Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Traveling in Eastern Europe

Hi friends,

Did you enjoy my post yesterday about Budapest?  It really is a lovely city and I highly recommend it to any American interested in European travel.

Today's post is all about transportation in Eastern Europe.

There are several modes of transportation available.

Air, Rail, Taxi, Bus, Van Bus, Car, Bicycle, Horse and of course feet.

Let's start with the trains.  All the trains we experienced were the 'Soviet Area' workhorse trains.  No frills, very basic but quite functional.  The train stations were interesting.  They were beautiful in their own strange way.  Below are the photos from the Budapest station.  We went there and pre-purchased our tickets and got the schedule.   It was not especially easy but the ticket counter people did speak English and we were successful.

So on Sunday we got to experience the train.  We had an early train that departed at 8:18 so the night before we went to the convenience store and bought some breakfast items (yogurt, fruit, 7 day croissants) since we knew we wouldn't get food before hand.  Silly us though.  We thought they would have drinks for sale on the train so we didn't bring juice or water.  We only brought one water bottle for the three of us.
We had our own little 'cabin.'  The trains are set up with compartments, each compartment having seating for 8 people and racks above the seats for luggage.  It wasn't crowded so we had an 8 seat compartment to ourselves for the trip from Budapest to Ukraine.

 Have I mentioned yet that it was HOT?  We arrived in Eastern Europe in time for a record breaking heat wave.  Each day it was between 95 and 103 degrees out.  And there was no air conditioning on the train.  We were very thankful for the windows.  When the train was moving and the air was moving it was bearable. When the train stopped at the stations and the air was still it was brutal.  The only problem with having the windows open and the air moving was the dust.  The train tracks were built on red/brown dirt.  We were all covered head to toe with brown dust.  I hope I can get the stuff out of my clothes.  I had to scrub it off my skin in the shower.

So when you board the train there is no attendant or ticket agent there before you board.  Anyone can board the train and the ticket agent comes by after the train starts moving and punches your tickets.  Because of this, anyone can board the train and many do.  Gypsy people would board the train at the various stations and come down to each cabin.   They had a variety of trinkets.  They would place the trinkets on the seat near you with a cardboard sign that indicated the prices.  They left the trinkets and went to the next car then came back.  If you shook your head no, they would collect the trinkets and leave.  At one station a man came into my car with a bag.  He asked 'smoking?'  I thought he was asking if our compartment was smoking so I said no.  Then he opened his bag and had cigarettes for sale. I shook my head no, not interested and he left.   We didn't have any issue with the gypsy's or other people, but on the return trip from Ukraine to Budapest I was very uncomfortable during the last part  of the trip.  Bob has a brand new ipad 3.  He had his ipad out and was reading from it and a group of young men walked by our compartment.  One of the boys stopped just past our cabin and did a double take.  Then he and a few of his friends came back by again the other direction.  I asked Bob to please put it away.  I was afraid they would grab it and run or worse mug us.  He put it away and we were attentive the rest of the trip and had no issue.  Thank God.  I think the trains are generally safe, but on the return trip from Ukraine to Budapest a young woman joined our compartment.  She was in her early 20's and travelling alone.  She spoke english and explained that her parents wanted her to sit in a compartment with other people rather than by herself.  Since she was a local I figured there was a reason she was being wise.  She mentioned 'gypsies' as her reason to be in a group so I guess it is a potential issue.  Any young woman travelling anywhere in the world should be cautious and as a mother, I welcomed her into our compartment.  She was heading off to meet friends for a camping adventure.  She had her backpack stuffed to the brim with stuff.  Have you seen the movie Trading Places?  There was a scene in the movie where Jamie Lee Curtis was dressed as Olga from Sweden.  We had several jokes about this since our compartment was similar to the one in the movie.

The train trip was about 5-6 hours.  As I said earlier, we just assumed there would be a snack car or vending machine or someplace to buy drinks.  There was nothing.  We were really unprepared and started rationing our water 2/3rds through the trip.  I kept thinking that as we approached a station that some young gypsies would be offering up water or soda for sale through the windows but no such luck.  With about 1 1/2 hours to go we came into a station and stopped. The train workers got off the train and were sitting at the station so we inquired and learned that we would be at that stop for 15 minutes.  I stayed with the stuff and Bob and Sarah went in and got some water and cokes.  That was the best coke I've had ever.  It was cool and wet.

The Hungarian countryside was very beautiful and full of farm land.  I guess Sunflower Oil is a big crop for them.  We passed field after field of sunflowers and corn fields.
No mountains, no lakes, no rivers, just fields and small villages.
On our return trip from Ukraine to Budapest we had some minor issues.  First, we didn't allow enough time to get to the train station via Taxi, buy tickets and go through pass-port control.  There was a line at the ticket counter.  Bob finally got to the window with 10 minutes to go before the train left and the counter agent would not take a credit card.  We had heard from the hotel clerk that we could buy our train ticket all the way through, but that was not the case.  The train ticket was just for the 30 minute ride over the border.  We were scrambling to find our Ukranian money and the counter agent (who spoke no english) shooed Bob off and took the next person in line.  Meanwhile the passport control lady told us to go through.  We tried to explain we didn't have a ticket and she said no problem, buy ticket on train so we went to passport control.  We figured since we were going into Hungary we could pay on the train with Hungarian Forints so we boarded the train.  The train ticket taker was not happy.  He had no way to take any foreign currency or charge cards.  We were 10 Hriven short (which is just about 1.20 USD) and he shook his head pointed his finger to indicate 'one moment' and left.  Later he came back and  I showed him a $20.00 US bill and he shook his head no.  I think he thought I was bribing him, I was just trying to pay for the ticket.  There were about 1/2 dozen border patrol guards on the train in the seats behind us, maybe he didn't want to take the foreign currency with them watching.  Surprisingly he never came back and asked for anything.  I kept looking for him or another agent but no-one came by so we dismounted the train and got a free ride.  Bob figures it was just too much of a hassle and the guy probably figured it was easier to ignore the situation than deal with it.  I think we got VERY lucky.

