When the time came to leave Ukraine and head west for Poland I was in Lviv with my hitch-hiking friends Tom (German) and David (French).
We weren’t really sure where to go or what to do to get out of town so we walked to the local train station and asked around for someone who spoke English, in the end a local bus driver offered to bring us to the border at a cheap price. Ukraine was still a bit tense due to the civil war in the East and our rug-sacks were feeling heavy so we took him up on his offer.
The bus left us off about 1km from the Medyka-Shedyni border and a soldier approached us asking for our passports, we showed him much to his amusement then he walked us to the border.
Getting across wasn’t difficult, we skipped the queue as EU citizens but our bags were quickly searched and passed through an x-ray. The Polish side was full of women selling Ukranian cigarettes, like a hundred of them maybe.
We began hitchhiking after the border but had no luck, its a large motorway type road. A cigarette seller pointed us to a minibus into Prezemysel for a euro or two.
Once in Prezemysel we got a taxi between the three of us onto the motorway north for Krakow and began hitchhiking at a bus stop. We were collected after 15 minutes.
Even though we got two buses and a taxi it was still cheaper then a train but not very skilful hitchhiking between the three of us.
Our lift (an Armenian guy) was going to Kielce but he dropped us off by the main road to Krakow near Checiny and we caught a lift in 10 minutes with a Polish guy going to Krakow for a stag night.
I was staying at the Funky Mamaliga Hostel in Chisinau, a decent hostel for just a fiver a night. Chisinau is a cool city too, I wanted to stay a couple days but I meet David (French) and Tom German) in the hostel on my second morning. They too were hitchhiking.
They told me about a country I had never even heard about called Transistria or Prednestrovia, a breakaway state from Moldova. They planned on hitchhiking there that morning and I felt like joining them, some company on the road would be good. So I packed my bag and headed back on the road again.
We caught a ride fast enough from the airport. If you take a bus there then walk back down onto the main road where traffic would exit from the airport in the Tiraspol direction you will see a good spot with plenty of room.
Overall Rating : Good, plenty of room but traffic is fast.
Waiting Time : 20 Mins
So we were collected by Igor, a friendly short fellow with tattoos on his arms, hands and knuckles. He didn’t speak English (or Romanian like most Moldovans) instead he just spoke Russian.
As with all native Russian speaking people he spoke away in Russian regardless of the fact we didn’t understand. Russians will speak Russian until you speak Russian, simple as.
We gathered he was from Traninistria and proud of it too, we had our own local tour guide, which is probably how we managed to skip across the border relatively easily.
Transinistria is essentially a small slender strip of land between a Moldovan River and Ukraine. On the way to Ukraine we would mostly just see the capital city of Tiraspol and a little countryside. The city is chillingly communist with statues of Lenin, Russian Tanks, Soldiers and everything in Russian. It’s a cool experience to see the very quiet town of Tiraspol if only for a few hours.
We got our new friend to leave us off in what seemed like a city center so we could explore. Immediatley after stepping out of the car it was obvious we were outsiders. Especially David, (he’s black) the locals would stare confused looking and one kid even asked for a photo with him.
There are some gorgeous looking young girls here (dressed 90s style) and all of the guys seemed friendly as we strolled around. One group stopped to have a smoke with us and take a photo. The language barrier is unreal though, no-one speaks anything but Russian here and everyone seemed shy. When we had food in the one restaurant we could find it just had a Russian menu too. I didn’t see any ATMs either.
When it came time to head for Ukraine after eating some dinner we just started walking again and thumbing. People looked a bit scared in the cars though especially with a black guy (the only one in the country ever probably).
In the end a police officer came over to us, he signaled to wait then flagged down a mini-bus and ordered the guy to take us to the Ukraine border. We gave the driver like 3 euro in Moldovan money and everyone was happy.
It was a strange yet interesting experience in the country that dosen’t exist called Traninistria, it felt very Soviet and I felt like a celebrity there. I would like to go back someday and speak to the locals about their lives living inside this little territory with little chance of ever leaving. Learning of Russian would be needed though first.
Once across the Ukraine border we began hitchhiking again, it was surprising how easily we walked the border considering there was a civil war happening in Eastern Ukraine at the time. There was a lot of soldiers around too. Possibly fearing an attack from the Pro-Russia made up country of Transinistria. The border police just laughed at us “Silly Westerner with big bagpack haha, we have bigger problem to fix then bother check their passport”.
We didn’t have any success hitchhiking however, two fat Ukranian men pulled over and simply made money symbols with their hands before we realized we would need to pay. In the end we had to bargain a deal on the side of the road to exchange some Euros, and then pay for a lift to Odessa.
Ukraine sure wasn’t being the most welcoming country.
Overall Rating : Bad, unless your a girl since local girls seemed to not have to pay. This is a bit risky too as many of the old men around the border were considerably dodgy looking.
Waiting Time : Probably not long, like 15 mins once you offer some money to chip in towards the Petrol cost, anywhere from 5 euro to 10 euro should suffice for Odessa.
The roads are horrible in Ukraine with potholes the size of craters but on the other hand the trains are very cheap. Travelling hundreds of km for about 10 euro on comfortable sleeper trains is possible. I would recommend this rather then the hitchhiking (unless you speak Russian). Maybe the atmosphere was only tense because of the trouble in Donetsk at the time.
