Wild Ride from Odessa to Chisinau

I have just one thing to say about taking a minibus from Odessa (Ukraine) to Chisinau (Moldova):

DON’T!

Oh, sure.  It only costs $10.  And it runs multiple times a day, versus the train that only goes once a day and gets you there at 10pm, a really inconvenient time to be stuck in a strange new city where you know nothing of the language and (if you’re anything like me) your debit card doesn’t work for withdrawing money.

There are full-sized buses plying this route which have got to be better than this 6-hour hayride from hell.  Get someone (maybe from your hostel) to check which kind of bus it will be for you, because you really don’t want to be stuck on this bus.

This one left at 2:45 pm from Odessa.  I had to take it because I missed the 10:00 bus.   If you’re stuck on this bus, take Dramamine.  You’ll need it.

If you think I’m exaggerating, or being a wimp, and you long for a minibus adventure on the backstreets of Moldova, look no further than this actual footage of my ride:  (mute the sound)

I rest my case.

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Odessa, Mon Amour

I almost didn’t go to Odessa.  I could kick myself for that.

Orthodox Church in Odessa

Orthodox Church in Odessa

My object was to get to Kiev and do the Chernobyl tour, then get home the cheapest way possible.  Absolute cheapest (without relying on hitchhiking) would have been overnight train back to L’viv, and retracing my steps west and south back to Croatia.  But I really didn’t want to do that.  I wanted to see more new places and countries I had never seen before.

Going to Odessa would leave me with no choice for getting home except going through Moldova, Romania and Hungary (Hungary especially annoying because its trains are slow and all go through Budapest to get anywhere else), and I was concerned about how much it would all cost, and how much time it would take.

Park near Potemkin Steps

Park near Potemkin Steps, Odessa

But L’viv Hostel Guy told me I couldn’t even think about missing Odessa.  He was right about everything else, so I took his word for it and booked a night train.

All I can say about Odessa is:

WOW!

Don’t judge Odessa because it’s a bit grotty around the train station.   Just walk north to the old town.

There you will find:

A relaxed, airy city that almost seems to belong more on the French Riviera than Eastern Europe.

Amazingly beautiful old buildings, parks, monuments,  the Potemkin Steps, the Black Sea.  Colonnades.  Museums.  PONY RIDES.  (yeah, okay, I’m too old to ride a pony, but it was fun to watch).

Potemkin Steps

The artist’s first sight of the Black Sea

I saw a bald eagle close up; the most magnificent of birds.  I could have held it and had my pictures taken for 20 grivna ($2.50) but I was a bit intimidated – it was almost as big as I was.

Lion's head

Lion’s head ornament

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People selling everything and anything.  Walking the beautiful streets at all hours of the day and night, feeling perfectly safe.  Art Deco banisters.  The best pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life.  Great beer.And it’s all cheap, cheap, cheap.

I never had a meal that cost more than $10 and usually it was more like $5.

I saw a ballet for $6 (and that’s only because I paid extra for a better seat; I could have sat in the cheap seats for $2):

Odessa Opera House

A mere $6 got me a row to myself at the opera house

People are friendly and nice, even the ones who didn’t speak English.  The men are polite;  I never felt uncomfortable around them.

My bed at the TIU Front Page Hostel.

I stayed at the TIU Front Page Hostel, which is conveniently located near the old town.  The hostel is run by Adam, a very large Australian guy who very kindly helped me find my dropped lipstick by pushing those bunk beds around like they weighed nothing.  Probably best not to armwrestle with him.

The view from my hostel bed!

The prices were reasonable, the facilities good.  Big rooms, nice big kitchen – multiple people can cook at the same time.   Laundry available for a small fee – I think it was a couple of dollars.

The only quibbles I have are pretty minor: the showers are upstairs, quite small and turning around in them is awkward – I solved this by showering when no one else was around and leaving the door open so I could maneuver.  Also, the sheet/pillowcase fabric didn’t feel good to me – too much polyester in it.

Other than that it’s a really good hostel and I recommend it.  Not for party animals, because Adam enforces the rules strictly, but I appreciated that because I like peace and quiet.

Adam was very helpful with information about  Odessa and how to get to other cities like Chisinau or Bucharest.

There’s also a cute kitty at the hostel (for some reason almost every hostel I stayed at in Ukraine had a cat).

