You’re Going To Miss…Ukraine & Poland

You’re Going To Miss…Ukraine & Poland

 

Pictures courtesy of Mandy Cheuk, Simon Lu, Kai Tan, Cynthia Koo, and yours truly.

With contributions by Cynthia Koo.

 

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“…Because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” – Jack Kerouac

 

You’re going to miss…

 

You’re going to miss that first meal together, the seemingly unending introductions to the 16 other people you will spend the next 6 days with, the mental scramble to match faces to names and pictures from a blog.

You’re going to miss the butterflies before waiting to board airplanes going halfway around the world, those moments leading up to a trip promised to be filled with first-times and new experiences and unknowns.

 

You’re going to miss those first moments of dawning realization that barely a day into the trip you are already lost, navigating signs and subways in a language you can’t read, trying not to lose anyone in a city you know of only from the first scene of “Mission Impossible.”

 

And you’re going to miss the comforts of your first overnight bus into Odessa, being bored to death by what seems like your 5th walk around the city’s pocket-sized city center, your 2-hour wait for the group that was flying in later, and the subsequent joyous, movie-like reunion of 15 strangers amid the backdrop of one of the world’s most famous stairways on the other side of the world.

 

You’re going to miss breaking bread over a belated Christmas dinner with new friends, followed by standing on random street corners trying to find a way to the supposed “spectacular” nightlife of Arcadia beach.

 

You’re going to miss arriving at a deserted carnival that is Arcadia in the dead of winter, suspecting that zombies might be lurking in the fog, but heading in anyway only to stand on a forsaken beach, staring off into an uncertain abyss over the Black Sea.

 

Arcadia Beach, Odessa

You’re gonna miss taking photos of yoga poses next to crashing waves before crashing a dance party for old people, and then passing out in an empty restaurant before assumingly missing the last tram back to the city and, to the chagrin of several curious Ukrainian locals, subsequently haggling down 4 taxis that could help you make it onto your overnight train to Kiev.

 

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You’re going to miss waking up on a moving vehicle to a snowed-in Eastern European city and trying not to slip on ice-covered streets to get to your hostel before catching a 10:30am bus.

 

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And you’re going to miss the 4 hour bus ride passing through barren Ukrainian landscapes during which you finally found time to write in your journal, stopped by a roadside gas station to pick up cup ramen for lunch and a supply of cookies, meat chips, and candy that would last you for days. You’re going to miss eating the aforementioned ramen with coffee stirrers, and you’re going to miss belting out the lyrics of “Drops of Jupiter” before drifting off to sleep to the lyrics of “Just Breathe.”

 

You’re going to miss the feeling of knowing you are in the middle of nowhere, being unable to pinpoint where you are on a map, and juxtaposing the thought of being in universally-unknown Pervomaysky, Ukraine (did any of you know that was where we were?) with the thought of having just 2 days ago been in universally-known NYC.

 

You’re going to miss being shown what the end of the world might have looked like, and climbing down to the “safest place on Earth.”

 

You’re going to wish you could once again celebrate your birthday in an underground bar in Ukraine.

 

And you’re going to miss the $12 steak dinner, the endless orders of beers, and the anticipation of participating in the next random Ukrainian drinking “tradition.”

 

 

“No one looks back on their life and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep.” – Anonymous

 

You’re going to miss the 4 hour dance marathon…

 

…and you’re going to miss waking up to the sight of one of your group leaders passed out on the floor next to a freshly opened beer bottle, that WTF moment when your hostel was raided by Kalashnikov-wielding cops looking for a massage because they mistook the place for an Asian brothel. And you’re going to miss realizing that you spent that 1 night when you had a proper bed by partying in Kiev instead, heading to bed a mere 3 hours before you headed out the door again.

 

You’re going to miss getting on the wrong train during your adrenaline-fueled rush from your hostel to catch buses that would take you to Chernobyl — the feeling of searching for a needle in a haystack in Kiev’s sprawling Independence Square, the uncertain dread of whether you’ve missed the opportunity to visit the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. And you’re going to miss that sigh of relief and a renewed belief in miracles when a stranger approaches you to ask if you’re looking for the Chernobyl buses, 35 minutes after you were supposed to be there.

 

You’re going to miss the moment when you arrived at a destination that until then, had only existed for you in Wikipedia articles, video games, and bad horror movies.

 

You’re going to miss witnessing landscapes of a nuclear wasteland, the awkward reluctance and willingness of eating a “radioactive-free” lunch, the eerieness of naked abandonment as you navigate a ghost town that’s been stuck in a time warp for 26 years.

