Odessa and Lviv

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.


Map of Ukraine. Odessa is in the south on the Black Sea, and Lviv is in the west near Poland.

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.


One of Odessa’s beaches.


Locals fishing.

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.


The Potemkin Steps, minus all the bodies from Battleship Potemkin.

Like all the cities I’ve visited in the former Soviet Union, Odessa had some really great pedestrian areas downtown.



The onion domes!

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 54 bunk dormitory carriage.

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 Opera House.

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.


Coffee and cherry strudel.


The street outside my hostel.


The central square.

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.


The neighborhood walk on my way to the cemetery.


One of the side alleys of the cemetery.

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.


A 10 hryvnia note, worth about 39 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.

Chisinau and on to Ukraine!

Chisinau, capital of the Republic of Moldova, doesn’t have a ton to attract tourists but is a pleasant city. Like most hostels in Eastern Europe, the one I stayed at (I’m not really sure there are others in town) was an old house near the city center. The rooms were all converted to dorms, and the front courtyard was decked out with tables, chairs, and some cat that seemed to live there. It definitely had a backpacker vibe.


One of the parks in central Chisinau. Photo taken from the World Bank. I didn’t take many photos of Chisinau or Odessa, so I’m finding some from online.

Every street had wide sidewalks with green trees providing shade, which made it a nice place to walk around. The Republic of Moldova was even cheaper than Bucharest, and I spent an inordinate amount of time drinking fruit smoothies in trendy cafes.


The tree cover was an amazing relief from the 90F (32C) heat!

Before coming to Chisinau, I’d never met anyone who had been here. The vast majority of backpackers at the Tapok Hostel were passing through to or from Ukraine, with almost everyone stopping in Chisinau to visit the weird Soviet police state of Transnistria. The Moldovan hostel workers seemed a bit peeved with all of the questions regarding visiting the separatist Russian state, and continuously insisted it was part of the Republic of Moldova. One of the hostel workers showed me that my Transnistrian coins had the old Soviet hammer and sickle on them.


Transnistrian coins. Note the top row has the Soviet hammer and sickle with star. I saved mine.

Train is by far the most comfortable way to travel in this part of the world, but the only daily rail link between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine left Chisinau around 7am. Buses leave every hour or so, and rather than wake up super early to make the long trek to the train station I opted to take a bus.


A rest stop on the way to Ukraine.

Chisinau to Odessa is only 100 miles (160km), but we had to bypass Transnistria so as not to be bogged down by an extra set of border crossings. Driving through the back roads and fields of crops made the journey five hours. We were pulled over by the police in the Republic of Moldova, and an officer came on board to yell at the driver. We slowed down for five minutes and then were back up to breakneck speed.


The bus driver buying massive amounts of liquor at a store between the Moldovan and Ukrainian border posts.

The border crossing was easy and didn’t take more than an hour. The Ukrainian side was much more militarized, but we were waved past most of the checkpoints once we got our entry stamps. The Ukrainian border guard asked me something about my bag, but I don’t speak Ukrainian so that ended pretty fast. He then stamped my passport in the very back of my passport, which isn’t supposed to get any visa stamps. As long as I don’t get married and change my last name anytime soon it shouldn’t be an issue.


A babushka collecting the 2 hryvna (8 cents) tram fare.

I was expecting and bracing for the chaos of the Chisinau bus station, but the Odessa terminal was surprisingly nice and tranquil. Even at 9pm in full darkness I felt completely safe catching the number 5 trolley to the Babushka Grand Hostel downtown.

Back in the USSR

After having been in Bucharest three times I’m still not sure what there is to do in that city. My perceptions may have been colored by a very uncomfortable incident with Bucharest bedbugs on my Holy Week trip to Transylvania, but without the little critters biting my skin I admit I enjoyed it somewhat more this time. The city used to be known for having over 20,000 stray dogs, but I heard after they mauled to death a four year old boy in 2013 they were all killed.


