Going down with the locals in Ukraine and Moldova

I have said this before but I have a passion for Central and Eastern Europe. When I was living in Krakow we decided an on the spur trip with a few friends to head into Ukraine and Moldova. We knew the timing wasn’t ideal (-25 is slightly cold to discover a city) but it was the only time we had. We all had a week free at the end of the semester so a spur of the moment trip was born.

We decided we wanted to see a bit more if Ukraine and surroundings, and the one thing we really wanted to see was Kiev. Since Kiev and Krakow are not in ideal train distance we decided to book a flight back from Kiev with Wizzair. That was the only thing we planned and based on how much we like a city we would change our plans. So the night before our departure we showed up at Krakow airport and bought ourselves sleeping spots in the night train to Lviv in Ukraine. We arrived around 6 in the morning in a city where the  current temperature was -25 degrees…

LvivWe already had been in Lviv before so we decided to stay only one day. We immediately bought ourselves the next ticket on the sleeper train to Odessa. So we had some time to kill; as I tried to describe in my city trip article I can highly recommend Lviv. The city is extremely well preserved, and history is still visible with various cultures living together around the city centre. We had an amazing lunch in a traditional Jewish restaurant before heading to the train station. The trick to sleeper trains is having enough to drink, which meant vodka in proper Ukrainian style. By brining some vodka you can make friends easily but more on this later.

Odessa doomed up early in the morning and we decided to be budget, so we picked the hostel from the lonely planet and we decided to take public transport to get there. Unfortunately it is not as easy as it sounds; public transport consisted of small mini vans with just a number on the front without the end destination. So it was a 50/50 chance to take the right one since nobody spoke English. As it goes in these situations we of course took the wrong side and we were left on the roadside outside Odessa early in the morning; not the ideal start we had in mind.

It took us a while to figure out that there are no real taxi’s, there are gypsy cabs that will depending on their mood stop and you can negotiate your price, so good luck. After we figured out the system we decided to just go for it, and not too long after a car actually stopped for us, and based on our little map in the Lonely Planet we were able to convey where we wanted to go but we had no idea about the cost, but with limited options we decided to go for it anyway. The car itself was an old Russian car, the driver had a fur hat and no English knowledge, and due to the lack of wipers at every traffic light he needed to clean the window with a bottle of water. So to say it was an adventure is an understatement.

Odessa is definitely one of those places to visit in summer, where the city is one of the hottest beach places in Eastern Europe. In the winter however the city is rather closed and limited activities. One of the cultural highlights of Odessa is the opera. Trying to be culturally responsible travelers we opted to see an opera was well. With limited opera knowledge we decided to take whatever was on offer that evening. I am still not an opera person but it was for sure an interesting experience.

Odessa opera house
Odessa opera house

From Odessa we took a shared taxi to the border region of Transnistria, a separate region of Moldova on the border with Ukraine. This last communistic country was definitely interesting to visit (for a detailed story check this post) for a day, but definitely not any longer. We took a bus to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. I know we didn’t see it in the most favorable conditions with melting brown snow, but to be honest I can think of more attractive cities to visit. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and you can see it anywhere you go.

There is a huge division of wealth within the country: a prestige project is a western style shopping mall called Mallova, but to get there you need to cross a bridge over a slum. Taking that aside, our guidebook told us that Chisinau is the upcoming party city of Eastern Europe, something we had to find out of course! So we headed to the main strip with clubs where we were checked for guns and knives (no joke!) before entering. The club itself was a fascinating experience; there were girls dancing in minimalistic outfits, people selling roses, exorbitant high prices for drinks and obviously the it crowd from Chisinau. Once we managed to take this all in we actually had loads of fun!

train ukraine
Our train heating 🙂

We stayed not too long in Chisinau before heading towards the capital of Ukraine Kiev. We again found ourselves at the train station to book a bed in a train that would leave that evening. I am still surprised to the day of today that we without any knowledge of the language and without any preparation made it actually this far. The train we took that evening was the infamous night train from Bucharest to Moscow, run by the Russian rail company. This meant that he heating in the train as provided by coals, leading to a situation with -20 outside and +30 inside. The vodka came in really handy this trip; our wagon manager turned out to be an incredibly funny guy in a white singlet, and the majority of the people onboard were Russians taking the very lengthy trip (we did only a small part and we were in the train for 18 hours). The thing I love about these kind of trips is that you really see the locals; food was shared, tea was made, vodka was around generously and people had fun, loads of fun.

KievWe arrived in Kiev after our trip feeling we saw actually bits and pieces of the local culture. Kiev was an amazing city to see as well; the richness in culture, the interesting cultural habits of its population (it turns out that stiletto heels are extremely effective in steep slippery inclines when it is -20) and the fact that the city is actually as modern as any standard city trip destination in Europe.

So all in all, our spontaneous trip turned out be highly diverse and provided us with an opportunity to get in contact with local people. Therefore I can wholeheartedly recommend traveling by train, especially in areas such as these to see the true citizens and culture. We were able to pull this off on such a whim because we were here in low season. If you want to do the same type of trip in summer, which I can highly recommend, making reservations would probably be the way to go.


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