A Moldovan Sandwich
- Categorized in: September 2011
I remember Odessa well. I passed through there twice on a short trip to the Crimea in 2005.
The long-awaited sign
Why no one talks about this city much in the “West”, which by the time you arrive here coming from the east really means Western Europe, can only be down to ignorance or a false impression. The only time one hears of it is owing to its reputation as a gateway for people trafficking into the European Union. (From here it is easy to penetrate the marshy coastlines of Bulgaria or Romania).
I suppose that reputation is one side of a single coin – the coin being that Odessa is a “racey city”. More positively, Odessa is just cool. The people are cool. The streets are cool. The restaurants, cafes, shops and beach clubs are all cool. The markets are cool. The art and culture are cool. There is even a cool cathedral.
Open-air art gallery
The city was the brain-child of Prince Grigory Potemkin – the favourite lover of the Empress Catherine the Great back in the late eighteenth century. Although he was already dead by the time this trading port was properly founded, he is honoured as its creator in name and spirit. And he too was cool. As well as a bit edgy.
To that extent, Odessa well reflects the character of its father.
The "famous" Potemkin Steps
It is a big city and a lively trade port even now, but as a visitor the main area in which it is interesting to spend time is the old city. Here cobbled streets spread in a neat grid layout across a hill top that overlooks the Black Sea, lined with looming old elm trees, and on the main promenades terrace after shaded terrace of stylish cafes entice you in to take up residence in one of the comfortable-looking chairs for the afternoon. Some may think sipping your way through a couple of beers and watching the world go by is a waste of time; to others it amounts to an occupation. Certainly it is very Odessa.
Derybasovskaya Street, Odessa - land of the loafer
You may remember that in reaching Odessa, I’d pushed the distances as far as they could go, this being over 480km in two days. So after I’d climbed up into the centre of the Old City, I was mainly interested in finding the hostel I was aiming for, then eating voraciously and capaciously, and then falling asleep. After much uncomfortable bobbling on the cobblestones, I finally came to the address I was after, hidden away on a dimly-lit street that, like much of the city, was an architectural shadow of the glory days in which it was built. After I managed to get in the door I was confronted by five flights of stairs, all in darkness which I didn’t fancy negotiating with my fully-laden bicycle.
Instead I locked up the bike and lumbered up the echoing wooden stairs with legs heavy with lactic acid (and fatigue). On the top floor, again darkness. No big bright sign saying “TIU Hostel – Welcome – Come in and Rest Your Weary Bones”. Instead a small intercom that rather invasively triggered a spotlight on your face at the same time as you pushed the button so whoever was inside could see your face. After a few moments, the door opened to reveal a man standing almost 6 and a half feet tall. He was bald, with an aggressively cut goatee and hulking shoulders, wearing a kind of weight-lifters vest. He just stared at me poisonously.
I stood there trying to look like what I was – a very tired traveller. (Not hard to do.)
“Yes. What do you want?” he asked in a deep Australian snarl.
(Evidently this man had not attended Lesson 1 in his Diploma in Hostelry Management: “On Courtesy”.)
I was about to say, “Isn’t it bleedin’ obvious what I want?” when it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I’d got the wrong floor, and had inadvertently knocked on the door of some Antipodean Sado-Masochist Speak-easy Club. I couldn’t say for certain that he didn’t have a whip in the hand that was still concealed by the door. Anything is possible in Odessa after all. He certainly looked the part.
Backing away slightly, I said, “This is a hostel isn’t it?”
“We’re full. No beds.”
“Errr…..well can you recommend anywhere else?”
“Well, you can try The Magic Bus across the park. Hretska Street.”
“Can you show me on this map?”
“Right around there. Like I said, across the park.” The door closes.
After this false start I did eventually identify the “Magic Bus” – a bizarre hostel on the top floor of an old building in the heart of Odessa’s old town, with spiral staircases, fractured mirrors everywhere, overcrowded and noisy bedrooms, mildly poisoned by unconstrained snores and inadvertent flatulence. But admittedly very friendly staff.
