Back in the Balkans

After a week and a half with family in Spain, it was time to say goodbye to the country that’d been my home for the past year. Ten months in Madrid was a great experience, but but by the end I was definitely ready to move on. I loved almost everything about my job, especially the chaos and fun of kindergarten (day after my parents visited: “Cono, are your parents dead yet?”), but realized I’d get bored staying in Madrid for another year. I’ll have to come back one day to do the Camino de Santiago, which my PCT friends have been raving about.


One of my friends and me in Plovdiv, Bulgaria on our Holy Week trip and my first time in the country.

One of my nebulous goals for this month before I fly from London back to the US is to visit Croatia’s Dalmatia coast. I bought a semi-last minute Ryanair flight for 53 euros ($58) to Sofia in Bulgaristan.


The new Sofia metro line goes from the airport to downtown.

I stayed in Sofia just long enough to get dinner and buy a bed ($33) on the night train to Belgrade, on which I had a compartment all to myself. The carriage attendant gave me a rusty iron chain to lock my door at night, which was a first. Thankfully I’ve never had issues on night trains.

We waited in Sofia Central Station for 90 minutes before departing, shortly after which we had a quick border crossing into Serbia. I was able to get about six hours of solid sleep, during which I somehow turned the heat in the old Soviet trans-Siberian train to full blast (it was awful, but I quickly fixed it). An hour in Belgrade let me buy a ticket onward to Novi Sad, about 90 minutes north of the capital.


Downtown Novi Sad, courtesy of Serbian Dental Tourism’s website.

I spent a day in Novi Sad and also took a day trip to Subotica on the Hungarian border. Both were pleasant and definitely worth the trip, but a day in each was plenty.


The 100 dinar note (88 cents) with Tesla, of whom the Serbs are very proud. He was ethnically Serbian, but born in what’s today Croatia.


A shaded street in Subotica.


Downtown Subotica.

I took the train to Belgrade, which I visited last year for 14 hours between a series of buses and night trains en route from Tirana (capital of Albania) to Budapest. Staying overnight and enjoying Belgrade’s cafes, which I can now frequent because I discovered I like coffee, was totally different. Plus, I spent a disproportionate amount of time chatting in the hostel, which was probably one of the top hostels I’ve ever stayed in.


The kitchen in Belgrade’s Hostel Bongo.

A lot of Eastern European hostels have the atmosphere of a recovering alcoholic who decided to let all his transient hippie friends stay to help pay rent. The Belgrade hostel had 20 different kinds of tea, various resident cats, and a clean and cozy common room with kitchen.

One of the women just got done teaching English at a junior college in Chengdu, China. Next winter I hope to move to China to teach English and improve my Mandarin, and she was a great source of help. I’ve been focusing on the nitty gritty details of how to get a job and visa, and she confirmed a lot of what I’ve been reading online. Plus, she had great stories of getting mosquito bites on her arm and a guy on the tram in Zagreb thinking she’d be interested in knowing where to buy some drugs.

She said to be prepared to constantly get asked in China why I’m 25 and not married, and for all my female students to go by bizarre stripper names in English. “I had a lot of students named things like Sapphire, Candy, and Cinnamon.”


One of my registration slips from Serbia, which foreigners are supposed to get for each night. This seems like it used to be common in the former communist countries, but has been on the decline. I was never asked to show them upon leaving the country. The Serbians never even stamped my passport when I left.

After a day and a half in Belgrade (there’re only so many times you can go visit Tito’s tomb) I hopped on the 7 hour train to Croatia. We stopped for over an hour on the outskirts of Belgrade for some reason, but still managed to arrive in Zagreb more or less on time. The train was comfortable, except for the toilets practically overflowing with urine and the doors to the carriage being locked from the outside (which made coming back from the bathroom a bit interesting).


The cathedral in Zagreb.

Zagreb gets a bed rap, but it’s one of my favorite cities in the Balkans. It survived WWII and the Yugoslav wars relatively unscathed, so it’s home to some great uniform 19th century architecture. And it has great cafes, which I’ve been enjoying as I take a break for a couple of days.


