Sunday, November 20


After leaving L'viv [Ukraine], I went to Krakow [Poland]. The train ride was painful, putting it mildly.

The other trains that I've taken in Belarus or Ukraine were quite comfortable. They were both night trains, and had four bunks per cabin, two on bottom and two on top. Despite this train running in the day, it was also a night train. The difference was that in half the space, it had three bunks, one of top of the other. At this point, they become more like shelves. There was no longer enough room even to sit up. I was assigned the top bunk, which was above the window. So my view consisted of the ceiling and a wall. Still, the trip was only about 300 km, so it would only be about 3 hours, right?

Unfortunately not. The tracks in Ukraine are not well maintained, and the train ends up being so wobbly that it can only go about 50 km an hour. It took three hours to get to the border with Poland, which was only half the trip.

I'd been warned that the tracks are narrower in Poland than in Ukraine, and so I was expecting that we would switch trains. Hopefully to a proper day train, complete with seats. Half an hour after the customs officers came through, [we still weren't moving again], a guy came into the hall and started to take apart the walls. Unscrewing every bolt, taking off each panel, and looking inside.

The first thing that came to mind was that one of my cabin mates was smuggling cocaine or heroine. They both stunk of alcohol [that smell that alcoholics give off in the morning when they're hung over, which made the trip even less pleasant]. When I stuck my head out the window, I noticed that all cars in front of and behind ours were missing. The car was completely isolated. Did they get a tip about a mother load of drugs being stashed somewhere in the car? I could imagine being stuck there for days, especially if they didn't know who was smuggling the drugs.

There was a waitress in the hall. Not that she was doing anything. The train had been out of food since we started the trip, meaning that in addition to everything else, I hadn't eaten anything all day. When I asked her what the hell was going on, she just shrugged me off. I started flipping out at her, and was told by one of the other passengers that the sort of thing that was happening is standard.

Somehow it's logical that every time a train passes the border into Poland, they stop it, take apart all of the walls [searching mostly for contraband cigarettes and alcohol which are much cheaper in Ukraine than in Poland], and change the wheels to fit the Polish tracks. The whole process takes three hours, during which no one can leave the car.

On the one hand, we could all switch to a different train, and they could immediately send the Ukrainian train back across the border. This would solve both problems in about five minutes. Any smuggled goods would be sent back where they came from. On the other, they can take apart the whole train, then dismantle every wall panel, lift each car up in the air, and take off every wheel and axis to put on different ones. And do this every trip.

In the end, the only reason that people could give me for this completely retarded procedure [remember that we didn't even have seats, but instead shelves] was that it was a game to them. Kind of like treasure hunt. In the end, they found five garbage bags full of cigarettes, though since they didn't know whose they were [the people who hid them were probably not even on the train], they just confiscated them without charging anyone. Apparently this happens almost every trip.

In the end, it took nine hours to cover 300 km. Apparently buses that run the entire route are no better, as they get held up at customs for as much as five hours, and every single piece of baggage is opened and searched from top to bottom. Locals who are smart take a bus to the boarder, walk through, and take a different bus to the nearest rail station, finishing the trip by train.

Krakow turned out to be a very nice city. It was where Karol Wojtyla used to give sermons and conduct mass before becoming Pope in 1978. As a consequence, there is memorabilia of him everywhere, and every magazine shop has several books about him.

The architecture was very pretty, the people very nice, and there were great bars, pubs, and cafes. It's been a long time since I've seen a night scene that I liked, but there the pubs have great atmosphere and music, with a large selection of places that are designed to be relaxed, and clean. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to explore Poland any more. When I was in Vilnius I had to choose between Belarus and Ukraine or Poland, and I was already behind schedule. It's a shame, because Poland seemed very interesting.

From Krakow I went to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Slovakia, together with the Czech Republic, had formed Czechoslovakia until 1994. Then they broke apart, sighting unreconcilable political differences. Slovakia seemed to get the raw end of the deal, as Prague brings in a lot of money from tourists. Still, I think that I liked Bratislava more, as although it is much smaller, it is also quieter. It didn't feel like a zoo in the way that Prague did.

I met some really nice people while I was there, who showed me around town. Strangely enough, there is quite a bit of French spoken in Slovakia. Apparently France has been investing quite a bit there. In the end I spoke almost as much French as English, which hasn't happened since I left, well, France.

After Slovakia I went to Budapest. Like Prague and Vienna, it was a little over-hyped. All three are very pretty, but being the major tourist destinations in eastern Europe, you tend to expect something spectacular. In the end it was a nice city, but unfortunately I had some problems at the train station on my out. Ending on a bad note makes it hard to remember the good points. Something that's interesting is that Buda and Pest were two different cities, separated by a river. The amalgamation got the name Budapest. Am I the only one that thinks Pestbuda might have sounded better? Probably.

Now I'm in Slovenia, in it's campial, Ljubljana. It's pronounced Lyublyana, as a J makes the sound of the English Y in every language that I know of besides English and French. It's extremely small for being the capital of Slovenia, only about 200,000 people. This is due to Slovenia having almost no cities. It's a small country, but very developed. The economy here is doing great, which meant that prices were a bit of an unpleasant surprise. They're very much on par with western Europe. This is even stranger considering that this was part of the former Yugoslavia. They, along with Croatia, separated as quickly as possible after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Serbs sent troops to persuade them to change their minds, but they only stayed for ten days before they decided to pound Croatia instead. In the end, Slovenia's succession was almost completely bloodless, a rare thing in this part of the world.

