It may seem odd to some that on the way from Belarus to Poland we absolutely had to divert and stop for one night in rural Ukraine. In some ways does seem a bit juvenile, but it also feels like an expression of who we are: a family who craves new, educational and immersive experiences. We try to live by the motto “just say yes.” While still at home in London, and plotting the course for our Christmas holiday road trip, together we looked at a map of the area, and Ukraine was decided before it could be questioned.
Looking at the map we chose Kovel. With a population of nearly 70,000, it looked to be the largest city we could find in the Northwest corner of the country that wouldn’t take us too much out of our way en route to Krakow. This seemed large enough to find a place to stay and also afforded us a chance to catch a small glimpse of Ukraine. It would only add one more hour of drive time and it would allow us to break up a 9-hour drive into two days of perhaps 5 hours each. Was Kovel exciting and glamourous or just a small farming village? We still don’t really know.
Having a look at Expedia and Booking.com we found that there were two hotels in the area: one that cost £21 and the other £14. We went for the £14 per night room because if we were going to have this experience, let it be rich and interesting. We booked a family room at the Shelter Club Hotel and Spa in Kolodiazhnoe Village. Spa—that sounded nice. Perhaps we would arrive early enough to enjoy the facilities. We read that the hotel had a sauna and indoor pool. Images of us enjoying a traditional Russian steam room made it sound like the perfect stopover. We would relax and enjoy the local hospitality. We really had no idea what else to expect and it was a brilliant feeling.
27 December 2015
We left Minsk on Saturday morning, heading to the Belarus/Ukraine border. Earlier that morning we mapped out our day and it looked like it would be a five-hour drive in addition to the border crossing itself. We expected to be at the Shelter Club by evening to enjoy dinner and meet our hosts. The weather was sunny, but a cold -1 temperature and there was black ice everywhere. We drove mindfully and relaxed expecting another border crossing like the 2 hour Lithuania/Belarus experience of two days prior.
We arrived at the Ukraine border with Makrany, Belarus. After our first 20 minutes waiting, only one car had moved and there must have been 20 in front of us. 30 minutes later two cars had moved. Many people were walking across the border and having to wait in the same border queues. For uncomfortably long periods of time we sat parked next to these many gentlemen who stared at us and our car with its GB tags. I believe they were just curious about us as it was very unusual to see distant foreigners at such a local crossing but it was still unnerving. In the end it took us 4 hours to get through the Belarus side, which included four thorough car inspections, our passports were taken three times, and we had interrogations by four separate border soldiers.
After an initial inquisition on the Ukraine side, we arrived in yet another queue. At some point Stephen and I both had to get out of the car to be questioned. Passports were finally stamped at 8pm. Stephen then had to declare our car at customs in another queue alone this time. It was now 8:16pm and we were driving through a guard station and we finally done with the border.
We then had an 80-minute drive to Kovel. We thought about stopping somewhere for dinner but really there was nothing around. The road was very dark and had lots of bumps and potholes. We passed many dogs and cats on the way with some not so lucky dead critters lining the route. We made it at last to our hotel at 9:40 at night. We were given an apartment separate from the hotel, in what looked like a detached garage in the back. It was a family room (two bedrooms and one bath). It was tidy but not exceptionally clean. It smelled like we were sleeping on someone else’s personal sheets that had been cleaned but not well or with poor detergent. It’s one night though, right?
We talked to the ladies in reception who recommended for us to try some food establishments down the street as the hotel only served up breakfast. We carried on talking with the proprietors who were really warm and nice people. One of the gals had a son living abroad through a school exchange program with a family in Virginia of all places. Since her son was so far away and we were Americans, its seemed like we bridged a gap between her and her kin making her happy and eager to talk to us. It was also clear that it was abnormal to have us as visitors in their small hotel and town. Their English was very broken, but as we usually find through travel, there is always a way to communicate. We left the ladies behind in search of food. We were starved, but we were hopeful that we would see them again in the morning for brekkie.
We ended up eating at a petrol station that had a very small café. I had chicken soup (literally broth with white meat) which was indeed homemade and very nourishing and the others had hot dogs and juice. It was far from an ideal dinner and we all really needed a good meal and restful sleep after our incredibly long day; however, sometimes you just have to roll with it. We made the best out of our situation at the time.