There was 15 minutes to connect in Zahony to the train to Budapest on that trip and we had to wait for the passport control people to board our train and go through all the passports.   I think if we had pre-purchased tickets and knew which train to connect to, we could have made it, but we left the train, went into the station and as we were buying the tickets saw the connecting train depart.  Sigh.  The next train leaving Zahony was an hour later so we chilled out at the station.  Chill isn't really the right word since it was about 100 degrees even at 9:00am.

I guess this is quite typical for foreigners who are clueless and don't speak the language.  We boarded the next train and walked into a beautiful train cabin with nice seats and A/C. However we asked the agent where we were to sit based on our tickets and he ushered us back to the 3rd class carraiges in the soviet era train cabins.  We were so bummed.  We couldn't understand why the ticket agent didn't try to upsell us to 2nd or 1st class cabins.  We would have gladly paid extra for that, but she sold us the basic 3rd class tickets so we begrudgingly walked to the back compartments and hunkered down for a long 5 hour dusty train trip.  Sigh. Don't these train carriages look much nicer?  And Air conditioning!!!  Sigh again. 

So enough about trains, let's talk about Taxi's.  Taxi's in Eastern Europe are very interesting.   There are no official taxi's here, just people with a car willing to drive someone somewhere for a fee.  It was always challenging trying to find a taxi.  In Ukraine most people don't have cars and use buses and taxi's to get from place to place. Most people have on their cell phones several 'taxi services' they can call.  And these taxi's were very affordable by US standards.  We decided to hire a taxi to take us the 2 1/2 hour drive from Uzhorod to Shayan.  It only cost the equivalent of $55.00 US.  Amazing.  The bus would have been $25.00 for all of us so we didn't hesitate to order the taxi and enjoy the ride in A/C comfort.  We also had all our luggage and thought the bus would be a hassle.

So we get in the taxi and I get 'shotgun.'  I notice right away the 'need gas light' is on.  Sarah inquires to the cab driver and he says he has to stop and fill up.  So in Hungary if you stop at a gas station all the passengers have to get out while just the driver goes to the pumps.  So the cabbie pulls up to the bench and we all get out.   It was a little unnerving.  all our luggage is in the car and we are sitting on the bench - see me wringing my hands?)
And here is our 'cab' at the pump.   How sad it would have been if he just took off and left us there.   I've seen too many movies that stir my imagination for bad endings.  Thankfully he came back for us and we had an uneventful journey.
The next day we planned to go to Vishkovo and see Sarah's village.  It was about a 15 minute ride from our hotel to her village.  We inquired of the hotel clerk and she tells us that to get a cab we have to walk into town (about a 10 min walk) and we'd find cabs there.  So Sarah and I took a walk.  Once there we ran into a teacher she works with and the teacher helped us negotiate a fair cab fare to the village.  It cost about $2.00 US dollars.  But the story doesn't end there.  There was a woman who was also involved in the discussion.  After a lot of talking, Sarah and I get in the cab and the woman also gets in the cab, but she has a giant garbage bag size bag of something with her.  We drive back to the hotel, pick up Bob and head to Vishkovo.  We found out that the woman had a giant bag of mushrooms.  I guess she had picked them in Shayan and was bringing them home to Vishkovo to sell at the market there.

Yes, it was an adventure.  Our other main transportation system was the van/bus.  These are very popular.  We got one of these in Khust. They line up near the bus station and they have a sign that says where they are going.  As soon as they have enough people, they leave.  No bus schedule, no set time, just once we have 10 people (the minimum) we go.

We filled this van pretty full for our 2 hour ride to Uzhorod.  It wasn't bad, but it was a bumpy ride.  Ukraine roads were pretty poorly maintained.  The guy had a sign in his window and on several occasions we stopped by the side of the road along the way and picked up passengers.  People just went to the street and hailed the van down as needed.  A very different life than America, but it seemed very efficient.

We got to watch wonderful music videos of Russian music and American music.

As for other modes of transport -we walked a lot.  There were also quite a few horse carts on the roads that the farmers and construction workers used.  One time we went to the nearby river to cool off.  We hired a taxi to get there but then when we wanted to leave none of the taxi's were available to pick us up.  Ivan (Sarah's boyfriend) called someone and discovered that someone was nearby the river and we met them and hopped in a very beat up, old car.  We squeezed 4 in the back seat and got a free ride back to town. 

So that is how transportation is in Eastern Europe.  Thanks for visiting my blog today.  Stop back tomorrow for my post on everyday life in Ukraine.

1 comment:

Kimberly Gajewski said...

Oh my goodness, Linda! I'd be completely lost! It sounds like you all navigated your way around pretty well! :D