Best pizza ever

Best pizza I ever ate in my life at Olio

I ate at Olio Pizza on Bunina Street in the old town, a place I highly recommend for excellent food at a reasonable price.  You can eat cheaper in Odessa but probably not better than this.  Pizzas cost from $5-$8 and some of them are very imaginative:  I saw one with duck, blue cheese and pears.  I went for the Meat Supreme, which has 6 different kinds of meat on it for about $7.  It was so good I went back the next day and the next.  It’s easy to find – Bunina street goes through the old town and it’s near the park.

Park

Park in the old town

Drawbacks of Odessa are the usual for Eastern Europe:  poorly ventilated, stuffy buildings, crowded chaotic markets (even in the supermarket, which was designed by some idiot), and the difficulty of deciphering Cyrillic.  But my bank card worked fine here and I never got ripped off by any store, restaurant or any other place.  I felt perfectly safe walking around at all hours of the day and night.   The bus station area was a bit depressing, but that’s typical of Eastern Europe.

Grapevine banister

Grapevine banister

Old town at dawn

Odessa at dawn

Promenade

Promenade near Potemkin Steps

Odessa pier

Sunset over the Black Sea

I wish I could live here.  Sadly, the rents in the old town start at something like $800 a month, well out of my price range.

If you are thinking about visiting Odessa, drop everything and go there now.

Night train #105K from Kiev to Odessa

I took night train #105K from Kyiv to Odessa, Ukraine.  It cost 124 Ukrainian gryvna, or about $15 for a second-class sleeper, and it took about 10 hours to reach Odessa.

It was a hot evening in Kiev, even hotter inside the train.  So hot that I had to get out and wait on the platform just to get air.  Our wagon was old and had no windows that opened.

Inside had red-leatherette bunks, fake wood paneling and funny old Russian switches and light fixtures.  Unfortunately I was too hot and tired to take any photos.

It was a four-berth compartment, but I shared it with only one other person:  Vesna, a Ukrainian flight attendant who worked on corporate jets and spoke good English.  My bunk was facing backwards so she kindly switched with me.  We talked about travel and about Odessa, where she lived.  Unlike me, Vesna loved Kiev and said she found something new every time she went there.

Bedding was the usual inadequate mattress pad and sqooshy wonderful pillow.

The toilet in this old wagon was not nearly as nice as the one in train #92, but it was adequate and not too disgusting, and there was paper.

Once again I didn’t sleep well on the hard bunk, but all the same it didn’t seem long until we reached Odessa.

The first thing I saw when stepping out of the train was this, the Odessa train station:

Odessa train station

Odessa train station

Chernobyl travel tips

Chernobyl sign

Welcome to Chernobyl!

As you know, I went to Chernobyl on my birthday, as part of a tour.

I’ll write more of my personal thoughts about this later, but here is some basic information for anyone who is interested in taking a similar tour:

There are different companies (I used this one) but the tours themselves are pretty similar.

The tour must be booked at least 11 days in advance, because the rules are stricter now and permission to visit must be applied for this early.  So you can’t just show up in Kiev and expect to go to Chernobyl on the spur of the moment.

The tour costs about $150-400 depending on how many people go.  My group had five people.  I paid $169.  I paid two small deposits beforehand, and the rest on the day of the tour in cash.

The tour takes about 8 hours.  It takes 2 hours each way to drive to the exclusion zone and back to Kiev.

In the summer it is very, very hot.  Still, you need to wear closed shoes (hiking shoes are best), long pants, and bring a long-sleeved shirt.  Wear sunscreen. And bring bug spray!  I forgot it, but luckily someone in my tour group let me use hers.  The bugs are incredibly diverse and numerous and many of them bite.   Biggest mosquitoes I have ever seen.  Maybe they’re mutants.

I brought my sun hat, and was I ever glad I did.  The sun is brutal and you’ll be walking around outside during the hottest part of the day.

Don’t worry about bringing water, snacks, et cetera, as the van will stop at a gas station along the way where you can get anything you need.  Also, the one we stopped at had the best toilet paper I ever found in the Ukraine.  True fact.

You won’t meet your tour guide until you actually get to the exclusion zone.  That’s because the guides actually live in the city of Chernobyl in a special hostel.

Hole in Chernobyl Floor

The hole that got me.

