The Very-Fast Train is 1 Hour Late (and Other Ukrainian Paradoxical Experiences)

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My Ukrainian arrival in Lviv involves a weathered woman (me). I’ve had a few high and low moments on the Ultimate Train Challenge so far, and in less than two weeks, I’ve experienced a what feels like a lifetime of travel adventures. By the time I reached Prague, I had lost much of my sense of time, space, even culture.

So feeling dizzy with trains, arrivals, departures, hellos, goodbyes – coming to Ukraine is (initially) more than I can handle.

Here is my Ukrainian journey – a lifetime of paradoxes unto itself.

This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

Day One – Lviv

12:30am – I’m on the overnight train to Lviv from Budapest. The previous morning I boarded a train in Prague. By the time I arrive in Lviv I’ll have been on trains for 25 hours.

I’m jolted awake by a customs official who ponders my passport ad nauseam before finally stamping it to signify my exit from the EU. Shortly thereafter I’m handed a customs form entirely in Cyrillic – not even the English alphabet, much less English language. I blink, wondering if it’s sleep in my eyes. Nope – I’m actually expected to fill this out. And nobody speaks English to help me. The lady in the cabin next door ends up basically filling it out for me; I have no idea what she writes, but it does the trick.

9:30am – I finally arrive to Lviv station. Again – no English. And – no cash. I try three bank machines and a number of debit and credit cards before I find a card and machine combination that works.

10:30am – I’m still wandering around the train station, bewildered. I don’t know where to go, how to find the tram I’m supposed to take, or how to tell a taxi driver where I want to go. I’m so exhausted and overwhelmed, I was long ago bereft of my problem-solving or rational thought capacities.

train timetable in Lviv; Ukrainian confusion

11:00am – I drastically overpay a kind-looking gentleman to drive me to my hostel. Although he bills himself as a taxi driver, I realize he’s not when we get into his car, and I’m nervous the whole way. When we reach the hostel, I want to kiss him. Instead, I unwittingly overpay him three times the going rate.

11:30am – My first beacon of hope: Mister Hostel. The kind receptionist shows me my room, into which I collapse and enjoy releasing the tears that have brimmed my bewildered eyes since arriving.

1:00pm – I’m still hiding in my room, behind the safety of my computer screen. Not having eaten since yesterday, the need for food and coffee forces me out of my self-loathing stupor.

1:30pm – I enjoy an uplifting and heartening conversation with the hostel receptionist at Mister Hostel, who, sensing distress makes me a coffee as soon as I emerge from my room. We talk about life in Ukraine, things to do in Lviv, and our respective backgrounds. I leave the hostel with a better sense of Lviv, a map in hand, and a little more energy.

2:00pm – I’m eating the most typical (and filling) Ukrainian meal I can find: borscht and pierogies – all for the staggering price of $2. With sustenance, I have renewed faith in my ability to get through this day, much less this trip.

$2 of Ukrainian sustenance

5:00pm – I‘ve wandered the streets of Lviv for the last three hours, and I’m impressed. Unlike other places in Europe, the buildings here haven’t been restored – and there’s beauty in the “realness” of everything and everybody. There’s a friendly energy, and I feel safe.

one of many games of chess in the park
one of many games of chess in the park
raw beauty of Lviv Ukraine

Now, I meet Oksana of Active Ukraine. Her contacting me online is a big motivation for my planning three days in Ukraine, and I’m thrilled to finally meet her in person. She helps me buy my onward train tickets (without this help I’m truly not sure how I would have managed), shows me some sights, and bids me goodbye.

7:30pm – It’s very un-Ukrainian, but I’m indulging in a sushi dinner. I haven’t had sushi in weeks, and I seriously doubt it will be available on the Trans-Siberian railway.

9:00pm – I return to Mister Hostel to discover I’ve been upgraded to a private room with my own shower and toilet. This is the perfect respite to repack my bags, shower, and prepare for my big trip to the mountains tomorrow.

Day Two – Carpathian Mountains

5:30am – I’m awake to go to the train station (by taxi, for 1/3 the price of my last taxi ride here), to board the 2.5 hour train ride to Ivano-Frankivsk, where I’ll meet my Active Ukraine mountain guides.

9:40am – On cue, Olesia and her friends Jerry and Andry greet me at the Ivano-Frankivsk train station. We gather our gear, and a friend of Jerry’s disappears with my luggage (which includes my precious laptop) to keep it safe while we’re camping in the mountains.

12:30pm – After a long bumpy bus ride, we are dropped at the trailhead on the side of the road. So begins the upward hike.

