When ever we visit somewhere we like to always look at the possibilities for wider exploration if the time allows. We had 7 days in Krakow and felt this gave us plenty of time to see Krakow, including Auschwitz and Wieliczka Salt (blog post on all these coming soon!). After pondering over the map for a while we noticed that the Ukrainian city of Lviv was not to far from Krakow and looked a travel-able distance for the day and felt like a great opportunity to see some of a country which has had a lot of media spotlight recently.
The travel from Poland to Ukraine, from Krakow to Lviv (and back) turned out to be just as much of an experience as our time spent in Lviv itself. This article is both a guide for others wishing to take the same route/trip and also a report on the strange, wonderful and sometimes scary journey we had into the unknown and the thoughts it left us with!
I have written a more detailed report on our day in Lviv, the sights, the sounds, the smells of our crazy experience in Ukraine. But a massive part of what made that experience what is was is the way in which we entered this country and the impression it left on us!
Read my guide and reflections on Lviv here: A day in LVIV, What’s it really like in UKRAINE.
For a while my internet searches/research turned up very little in the way of information on how possible this trip would be. The distance on the map looked like many we had done before in a day such as Boston and DC from New York and is a very similar distance as Manchester to London. But this is eastern Europe we are talking about and it’s not exactly famed for it’s transport systems or road quality!
As the region is so cheap my initial thought was to look for trains instead of coaches as they would be more comfortable and quicker, to my astonishment the train and the coach appeared to take the same amount of time! The price was also quite expensive, an over night sleeper train in shared compartment would set us back over £120 (for both, return) which we couldn’t really justify for one day, add that to the fact the time tabling wasn’t really looking great for us.
Booking the tickets:
Looking for alternatives in the form of a coach/bus brought up many fruitless searches. Most of the coach companies operating out of Poland only travelled either west out of the country or internally, finding transport to the Ukraine was proving troublesome. I happened upon a Ukrainian travel website, Tickets.ua . In the end it was pretty straight forward to use and book tickets on, the website is in Russian but most browsers should translate automatically!
We paid £60 for two return tickets which is £15 each, each way, so pretty decent and half the price of the train. Booking a return trip for the same day didn’t sit well with the website but it’s easy enough to do it in two transactions but make sure and check the time tables first!
The shortest travel time we were given was 9 hours and when looking at the map I really didn’t know where they were getting this time from, but there was nothing we could do and we accepted that if we wanted to go we would have to spend 16 hours on a coach! We found out along the way where the extra 4 hours came from…
Bus times and Prices:
Krakow – Lviv 12:05 – 9:00
Lviv – Krakow 5:00 – 12:00Which cost: £60 ($94.13 / UAH 1421.79 / Zl 315.77 )
That is for 2 people return, so one way for 1 traveller is only £15! ($24 / UAH 315.77 / Zl 79)
These times meant we would get a good 7-8 hours of exploring time and we could try and get some sleep on each coach, getting back in to Krakow in time to be back in the hostel for around 1 am which isn’t a bad days exploring! It was a strange feeling standing Krakow bus station knowing that in just 24 hours we would be back in the same spot, but not knowing at all what those 24 hours had in store for us. It really makes you think about what most people do in an average 24 hours and how fast that time normally goes. People might reckon we are mad for going this, but I say people who sit back and do nothing for 24 hours are even more mad!
The Bus Station
When we got to Krakow bus station (It’s right by the train station, near the mall just above Old Town) there was no sign of our coach on any of the information screens or above the stalls as there seemed to be for all others. There was a moment when I did wonder how legitimate that Ukrainian website was when no-one we asked seemed to even recognise the company!
We came across a Ukrainian couple with the same tickets as us and in broken English just about managed to explain to us that the bus was late and should be here in a little while. In the end the bus was 30 mins late which given the distance it had covered (it is on the Kiev- Warsaw route) I guess isn’t all that bad.