Flowers on sale in the central market in Zagreb.


Poland to Berlin

My passport, only about 8 months old, is a confusing jumble of stamps from Madrid’s airport and random obscure border towns from across the former Eastern bloc. Concerned about being let back into the European Union’s open borders area (I’ve been on the Continent for over a year, well past the 90 days normally allotted to tourists), I came armed with my Spanish residency/work documents plus copies of relevant sections of the Schengen Borders Code in English and Polish. But the Polish border guard, upon seeing I was American and not Ukrainian, immediately stamped my passport. “Have a good time!”


Apparently dogs are allowed on Polish trains.


Krakow is a beautiful old city, spared during WWII because it had no industrial value.

I’d been pondering whether or not I wanted to visit Ireland after seeing family in Madrid, and an hour in the common room of the Krakow hostel confirmed it for me. A Toronto couple was telling me about how Muslims are destroying Europe, and how Brussels is so dangerous (I loved Brussels, and felt totally safe walking around the Muslim district at night; plus, they had great affordable food!). Obnoxiously loud and drunk British weekenders were everywhere, and the euro trippers were all talking about starting their trip in Ireland.

That, plus looking at the weather forecast for Ireland and Scotland in October/November, prompted me to buy a one way ticket back to the Balkans.


Brandenburg Gate lit up to celebrate the 26th anniversary of German reunification. 

Although it’s somewhat touristy (albeit for good reason), I thoroughly enjoyed Krakow and would love to see more of Poland one day. It was a bit of a shock entering a developed country with excellent infrastructure after traipsing through the former Soviet Union for three weeks. Almost everyone spoke flawless English, and the food was probably the best I’d had all summer.


The map I used to plan my trip, courtesy of the Red Army.

Krakow has phenomenal connections to Germany, and I decided it’d be fitting to end my Eastern Europe jaunt the same way the Soviets did: Ukraine to Berlin via Poland. The train was 50 euros one way, and the bus was 20 euros…an easy choice. However, I stupidly left my water in luggage storage under the bus and went 8 hours in a state of semi-dehydration. I was able to get some fluids out of the clementines I brought on board. It was nothing compared to some of the 50km (31 mile) waterless stretches on the PCT, so I was prepared.


The strangely captivating exhibit on how the European Union government works. This part on the EU parliament was in German, but had earpieces mimicking those provided for MPs offering translation.

It’s true that Berlin is a rather new city, but I very much enjoyed its hipster haunts and multicultural vibe. It was surprisingly affordable, a nice plus.


Berlin’s Oslo Kaffebar, a Scandinavian style cafe which I could definitely not afford to visit in Scandinavia. I’m inexplicably drawn to hipster locales, so Berlin was heavenly for this. Ever since I learned I like coffee during my last month in Madrid, I’ve been taking advantage of the European style of hanging out in cafes for hours to read and people watch (again, outside of Scandinavia). I later met a Melbourne woman in Belgrade who’d spent the past two years living in Berlin who loved this cafe and said a lot of her friends worked here. Note all the Apple laptops, a telltale sign of a hipster habitat.

USSReally Fun

Eastern Europe is weird. I don’t think there’s any better way to put it. Back in Moldova, I was privileged enough to witness some local Peace Corps volunteers celebrating a birthday. When the conversation halted and I heard glass shatter from only a few feet away, I turned my head in time to see a drunk local guy yell in Romanian before dashing off haphazardly into traffic.

“Whoa, what happened?!” I asked.

“Some guy came up, grabbed her glass of wine, drank it, and then smashed it on the table right in front of the birthday girl.” One of the PCVs responded. They seemed nonplussed.

“Figures this would happen to me. At least my 29th birthday is interesting!” She said with a thumbs up.

Not only is the former Eastern bloc more…interesting…than its Western European counterpart, but it also tends to attract a much different crowd. I have nothing against the backpackers who traipse across Western Europe each summer on some variation of the “Europe’s greatest hits checklist rush through everything FAST FAST FAST, LET’S DO PUB CRAWLS” trip. Western Europe is great and is touristy for good reasons. But there’s no way I could spend another year there. 


