In 2013, myself and a friend traveled from Romania to the Polish Tatra Mountains, by way of Lviv and western Ukraine. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused me to revisit that journey and see my fleeting impressions of that country in a new light. Writing about the devastation of the thrilling country I briefly passed through was something I couldn’t do, because I don’t have the right; I was only a tourist there, merely seeing the surface of things. So this is a piece about the joy of travel and the wonder of unknown places, with the knowledge that one of those places is now transformed by war. One day I hope to return to Lviv and see things with wiser eyes.
The bridge across the Tisza was made of wood and full of holes. We could see the sluggish water flowing beneath our feet. Behind us, Romanian border guards joked and puffed on cigarettes. Ahead, Ukrainian guards looked on without expression. “Do we just walk across?” we had asked the Romanians, and they had shrugged dismissively, as if it were no concern of theirs. That laissez faire attitude stopped at the river. On the Ukrainian side, a man in an enormous hat erupted furiously when we tried to photograph the flag, blue and yellow, on its pole – “Niet foto!” We tried to smile. The smile was not returned. Neither was there any smile on the suspicious woman in green who thumbed our passports skeptically, taking a vast dislike to mine, glaring at my photograph as if I had just drawn it on. At length she gave it back to me with theatrical reluctance.
On we walked into Ukraine, Chris and I, step after step. A dusty road. Small tiled homes. Stray dogs. No shops that we could see. From here we hoped to catch a train onwards to Lviv. But we had no currency, only Romanian lei, and there were no banks in town. We really had no clue about where we were going. Suddenly, on this shabby street, appeared an apparition in red: a woman in a scarlet dress, commanding, blonde and powerful, her dress so bright it looked unreal. She gestured. We followed her through an unmarked doorway. Inside, the room appeared to be some kind of general store, full of boxes, crates and cans, in which a couple of bulky men loitered in the dimness. But the power clearly lay with another woman at a desk, whose arms were as fat as thighs. From a drawer she produced a brick-thick wad of banknotes. Her fingers deftly counted out the hryvnia like a magic trick, transmogrifying currencies, at a rate we did not ask. She dismissed us with a wave. The hyperreal woman in red led us to the street again and pointed up the hill. The station was up there, she said. Soon we would reach Lviv.
Lviv was a hundred miles away. A two-hour journey, we’d assumed. Three, if the train was very slow. The journey took thirty hours. We caught train after train, rumbling round the villages, being told by helpful, pitying people when to disembark, where to wait for other trains, constantly muddling up the names of the unfamiliar stops, whose syllables blended into one in a thick Cyrillic soup. It was monotonous, glorious. We were in Ukraine! Outside the window: sodden fields, pale cattle, little farms, dull green hills, dull grey skies, golden Orthodox onion domes. The carriages had wooden seats. Young soldiers came and went. We smoked between the carriages as we had seen the soldiers do, and were shouted at again by another big-hatted man. Everyone chewed sunflower seeds and spat them on the floor. The conductor took sweet care of us, mothering and concerned, until Chris got his deck of cards and performed some sleight of hand to entertain a curious child. The woman paled, horrified, and quickly backed away. With his bald head and his brilliant eyes, as vivid as that dress was red, Chris must have seemed a sorcerer, foreign and diabolical. After that he stopped his tricks. We knew nothing about this country. Darkness fell. Another change. We assumed we’d catch one final train – perhaps we’d reach Lviv that night – but no, the station master led us to the waiting room. “You sleep here,” he said, pointing at the floor. “The next train is at four a.m. I will wake you with a flashlight.”
We made our beds on the floor. But we were very hungry. We had eaten nothing since breakfast in Romania. At the ticket office we inquired about a restaurant. “No restaurant,” the young woman said. A shop? “No shop.” Food? “No food.” We mimed eating hungrily, which she seemed to find pathetic. There must be food somewhere, we said. “No!” she snapped. The only thing she could suggest was a vending machine. Dismally, we went to check. Crisps. Weird-looking chocolate bars. We took a stroll down the road to see what we could find.
About a minute’s walk away was a brightly lit grocery store, packed with food of every kind. Bread, cheese, sausage, cucumber, chocolate, fruit, and beer. We returned triumphantly, carrying loaded shopping bags, and brandished them at the ticket woman. She gave no reaction. Had she wanted us to starve, for obscure reasons of her own? Had she genuinely not understood our charades of desperate eating? No matter, we possessed a feast. We ate on a deserted platform under the full moon. Stray dogs howled in the night, hulking Soviet-era trains rusted on the railway sidings, the beer went straight to our heads, we laughed and marveled at it all. That day felt like a dream.
Woken by a blinding light and an urgent voice saying “train!,” we staggered from our sleeping bags. The train came with the dawn. Blearily we watched the plains of western Ukraine roll by, all greens and grays, much like before. There was only one more change. At the next station, we’d been told, we could catch the “electric train” – the elektrychka, people said in an almost reverential way – that would whisk us to Lviv in no more than an hour. But we must not miss it: there was only one a day. We waited on the platform, almost at our journey’s end. The electric train was due in forty-five minutes, half an hour. Fifteen minutes. Ten. Five.
