Odessa - typical Ukraine? (Oct 2005)


Arrival

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The train from Chisinau, Moldova to Odessa gradually filled to bursting point, however I was lucky enough to be sitting on one of the wooden slat seats (surprisingly not too uncomfortable for a 6 hour journey - and as the rail ticket only cost £1.80 I can't complain!) the people I was initially sitting with were polite (Moldovan or Ukranian - I don't know) despite our lack of a common language.

I would pop out to the end of the compartment for the odd cigarette where I first came across the not un-common Ukranian habit of spitting. Unfortunately as the windows were sealed the spitting was onto the carriage floor.

Near the end of my journey a mother and daughter sat down next to me. The daughter was trying to practice her limited English on her mother. Stupidly I thought they might want to talk and practice with me - instead I was ignored.

On nearing Odessa it became evident that there were at least a small number of English speakers in the city, as mixed in with the ordinary grafitti were "Americans go home/anti-war slogans" in English.

As the train was full, I decided to wait with my rucksack and day bag for everyone else to get off at Odessa. I realised when the angry shouting started that this was a bad idea, as a scrum had formed between the mass wanting to get off the train and those trying to get on. Middle aged men and women were barging each other and I realised I had better get off immediately otherwise I would be stuck in a full compartment, so I had to join the scrum and force my way off.

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Odessa City

My father has shown me an article by a Telegraph reporter who had a miserable time in Odessa; and of the small number of people I've met who've been there most did not like the experience, but a few loved it.

Like Moldova there were few Westerners, you'd occasionally overhear English spoken by businessmen or tourists from cruise ships. There are no hostels so I was on my own as far as finding my way round. However, in a street in a city of 800,000 I managed to bump into Juan Carlos who I had met in Moldova (he's the guy in one of the pictures who looks like Hercule Poirot - without the moustache). He was booked in to a hotel for 2 days but hated the surly service so much he had decided to move on to the Crimea after only a day (and he spoke some Russian!). I've since received an email from him saying that Crimea was a much better experience.

I stayed in the Hotel Passage, this apparently used to be the grandest in Odessa, it still has its (cracked) marble staircases but is now categorised as a "Russian" Style Hotel i.e. it is used by and priced for Eastern Europeans who do not have the same level of expectation as "Westerners". I had one of the cheapest single rooms i.e. "without facilities" for $10 US. It was far bigger than most double bedded rooms in UK hotels, with basin but no loo or shower. The reception staff were of the un-communicative, unsmiling type of Soviet Union repute. The shared toilet for my corridor was of sit down type, but minus seat, it seemed to be pot luck whether there was toilet paper, newspaper or nothing. There was what I thought was moldy soap on the bedroom sink and in other parts of the room, but I later discovered was poison for the resident cockroaches.

Odessa was obviously an important city with grand facades.

Streets with grand buildings

Streets with grand buildings

It is fairly easy to find your way around, and has great cafes, bars and kebabs, but having seen the "hygene" in Odessas meat market, it did briefly croos my mind to become a temporary vegitarian.

These are the Potemken Steps of Battleship Potemken fame:

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Ukranian People

It is hard to confirm my "prejudices" based on a visit to one city in a country. I met some friendly people, and a few could speak limited English, but Odessans comply to the un-smiling Soviet stereotype.

The Telegraph article I read said there was a lot of anti-western feeling in Odessa because of "our" support for the Orange Revolution and ousting of their (Odessan) choice of Ukranian President. They considered the final "winner" to be no more democratically ellected - just backed by more (American) money.

Although English speaking is rare, Russian is common so I relied on my 5 words of that language.

Spitting in the street is not un-common. Drinking alcohol and bottle carrying on the street is common (I even saw a policeman drinking) - this reminded me unpleasantly of home! Like Moldova, men wear pointed, slightly turned up, black shoes (I was identified as a foreigner at the station because of my shoes).

I discoverd on my journey to Poland that Ukranians consider the railway line to be a giant rubbish bin. Everyone in my overnight sleeper carriage, including the attendants seemed to spend all night drinking, quite a few of the bottles were chucked on to the track, I even saw one of the attendants chuck a vodka bottle through the window (I suppose it was less for her to clear up later).

Departure

I did wonder whether I would ever get away from Odessa, the first time I went to the station to get a ticket it was cordoned off by police. My 5 Russian and zero Ukranian words did not enable me to find out why (I presume presidential visit, or bomb alert) or when it would be re-opened so I decided not to hang round and come back the following day.

Thank goodness for the Internet which I used to find possible train destinations. I also found instructions for finding the International Ticket desk (cashier 5 of 7 in a large but out of the way room in the station). Without these instructions I would still be in Odessa! Most of the stations I have been to indicate "Casse Internationalle" or some other recognisable sign for Int Tickets.

So I went the next day armed with a notepad containing my laboriously written out Ukranian cyrillic for today/tomorrow, "spalny wagon" (first class sleeper), price etc, plus a map of Europe so I could point at Poland. In the Station I scanned the timetable and found what I thought were the cyrillic for Krakow and Warsaw and added these to my note for the cashier. After showing the cashier my note, pointing at the map, much waving of hands etc I was met with shakes of the head and I had to leave not knowing whether i) there was no train today/tommorrow, ii) what I thought was Krakow in cyrillic was in fact somewhere else nowhere near Poland, or iii) it was the wrong desk (I had no faith that people here would be helpful enough to point out the right desk even though I sweeped my hand to indicate other desk?).

I went away to collect my thoughts and after 2 more attempts with the cashier pointing to points either side of the border with Slovakia and Poland I managed to buy a ticket. After being given the ticket she tried to write down something in our alphabet which was uninteligible the person behind me in the queue tried to help me in German and mentioned something about Uzhhorod which I later found was on the Ukranian side of Slovak border.

To me it looked like the destination on my ticket was "Przmyl", I spoke to an English speaker in an internet cafe who showed it to her friends - they had never heard of it and were not sure if it was the destination. Checking on the internet I found a town just across the Polish border called Przemysl. So I had to board the train wondering whether i) I would terminate in Uzhhorod (and hope there was a border crossing to Slovakia usable by non Slovak EU citizens), ii) I would have to change there for goodness knows where, iii)end up somewhere else in Ukraine beginning with Prz; or iv) end up just across the Polish border.

As it happens it was thankfully the later; and I presume the problem was that although Krakow, Warsaw were on the timetable you could only purchase a ticket to the border town.