View from Bucharest’s palace, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. Much of the old city was demolished to construct the Communist-era palace and the above imitation of Champs d’Elysee. It’s just like the one in Paris except way shittier.

From Bucharest I took a 13 hour overnight train to Chisinau in the Republic of Moldova, a former member of the Soviet Union. Back in the USSR! They put all the foreigners in the center of the train, which included two Scottish guys, a girl from Hong Kong, and me. That might not have been the best idea because we annoyed others with our chatting.

The Moldovan carriage attendant came in to tell us some safety tips as well as the great things about his country.


Location of Moldova.

“Close windows. Fucking gypsies come in, steal you, kill you. You love Moldova, no gypsies! And bitches is cheap. Very cheap.” Okay, weird pronunciation of beer. That’s okay. A lot of my English students used to tell me how great the bitches (read:beaches) were near Barcelona.

“In England bitches is 200 euros an hour. In Moldova they 20 euros an hour. Very good. Beer and cigarettes cheap too.” So it wasn’t a mispronunciation….just very strange. Hopefully I wouldn’t get stopped by soldiers in Moldova and asked for cigarettes like I was in Bucharest.

Entering Moldova was very easy. A woman came in and said, “Doctor. Problems? Problems?” Another guy came in and asked, “Arms? Drugs?” Luckily they couldn’t hear or understand our jokes about this once they left the room.

The main reason backpackers stop in Moldova, often on the way to or from Ukraine, is to visit Transnistria.


Flag of Transnistria. Note the hammer, sickle, and red star. Remind you of anything?

Back in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, war broke out between Romanian-speaking Moldova and Russian-speaking Transnistria. A ceasefire was agreed upon later that year, but the politics side of things was never settled. Transnistria is a de facto independent country with its own currency, army, police, and border control. However, it’s not recognized by any other country on the planet with the exception of some Russian separatist puppet states (note to self: erase this  when I apply for my Russian visa).


Tiny Transnistria inside Moldovan borders.

For all intents and purposes, the Soviet Union never died in Transnistria. It’s as close as you can get nowadays to seeing the old USSR in Eastern Europe, and is an easy day trip from Moldova’s capital of Chisinau (pronounced kish-ah-now).

The Chisinau Central Bus Station gave me flashbacks to Ethiopia and all its chaos. I can more or less read Cyrillic, having had to learn it during my last two trips to the Balkans, and found the area for buses to Transnistria’s capital: Тирасполь (Tiraspol). Some sketchy guy tried telling me his van was really the minibus, but I knew this was insane and managed to find the real bus and pay the real fare ($1.50, two hours).


Inside the super hot and constantly bouncing minibus to Transnistria. After six weeks traveling Ethiopia by public transit nothing fazes me anymore.

The Transnistrian border has a decently sized military presence provided by both Moldova and the wannabe Soviets. Foreigners have to get off the bus and go talk to the KGB agents (yes, seriously) and ask for permission to enter. Bribery used to be rampant to enter and walk around Transnistria, but things have calmed down over the past few years. As long as you don’t take pictures of the border guards, military outposts, and palace you probably won’t get arrested. This is basically a Soviet police state, but it seems to have gotten better for tourists.

Seeing my American passport, the guard yelled back something involving ANGLYSKY. Some guy came out of the back office and asked, “You day visit?” I said yes, and got my visa.


My Transnistrian transit visa, allowing me to stay for up to 10 hours. I had to keep this and give it back to the KGB upon leaving the country.

The border crossing was quick, painless, and without bribes. A Moldovan hostel worker in Chisinau told me it’s harder for Moldovans to cross, and that when she went to buy a hog with her grandmother (???) they had to pay the officers to be let out of the country.

The minibus from Chisinau dropped me off at the Tiraspol train station. The only legal tender in Transnistria is the Transnistrian ruble, which seems to be pegged to the US dollar. Dollars and euros seem the easiest to change, but I had no issues whatsoever converting Moldovan lei into “commie fun bucks” as they’re popularly known.


