I’d wanted to see what it’s like in Ukraine for quite a while, so I thought it would be nice to get back to Moscow via Kiev. I checked the train times and prices, but they were a little too expensive, and not enough stopover time. Then I discovered you can do the journey by coach for just £20 which would give me a day in Kiev – better than nothing. Coach journeys in South America were always quite nice, even if it was difficult to sleep. I thought it couldn’t be any worse in Europe. Well… I was right and wrong.
My first leg was Krakow to Kiev, which went quite smoothly. I left Krakow at 18:00 and arrived into Kiev on time at around 11am. My first impressions of Kiev, were oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It looked very neglected and old fashioned. We arrived into what was described as a bus station; a very dimly lit, small building with no more than the times of bus departures inside, ladies in the booths and toilets just like the ones in China, if you get what I mean.
If I hadn’t lived in Russia before, I would have probably been very lost. People were only giving very vague directions to the metro, and I don’t know if they spoke any English. However, I noticed that transport seemed to follow the same style. Mini buses were passing, with metro stations written on their routes on the side, so I got on, and paid the amount displayed inside the bus to the driver who was surrounded by carpet and curtains, of course, and got off two stops later when I saw a green M. Just across the road, I breathed a sigh of relief, when I saw the complete opposite to the bus station – a huge, shiny, modern shopping centre.
Some people were very friendly, or I looked completely lost, as a taxi driver ran across the road to help me. “Where do you want to go?” “Thereeeee!” I said, pointing at the shiny shops. He took my suitcase and found the gap in the snow bank. Inside, it was back to my world with shops, cafes and real toilets. I found a lovely cafe, with plug sockets and wifi, and came back to life with a latte and a piece of spinach pie. Interesting breakfast. Next I decided I needed to find where on earth my next bus would be leaving from. I couldn’t find the station on the map, so called the company I booked my ticket with, who assured me that it would be going from the bus station at Metro Vokzalna (train station).
Entering the metro was like stepping back in time. It was the exact same layout, design, escalators and benches as Moscow, but without any updates during the past 20+ years (in my opinion).
To get a ticket, you had to ask in the window, and the lady gave you a green plastic coin, which you put into the barrier. We thought Poland was cheap, but this green coin cost me just 4 Ukrainian Hryvnia (£0.11) according to my currency app.
Even the trains were the exact same, the same seats, the same doors, the same rails, just older looking signs. Fascinating.
I got to Vokzalna and started looking for the bus station. Outside the train station there were a lot of men with signs around their necks which had various destinations on them. They were shouting their destinations and asking where you were going, as if you might just casually hop on a bus for an unplanned journey to another city….
I asked one of them where the bus station for Moscow was. He was very helpful and near enough walked me all the way to the station, which was down the street, with more shouty men wearing signs, and an even less likely bus station than the last place.
There were little, vintage mini buses with curtains and drapes inside and I was a little worried my bus would be like that. I asked another man where my bus would go from and he showed me bus stop 11. Reassuringly, at the Moscow stop, a nice international coach was leaving for Warsaw.
I questioned the man about left luggage and which metro stop the centre of Kiev was. You know, where I can take photos…? The lady from left luggage or kamera, as it was called here, had gone to the bank but would be back in 30 minutes, so I went to the train station instead. Here was the grandest train station you ever did see, with chandeliers, high ceilings and huge paintings. Priorities were obviously not with bus transportation.
I wasn’t really sure what I was going to see in the centre, but I was definitely there, at the busy street lined with souvenir sellers…..and people posing with birds.
I walked along, and saw the huge statue, and climbed up the top of the steps to look out. I could see a gold-domed church in the distance, and could definitely feel the Soviet influence.
I went into a nice looking cafe to get sandwiches for the bus. They cost just 20 UAH each, which I later worked out to be about £0.60. These weren’t just small sandwiches, they were huge ciabattas, which would be at least £4-£5 at home.