 

And then you’re going to miss that second adrenaline-fueled dash to the bus station that night, that momentary panic when you count up your group and realize you’d left one of your compatriots behind, the relief at having him make his way to the bus station in time anyway (leading to jokes afterwards that never got old). And you’re going to miss biting into one of the 100 last-minute orders of shawarma sandwiches made at the bus station to hold you over on your 7 hour overnight ride, and you’re going to miss those late-night conversations about politics, race, sex, and civil rights.

 

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You’re going to miss standing for an hour in the shivering cold while making crude jokes and waiting for the morning bus, telling horror stories on the way to Lviv’s train station, and spending the 3 hours before shops opened at one of the sexiest cafes you’ve ever stumbled upon.

 

You’re going to miss dancing in the streets to music blasting over speakers and you’re going to miss that awkward moment when a passerby gives you a 50 cent Ukrainian coin for your efforts.

 

And you’re going to miss wandering through Lviv with a local, warm from honey vodka shots required of you before you entered that password-protected underground bar, and buzzed from champagne popped at the top of a viewing tower overlooking the city to celebrate having just climbed a million flights of stairs (…and being in Ukraine!).

 

You’re going to miss taking photos in a random car at the top of a restaurant…

 

…and you’ll miss popping another bottle of champagne just in time for a fiery red sunset on High Castle Hill…

 

L'viv Opera Bar

…and you’ll miss that last-minute costume party under a legendary opera house.

 

You’re going to miss trying to figure out the ‘Ukranian Bear’ as he cargoes you across the Ukrainian-Polish border at 1am in the morning, debating conspiracy theories as you’re told to wait in an interrogation room while your vehicle is searched in a sketchy garage.

 

You’re going to miss waking up in a new country after driving for hours, dumb to the awe of Wawel Castle at dawn as you get out of the van, taking over a nearby Sheraton bathroom – the nicest you’ve used in days – walking through atmospherically serene Krakow before anyone else is awake, and getting a rushed breakfast before scrambling for seats on a standing-room packed bus to Auschwitz.

 

You’re going to miss contemplating the range of emotions that overtakes you when walking through one of the worst tragedies in modern human history, learning about the horrors of a place where horrible things happened to good people — a place you had only heard of from high school history class.

 

And you’re going to miss the bitter aftertaste of anger and disappointment when your group leader tramples upon his own schedule and totally lets everyone down (okay, you might not miss that).

But you’ll definitely miss the group dinner afterwards (at least this humbled writer hopes you do), courtesy of a jerkface who learned his lesson.

 

You’re going to miss those first few goodbye hugs as flights started to leave, the serendipity of arriving at the airport a few hours earlier than scheduled, that impromptu 2 hours spelunking through Warsaw in the middle of the night on the vodka, and the gratefulness for a last night of being so far away from routine.

 

And you’re going to miss the impromptu 2 hour tour of Frankfurt on another layover, the unexpected cherry on top to end the trip.

 

And you’re going to miss the feeling of arriving back home, just in time to ring in 2013, just in time to reflect on 2012 and realize you ended the year with a series of 6 days that you’ll never forget.

 

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But most of all, you’re going to miss the first time when it’ll hit you: that nobody else for the rest of your life will be able to understand what 17 strangers went through together in only 6 days.

 

 And yes, most of all, we’ll miss each other.

     “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill

 

A Night In Warsaw

A Night In Warsaw

 

Last moments before hopping on a 3hr bus from Krakow to Warsaw:

 

A concert behind the Cloth Building in Krakow city center

Pig knuckle for dinner

On our way to the bus to Warsaw

 

So it’s 3am and you’ve arrived at Frederic Chopin Airport in Warsaw with about 4 hours before you’re flight out. What do you do?

 

Warsaw Airport at 3am

The first round of goodbyes

Take the N32 bus of course. The N32 bus arrives every 30min in the late hours of the night and can reach Warsaw Central Train Station of the city centre within 10min from the airport. We decided to use that to our advantage.

So this our impromptu sidetrip to Warsaw’s Old Town within 2 hours to/from the airport, celebrating Jan’s 25th birthday:

 

He's taking the "Asian photographer" stance to a whole 'nother level

 

From the Warsaw Central Train Station we walked north and then east through Saxon Gardens. There we arrived upon the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:

 

Then we made a left and walked north up to Old Town without having a clue where we were going:

  

But wherever we were going, it was pretty.

 

 

- At time of posting in Warszawa-Okecie, it was 6 °C - Humidity: 56% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clouds and visibility OK

 

Auschwitz Death Camp

Auschwitz Death Camp

 

It’s the bleakness of the place that startles you first.

 

Auschwitz II (Birkenau) - The "Gate of Death"

The gas chambers

 

There’s nothing more I can write about Auschwitz that hasn’t already been written: It really is devastating. Like the Killing Fields and Tuong Sleng Prison of the Khmer Rouge, Auschwitz is a depiction of humanity’s potential for pure evil.

