You can eat the pear

You can eat the pear

People warn me all the time about official corruption in Ukraine.  I personally haven’t experienced this as I haven’t dealt with any Police.  Although what I will say is there are lots of signs of taking advantage of the “system”.  Often I don’t get receipts at stores for higher-end items (sports stuff), though merchandise has a price tag on it.  So the store probably reports less profit than they actually get and pay less tax.  Also a worker at a hostel I stayed at admitted she officially works at her Aunt’s business – but only two days a year – to claim some sort of minimum wage and pay less tax.  I don’t think I have that story completely straight, but the fact of the matter is there is distrust in the system that goes all the way down to the minimum-wage worker.  Lots of favors and gifts are exchanged.  I wonder how much Orbital has to pay as a “commission” to do business with Yuzhone to build the first stage of the Antares rocket.

There’s not a whole lot of rules if you’re willing to ignore them or pay to get around them.  I participated in this system on the night train from Odesa to Kyiv.  Alcohol is prohibited on the train, of course, but it was hard to turn down a cold beer from our cabinmate in the sauna of the train.  The AC doesn’t start until the train starts moving.  They were making jokes that the conductor probably took out the pump to fix his car.  After a few weeks in Ukraine, I realize that’s only slight hyperbole.  Anyway, our cabinmate wanted to drink more than a beer, so he left the cabin and returned five minutes later with a bottle of Cognac purchased from a train worker in our car.  Subsequently, another bottle of Cognac and mineral water were also acquired.  The experience was reminiscent of drinking in your college dorm room, making sure to not make too much noise to alert the resident assistant.

We learned that the acquirer was a railroad worker himself, he was the one that went to cargo cars (not on this train) and inspected the contents and stamped official documents certifying proper loading.  He told stories of shipping oil around the country – sometimes the tanks would be 10 tons heavier than the manifest, so he just sells it to the weigh station employees at a discount and pockets the money after giving a cut to his boss.  The cars are filled on a volume-basis, so a temperature compensation is applied to ensure the above issue doesn’t happen.  No problem, they adjust the volume based on the thermometer which is broken and reads -25C.

Fast forward a few hours and the acquirer couldn’t handle his alcohol and the other cabinmate and Boris were furiously whispering in Russian for him to calm down or we would get kicked off the train – with me giggling at the whole situation, fairly helpless as only Boris spoke English.  It’s a blessing and curse traveling with a native language speaker.

This happens in extreme economic stratification

This happens in economic stratification

Fuck it, park in the middle of the sidewalk

Screw it, park in the middle of the sidewalk

Food

I could eat Ukrainian food every day.  Traditional vereniki dumplings and borsh are delicious, simple and hearty.  Certainly my favorite cuisine on the trip so far.  While in Kyiv, Boris showed me some Russian drinking processes beyond the after-shot pickle!  Russians have a separate word for a solid chaser (coincidentally I don’t remember it) and a slice of pickled herring is the chaser of choice for good vodka.  We toasted to the past, the present, the future and some other time periods that slip from memory as we listen to an amazing Ukrainian band singing 1980’s Russian songs in a pub.

Pickled herring is used for more than aiding bourgeoisie intoxication – placed under a gelatinized beet salad it makes “Herring under a fur coat,” a tasty cold appetizer.  Another favorite is Kvas, a non-alcoholic fermented beverage.  I’m drinking it right now.  It tastes a little like a combination of root beer, stout beer and honey – absolutely the most refreshing drink on the planet.

Easy to feed myself in the city

Easy to feed myself in the city

Kyiv

I spent four days in Kyiv with Boris.  A nice city, as much as I like cities.  Time enough for me to move out, though.  Boris left for the airport this afternoon and I went to the train station to buy my overnight ticket back to Odesa where I hope my bike is still locked firmly to the hostel’s balcony.  I finally get to the front one of the forty cashier lines to buy my ticket – none left.  The cashier didn’t speak English well, the younger man behind me translated a bit.  He told me I could get the train next afternoon (8 hours, ugh.  At least it’s better than the night train which takes 12 hours and averages less than 40 km/h) or take a 5 hour bus which would be a little more expensive.  I decide to try my luck with the bus.  I find the one with Одеса in the front with a man smoking on a small stool outside the driver’s seat in the shade.  I go up and motion to my watch, attempting to ask when the bus leaves (I know the word “how much” in Russian so that’s usually the second question).  He seemed surprised that I asked and quickly understood that communication was impossible with an American and we walked around the front of the bus. Two skinsheads were sitting on the stairs, one playing with a flexible black object that looked like a cross between a baton and a dildo.  While I gawk, the smoker locates an English speaker in the bus – a third skinhead with some serious lightning tattoos.  The third was nice and said the smoker wasn’t the driver, but the smoker would call the driver, I just had to wait 10 minutes.  I said I’d be back in ten and decided the afternoon train was a good idea.

