Many people have been scratching their heads and wondering why the heck we’ve ventured into Ukraine while the country is in the middle of the largest conflict of its young history. Friends, relatives, and followers of this blog have all expressed concerns for our safety and well-being. So we felt compelled to write a series of posts to explain ourselves and clear the air.
Why We Went to Ukraine During a Time of Conflict
We have spent nearly the last three months in Europe in what is known as the Schengen Area, which is currently composed of 26 countries in the continent. This area allows international travel between these countries without the need for any immigration, customs or border control. That part is great but the downside is that foreigners are only allowed to be in the Schengen Area for a total of 90 days during a six-month period. So while in Krakow, Poland and with our 90 days just about up, we needed to quickly come up with an exit strategy.
Initially we were planning to travel south through Slovakia and into Romania (a non-Schengen country) but the logistics of that route were somewhat complicated and very time-consuming. An easier, faster, more direct, and more interesting (for us) route would take us to roam around Ukraine instead.
So we did some research and found out that most of the country is actually still very safe (more on that in Part 2). We discovered that Ukraine, as a whole, is not under war, as the international media sometimes portrays. We also started to learn about how much Ukraine has to offer in the way of travel (which we share in Part 3). So we booked two tickets in a sleeper car on an overnight train and hoped for the best.
Border Crossing into Ukraine
The border crossing by train from Poland to Ukraine was quite interesting. It was probably around 1:00 in the morning when there was a loud knock on our door. It was a Poland customs official that needed our passports and took a brief look around our cabin. Then Polish immigration went through the same drill. Then they needed to change the wheels on each train carriage since there were different tracks used in the former Soviet countries than in the rest of Europe. This involves lifting the cars up and then being slammed down with startling force. Then Ukraine immigration and customs would come by in military fatigue to take our passport information and also have a look around. The entire ordeal lasted several hours. On one hand it was perhaps one of the most effortless border crossings we’d ever been through. We just laid there through the whole thing, never having to get out of our beds. But on the other hand, the timing of it all made for an annoyingly sleepless night.
Sometime during the six o’clock hour, the train pulled into the main station in Lviv. Upon exiting, it was the first time in a while where we really felt like we were in a foreign land.
Arriving Was Our Biggest Crisis While in Ukraine
The decision to go to Ukraine was a last-minute one and was not in our initial plans. We hadn’t yet booked a hotel but figured that with all the negative press the country has been getting lately, surely there would be a surplus of rooms just waiting for guests to arrive. A quick Internet search revealed otherwise. There were no rooms available at all. No hotels, no guesthouses, no hostels, no AirB&Bs, nothing! How could this be? Well it turns out that we happened to arrive in Lviv on the weekend of Ukraine’s Independence Day, so domestic tourists had booked up all the rooms in town long ago.
So here we were, our first day in Ukraine, and no place to stay. This was our biggest “crisis” while in Ukraine. But we managed to find a solution. We finally found a hotel room in a small resort town called Truskavets that was a two-hour bus ride away. With a lack of any other alternative we booked it and caught an afternoon bus to this random town we knew very little about.
Things only got more interesting from there. Upon our arrival in the early evening to our insanely affordable spa hotel we noticed there was some sort of missil in the backyard area. We wondered if we should be concerned but checked in anyway.
Shortly after getting settled, the owner personally called our room to cordially greet us and asked to meet us. He just couldn’t believe that Americans were checking into his hotel. As Truskavets is very much a domestic tourism location, he never had any American guests before. So he swung by the hotel on an ATV and offered us each a quick ride. He proceeded to take us on a fast, thrilling, and crazy ride on a trail up a nearby hill. He said he missed his days as a pilot so speeding down narrow trails on his ATV would attempt to fill that gap. It turns out he was a former Soviet Mig pilot! This also explains the missile in the backyard.
After our “flight” he then sat with us on the patio and poured from what seemed like an endless jug of homemade wine as we tried to converse in broken English. Then he took us around town to see some exotic caged animals. 24 hours prior we were in Krakow simply trying to decide if Ukraine was really a good idea or not. Now here we were in this town we’d never heard of, having a former Mig pilot take us for a thrill ride, then downing countless glasses of homemade wine before having a bizarre little zoo tour. I couldn’t have scripted a better Soviet-style welcome. Coming to Ukraine was definitely a good idea.