We drove 50km east to the Polish border and came across two long line of traffic waiting to cross. Trucks hardly moved in the right hand lane. The cars were mostly crappy, rusting Ladas, packed to the roofs with Polish goods. One had 4 tyres and a bike on its roof rack and was leaning over. There were a few BMWs and Mercedes thrown into the mix. The cars moved quicker, but the Ukrainians returning from Poland would try and jump into the line where they could, or some would not move up in their cars until a friend had driven their car into the space. It was the first sign that in their cars, the Ukrainians are a law unto themselves. Once at the officials, we moved through the Polish control very quickly, because the UK was an EC country. Crossing European Community membership borders is the best reason I can think for being a part of the EC.
Then we lined up at the Ukrainian border which took an age. Drivers ahead of us had the wrong documentation and they would stand by the kiosks for ages while the officials did whatever they have to do to justify their existence. As we snaked forward, a Ukrainian driver ran into the back of us, not paying attention but causing no damage. I’m surprised his rusting car didn’t fall apart on impact. When we eventually reached passport control, the official spent 10 minutes (I timed it) tapping information into his computer. To encourage tourists, the Ukrainian Government had temporarily scrapped visas in July and August 2005 so that barrier had been removed. They used to cost $100. When he had finished, he yelled “Go!” so we goed. Customs opened our boot, took a cursory glance and yelled “Go!” I think it took 3 hours to cross the borders, most of it just queuing to get processed. We spent a lot of this trip at border crossings! Welcome to the Ukraine.
The Lonely Planet Online guide to the Ukraine states “The country rewards travellers with hospitable people, magnificent architecture and miles of gently rolling Steppes”. For some reason, they neglected to mention that the driving in Ukraine is definitely the worst in Europe and ranks well with Indian and Indonesian standards, with one main difference. They drive aggressively. Road rage must be a requirement of the driving test. The Lonely Planet did, however, hint that “with fuel hard to come by, spare parts rare, road conditions rugged (all incorrect in 2005), and getting lost inevitable (true), driving in Ukraine is not recommended for the faint of heart” (no shit, Sherlock).
I didn’t have much info on the Ukraine (Lonely Planet have just published their first Ukraine edition in Autumn 2005 which I haven’t seen and I’m sure if I did, I’d have something to say) so what I can tell you is: 49 million people in a state slightly smaller than Texas. After Russia, it’s the largest country in Europe, so there is a lot of space (especially between drivers’ ears). Bordered by Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Capital City: Kiev. It’s a Republic and they had a political revolution this year which you may have seen on the news. Religion: Mostly Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox (whatever that is). Major industries: coal, electric power, metals, machinery equipment, chemicals, food processing, grain, sugar beet, sunflower seeds, vegetables, beef, milk. Formerly known as ‘the breadbasket of the USSR’ (producing 4 x as much produce as the next Soviet republic), over half the country is covered in fields of wheat, barley, rye, oats and sugar beet. A central ‘black belt’ of humus-rich soil, one of the world’s most fertile regions, covers nearly two thirds of Ukraine. Fields of red poppies and sunflowers predominated the countryside during our visit. Male life expectancy is 62 years, surprisingly long, considering the driving.
Historically, it was originally established by the Scandinavian people called the Rus (from where the word ‘Russian’ comes from) and during the 10th and 11th Centuries was the largest and most powerful state in Europe. Military devastation (Mongols, Lithuania, Polish attacks) and plague wiped out much of the population by the 15th Century. The area became popular with runaway serfs from neighbouring domains, who became known as kazaks (Cossacks) meaning ‘outlaw’. Then Poland and Russia divided up the area between themselves. Ukrainian nationalism flourished in the 1840s but Russia put its foot down.
After World War One they could have achieved independence, but argued between themselves too much, had a civil war and Russians took them over in 1922 which didn’t stop another national revival. When Uncle Joe Stalin took over in 1927, he decided to make a test case out of Ukrainian aspirations and engineered a famine (how do you do that?) that killed around seven million Ukrainians. He also destroyed all the churches. In later purges (1937-39) millions more were either executed or sent to labour camps. Six million more people died during the war in the fighting between Germany and the Red Army. It’s estimated that during the first half of the 20th Century, famine and purges cost the lives of over half the male and a quarter of the female population of Ukraine! So we were dealing with a seriously pissed off nation that was out to prove it wasn’t a quitter.