Nevertheless, I did meet some interesting fellow travellers there – Rory, an Englishman, Larissa a Russian, Junie an American and a couple of others.
Larissa and an American friend (whose name I have forgotten, sorry)
Because I’d seen “the sights” of Odessa before, I was happy to spend the couple of days I had there more or less replenishing my energy and hanging out in the town. The weather was bright and clear which made the whole place look pretty appealing. The cafes, the squares and parks, the avenues, the big old cathedral (recently given a pretty remarkable face-life - not an uncommon occurrence in post-atheist Eastern Europe) and the older section of the city – the opera house, Museum of Archaeology, town hall and so on. All stand in impressive 18th and 19th century style, painted in light blues and yellows and pinks giving the general effect of feeling like you were wandering around in a watercolour painting.
A replica statue of Laocoon and his son getting eaten by a sea serpent,
I think the original is in the Vatican Museum.
For the simple sake of recorded accuracy, one (meaning “I”) would have to say the best looking women – from Hong Kong to England - inhabit this city. This seems to be a consensus view – according to menfolk from as far away as Tashkent all the way through into Western Europe. Or if not Odessa specifically, at least Ukrainian women in general. Perhaps this arises from a unique confluence of very many different ethnicities meeting in Ukraine. Slavic, Russian, Jewish, Turkish blood, Greek, Polish, Romanian, even Swedish communities have settled in this part of the world in large numbers. And of course, the Mongols came through here, with a significant Tartar community still existing not far away in the Crimea.
Be all that as it may – a genetic analysis of beauty slightly misses the point – if the high incidence of beautiful women could be termed a “resource” of the Ukraine (which it of course shouldn’t be), it is one that has been exploited in very poisonous ways. As I mentioned earlier, organised crime in this area is heavily involved in trafficking young women to the west from Odessa (and further afield) for the sex industry. But then at a lower level there are “Ukrainian mail order bride” websites, brothels, exclusive business strip clubs, heaving dance clubs, beach clubs, bars, cafes. Clearly there is a line in their somewhere, but where it lies seems to be hard to pin down. Consent, power, money, sex, alcohol, fun, permissiveness, exploitation, liberality, prudery all come together in a big amorphous mass and create a cloud of uncertainty – with clear exploitation and criminality on one side of the cloud, but harmless and quite natural attraction between people on the other. Yet what a forest of questions lies in between.
I don’t suppose there are many of us who haven’t got lost in the cloud at some point, so l’ll just leave the questions hanging in the air and move on.
As an observer, one could simply say, “the sun is shining, and there goes another pretty girl. This is Odessa.”
End of story.
With nothing of great note occurring in Odessa, other than simply enjoying myself and the company of some of the people I met in the hostel, I was never the less a bit sorry to take off two days later. This was necessitated by my need to stay on schedule to meet my brothers and other friends in Vienna in the last week of September.
I had learnt in the Crimea that the Republic of Moldova no longer required an entry visa for EU citizens, as it had 5 years earlier when I was last in the area. So looking at a map, my most direct route to the western “back-door” of Ukraine into the EU was straight across this little country.
I set out from Odessa on a greyish morning, with that slight pang in my heart of leaving somewhere I liked.
Leaving, leaving – always leaving…
After a couple of hours, I found the rather inconspicuous border crossing from Ukraine into Moldova. Immediately, as I passed through the first small villages, it felt like these were poorer communities. I guess in the hinterlands of little Moldova, what more would you expect?
Crossing the Dniester River,
the little Republic of Transnistria is on the right hand bank.
In the middle of the afternoon I hit the road that would take me due north to the capital of Chisinau (pronounced “Kee-sha-now”). It was more or less straight and lined with walnut trees, which at relatively frequent intervals were being clobbered by locals with a big stick, a sheet laid out underneath to collect any falling nuts. The Moldovans collect and sell the nuts, using them for eating (obviously) but also for making vodka (less obvious).
The road to Chisinau, Moldova
The road stretched off, and I pushed on. But frankly I was bored. My mind was reduced to counting twenties again. One to twenty, over and over till I wondered whether today was the day I would finally go mad.
