Sunday, 25 November 2007

The Ukraine Part 1 - Potholes, Adventures and History

Early in 2007 my friend Christine asked me if I’d accompany her on a trip to the Ukraine, her father was born there and she wanted to visit his birthplace and meet the cousin she had never met. I said yes, and though I knew it wouldn't be a holiday in the usual sense of the word, I looked on it as a kind of adventure and looked forward to it.

Tuesday 16th October

Before we knew it October was here and we were in Manchester airport looking for the correct place to pick up our flight tickets. We asked many people but didn’t get very far. We came across an extremely rude and unprofessional man at the Swissport desk who was very unhelpful! We were rescued by a very pleasant and helpful young lady from Servis Air who made phone call and told us we could just check in with our email confirmation.

We went off then and to the nearby Bewley’s Hotel for a meal. It was delicious and we took our time, relaxed and chilled out. I was quite excited at the thought of going to a place where I didn't know what to expect, it felt like a step into the unknown.

After an early night we were up at 3am and by 4am were in the shuttle on our way to the airport. At check-in we were told that we needed more than our email confirmation, we had to go to the Lufthansa desk to pick up our tickets. We did this and at long last our elusive tickets were in our hands! We checked in and went through security. Because of the ticket business we had very little time to look around the duty frees and before we knew it we were boarding the Polish LOT airlines flight to Warsaw. We ended up sitting on the tarmac for about an hour due to “adverse weather conditions” which was really tedious. Once we were in the air the journey was very smooth and wasn't as long as I expected – two and a half hours later we were descending into Warsaw.

Because of the delay we were convinced we had missed our flight to Lvov, we only had just over an hour change over time. We were a bit confused about the time too, was Warsaw one or two hours ahead of UK time? We were directed to the appropriate gate and although it was now past take off time for the plane to Lvov people were still waiting at the gate. It seems that flight was delayed too luckily – because there is only one flight a day from Warsaw to Lvov so we would have been stranded had we missed this flight. Within half an hour we boarding the tiny airplane with propellers and set off on another leg of our journey the 50 minute flight to Lvov in the Ukraine.

Lvov is a large city, but the airport was tiny and looked like a grand house from the outside. We went into a seated area where people were queuing to get through passport control. We sat down to fill in our entry forms – easier said than done as we had to write Justyna’s cousin’s name and address in Ukrainian, a language with a Cyrillic alphabet! We did our best.

The officials were very aloof, and unsmiling in their military-like uniforms. A serious young man, who looked like he should still be at school and wearing a large Russian-type hat that seemed too big for him, was keeping an eye on the people in the arrivals area. It took ages for the people ahead of us to get through passport control, and when it was our turn it was no quicker. The unsmiling woman who I saw pulled a face when she looked at my entry form – my Ukrainian writing can’t have been too good! She asked a couple of questions in English, still frowning, and after lots of shuffling of papers and stamping of documents I was through with Christine following a couple of minutes later.

We moved on to another small room with a xray machine in it, I was wondering where we would pick up our bags – then Christine pointed to them just left in a corner of the room! We picked them up and followed the people towards another door, a girl stopped us and asked in English if we had insurance, we said we had then walked on and through the swing doors and there we were in the arrivals hall!
I recognised Christine’s cousin, Jaroslaw, right away from photos I’d seen, he rushed forward calling her name and gave her a big hug. The shook hands with me calling me Susanna which I’ve always liked more than Susan, and Susanna was to be my name for the time I was in the Ukraine. We were introduced to Ivan, Jaroslaw’s wife’s cousin and our driver, and Oksana a beautiful 17 year old schoolgirl who was to be our translator for the trip as no one but her was fluent in English!

Ivan’s Lada was parked just outside the airport and we all piled in and begun our journey to Zboriv, 100 kilometres to the east of Lvov. Once in the car I asked Oksana what the time was as we were in a kind of twilight world, not sure what time zone we were in! The city looked rundown, dusty and busy; soon we were on the main road towards our destination. The road was poor with lots of potholes and many broken down cars and trucks along the way; Ivan was a “lively” driver to say the least! The country side was unremarkable, mainly vast plains and fields. We passed little houses with wells outside, colourfully painted bus stops, wooden carts drawn by horses; people leading their precious cows along by the road, it was fascinating, a different world to where we came from.