Many of you will remember the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 which happened in the Ukraine. The appalling slow official Soviet response (almost as slow as George Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana Sept 2005) set off political discontent and in 1991, they achieved independence. Russia was not a happy bunny. The Ukraine got to inherit all the nuclear weapons (all destroyed by 2001) and control of the Black Sea fleet. Now they want to join NATO and the European Community. The first attempt at integration saw them hosting the ‘Eurovision Song Contest’ in 2005. Don’t get me started on that competition. So when it comes down to it, the Ukraine is famous for its Cossacks, Chernobyl and Cereals (oh and Communist dirty tricks). Personally, my overall impressions of Ukrainians were that they would argue with a signpost.
The CIA World Fact Book stated that “the sex trafficking of Ukrainian women is a serious problem that has only recently been addressed”. As a male, I have to add that like the Belarussian women, many of the Ukrainian girls were drop dead gorgeous. It’s a shame they come attached with extended families or Mafia relatives looking to be subsidized. The CIA also stated that the economy grew by 9.3% in 2003. Despite this, annual income is averaged at $6,300. There are 33 TV stations (+ 21 Russian stations) and 656 airports (174 with paved runways). It’s sad to think that American James Bond types are out there right now in every country compiling such statistics. Undercover spies now go in with a calculator rather than a Smith and Wesson gun.
Our first impressions upon entering the Ukraine were of small villages full of horses and geese. There were fields of horses grazing in paddocks and hundreds of white geese sat around shabby looking ponds or on grass verges by the side of the road. I’m not sure how they know which goose belonged to whom, but there seemed to be enough to go around. I had never seen so many geese in my life. The villages were scruffy. Locals rode on traps pulled by horses (those not in the fields). Thankfully, there wasn’t much traffic. We’d get that surprise later. What traffic there was, were crappy Ladas.
We drove to L’viv and without any city maps for the Ukraine, drove around until we could find a parking space outside a vast market area. From there, we asked for directions for the centre. A policeman escorted us down to the main tree-lined square called Rynok. It looked very Polish (which it had been previously). The Opera House was very commanding and grandiose in light grey granite/sandstone at one end of the square. We found the seasonal hostel ‘Banking Academy’ just off the square at the other end. It was a restored building with a fabulous glass covered atrium that stretched from floor to roof. For about £13 a night each, we got a spacious room, a kitchen and a freezing cold shower!
The Old Town was centred on the broad Ploscha Rynok “the best preserved urban square in the Ukraine” (on-line Lonely Planet). It was impressive with individually commanding stone residences. At its heart was a 19th Century Town Hall, which actually spoilt the square for me. It tended to block out all the beautiful 16th to 18th century buildings around the perimeter with ornate stone carvings and balconies. Trams rumbled along one side of the cobble stoned square. We explored lots of streets around this area. It was indeed like a “living museum of Western architecture from the Gothic to the present” (LP) and along the way we popped into a churche dripping with baroque decorations and watched a Russian Orthodox service going on late in the afternoon, where a choir sounded great echoing around the vast airspaces. A small outdoor market sold Red Army uniform gear (which I had bought in Russia back in 1992). L’viv was put on the UNESCO list of World Monuments in Architecture in 1998 and it is definitely my favourite Ukrainian city.
Our biggest problem was where to park the car. There was no parking outside the hostel on the street at night. We drove into the old town to some car parking spaces but we couldn’t read the sign. An old car was parked up with a family inside. The cute, pretty daughter, Julia who was a student, spoke good English and said that her family would take us to a safe car park. But first we had to help jump start their car by pushing it! We followed them around various cobbled stoned streets, past the University and up to the plush Deniste hotel. Here we could pay $5 to leave the car overnight and there was 24 hour security as well as a barrier. It was only a 15 minute walk from the hostel.