Ukraine especially is peppered with beautiful and moving WWII memorials

Ukraine especially is peppered with beautiful and moving WWII memorials

This guy in a swimsuit and ridiculous star shaped novelty sunglasses was paddling a homemade raft in the Dnipro river.  His paddles are fishing nets, which seem like the worst decision he made that day.  The river is huge and heavily trafficked so eventually somebody rowed out, towed him to shore (while he was helping by paddling his nets a little) and left.

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Some monuments are randomly in a very poor state of repair.

Some monuments are randomly in a very poor state of repair.

Tree fork cat

Tree fork cat

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A lone commercial satellite receiver on the top of a main building in the city center.

A lone commercial satellite receiver on the top of a main building in the city center.

Parallel parking skills

Parallel parking skills

Chernobyl Museum

Chernobyl Museum

Dog ladies

Dog babushka

I don't think the statue is supposed to be like this

I don’t think the statue is supposed to be like this

Beautiful Odesa sky

Odesa sky

Existential crisis in Kyiv

Existential crisis in Kyiv

Classic Ukraine.

Classic Ukraine.

Euroview

I didn’t know much about Europe before this trip.  One of the reasons I chose my route was to experience the continuity and discontinuity in culture within relatively short distances.

I’ve had the pleasure of talking to many European citizens in the past few months, mostly from Northern Europe.  Not one has said the Euro will last and all consider it a failed project.  Even the boder-softening has been met with criticism (though generally popular), mostly due to immigration from poor countries to richer countries.  I can only approach a comparison with the United States, and I think it really boils down to ethnic identity.  I suppose this is obvious in retrospect, but I never had time to think and experience the issue.

Only recently has the Eurozone allowed essentially free travel and work between countries, the majority of the population is still born, raised, educated and dies in the same country.  Strong national identity and more traditional family values keeps people near home.  While this is great in some respects, it’s easy to disconnect from other Eurozone members (especially if the Euro isn’t involved) and not really care about social issues in the country right next door.  The US is much more homogenous with a more-or-less unified national identity.  People in California care about the Midwest (as much as they like to think they don’t!) and the East Coast, and vice-versa.  Migration has been a common theme in America, and families are spread out.  For example, my family spans coast-to-coast – California to Washington DC.

Ukraine is still in a transition period from Soviet times. Cars on the roads range from old soviet pollution-spewing small cars mixed with the happy capitalist’s BMW or Lexus.  Customer service ranges from a bleak face and no words to happy smiling people.  It’s unclear to me which way the country will tip – accommodate a more Westernized culture or fall back on more traditional culture. Age seems to make little difference on the overall mentality.  It will be interesting to see what this area is like in 20 years and see which has taken hold.

An example of the “old” way of doing business is the ferry.  There’s a FAQ page on their site, one of the questions is if the ferry schedule and pricing is up to date.  Of course, the answer on the website is “yes”.  After inquiring a bit further about how to get tickets, I find that neither the schedule nor the pricing is up to date.  I communicate with a man with a Russian email address who types in all capital letters.  I must meet him in the ticket office at 11am on a Wednesday to pay for my ticket.  Then I bike down to Illicihvsk and board the ferry in the afternoon.  In the evening, cars get loaded, and the ship departs Thursday morning.  This information, which in Western culture would be put on the website for everyone’s peace-of-mind while planning out each little logistical detail, is simply non-existent.  It’s about knowing the right people.
Ukraine has a large economy, aided by it’s large geographic area.  This allows a certain freedom of the country – Westernized culture does not have to be adapted in order to survive.  Traveling by bicycle, I get to see a small part of the culture rarely seen by Westerners.  I see a lot of subsistance farming in the small towns and villages.  Families hoeing and tilling the ground with hand tools in small plots of land.  Maybe they produce enough goods to sell a little, but they’re certainly living on the edge.  While adopting a Western culture may make the country prosper economically, it’s hard to imagine what these people will do when the relative price of some goods goes from a splurge to impossible.