These last few weeks have been a bit easier, as every place that I've been to has been in the E.U., and thus more geared towards tourism. Still, in some ways this made it less exciting. I'm going to keep heading south, so things should get intense again very soon...

On a side note, does anyone else get the feeling Boisclair is going to cause a lot of problems? He seems like the sort of person that can really motivate the youth vote, which was always a bit of a problem with the PQ, being a party run almost entirely by old people. I think this could end very badly...

Sunday, November 6


Vilnius [Lithuania] turned out to be very nice. A pretty city, I'm told it's halfway between Latvia and Poland, in terms of culture as well as geography.

There aren't many stories to tell, as most of my time there was spent either going to bars or cafes. Meeting people who lived there was easy. Though it would be a nice town to live in, there isn't too much geared towards tourism.

While there, I managed to get a visa for Belarus. This surprised me. I'd talked to people that had paid about 150 dollars for various processing fees, only to have their application for a tourist visa rejected. I tried a different approach, applying for a transit visa instead. Telling them that I wanted to go from Vilnius to Kiev [capital of Ukraine], they let me in for 48 hours. Not too much time, but better than nothing. It's enough time to look around Minsk, the capital, but not much more.

It's so closed because it's the last dictatorship in Europe. Although the country has become more capitalist [the first thing that greeted me when I got off the train was a McDonald's], the enforcement of rules hasn't changed much in the last 25 years. They still have an agency called the KGB, and although disappearances aren't as frequent as they used to be, there is almost no political opposition or free press. Apparently President Lukashenko's last real opposition vanished about 6 years ago, and hasn't been heard from since. There have also been a few jouralists that got a bit too critical and disappeared.

It quickly became clear how challenging the country would be. Hardly anyone spoke any English at all. And all street signs are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, so it was a good idea not to get lost. I had expected to find a hotel near the train station, but there were none in sight. After wandering around for five hours [carrying your packs make this even less fun...], I finally found a girl who spoke a bit of English in a cafe. She told me about a hotel on the other side of town, one of only three in the city [Minsk is about the same size as Montreal], and the only one that was not geared towards wealthy diplomats.

The town itself was immaculately clean, as well as very modern in terms of architecture. Sometimes on the bizarre side, very avant-garde. This is eerie considering that Belarus has a very low standard of living. Apparently the government bleeds the country side dry, and channels all of the money in the country into the capital. As a consequence, it's more well kept than any other city that I've seen, save perhaps Monico. But Monico is a city of millionaires. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to see anywhere else in the country.

There were soldiers watching everyone on the street constantly, about three per block in the center of the city. This makes for a feeling of stress that is hard to imagine. But it was apparently daily life in the Soviet Union. Perhaps I should be thankful to have had the chance to experience it, even for just a few hours.

Belarus was also by far the cheapest country that I've been to. A bus cost just 400 Belarussian rubles, but keep in mind that it takes over 3000 rubles to be an American dollar. So it translates to about 15 cents. A full meal cost between two and three dollars. And a 12 hour night train to Kiev [with sleeper bunk] was just ten.

Arriving in Ukraine was in many ways a relief. I could actually feel my blood pressure drop a little. It was obvious how much more free Kiev is. This also meant that it was quite a bit dirtier. There were stray dogs and cats all over the place. Still, this felt much more natural.

Kiev was a very pleasant surprise, as it's very pretty. Similar to Belarus in terms of the preserved architecture, very much on par with the biggest tourist destinations [Prague, Vienna, etc.]. But although it's much more open [Westerners don't even need visas to enter as of last summer], it's still very much undiscovered by tourists. This is probably a combination of how little time the visa regulations have been relaxed, and how far it is from Poland. To get from the Polish border to Kiev is only 700 km, but because of how slow the trains are, it takes about 14 hours. It will probably take a discount airline to change things.

The highlight of Ukraine was all of the open markets. Run mostly by old ladies, they sell anything that you could imagine, and pop up pretty much anywhere. I found most of them by peeking into back alleys. I suppose that the reason that they're run by old ladies is that they need some income to supplement their pensions. As well, it might give them something to help pass the time. It's a shame that I couldn't really talk to them, but unfortunately Russian isn't really my strong suit. Everything that's sold there is at rock bottom prices, and the products are very fresh. The vegetables still had moist soil on them, the fish were still twitching in the baskets, and the pastries were still warm. You could easily buy enough groceries for a very nice dinner and not spend more than a dollar. The markets were also frequented by stray dogs, some looking healthy, others not. But they were all very well fed...

After leaving Kiev, I caught a night train to L'viv, near the border with Poland. This city is mostly known for it's well-preserved architecture, and it is a very pretty place. Still, it wouldn't have been so interesting had a not been offered free accommodation with a Ukrainian family [Marichka, the girl who first contacted me, as well as her father, mother, and grandmother] that I met through something called Hospitality Club. It's a great service run mostly through the internet, and although I'm a bit apprehensive about staying with people I don't know, I really wanted to get a better understanding of the culture here. It's been great to meet so many people here, as Marichka introduced me to her friends, who in turn introduced me to some of theirs.