To go alone by car to Ukraine raises suspicions while leaving Macedonian territory.
“Alone, really? Ukraine? That way? Amid war? And you have nothing to declare? “- are just a few of questions that I encountered at Tabanovce crossing.
The experience of custom officers prevented police dog to enter the car, but it forced out the whole interior. They didn’t find anything suspicious.
“But what are you looking for there?”, was the reaction with which the officials reluctantly sent me outside the state.
About 1,200 kilometers away from Skopje near Uzhgorod inhabited by 100, 000 – a city on the border with Slovakia and Hungary – all that can be gone in one sweep if one considers the challenges of the centre of Slavic culture.
Yes, Ukraine is at war and you will see it as soon as you approach Ukrainian soil, even if you are on western part of the state border. Before reaching the official customs section, armed Ukrainian soldiers will welcome you. Together with your colleagues you will follow the usual procedure. Without unnecessary questions and controls – you see the board saying Ukraine. Right next to it a road map to Kiev – just straight ahead, the route is good, but the distance of 810 kilometres is problematic. Therefore, Uzhgorod is at hand. Only seven kilometres of a local road with arranged houses and yards along it, unavoidable roundabouts, cool cars.
“Churches with golden roofs” welcome you at the entrance of the city. Ukrainians are an Orthodox nation, although, as elsewhere in the world, hard life and the urge to survive moved people away from temples. The first impression of Ukraine is probably exactly what you had imagined before departure. Wide streets, mainly without traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, buildings with huge balconies built during the Soviet period, but also old baroque houses and buildings left from the time of Austro-Hungary. People who are eager to complete their duties dressed in recognizable “adidas” tracksuits from 80s, but also men and women wearing the latest fashion from Milan or Paris. Both, cobbled and freshly asphalted streets. Kiosks with tables in front where beer and sandwiches are sold for 40 denars but also restaurants where a coffee costs one euro.
In fact, prices in Ukraine are much lower than European average including Macedonia. One litre of the most expensive gasoline costs 48 den, milk – 35 den, bread – 20 den, 10 eggs – 40 den, 1 kg of potatoes – 10 den, 1 kg of cheese – 240 den, 1 kg of veal – 200 den, hamburger – 40 den, beer – 15 den. It is also cheaper in most of restaurants, where you will get a tasty meal for two people in the price of ten euros.
“The average salary in Ukraine is about 200 euros, it is normal for prices to be like that,” says Alexey, a young boy aged 25, who works in the hotel where I stayed.
His salary is about 250 euros, he is doing his bachelor, he does not complain. At the entrance of the hotel there is an inscription: “Receptionist needed”. I notice salesman’s job offers hanging in several more shops and cafes.
“Young people do not want to stay and work in Uzhgorod, they are looking for happiness in Kiev or in some European rich country,” locals complain.
The quay of Tisza River is their main promenade. On both sides there are restaurants and cafes which are full of guests from Slovakia and Hungary who are regular guests. Some of them come here at least once a week to buy food supplies, fill cars with fuel and even for medical interventions.
“Gasoline and food are almost twice cheaper than in Slovakia. To Uzhgorod, we come mostly for a weekend, we will go for a walk, eat dinner, buy clothes and everything we need and then we will go, “explained the guest from Kosice distanced 80 km away. They do not mind that they will have to spend at least three hours to cross the border.
The castle in the upper part of the city is the touristic brand of Uzhgorod, you will see it on almost all souvenirs. Built in 13th century, it is considered a cultural treasure and a legacy of “the time of Hungary”. You can spend hours and hours walking through beautiful chambers and gardens, which will bring you thousands of years back and will wake up romance in you. Practically, the castle is also the Orthodox Faculty, which is visited by many Russian students.
According to last year’s survey of Ukrainian Tourist Union, Uzhgorod was declared the most peaceful city in Ukraine. You can reassure yourself it’s true by walking through the streets in the late hours. During the working week, restaurants and pubs are empty after 10 pm; it’s lively on Friday and Saturday when karaoke parties are organized. Women? Beautiful, as they are all over the world.
Fifteen-hour journey back home can be freely referred as to no time in order to get in time to sum up the impressions. Three days are too short to experience the energy of the fifty million country but are enough to feel the smell of Eastern Europe and the incredible blend of old and new time. Until next time – “До побачення”.
Author and photography: Goran Adamovski