There were lots of kiosks and shops selling local beer and locals, even the girls sat around the packed squares drinking beer from bottles. I think the girls I saw in L’viv were the most attractive I saw anywhere on the trip. They were slim and wore sexy clothing even during the day. And they drank beer! One called me “pretty guy” as I passed in my shorts. She must have been pissed, or thought I was gay. Noone else wore shorts in L’viv. All this beer gave us an excuse to have a major tasting session back at the hostel. Pints of beer cost 25p! We conveniently ignored the hostel’s Rule 6 “No strong waters”. I assume they were talking about vodka, but after a few pints didn’t care either way.
There was only one other guest in the hostel – a German student. He told us he been in the Ukraine for a week and not found a hot shower. He had also spent two days trying to get a train ticket out of the country. Meanwhile, he had bought a large watermelon and ate half of it for supper while we drank beer and ate the other half for breakfast and ended up getting the shits. Consequently, he missed his train. How we laughed.
The following morning we retrieved the car (which took quite an effort. We had to show the car registration and passports. I wanted to add “Here’s a clue. We speak fluent English. How many English cars are in the car park?. Here’s a clue. 1!”, but at least with this attitude, our car had been safely parked), packed and escaped L’viv. While driving around the main square, we were passed by a couple of youths. They had the sharp shaven hairstyles, the sunglasses, the techno music turned up full, and ‘go faster’ stripes. Their image was dampened somewhat by the fact they were sitting in a pile of shit – an old rusty, battered Lada and driving it like it was a Ferrari. I came up with a new label. They were ‘Lada Louts’ ( an alternative to ‘Lager louts’ in the UK who get drunk and cause havoc). I put them out of their misery by leaving them in the dust at a set of traffic traffic lights. Eat my dust.
It was 572km to Kyiv, the capital. There were long flat stretches, some dual carriageway and even then. the road was bumpy. We could get up to 90mph on some stretches. The trouble with driving a right hand steering wheel in a country that drives on the right, is that you need a passenger on the left hand side, to look beyond the truck in front for you. Here’s what continually happened in the Ukraine. My dad, for example would be driving. He would inch out into the centre of the road and I would have a look ahead. Maybe three vehicles would be coming towards us, so it was back in behind the truck and I’d say,”It’s clear after the white car”. So the white car would pass and we would pull out, only to find some bastard in a BMW trying to pass us from behind and if it wasn’t clear, he’d just force himself in between us and the truck forcing us to break hard..
You needed eyes in the back of your head and cars just came out of nowhere. Very aggressive, pushy drivers who thought they had the acceleration and f**k anyone else. I wanted to shoot half the ‘drivers’ in the Ukraine. When I was behind the wheel, I just used the same tactics and for some reason they got really wound up.
There were quite a few horses and buggies on the road which created another problem. You would be roaring along, see one ahead, go to overtake and then get cut up from behind from someone trying to overtake you, and you would end up slamming on your brakes to avoid crashing into the horse and cart.
The flat countryside was mostly wheat fields broken up by woodland. It was harvest time, so old combine harvesters were collecting the grains, and people stacked the straw on carts using pitchforks. Women sold apples and onions by the side of the road. There were also ‘cuddly toy’ stalls for some reason. The cows in the fields were tethered. They had a rope around their neck which was attached to a stake banged into the ground so they could graze in one area. The cows were all spaced out by the side of the road in the small towns we passed through. There were hundreds of white geese in every village, hanging around in groups. If you want to see geese, the Ukraine is the place to go. Storks had built huge nests on top of telegraph poles.
It was a long haul. Just miles and miles of flatness on a hot dusty day. The police speed traps were avoided by oncoming drivers flashing their lights. The police didn’t seem that bothered and were stopping drivers just to check their documents.
Three million strong Kyiv appeared in the distance. The centre was surrounded by tower blocks. We had no map of the city. We followed our road into the centre which opened up to a busy 8 lane highway then shrunk back to 6. The roads were packed. We stopped to take in the beautiful bright yellow painted 18th Century Andreevsteaya Church by the side of the road whose four towers had blue roofs with white dots and glimmered in the sunshine. We spotted out the Main Train Station which was one of those fabulous Communist constructions with a huge arched roof, columns supporting the side walls with murals above them. A vast window at one end allowed sunlight in, though there were two chandeliers for the evenings. Noone seemed interested in offering us a room.
