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Vel'ké Slemence - 2006-05-21

by Hugh Wallis

Text and all photographs © 2006, Hugh Wallis - All Rights Reserved

I had heard about this village in south eastern Slovakia, on the border with Ukraine, from the Borderpoint mailing list. It was divided in two arbitrarily by the border between Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia) and Ukraine (formerly the Soviet Union) - separating families overnight. It was basically impossible for villagers to cross between the two halves of the village because there was no crossing point. Last year, as a result of intense lobbying and the desire of Ukraine to move towards a more normalised relationship with the west (some even suggest that it is viewing membership of the EU as a possibility), a foot crossing was opened in the village. There is more information about all that at the links below - but sufficient to say that when I had the opportunity to visit Slovakia, checking this place out for real was definitely on the cards.

I had started the day at 0600 in the Czech republic, near the border with Austria and wanted briefly to visit Poland as well as the Czech-Poland-Slovakia tripoint and so this meant a long drive the width of the Czech Republic and the length of Slovakia including stops to go hiking and do some geocaching on the way. It was a Sunday and the traffic was not too bad fortunately. I eventually made it to Vel'ké Slemence at 1915 - just in time as it turns out since, although I didn't know it then, the border closes at 2000 (CEST) each night.

To set the stage a bit more, a map of the region might help. Slovakia is on the left, Ukraine on the right, The blue lines show my vehicle track recorded by GPSr.

In this map the actual border crossing is at the point marked 1 - there are also some photos of the point marked 2.

Anyway, the story. After a long drive I pulled into Vel'ké Slemence at 1915. Well, well - there is a car park there near the border crossing. Drove in and had to pay 20 Slovakian Crowns to park - nice to see a bit of entrepreneurialism happening as a result of this crossing being opened. There was one other car in the car park and some people were just returning to it with bags full of "stuff" as I pulled in. I assumed they had just returned from cross border shopping (or whatever!)

Parking Receipt.

Started to walk down to the border crossing taking a couple of pictures on the way. (With all the pictures click on the thumbnails to get the full size images).

In this photo you can see the half gate on the Slovakian side quite well. This gate has a mirror image twin on the Ukrainian side - they were built in a kind of protest to make a statement about how there should be a gate here in the village but it was divided by this "artificial" or "arbitrary" border line.

Walking a bit closer I was able to get this shot that shows the Ukrainian half gate as well - - but being aware that border guards are quite sensitive about being photographed I had to be careful - use zoom lens as much as possible, etc. etc,

I walked up to the Slovak side and showed my UK passport and asked if there would be any problem crossing the border with this passport. A bit of dialogue between the Slovak and Ukrainian guards ensued with the upshot being encouragement to go ahead. So I presented myself at the Ukrainian side and then things slowed down a bit. "Fill out this form" No - not once, but twice. Now wait while it is all entered into the computer. A very pleasant female guard who spoke perfect, if accented, English then arrived and asked all kinds of questions about how to pronounce my names - Hugh and Vaughan being a bit of a challenge since they are not obvious pronunciations from the spelling. "Where do these names come from? What do they mean?" I think she was just pleased to have a chance to practice her English since I doubt there are too many English speakers crossing this border.

"Why do you come here?" "Where did you hear about this crossing?" I answered "In the newspaper" - surprise was the reaction.

"Have you ever entered Ukraine before?"

While this was going on the Slovak guard came over and reminded me that the crossing closes at 2000 - it was now 1930 - and that I had better get back before then.

Anyway - immigration formalities complete, and my passport duly stamped, one copy of the form I filled out retained and the other returned to me, I proceeded.

"No - stop. Control" - customs wanted to look in my backpack. A cursory examination and I was on my way.

I didn't really want to go very far "There's nothing really to see - just a village" they had told me. Anyway, given the amount of time the entry had taken I wasn't about to get stuck there for the night so I took a few photos - not of the crossing post - I had already been told not to do that. I did contemplate making use of the feature of my Nikon Coolpix 4500 that enables you to look forward and shoot backward over your shoulder but I really didn't want to risk anything as this was all within 20m of the crossing post.

However I did take the following shots from inside Ukraine. Incidentally, the time had just suddenly changed from 1930 to 2030 since I had crossed into a new time zone as well. I did not, however, stop to change my watch.

This is looking down the street - note the village sign in Ukrainian - MALI SELMENCHI (transliterated into Roman characters)

The building on the left immediately after the border post.

Another shot down the street into Ukraine.

After no more than 5 minutes I then returned to subject myself to more bureaucracy. The same chatty guard now had to process my exit - retrieving the second part of the form I had just filled in and entering it all into the computer again. This time she started asking me about where I got the passport: why I lived in Canada; how long I had had the passport; where it had been issued; why I had visited New Zealand; what I had done and whom I had visited while in Ukraine (!!); was I also a Canadian citizen; did I have two passports; did I know I could enter Ukraine on my Canadian passport without a visa. She also pointed out exactly where the border line ran and the Slovak and Ukrainian markers either side of it, seemingly with a genuine interest in sharing this knowledge rather than suspicion or any kind of bad intent. Eventually the exit stamp was placed in the passport and it was on to the Slovak side. No need to change my watch back - it was now 1935 whereas a second ago it had been 2035. There they simply scanned the passport in to their system at the first window and sent me on to a second window where it was taken from me, the window closed, something done with it (who knows what) and eventually returned. The time was now 1945 and I was free to go back to my car with 15 minutes to spare!!

The whole process with officialdom had lasted probably 4 or 5 times the amount of time I actually spent in Ukraine.

My passport now had these stamps in it -

On my way back up the street I took some more photos

Looking back to the border - border markers much in evidence - corner of the Slovak Border Guard hut on the right.

This board with names on was at the side of the road only a few metres from the border post.

And these posts were just a bit further up the road (both on the north side of the road)

Got back to the Car Park to find it closed - but fortunately not locked!! and so I was able to retrieve my car OK.

Took this shot from by the car park gate towards the border post.

I then decided to check out point 2 on the map and took a couple of photos on the way.

Leaving Vel'ké Slemence the exit sign from the village is in both Slovakian and Hungarian.

Close up of the sign.

Driving over to point 2 on the map the road comes to an end at the border (unlike what the map would imply) - here are some shots of the border.

Typical markers - Slovakia on the left, Ukraine on the right - the white post is the actual border. I was tempted to go over to the white post and touch it but I heard a couple of Ukrainian border guards chatting as they were walking along the other side of the ditch and so thought better of it.

This is my car stopped where the road ended.

Just a slightly different angle showing the old gate a bit better.

That's it - I turned round and set off back to my hotel in Kosice - my visit to Vel'ké Slemence was over.

If you have any questions or comments about this please e-mail me at hugh (at) our-own-home.com


Links:

Article in Diplomacy and Trade

Bayerischer Rundfunk article (with video - in German)

Some pictures by Doug Murray from 2002

Some images from 2003

Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly - Resolution 1472 - Abolishing the last vestige of the Iron Curtain in central Europe

So close and yet so far (from 1999)

A Hungarian perspective

US Dept of State "The Washington File"

From the Slovak Spectator

From the South Asian Women's Forum (wow - what is their interest?) a good article from Agence France-Presse with some nice pictures