Transcarpathia Part #1: “One for connoisseurs”

This is the part of an article where I’d normally impart some existing convictions of the said area prior to visiting, but for Transcarpathia I’ve got nothing. I’m sure as hell you don’t either, other than the musing that the name sounds like something out of a B rated horror film or Borats Kazakhstan. The quotation in the title comes from Transcarpathia’s extremely brief entry in The Lonely Planet guide to Ukraine, but then again who do you know that’s gone there? So how the hell did I end up in the most south-western and arguably poorest oblasts (regions) of Ukraine?

As my 4 hour train from Lviv pulled into the second largest Transcarpathian town of Mukachevo, I hastily existed and spotted my lifeline to the region – a feisty (English-speaking) Hungarian girl I’d met earlier in my travels named Bernadette. We’d hit it off and later on she’d invited me to come and see her in her tiny village nestled in the Transcarpathian oblast. It was a crazy idea so naturally I said yes.

Szia Bernadette! Soooo, this is freeze-your-ass-off Mukachevo.

No, no no, she interrupted with a crazy smile. This is Munkács! (Rhymes with nun chucks)

And so Bernadette began telling me about Transcarpathian looniness. Essentially the region was a former Hungarian territory, had been ceded to Ukraine after WWII. Today the region is a mix of Hungarians, Romanians, Slovakians, Ukrainians and Russians – none of whom particularly like each other or agree on anything. Each refer to the towns by different names, have separate schools – and most insanely – different time zones. And since Bernadette was a raging Hungarian patriot we would now be operating on Hungarian time. We wouldn’t be staying in Mukachevo though – according to Bernadette the place is a gangster’s paradise with lots of kidnappings and drug related violence. Instead we’d be catching a crowded, prehistoric bus to the southward town of Berehovo one hour away. Halfway through this spiel she stopped to make fun of my shoes (Why aren’t you wearing boots! You look stupid like this!) and un-intentially ripped jeans.

As the only people speaking English on the bus, we – and especially me – got massive attention. A large group of girls at the back of the bus were nervously talking and giggling – about me – according to Bernadette.

One of them speaks a little English and her friends are trying to convince her to say something to you, she laughed.

Her phone went off a second later and she picked it up to answer, giving the attractive girl in front of me the opportunity she’D being pining for to turn around and talk to me. She sounded very nervous.

Hi, uh, where are you from, she asked quietly.

Hey, I’m from New Zealand – how do you know English?

Ohh, that’s amazing, I studied it at uh *Bernadette gets off her phone and looks blankly at the girl* – uh sorry to interrupt you.

She promptly turned back around again seemingly intimidated. Bernadette thought this was all hilarious. I was very popular here.

Berehovo is the largest of a series of small towns and villages dotted around the Hungarian border. Since I only had 2 days and nights here, the plan was to first spend the night in Berehovo – in close proximity to the region’s most popular nightclub – then spend the second night at Bernadette’s family home in the tiny 1,000 person village of Bene.

Welcome to the Hotel Transcarpathia

Getting off the bus I felt my lungs freeze the second the door opened, somehow it had managed to get colder. The main give-away that I was miles from home was the fact that the only cars to be seen were Soviet era Volgas. Other than it looked quaint and endearing, though not so much that I wanted to stay outside long. I just wanted to get to my hotel to put on more clothes. Luckily it was very close. It was a place Bernadette had found on the ground given that few places this part of the world have really gotten into that whole internet voodoo shit just yet. The place was nice though; simple, comfortable, warm and cheap. 14 Euros. Not bad for 3 stars. We fooled around here for a bit then Bernadette had a go at my jeans again. I had to admit they were badly ripped and despite the awesomely effective thermals underneath, a new pair could be good. So we went to the nearby shopping ‘mall’ – a basic establishment to put it delicately. There was one place in there that had jeans. And in that place was only one brand of jeans – apparently the most popular brand in the region – Kosmo. They were the most garish, stupid looking pants I’ve ever seen but at least they didn’t have a giant gaping hole in the ass region as my current pair did. Whatever. I buy a pair and put them on. Bernadette then laughs at me and tells me I look ridiculous. I tell her I’m just trying to fit in.

The mall

Tonight me, Bernadette and her friends would be going to a massive club called K2. Located in the tiny 900 person village of Dyida – it’s the place to be seen in South Transcarpathia on a Friday night. K2 club wasn’t anything special compared to the clubs I’d been to in Kiev, but it wasn’t bad either. It was basically just a medium sized warehouse with bars at opposing ends and a small upstairs area on one side and the DJ booth on the other. There weren’t that many people there when we arrived and Bernie said that she hoped it was ok that we’d reserved a table. Normally reserving a table in a club in Europe is an enormous rip off – In places like Switzerland, France and Northern Italy, €500 for a 6 person table wouldn’t be a surprising amount to pay. Well in Transcarpathia it was 20 hryvnia – about €1.80. I laughed out loud when I was told this. Vodka was also at an everything-must-go price: 25 hryvnia. Not for a shot. But for a freaking one litre bottle. Suddenly I began entertaining the thought of moving here. It wouldn’t be that hard – just save up $10,000 or so back home and that ought to last me a few years of living like a King. I could learn Russian and Ukrainian and style myself as a local foreign playboy. It might make a good book. Writing this now I’m actually talking myself into doing it.

Me and Bernadette in K2

I got to meet Bernie’s wider group of friends. They were all super friendly and I’d never seen people get so flabbergasted as to when I told them/they were told where I was from. Her other girl friends regrettably spoke no English – either that or they were too shy to attempt, but some of the guys did and they insisted that I drink my bodyweight in Vodka with them. This made Bernie angry – she said that she didn’t want me getting drunk since she hadn’t seen me that way before and didn’t want to look after me in such a state. She then pointed to one of her guy friends who – case-in-point – was fucking blitzed already. Seconds later – as if on cue to make a case for her, he clumsily fell back on his chair, going over a small stair behind him for additional dramatic effect. Knowing my limits and being well practiced in Vodka consumption, I told her I’d keep it under 7 shots. I didn’t want to get stupidly drunk anyway. The club gradually filled up and was soon very crowded. Me and Bernie spent allot of time dancing and hooking up while I periodically witnessed extremely intoxicated people falling over and partake in ridiculous dancing. I also noticed that 80% of the guys in the club had exactly the same pair of Kosmo jeans as me.

It wasn’t all merry though as I got to witness Transcarpathian bouncer hospitality. I hadn’t seen the cause of the altercation but I did see the fallout from it – 3 enormous, brutish bouncers were kicking the living Christ out of some guys who’d clearly crossed a line or two. It was almost cartoonish brutality – with the bouncers employing what appeared to be advanced finishing strike combos from Tekken. One guy got hit a solid 6-7 times before he even hit the ground and was then promptly scooped up, taken to the front door and thrown out as if he were a sack of garbage. I was completely shocked, but turned around to see Bernie and some of her friends just standing there giggling. Oh yeah that happens here, she smiled sweetly. Did I need any more reminders that I was a long way from home? Around 3am me and Bernie decided it was time to get out of there.

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