4:30pm – We reach our first of three mountain summits over the next two days. It’s a long, arduous trek, but I’m happy to be using my legs as a reprieve from the previous (and upcoming) sedentary train travel.

Carpathian mountain top, Ukrainian beauty

5:00pm – We stop in at a log cabin miles from anywhere, with cows grazing outside and plumes of smoke rising from the chimney.

idyllic log cabin in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine

Here, we meet a shepherd, who has lived here all summer. His job is to care for the cows, which belong to a various people in his home village (where there is no pasture for them to graze on). Each “owner” periodically stops in (a trip involving a long hike) for their share of cheese and milk.

Ukrainian shepherd's home

The shepherd is a “wholesome” outdoorsy fellow, probably in his 50s or 60s, and thoroughly in his element. He ducks inside and emerges with three different kinds of cheese and fresh Ukrainian donuts, urging us to take more than we can conceivably eat.

The Professional Hobo making cheese in Ukrainian nature

Through translations, I learn the shepherd is due to leave tomorrow for a winter in the village, and he starts to cry. His passion for this simple life of making cheese, tending pastures, baking bread, and sustaining himself here is evident. His emotive state is both surprising and incredibly moving.

the kind Ukrainian shepherd

I hadn’t imagined that this sort of lifestyle still existed. It feels like we traveled back in time to witness a way of life of decades gone past. It is an honour to meet this man, and to see a slice of natural Ukraine that very few people ever see.

6:00pm – We reach a good spot for camp. The four of us set to putting up tents, collecting firewood, and preparing dinner. Soon enough we’re feasting on a delicious meal – which includes fresh cheese from our shepherd-friend of course.

cooking dinner over a campfire in the Carpathian mountains

10:30pm – We settle in after a night of singing Ukrainian and English songs around the fire. We break language and cultural barriers with this beautiful and ancient art of song and fire. With sharing song, hiking and camping, we are fast becoming friends.

Day Three – Carpathians, Showers, and Slow Fast Trains

8:00am – The guys already have a campfire going, and we make breakfast (sweet rice and dried fruit porridge).

11:45am – We’ve reached the second of our three summits, and the highest at over 1,600 metres. The summit (and much of the route up) is a jumble of large rocks (good balance and rock-hopping capabilities are essential), covered in light-green lichen. It lends a unique look to the Carpathian mountain range, both from a distance and up close.

Carpathian summit #2

1:00pm – “The way down will be very difficult,” are Olesia’s words that have been ringing in my ears all morning. I’m not good with coming down off mountains in the best of circumstances, and given the strenuous nature of the trek so far, I wonder what her concept of “very difficult” is.

I have my answer as we stand atop peak number three, and I look over the precipice at the steep rocky descent. The first leg will be the toughest, and from there it’s all meadows and forest descents (which aren’t exactly like lollipops and candy canes, but are comparatively easy).

enjoying a rest before the "big descent"
enjoying a rest before the “big descent”

3:00pm – We’ve made it down the tough bit, after some harrowing moments and a few minor slips. The trail has now disappeared. I wonder to what degree we’re lost, and contemplate what it would be like to miss my train (involuntarily), instead making a life in these beautiful mountains, living simply like the shepherd does. (But then I realize that even the shepherd leaves these hills for the harsh winter, so I quicken my pace down the steep forest terrain).

4:00pm – All’s well and we’re back on the main road, at a massive ski resort under construction. Apparently I’m not the only person who thinks the Carpathian mountains are worthy of visiting; in a few months, this sleepy area will see thousands of ski-happy tourists.

our happy foursome

6:30pm – Olesia and I say goodbye to Jerry and Andry, and I’m thankful for two new friends myself. We already have a few hikes planned for my eventual return.

7:00pm – We are in dire need of showers, especially given my pending overnight train ride. Olesia calls a friend in town (since she herself lives a few hours away in Lviv), who invites us to her home to clean up – even though the friend won’t be there. We are assured that her brother and mother will take care of us.

8:00pm – Two blessed showers later, we feel human again. I tell the mother through charades that her cooking smells delicious, and within minutes we’re sitting at the table and eating her homemade borscht, meat patties, and veggie/bean salad. It’s a feast, and I’m quickly stuffed – and I’ve managed to get another Scavenger hunt item: a picture of me eating in a local’s home!

another delicious dinner in a local's home
another delicious dinner in a local’s home

9:00pm – Olesia and I are taking the same train (she gets off much earlier), and we wait at the station, along with Jerry’s kind friend who returns with my luggage and insists on waiting with us so he can help us on to the train with our bags.