After the guide is picked up, she will bring you to some houses outside of Chernobyl, one of which used to be a House of Culture or something… step very carefully, because the floor is rotten.  If you see a big hole near the door on the right, that’s the hole I made falling through!

Then you’ll go on to the city of Chernobyl, where the guide will show you where the guides live, and some photos of the exclusion zone, and talk a bit about what happened.  (Our talk was a bit on the garbled side actually, but pretty much everybody knows what happened in Chernobyl).

You might not know that people still live and work in Chernobyl: the workers who are building the new sarcophagus for reactor #4 and the tour guides, as well as a few stores, pubs and restaurants.

Then you’ll drive to Pripyat, a town that was built in 1970 for the workers at Chernobyl and abandoned after the accident.  This is the longest and most interesting part of the tour by far.  On the way, you’ll pass the power plant and see reactor #4, but you won’t be allowed to take photos, yet.

Then the bus will drive along a heavily forested road and stop in a heavily wooded area, and you’ll get out and be amazed that this forest is actually a town.  Or used to be one.

Pripyat

There’s a town in there somewhere

Visitors aren’t actually allowed inside the buildings any more.  At least not officially.  Unofficially, you’ll be able to go into some of the less important buildings and take pictures. There are so many interesting places in Pripyat I can’t list them all, but the main square of the town, the school, and the playground are the highlights.  You’ll also stop outside of town and take pictures of the Pripyat sign.

After this, you’ll go to a place where you can take photos of reactor #4.  Possibly the most boring part of the tour, because you can’t go anywhere near the reactor and you’re only allowed to point your camera in one direction or you get in trouble (seriously).

Chernobyl Food

Barfrageous borscht

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After this is lunch:

You will eat at the Chernobyl worker’s cafeteria and you will pity these people for having to eat food like this.  Hopefully you will have bought extra snacks at the gas station earlier.

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After lunch, you’ll go to feed the giant radioactive catfish that lives in the cooling pond of reactor #4, visit some monuments, and as a last hurrah, tour a really creepy abandoned orphanage.

The last place you’ll go is to the Chernobyl sign where you can take more photos.

Radiation detector

Going through radiation detector

Then you’ll go through a radiation detector (again), the tour guide will leave, and you’ll be driven back to Kiev.

Kiev: Hot, chaotic, disturbing

From the moment I stepped off the train I felt overwhelmed by Kiev.  It’s huge, dirty, crowded,  and bewildering.  Annoying touts calling me “dushka” kept pestering me to get in their cabs.  An endless stream of people kept shoving past me and occasionally walking right into me.  There was no time to think,  no quiet space to step back, observe one’s surroundings, and decide what to do.   And there was no air.  The city was burning hot and all the buildings stifling.

Kiev train station

And that’s Kiev.  A colossal city, too huge to comprehend.  Crowds that never seem to cease.   Sidewalks that seem designed to torture pedestrians: those that weren’t ripped up or under construction featured mountainous cobblestones and/or walking up and down endless stairways in order to do something as simple as cross the street.   There’s just too much of everything:  too many cars, too many people, too much dirt and noise.  Too many unfortunate young women wearing skirts that barely cover their butts and five-inch heels.  Oh, radical feminism: Ukraine needs you.

Down, down, down to the Kiev metro

The old town in Kiev is lovely, but the entire city of Lviv is lovelier still.  Dneiper river cruises are fun, but cruising in Odessa is better.  Hostel guy in Lviv had said: Lviv was very nice, Odessa was great, but Kiev was a bit disappointing.  You were right, Hostel Guy!

Kiev is also more expensive than Lviv or Odessa.  If I had to rank them in order, I would say prices are cheapest in Lviv, middling in Odessa, relatively expensive in Kiev.   It’s still cheap by Western standards (but not by starving artist standards).  Hostel bed was $16 compared to $10 in Lviv.

Despite all this, I managed to have some fun during my stay in Kiev.  I stayed at Kiev Backpacker’s Hostel, which is beautiful.  Only drawback is one shower/toilet and the building is hot in summer.  Otherwise, very pleasant place with friendly staff.  Achim, the owner, likes to party.  He REALLY likes to party.  Not at the hostel though, but at his favorite hole in the wall bar.

Marian and Achim (hostel owner) on Dneiper cruise

There is a crazy bar called which is themed like a mental hospital and where you can drink vodka out of test tubes and eat steak dinners for a mere $6.

