Sunday, April 3, 2011

My Odyssey Through the Ukrainian Metropolises and Hinterlands

For those who haven't gone through the ritual of getting a residency permit renewed, it can be a total bitch.  Recently, I had to embark on a journey to Ukraine, the nearest non-Schengen country that didn't require me to obtain a visa to visit.  I was told by the Foreigners' Urzad (bureau/office) that I needed to leave Poland on or before the 31st (the date of expiration for my current residency permit) and come back no sooner that the 1st of April.  So, I chose to go to Ukraine.

Long before I had even started out, people were warning me about how it wasn't the best idea to drive to Ukraine.  Numerous people stressed that going by car was dangerous and a long long wait.  They told me how I'd probably have to bribe the guards; that the line of traffic to cross the border was miles long and would take hours (days even!) to go through; that going by bus was faster and safer; and that I might end up in a holding cell somewhere. I passed it all off as typical hysteria by people who had never even crossed the border themselves, not even to go to Lwów (actually, one person had done that, and by car.)

So, we started out from Warsaw at 8:00 PM, heading towards the eastern border with Ukraine (about a 3.5-hour drive or 155 miles.)  We went first through Lublin, and then to Chelm (Hkhe-weh-mmm).  The drive was pretty uneventful, but at night so it's not like I could enjoy the passing Polish countryside.  We only stopped once at a gas station to put oil in the car and for my companion to buy a Coke.  We did pass a big industrial site near the border that was full of lights, and I surmised it might be a gas facility for the pipelines that cross Ukraine from Russia.  I dug a little deeper (later) and found that no gas pipeline crosses from Ukraine to Poland, only from Belarus to Poland.
We got to the border crossing at 11:30.  About three miles from the border station we start seeing all these trucks pulled over to the side of the road.  Three miles of parked trucks on the side of the road later, we pulled within 'sight' of the Polish customs station.  The only problem is there is a huge line (several hours' wait) and I need to get a stamp saying that I left the territory of the Republic of Poland before midnight.  There was a lane for buses and diplomatic traffic, and we tried that, but we were stopped by a border guard acting as traffic controller (you know those red cone-like wands air traffic controllers use?  He had one of those.)  So my companion is arguing with the guy, telling him my sob story and they guy just isn't having it and is becoming obviously annoyed.  So we turn around, and park in a pretty seedy looking parking lot nearby and start hoofing it on foot.
We walk back up to the traffic guy, who immediately tells us we can't just 'go for a walk' to the border station (about hundred yards away.)  My friend is just pestering the guy, like seriously pestering him, and the controller is just becoming exasperated.  We break off a little bit and ask a man in a truck (in the front of the line) how long he would have to wait, to which he replied "three hours."  That wasn't going to do.  Meanwhile, the traffic controller is telling cars to go through, but one of the drivers has fallen asleep at the wheel and the controller has to shine his flashlight into the window and knock on the guys windshield.  My friend again goes up to the guy and basically they work out that we can get in someone's car (at the front) and we can go to the station.  The controller talks to a guy in a small red VW Golf, and we get into his car.  There's a moment where we sit in there wondering what we're supposed to do (the driver included), and we're thinking, "Can we go?"  The controller looks at us and beckons angrily with his wand shouting a very exasperated "JEDŹ!" ("DRIVE!")  So, we drive up to the border control station and exit the car.  It's about 11:45 or so right now, and my companion immediately starts laying into some guard there, telling them my story, what needs to happen, what we're doing.  The guard is about as happy as the traffic guy, and he takes my passport, then passes us off to another guard.  The second guard may have been drunk, sleepy, or born a little to slow (or maybe any mix of the previous), but he definitely didn't have his shit together.  My friend starts trying to urge him, and he replies, irritated, "We still have eight minutes [before midnight]".
From the back seat of the nice fellow's Golf, heading into the guard station.
He carried my passport loosely in his hand, fumbling with his keys to get the door open to the guard booth.  He didn't have the key, so he walks back to the other office to get it and returns to open the door, take our documents, and cautiously go over mine, but also starts turning on the computer in the booth.  Another guard comes and together they leave to the other guard house, with my companion in tow.  The minutes tick by and it's past midnight, but they return.  My companion starts asking about what stamp they put in my passport, which they said, grumpily, "The 31st!".  I look at the stamped page in my passport and indeed it says that I left the Republic of Poland on 31-3-2011.  My companion let out a triumphant "Hurrah!"