Sadly I didn’t have time/energy to do much more in Kiev, but to eat dinner and drink tea. I found another nice cafe, with a friendly lady who gave me salad, soup and tea. I was quite glad I had seen Kiev en route, and not planned a special trip, although I’m sure with more time the city would grow on me, especially with those prices! I do love a bargain.
The next leg of my bus trip was not quite to plan. The bus arrived on time, and I sat myself down in seat 9 as written on my ticket. Some more people got onto the bus, and a man said that seat 9 was his. I told him firmly that no, it was mine and carried on reading my Kindle. They were grumbling between themselves but didn’t say much more. Our bus left, and then arrived at the awful bus station I had arrived into that morning. Lots more people got on, and it seemed that most seats had been double or even triple booked. Another man got one who also wanted seat 9. I wasn’t moving without a fight, so I told him, no, I was in seat 9, and carried on reading. There seemed to problems with most of the other seats to, so finally a lady with a clipboard arrived, with some handwritten names on a paper, and of course mine was not next to seat 9. A paper ticket holds much more authority that an electronic ticket apparently, as I could have just gotten my exact same ticket as theirs (which just happened to be on my phone) from anywhere!
I think demand had been high for the time of year; there was another bus also going to same way, and a lot of people were sent to that one. I, on the other hand, didn’t have my name by seat 9 on either bus, so finally got told to get off and wait. I asked someone if they spoke English – claiming my innocence as just a foreigner who doesn’t understand, and they made sure the drivers got me a seat. Clipboard lady finished checking her seats, and directed me to the three remaining at the back – I ended up with two whole seats to myself, haha man squashed in seat 9!
We set off once more, and I slept quite well until about 2am when we slowed down at what seemed to be the border. We waited, we dozed, our passports were checked by the Ukrainian side, we slept, then they were taken, we snoozed, they were given back. Each time I’d look up at the clock and see about an hour had passed while I was sleeping. By the time we got our passports back it was 6am. What had they been doing for four hours?? We slowly crawled to the Russian side, and stopped. We moved a few times, and again we slept, I ate my breakfast (bar), but it wasn’t until about 11am, that we got anywhere near some kind of check. We waited, and waited, and then were suddenly all told to get off the bus with all our luggage and go into a room.
We went in, and waited to pass through the two passport controls. I usually like to keep the fact that I’m foreign a bit quiet when I travel in a bus full of Ukrainians, but the passport control wasn’t the most discreet. I think I’d already given it away that I was different with my posh red wheely suitcase, while everyone else were nudging their sport’s holdalls across the floor with their foot. The passport control man loudly asked me where I was going to, and why, and where I was from, and of course those behind me, and in front of me suddenly realised I was not just a foreigner.
“Oh, you’re English!!” Exclaimed the lady who had just been trying to push in front of me for the last 10 minutes. “Oh you’re so beautiful!”
Everyone else around me took this as their turn to practice their English, and my passport was taken to a special room, as if no one had seen one before.
I was one of the last to get through security, and we were all patiently waiting at the back of the crowd to put our luggage through the scanners. I was leaning against something reading my Kindle, enjoying being standing up after all that time on the bus, when one of the English speakers came up to me, and announced my privilege to queue jump. “It’s true! Come, I help you.”
Parting the huge crowd I was marched straight through security with everybody staring at me, and into the next room, as if they had just found out I was Beyonce or something, and told I could get back on the bus while everybody else was still waiting. I couldn’t actually get back on the bus, as it still was yet to be searched, so I got a seat in the next room.
We got back on the bus at 13:30 – the time we were supposed to be arriving into Moscow. I guessed we would be a little late. Everybody on the bus kept asking each other what time the metro closed. I thought we couldn’t possibly be getting back past midnight, could we? Well, we could, and we did. We eventually pulled into a bus station, in the south of Moscow just after 3am… I think some people were going to wait for the metro to open at 5am, but I could take no more and negotiated a taxi.
My bed had never felt so comfortable and I went straight to sleep. What a crazy journey, but part of the reason I love taking the overground route. The airport is just never that interesting.