Inter-railers have been travelling through Central European cities like Prague and Budapest for donkeys years thinking they have been visiting Eastern Europe. There is a difference though, even if they were all once part of the USSR some are more “Soviet” than others.
So if you want cheap alcohol, smokes, beautiful girls, some wild nature and to witness a more traditional style of life while hitchhiking then follow these 11 simple rules.
1) Smoke : An important part of everyday life from the age of 14. Even if you are completely against smoking be sure to carry a pack when hitchhiking. The offer of a smoke to someone is a good method for making friends and finding lifts. It’s also a nice gesture when getting into a strangers car. Smoking by the petrol stations and hitchhiking spots somehow makes you look more approachable too.
Beggars are always delighted to take a smoke too and considering a packet will cost less than 2 euro then that’s 20 beggers not bothering you anymore.
All girls and guys smoke too in the bars and nights-clubs, and in some countries like Serbia they smoke inside too. So don’t expect to socialise with locals in a bar without getting smoke in your face. In other words, don’t complain about smoking in Soviet Countries.
2) Enjoy local Vodka / Wine : So you get into a Bulgarian car after 20 minutes of hitch-hiking and he offers you a shot of his home-grown 40% alcohol Rakia. It’s insulting to say no, so just drink it and smile. Even if you make a horrible face from the taste he will be delighted to have shared his own alcohol with you. Offer a smoke in return and you have a comrade for life.
This happens a lot more often then you would think because the alcohol is cheap and most farmers make their own. Whether it be Rakia (Bulgaria, Serbia), Wine (Moldova, Georgia), Vodka (Ukraine, Belarus) or Palinka (Romania, Hungary).
3) Have a Phrasebook : Countries like Georgia have had to fight off invaders from large empires for many centuries and still managed to hold onto their native tounge. Its a good idea to learn maybe hello and cheers in the local lingo as a sign of respect. The Eastern countries are very proud of their language’s and history so don’t expect the people to have an interest in speaking English. A translation of the Cyrillic alphabet will be helpful too.
4) Hate your Neighbour Country…. and Turkey…. and Gypsys : If you are in any of these countries you should speak poorly of the immediate neighbours. Bulgarians don’t like Romanians, Serbs don’t like Bosnians etc. Just pick any country that borders you and curse them!
The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) savaged the Balkans and Georgia hundreds of years ago leaving a sour taste in their mouths and they aren’t prepared to forgive. Don’t praise Istanbul as your favourite city.
Russia on the other hand is half in half. Some people despise Russia and the language while some people are happy to learn Russian. Much of the older generations remember communist times fondly (seriously). None more so then in countries where Russian is still spoken by a large population. Moldova, Ukraine, Estonia and Belarus are examples, some people hate Putin and others admire him. It’s hard to know who’s who so its best really to avoid Russia chat.
Germany gets off scot free by the way, Hitler’s third Reich also raped Eastern Europe but an ill attitude towards ze Germans is very rare. In fact many people learn German rather than English or Russian as children in school.
Gypsys are very despised by the people who aren’t themselves Gypsys and some people will claim that they came from “Fucking Turkey” originally. Especially in Romania, it’s easy to tell a Gypsy from the rest too, they always have much darker skin.
5) : Don’t stand out : Subcultures and fashions such as goths, rockers, hippies etc. do not exist in Soviet Europe and girls often wear jeans to night clubs. Dress plainly, brush out them dreadlocks and throw out that Che Guvera t-shirt. Try not to smile too much either when first making conversation. I’m not saying people are overly serious but a bit more reserved, just don’t come on too strong with high fives or fist pumps.
6) Enjoy Cabbage Soup : The national food of Ukraine, stews and soups will make up your diet when travelling through Eastern Europe. Vegetarian’s needn’t worry.
7) Carry Some Cash and your Passport : Just incase it’s needed, euros will be accepted almost anywhere and exchange stalls/shops are never far away (often far more competitive than banks). Get some exchanged when you can though. I have had to exchange cash before on the street with random people because if your fifty has even the slightest tear on it that angry old bitch in the exchange stall won’t accept it.
Cash comes in handy for a quick bribe too (you never know).
The Passport is required in some countries to be with you at all times, spot checks can happen from the police.
8) Don’t Keep Falling in Love : Yes they are all hot, every young woman. Your going to have to get over it eventually.
9) Meet a Local : Couchsurfing is superb for meeting locals, just post a conversation topic in the main page of whatever city you are in. You now have a free tour guide because most young folk actually know their city’s history in Eastern Europe.
10) Be Tolerant : When out socialising just remember that some aspects of education and what’s accepted by society are certainly different here. Don’t claim that Communism was horrible or that the Allies could of won WW2 without Russia, it will lead to heated debates. Who’s to say your education is perfect?
Also don’t complain about issues like the lack or rights for gays, racism or how Gypsys treat horses etc.
Yes it’s not fair but your not going to change the mindsets of millions of people while starting an argument at a bar. You might however get your head kicked in by Dimitri and Igor.
11) Don’t do Drugs : The educations system in some of these places has people convinced weed is about as harmful for you as heroin. Do not under any circumstances approach a border carrying weed (or any other recreational drug). If you do you could be facing jail time in some very shit conditions.
In countries like Bulgaria (where weed can grow wild), Ukraine and Belarus you can’t even find skins for rolled up cigarettes easily, and you definitely won’t find a bong for sale. Alcohol abuse and chain smoking is common if not encouraged, but drugs are seemingly the devil! Just don’t bring any.