Although it’s a far cry from the high-speed trains of Europe, this train is apparently called the “Very-Fast” train. The irony is almost painful when the announcement comes: “The Very-Fast Train Will be 1 Hour Late”. The very-fast train is no longer very fast.

But things in Ukraine aren’t always as they seem. What at first seemed an intimidating, uninviting, and formidable front in Lviv, opened up to be a beautiful place of raw and honest beauty, in spite of – or in fact because of – it’s pock marks.

And once I saw this glimmer of beauty, so much more of Ukraine opened up for me. I met more and more people who offered their kindness – if not through their words (with language barriers), then through their generosity and demeanour.

The taxi-driver. The hostel receptionist. Oksana. The man at the dinner table next to me who helped translate the menu. Olesia, Jerry, and Andry. Jerry’s friend who stored my luggage. The kind shepherd, who shared his food and his open heart with us. And the “ultimate” mother who opened her home to two strangers for showers and a hot meal.

In my three days in Ukraine, I feel blessed to have transformed from somebody beaten-down and exhausted, to somebody rejuvenated by the wonders of those things we least expect.

Thanks to Active Ukraine for taking me hiking in the Carpathian mountains. I wish I had time to do one of their city-based tours like the Kyiv Quest, which turns discovering the city into a fun game.

Thanks also to HostelBookers for connecting me with Mister Hostel in Lviv.

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21 thoughts on “The Very-Fast Train is 1 Hour Late (and Other Ukrainian Paradoxical Experiences)”

  1. Have you noticed how people from financially more modest backgrounds are usually the ones to show kindness to a stranger?
    I find that extremely rare and precious, it somehow renews one’s faith to the human nature.
    Sweet read, your blog is addictive, i can’t wait to see what happens next 😉 xox

  2. Great read, outstanding! I love your story about Ukraine and right now I really would like to visit this beautifull country as well… hope you feel really good again, full of energy and motivated to go on with your trip!

  3. Nora, Nora, Nora… After having read this story of yours, this remarkable log of your sweet journey through the foreign lands of time and space, and deciding not to take my scheduled nap, I feel I must impart these few words regarding it… oh, and please don’t respond with ‘irksome’ again, I have already forgotten what it means…

    Of course you are having a wonderful journey, complete with strangers in a strange land offering to you their gracious meals, showers, stories, etc…

    BUT, (big clue with ‘but’ in caps) let us compare two situations…

    ONE is a story of an attractive, articulate and seemingly available young woman obviously in some small need of help with direction, language and lack of time, someone like you, who on first glance only requires the basic human response that humans give to others…

    and TWO is a situation of someone like myself, who appears more like a troll to a troll, is unkempt, unshaven, in ill fitting clothing, ill mannered and boring to the rocks in the parks he sleeps on…

    Compare these two situations, and remember, that people will make an immediate impression, within three seconds, of whether they would open up to that subject, offering aid, assistance or kindness…

    Let us not kid ourselves, if you were driving down the highways of Canadia, and saw a person of either demeanor, and that person needed help, which would you feel more likely to empathize with?

    I say it would be the charming, smiling, openhearted, warm souled person that we would see for that glance… someone just like you… dare not to fool yourself and think that the world you are traveling through is Nirvana, but instead believe that Nirvana is your aura… quietly, safely guiding you through the silent storms of life that you have so adroitly avoided with your affectionate charm and endearing love of the life you live so passionately…

    just remember one thing Nora, if you are the first one to step off that train in DaNang, you win!

  4. I think the more daunting task for our amazing trio, is not the fact that they are riding the rails, but trying to cram in as much of the culture they are riding through…

    Soon after I got my VFR ticket, I realized there’s nothing more frightening than the force of gravity… especially at 30,000 feet… it’s never pilot error nor mechanical malfunction that kills airborne passengers, it’s gravity… ruthless, uncaring, paradoxical gravity…

    For me, the best part of flying is between breaking ground and touchdown, all the other misery attached to travel by air, is an abuse…

    so when I was rediculously chasing the tail of a former flame, I made several trips from NYC to Seattle… twice by train, both directions, which takes three days give or take an hour or two… and once by taking Greyhound, again both directions, and leaving the driving to them, again taking three days and a half… I love traveling, and seeing the planet up close… seeing, touching, and feeling other lifestyles is way better than passing them by…

    the train rides were mostly boring, but a better ride once you get west of Chicago… BUT, let me tell you, three days ‘riding the dog’ as they call it, each way, is an aptly named affront to comfort and reality…