To break up the day, I decided to stop and have a decent lunch at the next likely looking place, which took a while to come. In the end, it was a gas station, and as I leant my bike against the wall, I noticed another touring bike leant against the abutting wall. I went inside the shop expecting to see someone kitted out in a similar fashion to me, and hoping they wouldn’t be weird. But nothing. No one.
I came out again and this time made another couple of steps around the corner and was confronted by a second bike, and two men slumped down against the side wall, looking very relaxed and enjoying a beer.
It turned out that these two – Florian and Marco – were from Switzerland, and drawing to the end of a 5,000km tour of eastern Europe. The beer was to celebrate passing the 5,000km mark. They explained that they were having a very tedious day, having tried to cross into Moldova from Ukraine across the break-away republic of TransNistria, squashed between the eastern side of Moldova and Ukraine. (A break-away republic of a break-away republic. Very post-Soviet.) Apparently the border guards had barred their way since Florian and Marco weren’t prepared to pay a fairly hefty bribe to get themselves across as cyclists – a big no-no for foreign types. So they’d had to turn south and do a 100km detour to loop round into Moldova via another crossing.
Florian and Marco
We hit it off immediately, and I was very happy to have some company in the light of the monotony I had been feeling that day.
They were old friends from their home in Lausanne, Switzerland. Florian the smaller and darker of the two was training to be an environmental engineer, while Marco, who was taller and thin with a face never far away from a smile, was training to be a lawyer - a wonderful profession from which I tried to steer him well clear, to no avail. Yet clearly I had stepped into a high level of banter between the two of them, forged by the experience of 5,000km on the road together, which was a lot more fun than counting to 20 ad nauseam.
Anyway, we didn’t get much further that night and ended up staying in a pretty basic hotel in the next town – a run down and sorry looking place, before moving on in the early morning rain the next day to close out the 70 odd kilometres to Chisinau.
This was where Marco was going to finish his tour. So he was excited to reach this contained little city – just….since his rear wheel was in the process of a steady but sure collapse, even as we rounded out the last few kilometres into town.
It's always good to reach "the big sign" which means you've arrived.
First impressions of Chisinau were not especially favourable. The dreary weather didn’t help, but eventually we got installed in a hostel, cleaned up, put on a change of clothes and went to have a look around. Slowly we managed to undercover some more appealing parts of the capital and by the time we left we all quite liked the place. The main street, named after the big historical figure of Moldova, King Stefan the Great, is tree-lined and quite busy. It starts a little shabbily but soon becomes a bit more presentable with concert halls, parks, restaurants, and then the Parliament and cathedral and open squares, all taking over from food stalls, the bus station and office blocks.
Boulevard Stefan cel Mare si Sfint, Chisinau
We had arranged to meet up with a bright and attractive girl called Olga, through a community called “Couch-Surfing”. If you’ve never heard of this, it is an online network (as if we need another one!) based on the concept of connecting people willing to host or meet up, with travellers in their home city. This might mean offering accommodation for the night or simply a willingness to meet and have a chat. People had recommended to me that I join this as far back as China, but especially as I moved into Europe as it can save a lot of money on hostel or hotel bills and gives you the opportunity to meet local people who’ll tell you about the city you’re visiting.
Having now used this a handful of times, I actually think it is a great concept (although it hasn’t saved me a penny). I’ve had entirely positive experiences through meeting people. They’ve all been friendly, open and interesting. Not to mention encouraging about what I was doing.
Olga was no different – even though she was the first person I had contacted through Couch-Surfing. An accountant in her mid-twenties she was full of energy and enthusiasm for life, and determined that one day she would leave Moldova and seek her fortunes further afield (starting with Switzerland and then Canada if I remember right.) She took the three of us out to a local restaurant offering Moldovan cuisine with her friend Yulia, before moving us on to a “genuine” Chisinau nightclub. Between her and Yulia, more or less all my questions about the city and Moldovan culture were answered, though the actual answers are only rather indistinct in my memory. I blame the late night.
