Nova Poshta

We kinda knew that getting over the border into Ukraine wasn’t going to be a walk in the park, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it did feel at times like the fates were well and truly against us.

We left our lodgings in Jarosław just after 6am, having filled the van with fuel the night before. We got to the border around 7am, 8am Ukrainian time.

There were hundreds of HGVs parked up at the side of the road on the way there, but that was to do with the Polish lorry blockade that’s been going on for a few weeks now, we could safely drive straight past it. We arrived just in time to watch the changing of the guards on the Polish side of the border, not as much of a ceremony as you might expect, it just involved all the entry boom gates being closed and people in uniform rushing to and fro. But here’s the thing: there was hardly anyone there. We went straight to the front of the “queue”. It wasn’t much of a queue, there was nothing in front of us, nothing behind us.

That didn’t stop the border crossing taking five hours though!

So, here’s the thing: new rules for importing goods, even humanitarian aid, kicked in today. One of the reasons we hoped to get over on Wednesday (Nov 29) was to avoid exactly this. But we had been assured that it was no biggie and we’d be able to waltz across as per usual, as the implementation date had at the last minute been pushed back to April 1 next year.

Or so we thought….!

We were stamped out of Poland with little fuss, then when I drove to the Ukranian side of the border, a guy at the first barrier wrote our van’s registration number down on a little square of paper. I wound down the window and took the chit. We had been forewarned that we must guard this bit of paper with our very lives.

We then drove to what looked like a toll booth, stopped at the first window and got our passports stamped into Ukraine. A customs guy came over, we showed him the inventory of all the items in the van, along with a letter from the Ukrainian charity we’re working with, vouching for us. He took a pic of both on his tablet and seemed happy enough. All seemed to be going reasonably smoothly. Slowly, but smoothly.

Then we were asked to drive to the front of the covered area and wait.

And oh boy, did we wait.

Turns out, the new digital customs system, perhaps modelled on the UK’s post-Brexit import malarkey, shares some key features with the UK’s post-Brexit import malarkey… in that it doesn’t frikkin’ work. The Ukrainian charity we’re working with is now supposed to submit the list of everything we’re bringing into the country via a government website, in order to be given a six-digit code. Show the folks on the border the code, and off you jolly well pop.

Only… small snag… the website isn’t yet up and running.

It took us an hour of back-and-forth with our friends at the charity in Kharkiv, but eventually, Adam and Frank were told that it was okay, the new system wasn’t working, so we could drive in, no problem. I had just started filming a sneaky live “Special Brew” for my YouTube channel in the van, but I had to cut the broadcast short, as you’re not supposed to film at the border at the best of times, probably less so when you’re actually driving. So we trundled our way down the snowy lane to the exit gate.

When we got to the gate, the guy with the gun wanted to see the sacred bit of paper we had been given by the guy at the first barrier with our registration number on it. It now also had a couple of stamps on it, clearing us for both passports and customs. However, it was missing an all-important THIRD stamp. Damn. So back we went up the one-way lane.

While I waited in the van, Frank and Adam tried their best to get us into the country. In the end, we had to pay a customs broker to get us a declaration in Ukrainian that all the stuff in the van wasn’t worth anything (we told them it was nothing but used clothes) and after an additional €50 fee, we were finally given the third and final stamp on our scrap of paper… the key to the kingdom… HURRAH!

I could go on a bit of a tangent here about how all this is very typical of overland travel into countries that used to be part of the Soviet Empire, but now’s not the time.

So then… onto Lviv!

It took about an hour to get to our destination, postal depot Nova Poshta #1, on the outskirts of the city. There we’d meet Rob Peacock, our contact in Назар Малигон, the Ukrainian charity that will be overseeing getting our presents to kids all over Kharkiv Oblast.

While the road from the border to Lviv is pretty good, the same cannot be said for roads in the rest of Ukraine, with the invasion now entering its 22nd month, it’s all-hands on deck fighting for the country’s survival, so it’s understandable that road maintenance isn’t a massive priority.

Also the distance from Lviv to Kharkiv is over 1,000km. Commercial flights around Ukraine are currently grounded, and we couldn’t source a van in Kharkiv. So if Rob was to borrow a van in Lviv to take the presents to Kharkiv, he’d have to drive to Lviv in his car, park up, load up the van, drive to Kharkiv with the toys in the van, drop them off with his colleagues, drive the van back to Lviv, collect his car… and then drive back to Kharkiv. 4,000km+. Through the snow. In the middle of winter. When fuel here is eye-wateringly expensive.

Yeah, we weren’t going to do that.

There was a much better way: Nova Poshta. The Ukrainian postal service, which offers hefty discounts for humanitarian aid. For around €300 we could send four massive pallets of toys to Kharkiv, and they’d arrive two days later. Perfect.

We arrived at the depot around 2pm, meeting Rob outside. We parked up near the entrance ramp and began carting the stuff from the van into the massive facility. Rob sorted out all of the paperwork and within the hour we had stacked and packaged everything up.

Rob was an absolute superstar, we absolutely could not have done this without him.

We left the rest of the journey into Ukraine up to the good folks at Nova Poshta, with Rob heading back to Kharkiv to take receipt at the other end.

By the time we finished at the depot, it was getting dark, but Adam, Frank and I wanted to see a little of Lviv, so off we jolly well popped for a drive around the city. It was absolutely gorgeous: like something out of a fairy tale, to misquote In Bruges.

Cobbled streets, snow, winter lights and oh my word, the ARCHITECTURE!

Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Classicism, Empire Style, Biedermeier, Historicism, Picturesque, Art Nouveau, Ornamental Secession, Rational Secession, Hutsul Secession, Zakopane Style, Art Deco, Polish Manor Style… wow wow wee wow. I was in nerdy architecture heaven.

Frank liked it so much, he decided to stay for the weekend!

We at UK4UKR.com are planning on doing this trip again next year to drop off hundreds of Easter Eggs, and I’m sorely tempted to stay in Lviv for a few days when we do. It’s hard to believe that this is a country at war, and heartbreaking to think of all the damage that has been done to this beautiful place, the thousands of lives lost, the millions of lives torn apart, for nothing other than the ego of one tiny man who feels that even though his country is the largest in the world by area, it’s simply not large enough.

Leaving Ukraine, Adam and I didn’t experience quite the same problems as we did coming in, but that doesn’t mean we got an easy ride. It still took the best part of five hours. We had to join a massive queue of cars and wait our turn. In the snow. We finally crossed back into Poland at 10pm Ukrainian time, 9pm Polish time.

There was a half-baked plan to press on to Krakow tonight, but we abandoned that idea when we saw we wouldn’t be arriving until after midnight, so instead we opted to stay in Rzeszów and get an early start the next day.

We arrived around 10.30pm, checked into a cute little hotel a stone’s throw from the centre, then went out to find something to eat and a couple of (massive) beers.

We had done our bit as far as the presents were concerned, now all we had to worry about was getting back to Bitburg in Germany, a journey of over 1,300km. According to the weather report, we were in for quite the blizzard along the way.

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