So here we are, month 4 of our Eastern Europe backpacking adventure! There has been a slight delay in writing this as we have been back home for the past month, seeing all our freinds and family, sorting our visas, vaccinations and flights for our next leg and that dreaded thing call work! In some ways our trip feels a lifetime ago, almost like it didn’t happen when you come back home and nothing has changed. But yet there was an immeasurable change within us, we’ve seen and done things many will never know, much of which I could never really describe to the point of doing the cocktail of emotions justice…but I try!
The last month backpacking in Europe was a strange one, in fact it was more like 3 weeks as I got carried away in the last post! It began by travelling even deeper into the East, both culturally and geographically when we headed to Ukraine. Things slowed down there before the real craziness of the last two weeks ensued. Now we had a timescale and 5 more countries to get through, the Balkans might border Russia but the culture here felt much more like we had left the East behind and like we were already on our way back west!
Read about our first month here:
And here’s our second month:
Oh, and here’s our third month:
Where we’ve been this month:
Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland
Totaliser of Miles travelled and transport used:
Visited 19 countries: Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, latvia, Estonia and Finland.
That leaves us on this many total countries each:
We have travelled roughly 268 hours and 4 minutes on Planes, Trains, Buses, Cable Cars, Canoes, Rafts, Coaches, Mini Buses, taxis, metros, trams, bikes, ferries, a jeep and some random Italian guys car, more ferries, Furgons, and also hitch hiked as well as countless hours walking too!
Miles wise we have covered a rough total of: 9,548.60 miles which break down to:
2,156.60 in the first month, 1,135 in the second month, 4,022 in the second month and 2,223.5 in our last month.
If you add together our original flight and our flight home the total is: 12,229.60
But this is again only a rough totaliser and doesn’t include the miles and miles we have walked and taken on local transport, bikes and other random methods of transport that we could never add up!
The methods of transport we have used are: Dad’s Car, plane, night buses, coaches, furgons, bikes, parachutes, hot air balloons, ferries, boats, zip lines, canoes, kayaks, rafts, mini bus, weird shuttle bus, taxi, trams, metro cars, jeep, dolmus, several cars from air bnb people to ones we rented with random people and a trolley bus!
In total we have spent around 353:18 hours on these various methods of transport! Backpacking is hard work sometimes!
We stayed in a total of 43 different beds and the most we spent in one place this month was 5 nights in Vaselka hostel in Kiev, we also had 2 nights were we had no bed and slept on night buses! joy!! Overall the longest we have stayed in one place is 12 nights in Hisaronu at the Blue Hisar apartments whilst visiting family. But other than that it is 5 days which is tied between Kiev, Sofia and Chisinau. We also had an hours sleep in one hostel after a night bus (in Kiev), we fell asleep out of exhaustion after one of the worst night buses (who knew the buses from Moldova to Ukraine would be horrendous!) and woke up to the hungover guys in our room talking about their night, complete with several homophobic insults…we just grabbed our bags and left!
Round up of each country:
Ukraine was pretty insane for us and also really quite eye opening too. This wasn’t our first time in Ukraine, which even itself is a bit strange really, but you know, in a cool way. I mean how many people in the UK can say they have been to Ukraine, not only once, but twice…and how many would even want to! Well more fool them! Last time we visited we headed to the western city of Lviv from Krakow. What we found was a beautiful old dusty city, a step back in time to what could only be described at typical ex-soviet bloc, and yet, we also realised just what a wonderful country it was and also a great country to go backpacking in.
We had been keen to return and this time go to Kiev. Everyone had told us how different these two cities were, we expected Kiev to be much more soviet, cold and harsh. But surprisingly it was the opposite. Kiev is beautiful, bright and modern, we unexpectedly fell for this city and found it quite liveable and just generally an enjoyable city to be in. Last time we were in Ukraine we were a little wary if truth be told, but all that washed away here and the true Ukrainian spirit shone through finally!
We ended up spending much more time in Kiev than we initially anticipated, this was due to organising a trip to Chernobyl (more on that in a minute) which turned out to be a little more involved than expected! With a week in this lively city we got to know it well, we explored all corners of its considerable span and once again got to grips with Cyrillic!