It took two hours to get to Zboriv which is a small town in the Ternopil region. We turned into what translated as May Street and drove a short way to Jaroslaw’s house. It was a nice house, quite big by Ukrainian standards with a garden at the front and a large kitchen garden in the back. There was also a very fierce guard dog which, thank heavens, was on a long chain! We were greeted by Olga, Jaroslaw’s wife. She was a very quiet and calm woman, the opposite of her lively and excitable husband, they balanced each other out nicely. They both shared the qualities of warmth and kindness.

Our translator Oksana was a delightful girl, very chatty, obviously relishing the chance to use her language skills. She was very curious and over our week in the Ukraine asked us all kinds of questions about our lives, where we lived, our interests; she soaked everything up like a sponge.
Olga then prepared a meal of chicken, mashed potatoes with a mushrooms sauce, cold meats, cheese, a coleslaw without mayo and a delicious consommé-like soup with vermicelli. For afters there was a huge bowl full of various chocolate bars and sweets, most of which were delicious. Over the next week Olga would be making meals for us approximately every three hours, there was no chance of us ever being hungry, in fact by day seven I thought I was going to explode I'd eaten so much!

As I lay in bed in the morning I was aware of how quiet it was here, all I could hear was dogs barking and the occasional cockerel in the distance. I looked out of the window and could see a young German Shepherd playfully chasing a chicken on the street, it certainly was a different world to where I came from!

Today we explored Zboriv, which is a fairly small town that has seen better days. There were a lot of buildings in bad repair or half finished. We went into a church that was being renovated. There was just one man doing all the work and what he had done so far was beautiful, in the Byzantine style. It will take him years to finish it all, but it was clearly a labour of love of which he was very proud.

Everywhere we went we were openly stared at with suspicion, you'd think we had horns! There were also few smiles anywhere, once you get to know Ukrainians they are lovely but they appear to have an innate suspicion of strangers. Maybe that is due to their troubled history of being invaded and ruled by other countries right up to fifteen years ago when the last invaders, the Russians, left. Also, Zboriv is a small, provincial town and strangers from abroad rarely visit so I think we were quite a talking point!

We visited the Zboriv Museum which was in am old house off the main street. It was icy cold inside, like stepping into a freezer. An elderly man with the most gold teeth I have ever seen (gold teeth seem very popular in the Ukraine) showed us around. He was enthusiastic about the museum and talked ten to the dozen, poor Oksana struggled to keep up with the translation!

The museum was an eclectic mix of old original items and new copies covered in dust. It mainly celebrated the Battle of Zboriv of 1649 when the Ukrainians were victorious over the Polish Army. As we left we were asked to sign the visitors book and the guide kindly gave Christine and I a book each about Zboriv and refused any payment.

We walked a little further down the road, Oksana pointed out a cinema that was now where the young people went to dance. There wasn't much for young people in the town and it's easy to see why they leave. Oksana planned to go to university in Ternopil next year and eventually move abroad, this is what many young Ukrainian people do, much like it was in Ireland in the not too distant past.

We came across a cemetery on a hill, all overgrown with grass and weeds. Iasked to go to look round it, Oksana thought I was mad I think,

"But Susan, it is dead people!" she exclaimed.

Most of the gravestones were large, many at extreme angles or toppled over. A lot of the stones had pictures of the deceased on them, faces from the past, which made it more meaningful to me, it was an atmospheric place and very peaceful.

Another day - and we called this our Adventure Day, read on to find out why! We left quite early in Ivan's car again to go to the village where Christine's father came from which was approximately 150 kilometres south of Zboriv. We rattled along on the potholey roads which got worse and worse as we left the main roads and ended on village tracks. The villages looked like they had not changed for generations. They had their wells covered by little wooden roofs in front of the homes. The mostly wooden houses were built close to the roads with brightly coloured fences, mostly in sky blue. Ducks, geese, hens, cows, dogs wandered the roads, old women in black with the colourful Ukrainian scarves over their heads chatted. It looked picturesque, but in reality it was a difficult life, people worked hard but often didn't get anywhere in life.

We got to Korolivka (which Oksana told us meant kingdom) where Jaroslaw's and Christine's fathers came from. The school they attended was still there and the building that had been a library. The actual house they lived in was gone and a new one built on the ground. The owner let us come in and look around the garden which was relatively unchanged. He asked us to all come back for a coffee after we had looked at the church opposite.

We crossed the road to the church and went into the graveyard to look at family graves, I knew this was important to Christine. We fought through the tangle of vegetation to the graves and Oksana, Ivan and I stood back as Christine and Jaroslaw lit candles. At this point it started raining hard and a cold wind blew up, Ivan slipped away and came back with our umbrellas from the car, bless him!

