The Train to Ukraine


I’d taken the overnight train from Budapest to Lviv and much of the trip was spent in confusion. Trying to board the train I was given a different cabin to the one on my ticket, and then once I got to that cabin I was moved to a different one again. I don’t know why as none of the train conductors spoke any English. Given that I had the cabin to myself I like to think that they were just being nice. However the male conductor kept on coming into my cabin every hour or so and sitting down and saying something that I didn’t understand, so it was a little weird.

I’d packed myself a big bag of salami and salad baguettes, and had chocolate and apples and biscuits to snack on during the trip, which was a very long eighteen hours. It’s not really all that great a distance either, but the train was slow. It also had to stop at the Hungary/Ukraine border because the gauge of the rails changes…and the entire train has to change to be able to do it’s train stuff on the other side. It’s loud and bumpy and feels like the train is bouncing around when they’re changing the carriage you’re in.

At the same time, Hungarian Customs offcers come through the train and stamp you out of Hungary. That doesn’t take long – they just look quickly through your passport to find the Schengen entry stamp and add an exit one. Done in two minutes.

Ukrainian Customs is another story.

As you likely know, getting a visa was a pain in the arse for me. I shouldn’t have been surprised then that the Customs officers took their time – but at least they were relatively friendly. First they took my passport without any questions. A different officer came back about forty-five minutes later asking to see my invitation letter…the one that I gave to the consulate during the application process and was told I didn’t need to have a copy with me. The officers thankfully were happy to accept that. Then they asked me why I was travelling with an Australian passport… I thought the fact that I’m an Australian citizen was a logical response to this question but they didn’t believe me. It turned out that they’d only managed to look at the page with my Iranian visa from 2010, complete with a rather unattractive photo of me in a headscarf, and thought I was Iranian with a fake passport. After all, it’s really common for Iranians to have bright red hair, blue eyes and freckles. I think they felt a bit stupid when I explained to them that was my visa from a year earlier when I had travelled to Iran. However, they then found it hilarious that I was wearing a headscarf in the picture and vanished again to show a few other people, who I could hear laughing in the corridor. They came back about fifteen minutes later to ask why I was going to Ukraine, where I was going, where I was staying and for how long, do I know any Ukrainians, have I ever been kicked out of Ukraine and so on. That was the most I’ve ever been interrogated entering any country – often you’re lucky to be asked what your purpose of travel is, and the universal ‘tourism’ response is all they need.

They also left for me the immigration document to be completed. Of course, it was entirely in Ukrainian… and therefore in the Cyrillic alphabet. I’ve filled out a fair few of these documents in my time, and this was the first I’d seen that was in only the language of the issuing country. Every other one I’ve completed was either in English, or had the English translations besides the original, or had French translations. Trying to fill this out was interesting. The Customs officer who spoke a bit of English [at least enough to ask a few questions] was nowhere to be found, and the conductor spoke no English although I managed to understand where to write my name and passport number. He kept coming back every ten minutes to see if I’d finished filling out the form, as though I’d managed to miraculously absorb the Ukrainian language somehow in the ten minutes of his absence. After an hour, he came back with a Ukrainian passenger who also spoke English and she thankfully explained to me what to fill in. Eventually the Customs man came back and took my form, returning a few minutes later with my stamped passport. The whole time, I’d been worried that maybe they would just decide not to let me in. It’s odd – I’ve never been concerned about being refused entry to a country, but then I’d never had to lie on my visa application either.



This had literally taken hours, and so I was very relieved to have my passport back. I locked my little cabin door and tried to get some sleep.

I arrived in Lviv armed with the directions to the hostel on my phone, which sounded pretty easy to follow – take tram number 1 from outside the train station and then walk for about three minutes. All was going well…until it turned out that trams were not running due to construction. I found out it was due to construction later – a lady in a shop waved her hands, told me ‘nye tram’ and wrote the number 66 on a piece of paper for me.

I assumed that this meant I could get the number 66 bus into the centre of town and so found myself the 66 bus, pushing in with my pack between a mass of locals all trying to cram into the bus. I even managed to get a seat! Unfortunately, I had no idea whatsoever when or where to get off the bus.

The map of Lviv in the Lonely Planet has all the street names in Roman letters of course so that tourists can read the map. However the names on street signs, when you can find them, are all in Cyrillic. I’d had a quick look at the alphabet on the train and decided I’d just look for any street name I could recognise, translating the first four or five letters of each into English as we went and comparing these to the map. Finally I saw something vaguely familiar and jumped out of the bus at the next stop. It only took about five minutes from there to find the hostel so I decided that I’d done well. I was rather pleased with myself and was looking forward to a hot shower. And so I’d made it to Ukraine.


6 responses to “The Train to Ukraine

  1. Oh man, this is all so typical of Ukraine. The whole time I was reading this, I was thinking… of course they would do that. I give you much credit to handling it well and not turning around. I’m excited to read the rest of your Lviv posts, and don’t be surprised (/freaked out) if I end up commenting on them all… It’s my hometown 🙂

    • Oh believe me, I’m not perfect! It was a little frustrating, but at the same time it was funny – the fact that I got to stay in my cabin, out of the cold, certainly helped me to see the lighter side.
      I hope you enjoy my other posts! I loved Lviv, it was such a beautiful city and I had a great time there. I read on your blog that you left Ukraine at six – have you been back?

      • Haha, no worries! I’ve been back, but only 3 times since I left in ’93. My first time back was in ’99, then in ’04 and last summer, so it’s been great reading about here!

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