Paris is one of the great cities of Europe, and I’ve spent many hours in the Louvre and D’Orsay admiring the art. But there’s more to the world than Western Europe.

Maybe there’s something in the water in Eastern Europe (probably not, considering you can get pretty sick drinking it in some places), but I tend to prefer the people I meet in this region. That’s why it was such a relief arriving at the Central Station Hostel in Kiev and finally getting the chance to hang out with others who have similar travel mindsets and interests. In the places that are still developmentally behind the West the travelers are often older, more open minded, and more my shade of crazy.


A couple studying the departures and arrivals board at Kiev Central Station. Not pictured: the aggressive babushkas shoving their way to the front of all ticket queues.

Walking into the hostel in Kiev was like going back in time. Velvet Underground was being blasted on the stereo and old Soviet propaganda posters adorned the walls. Ukraine in general, but especially Kiev, has a reputation for attracting creepy western men looking for cheap white women and/or a wife to take back home. Most of the hostels in Ukraine have local boarders and are lacking in the backpacker vibe, but this hostel was a welcome exception. I came with the intention of staying two days but ended up barely clawing my way out of that vortex after almost a week.


The commies valiantly defending us against western evils.

Although it was very social, with a ton of mainly Australian and American backpackers on 18 month trips, it was still quiet enough to get a good night’s sleep each night. My first night I was woken up by the door slamming open and some guy yelling, “Eric! I’m leaving! Let me get your contact info!”

Eric mumbled some protests at how early it was, but this guy kept on shouting. “Man, I need your Facebook and email! I’m going to miss you! You’re great, man!” This guy sounded kind of high.

“Does this really need to happen at 7am?!” the girl in the bunk under mine yelled back.

“Fuck you! This has nothing to do with you. Fucking Americans!” …which was a little weird considering Eric, the object of his affections, was a New Yorker.

Eric’s a big guy, and not in the typical American way of being so fat it impairs mobility. Next thing I heard was Eric grabbing the guy and literally throwing him out of the room with a BOOM as he hit the floor. I went back to sleep and got up to find a poster saying, “DOOR CODE HAS BEEN CHANGED.” Apparently right afterwards the loud Italian guy, while tripping on something, went to another part of the hostel and started causing enough of a ruckus that he was forcibly removed and the entry codes changed immediately afterwards.


Kiev has the world’s deepest metro stations, which were built to withstand possible NATO bombing campaigns. Riding down was vertigo inducing and similar to being on a roller coaster.

“The great thing about Kiev is that there’s not a whole lot to do,” one woman told me. She’d been there for many weeks, and was in the process of getting a job in journalism there. “You just walk around, hang out in cafes, and people watch.” Travel over the long term can be exhausting, and it was great to be able to take it easy in Kiev. I spent many hours hanging out in the hostel, talking with others about their trips through Central Asia or Europe to China via Siberia, and reading in the plethora of cafes with $1 capuccinos.

Bribery can be a big thing in Ukraine, though I personally didn’t have any issues. Australians have weird restrictions on entering Ukraine, and have to get a visa on arrival at the airport. Multiple Ozzies told me they had to pay bribes of 60 to 100 euros just to get the 15 day visa. One English guy at the hostel asked, “Did you get a receipt?” That’s not how bribes work, son. One Melbourne woman said the guy took her over to an ATM, had her take out the 60 euros, and after she asked where she should pay the “fee” was told, “Right here is fine. To me.” Then it dawned on her what kind of fee it was. I’d heard stories of having to pay the police bribes, but none that were recent.


Kiev’s metro stations are pretty nice.

I was getting tired of constantly moving from place to place, and the magic of visiting new cities was fading. It was starting to get more tedious than exciting, and that’s no way to handle a long term trip. Many of the others in the hostel were at similar points in their travels and using Kiev as a break for a week or two to unwind and recharge.


A woman looking at her phone as she waits for the train.