The coach was a “regabus” (the return being a “Sinbad”) and was actually quite comfortable, although it didn’t have a toilet and we only stopped twice during the whole 8 hours! It was no “Greyhound” or “National Express” but it was better than what we expected to turn up, the journey in general was however quite comfortable and we felt at ease and managed to get some sleep.
The Border Crossing!
We maybe should have done some reading up before hand I guess as it turns out this particular border is quite notorious, but I guess the adventure is in not knowing! I had of course checked the visa situation before and holders of UK passports are allowed into Ukraine without a visa, this is also true for US passports and the majority of Europe (Australian and New Zealand passport holders do need a visa).
The border crossing in total on the way into Ukraine took around 3.5 hours and involved a lot of nervous waiting time and not really knowing what was going on at all! It turns out this border crossing on average takes around 3 hours…so that explained why the bus journey was scheduled to take so long! Although 9 hours is 9 hours whether moving or not!
First up was the rather young and keen Polish officer with his massive peaked hat who stamped the visas and scanned us out. Sounds simple but my passport has seen better days and took a while to swipe, all the while the officer was looking at me with increasing suspicion! I mean, I have a Russian visa in my passport and got interrogated at JFK because they were convinced I was Russian, then there’s the woman at Domodedovo who started scratching my passport! The guy didn’t speak a word the entire time he was on the coach, only to ask me if I had ever been to the Ukraine after many attempts to scan my passport! Of course, shorty’s scanned first go!
Now to actually enter Ukraine! This time a huge man in army fatigues with a rather large automatic rifle and obligatory Russian fur hat came on to collect our passports. I get the feeling this route doesn’t see many British passports and he made sure to thoroughly inspect ours… and the various visas and stamps they contained! Over an hour later they returned them to us complete with Ukrainian stamp… we were in! I was filled with that nervous excitement of seeing somewhere new and honestly not knowing what to expect!
First Impressions of Ukraine and the drive to Lviv
I wasn’t prepared for the sights outside of the bus windows, I had been told Lviv was very similar to Krakow, but really, outside of the city, this was far from the truth. I wondered, looking out across the foggy and dusty landscape, if we had made the right choice coming here, it all seemed so desolate and in all honesty, a little sketchy! The roads went from multi-lane motorways with hi tech lights and signs to crumbling through-ways which seemed to be the only “tarmacked” surface for miles.
The houses and farms we came across seemed self built and resembled more shanty towns than the grand polish country houses we had left behind. Packs of dogs, Chickens and Goats roamed these dotted settlements, it felt like a step back in time. From the modern cars of Poland to the soviet relics of Ukraine. Inexplicably dotted between the soviet blocks and rural settlements where grand gold domed churches and soviet era Gagarin sculptures which seemed vastly out of sync with the lives of the locals.
It was approaching 8 am (Ukrainian time) as we crossed the border and all signs turned to Cyrillic, people lined the streets waiting for the bus, everything looked grey and dusty, the fog didn’t help, even the peoples clothes looked washed out and faded. I had expected to see another developed and confident eastern European country as we had experience with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. But instead this resembled more like the sparse decaying remains of an ex soviet state still battling to overcome it’s oppressor and thrive on it’s own.
There were also great dense forests made up of the same tall white birch I had seen on our train journey from the airport to Moscow centre a few years earlier, dotted with random people standing by themselves staring into the traffic seemingly miles away from any form of civilisation. One curious thing I spotted was an older man who had removed both his shoes and shirt and was stood by the edge of the woods, all alone, stretching up and down! I reminded me of the people I saw from the train in Russia, sat by themselves in the woods drinking vodka by a fire!
Pulling into the bus station it was clear we were not actually in the centre of Lviv, or at least we really hoped we weren’t. The big soviet monstrosity of a bus station was pitched a good few miles out in a rough looking district composed mainly of tower blocks. Communicating with anyone here was a real challenge with most people having little or no understanding of English and even less willingness to assist, we even had someone wave in our faces whilst shouting “немає” or in other words, NO!