We returned to the man who had invited us for coffee, after washing our hands in icy water from the well outside the house (it's a Ukrainian tradition to wash your hands before eating and drinking) we went inside and the warmth was wonderful and I was able to thaw out a little. We had coffee and the chocolate biscuits that seem so popular. The man's wife stayed in the background in the kitchen and his two little girls played quietly in the bedroom. After half an hour, after using the outdoor privy (!) we said our goodbyes and headed off on the bumpy roads once more.

We headed for famous caves at Kravetche (phonetic spelling) - the roads got so bad we were crawling along and then we had to stop because there was a pile of stones in the middle of the road! It was one kilometre to the caves so we headed off on foot. It was pouring with rain and icy cold as we trudged along. After a while we had to go up a steep hill, I was struggling, but eventually got there. As there were people already inside the caves we had to wait for about ten minutes. It was clearly a beautiful area and in better weather would have been stunning, we were in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains after all! Eventually the people came out of the caves and said that the lights had gone off in the caves - so no caves for us! We set off downhill, it was slippery due to the wet autumn leaves and I had shoes on that didn't have a good grip! Bless young Oksana, she linked my arm and steadied me so I managed to get down without any mishaps.

We were glad to see the car and we piled in and started our journey back home. We stopped at a roadside cafe a meal of borscht and the Ukrainian form of ravioli stuffed with potato and dipped in something that tasted like something inbetween cream and mayo. All very nice, though just as we were served the main course the lights went out! It was still just light enough to eat by so we could finish our meals! The few other customers in the cafe kept staring over at us and when we left they were all peering out of the window at us! It gave us a small taste of what it must be like to be famous and have everyone staring at you.

At Ozeriania (phonetic spelling) the lights of the car dimmed to a glimmer! Ivan pulled over near a garage and he and Jaroslaw started tinkering about under the car's bonnet. We three sat in the back and after about 15 minutes decided to go into a nearby motel to use the toilet and have a drink. It was actually really nice, and has the best toilet I'd seen in the Ukraine!! We sat in the little cafe and had soft drinks and chocolate as we waited. After around half an hour Jaroslaw came in and said the car was sorted and we could go. In we got, Ivan turned the ignition and the lights were non-existent now. To our horror Ivan started driving the car onto the road and for five very scary minutes we drove on a busy, pot-holed road in the dark without lights! I'm not easily scared, but this scared me, Christine was mumbling "I know my dad came from the Ukraine but I don't want to die here!"

To our relief we pulled over at another garage/motel. Jaroslaw and Ivan tinkered with the car again but got nowhere. We all went into the motel Jaroslaw asked about accommodation but there was none. He was given the address of an mechanic so once more we all got in the car and drove a short distance up the road without lights, stopped at the mechanics house, he couldn't help. So we went up a very dark, bumpy lane to another mechanics house. While Jaroslaw and Ivan went to see if the mechanic was there Christine and I agreed we would not allow ourselves to be driven without lights any further and that we would take Oksana with us. Oksana however was blissfully laid back about it all, saying, "don't be sad, it will be ok" with a smile.

Jaroslaw must have been thinking too, he came back to tell us that the mechanic was out and that Ivan would wait with the car while Jaroslaw and the women would go back to the garage/motel and get a taxi all the way back to Zboriv! At that point a car came along Jaroslaw flagged it down, in it were two Russians, after payment they agreed to take us to the garage. Jaroslaw, Christine and I sat in the back with Oksana lying across us! At the garage the man on duty rang a taxi for us and, as it was bitterly cold, let us sit in his snug little room until it came, I could have kissed him!

The taxi didn't take long and soon we were on the road towards Zboriv once more. It was a relief to be heading back, the night was awful, wind and rain and I thought of poor Ivan waiting alone in the car. We got home at midnight, much to the relief of Olga. Jaroslaw put on a jumper, changed his shoes and set off back to Ozeriania and Ivan in the taxi. We had barely sat down when - yes, the lights went out!!!

Next day we heard that the mechanic eventually came home and sorted the car but that it broke down with the same problem in Ternopil! Jaroslaw got home at 4am. What a day, we certainly saw another side of the Ukraine during our Adventure Day

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I'm an American student trying to visit Zboriv and a few other towns in Ukraine. Do you mind getting in contact with me to help me sort out some logistics?