Today I saw people step outside to cry, to smoke a cigarette, to collapse on the floor with their heads down, to take a breath, to take a moment of pause. Many people seem to come here more than just to visit a memorial or a museum, but rather take part in a pilgrimage and pay respects to loved ones, relatives and friends.

This place tests your resolve and your composure; you’ll feel a range of emotions while here, whether it’s hopelessness or anger. Ultimately, place shakes you, and it leaves you with nothing more than a better understanding of the limits of human atrocity.

 

We took the 8:20 am bus to Auschwitz (14 PLN fee). Instead of the 1.5 hour drive that Lonely Planet mentions, it’s rather a longer 2 hour journey; make sure you get to the departure gate at least 15 min early to get a seat. Since Auschwitz itself is an emotionally draining experience, muster up your energy as best as you can before you get there.

 

The infamous gate to Auschwitz I camp: "Labour makes (you) free"

 

Rows upon rows of blocks line the camp, each serving a different purpose (infirmary, medical experiments, failed escapees, etc.). Now each block is a memorial to the different groups of victims at the camp, each with their own character and way of paying respects to those who lost their lives:

 

The French victims memorial

The Belgium victims memorial

The Netherlands victims memorial

 

There are also the public displays of torture and execution:

 

"The post" -- a form of torture by the Nazis

Where many were publicly hanged

Those who failed to escape were hanged here

The space between blocks 10 and 11 were where many were publicly executed

Block 10: The "Death Block"

The Auschwitz Gas Chamber

People stepping outside for a breather

 

About a 3km trek from Auschwitz is the Auschwitz II – Birkenau camp, which is even more staggering. About 3 times the size of Auschwitz, the place in itself is immense to take it all in. Pretty much every image you see below (let alone every image in this entry) bore witness to thousands of deaths.

 

The remains of Crematorium V

The sewage plant

Remains of another crematorium

Site where thousands of people unknowingly waited their turn in the Nazi gas chambers

Site where thousands of bodies were burned outside

 

There’s also Birkenau’s makeshift barracks, where people slept, lived, and died:

 

The latrines

 

These pictures speak for themselves. 

More than a memorial, Auschwitz presents as a stark reminder of what happens when evil men pursue blind extremism to the very ends of genocide. 

It’s a reminder of what happens when the world turns a blind eye to tragedy, and it’s a reminder of what happens when even good people fail to act in time on the behalf of millions who could have lived.

 

- At time of posting in Katowice, it was 6 °C - Humidity: 52% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: clouds and visibility OK

 

A Morning In Krakow

A Morning In Krakow

After crossing the Polish border, we arrived in Krakow in the wee hours of 7am (this is 3 hours before everyone in Poland wakes up), just in time to catch the sunrise. 

So I woke up and keeping my eyes closed (groggy as hell) I opened the door of the van. This is the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes:

 

Wawel Castle

As the sun rises...

Dazed, but enjoying the lovely view, we took a bathroom break at the nearby Sheraton before taking a brisk 30min walk from our dropoff point through the city centre square — the largest medieval square in Europe — to the bus station for our buses to Auschwitz. 

It’s one of the prettiest morning walks I’ve ever experienced.

Towards the city center

Towards the train and bus station

Then past the train station, we made it to the bus to Auschwitz.

 

- At time of posting in Krakow, it was 8 °C - Humidity: 49% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: clouds and visibility OK

 

Crossing Over From Ukraine To Poland

Crossing Over From Ukraine To Poland

 

Our last hour in Lviv — a costume party at the Lviv Opera House:

 

 

Afterwards, it was back on a bus heading to the Polish border town of Medyka. We figured that a bus would be more convenient than a train as buses have an easier time crossing the Polish border than a train, which would have required an extra hour of inspections and a track gauge change (due to different track systems between the two countries).

This is what it’s like to do an overland crossing from a non-EU country to an EU country…

 

We arrive at the first checkpoint:

 

 

They then take and inspect our passports:

 

 

Then it’s a stop at the duty free shop (of course), where alcohol is unusually 10x cheaper than it is in the USA:

 

 

Then we head back to the bus, with the Ukraine border behind us:

 

The Ukraine border

 

Afterwards we do the walk into the Polish border, where we get our visa stamps:

 

 

Then once we get our visas, we get whisked off to an interrogation-style holding room (like what you see in the movies) while they search our bus in a garage:

 

 

After about 20min of waiting, we’re back on the bus and on our way:

 

Poland

 

And then we’re off to Krakow…

 

- At time of posting in Rzeszow-Jasionka, it was 5 °C - Humidity: 56% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: clouds and visibility OK