The border crossing this time was much smoother sailing than it had been 2 years ago, although for some unknown reason we transited through Transnistria…the breakaway communist nation I mentioned last month, complete with their own crazy visa system and soviet style border guards. They searched every passengers bags before letting us go to the Ukrainian border, having only been in the the country on a bus for 15 minutes it seemed a little pointless, plus, even if we did have any contraband, they had no authority to take it! It was all a bit of a game, and at 1am it’s not all that funny! But that’s backpacking for you.
In Kiev we saw so much, the architecture here is just stunning and in sharp contrast to many of the soviet buildings also left in the capital. Here, as expected, Ukrainian pride is high and flags can be seen hanging from everywhere and even painted onto every imaginable surface. There are also crude reminders of those killed in the recent conflict with Russia all across the city in the form of make-shift memorials.
There are so many amazing churches in the city too, we are not even religious but these buildings are simply stunning, many of them UNESCO heritage sites with amazingly painted details on every surface. One of the most interesting places we visited was the WW2 museum and the imposing “Mother Motherland” statue that guards over the tanks painted in the Ukrainian colours below. Here soviet style reliefs are in abundance and the glory of Ukraine’s sacrifice fighting against the Nazi’s is displayed in true ex-soviet style!
By far the most amazing experience whilst in Ukraine was visiting Chernobyl, a place we had dreamt of visiting since we became interesting in Urban Exploring in 2012, the mecca of UrbEx was calling us and we finally got to visit this iconic place. It felt almost unreal being there, seeing the ghost town felt a little like being in a video game and was hard to take in. Backpacking really has given us a chance to do some amazing things!
This place is pretty much my idea of the most interesting place in the world! I love communist history and so to be in a real, unchanged and authentic soviet town is pretty amazing, like stepping back in time to an era we would never have been able to experience. Almost like crossing over into forbidden territory and seeing beyond the iron curtain.
Then add that to the fact that this place is abandoned, in ruins and crumbling like the most perfectly creepy post apocalyptic world, a world without people and one in which fears about nuclear are horrifically real.
Seeing the infamous power plant, the ferris wheel, the room full of gas masks, the swimming pool and the hospitals and schools…as well as so many other things we never expected, like 5ft long catfish, was amazing. It was like ticking off all the big hitters of urbexing in one, and one out of this world place. Its horrific, sad, amazing and enthralling at the same time. You almost forget your clicking geiger counters!
Check out last time we were in Ukraine:
Poland was a whistle-stop tour. We had originally planned on spending a couple of days in Warsaw before heading up to Lithuania. We have already spent quite a bit of time in Poland, down in Krakow, so we had planned a shorter visit anyway. But our short visit turned into an absolutely crazy visit of only a few hours. Firstly our days got pushed back because our Chernobyl trip was postponed, that meant spending much longer in Kiev than we intended. Backpacking is crazy at times!
Transport to Warsaw turned out to be more of a headache than we first thought too, organising a bus wasn’t the last minute turn up to the bus station trip we had been used to throughout Eastern Europe, these buses sell out fast and don’t run to frequent either. Booking online we had to get one of the girls on the hostel reception to use her Ukrainian card and pay her the money back after several failed attempts. Add that to the stress of booking yet another bus onwards from Warsaw to Vilnius for a specific date! It seemed like as soon as we booked our flights home we started to stress!! This is what we love about backpacking, being open to change your schedule and take your time!
So as a result Warsaw was a completely chaotic day. Our bus from Kiev was supposed to arrive in Warsaw for 9:00am and our bus to Vilnius was leaving at 9:00pm, we also had a hostel sorted who said they would let us crash for a few hours, store our bags and get a shower.
So in 12 hours we thought we would be able to see quite a bit of the city ( we get around!), have a couple of hours nap and get freshened up before getting on yet another night bus. It wasn’t ideal but after having to spend longer in Kiev than we expected we thought at least we would have a full day in Warsaw…well, not even that went to plan!
Our bus was delayed by 5 hours at the border crossing, we were literally just stopped there queueing to get into the EU. A complete nightmare and so frustrating. In the end we actually got over the border, complete with an almost entirely Ukrainian passenger list, in about 20 mins. I don’t even know what the other buses were doing!!
