When I was a little girl, our phone number was the same as the Greyhound bus company—we just lacked the 1-800. As you can imagine, we used to get calls all the time for people looking for bus prices. I’ve never taken a Greyhound bus. Besides my memories of fielding irate customer calls as a young girl, I’ve always had a car or another mode of transportation. Plus, Greyhound doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in the US. Because I have a lot of foreign friends, I do know people who have taken the Greyhound bus. Most of the time, they don’t have any other mode of transportation, but I would often scoff and think “they just don’t know any better.” Maybe that’s elitist of me, but that’s the way it is.
Imagine my surprise when Sasha told me that my trip from Riga to Lviv was the equivalent of a Greyhound bus trip! And I loved it.
Most of the bus trips that go through the former USSR are on old buses purchased from Germans, and our bus was no exception. It was old enough to have slots where the ashtrays used to fit in on every seat. Luckily, this was a non-smoking bus. If you can’t tell from the sign, this trip from Latvia to Ukraine would go through Lithuania and Poland. Driving through Belarus would be a more direct route, but Belarus has a lot of Visa requirements that the other countries do not have. Above, the sign is written in both Latvian and Russian, and every announcement throughout the trip would be made in Latvian and Russian. There were “stewardesses” on the bus, but their idea of service is a very “Soviet” style. They tend to be harsh and unfriendly, and if they can’t help you, you have to deal with it.
When the bus arrived, there was a mad dash of people trying to get their bags in the hold first.
Being a young American woman, I tried to be friendly to my fellow passengers despite our language barrier. I smiled at them and made eye contact. While not exactly a mistake, my American style of friendliness doesn’t exactly translate in this area. Sasha laughed and said they might have thought I was mentally disabled. Still, I persist in my smiling; it’s a tough habit to break.
The bus wasn’t exactly luxurious, but it was comfortable. Hmm, looking at these pictures, the other passengers might have thought I was a weirdo because I was taking pictures of absolutely everything.
I was assigned place 8, but luckily the bus wasn’t full, so I could move my spot into my own little area. I got two seats to myself!
We drove out of Riga. Bye Latvia!
The bus ride was approximately seventeen hours long, including rest stops and time for passport control. We stopped at some nice rest stops and others that left something to be desired. A few of them lacked working lights and emitted a smell I would rather forget.
The good thing about the above rest stop was that it gave one of my fellow passengers a chance to come say hello. I met a man named Amber who spoke English. His name wasn’t actually Amber, but it was the equivalent in Russian or Latvian and is used as a male name. He learned English by working in the United States, “until the immigration police kicked me out,” he laughed, and he currently works in Great Britain. I was so lucky to meet this man. He saw how excited I was about the trip and he pointed out all kinds of sights on the way. He also talked me through passport control when I looked nervous.
After Latvia, we drove through Lithuania. We saw an old military fort and the city of Kaunus.
Integrating the Baltic states into the European Union has had both positive and negative effects. Many of the more eastern European countries, like Poland and the Baltics, have experienced a brain drain, as young, intelligent people leave their homeland to work in Germany or Great Britain to earn a better paycheck. Even working in an unskilled area can have better payoff than a professional position in some of these areas. Furthermore, because these countries are all part of the EU, greedy young tourists like me who want to wrack up more stamps in our passports have to suffer with blank pages.
We sailed through the border of Poland and Lithuania, looking at the abandoned passport control stations. The Baltics and Poland still have different currency than the rest of the EU, but they will get the Euro in 2011. It will be interesting to see how a common currency affects these countries, thinking about the recent problems in Greece. It was an education for me trying to exchange Lats in Ukraine. I assumed money was money and anyone would take any currency, but I’ve only really ever had to exchange US dollars. Sasha and I had to struggle to exchange my Lats (at an awful rate!). I had more trouble with Latvian money! It’s incredible.
Our next border crossing would be a lot more eventful. Before we got there, one of the stewardesses filled out my Ukrainian immigration forms for me.
It was interesting to see my nationality written in Cyrillic letters. American becomes AMEPUKA. The Cyrillic letter that looks like a P makes the “r” sound. I only snatched one picture at the Polish border.
The Polish border was simple. An immigration officer came onto the bus, collected our passports, left the bus to stamp them, and then came back to return them. Easy as, as the Kiwis would say—or is it the Australians? (Last summer seems so far away at this point!) I love my stamps from Poland and Ukraine because they show a new mode of transportation from me. When a country stamps your passport, the stamp indicates the mode of transport you used to enter the country. I have entered a lot of countries by plane and train, and I have one ferry stamp (from Dover to Calais), but I have yet to drive through a border. My stamps from Poland and Ukraine have little cars on them! How awesome.
The Ukrainian border was slightly more complicated. We arrived at the border at about 4AM. I had been tossing and turning and unable to sleep anyway. We handed in our passports and were herded off the bus where we had to retrieve our luggage and take it into a big room with a long metal table. The border guard led us into the room, and when he left, he locked the door behind them. My fellow passengers laughed and muttered sarcastically under their breath something like, “What are we? Criminals?” After a few minutes, another border guard entered from a different door and had us open all our luggage. She harassed the other passengers about alcohol and other substances, but when she got to me, she only had me open one of my bags before she moved on. I found it perplexing, but perhaps the bus staff told her I was American –or simple…
It took us about forty minutes to get through the Ukrainian border, but the traffic leaving Ukraine was a lot worse. When people leave Ukraine, they are entering Poland, which is a part of EU, so the border guards need to make sure they have proper Visas. Furthermore, a lot of products are significantly cheaper in Ukraine, so the guards need to make sure people aren’t illegally exporting goods.
After our border patrol adventure, I finally nodded off for a few hours, and I only awakened when the bus started jerking wildly on Lviv’s cobblestone streets. We had arrived! I was so disoriented at this point, so I didn’t take pictures when we arrived at the train station, but it was certainly a culture shock for me. Though I am accustomed to traveling by train in Europe, and I have been to a fair number of countries, including former Soviet countries, upon seeing Lviv’s train station, I concluded that the others were “Soviet lite.” I had been awaiting my arrival at the station because I assumed it would be like Germany. I could easily exchange my money and settle in to a cafe to wait for Sasha. The station would obviously be clean, well-lit, and efficient.
The Lviv station is huge, dark, and old. At seven AM it was freezing, but I found a spot in the warmer “waiting room” with a herd of other travelers. This vast room houses rows and rows of seats and people simply wait for their trains. The police occasionally make their way through the area, evicting beggars and homeless people. There weren’t any cute cafes although they did have a few lunch counters and coffee machines, but no one would exchange my Lats! I huddled in my seat reading my book and waited for Sasha…