Olga leading the way into a club called "Booze Time"
(aptly named it turned out)
The following day passed without much accomplished. Marko wanted to fix up his bike and donate it to a suitably needy recipient which Yulia, through her contacts, soon found. This was a sixteen year old whose parents had died, and who lived with his grandmother. She thought that would be a good home for the bike that had served Marko so well, and so the meeting was set up. It was a strange little affair, in which the boy arrived, we took lots of pictures of Marko saying goodbye to his bike. Then the kid said thank you a few times and just pedalled away up the hill.
The hand-over - bye bye bicycle!
It was funny watching Marko because he obviously felt a little sad to watch his bike disappear up the road. After the distance he’d ridden on it, and spent all that time worrying about looking after it, he was just releasing it “into the world”. I could easily imagine I would feel a bit of a tug on my heart strings to see the same happen to my bike after all we’ve been through.
More than a tug in fact.
Anyway, having enjoyed plenty of the Moldovan wine (and beer) and food, we spent a relaxed evening and got an early night as in the morning Florian and I would take off north towards western Ukraine, and Marko would catch an early bus into the hills of Romania to visit some friends on his way back to Switzerland overland.
Although I was delighted to have Florian as a cycling partner, I was pretty unmotivated to get going that morning. Or at least my body was. Everything felt heavy and slow and hard work. (This almost certainly had nothing to do with the quantities of alcohol we had consumed during our “rest days”.)
The road and landscape heading north to the Ukrainian border
As we headed north, the countryside seemed a bit less run down than the country to the south of the capital. It was spread about with vineyards, the producers of the “world-famous” Moldovan wines – the one local product on which most of the Moldovan economy stands.
Moldova is essentially an agricultural society – producing wine, maize, potatoes, nuts and a variety of vegetables, as well as some other cereals. But the landscape is mostly maize and vines.
One of the many colourful wells of the Moldovan countryside
With each village reached, we noticed a nice little feature that was in fact quite characteristic of villages throughout Moldova – the local well. These were all fully functioning classic draw-wells, the kind in which you expect to drop a penny and make a wish, or else see some demonic girl with long black hair crawl out of. They were often decorated quite elaborately and in a variety of designs. Apart from the quaint pleasure of drawing water from a beautiful round and brick-lined well, the water itself tasted, when fresh and still cool, absolutely delicious. Sweet and refreshing.
Florian filling up his bottles
And we needed it.
The landscape had been described as flat from Chisinau north, but for a cyclist, for whom every contour in the land is a personal discovery of toiling sweat on the uphills and giddy free-wheeling on the downhills, this was not flat. Western Uzbekistan is flat. This was undulating. But even a day of undulation can be exhausting. Especially with high proof blood.
I’m afraid by the evening I was pretty useless company for Florian. The classic “Brun” family trait of falling asleep at the dinner table came on strong, and I went cross-eyed trying to stay awake.
Nevertheless, after devouring a mountain of food in a little town about 150km north of Chisinau, we carried on in the dark for another 10km and set up our tents on the edge of a maize field – a peaceful night it turned out and very pleasant to wake up with the morning sun splintering through the tall stalks of maize and their tangle of leaves, the morning dew sparkling across the landscape till the sun’s warmth began to penetrate the earth. It took a while longer to penetrate our limbs.
The view from my tent after camping in a maize field outside Baltsi
We were aiming for 200km that day – taking us back into Ukraine to the university town of Chernivtsi. We gave ourselves a good chance of hitting this distance by setting out so early, and once my legs had warmed up to a level that could keep up with Florian (just), we were piling along pretty well.
Our progress slowed a bit late in the morning.
We both needed some more water. Since almost every village or town had one of these traditional wells at some point by the wayside, we agreed to stop and get a refill at the next one we came to. As we pulled up to that particular well, an aging women was just finishing up with filling up her buckets.
Immediately jolly, she turned and offered to fill our bottles for us which we gratefully allowed her to do. She then fussily began inviting us to come back to her house for a morning coffee. Before we’d consulted one another (which I suppose we should have) I had accepted, thinking it would be fun. (And never one to turn down the offer of a coffee.)