    25 hours on a train may be at worst boring and confining to a degree, and I’m sure the railroads that these three amigos are riding aren’t the most luxurious rides ever devised by man, but my bet is the worst part is the train food, and not the train ride…

    I dare ANYONE to ride the dog cross country and wax poetically about the trip… but i am an envious person to Nora, et al, and applaud the courage and ambition they give this journey…

    I agree with you, Nancy & Shawn, this will be a great experience and well worth the ride for this tenaciously, tolerant, traveling trio… I just hope that in the movie version Nomadic Chick isn’t played by Margaret Cho…

  5. Earlier I said: “just remember one thing Nora, if you are the first one to step off that train in DaNang, you win!”… what I meant was Hồ Chí Minh City, or as some call it in older days Saigon (a novel featuring secret agent Nick Carter). My bad…

  6. Nora, I am so happy that you have witnessed some parts of Ukraine that most people don’t get to see. That’s the Ukraine that I dearly love, and that’s the country that everyone should get to know.

    Wish you all the luck for your longest train trip and will keep reading your blog for more stories!

    My best greetings from Ukraine.

  7. Wow, I loved this post (not that I don’t love all your posts,lol). It’s past just my immense love of borscht and perogies. The story and the pictures of the shepherd had me on the edge of my seat. AMAZING! I just love that you got to experience that type of life, even if only for a day…and that you shared it with us! Now I want to know everything…
    When you wrote that he started to cry, I started to tear up! I want to know all about his little cottage and herding and making cheese and the villagers coming up the mountain…and more about cheese,lol.
    Sigh…what a great daydream of such a life( as I listen to the whir of the automatic coffee machine going off in my office).

    As for what Keith wrote: dare not to fool yourself and think that the world you are traveling through is Nirvana, but instead believe that Nirvana is your aura….
    …that’s an intriguing thought. I shall ponder this today.

  8. @ Miki: thank you for the reference to my compliment about someone whom I hold in dear regard… someone whom I have trusted with some of my most secret self-knowledge and experience… someone who obviously doesn’t rely on her own celebrity, unlike others she has worked with, but instead sees only future to be gained and embraces her desire for self and other exploration in my opinion, enthusiastically and lovingly…

    @ Nora, i have put into my will that you should receive my two cats, along with their litter box… please take them to the nearest woods to Ontario, Canadia, and set them loose when you feel the need, but please sing “Born Free” as you do… you have the voice of an angel, as well as the angelic aura that I have seen surround you…

  9. Nora, it’s been such a pleasure for us to host you on our trip!

    Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine still keep the remnants of the old lifestyle, and it’s always so inspiring to get a taste of it (even for the urban Ukrainians ourselves!)

    Hope more and more people will come to Ukraine and get to know our beautiful and still very real country.

    All the best,
    Active Ukraine team

  10. @ Nora: My oft nightly dreams of Tatum O’Neal have seemingly become replaced by this person you refer to as ‘Oksana’… someone so unknown to me, someone who, could be just a character as in the mind of a schizophrenic’s, just as they do not really exist, and how this “Oksana’, in my mind may be truly an unreliable knowledge…

    saying her name aloud, using the three boxes of voice: the actuator, the resonator, and the articulator, turns my cloudy days into sunny ones…

    just knowing someone with a name like hers that rolls so gently across my tongue to my lips and then to my ear, is thrilling beyond words… even to me…

  11. Someday the countries of the former USSR (and Russia itself) will emerge from the days of bribes and red tape and become tourism powerhouses, but that day is years away, I fear.

    A very interesting read.

  12. @ Erik… just a little grease to ease you into the third millenium… whether asian, of occidental, EVERY country’s power machine is corrupted to to a certain degree… have you been paying attention to American politics? our government is rampant with corruption and feeds it…

    the whole asian hemisphere is a beautiful place to be… as i’m sure you already know from your own multitudinous travels… maybe i think i will think of your name being Marco, and not Erik…

    but you always have to haggle, tip or just plain bribe someone who has what you need… no matter where you go in life…

    my doormat doesn’t say ‘Welcome”, it says ‘$10 Entry Fee’ and feels empowering… it’s an humanly innate ego enforcer… and it’s a wonderful idea to share, so i give this gift to you…

    so use it… live it… admire it… be it… get it? but you won’t have to love it…

    • Bethaney – I love surprising travel experiences; and Ukraine was one pleasant surprise after another…and just what the doctor ordered.


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