We returned to the hotel room and I doled out the cough medicine to our still sick kids. Fiona, who is sensitive to taste, immediately vomited all over the carpeted floor. She had been running around playing with her siblings and began coughing very hard before swallowing the nasty Belarusian cough syrup. It all came up. We did our best to clean up with the ever important and always in my bag, baby wipes.
It was time for some much needed deep sleep, between long travel days and sickness. I put some essential orange oil on a piece of cotton to mask the smell of body odour on the bed linens. I repeated to myself, “it’s just for one night.”
28 December 2015
Stephen and I woke up early and showered. The water was sporadic in temperature, and the stall was small and difficult to maneuver away from the water in order to wash. There wasn’t quite enough water coming out of the spout to wash out the shampoo while the what did come out smelled incredibly metallic. Not very big problems.
At breakfast we were served sausages, smoked pork, eggs, two cheeses (a soft white cheese and a slice of something like cheddar), a slice of red pepper and a slice of tomato. They made us delicious double espressos. The smoked pork looked like ham but had the texture of uncooked meat. Otherwise the food was very good. It was also just what we needed after the previous day of eating on the road. The lady was very nice to us. It was such a warm feeling being in someone’s home after over a week of hotel stays. Brekkie cost us around 7£ for all five of us—wow!
We were on our way to Kraków, Poland on Sunday morning. We noted that the homes around Kovel were very small cottages…they looked like they contained only one room and would house maybe one or two people. They were everywhere and it appeared to be an agricultural area. We never actually made it into the city centre between arriving and departing within a 12 hour period.
We arrived at the border with confidence. Heading to the EU would surely be a much shorter wait time. When we arrived there was a very long queue and we were not sure if we were in the correct lane. There was one free lane that went right up to the border but it seemed that any car that approached it was sent back or to a parking lot adjacent. No one was around to ask for help, no one spoke any English, gypsy women kept approaching us pointing to the border and murmuring unrecognizable words to us. We decided to stay put for now since we weren’t sure and trusted that time would tell. We waited.
70 minutes passed with little movement. There must have been at least 50 cars in front of us. The Polish family directly in front of us had twice let another Polish car in front of them. They must be friends? There was really nothing we could do but wait in this free-for-all. It was really frustrating and a test of patience and acceptance. The gypsy women approached my window speaking polish, then Russian and Ukrainian when they saw that I didn’t understand them. They would continue to speak to us even though we didn’t comprehend a word. Some ladies were selling cava (coffee), tea and piroshki but others had nothing for sale. I couldn’t tell if they are asking for money or help crossing the border. We wondered if they were trying to tell us we were in the wrong lane? Afraid to make the mistake of driving forward to the gates only to be turned around joining the end of the queue made us stay where we were.
1pm (2 hours at the border)
We were all getting hungry. We had some snacks in the car: banana chips, sliced cheese, bread, crisps, and dried apricots. Some of us left our car and made our way over the highway divider and to the Duty Free shop to use the loo and look for something to eat. It was all crisps, chocolate, tobacco and alcohol. Fingers crossed we would be in Poland sooner rather than later.
3:15pm (4.5 hours at the border)
It was now mid-afternoon and we were still waiting. People were antsy, many cars drove up along the side in a pull over lane trying to squeeze ahead. There was no order and no one policing. We let a few choice curse words fly occasionally but mostly patience and grace prevailed. What was the point, we were still here having to accept we were at the mercy of the border. We tried not to think about the four and a half hour drive we had yet to make once we crossed.
We watched the people in the car in front of us unload a cooler filled with cured meats, cheese and sandwiches. They popped over to the Duty Free shop and returned with what looked like a litre and a half of vodka. They emptied the bottle between them in an hour or two. What did they know that we didn’t? It seemed pretty daring to combine drinking and driving an automobile through customs.