Settling into our coffee morning with Mother Maria
She shot off with her buckets chirping “follow me, follow me”. But she went so quick we lost her for a few moments till she re-appeared on the street and came and shooed us into her yard like a mother hen. We then had a very spoiling half hour or so sat down on her porch under the spreading arms of a big walnut tree in her garden, as she produced coffee, melon fritters (?), and a mountain of walnuts. At intervals, and depending on where the thread of the conversation led, she would disappear inside and re-emerge bearing her family photos, tourist maps of Greater Romania (of which Moldova used to be a part), bottles of wine, more photos and promotional leaflets for the best vineyards in Moldova.
Her instant affection for us was quite touching, especially when it was clear that her life had not been without its tragedies. She told us her husband had died around 15 years earlier in a building accident, and she had lost her only son (I think to an illness) when he was 21. She still had a daughter, but she lived with her husband in Ukraine. So this woman lived as a widow, all alone.
I knew we had to get on but she was obviously enjoying fussing over us so much, so we lingered for a good while. But Florian couldn’t understand what we were saying and I knew he’d be itching to keep moving, so eventually we stood up to say farewell – though not before she’d off-loaded nuts, fritters and a bottle of wine onto us (all welcome of course, especially this last).
The clucking continued as we packed these new provisions into our bags. At last, we were saying goodbye, and she absolutely began weeping at our departure – piping her eye, and saying “May God bless you, my little ones. Be safe on the road, my little children.”
All quite emotional for a Tuesday morning.
Finally released back onto the road, Florian began increasing the pace, and I was rueing the extra 20kg of bags I had. He’s clearly a good athlete: fitter, lighter, younger (argh!) and carrying less than me, and I was busting a gut to keep up. Why it took me so long to figure out I should be drafting immediately behind him I don’t know, but finally – with about 50km to go, as we crossed back into Ukraine - I took up a position behind his back wheel and hung on for dear life.
Florian free-wheeling down one of the last hills in Moldova
In this formation we hurtled along making pretty good time, but we weren’t going to beat the nightfall. Within the last 10km into Chernivtsi the road rather unsportingly kicked up into a couple of hills so we were both in a slather of sweat by the time we were rolling along the violently cobbled streets in the city centre. I was physically absolutely spent and arrived at the main square literally cross-eyed (as the pictures show).
200km later - cross-eyed with wind-blown curls, and utterly finished.....
That night and the next morning, I was suffering from a blinding headache, and a general inability to move around without feeling like my limbs were made of lead. I hesitated to suggest to Florian that we take a day off. Neither of us wanted this, but I was aware of feeling like an old handbrake to his progress. (With hindsight I can see that on all these days since Chisinau, I was experiencing the onset of a minor illness which was making cycling hard.)
I remembered how I’d kicked poor Kellen and Cory out of their cots in Uzbekistan, despite their food poisoning in order to cajole them on to Bukhara, so I knew it was only fair that I had to get up and get on the road myself.
We agreed to reel in our target destination to a town only 70km down the road – Kolomiya – a quiet but quite attractive town sitting at the feet of the Carpathian Mountains. I took up my position immediately behind Florian once more, and my whole existence was reduced to concentrating on his back tyre, and keeping my legs moving.
We stopped a couple of times for breaks, but these just made me feel worse and worse, to the point that I couldn’t really think or speak clearly. I just needed to lie down.
Eventually I hit on the genius solution of killing the headache with Panadol. Although I’d taken some earlier in the day, I figured a couple more couldn’t hurt. A double-dose of this and another 15km on the road, and I suddenly had one of those wonderful moments when you feel an illness passing. So much so that I beat Florian up the next hill.
Meanwhile the evening sunlight was quite incredible. Although the landscape was not exceptional something about the light was mesmerizing. I felt completely disorientated because the warm glow seemed like the dawnlight, even though it was 6pm. Everything was coloured like a bright dawn, not a lazy, hazy summer evening. I kept saying this to Florian, but he wasn’t getting it.
“Can you see what I mean?” I kept repeating, making not a great deal of sense.
