The sun was setting on my time in Europe. After finishing my teaching contract in Istanbul a few months before, J and I had a quick microadventure to the U.K. before joining up with our friends to get started on our summer plans. A thousand miles of cycling and two weeks of pirate rafting later, autumn was upon us. In a few weeks, I would have to depart for the U.S. to obtain my working visa before jetting off to South Korea for a year. With such limited time, J and I wanted to go off on our own, to revisit a couple of our favorite places and explore some new ones. Since I was the one who was leaving, he left the itinerary up to me.
“Ukraine,” I answered without hesitation. I’d always wanted to go and didn’t know when I’d next get the chance. There is no better time than the present. Plus, this was before the unfortunate and sad occurrences that have been going on there for the last few months. After visiting a dear friend in Krakow, we found ourselves dangerously stranded on the motorway at night. This was not the first time that our lack of planning had caused us to be in this situation: the same thing (with the addition of extremely bad luck) happened the year before outside of Thessaloniki in Greece. Luckily, a young newlywed couple dared to pull over and stop for us. After hurriedly diving into the car and chatting with them for a few minutes, the young man insisted that we stay the night at his family home with them. We graciously accepted and were treated to an evening of endless homemade farm food and Carlsberg. The next morning, they dropped us on the road heading east to Ukraine. If you’re reading this, guys, I haven’t forgotten your generosity. You and your family were amazing.
After not so long of a wait, a Ukrainian man picked us up and we headed for the border. For some unknown reason- he didn’t speak English, so we never found out- he changed his course at the last minute and opted to drive to a different border crossing, losing a bumper along the way after recklessly hitting a curb. At border control, he attempted to hop the queue and blow through the guards, a feat that they did not find amusing in the slightest. We were detained for some time, as a pretty Polish girl who was pretending to be tough interrogated and reprimanded him for his behavior. In situations like these, I’ve found it best to sit back and let it play out. That might be silly, but it’s always worked out in my hitchhiking favor. The guards let us through and a few hours later our curious but friendly driver let us off on the side of the road.
“Lviv,” was all he muttered before waving and whisking away. Night was falling and we had made it…almost. We were clearly quite far outside of the center, where we were to be meeting our couch host, and we couldn’t read a single Cyrillic sign. Although we easily found a bus stop, it was impossible to decipher which one to get on. Utterances of, “Center?” proved futile and, as the cold moved in, we concluded that we’d just have to commit to one and hope for the best. As a small minibus pulled up, we pushed our way on through the masses of Ukrainians clawing their way toward the doors.
This minibus was probably built to hold 20-25 people: it was housing at least 50. J and I were scrunched to the front, me against a pole and feeling that I might faint at any moment as the driver puffed away on his endless supply of cigarettes. These travelers were the most brutal and relentless of any I’d ever experienced. They pushed, they pulled, they shouted unfriendly-sounding messages at each other; I was expecting an all-out brawl to break out at any moment. We stayed on this bus for over an hour as it slowly- painfully slowly- pushed through traffic, starting and stopping every 15 meters. No one seemed to get off, but with each stop another person managed to bushwhack their way on.
After another half an hour, we decided that it just couldn’t go on. There was very little air to be shared by all these living, breathing beings, and I couldn’t handle being crushed against a barrier much longer. J tapped the attendant on the shoulder, signaling that we’d like to get off at the next stop. A minute later, the minibus pulled over, but we did not get off. Let me be more specific: we were not permitted to get off. With 20 odd people blocking the door, not a single passenger budged to let us squeeze through. No one wanted to risk stepping off and clearing the way to the door, for fear of people on the outside forcing their way in and stealing spots. We begged, we shouted, we pleaded shamelessly. I even threw a few elbows, if I’m being honest. It was all to no avail.
Eventually, we were able to push our way off a few stops later. The attendant threw our bags out the front window to us, as if annoyed that we’d caused her such a burden. She had been forced to hold our two backpacks on her lap due to the lack of space that the fellow passengers allowed us. With our moods completely salted and our bodies sore from the epic battle, we moped down the street, respecting the necessary minutes of silence and hoping to find Lviv’s beautiful center.
We did find it, and it was gorgeous. The next few days in Lviv were lovely, and the awful transport ordeal was soon forgotten…almost. I’d still highly recommend a trip to Ukraine’s second-largest city, but, for the sake of your body and your sanity, avoid the minibus at-all costs.