So this turned the journey, which itself was one of the worst night buses we have been on, into a 16 hour ordeal! So this meant we got into the city for 2pm!! We decided not to go to the hostel and leave our bags in storage at the train station and explore the city…again, yet another problem! It was world youth day and for security reasons all the lockers in the train and bus stations were not available!
So there it was, we had all our stuff and had just gotten off a 16 hour night bus…but we were desperate to see the city! So we walked (should have got the metro but we couldn’t see the station over our bags!!) all the way from the main train station into old town with our 20kg bags!! This was the day which Red Bull was invented for!!
All our walking over the last 3 months had prepared us well and we did in-fact managed to see quite a lot of old town and get a feel for the city. Of course, we would have loved to have seen it properly and stay a few days, we love Poland so it was both amazing to return and heartbreaking to leave after just a few hours. But we had new countries to visit!
Check out last time we were in Poland:
Lithuania was another unknown for us, the Baltic’s border Russia and so the expectation is that they are much more eastern. We couldn’t have been more wrong, crossing over into Lithuania and it felt much more like central European countries such as Slovakia and Czech Republic than the wilds of Albania, Moldova and Ukraine!
In some ways though I wouldn’t say that that is a good thing. Vilnius is beautiful and the country certainly is very different to western nations but it doesn’t have that edge that I love about the far east of Europe.
But we enjoyed our time in little old Vilnius, the medieval UNESCO old town that is easy to walk around and has come right into the modern century. There are again many amazing churches and ancient buildings to visit but by this point I think we might have had our fill of them! One of our favourite part of the city was yet another self declared republic…this time through its more of a bit of fun rather than a state suspended in the soviet era!
Užupis, which translates as “the other side of the river” is a small district in the capital, officially the Republic of Užupis it declared itself an independent state on April 1, 1997 and even has its own flag and president! This bohemian and artistic quarter is home to the creatives of Vilnius. Intended to poke fun at mainstream politics whilst at the same time promoting a peaceful and creative way of living this area has a really unique atmosphere and reminded me of The Northern Quarter back home in Manchester.
But the highlight of Lithuania has to be visiting the Hill of Crosses in the northern city of Šiauliai. Loads of people had told us that getting there and back from the capital way pretty much impossible, but we didn’t believe them! We have done enough travelling now on local networks to know that there is usually a way and with us being in a much more developed country we were even more confident of that! We were right!
It would be an early start and a long way, but totally possible! It includes 3 hours on a train, walking for a mile, taking a once and hour local bus for 20 mins and then walking another half an hour to what seems like a field in the middle of nowhere!
We were unsure what we would find or if it would live up to the amazing photos we had seen online. Some had told us it was much smaller in real life and maybe a bit of a let down. Approaching the hill it did look tiny, from the front it looks pretty small, it is hard to believe there are over 100,000 crosses on here!
But as you start to climb the hill, weaving in and out of the maze like paths in-between the crosses the scale of the place becomes more evident. The hill is actually much bigger than it first appears and it is crammed full of crosses of all sizes and materials. It has to be one of the most insane and intense places we have ever been. Being in the middle of that hill, with people all around praying, singing and even shouting out loud was something really unique and quite an experience. Certainly an unexpected highlight of the trip and definitely of the last month of our travels.
I had been due to visit Riga back in 2010 with my university football (soccer team) but that damn ash cloud over Europe scuppered our plans. I always vowed to go back but plans always fell through for somewhere else, now 6 years later I got there! As expected Riga was even more modern and western than Vilnius and also much larger too.
It had the feeling of a city like Copenhagen or Brugge, but for a fraction of the price. The old town here in Riga is simply stunning and there is much more to explore than in Vilnius.
We also stayed in such a cool hostel too, Cinnamon Sally, a chilled out place where they really helped us make the most of the short time we had in the city. We explored the Old Town ourselves and then decided to take the free “alternative walking tour” the day after. Exploring much of the cities off the beaten track locations and soviet relics, including yet another of the “Stalin’s birthday cake” buildings just like the one in Warsaw and Moscow!