I just followed my nose into town and we came across a large intersection and turned left. We were definitely on a major road with huge, magnificent old stone buildings on either side. This was Kreschatik, a broad boulevard with lines of chestnut trees. A couple of minutes later, we found ourselves in Independence Square, the central square in town and parked on the pavement like other drivers. Result!
“Founded in the 5th century, Kiev is the mother city of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. All three descend from Kievan Rus, the Slavic super-state that existed from the 9th to the 11th century. Kiev has survived Mongol invasions, devastating fires, communist urban planning and the destruction of World War Two” (online Lonely Planet).
Independence Square (‘Maiden Nezalezhnosti’) was their version of London’s Trafalgar Square. There was a tall, sparkling white column with a statue of the Arcangel, the patron saint of Kiev, perched on top. Lots of fountains including the 5000 sprays fountain called ‘Friendship of Nations’. There was also a fountain statue of the legendary brothers; Kie, Schek, Horiv and a sister Libed who founded Kiev. The square was packed with tourists.
There were some fine granite buildings nearby with thick walls and parapets on the roof edges. Western commercialism was taking over the Ukraine quickly. There were huge billboards and digital displays on top of buildings surrounding the other side of the open plaza covered in fountains and gardens.
Up on a hill away from the Square, we discovered the stunningly beautiful 19th Century St Vladimir’s Cathedral (built 1862-96). Approaching it across a vast flat plaza/courtyard, there was a massive bell tower before us, painted in sky blue and white trimmings and capped by a large gold onion shaped roof. The walls beneath it are covered in religious murals that stretch the entire length. It is mass of multicoloured saints standing on billowing clouds. Then you enter beneath the bell tower to see the 49m tall St Vladimir’s Cathedral before you which is also painted in sky blue and white with seven golden onion shaped roofs and golden crosses on top in the old Byzantine style. There is also lots of gold leaf around the windows and on the outside columns. In the sunshine, the entire place sparkles. This for me was the best sight in Kyiv and it is not even the most famous.
Outside, in the distance, you can see St Sophia’s bell tower and church at the other end of a plaza facing St Vladimir’s. At 5pm, it was in the shade so did not look so impressive, but there are more gilded onion shaped roofs on top of towers on top of Kiev’s oldest standing church dating from the 11th Century. Now a museum which had closed up for the night, it was just nice to walk around the main building. The Tour guides will say this is the most impressive site, but I bet you disagree with them when you see St Vladamir’s.
I had the addresses of two hostels in Kyiv, taken off the internet. The first person we asked spoke good English and knew the vicinity. It was down by the Dnipro River in the old part of town. We asked about six different people including a group of police cadets and found the street and the right address to discover the hostel no longer existed. This was confirmed by a woman with vodka on her breath. That probably took an hour. No map and we still found it. We were getting good.
We returned to Independence Square and thought we would find a policeman to ask where the other hostel was. There were no policemen and everyone we asked was a tourist. A man sitting in a car waved us over. I asked him the street and he indicated he knew and to follow him. Ten minutes later, we were outside the hostel which was hidden down a lane. Ironically, it was only down the road from St Vladimer’s where we had started from. Our guide then demanded a tip. We didn’t have any Ukrainian Roubles yet, so I handed him $2. His help had saved us a lot of time in hunting down the address.
The Hostel Kiev was in a tower block on the 8th/9th floors. We caught an old, unreliable lift to the 9th floor reception and signed in. We would be staying in a room on the 8th floor but that lift didn’t stop at the 8th floor. The girl who spoke good English was chatty. We asked her where we could eat ‘Chicken Kiev’. “Chicken Kiev? What is that?” “It’s what Kiev is famous for” I replied. “Well, we don’t have it in Kiev” she laughed and took us down to the 4th floor and then we walked across the floor to another lift which took us back up to the 8th floor. There was a lady sat there, responsible for keys, security and cleaning. It was a spacious en suite double room for £14 each with a view over the neighbourhood. It was a bit like Faulty Towers.