Some of my commie fun bucks, also known as Transnistrian rubles. Nobody outside of Transnistria recognizes this currency. I converted $15 from Moldovan lei to rubles, and that was way too much. Eastern Europe is dirt cheap. It was very easy to convert them back to lei.

Transnistria is very small, and four hours in Tiraspol was plenty. The Soviet imagery was everywhere.


Walking down one of the residential streets of Tiraspol.


Karl Marx Street.


A park with overgrown sidewalks near the train station.


That sign looks like something from a Harry Turtledove novel in which the USSR survived to 2016.


Monument to those that died in the Transnistrian War, I think.


One of the ubiquitous currency exchange stations. ATMs don’t work in Transnistria for foreign cards because nobody recognizes them.


This was in some random park.


Tiraspol train and bus station.

I caught the 4pm bus back to Chisinau, and was in the center of the city by 6pm. It wasn’t as strange as I’d thought it was going to be, but was definitely worth the day trip from Chisinau. Where else can you get interrogated by the KGB and enter a country whose flag has the hammer and sickle on it?

Finishing Scandinavia

The Hemavan hostel, a Christian youth camp with no Christian youth, was a comfortable end to my 440km traverse of the Kungsleden. In the morning two more guys arrived, having also finished their thru hikes. One was Finnish and the other a Texan, both having met while hiking the Appalachian Trail last summer. The Texan had just got done teaching English in Madrid under the same program I did.

Hemavan is pretty far north near the Norwegian border, and consequently far from pretty much everywhere else. The two AT hikers and I caught a six hour bus to Umea on the eastern coast, where we parted ways. They caught a ferry back to Finland and, after a three hour layover, I boarded my 8.5 hour night train to Stockholm.


Somewhere in the center of Stockholm.

My train pulled into Stockholm Central Station around 6:30am and I decided to splurge on a locker for 8 hours until the next leg of my train journey, this time to Gothenburg. The total cost for the locker was around $8, but was totally worth it so I didn’t have to lug my camping gear all around town.

I was able to catch a spot on the morning walking tour of Stockholm, led by a guy from Perth who’d married a Swedish woman and settled here permanently. The highlight of the tour was without a doubt visiting the bank that was the site of the Stockholm Syndrome incident. It was completely worth going on the tour just to hear more about that bizarre series of events at the actual location.


The hostages under Stockholm Syndrome.

A bunk in a hostel was around $35-40, so I left for Gothenburg (where bunks were a comparatively reasonable $21) around 2:30pm. I very narrowly almost missed my train because of a last minute track change, which forced me to run around looking for platform 10.

I enjoyed my 8 hours in Stockholm, but I have to admit compared to the rest of Sweden it didn’t strike me as anything special (other than the massive science fiction bookstore downtown, which I wouldn’t mind living in). Gothenburg was much more to my liking, which seemed less touristy.

Sleeping in a real bed in the Gothenburg hostel was a surreal experience, and I ended up passing out for almost 12 straight hours after 17 hours on buses and trains. I don’t have much to say about the city other than that it was nice to see a Swedish university town. A full day there seemed plenty. I cooked a lot of Swedish meatballs, which are one of the cheapest things in the grocery stores.

A three hour bus took me to Helsingborg, just 5km from Denmark’s Elsinore (yes, that Elsinore from Hamlet).


The ferry to Denmark pulling into port in Helsingborg, Sweden.

Back when Denmark and Sweden were at seemingly constant war with each other, the two towns were the sites of important fortifications. I wandered around the parks and battlements of Helsingborg for some hours before taking the regular ferry over to Elsinore.

The ferry to Elsinore ran every 20 minutes, and the trip took a little less time. At around $4, it was surprisingly cheap for Scandinavia. It was made up for by having to deal with a bunch of drunk Nordic university students chanting something at the top of their lungs.