The driver fellow, with whom we've been talking a bit, turns out to be a Ukrainian and quite pleasant.  He's passed through this border many times (poor him) and gives us plenty of information.  We ask the border guard if we can just go across to the opposite border station and re-enter Poland, and he replies, "No.  You must continue to Ukraine."  He gives a slip to the driver that says the car is clean and is carrying three passengers.
Now, this slip will become important later, because at another checkpoint right down the road, another guard will look at the slip, count the passengers, and wave the car on (and if you don't have the said-amount of passengers, you might just be in trouble.)
Anyway, we speed over the bridge and over the Bug River and pass into Ukraine.
The Ukrainian border station is exactly as you think it would be.  It looks like it hasn't changed since Soviet times, and the border guards are brusque and fit the exact stereotype of what you think a Ukrainian, Russian, or Belorussian border guard would be like.  They have the military fatigues and little fur hats with an Ukrainian emblem pin in the center.
We hand them our passports and start explaining things to an incredulous border guard.  Now, in my passport photo, I have long hair (it was taken five years ago), and now my hair is of more 'normal' length.  The border guard doesn't like this very much and stares at me for a very long time.  He starts barking questions in rapid, accented Polish, to which I can only say a little.  When my companion tries helping me, the guard tells him, "I didn't ask you, I asked him."  We explain about the stamp I need, and that we intend to leave Ukraine as soon as possible.  But, he's having a really hard time with my passport photo, so I hand him my (now-expired) karta pobytu (residency/identification card), in which I have a shaved head.  The guard exclaims something along the lines of "What's with your hair?!!!"  He left, then came back with another slightly older guard; he began flipping my passport under a black light to test for authenticity, then handed it to the new guard, who took and stared at it then at my face for no less than five minutes.  I had to practically stick my head into the window while the examined my face, then my passport and karta pobytu.  They began flipping through my passport again and asking me questions in a sharp pointed manner, stopping on my expired German visa.  They asked me questions like, what was I doing in Germany, when did I leave Germany, how long did I stay, all in a gruff, accusatory tone.  Finally, they stamp my passport and hand back all our identity documents.  My companion raids my wallet, saying that the 100zl bill I have there is too much, and grabs thirty zlotych and gives it to the driver.  The driver hops into his Golf and speeds off into the night.
The entire time I was there, I'm fighting the urge to pull out my camera and start snapping pictures.  But, my saner head prevails saying, "This is not the best time nor place to start photographing."  I still was able to snap a few dark pictures, which I had to edit a little to bring out any detail.
The guard exits the booth and we follow him into the main office.  This time, I wasn't sure what exactly was going on and I was thinking, "OK, they're probably going to search us and stuff."
We marched after the guard (and he walks exactly as you think he would walk) through a hallway and out into the checkpoint for people leaving Ukraine for Poland.  He walked right up to another booth, took our passports and immediately began explaining things to the guard in the booth.  They had great fun as they started laughing, also noting that my name is that of Michael Jordan's (a common thing here.)  There are burly Ukrainians swarming up around the booth.  The guard picked one, who was driving a large white commercial van, and basically said to him, "You're going to drive them across the border."  The poor guy wasn't too pleased about it, but before he could do anything the guard marked on his slip of paper that the van contained three passengers, forcing the man to take us at least to the final Ukrainian checkpoint, where another guard would scan the slip and count the persons in the vehicle.
So, we followed the man to the van and he cleared a whole bunch of shit off his front seats (it had three front seats) and he let us in.  Then he demanded to see our passports (who knows why!) and he examined each one by flipping through them.  While he was going through mine, I thought I might have to buy it back from him with the remaining 100zl bill I have.  That, or I might have to stab him, but one thing is certain:  I was getting my passport back.  He gave them both back.  Then, he drove as far as the duty free shop to buy some stuff (probably food for the continuing wait), then drove to the last check point, where the guard shined his flashlight into the cab of the van counting, "One, two, three.  OK."  And we drove another fifty yards before hitting another traffic jam.  We got out and thanked the hapless fellow for taking us this far and began to walk.

