We crossed the border from Poland on the main Krakow/Lviv road, but almost immediately turned south into the Carpathian mountains. We were rewarded with terrible raods and beautiful scenery. Initially there were some similarities with the neighbouring part of Poland: beautiful roadside shrines and grand churches, some Catholic, some Orthodox; cemetries where the graves are garlanded with plastic flowers and improbable looking haystacks. Ukrainian haystacks are a work of art. Of varying heights up to about fifteen feet, they are built around a single pole and resemble mushrooms. Some are propped from the outside and others sway precariously in the breeze. They look as though a strong gust of wind would topple them, but presumably it doesn’t.
There are many hangovers from the Soviet era including some of the hotels. Our first night was fine. We found a very nice ensuite room with hot water for about eight pounds. The next night we asked a taxi driver if he knew of somewhere we could stay. He took us to an apparently derelict building with goats grazing in the yard. We gathered from him that it was originally an Austrian army barracks (which would date it late 19th century we think) converted by the Soviets to a workers hostel and not improved since. Long drab echoing, high ceilinged corridors leading to bleak rooms. Ours was shabby but reasonably clean, but the squat communal toilets you would not want to linger in and the dimly lit washroom had a growling wood burning boiler with rusty pipes leading to open shower cubicles and two ancient, equally rusty bath tubs side by side.
That night we had a very good meal at a restaurant next to the central bus station. Outside a bus was slowly filling with people while the bus driver, taking his break at the next table to us, downed two large tumblers of vodka. When the bus was full he took his position at the front of the bus and drove off. Clearly his passengers were used to this.
We entered Ukraine with a certain amount of apprehension, mainly thanks to Ivan the paranoid Hungarian who we met in Krakow. He was concerned about all our plans for Ukraine. On the subject of wild camping, he advised an unused track deep in the forest hiding our bike reflectors lest they be seen “by those you don’t want to meet”. Roaming the land like zombies – presumably! Well Ivan we didn’t encounter and zombies. The only people we met in the forest were impoverished old women gathering a gourmet selection of wild mushrooms, sour cherries, raspberries and tiny, intensely flavoured wild strawberries, which they sold from wooden stools beside the road. We wanted to buy more, especially the mushrooms, but with nowhere to cook we had to be satisfied with forest berry jam, so good we ate a whole jar in on e opening.
The lowest demonimation banknote in Ukraine is one Hryvnia, worth about 8p. This is divided into 100 Kopeks so each Kopek is worth 0.08p. There is a shortage of this very small change and if a shop has no change, the cash draw sometimes has a compartment containing a selection of boiled sweets which are given instead. Presumably these sweets have some monetary value equivalent to the unavailable change. Maybe this has something to do with the splendid sets of gold and silver teeth in the mouths of people – especially the older generation.
As we moved further east and came out of the mountains the landscape and culture changed. Small scale strip farming made way for enormous agri-business fields of wheat, maize and and sunflowers. Gone were the elaborate roadside shrines, replaced by austere revolutionary monuments. At some point around Vinnitsia (one of the centres of the Orange revolution) we crossed an invisible line where people stopped speaking Ukrainian and started speaking Russian. Not that it makes a huge difference to us as our grasp of either language is frustratingly limited. When we tell people we are cycling to Odessa they reply “Ah Od-es-sa” stringing out the central syllable in a way that makes it sound like a location in a 1960s cold war spy film. In rural Ukraine very few people speak any English.
In a small town in central Ukraine we came across the Ivana Kupala festival. The origins of this festival seem to be a mid-summer celebration corrupted by Christianity and thus moved from the summer solstice to 7 July, the birthday of John the Baptist. It was a bit like a village fete starting with folk singing and dancing, followed by a huge bonfire and accompanied by balloon sellers, a candyfloss stall and a beer stand. The whole town turned out for it, most in their best clothes, especially the young girls who were wearing an astonishing assortment of frocks and preposterous heels. Apparently as the evening wears on, young couples jump over fires holding hands. If they can maintain their hold it is proof that their love will last. We didn’t see that. In fact most of the young people seemed to be in the bar/disco downstairs from our hotel more interested in eating and drinking in preparation for a night on the subterranean dance floor than jumping over hot coals.
Odessa which we have now reached is a massive contrast to rural Ukraine. It’s smart and cosmopolitan and is, in many ways, like a western European city. People are well dressed and we don’t feel we have the right clothes. But scratch beneath the surface as we did today when we sent a package back to the UK and echoes of the Soviet past are loud. It took nearly two hours, several forms and a minute examination of the contents as well as a mailbag cut to size and sewn on a treddle sewing machine while we waited. The package was finally tied with string and closed with a lead customs seal before we were directed to another counter to pay. Let’s hope it actually arrives.
Our three weeks traveling across Ukraine has been a mixed and surprising experience. Until Odessa we saw no other tourists. Even for the hardiest cyclist, the roads are difficult. The surfaces indicated by the maps have been unreliable. We have encountered some steep cobbled climbs and sections of unridable road. One road shown on the map became a tractor track and then a field – we had to turn back. Some hotels have been awful and some OK, the food has generally been excellent, the landscape beautiful and made more interesting by the constant reminders of the Soviet past. But shining through all of this is the people who are everywhere warm and welcoming. Everyday we fell into long incomprehensible conversations, no-one really understanding what was said but it never really mattered. We rode away feeling we had made some contact. There were many little acts of kindness such as the man who gave us home-grown tomatoes, bread and salt at a roadside tea stall and the woman who gave us some of her shashlik when she realised we were foreign. She insisted hers was the best shashlik as she too was a foreigner from Armenia.
We cannot recommend rural Ukraine to the casual traveler. You would have to really want to see a rapidly disappearing eastern European history to come here, but the difference in the major cities such as Odessa is proof that it is changing fast.
If Ukraine deserves anything it is better people running the country than have in the past and probably better than those they have now. (Guess we’d better leave quickly now).
We’d like to say a special thanks to Thomas Drane for being a fantastic source of up-to-the-minute information on the countries we are traveling through. It has made the trip so much easier having someone at home sending us useful stuff. Thanks Thomas.