Overlooking Helsingborg (Sweden), with Elsinore (Denmark) on the opposite shore 5km away.

I  bought a 24 hour public transit pass for Zealand and Copenhagen, and spen an entire day visiting Roskilde, Hillerod, and a little of Copenhagen. Then I flew back to Madrid, where I can actually afford to eat things besides hot dogs.


Map of Denmark and southern Sweden. I started in Gothenburg, went to Helsingborg, took the ferry to Helsingor (Elsinore), and then roamed the island.

Ammarnas to Hemavan

My rest day in Ammarnas was spent on my phone in the discotech/nature center/restaurant’s lobby planning my post Kungsleden life using an open wifi network.

Swedish trains are cheaper if bought in advance, and I didn’t want to get stuck in a seat on an overnight train because beds were all sold out. I took care of all that, and made reservations for accommodation afterward in Gothenburg on Sweden’s southwest coast. Because Sweden is so expensive outside of the hiking areas, it’s usually necessary to research the affordable options for accommodation (yes, they do exist in Scandinavia!).


A bird perched on a German (seriously everyone who hikes in Europe is German) guy’s tent at the Ammarnas camping area.

Mats and I realized the weather wasn’t getting any better, and that we maybe shouldn’t have taken that extra day off. I bought enough food to last me to the next town 79km away at the grocery store, which also doubles as the post office and lottery ticket station. We joked about how the woman who runs everything there is probably also the town’s mayor, doctor, and schoolteacher while we drank some off brand Swedish imitation of coke (50 cents a can, half the price of the real thing and just as good!).

It felt good to have the rest of my trip planned out, and I headed out in the rain south along the trail. A bus came up and disgorged tons of hikers. Where did all these people come from?!


So glad I waited until it cleared up!

Mats said most of the Swedish hikers skip the entire Kvikkjokk to Ammarnas section, taking a bus between the two. I understand, since the terrain wasn’t the most stunning. But I liked the solitude, and I found on the PCT that I usually enjoy the “filler” sections. You meet the weirdest people on those stretches.

In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t try to do this section with a storm coming in. It was hard enough with the rain and wind, and went through some high exposed areas. I only went about 8km, camping just out of sight of the first hut. I set up camp by a river and waited almost an hour to get the courage to collect water from the stream three meters from my tent. It was just too cold! Thankfully I was warm and toasty in my -12C sleeping bag. I wish I’d had this thing on the PCT.


Clear skies, finally!

The next morning it was warmer and….sunny! About time. A gaggle of Swedes had set up camp right next to, which was admittedly a little strange considering how much space there was. But I don’t care.

As I climb to the next plateau I see the water is still frozen at almost 10am. I’m glad I stopped where I did at lower elevation, even if it meant reading in my sleeping bag for five hours.


Some trees again, on a break.

In the emergency hut at the high point I take shelter from the wind and go into my down sleeping bag to stay warm while I eat 400g of chocolate for breakfast.

Descending I have great views, and it warms up surprisingly quickly down the steep incline.

At the next hut I’m told it was -3C (27F) last night at the lower elevations. Now I’m really glad I didn’t keep on going! I take a break here, just enjoying the scenery and talking to an Irish woman who married a local and has lived here for many years.


Walking along some lakes.

The views on this section are incredible, and I love crossing the islets on massive footbridges. The clouds above look menacing, but I decide to chance it and keep on going up to the pass.

This turns out to not be the best idea, since soon I’m high, exposed, and the wind and rain are hammering me. The GPS on my phone tells me I’m half an hour from an emergency hut, so I bear it and head there. The rain stops soon after I arrive, and I set up camp since it’s forbidden to sleep inside the emergency huts…except during an emergency. I figure I could get away with it by playing up to the stereotype of the stupid, clueless American (this has helped me before) but I decide not to risk it.


Islet hopping by bridges.