But we love our markets and in Riga there is the biggest in Europe, built in old German Zeppelin hangars from the early 20th century, the market’s pavilions are five of nine Zeppelin hangars remaining in the world. It is quite surreal to be inside them and with each one selling a different type of produce there was a lot to explore!
Another highlight was going to a Latvian Folk pub we had been recommended by the staff at the hostel. We had traditional deep fried rye bread with garlic, potato pancakes with cream cheese and jam alongside a local beer! This centuries old almost entirely wooden interior was dark, warm and full of charm and atmosphere! After this we stepped back out into the sunshine and explored the city’s several beautiful parks!
Estonia was our last Baltic and Eastern European country (we only have Belarus left to visit in the region but we couldn’t go because of visa issues). After visiting two of the worlds most stunning Old Towns we were expecting much of the same. But Tallinn for us was our favourite city of the Baltic’s, it was really like stepping back into the medieval world and felt much more intense and authentic that the other two.
Wandering around the streets here, with the sound of seagulls above and the salty sea air all around it felt like it had everything. Even the language over here is unique, despite bordering Russia, Estonian is much more similar to Finnish, and the culture too feels a lot more Scandinavian than Eastern European.
There also felt like there was a lot more to do and see here too, church spires and old town walls to climb and many panoramic view points to look out over the city. There were also quite a lot of soviet relics to explore too, one day we walked a total of 5 miles to and from a remote location on the outskirts of the city on a tip off that many of the old statues, including several of Lenin and Stalin, had been dumped there.
Now a building site we thought our luck was out, but the foreman allowed us to go and have a look, its insane to see these items once of such pride just discarded like this. Climbing over the top of them, an act that would have surely gotten us killed, they are trapped in historical limbo here.
To important to just destroy and yet the wounds of this era are still too fresh for them to be displayed again. Visiting the “Museum of Occupations” that same day, which documents both the Nazi and Soviet rule here, also gave us some interesting background to them.
Finland was the last country on our trip, country number 44 for me and 36 for Shorty and our 19th country of the trip! This was also our first time in Scandinavia, a region we had wanted to visit for a while but price had always put us off. We took the ferry over from Tallinn which took around 2 hours one way and over 3 hours on the way back. It was a little expensive to be fair but we figured it would be more expensive for us to visit again and with Finland out of the way we could do the other countries in this region a lot easier in the future as the major cities are closer together.
As expected Helsinki wasn’t cheap, we even took over sandwiches with us and should have taken drinks too! It was absolutely insane, especially after travelling through places like Moldova, Albania and Ukraine where everything was so cheap. So heading here for a day only was a good call!! It felt a little strange to be back in such a western city and not entirely great! We liked Helsinki of course, it is a pleasant and modern city with many beautiful examples of historic architecture and all set on the wonderful waterfront.
We decided to take yet another ferry and headed over to the sea fortress on the many outlying islands in the bay. Suomenlinna is a UNESCO heritage site which has protected the city for centuries against attacking forces. Today it is a popular place for tourists and locals alike to visit. Here many people also still live in traditional houses on many parts of the islands and use boats travel to and from the mainland. Over here there are many beaches and local wildlife on top of the historic structures.
Of course, we explored the city itself too, the iconic church in the middle of the main square was one of the only things I really knew existed here before we did any research. Again, there were many churches to visit and they all symbolise the mixture of cultures here, from Eastern Orthodox to Catholic and the unique Lutheran rock church…all of which were hosting weddings when we visited too!
But one of the most fun things we did in Helsinki was to finally meet up with some of our blogging buddies! Finally after many years of friendship our paths crossed with Betsy and Pete of PassingThru.com, one of our favourite blogs and also good mates! We went for a rather expensive drink together along the water to chat about life, travel, blogging and pokemon go!! Lovely to meet you guys!
By far the highlight of our last month backpacking was visiting Chernobyl, it has been a dream for so long it still doesn’t quite feel real that we went to such an iconic and tragic place. Even more insane for us is that the blog is doing well enough that we were able to do yet another bucket list activity whilst paying for it through work on the blog, making the whole thing such a rewarding experience.
Second to that has to be the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania, this was more of a surprise highlight than anything and the epic journey to and from just made it even more of an adventure. When you think you might miss out on something and then figure out your own way there, and it turns out to be an amazing place. Again, a rewarding travel experience of another nature.