Which makes me think it had something to do with the Panadol. Anyway, whatever was in those pills must be fantastic.
Our stay in Kolomiya passed without much incident, except that the bed and breakfast we stayed at was THE finest hospitality I received in the whole journey (called the House on the Corner). Never have I experienced a more obliging host, who did everything we needed without asking – extra portions of food, free laundry (dried and pressed), discounted prices for cyclists, put on a DVD in English etc. etc. It’s a shame that Kolomiya is a relatively low priority on the tourist trail in Ukraine, since the proprietors deserve to do good business with travellers considering how good their service is.
From Kolomiya, I had agreed to go with Florian as far north as the western city of Lviv. This is the second (or perhaps third) city of Ukraine, and a cultural and political centre for the most independent-minded western Ukrainians. These are the Ukrainians looking to take their lead more from the West, than from Russia. They are not ethnic Russians, but more often of Polish, Romanian, Slovak or even Hungarian descent, or else from a gaggle of smaller people groups that come from the Carpathian highlands, and the other western borderlands.
We’d heard Lviv is a city well worth a visit, and I was curious to take a look. Florian was on his way north to the Baltic States towards his final destination of Stockholm so his route naturally went that way. It was a slight deviation for me, but only really about 100km out of my way. I had the time so we went for it.
The Ukrainian countryside continued to be attractive and interesting. We passed over the grand river of the Dniester, a name that awoke dim memories of slightly turgid World War II texts about German forces advancing here, and Russian counter-offensives pushing them back there. This whole country was a turmoil of clashing ideologies at one time, yet the placid fields and quiet woods would never let on that this was so.
Crossing the River Dneister a second time
We stopped off for a feed as the light was dropping – and with it the temperature. About as basic as a café could get, the place we stopped was empty save for a gaggle of giggling women, and the husband of one of these lovelies. He was jealously slavering kisses all over his long-legged wife as their toddler ran around everyone’s legs making gormless grinagog faces (and his female overseers laugh).
Somehow the ice was broken – I think because I offered the kid some of my chips which he’d been staring at with saliva drooling from one corner of his mouth – which opened up the warmth of their hearts to us. Sometimes overwhelmingly so. Asked to take a picture of the little group with Florian, the poor guy was half-suffocated by the middle-aged bar woman as she enveloped him in her capacious bosom. Perhaps a little wickedly, I kept insisting “no we need another one!” as Florian squirmed under the woman’s attention.
Actually he looks quite happy in this shot...
Amusing as the scene was, we were planning on making a few more kilometres before camping (and bedtime).
However, as we got up to leave, heavy black clouds had meanwhile been gathering, and at last unleashed in a deluge I don’t think I’d yet experienced on my journey. Thunder claps and thick darkness swallowed up the rest of the evening light and I suggested we try to squeeze a roof over our heads for the night out of any of our new friends.
It turned out the most obliging was a young dark haired woman called Galya – she who apparently had been our chef for the evening. Certainly the woman with the easiest smile, and (from several of her comments) the dirtiest mind, she was altogether a fine representative of Ukrainian hospitality. Before too much longer, she had called her husband and cleared it with him to put up two wandering journeymen for the night.
His name was Miraslav. When we finally pulled up in the taxi with her at their home in a neighbouring village, I got the distinct impression, upon introductions, that he was thinking, “Why are these people in my house?”
However, I tried to warm him up a bit, and when he realised we could actually communicate quite freely with one another, he soon perked up. There then followed a true gem of unexpected and unplanned enjoyment, guests (and subject) to Galya’s quite relentless onslaught of hospitality, we progressed from trying Ukrainian beer, to wine, to vodka, to a kind of Ukrainian cognac – all courtesy of the unceasing industry of Miraslav’s mother we were told, who must be a veritable whirlwind of cottage craft. Accompanying our liquid refreshments were massive slabs of a kind of paté and a big chunk of fat, as well as pickled vegetables and rough cut chunks of black bread. Galya also produced a three litre jar of cherry juice which she called fruit compote. When we agreed it was very tasty she insisted we take this over-sized jar with us the next day. In fact, she’d begun making a pretty sizeable stockpile of goods for us to take which, through some firm negotiation, we managed to reduce to several chunks of fat, a slab of meat paste, a jar of preserved vegetables and a litre of compote. She seemed satisfied with this, but evidently would have been happy to continue to feed us for as long as we could take.
