The Babushka Grand Hostel is owned by an older couple, and the man checked me in. He didn’t really speak English, but was very friendly and told me his daughter married an American and now lives in Seattle.
“America great! Russia and Germany…eh,” he said when I took out my American passport. “Babushka general of hostel. And boss of me. I just soldier.” That seems to be the general trend in Ukraine thus far. They’re kind of scary and I wouldn’t want to ever get on their bad side.
The Odessa hostel didn’t have nearly as much of a backpacker atmosphere as in Chisinau, and I’ve learned that’s fairly common in Ukraine. It wasn’t the most popular place to travel before the Russian invasion, and is even less so now.
Odessa is to the former Soviet Union what Cancun is to the US, but the center is surprisingly nice with a plethora of pleasant cafes. A Russian woman and I wandered the beachfront, which was a relief from the overdeveloped Spanish beaches frequented by English tourists.
I tried learning a few phrases in Ukrainian only to discover Odessa is a Russian-speaking city. Glad I manage to look ridiculous no matter where I go in the world. Generally anyone my age speaks enough English for me to order at restaurants, but other than that I’ve never been anyplace where I couldn’t pretty much get everything done in English or Spanish. Granted, it hasn’t been that difficult, but it’s been quite different from what I’m used to.
Like all the cities I’ve visited in the former Soviet Union, Odessa had some really great pedestrian areas downtown.
Although I enjoyed my time in Odessa, two days was plenty. After a lot of trial and error I managed to buy a train ticket online to Lviv, my original plan of going directly to Kiev having been curtailed by the sold out trains for the next few days. I got a bed in the third class platskart carriage, which is an open 54 bunk dormitory car with no doors or privacy. The guidebooks all strongly recommend against it, but I’d heard it was fine. It’s a common way of travel on Russian trains, especially the trans-Siberian line I was originally planning on doing this summer. Because the babushkas at the train station speak no English, the young woman working at the hostel during the day wrote me a note to give to the
coven ticket office. I’m not sure what it said, but within 10 seconds I had a printed copy of my ticket.
The attendant came around and handed out plastic-wrapped linen packages and after half an hour the lights were dimmed. It was surprisingly comfortable, and I got 10 hours of good sleep on the 12 hour ride. It was the most comfortable overnight train journey I’ve been on outside of Sweden. Not bad, especially for only $5.60 in total!
Lviv is known as being one of the nicest cities in the former USSR, largely because of its cobbled streets and Central European architecture. The cafe and coffee scene here is amazing, and unlike Paris I’m actually able to afford to hang out and people watch with my $1 latte.
I took a trip to the Lychakiv Cemetery, which my guidebook described as being just like the Pere Lachaise in Paris but with people you’ve never heard of. I find foreign cemeteries to be fascinating, and it was a nice 30 minute walk from the center to this one.
There were many tombstones with red stars of young men between the ages of 16 and 22 who died in the early to mid 1940s. There were so many that eventually they just made an almost incomprehensibly long list of very young men inscribed in stone next to a memorial to those who died fighting the Nazis.
My second night in Lviv a family came in to my room and kept turning on the lights and shouting until 3:15am. It was probably one of the most inconsiderate things I’ve witnessed in the many months I’ve spent in hostels, and the first thing I did in the morning was talk to the receptionist and paid extra to move to a smaller room. It was well worth the 20 extra hryvna! That comes out to about 78 cents.
It used to be 5 hryvnia to the US dollar, but because of the financial crisis and instability it’s now over 26 hryvnia to the dollar. As a result, Ukraine is cheap. Meals in nice restaurants very rarely cost more than $4 at the very max, usually being closer to $3. Hostels are around $6 a night in the nicer places and 12 hours of train travel with a bed runs from $6 to $10. One of the drawbacks of that is it’s necessary to stay in the nicer hostels here because of the high prevalence of older men coming for sex tourism or to arrange a bride, with those creepers being brought by the prevalence of white women at low costs. I’ve heard it’s way more of an issue in Kiev, so I did some research and found a youth hostel with good reviews on that front. Hopefully I don’t have any issues, as that’s my next stop.