Then we got our luggage. To do this, we caught the life down to the 4th floor, walked to other lift to ground floor, picked up the luggage and did the trip in reverse. Then we popped out to a local supermarket to get some local currency, bread, sausage and beer. Even queuing at the narrow checkout, Ukrainian men were pushy and barged through us to get to another checkout. I made a comment to my dad that Ukrainian men seemed to be “Big, ugly and stupid”. A woman lining up near us smiled. “Tell me about it” she seemed to indicate. By the time we returned to our room, we had used the lifts 11 times in less than an hour.
My initial reaction to the Ukraine was that it was much more relaxed than Belarus. The locals were willing to help and some spoke excellent English. The men however, seemed very aggressive and in their cars, were accidents waiting to happen.
The hostel had given us a basic map of the centre and in the morning we attempted to find ‘Percherska Laura’ to see the dead monks in the ‘world famous catacombs’. We followed the map and then drew a blank. Low on fuel, we asked locals where there was a garage. Noone knew. We asked policemen. They didn’t know either. I followed my nose and found a main road leaving town and discovered a garage. We were on reserve by then. Turning back into the centre, we found the wide River Dnipro and saw a collection of gilded golden domes on top of a hill. I took a guess and it turned out to be the place.
Percherska Laura or ‘Monastery of the Caves’ was built by monks in 1051 and is the holiest site in the Ukraine. With 30 hectares and 100 buildings, it became the largest monastery in Russia. The first monk, the Reverend Anthony, was buried here in 1073 and it was used as a burial place for 700 years. Today, it was still a large complex that was actually split in two. So we paid admission to the first section and took a stroll around the numerous ecclesial structures including two 11th Century cathedrals. Tour groups were arriving in large numbers. It was dominated by a (closed) central white church, with ornate carved doors and covered in gold trimmings and topped by gold onion roofs. Another church had a Russian Orthodox service in progress. The congregation were mainly women who all wore head scarves to cover their heads. The church walls were dripping in old painted frescos, and the smoke and smell of incense wafted around. Exploring the complex, we did not find any dead monks. From a viewpoint we could see the other section including a green onion domed church. They must be there!
There were signs at the entrance of the second section, stating that men could not wear shorts or t-shirts but they seemed to have nothing against the girls wearing micro mini skirts to show off their long tanned legs as long as they wore a headscarf. Some of the skirts were barely decent. I think it was the only vice the monks had! The monks wore everything long; grey cloaks, hair and beards. We walked down the hill to another church where the catacombs were. I saw an entrance which was actually the exit (honestly, I didn’t know you had to pay to see them!) and we descended some narrow unlit steps. The crypt had been designed so that the exit would light the stairwell in front of you, but we were coming from the wrong direction into the dark.
In pitch black, I could see some candles. We walked past a monk having a kip in a chair. When he opened his eyes, we feigned foreign ignorance. “English!” I said as we quickly moved on and explored the narrow man-made, whitewashed painted caves. I had been led to believe (from the ‘Lets Go’ Europe Guide…as in ‘Lets Go find a better guide book’) that the monks would be skeletons lying in open coffins, but they were in small closed wooden coffins with ornately decorated sheets covering them under glass cases. The coffins were tiny almost child size. Maybe they just contained the bones because you would not have a got a dead person into one. The hollowed out caves were only lit by candles. Women walked past each coffin and planted a kiss on the glass case while the live monks tried to stick their hands up their skirts in the dark. OK. I made the last bit up. There was obviously a correct route to do your kissing and we weren’t on it. Another monk turned us around and we snuck past the sleeping monk and headed back out of the exit and pretended to ignore the admissions kiosk. It is a unique spectacle and worth oh, at least 10 minutes of your life.
Further down the river, I saw a giant angel on a tall 27m column on a mound, with outspread wings and a shield with a Communist star on it. We drove up a hill to look at it and climbing the steps discovered that it was Park Slavi (Park of Glory). This place is dedicated to the memory of those heroes who died defending Kiev and Ukrainian lands. There were a handful of large impressive metal sculptures of soldiers in fighting poses as they took on the Nazis. Under the crumbled concrete remains of a giant shelter which had been bombed, the walls were lined with even more sculptured scenes of the male and female workers toiling in the factories and mines, and farmlands. I assume this was indicative of the home effort while the brave boys beat off the Germans elsewhere. There was Russian/Ukrainian army songs playing from speakers to add atmosphere and also a Flame to the Unknown Soldier. Whilst not nearly as impressive as the Brest Fortress, it was a surprise to discover it (I had not read about it – not even the columned statue which is a very distinctive landmark) and worth a visit to see another large scale Russian tribute to the war effort in the 1940s.