The rusting buses were quite disorganised and in the end we opted for a taxi, given how cheap it was over here the 60 UAH we paid, which roughly works out to be £2.50 was most definitely worth saving the hassle! The drivers thought were haggling with them when in reality we just weren’t sure what they said! we inadvertently drove them down from 80 to 60 which we eventually settled by writing into the dust on the, at least 30 year old, taxi window! We soon learnt on this journey that there seems to be no actual rules on the roads in Ukraine!
Arriving in Lviv we were greeted by one of the most beautiful cities we have ever visited, honestly it felt like a total other country to that of the border and rural region. We still got some funny looks when we spoke and it still felt quite alien, but this was the place I had been promised when we booked those tickets. A grand old historic city with sights aplenty and almost no other tourists in sight… and the cheapest place we have ever visited. I will be writing a full post on Lviv soon and will pop the link here too. But here is a photo to whet your appetite!
The return Journey…
After an exhausting day getting about Lviv we headed back to the bus station. We hailed a taxi not far from the main Rynok square and again agreed a price before setting off. This time the driver was much more approachable and tried his best to converse with us in a mixture of broken English and German whilst explaining to us that he had only been taught Russian in school as he put it, “for political reasons”.
What refreshing when we spoke this guy is that he had no idea where we were from, you get used to being easily identifiable as “British Tourists” and it’s hard to be anonymous, but to him we could have been from anywhere! He seemed fascinated by the fact we were from Manchester, how strange that they are here he must have thought!
It’s funny, he was trying to explain what the specialty of the military academy was using his limited English and German, struggling to find one that fit, eventually coming up with the Polish for umbrella which is Parasol… Oh Parachute we said, to which he laughed and said, oh, it’s the same in Ukrainian and Russian! “парашут” (parashut)
On the way back the border crossing took over 3 hours! The border going back into Poland is much more thoroughly controlled as it is also the border of the EU and is notorious for people an contraband smuggling. Leaving Ukraine the scary looking woman who took her time stamping us out! I could see her in her booth inspecting, scanning and stamping each one.
I could see it was my passport she was holding up to the light for another look at! When the armed guard returned and the driver handed back our passports mine wasn’t on the pile! Shit I thought, again thinking about my Russian visa! In the end it was returned half an hour later, no doubt scratched and probed by some burly Ukrainian!
Around 90% on the bus were Ukrainian and required a visa, and they don’t just scan over them either! The bus driver had checked everyone’s passports before we got on and when he came to us it was another curious incident where we tried to explain that we didn’t need visas as we have EU passports. He didn’t understand a word we said and all he saw was a passport he didn’t recognise and no visa! He walked off with them and found a passenger who uttered something to him in Ukrainian the only word of which I understood was something that sounded vaguely like Britannia! We hoped the polish border guards would be a little more familiar with them!
This time 2 polish guards, along with their guns, got on board to check and stamp visas and passports. And of course when it came to us instead of just scanning and saying OK as we expected they took them away AGAIN, we didn’t see them again for another 2 hours…
Several people were being dragged off the bus at this point by the guards, along with their belongings, most returned after a couple of hours but some didn’t! Finally over the border and it was another 4 hours to Krakow and time to relax and reflect on a country most will never see, a beautiful and surprising city and a border crossing we won’t forget in a long time… even if we were in desperate need for a zapiekanka at this point!
If you are in Krakow and feel the need to have an little extra adventure and have time, or are just travelling across Eastern Europe I would wholly recommend this trip. Take the bus and experience this wonderfully different county for yourself. It’s experiences and memories like make travel so special.
It honestly felt like we had been in a time warp when we got back, we could have been gone for days or just second standing back in the station and it’s that sense of the fluidity of time which travel gives you which I really love, because I honestly didn’t care what time or day it was, just that we had had one of the most memorable experiences of our lives and with each experience you gain you get the confidence to explore further and further…
Read more about Lviv in my guide and reflections to the city
here: A day in LVIV, Ukraine