Archive for March 26th, 2007

Crossing the Ukraine border into Poland

On Friday morning Heather and I woke to my alarm at 5:00AM. At 5:30 AM Roman called to tell me my taxi was downstairs waiting for me. The taxi took us to Roman’s place where he was waiting outside, we all then rode to one of the main bus stations on the edge of town. Around 6:00AM we arrived at nearly the same moment as Alex and some of his friends. We were all headed to Katowice, Poland for Metal Mania! The ~2 hour bus ride to the border was followed by sitting at the border for nearly 6 hours. Those combined 8 hours were filled with moments that I hope will have you laughing as hard as I was.

We boarded the bus around 10 minutes before our scheduled departure of 6:30. Walking onto this bus wasn’t much different from what I expected. The bus was a bit ugly: dirty, worn seats, smelled a little bit, dark. Above my seat part of the faux-ceiling that usually has reading lights had been removed.

Not more than 5 minutes into our bus ride the vodka was out. It’s ~6:35 AM and we’re drinking Vodka. Actually, I should say, I only had one shot. That was plenty for my weak, American belly. These guys killed a bottle of Vodka and then went straight into their beers. A few stops into the trip and after we had picked up a few more passengers things settled a bit. At this point and I could hear someone behind me unwrapping something. The unwrapping seemed to go forever. It sounded like a plastic wrapper being peeled off of something. What the hell was this person unwrapping?

The Ukrainian countryside is definitely neat to drive through. Despite rain showers visibility was ok out of the windows. You could see large fields that, at least in California, would definitely be covered in crops. Here most of the open land wasn’t being used. Some of the houses were rather new looking and quite large. Others were visibly older, many having hand-operated wells out front.

As we got closer to the border activity on the bus seemed to pick up. People were constantly swapping seats, standing up and talking to other like-minded individuals, most importantly they kept bumping into me when they walked by :) . Roman ended up moving from his seat in front of me to one in the back. The man who took his seat was later paid 5 hra (hryvna, ukrainian money) by another man to sit next to him. I’m not making this up. I promise.

Before coming to Ukraine I had done at least some research on the country. I had come across a blog posting (that I can’t find today) from some guy who when making this same border crossing by bus had an interesting encounter with a woman smuggling cigarettes. Apparently cigarettes are roughly 2x as expensive in Poland than in Ukraine. Legally you can take one carton of cigarettes across the border and 1 liter of alcohol.

Activity on the bus continued to rise as we got even closer to the border. At this point the woman next to me was making the same plastic unwrapping noise I had been hearing earlier. She had a roll of cellophane tape that she was using to tape together boxes of cigarettes. Her bag was full of many cartons of cigarettes. She would open a carton and tape together, with incredible speed and precision, 4-5 boxes and put them aside. Once this was done she removed many black socks from her bag and began putting the taped rows of cigarettes in them. Moving my eyes back and forth from her taping activity to her bottomless bag of cigarettes I noticed that this woman had large feet. Size 12 in mens maybe?

The activity on the bus is a function of your distance from the border. The closer you get, the crazier it gets. At one point the aisle was filled. There are people squeezing up and down the aisle to talk to their partners in crime. Cigarettes, taped together and covered in socks are being placed under seats, in the backs of luggage racks and in willing-participants bags (I was, surprisingly, never asked). Then it gets really interesting. Remember the hole in the ceiling above my seat, oh yes, that’s there for a reason. In go the cigarettes. See where the seam was removed on the bottom of that seat back? Cigarettes go in there. If you use your thumbs you can wiggle it around just right so its less likely to be seen during customs inspection. This bus has air vents like on an airplane above each seat. I don’t think they work on this particular model of bus, however, they do unscrew and come off. In go cigarettes. There used to be recessed lights along the walkway in the bus. A thumbnail is all that’s needed to pry one of those bad boys off; in go cigarettes.

At this point I’m bursting out into moments of uncontrollable laughter. Where the hell am I? What am I doing? How much was the plane ticket? The Ukrainians have a nice word for this activity “contra.” I’m pretty sure that’s short for contraband. It’s so common it has an abbreviation.

There are apparently too many contra people on this bus, they have more cigarettes than hiding spots. I think I can “remember” 7 faces of active participants. And there was one guy that wasn’t exactly passive but didn’t appear to be active either. Remember the guy that got 5 hra for the empty seat next to him? It was time for him to come into action. He stood up in plain sight in the middle of the bus and pulled his left arm out of the sleeve of his jacket, tucking it into the middle. Remember this as a kid: “Look, mom, I have no arm!” The man that paid him helped zip his jacket halfway up and then began putting cigarettes into the empty jacket arm. He then tucked the sleeve of the jacket into a pocket. “Look, mom, my arm smokes a lot when it burns, may cause birth defects and we’re pretty sure it causes cancer!”

The Poland Border At around this point in the contra preparations we arrived at the border. Entering the border (it’s about a half mile wide) is fairly easy. Ukraine doesn’t care too much who leaves. Everyone gets off the bus, stands in a short line to have their passport stamped, and then gets back on the bus. We would sit in line for some 4-5 hours before having our turn.

While sitting here in this line the smugglers are still hustling around getting their contra in just the right place. Remember the woman with the size 12 feet? Yeah right. I think she had 2 packs of cigarettes in each shoe. We got outside of the bus and walked around several times. Here Roman explained a few interesting things to me “See that old Mercedes over there, it has a huge gas tank in it.” Whoo hoo! That’s great! “Yeah, gas is much cheaper in Ukraine.” huh? “They drive across the border and then siphon the gas out to be sold in Poland.” I won’t be buying any gas from border towns in Poland.

The guys we’re traveling with find a duty free store here on the border and buy some whiskey and coke. They go through the bottle, quickly. This livens the mood for the next hour or so. These guys are hilarious. And they can drink. A lot.

Some point while we’re outside a dude pushes his motorcycle with a ~1 gallon can of gas strapped to the side up next to our bus. He then leans up close to our bus, as though to pee on it, and begins putting packs of cigarettes down his pants. You should have seen him walk his motorcyle after this.

The Polish immigration guy finally gets on the bus and takes each of our passports, then leaves. We wait for another ~30 minutes before he returns with our passports, stamps and everything. We wait for another ~hour. This bus is really starting to stink now. We get off the bus and enter the inspection area. We stand there for 15 minutes wondering why we’re standing there. Then we each walk through a little gate into another holding area as the guy visually inspects each of our passports one more time. Then we wait. And we wait. And we wait. The bus is being searched, I can only imagine how much crap they’re finding. Finally someone from my group of METAL MANIA! fans starts talking to the official. Apparently we’ve decided to skip this bus crap and just walk through the border. We’re escorted from the bus area to the people area (filled with contra-carrying people walking through the border) and straight to the front of the line. The Ukrainians in front of me and Heather have their bags searched. I, not even thinking about it, lay down my bag while holding my US passport out. Before I can even get my bag unzipped to be searched I’m waived through customs. This US passport is the golden ticket to entering Poland. I should have brought some cigarettes.

Welcome to Poland Welcome to Poland. After that big huge wait in line this is what you get to see. What a dump. Apparently the smugglers debadge their cigarettes here. You see people taking their shoes off and removing boxes from their nether regions. We took a shuttle to the train station and continued on a rather uneventful trip to Krakow where we stayed the night before going to Katowice the next morning for METAL MANIA! I’ll write more about the rest of the trip later. We had a fantastic weekend.

8 comments March 26th, 2007


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