Vodka in test tubes

I went there with Achim and some guests from the hostel and we ended up having to drag his drunk ass out of there at 2 AM.   While he was trying to fight with all of us and/or hit on Marian’s mom (she had amazing patience with his foolery).

At least I made a couple of  friends:  Marian, a blonde German who talks in the most hilariously condescending, British-professor way, and his mother.

Marian's Steak Dinner

Marian’s Steak and potatoes. He’s texting.

Marian has Ukrainian language skills, so we went together to the train station the next day: he to catch his train to Kharkiv, me to buy a ticket to Odessa.  I wasn’t sure I could afford to extend my trip as far as Odessa, but Lviv Hostel Guy had told me it was wonderful and I shouldn’t miss it, and so far, he has been completely right about everything.

Night train #92 from L’viv to Kiev

I’m still on the road so these posts are short summaries.  When I get home I will write more in depth about everything.

Took a night train from L’viv to Kiev, or as they call it in Ukrainian now, Kyiv.

I took  train number #92,  rumored to be one of the nicest sleeper trains on this route.  Hostel guy from L’viv said that third-class (platskartny) was perfectly OK, so I decided to try it.  He had to write me a note in order to get the ticket booked – the cashiers have little patience with anyone who doesn’t speak Ukrainian or Russian, so get a native speaker to write down what you want.  An unexpected snag arose when the woman said, “Nimam miesto platskartny” or something that sounded a lot like that.  Luckily Ukrainian is more like Polish than it is like Russian, even though it uses the Cyrillic alphabet.  And it was enough like the South Slavic languages for me to understand that she was saying she didn’t have any places left in platskartny, so I piped up, “Kupeyny!” (second class), and got my ticket.

Interior of my compartment

Second-class compartments have four berths, two upper and two lower.  Be advised, it takes considerable athletic ability to clamber up into the upper berths – more than I’ve got, anyway.  I was assigned an upper berth, but after seeing me struggle to climb up into the thing the nice older man in the lower berth offered to switch seats with me.

The train was new, very clean and nice.  The interior was in soft shades of gray.  The berth itself wasn’t very comfortable to lie on – I find train berths usually not much more comfortable than sleeping on a park bench. Even though they give you little mattress-like pads to lie on,  they don’t help much.

But Ukrainian Railways, surprisingly, has the BEST pillows. They’re full sized, feather/down, and all sorts of soft, squooshy, pillowy goodness.  I loved mine so much I wanted to steal it.

My companions were all male.  Two young students, one who spoke a little English and the other none, and the older man who spoke English fairly well.   They were all very quiet and polite and everyone went to bed within half an hour of the train leaving the station.

The toilets were clean and stayed reasonably so throughout the journey, no worse than an airplane lavatory.

I didn’t really sleep much, but it was about as painless as an overnight train journey could be, and it cost about $20 to cross most of Ukraine, which is huge compared to typical European countries.    It’s the best train for the least money I’ve ever experienced.  Had I managed to snag a third-class berth, it would have cost only $10.

L’viv: Baroque beauty, broken sidewalks

After taking the train from Krakow to Przemysl, which took all day, and then a bus from Przemysl to L’viv which took three hours on top of that, it was dark by the time I got to L’viv.   I couldn’t find the address of the person I was to stay with, so I ended up walking around L’viv all night long in the rain. It was green, leafy and beautiful, but the sidewalks were so broken in places that they looked like pieces of a puzzle.   It wouldn’t have been so bad had I not been dragging my heavy luggage with me all the way.   Finally I found a hostel that would let me in at 4 am and I crashed there.   It was a very rough introduction to L’viv.

Lviv train station in the rain

L’viv is actually a very pretty, pleasant city.  Unique among Ukranian cities because of its baroque architecture that rivals that of Krakow.

Streets of Lviv

Here is a cute young street musician singing a song about capitalism.  I gave him a few Ukrainian gryivnas.   He smiled shyly at me when he realized I was filming him.

I found the prices here about 30% lower than in Kiev.   Food, hostel, everything was cheaper and less crowded.   You could get a tasty, filling meal of Ukranian food plus a tall glass of excellent Ukranian beer for $6-$7 total.

Delicious Ukranian food at Puzata Khata

I’ll be back.  And not just because I forgot my slippers at the hostel.