A Swiss guy comes up, and we talk about long distance hiking. He just finished the Appalachian Trail last summer and New Zealand’s 3000km Te Araroa the past winter. He mentions he’s going to hike the Continental Divide Trail northbound starting in late April, which is exactly my plan! I’ll probably see him next spring.


The clouds start to look ominous…

The wind that night is insane. My tent holds up but I can’t sleep because of the noise of all the flapping, so I don’t leave my tent until almost 10am after I got a few hours of sleep and the wind dies down.


Looking back on the penultimate hut.

It’s so cold that I wrap myself in all my layers and rain gear, which keeps me warm. I get stares because of my neon yellow pants, but I don’t care. After wearing bright pink short shorts through Oregon and Washington on the PCT, I can deal with any judgmental looks.


There’s nobody around to take my finish photo and I’m impatient, so I do it myself.

It rains and it’s cold, so I don’t stop on the 17km to Hemavan. If it were warmer and dry I would hang out and enjoy the views, but I book it to town and finish the hike!


Southern terminus of the Kungsleden. 440km and I’m done! Amazing trail.

Jakkvik to Ammarnas

Realizing I wouldn’t be able to comfortably finish the hike in my original 2 week timeframe, I paid 45€ to change the date and location of my flight to Madrid to a week later from Copenhagen. I’d also come to the decision to not teach another year in Madrid for various reasons. Thus, Jakkvik looked like the perfect place to take my first zero.

I didn’t end up leaving Jakkvik until almost noon, having waited until the grocery store/gas station opened to get another frozen pizza.


Walking across the plateau.


The trail from Jakkvik, like the whole trail, was pretty easy. I found a nice place to sit and relax by a lake, watching dark clouds roll over the horizon. It felt and looked like it was going to rain, so I bundled up all my things and quickly found a semi level campsite not too far away.

It rained fairly hard, during which Mats showed up. He’d been on the boat at Kvikkjokk, and had caught up with me by not taking any breaks. He didn’t get there before the rain and was fairly soaked when he arrived. We chatted a bit and then retreated to our tents when it started raining again.


View from my tent shortly before it rained.


The next day was delightfully sunny, and I took my time walking across easy terrain to a small town. I didn’t see a single person in the whole village, almost like being in The Walking Dead. Since there was nobody around, I laid out my clothes to dry on the end of the road and tried to take a nap on the asphalt.

A resort? I’m not sure.

Mats found me at my next campsite, waking me up and giving me a heart attack when he called my name at 10pm. We decided to meet up the next day at a private cabin just 22km from Ammarnas, my next resupply point.

Following the river.

Other than a random group of six hikers very early in the day, I didn’t see a single other person for eight hours. The trail went fairly high and crossed open fells, which were a bit too cold to comfortably stop and take a break. I didn’t want to camp someplace where it would be so cold, so I kept on going and descended to the private cabin. There were plenty of campsites (and people, a shock) there, and Mats arrived just before the rain.


The last leg to Ammarnas had cloudy skies with little rain, but the wet brush was so dense that it soaked my shoes within minutes. My cold and wet feet squished across the fells, and I again didn’t want to stop to take a break because of the temperature.


Back in the trees.

Eventually the sun kind of came out and I changed into dry socks (!!!!!!). I busted out the last little bit, arriving in the one street town of Ammarnas.

The trail is pretty easy to follow.

I went to one of three buildings in town, this one being the restaurant, meeting place, discotech (yes, it said that outside), and “nature exhibit.” The place was deserted except for a ranger who I asked about camping.

It’s also well signed.

“Next year you won’t be able to do this, but you can camp by that red shed over there,” she told me. I assured her I wouldn’t stay until next year and she seemed relieved. A little odd.

Descending to Ammarnas.

Mats talked me into taking a zero to avoid the worst of the rain, and we were joined by two more Germans who all talked about some kangaroo that orders whoppers at McDonald’s. Apparently it’s a popular audiobook in Germany.