t have much time here as after breakfast, it was time to head to the airport and head home after a few good days here and in the Ukraine.