Meeting up with Betsy and Pete was of course a highlight for us too, we have been able to meet up with a few people on this trip and we love that we cross paths with fellow travelling freinds along the way. Just exploring the old towns of the Baltic’s was a beautiful experience too and as this was the later stage of our trip we did decide to treat ourselves a little with some amazing meals out, both traditional and also at a great vegan place we found too! But also seeing all the soviet throwbacks was one of the reasons I was so keen to travel in this region.
Also knowing we would be seeing our pug Dooku soon really made us happy!!
This part of the trip, after Ukraine, felt rushed and exhausting if truth be told. We enjoyed seeing these places but it just didn’t feel like as much of an adventure as other places had. Past Ukraine and it all felt a little tame and predictable. We also started to have home on our minds all too much. Now we knew we would be going home soon it brought with it a mixture of emotions. We were happy to be going to see our family and our little pug (our baby!!). And yet we were sad this adventure was coming to an end, it had gone so much faster than we ever anticipated and being on the road had just become normal life, a life we had now gotten used to and loved!
After the initial excitement of getting home I did feel a bit down and it was so strange being back, nothing had changed at all. We got some work too which is great for our upcoming plans but is a coming back down to earth with a bang! It is hard when you crave adventure so much but you have to just save up and catch up on work (loads of posts to do!! argh!!). But we have been bouldering and will be hopefully climbing outdoors soon, doing some hiking and maybe camping and I’ve been able to run again for the first time since my operation.
Keep in the loop!
If you want more regular updates be sure to check out our facebook page: www.facebook.com/Hilditchshortexplore as we will be uploading photos more often and shorter updates as to where we are. We also update Instagram: www.instagram.com/the_roaming_renegades/ daily too. Keep an eye out in the next few weeks for more detailed posts about the places mentioned here!
Read about our first, second and thirds months here:
So, this might be the end of one trip, but really the adventure has just began. If anything this first 4 months in Europe were just a tester for a much longer trip which is much further from home. Now we will spend 3 months at home to catch up with everyone, plan the next leg a bit more, get vaccines and visas as well as working and saving up some more.
So where will our next backpacking leg take us:
We will start off on our next backpacking trip in November 2nd 2016 to:
China, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, (6-7 Months)
Then: Australia and New Zealand (We will be doing a working tourist visa in Aus and staying with family in NZ for a month or so)
Plus: Hopefully India, Sri Lanka and Nepal on the way home too.
So please, if you have any tips/ blog post on this region please post them below
We will be coming home after this and seeing where we are at and what we want to do (with our lives!), but we have plans to go to South America after that and also complete the rest of the countries we have left in Europe. Backpacking is addictive!
Reflecting on the backpacking trip as a whole:
We will be writing more thoroughly on this when we got time. But what we can say was that our backpacking adventure was everything we hoped it would be and more. We had so many apprehensions beforehand with regards accommodation, money, transport, planning ahead and staying so long in dorms. But really, non of these were that much of a worry and it is so true that you figure it out as you go along and you definitely become more easy going the longer you have been out there. We also realised that we would do a longer stretch for sure and that although sometimes we really did miss home and most of all our little pug, that it did get easier and it was mostly the early stages where this bothered us more. You do have bad days though but those are hugely outweighed by the sheer amount of amazing, once in a lifetime days that more than not happen almost everyday. Backpacking has been a dream come true, we can’t wait to continue!
You also get to the point where you realise it is ok to do nothing too and not everyday has to be an adventure, that sitting around the hostel chatting to new people and resting is just as much of an adventure and often from these interactions the best experiences happen! Backpacking or just travelling long term in such an intense way through some really off the beaten track areas, relying on yourself and the kindness of strangers, it really does leave its mark on you. It is almost indescribably and something you really have to do to know what I mean, it is so much more than just a trip or a holiday. It changes how you see the world, opens your minds and teaches you so much. We are even more in love with travel and the intensity and freedom of long term travel!
Eastern Europe, we bloody love you! I’m not sure if I can ever fall for a region as much as you! Western Europe can suck it!! Backpacking through here has been so rewarding.