5:34pm (6.5 hours at the border)
Cars were randomly honking their horns which was annoying and not in any way helpful. We were keeping our cool within our little family haven. We developed a sort of schedule for the kids that included one hour of IPad time and then an hour of interactive family time. During our family time we made up games using the alphabet, we listened to audio books and we chatted. Amazingly, no one complained. We had no food, no internet connection, and we had run out of tissues and four of us now had colds. We flip flopped between laughter at our situation and wonder at what could possibly be the hold up. Thank goodness we brought cables to keep the Ipads juiced in the car while we waited. At that moment I reflected on how truly blessed we were to have one another and the courage to be ok in the moment.
We finally had some movement when we were shuffled in to a huge waiting area with 60 other cars. A couple of hours here and we realised that all the cars had to pass through customs satisfactorily before the gates would open on the other side allowing us towards Poland. It was really an unbelievable experience. We watched as our passports were scrutinized with a magnifying glass, checking each stamp in all five of them. Stephen tried to inquire about what was the cause of such a long delay and received an abrupt answer that it was a normal day at the border. The man then blamed it on Poland’s border police causing the back-up on their side. Our car was searched many times, our papers were looked over by several armed men trying to decipher English. For the third time this week we had to declare our car at customs and play the game of figuring out how to communicate it.
8:10pm (9.5 hours at the border)
We finally had our passports stamped but were still in a very long queue on the Ukrainian side. Unbelievable. We finally started to pick up Poland’s cellular network as we neared their border. We emailed our hotel to let them know the circumstances and make them aware of our arrival most likely after midnight. We prayed we still had a place to sleep that night or whenever we finally got there.
10:28pm (11.5 hours at the border)
We were now waiting at Polish customs. We tried to use the loo while here but it would only accept Polish coins to enter which we didn’t have. There were no ATM’s and no currency exchange. F*!@!!!! The Polish registered cars repeatedly cut in line and were driving erratically. At this point it was hard to be angry, we were so tired and so done.
Yes, we made it through at 11:15! What an amazing feeling of relief and disbelief of actually getting through. It was short lived though—an officer stopped us and told us to turn back because our paperwork was not complete. Apparently, we missed one window which would have provided the necessary paper to exit this circus. Disappointment doesn’t even begin to describe what we felt at that moment. We returned to the missed window booth and the officer there decided to walk away for some unknown reason. We were waiting again. We deliriously smiled at each other, laughing at the absurdity of it all.
We met a Ukrainian man who was also crossing into Poland as we were. He had only waited a few hours and couldn’t believe the story we told him of our day. He laughed at our choice of spending a day in Ukraine. He then encouraged us to return to spend more time and said that we must see Odessa as it was a very special place. He spoke genuinely and with much love for his country. It was so heart-warming to speak to another human being in such a normal way. We had missed out on any real human connection that day, outside of our own car, and it was apparent to us all.
11:30pm (12+ hours at the border)
We were finally out at 11:30pm, more than 12 hours after we arrived. We stopped at the first petrol station that we found with a food market for hot dogs in Chelm, Poland. After the kids finished their meal, we gave them our jackets for pillows and draped a sleeping bag across all of them to make them cosy and sleepy. They were out almost instantly. Our focus shifted to the task at hand: safely driving the 4 hours to Krakow. We stopped for coffee twice and I talked to Stephen as much as I could bare to keep us both awake. The road was incredibly dark a large portion of the way and more than half of it went through back wooded roads with no one around in any direction. We expected to be at our hotel by 3:30am. The manager kindly phoned us to offer his assurance that someone would be there to greet us and asked if he could help in any way. It was very kind and most appreciated.
We arrived at our hotel and literally collapsed into our beds. We had only planned for one day of sight-seeing in Krakow which was now looking more like a couple of hours. It’s ok though, we did it!
We spent around 24 hours in total in the Ukraine and most of it at a border and in our car. We met a few kind people along the way who we will remember warmly and we experienced what border country crossing was like in a very local way. The most profound take away for me was watching our family of travellers embrace the moment and make the best of a not so great situation and we did it gracefully. There were a handful of complaints along the way—hunger, boredom, etc. But no tantrums and no fights. What I remember most is patience, laughter and inquisitiveness. Was it worth it…Ukraine? I personally never regret experiences, only the ones I should have taken. I have to be honest here though…it was a bit more out of the way than what we had originally expected. Why is it that the best life lessons never seem to be along the shortest route?