“I’m going to the toilet,” Chris announced. “OK,” I said nervously, “as long as you’re really quick.” He disappeared. Three minutes. Two. A train slid into view. It looked like an electric train, bigger and sleeker than the rest. There was an excited surge as people moved up the platform. I looked around. Chris wasn’t there. People were rushing for the train with increasing urgency. “Elektrychka?” I asked a woman in a smart green uniform. “Da!” she said excitedly. “Get on! Go! Electric train! Go! Train!” Then Chris reappeared, grasping two small paper cups. “I got some coffee,” he announced, looking pleased with himself. “That’s the electric train!” I yelled. His face showed utter panic.
We reached the doors as they closed. The electric train pulled away. It glided past us silently, electrically and magically, like a smooth and graceful god. We stood and watched it go. Neither of us said anything. Chris had dropped one of his cups, and the contents of the other had splashed his trousers and his shoes. I was too furious to even look at him.
After some time he said, “I fucked up there, didn’t I?”
It took another eight hours of local trains to reach Lviv. I didn’t hold my anger long. It was too absurd. The day rolled past in a blur, the land turned dim, and we were there. Lviv, after thirty hours and a night on a station floor. Lviv. A city in Ukraine. Why were we there? We didn’t know. We had picked it on a map. Neither of us knew a single thing about this country.
Our first glimpse of the city was sinister and menacing – the central station was immense, a towering, domed edifice looming in the gritty night, sharked around by taxicabs. Every gruff-voiced driver seemed to be out to get us. Refusing offers of a ride, we wandered into the streets. We found a room with two beds, basic but comfortable, better than a tiled floor. And no one stuck a bright light in our faces in the morning.
The next day, Lviv was beautiful. It gleamed and glowed and sparkled. Its walls were pink and green and blue. There were church bells ringing. The robin’s-egg sky was pale. We wandered through the morning. Sunlight lit the golden domes. The cobblestones shone lustrously. We climbed a path to some high place, an ancient ruined castle. From that point we could see flatness spreading everywhere, seeping onwards like a sea. The steppe, vast and featureless. Tartars, Huns and Cossacks. Freedom. Fierceness. Openness. Horseback archers, German tanks. Russians. Bloodlands, they were called. Famine. The Holodomor. We turned a circle slowly.
A man with a leather glove had an eagle on his arm was charging tourists for photographs. Chris could not resist it. It drew him in magnetically – those yellow eyes, that small hooked beak. He stared. The eagle stared. Chris had the same eyes as the bird, clear-sighted, totally intense. I wanted him to look away because it scared me somehow. Then the eagle panicked. It flapped and lost its grip, fell upside down and dangled there, leashed, flapping desperately, until the man roughly righted it. It was a small, ugly scene. Chris paid the man. I felt upset. No one took a photograph. We went back down the hill.
One more night in Lviv. We went from bar to bar. The first bar had a kitsch theme of Second World War partisans, the waiters dressed in battle gear and singing patriotic songs. The password on the door was smert rosiyanam, “death to Russians.” “What do Russians think of that?” we asked some students drinking beer and eating giant sausages. “It is only fun,” they said, “a joke between neighbors.” The year was 2013. The following year, there would be an anti-Russian uprising. Eight years after that, Putin’s army would invade. That password was not a joke. But we laughed and drank our beer. We ate our giant sausages. The waiters played accordions and our new friends clapped and cheered.
Another bar. Another bar. And then we found The Bar. For half an hour it was dead, six people there, no atmosphere. We were just about to leave. And then something happened. Something undefinable, transformative. One of those nights. It was like the appearance of the woman in the scarlet dress. A techno DJ started up. Suddenly the place was full. Everything took on a shine. The beat was heavenly. It became a glorious night, one more night in Lviv. We danced and bought people drinks. We made transitory friends. Chris almost got into a fight — something about a stolen scarf — and won the approval of the room, his enemy bundled out the door. The hours blurred by. We danced and danced. People gave us cigarettes. They grinned and shouted in our ears. We ordered vodka cocktails that the barman set alight with a blowtorch, searing orbs of blue flame that burned parts of our eyebrows off, everything was wonderful. One night in Lviv! We staggered through the streets.
The next morning it was grim. We had to get to Poland. Everything ached and stank. A long bus ride to the border. Hours of waiting in a line next to green metal gates, passport checks, declarations, boredom and anxiety. A strip of scrubby no man’s land which we crossed hungover. At a currency exchange our hryvnia transformed into euros – no strong-armed village woman there, just a sterile countertop – and we entered the EU. The Polish flag, white and red. My muzzy head was pounding. We boarded another bus, and afterwards another bus. I felt sick and underwhelmed. Outside the window: well-paved roads, neat gardens next to bungalows, rows of well-placed conifers. It looked like anywhere else in Europe.
We dragged ourselves onto a train. Exhaustion crashed over me. All I wanted was to be still, to close my eyes, to have some peace. But Chris would not stop talking. Ayahuasca, UFOs, string theory, sacred geometry, quantum physics, pyramids. He was really on a roll. I sat there reeling with fatigue, my breath still rank from last night’s booze. After hours of this, he paused and gazed thoughtfully out the window. Ten minutes, I thought. That’s all I ask. Ten minutes of silence, nothing more. Then Chris’s eyes turned back to me, glowing with intensity.
“Do you think the Buddha really achieved enlightenment? He must have, mustn’t he?”
“I don’t want to talk about this now,” was all I said.
Eventually there were no more trains, no buses. We were somewhere. I can’t remember why we had traveled a grueling day to reach this place – a small town in Poland after dark, with empty, street-lit streets – but this place had been our aim. Our speech slurred with exhaustion. Another room with twin beds, more cigarettes we didn’t need. But the border had been crossed.
And when we woke: the mountains.