One guy in the hostel hadn’t left for over two days because he “was scared of getting lost since [he] can’t read all the Hebrew signs.” Who the f@#k thinks they speak and write Hebrew in Ukraine?!? Sometimes I wonder how people function in reality, let alone make it to a place like Ukraine without dying somewhere along the way. I heard this guy was barred from boarding a flight to Brazil because he didn’t know you needed a visa. I’m often shocked by how little research some people do before just showing up in foreign countries. In all fairness, the guy was incredibly friendly and an all around great person.

“Oh shit…do we need a visa for Moldova?” a Scottish guy asked me on the night train between Bucharest and Chisinau. No, and today’s your lucky day because you’re not going to get forced off the train and stranded in some remote Romanian border town because you didn’t do your homework.


Independence Square, site of the Kiev pro-EU anti-Russia demonstrations. Photo taken from, because they take much better photos than I can.

Another guy in the hostel said, “You can drink the water in Poland. That’s the country just next door so I’ve been drinking the water here, too.” I don’t think it works that way.

After recharging in Kiev for six days I was finally ready to get back on the road. Another girl there was of a similar mindset. “Seeing all the Soviet propaganda posters on the wall finally motivated me to book the bus to Moscow for tomorrow!”

At the recommendation of others in the hostel I took the high speed train 4.5 hours to Kharkiv, a nondescript town about 20 miles from the Russian border. It was nice walking around and seeing how the people in this basically Russian town live.


A beautiful autumn day in Kharkiv.

The only problem was that I got bedbugs at the hostel, which necessitated a hurried search for a laundromat using Google Maps and wandering around some suburban university district to find it in a random alley. With the use of charades and my Russian-English dictionary phone app, I was able to get the bewildered laundromat attendant to wash and dry my clothes at around 95C (200F).


One of the central plazas in Kharkiv.

Back on June 30th my Spanish residency expired, and I was rolled over to a 90 day Schengen zone tourist visa. I spent 70 of those days living in my tent in the Arctic, and in order to meet my family back in Spain in October without getting fined and banned from the EU for 10 years I had to leave for a month. That time was drawing to a close, so I hoofed it back to Lviv on a 14 hour night train to re-enter the EU via Poland.

The Ukraine-Poland border is a very popular smuggling route for cigarettes and vodka, and is known for having delays of up to five hours. I’d been warned that the minibuses and standing border queues were nightmarish, but I didn’t want to wait an extra 5 hours for the next bus. I figured if I’d survived six weeks traveling by public transit on the chicken buses of rural Ethiopia then I could handle this.


Ukraine/Poland border.

I read online a blog post of some people who were able to walk across the border from Ukraine to Poland with minimal hassle. Exiting the Lviv train station I wandered the minibuses until I found the cyrillic sign listing the border town that was my destination: Sheheni. The 34 hrivnia ($1.31) ticket got me two hours later to the town, where after asking people “Polska? Polski?” I was able to get pointed towards the border.

The line to leave Ukraine was more of a mob of catty babushkas yelling at and pushing each other. Somehow I managed to get through the line without too much aggression and pushing old ladies out of my way (they’re vicious and otherwise I would’ve been there forever). It took about 45 minutes of waiting in line to get my Ukraine exit stamp from a smiling young border guard. People didn’t seem to take it seriously. The woman in front of me had her headphones in the whole time.

Walking 100m to the Polish side was like entering a new world. There were actual border guards out front and it was less of a chaotic free for all, with a separate line for EU citizens. When I took out my passport, partially to show the others why I didn’t speak Ukrainian, a local asked me, “Hablas castellano?” Do you speak Spanish?

A little bit shocked, I instinctively said, “Si.”

Why are you here? Go to the EU line.

Uh, I don’t think I can do that. I’m American.

Same thing, that’s EU.

The United States is in North America, and isn’t a member of the European Union. I said politely.

He shrugged and yelled something across the line to the border guard who, upon seeing my American passport, sent me to the front of the empty EU citizens line and took some other Ukrainians to go behind me and speed up immigration. One of the more pushy babushkas cut in front of me, which caused the border guard to bark something at her. She immediately scurried away and let me go, whereupon I breezed through Polish customs and passport control in less than 90 seconds.