So here I am in Ukraine - the biggest, most daunting and most foreign of all the countries on my route, the one everyone warned me against, where I can't even read anything.
I woke early on my last day in Slovakia, and set off after a half-eaten breakfast (scrambled eggs with tomatoes, peppers and onions may sound great, but when the tomato is ketchup and the whole thing is made in the microwave it bears an uncanny resemblance to vomit)/ I was fully prepared for a long wait at the border, and stocked up on food and cash. I couldn't find fuel, but including the jerry-can I had half a tank, so decided to go ahead.
I rode round and through the long lines of motionless trucks, and pulled up behind the cars. On first approaching I'd thought I could see bikes, but no sign of them on arrival. A guy in a tracksuit was walking the line of cars collecting passports and car papers. No-one else was questioning him, so I handed mine over. One car at a time we moved forwards. Then it was my turn. The guard wanted to see the engine number. I have to confess I had no idea where it was. Amusingly the only person who did know was the one femals border guard! After wiping off layers of dirt, the first guard held up his dirty finger mock-accusingly, then laughed as I offered to give him a baby-wipe.
Off I went into no-man's-land. I hadn't imagined it: ahead of me was a group of Austrian bikers, who wandered over to introduce themselves. They also warned me they'd been told to give the official 5 euros if they wanted to get through quickly.
Before that stage I still had paperwork to complete and forms to fill in. There was no sense of urgency, and I didn't even get the impression that much accuracy was required - when I said I had no accommodation booked and so couldn't put a receiving address, the guard thought for a while as if this had never happened before, and said 'just put Ukraine'. Fair enough! Customs was even easier, a short queue, two stamps, and away! I managed to get a smile out of most of the officials, a wave out of one, no-one asked me for any money, and the whole process took well under an hour!
If Slovakian roads are hit and miss, Ukrainian roads are all about missing - missing holes, cows, horses, people, police, all of whom populate roads that are frequently missing tarmac. Potholes is one thing, but an 11-km stretch that is mostly gravel, ruts and dirt is something else. Many grateful thoughts went out to Dazzer, Basil, Neil & co for their patience in Yorkshire, without that experience I would never have been able to do what I did and just ride through it! Although thank goodness it was dry...
I managed to ride through my intended overnight stop without even realising it, so ended up in a motel on the main road, in a room decorated with more leopard-print than one person should be exposed to in a lifetime! The place was seemingly run byt three young girls with no English whatsoever, and we all got very exctied when I managed to order dinner with a combination of pictures and lucky guesses.
Ukraine is an hour ahead of the rest of Europe, but I had no difficulty in wiping out the time difference, as by 9pm local time I was more than ready for bed! Which of course meant I woke up absurdly early. The plan for day 2 was to head for Kamyanets-Podilsky, a city ringed by a river. 250km may not sound much, but it made for a long day's riding. The roads were mostly better than on day 1, though riding through freshly-poured tarmac that hasn't even been properly flattened yet made for an interesting experience. The Carpathians aren't as scenic as I expected, though I love the Ukrainian churches, with their silver and gold onion-domes. I also bumped into the Austrians again, who all took photos of me to prove I exist, and expressed great awe at what I was doing. Although it seems that the police at least were more lenient with me than with them!
The police are the major annoyance on the roads here. Cows are picturesque, ruts are challenging, coppers are neither. I have been stopped three times in two days, which isn't too bad. Times one and three they accused me of speeding; you have no way of knowing if you were or not, as the speed limits are seemingly arbitrary and completely undisplayed. The first one was blatantly a lie as he accused me of doing 100kph, which is a speed I only dream of here!! One thing I have found though is that Ukrainian coppers lack patience. None of them so far have been able to speak English, and clearly expect me to panic and get my wallet out. When I didn't, but instead looked baffled, apologised lots, and said 'I don't understand', they very quickly ran out of means to explain what they wanted, got bored, and sent me on my way. The last lot even made sure I knew where I was going and which roads to take first!
The second pair to stop me were just checking my documents, and thought I was absolutely hilarious - a clear case of mad foreigner, providing excellent-value entertainment.
Apart from the cops, I love riding here. It's hard work, but for the first time I feel like I'm on an adventure, travelling by bike because it's the best way to go. Up until now the bike hadn't seemed any better or worse than a car or train, just different. But here, where there is so much to see, where every detail is new and interesting, it truly makes a difference not being enclosed. It's precisely the point where you stop being able to speed round corners that motorbike travel comes into its own.
Today is my last day in Ukraine, I am much happier taking my time, so won't be going to Crimea. I would like to spend more time here, but on balance would have to sacrifice too much else, so this is it for now. Tomorrow I head to Moldova for a whistle-stop tour, then it's on to Romania.
Posted by Laura Bennitt at May 23, 2009 02:02 PM GMT