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...