August 20th, 2016
We are not train aficionados. We take trains from time to time simply to move towards, or away from a place.
We are more interested in the cleanness of the toilets in a passenger car than the type of the car, not to mention we seldom pay attention to the locomotive that is propelling the train.
That said, at this stage of the world-traveling game, we’ve become experts in procuring train tickets.
We went to the Ukraine Railway office at the center of Lviv to get a ticket to Poland. By the way, if you look at a map of Eastern Europe, you will see that Lviv of western Ukraine is closer to Munich in southern Germany than the Eastern Ukraine city of Luhansk(where Russian and Ukraine is having a war going for two years now).
Krakow, Poland, our destination is probably only a couple hundred kilometers but it is a world away.
The reason? Poland is a Schengen country and inside the protection of NATO. Ukraine is not. More importantly, Ukraine has one of the cheapest cigarettes and booze in the world and if you can get those into Poland, you are literally free to transport it anywhere in Schengen pact. A pack of cigarets in the UK cost a little over 10 times than in Ukraine. (What’s the last time you saw a pack of Marlboro less than $1 USD?)
We approached the ticket window. Inside was a woman in her fifties, speaking no English but somehow understood what we wanted. I told her we need two adults and two children tickets for Krakow, and then, very important step here, held Julia up to let her say hi to the woman.
Usually things start to change right at this moment in Eastern Europe, or South East Asia or anywhere except China. Boy they love four-year-olds. When Julia smiled and told her with her four little fingers sticking up that she is four, anything can happen. If we don’t get answers changed from an absolutely “No” to “Let me check” or “Yes, maybe”, we at least get very friendly smiles and services a lot faster.
What can I say, Julia is a killer.
The train to Krakow had only two coaches, parked in the yellowish light in the grand, old Lviv station waiting for us to be onboard. Annie noticed that the train had PKP signs on it. We asked the conductor and sure he was a Pole. Polite, professional with his good English, he told us that we were going to be checked and stamped after an hour or so on the train, and then “Please lock your compartment. Bolt it”.
There were no shortage of horror stories about the Eastern European cross-border night train. The conductor can be a team with muggers in the middle of the night. One opens the compartment door with the key and the other comes in to clean your valuables. I wasn’t too worried after talking to this particular conductor.
He was straight.
By around midnight, the train stopped. Ukrainian officers came in to stamp us out. They smelled booze and cigarettes. By about one A.M. the train stopped again for the Polish officers to check. These people had real guns on them and an attitude. I opened the compartment door and the whole corridor smelled Vodka. We thought they were going to wake us all up, open all the luggage to search for the smuggles. Instead they saw the two children sleeping, didn’t even turn on the light, and just used their torch to go through the obvious spot, under the sink etc.
When they saw my passport, they spent a lot of time on it. (We travel with the Canadian passports which shouldn’t be giving us any trouble to enter Schengen area) He finally asked me if I was born in Taiwan or China.
Why was that so important?
I hit bed around 2 A.M. and was promptly waken up at 6:30 when we approached Krakow. The coffee was delivered. We ate a little bit of over-sweeten bum they gave us. The train arrived in Krakow on time.
The train station and the mall in front of the train station was so new and so clean that we almost thought we were in Western Europe or North America. Still, it took us major effort to adjust to the price of everything in Poland.
We were totally spoiled by Ukraine.
People come to Krakow for her central square, to walk around and see the castle. We did just that plus eating some Polish dishes. I was not particularly impressed by the food nor the city. To me Lviv had way more charm. Sure Krakow had everything a tourist could dream. The horse-drawn wagon. The big basilica. A university that dated back hundreds of years. A castle looking down at the river.
But it was lacking the authenticity. Things here were packaged too nicely. ALL the buildings were maintained top notch. Even the trams on the road were brand new. It wasn’t hard to see that Krakow was going to be or already had become the next Vienna, or Prague, and we unfortunately are not the kind of travelers having only 11 days and wanting to do Vienna, Prague and Krakow in one big whoosh.
Eventually when our Airbnb’s check-out time came, we left Krakow with no regret. It was a nice place to be, but not a place we’d want to linger or come back.