In 2011 I visited Ukraine, first arriving by train in Odessa from Moldova. I wrote about the trip a few years ago and with the awful events taking place at the moment, I thought I’d share my travels during far happier times, whilst I pray for a return to peace.
Odessa to Sevastopol by Bus
The tram ride to Odessa bus station was hell. The tram was as packed as before but this time we had our large and heavy rucksacks too. To say we were wedged in was an understatement. Incredibly more people got on at subsequent stops so we were now packed so tightly that we resembled one huge creature with dozens of limbs!
For the entire journey I was dreading the moment that it was time to alight. Through the mass of shoulders, backs and heads packed around me, I somehow managed to spot our stop.
I was unable to get any where near a call button, but thankfully someone else requested the stop and I made my move, shoving all out of the way as I yanked my bag up and embraced it in my arms. Hamish preferred the dragging it behind him method, but the result was the same with bodies unceremoniously bashed out of the way. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I kept repeating with no idea whether anyone understood or believed me.
After what seemed a panicky age, we were at the top of the open door, just two metal steps between our goal and us.
Impatient new passengers were already clambering up those steps but if we didn’t get off now, we would be whisked to the next stop. There was nothing else for it but to dive for the exit. I virtually catapulted out to the pavement below, taking one of the ascenders with me, miraculously somehow managing to stay on my feet.
Suddenly Hamish popped out behind me like he had just apparated using some of Harry Potter’s floo powder.
The startled passenger that I had taken with me gave Hamish the full force of his ire, much to my amusement as I recovered my composure. Hamish was a few seconds behind me in the composure recovery stakes and he simply went from red to redder in the face of the Ukrainian tirade, made worse by the fact that the tram doors had closed and left the commuter behind.
Hamish apologised on my behalf as I attempted to hide my mirth.
It is now time to reveal another one of Hamish’s little quirks. He is unable to put his rucksack on his back from a standing position. Most people just sling the bag over one shoulder and then insert the other arm through the other strap. Not Hamish, oh no.
His method is to prop the rucksack on a bench or bed or dustbin and lean into it, putting both arms through the straps simultaneously. Don’t ask me why as this seems far more difficult than the most common method. It is another source of amusement for me and his other good mates to add to his irrational fear of cows and smaller beasts.
If I tell you that he once shot ten feet into a tree and clung there for thirty minutes to avoid some passing cows, you will realise that on many occasions Hamish likes to do it the hard way. I have even seen him throw a freshly bought ice cream into the air due to being buzzed by a wasp, his loss being the gain of Mr. Wasp and his grateful mates!
Back to the here and now, both with rucksacks properly engaged (Hamish used a bin this time as a prop) we meandered to the bus station with heavy hearts.
The bus journey was pretty much as expected. 100% male occupants, mainly construction workers who all knew each other, swigged cans of beer, and spoke & laughed loudly for large parts of the journey, which was to be punctuated at regular intervals for smoking breaks.
Sleep was sporadic at best and it seemed like we spent more time awake than asleep. Torture!
When we arrived at Sevastopol Bus Station just past seven, we were absolutely knackered and not in the best state to negotiate buying a train ticket for four days hence to Lviv, working out the tram route into the city and finding a hotel to crash in.
That is what we had to do however and we first dragged ourselves across the nearby rail tracks to the adjacent train station. We were incredibly to stay here for the next 150 minutes.
We didn’t have the chaos of Odessa station, but the language barrier very much existed here also. As Hamish was worse for wear than I was, I volunteered for ticket duty.
First barrier, the ticket office was shut until 8.30, about an hour away. I returned to a prone Hamish to tell him the good news. There was already a queue forming outside the locked ticket hall door, so I joined the throng. I was fourth in line, not too bad I thought as I yawned for the umpteenth time.
The doors swung open at the allotted time and the crowd of around twenty swarmed in. Only one desk open and I was now somehow eighth in line.
The bonus was that I had plenty of time to research my speech. Do you speak English, she replies yes. Two premium class singles to Lviv for Tuesday night please, certainly sir. Lovely. If only!
For what seemed an age, I crept forward with a feeling of foreboding, until it was my turn in the firing line. I was now faced by a bulbous women in her forties, bright red lipstick hiding her thin, stern lips, freshly laundered light blue railway issue shirt straining to contain her large bosom, lacquer drenched peroxide hair with dark roots showing, cascading down onto her broad shoulders.
She didn’t speak English nor did she know how to smile. I wrote down what I wanted. Evidently she knew the English word for NO, which she barked out aggressively, whilst pointing to the door. It seemed Communist ways were still lingering in these parts. Had I got the wrong office after all this time? As there was no help at hand, I had no option but to return to an expectant Hamish and impart the bad news.
An information desk had now opened next to where he waited. Hamish didn’t look good; he was suffering from being extremely tired and in pressing need of nourishment.