We had seen everything that I had read was worth seeing in Kiev. Escaping the city was a different problem. There were no road signs. Using my compass we knew we had to cross the river to head south. We spotted a sign to the airport and knew that the airport was south of the city. So we followed the road, through pine forests and came to a T-Junction and no more airport signs. Eh? Asking at a garage for Odessa, they pointed right, back towards Minsk on the ring road. There were only road numbers and no destinations and the road numbers did not match those in my European Road Atlas, which admittedly did not have much on the Ukraine, assuming that any sane person would not travel further east than Poland.
We ended back at the long suspension bridge we had seen from the fortress, which we would have taken had we not seen the airport sign. We didn’t see any Odessa signs and crossed the river, came off a slip road and doubled back across the bridge. When we did see a sign saying ‘Odessa’ and took the slip road, it turned out that it led us back to the bridge. So we crossed the bridge back into Kiev again and doubled back across the bridge. Are you getting the picture? It turned out that the Odessa slip road we took had another unmarked slip road off it to Odessa, which we sussed out on the second attempt. I think it took about 90 minutes to actually find the correct road out of Kiev.
But the fun didn’t end there. Oh no. About 100km south of Kiev on a straight, dual carriageway, the traffic ground to a halt. We guessed it was probably road works but couldn’t see for the trucks in front. So we sat there in two lanes of traffic funnelling into one lane. Then the Ukrainian drivers coming from behind were obviously so pissed off with their lives and a traffic jam was the last straw, that they started to overtake on the narrow lane on the right hand side of us (where you would stop if you broke down and is illegal to use in the west). When that filled with irate drivers, others created a new lane to the right of that driving along the dirt!
Then to the left of us, there was a flat grass verge dividing the other two lanes of traffic coming towards us. Drivers started to drive down that grass verge and when that backed up, they started driving down the road against the oncoming traffic were squeezed over into the other lane. So now we had six lanes of traffic, funnelling into one, and our side had taken over half the other road. It was complete bedlam and just stupid selfish behaviour from moronic drivers. We just sat there and laughed at the antics. I was thinking to myself “What are you in a rush for? There is absolutely f*** all between here and Odessa apart from about 500km of flat Steppes land”.
The trucks belched out fumes and their drivers got pissed off by the antics of the car drivers trying to pass them, the drivers got mad at each other as one would outdo another who had just outdone someone else. I concluded that Ukrainian drivers must win their drivers licences in lucky dip draws.
Eventually, we passed the cause of the accident. There had been a car crash. One car lay overturned in a crumpled mess. Two bodies, a man and a woman were stretched out on the road lying uncovered in the sun. They were goners. Policemen attempted to control the traffic which was speeding past all over the place. A film crew was videoing the car and bodies for local TV. That day, we passed seven other road accidents and we witnessed the worst driving I could ever remember seeing. It was as if they had just swapped their horses and carts the day before, and been given top of the range BMWs, Mercedes and 4 wheel drive Land Cruisers with no training. They could find the acceleration pedal but not the brake. Many would kill themselves before they learnt to drive properly. They made my fast driving look like my 94 year old grandma was behind the wheel.
It was a really long haul down to Odessa. The flat steppe lands were non-descript; either fields of wheat being cut or already harvested. There were also huge endless crops of sunflowers which all had their heads turned towards the sun. Where farmers had ploughed up the land, the rich black soil looked very distinctive against the yellow wheat. We probably covered the 500km in under five hours, but were exhausted by the overtaking antics. We tried to skirt the major city of Odessa on it’s eastern edge but there were no traffic signs and we ended up driving into Odessa anyway, before finding a sign telling us we were going in the wrong direction.