These people were not well-off. In fact they lived an extremely frugal existence which made their hospitality all the more remarkable (and appreciated). We parted company early the next morning as we cycled away in the drizzle – presumably Galya was wondering, as we were, whether we would ever see each other again.
...and here we are, entering Lviv.
That afternoon we reached the city of Lviv – a fascinating gem of architecture set in a surrounding tangle of light industry and mess of Soviet residential monstrosities. The old city is beautiful, and on a bright and warm sunny Saturday afternoon a delight to wander around, watching an interesting mix of Ukrainian city folk and tourist from all over the map whiling away the time in street cafes, rubber-necking the many statues and fountains, or crowding through the book fair that had come to town.
Strolling around the bright streets of Lviv
Florian needed his rear wheel fixed up before he continued on his way to the north, which took up a little of our half day off in the city, but also gave us cause to cover quite a lot of ground, wandering from address to address trying to find a repair shop that would help him.
Eventually we figured it out for him, just in time to catch an early evening performance at the Lviv Opera – a surprise treat for the princely sum of six dollars. We watched Carmina Burana by Carl Orff – an opera (or is it?) that neither of us had seen, which was good enough, and mercifully short. Florian overheard a fellow Switzer remark to his wife, “Huh, so we have to come all the way to Lviv to watch reasonably priced opera”. (Apparently tickets in Geneva don’t come for much less than EUR 200.)
The grand finale of Carmina Burana at the Lviv Opera House
That evening, we had a reasonably fun night out with some other travellers we’d met in our hostel, not all of whom could hold their drink. In one case at least this was self-inflicted. As the little company took to their seats in an underground bar, its walls adorned with paraphenalia left over from the War-time resistance movement, we ordered a round of beers, which one Australian decided to supplement with three shots of vodka. When these all arrived a few moments later, for reasons best known to himself, he put them all away one after the other. Within 20 minutes or so, this man was not making a great deal of sense – at least not to anyone but himself.
Nevertheless, he embarked on a rather worn-out debate (I gathered) with one of the girls in the group – in fact the only girl in the group, who had one of the most original female names I’ve ever heard – Löki (a name I've only ever heard connected with the old Norse god of mischief and all things naughty). Perhaps being as deliberately mischievous as her namesake, she argued that all men who come to travel round Ukraine are simply sex tourists (or at least potential sex tourists). The Australian of course vehemently denied this, supporting his view with many carefully reasoned syllogisms and examples. Still, his argument was somewhat undermined later in the evening when he demanded to know whether anyone would accompany him to a strip club.
Fortunately Florian and I had knobs to polish on our bicycles, so we made our excuses and escaped back to our hostel as he zigzagged off down the street. We went to sleep quietly in our dorm room, like the potential sex tourists that we were.
For all this, our half a day in Lviv was really just a taster of a city I am sure bares further investigation if ever there is an opportunity.
The bright colours of eastern Europe - who'd ha' thought it?
The following morning, Florian and I were to part company. Back to the solitary grindstone, I was sorry to see him go. It had been a great pleasure riding with him. He was such a relaxed companion, I don’t think we had a single misunderstanding the whole time we were together, except where sometimes I felt I was holding him up. But nothing had been said, and that was only because I was a bit sick.
Apart from adjusting back into solitude once more, my last two days in Ukraine were a cycling dream. From Lviv I cut south-west towards the Carpathian mountains and the far western city of Uzhgorod, the gateway into the European Union.
Early morning mist in the Carpathians
About 70km out of Lviv, the road plunges into thickening forests and begins a slow but steady climb up into some beautiful mountain country. It hops from village to village, where wooden churches with silver-topped kupals are surrounded by neat wooden chalets and cabins. The road carried me over shallow passes which sat at the foot of unmoving ski lifts, and past hotels that looked dull and empty with summer now over but the first snows not yet come.