Behind the info desk was a younger and much friendlier looking lady in a much smaller railway issue shirt. Quite pretty as it happened and best of all she spoke good English.
I had been in the right place, but she explained there were no tickets for four days time and it would necessitate a departure in three or five days. After some debate, we chose the three-day option for our twenty-seven hour marathon north. The lady kindly wrote our choice down in Russian so that the severe lady in the next room could absolutely understand our requirements.
I was now third in line and soon enough it was my turn. I enthusiastically handed the note over with a flourish and a smile, confident of a pain free transaction.
She screwed her face up to read the note, shrugged her shoulders and barked back at me in Russian. I had no idea whether this was a command, a request or a question and felt myself cower into my walking boots.
I could only point to the note, somehow hoping that she would re-read it and give me what I wanted. This predictably just brought more barking, accompanied once more by her pointing back towards where Hamish was now slumped in a chair with his eyes shut.
The nice girl at the information counter smiled and gestured towards my sleeping buddy with her deep blue eyes as I entered the room.
I explained what had happened and implored her to come with me to see the dictator next door. She smiled again as she agreed and closed her counter to accompany me.
She led me to the main ticket office and as an antidote to the sight that I followed, I concentrated on imagining my nemesis in the same attire, which had the same effect as bromide! I imagined how Dennis Potter would have depicted the scene in one of his plays, “think of something boring, a speech by Ted Heath, a long sentence from Bernard Levin, a Welsh male-voice choir, the Blue Peter dog,” and so on! (Thanks to the fantastic ‘Singing Detective’ for that line).
Our fabulous saviour then proceeded to have a stand up row with Dastardly Dora. Beauty and the beast shouted at each other for a couple of minutes and thereafter in no time at all we had our precious tickets for Monday lunchtime, proving once more that it’s not what you know………….
Hamish, though delighted at our overdue success, was not in a good way. Deprived of sleep and in need of food, he wasn’t in a fit state for the journey ahead. Two small boxes of raisins gave him the short-term boost, sufficient to prise him from his seat to the tram stop.
It appeared that all trams went to the centre so we hopped on the next arrival. Heading down hill, we were soon passing the Russian Black Sea Fleet that occupied the harbour.
This wasn’t an aggressive occupation, albeit that it was very controversial. Russia had just renewed its lease of the port for its navy with grave consequences for Ukraine’s former prime minister, who was now in jail for allegedly abusing power in doing the deal that was linked to Ukraine negotiating gas supply rights from its massive neighbour.
Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way
After about fifteen minutes we were in the centre. We hopped off and went in search of the Best Western Hotel, which we had not booked but was recommended in the LP and who we felt confident would be able to accommodate us.
This was a further ten-minute walk and Hamish was clearly flagging again. Please have rooms available!!
We entered the rather grand hotel and must have been a sight for sore eyes in comparison to the guests that milled about the large foyer. There was a large group of Japanese tourists gathering for a coach excursion (the females amongst them did at least perk Hamish up slightly for a moment or two)! I didn’t have a confident feeling about our chances however, for either a room or social engagement with Japanese lovelies.
The heavily made up receptionist confirmed my worst fears. No room. Hamish did not take the news well. He was heading for sleep deprivation meltdown, made worse by the need for food and slumped down on one of the comfy sofas and decried our situation.
I needed to stay calm. There have been several episodes down the years when one or other of us has been at a low point through illness, tiredness or being the victim of an unfortunate incident. What works well between us is that the other person takes charge, rising to the occasion to make things better.
I asked the receptionist if she knew of any other hotels nearby and she pointed us in the direction of the recently opened Hotel Admiral, a ten minute walk away apparently.
After giving Hamish ten minutes further recovery time, it was there that we headed. My map reading skills are awful as you know, and with my travel mate in no fit state to ask, we soon found ourselves walking blindly in circles trying to find the hotel.
Relapse time for Hamish. I left him sat in a small park and vowed to find the place. I had actually let him down somewhat. I myself was pretty knackered and not thinking too straight, otherwise I would have suggested we stop somewhere for a good breakfast that would have helped us both no end.
Instead I bolted off, asking several people for directions to the Admiral. Nobody knew for certain. It seemed the place was so new that it had not yet become known. After twenty frustrating minutes, I returned to Hamish to relay my failed mission.
Sod it; we would get a taxi we decided unanimously. Why didn’t I suggest that before? The taxi driver initially refused to take us, as we were so close. €5 convinced him otherwise and we were soon turning into an unmarked road to the Admiral. No wonder nobody knew where it was.
Hamish waited in the taxi while I checked whether they had a room. Thank the Lord they had! The place was lovely. Brand new and with really friendly staff. We were offered breakfast despite the fact that it was now eleven, which we gratefully accepted.
Coming next – a nuclear submarine base