We headed east and outside a food processing plant passed a 5 mile line of parked trucks that were probably carrying wheat to be unloaded at the factory. The trucks were all parked by the side of the road. The drivers chatted, smoked and slept in their cabs. Nothing was moving. We saw no hotels. Darkness was approaching at 9pm and we were concerned about finding somewhere to stay. The Ukraine has no motels by the side of the road. As darkness fell, we arrived at Mykolaiv on the Black Sea coast. I asked a local, if there was a hotel. “Yes. That way” (in Ukrainian). Somehow I spotted it in the dark a couple of miles later. We checked in. It was cheaper than the hostel in Kiev but the bathroom was a typical old Communist set up with ancient boiler and a strange square bath. But at least it was better than sleeping in the car.
Despite the late hour, we drove around looking for somewhere to eat and ended up miles away in the only restaurant we could find. The women in charge, laughed as we tried to find out what was on offer. They didn’t know what chicken Kiev was either! The young waitress, not used to English tourists, was shy. We had fish with a cheese topping, steak (which was actually a pork chop), fried potatoes and salads, and two pints of beer each. With a handsome tip, it came to £8. We were both mentally and physically exhausted. Back at the hotel, I had to take the car to a secure car park a few hundred metres away where a couple sat in a watchtower.
Our destination was Yalta further east and then south on the Crimea peninsula by the Black Sea. It would be a long 700km round trip. We set off for another dreadful day of Ukrainian driving. We were cut up by crazy drivers, got stuck behind slow moving trucks, and passed endless markets selling huge piles of watermelons. The fields of sunflowers continued to dominate the scenery. It was really slow going and we had had a few near misses. By about midday, my dad just said “I’ve had enough. Turn the car around and get me out of this country”.
We headed back the way we had come, all the way back to Odessa, past the long line of trucks that was still there. Getting through Odessa was just as bad as leaving Kiev. Ironically, outside Kiev, the few road signs that you come across has ‘Kiev’ on it. All roads led to Kiev in the Ukraine. It took us two hours to get through Odessa. Grid locked roads, no traffic signs, blazing hot sunshine.
Odessa is apparently known as the ‘Pearl of the Black Sea’. Online Lonely Planet didn’t have much: “Odessa is a curious mix of enticing seaside holiday retreat and polluted industrial port…Today its best known for its excellent collection of museums. It’s filled with beautiful low rise buildings and tree-lined streets”. I can describe it in 7 words. “A shit hole with no road signs”, or even shorter ‘Turd of the Black Sea’.
We were trying to find the road to the Moldavian border (Tiraspol) which was never mentioned. In the end we followed the road north to Kiev, and I took a guess at an intersection which led us to a hidden roundabout where the border was mentioned about 50km away.
Our major problem on this trip would be Moldova. I had originally planned the trip in reverse to the way were we doing it now. Originally, we would have got a Moldavian visa in Bucharest, Romania, which is the only place you can get one. But after our Hungarian road accident, my dad preferred doing Hungary last. It meant that we had no visa. Our only alternative was to drive north all the way around the Moldavian border almost back to L’viv and enter Romania, and either skip Moldova or do around 1000km to get a visa. Not having a visa has never stopped me from trying to get into countries before and we thought “Well, we might as well try anyway and try and avoid the alternative”. When we reached the border, our three day nightmare with administrative paperwork and international politics was only just starting.
At the Ukrainian border, I had to fill in a currency declaration form. I didn’t really know how many English Pounds, American Dollars and Euros I had anymore, so I just guessed. No other border official had checked. But Mr Jobs Worth, asked to count the money. I had put down $150US. He counted $300. “Big problem” he said and accused us of trying to smuggle money out. We then had a 40 minute showdown with the custom officials.
No one could speak English. Our man was obviously angling for a bribe, but we just pretended not to understand and maintained our innocence as tourists. It wasn’t as if we were trying to smuggle out thousand of dollars. In fact we had brought the currency in with us. While a guy searched the car looking for ‘presents’, I eventually walked into an admin building, saw two officials sitting in an office and said ‘Big Problem!’ They came out by which time someone who could speak English had turned up and translated. By now there were five customs people around us. The top man told Mr Jobs Worth to drop it and we were free to go.
Travel - £ 62.64
Accommodation - £62.98
Food - £13.16
Other - £20.64 Iinc 12.64 car duty)
Total - £159.02