The evening dew fell with the darkness as I pulled over next to the silhouette of a dramatic-looking crucifix, stood on the brow of a sharply cut skyline. As I hauled out my tent, my hands were already cold. “This is gonna be a chilly night,” I thought.
Indeed it was. This wasn’t helped by my laziness in erecting the tent without the waterproof flysheet. Not long after falling asleep I awoke to find a steady dripping of moisture from head to toe from my tent which had become saturated from the dew. A hasty midnight re-arrangement rectified the worst of this, but absolutely everything was wet and cold the next morning.
Pastoral scenes on the road to Uzhgorod
I got up before the sun had climbed above the eastward ridge and a mist still veiled everything in the little valley. With numb hands and just a few curses (sorry!) I packed everything up, leaving about five layers of clothing on my still freezing body.
But once I was rolling again, the ride was stunning. The Carpathian are not like the Alpes or Pyrenees. They are a mild-mannered jumble of peaks – more like a collection of hills than mountains (at least where I passed by). But in the dawnlight, as the landscape warmed into yet another glorious day, I was treated to wonderful vistas of deep green pastures and woodland, hayricks piled up in freshly cut meadows, sodden with the dew, and light scatterings of milking herds swaying their heads contentedly as they shuffled around the hillside.
My final kilometres in Ukraine, and some of the best riding
And it was mostly downhill – which helps.
So, a great morning.
The road eventually rounded out into lower and flatter country, and the final run-in to Uzhgorod was less poetical.
In Uzhgorod, I had arranged another Couch-Surf rendez-vous, this time with a local lawyer called Natalia. She brought along a friend called Xenia, and I had bumped into one of the other travellers I’d met in Lviv, an American named Patrick who came along, making up a table of four.
With Xenia, a new acquaintance, on the walls of the old castle in Uzhgorod
We had another good evening – quite low-key but fun nevertheless - during which I learnt that I need to change my signature. Natalia (amongst other things) is a self-styled interpreter of handwriting. While she had good things to say about my general hand, when I showed her my signature, this drew a knitted brow and an aspect of portentous foreboding. “Oooh, that isn’t good,” she winced.
Apparently the solution is simple enough – all I need do is finish my autograph with an upstroke and all with be well. If not, a wretched life beckons.
If only our destiny was that straight forward.
So that was it. I now stood at the very gates of the Ukrainian frontier. The next morning I was to cross a major frontier – into the European Union – and say goodbye to the Russian speaking world, at least for now.
The misty hills outside Uzhgorod
When one considers that from the moment I crossed the border from China into Kyrgyzstan on June 7 of this year, some three and a half months earlier, I had been able to communicate more or less freely in Russian right up until stepping foot into Slovakia, it is an arresting insight into the massive scale of the Russian and then Soviet empires that once were. From the Kyrgyz shepherd boy to the Carpathian lawyer, and everyone inbetween. Quite a transition.
All I can say, as one who has passed through these places, is that I hope my descriptions have blown away some of the mystery and obscurity of these countries for you. For a westerner, any cursory thought of Azerbaijan, or the Crimea, or western Ukraine, or south-east Georgia, or the Uzbek heartlands might conjure up images of bandits, dust, depravity, corruption, bland and depressing post-Soviet urban sprawls, poverty and mistrust; all amounting to one colossal scowl across the face of humanity.
These places are of course not like this. There is beauty, ingenuity, drama, humour, warmth, generosity, colour, prosperity, contentment, peace and industry. Frankly, what I have seen is a wonderful picture of humanity, albeit in fractured forms.
Maybe this simply reflects the naivety of the beholder – but that is certainly what he thinks he has beheld.
I am grateful to all the people I have encountered in these places for looking after me so well.
May they flourish, one and all.
Dusk on a Carpathian skyline
- Notes from the Road
- Join Me for the Ride!
- Press Articles & Clips
- Causes for your Support
- Voices in the East
- Distance Done
- Kit Inventory
- Maps of the Route
- Video Clips
- Norfolk Superheroes