My memories of travelling from Poland to Ukraine seven years ago presented a Ukraine opening out to the west. The overnight train from Warsaw to Lviv inside the Ukrainian border was seamless and fun; no visa applications and no long elaborate delays with customs. It became an attractive destination for the European traveller looking for something more adventurous and off the beaten track. Lviv was extremely affordable and filled with a party atmosphere to keep you going until dawn. The head a little foggy the next day, little bakeries and markets occupying the lesser streets of the city kept the hangover away and the belly full. Rich in history and character and with a unique old-world charm, the city had me enthralled for a good solid week; my secret getaway on the edge of Europe.
My heart sank when I saw the revolution sweeping the country in late 2013 and well into the start of 2014. I watched the TV as protesters were downed by sniper fire in Kiev and running riots took over central Lviv. In a short couple of years it came to resemble a different world from what I remembered. Chaos and a society in breakdown were unfolding across the country.
Ternopil, just two hours east of Lviv is a smaller city where Polish woman Magdalena Olszowiec lives. She teaches children as part of the European Volunteer Service and tells me what life is like in Ukraine today.
What kind of a city is Ternopil and what is it like now since the revolution?
“The atmosphere here is mix of village and city. Everyday many people come here and sell stuff like milk, white cheese, eggs, beans; people are so friendly here, I can't say anything wrong about them.
Before the revolution, Ternopil was a calm and quiet city. Recently many things have happened. Protesters destroyed buildings like Police offices, administrations buildings and the prosecutor’s office. Ternopil from the very beginning was a strong center of the protest.”
With President Yanukovych now ousted and a new government in place in Ukraine, is there a danger that nationalist groups may gain more popularity; such as the Right Sector or Svoboda?
“At the moment things are very complicated here in Ukraine. I don’t think people take those groups too seriously; you should know that people here have more important things to think about. People are still grieving for loved ones who have died. They are also concerned for Crimea and also the presence of Russian tanks at the Ukrainian border. So people are not thinking too much about who is more or less radical. They are thinking if there will be peace or not.”
People are more concerned with the reality of daily life now?
“Yes exactly, it’s time for people to make choices and find out how best to survive. Now there is a problem with money, I recently heard of teachers who have still not been paid by the government. Public workers are worried. The ATM machines are frequently empty.”
We briefly talk of Crimea. The peninsula of 2 million people is approximately the size of Belgium and juts out into the Black Sea from Ukraine’s southern coast line. Russian forces invaded Crimea and a referendum in March saw the territory become part of Russia — an event that remains highly disputed. Magdelena tells me about a friend, Billy Six, who hitchhiked through Ternopil days earlier, continuing all the way south into Crimea. It sounded too bizarre. I wanted to know more.
I tracked down Billy Six for a fast update on his experiences in Crimea, a territory in crisis and the center of a volatile standoff between Russia and Ukraine. Billy Six, from Germany, is a journalist and explorer with a taste for high adventure. Others would call this sort of travel extreme and dangerous, as governments advise against all travel to Crimea amid reports of beatings and intimidation.
Hi Billy, how did you get into hitchking?
“I learned financial economics before, working for a financial adviser and at the same time involved in local politics. After I left all this — I started to explore the world by hitchhiking. I saw many amazing things which I wanted to share.”
You travelled through Western Ukraine and you are now travelling in Crimea. Can you share some of your experiences travelling there today?
“I went hitchhiking from Lviv to Ternopil, Uman and Odessa. Then on to Mikolaiv, Kherson and Armjansk. It was in Armjansk (a city just inside the northern Crimea border) that the situation turned bad.
Berkut guys took me out of a bus, checking all my stuff and found a lot of Ukrainian flags in my bag. A fat guy among them hit me in the stomach and tried to strangle me with my scarf. They said I was a ‘fascist’ and took me to their headquarters. They took my camera, USB plug and 180 euros from me.
Two leaders of Berkut did have a mind... Andrey and Sascha. They protected me from the crazy ones. I received food and after some hours, they put me in a truck going back to Kherson (a city in southern Ukraine). The next day, I came back and they pretended to find my camera by accident in the grass. After that I went back to Kherson again where the rest of my luggage was stored.
I decided to take the train to Simferopol so I could avoid more problems on the border. Inside the train there were Samabarona (Euromaidan's self-defence unit), but they didn’t care about me, because I was hiding in blankets.
Hitchhiking can be very difficult in Crimea. So sometimes I take buses like for example when going to Feodosia (a city on Crimea’s southern coast), where another problem happened. A drunken guy attacked and hit me, shouting around that there were hand grenades in my bag. But I escaped that situation.
Generally I am not afraid, because I feel guided by a higher power which wants to show me important things. A lot of the ‘bad’ experiences have made me more blunt somehow, more easier to deal with situations. But of course if I feel I am in serious trouble, fear acts as a natural protector.”
Crimea looks lost to Russia. While most of the world saw their clocks move forward an hour last Sunday, Crimean timepieces skipped two hours as the breakaway region adopted Moscow time. This came at the end of a week that saw the Russian ruble become the national currency and the imposition of visa restrictions on foreigners by the Kremlin. With those already in the country instructed to contact Moscow before leaving, Billy Six looks certain to face more trouble on the road ahead. Meanwhile Magdalena and her neighbors are finding making a living in the aftermath of the revolution to be their most critical problem.
Photo credit:Eamonn Sheehy