Crossing the Bug
I must admit, it was pretty cool walking across the bridge and the Bug (the actual border of the two countries.)  The entire road was bumper-to-bumper vehicles, all of them with Ukrainian plates.  There were cars, trucks, and vans. Cars with trailers containing what looked like whatever was rustled from an antique dealer's dumpster.  The cars themselves looked as if they were held together solely because their bolts had rusted into an indiscernible mass, and they were running on little more than a prayer (the icons that were present in almost every car couldn't have done any harm.)  Almost every car looked like some mechanic's nightmare (or wet dream).  The whole place smelled like burning rubber, burning oil, and unburned gasoline.  The average age of the cars there had to be no less than twenty years.

Crossing the Bug, see the cars.
We walked to another traffic controller, who told us that we could not walk to the border station, so we simply asked to fellows in a blue van.  They obliged and carried us as far as the station, where we got out and began to look for a booth to get stamped.  We wandered around for a bit, asking a border guard, who told us that we had to be in a vehicle to be processed; he suggested getting on one of the buses just for the ride over.  We tried two buses, but no luck.  We loitered a bit, then headed back to the line of cars, finally asking two Ukrainians in a white sedan if we could ride with them to be processed.  They agreed, so we hopped in and they drove twenty yards up and pulled over.  Everyone hopped out, leaving all doors open, popping the trunk and letting the Polish border guards search the vehicle and take our passports.  We got back in again and my companion and the two guys talked a bit.  It turned out that they had waited in line for ten hours and they were crossing the border to work unloading freight trucks.  The 2012 EuroCup was discussed, and I was forced again to listen to Ukrainian techno-pop on the radio.  I noticed that the procedure for examining cars went something like this:  A line of about eight cars pulled up and stopped.  Then, each car was inspected, started from the back of the line.  Once the front car was inspected, the cars would all drive off and another line would pull up.  We sat for maybe twenty minutes until the guards came back and we all had to jump out again, they searched the car (even popping the hood), then gave us back our passports and we drove off, handing the slip of paper to the last checkpoint, a female guard who counted the passengers of the car.  The lads were obliging enough to drop us off the entrance of the parking lot where we had left almost exactly two hours earlier.
I was surprised with all the burdensome processes involved in crossing the border.  For instance: the fact that every single car was inspected.  I was told later that this is mostly done to lock down on smuggling, specifically cigarettes.  One can buy a pack of cigarettes in Ukraine for about sixty cents, then take it to Poland and sell it for a greatly inflated price.  But Poland isn't usually the destination for cigarettes, because if you can make it to France of even England you can make a tidy profit.  As we were getting into our car in the parking lot, some man walked up to us holding a plastic grocery bag full of cigarettes trying to sell us them.  We drove away, and didn't even have to pay a parking fee; the parking attendant just let us ago.
A shot from the parking lot, looking at the border station, as we were about to leave.
And so, we drove back towards Warsaw, past all those trucks parked one after another on the side of the road.  About a half hour later, the rain came.  We arrived in Warsaw around 5 am, my usual waking time, and I got to get home, eat a small breakfast then head off to work.  I was in the Foreigners Urzad (office/bureau) by 11:00AM, passing in photocopies of my newly-stamped passport.  The lady accepting them was confused by the stamps that said I left Poland on the 31st, but arrived in Ukraine on the 1st, then left Ukraine on the 1st.  I said, "It was at midnight."  She nodded, then stamped the photocopies, accepted them and bid good day.


Anonymous said...

Glad you blog again.

Shoutenkou said...

Being a Pollock myself. I hope you like my country even a little bit.

Nate said...

really interesting story

Paddy said...

I had no idea things were this difficult Very interesting blogpost. Thanks,. Paddy

Anonymous said...

I've visited Lwów in 2008, and it was much easier and faster, but I went by PKS to Przemyśl, then by BUS to Medyka, then on foot throught the border passing, then by bus to Lwów.

At the passing I've spent maybe 1 hour, and it was May long weekend, so there were big traffic, so any other time in year it should be even quicker.

No such problems as you describe - everybody was nice to me. And Lwów is great city.

PolishMeKnob said...

Everyone told be to go via bus or go to a border crossing where one can go by foot, but I didn't have much choice in the matter (I wasn't driving or picking the route.)

I plan to go to Lwów (and to Pripyat!) But next time, I'll go by air or by bus.

The Satirical Swashbuckler said...

Woa dude, that really sounds awesome. Wanna visit Poland now.