Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Day 312 – Third time lucky: our final entrance to the EU. (Border crossing Ukraine to Poland)

On crossing the border from Ukraine to Poland we would be entering the EU for the third and final time on this trip. I’ve mentioned before some of the various “end points” of this grand expedition; arriving in geographical Europe (Blog Day 246 –Breakfast in Asia, Europe for lunch, and back to Asia for dinner), entering the EU for the first time (Blog Day 251 –Bad cops turned good), making it to a country which is on the Euro (Greece), entering the EU again (Blog Day273 – From Melbourne to the EU), and many more. Entering the EU for the last time though did bring with it a certain sense of finality – after arriving in Poland we would remain in the EU all the way to the end of the trip. With less than four weeks to go, we really were on the home stretch now.

We made an informed decision about which post we would cross the border at, having been warned by several people that the main one near Lviv can involve waiting in excruciatingly long queues taking nine or ten hours in some cases. Usually we’re relatively dismissive of advice we get from locals because the situation is always so different for us anyway. We seriously considered avoiding this one though and taking a detour to the smaller border post because amongst the people that warned us was the Polish EU guard who we spoke to when entering Ukraine (Blog Day300 – Friends with the EU Babysitters).

The border post was a monstrosity of stainless steel and reinforced concrete, towering over the horizon. As we approached the entrance to the intimidating complex a blond-haired muscular Russian-looking man in army uniform waved at us to stop, at which point he asked us a series of questions all of which were answered with various types of shrugs. After peering through our windows, Muscley Blond Guard handed us a slip displaying a number and gestured for us to proceed through the gates and down the left hand lane. Several hundred metres later we found ourselves at the back of a queue of cars where we waited for a while until a portly guard worked his way back to us. We handed Portly Guard our numbered slip, at which point he turned his nose up at us, asked for our passports and car documents which we handed him and thrust a new slip of paper in the window. Turning away from us, Portly Guard waved dismissively back towards the gates we’d just gained access through. Well this was a pain. We called out as Portly Guard sauntered off and thankfully we managed to catch his attention. Our requests for some sort of explanation or more specific instructions, along with our insistence that we were in fact a car, as notated on our numbered slip and demonstrated by the hard evidence that we were, in fact, a car, therefore meaning that we were in the correct queue and shouldn’t be removed to the other one which was clearly for lorries, were ignored. Our indignation was met with passive disdain so we bit our tongues and returned to Muscley Blond Guard on the other side of the gate.

Muscly Blond Guard didn’t take much interest in us this time; I suppose his curiosity wasn’t strong enough to outweigh the amount of work that was required in looking after us. The very young looking guard standing nearby took us on though and ushered us to a booth where we were met by a very surly guard. Young Guard hung back but remained in view, watching us out the corner of his eye while Surly Guard stared at our new slip.

“Passport? Document?”

“The guy in the car queue has them. He told us to come here and go in the truck queue.”

“Passport. Document.”

“Over there. We need to go in this queue. Look at the slip.”

“Passport! Document!”

“We don’t have them! We were told to go in this queue!”

He stared at us, made a few phone calls and eventually instructed us to return to the car queue.

“We. Were. Told. To. Go. In. This. Queue.”

Some more phone calls were made and eventually we were allowed to proceed into the truck queue. Hopefully our documents would be waiting for us up ahead somewhere and we wouldn’t just be directed to yet another queue.

We waited in the car while our documents were passed around between various offices and it wasn’t too long before we were sent on towards Poland. Relieved to be through the Ukrainian part of the process we drove onwards only to be pulled over at the usual passport checkpoint before no man’s land. The jolly guard asked us for our passports and a particular document which we handed him, only to discover that it hadn’t been stamped by the correct authority in the correct place. Denner followed Jolly Guard’s directions back to one of the many offices and received the necessary stamp, and with a smile Jolly Guard allowed us to proceed.

With that part completed and now on the Polish side, we had to start from square one again, choosing a queue to join the end of. Worlds away from their post-Soviet, excessively bureaucratic and highly disorganised counterpart, Polish Customs and Immigration were highly professional and the pinnacle of efficiency. A charming female guard was making her way through the queue of cars, moving people through as quickly as possible. Friendly and approachable, Charming Lady Guard was a far cry from the burly, intimidating Ukrainian guards we’d just left and we happily answered her questions and waited patiently while she did a cursory search of the car. The questions she asked were the type of ones you get when entering Australia or Britain, where they’re subtly digging in a very friendly way, attempting to decipher whether you’re suspicious or not, and you can’t quite decide whether they really are a little bit interested in who you are and what you’re doing, or if the curiosity is entirely feigned and purely business. Either way I always end up enjoying speaking to them, and in this case I choose to believe that she really was intrigued by the concept of our trip. When Charming Lady Guard was satisfied with us and our answers she disappeared with our documents and promptly returned to give us the all clear.

The next and final stage of the border crossing was to have the car ripped apart at the searching station. A dainty but formidable female guard approached and we gathered that she was here to take care of us. Formidable Lady Guard completely ransacked our vehicle, taking torches and screw drivers to every nook and cranny, searching the entirety of each bag and box, the backs of the chairs, the underside of the engine, the door panels, inside the trim and linings, underneath the carpet in the boot etc. As well as unpacking every item she even tore the lining of my laptop bag just to check I wasn’t smuggling anything through in there. (I wasn’t.) There were other cars nearby that were much emptier than ours and were being scrutinised even more thoroughly, with wheels being removed and entire panels taken away. Eventually, and much to our relief, we were dismissed as non-smugglers and granted entry to Poland. We quickly threw everything back into the car, all of our belongings tossed haphazardly on top of each other, unpacked from their bags and boxes making retrieving anything later on more of a challenge than usual. On we went and we were finally in Poland, and back in the EU where we would now remain for the remainder of the trip.

It did cross our mind that although there were dogs sniffing around the general vicinity earlier on in the border crossing, they didn’t seem to be thoroughly searching and there certainly weren’t any around at this point. So although we couldn’t have hidden a toenail clipping inside the car, our luggage or the lining of my laptop bag, I could have had anything I liked in my pockets and nobody would have noticed. It is odd how the focus is entirely on the possessions in this situation and not even remotely on the person.

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