It had been almost a year of travelling Europe after 3 months hopping the Greyhounds around Australia. I thought myself a pretty polished traveller, but although I’d turned 18 on the road, I was still very much a kid.
Gradually, as the cities visited piled up and the distance from home and family became greater, things finally began to change.
The advice in Lonely Planet mattered less, and the recommendations from excited tourists at the youth hostels began to ring hollow.
Like a junkie developing a tolerance, that feeling of mystery and adventure that pulses from the railway tracks or the open road was harder to find.
So I headed East from Prague to Poland,
Changing trains in Katowice, I really felt like I’d left Western Europe behind.
Back then Katowice was a huge, concrete warehouse. The Homeless slept on the chairs or wandered, somnolent, around the station. The middle of the building housed an open air butchers shop and the air reeked with the cold smell of fresh meat.
For a kid from New Zealand, this was scary. This felt like real travel.
And then I made it to Krakow, and it was like I was back in Paris. Not aesthetically of course, but tourists were all around me, and the Australian accent rang out of pubs with English menus.
After a year of touristing, I needed something less conventional. A pamphlet in my Youth hostel seemed to have the answer.
It was advertising a youth hostel in L’viv, a city in Ukraine.
Ukraine was a country that had never entered my mind. Unlike today when it fills our newspapers, back then the country was a blank slate. My knowledge of history was tragically slight, and the name conjured nothing but pure mystery and curiosity. I went that night.
We passed an easy passport check at the Polish border, and I dozed off in my comfortable bottom bunk on the sleeper train.
About half an hour later there were heavy knocks on the door, and three thick set Ukranians in full military dress carrying assault rifles entered our small cabin. They took my passport, and left.
After 20 or so anxious minutes, they returned and handed me my documents without comments.
The man in the bed above me was not so lucky. Speaking English with a bizarre, unplaceable accent, he had white skin and central European features, but was inexplicably clutching a Chinese passport.
If my memory serves, he was given an uncomfortable interrogation, but eventually allowed to continue on his way.
We arrived in L’viv.
It was mysterious, huge, baffling, and I hadn’t left the train station.
Everything was different, and the huge, elegant station had an Eastern, almost Asian feel to it.
And then I heard English.
I looked around and saw an elderly Canadian couple demanding assistance from a startled staff member.
Seeing my backpack and clearly foreign look, they asked me if I knew how to get to the city centre.
Brandishing the pamphlet I’d taken from the hostel in Krakow, I invited them to come with me and find this hostel.
We hopped a tram just as dawn was breaking, followed the directions along the winding, cobbled streets, and arrived in the main centre.
We climbed a cold stone staircase to a small wooden door, and knocked. With the promise of 24 hour reception boldly inscribed on my pamphlet, and two elderly, anxious Canadians behind me, I knocked confidently, but there was no response.
After knocking in increasing volume for about 5 minutes, the door opened. A young man gazed bleary eyed at me from the other side. I’d clearly just woken him up.
We checked in without trouble. We were the only ones in the hostel, and I had a dorm room all to myself, a rare luxury in those days.
The Canadians had a busy touristy agenda with churches and sites, but I shunned their plans and just set out to wander.
There was an old, black Church on a hill and I stepped inside and was clothed in a tangible hush. An old lady knelt and murmured fervent prayers at the stained glass window on the wall.
Further along the road there was an old, grand building with huge wooden doors. I tried them, they gave, and I entered. A large stone staircase was lined with old paintings of thick set men and weary women, and I walked slowly up. A man approached, and speaking only Ukranian, he guided me around the buildings ornate but empty rooms, and I pretended to understand his impassioned descriptions.
Leading me to the door after my impromptu tour, he made the universal signal for money, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. I had a pocket full of Ukranian Hyrvnia, having exchanged money at the station, but wasn’t keen to let on. Instead I reached into my other pocket, and pulled out a ragtag collection of coins, from Pounds to Euros to Zloty, and made an apologetic expression. He picked some coins at random, and let me be on my way.
In the centre of the square where our hostel was located was another huge building, the tallest I had seen in the town. I entered, and climbed the stairs. And kept climbing. The stone stairs went impossibly high, and become more and more narrow as I climbed higher. Through thin windows the main square of L’viv shrank smaller and smaller.
Near the top there was a booth, and a young woman collected a small fee and allowed me to pass still higher, until I reach a viewing platform. The over the whole of L’viv was beautiful, brown stone buildings and a cloudy sky of a world which no one else I knew had seen or even thought about.
After descending the stairs I noticed that a group of about 30 protesters had arranged themselves around the building. I had no camera and my memory is vague, but I remember at least one of them carrying a black banner with what seemed like a white hand. I did not understand it’s meaning. Facing the quiet but staunch protesters were four or five police carrying riot shields. I stared for a while, but nothing seemed to occur.
That night I had dinner in a restaurant called the White Rose. The menus had no prices, and we bartered for our bill at the end of the meal. The payment of the bill was rewarded with a strong shot of pure vodka.
The next day was spent in similar, blissful wanderings. There was a chocolate shop who served the richest hot chocolate I had (or still have) ever had, and the restaurant which gave me a glass of pure lime juice to go with my heavy, Ukrainian meal.
The hostel had set me up with an English speaking friend of theirs, who took me to his favourite restaurant to eat that night.
We entered through a huge wooden door near the old square, where a guard in uniform with a rifle demanded a password. We shouted”Glory to Ukraine” in Ukranian – my guide having instructed me before we arrived – and then we entered.
The restaurant was downstairs or underground in what seemed like a stone bunker, with military memorabilia and pictures of the insurgency on the wall. We ate rice with goats cheese and mince from small metal bowls. Every half hour or so the staff would stand to attention whilst patriotic Ukranian songs were played.
My new friend told me about Ukraine. He said the average wage was just 200 Euro per month, which to me sounded horrifyingly small. His job, he explained, was as an antique coin dealer. To avoid horrendous taxes, he would pay people to smuggle the coins he bought online over the border with Poland, and sell them onto buyers in Ukraine.
I sat and listening, fascinated, feeling as though I’d gone through the wardrobe into Narnia.
But time was running out, and my year of wandering was coming to a close. On the train back to Poland I shared a cabin with a young Polish lady who was horrified at my lack of coat and ill preparation for the oncoming winter. She gave me her scarf to wear, which I am ashamed to say I lost barely a year later.
I spent a couple of days in Warsaw staying with a friendly local who I’d met on another train, and then bade farewell to the East.
Five years later, these memories of Ukraine become more vivid and important as it fills our TV screens with riots and horrors. I’m living now in Poznan, a Polish city which shares some of the charms I discovered in L’viv, and Ukraine is just one border away.