So I have about a week in the area before I embark on the ferry.  I think this is a good time to get off the bike and travel by train for a few days!

Odesa

I’ve completed the first phase of my trip!  It’s been 74 days and about 3500km since sleeping in the common area of Erica’s apartment in Gothenburg.

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Now, I wait for Boris and the ferry.  Odesa is a wonderful city, I think it’s my favorite so far.

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Plans Change

The past few days have been exciting and certainly feel different than the past few months.

I rode in to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, in the evening without a place to stay (par for the course).  I had the name and address of one hostel that was supposed to be good.  After slogging through heavy pollution from diesel vans, I arrive at the hostel – an abandoned building.  No mistaking it, this was the address.  OK, no internet access, let’s see if the GPS knows where a hostel is.  Success!  A familiar name of a hostel appears on the GPS, only 1.5km away.  I hurry over, now fully dark, place myself near the marker on the screen and find – nothing.  No signs, all vacant buildings outside town.  OK, now time to shadily look for free wifi downtown.  Tourers look strange without having a laptop pulled out and eyes pinned to the screen.  I find “Funky” hostel, another 1.5km away but seems like the best bet.  This is the entrance, I almost missed it in the night:

Almost missed this guy

Almost missed this guy

Funky turned out to be a good bet – inexpensive, good bike storage and one floor.  Lazy time in Chisinau, perfect.  Anna and I met and made ourselves a BIG picnic in one of the many parks in the city.

BIG PICNIC with Anna

Tension in Moldova.  This graffiti said "Moldova is Romana" as a significant portion of the population identify as Romani.

Tension in Moldova. This graffiti said “Moldova is Romana” as a significant portion of the population identify as Romani.

I ended up missing my morning window to leave Chisinau on Friday, so I left around 6:30 and found this awesome campsite about 20km out from the city near sundown:

Moldova

Moldova

I woke up with vigor and quickly rode East.  I was careful to not ride too far East – there is a Russian/Ukrainian breakaway region called Transnistra sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine.  The region isn’t recognized by anyone, really, but “border control” is notorius for extorting bribes from travelers.  The border of Moldova/Transnistra is the Nistru river (or so I thought!), so the plan was to head South at a border city on the river and cross into Ukraine directly.  About 2 km away from the border city, I see a roadblock – great.  Ahead, I see another roadblock with camouflage netting over something.  I guess the border isn’t the Nistru.  The revolting idea of turning back combined with my ex-Soviet curiosity got the better of my ethics and I decided to go for it.  The border crossing was fairly uneventful, being taken to the back room and asked for a 68 lei (~$5) transit visa.  That was already low compared to what some people were saying they were initially asked to pay ($80!) so I fished out a few dollars from my pack and gave it to the gard (after he repeaditly said it was “impossible” to travel through the region without a Moldovian exit stamp) and all was well after a brief sigh.  Of course, they don’t actually stamp your passport because the country doesn’t internationally exist.

I head to the capital city, only 20km from the border.  The internet says it is like stepping into Soviet times, though reality is much more  mundane.  Everything is hyped.  Old Soviet avaunt-garde monuments and the hammer and sickle appear occasionally.  The culture is essentially Russian – language and food.  I order an apple juice beer borsh dumplings pork-crepe-roll and a meat patty for about $4 – delicious.  It’s brutally hot in the diner at noon and I’m sweating while eating.  Other people seem to be doing fine.  I have another seven hours in this melting city until I can even think of getting on my bike again.

I get some ice-cream from a vendor and start eating it near the bridge in the shade.  A man, about my age, and his girlfriend approach me and say “Hello”.  He was a technician at Siemens (didn’t know they exist in Transnistra) and learned English for his job.  He and his girlfriend were really interested in my bike and traveling, they wanted to travel the world together.  I remember him saying that as citizens of Transnistra they have automatic Russian citizenship “because Moldova is not so good,” I’ll have to see if this is true.  As much as I don’t like all the stares my bike attracts, it’s just about the best icebreaker a guy can have!

Waiting outside an empty bar in the shade, a young waiter comes up an offers me free soup. It’s hard to think of eating hot soup in this weather, but the food is good here and I have nothing to do.  I accept and notice the entire bar staff of about 5 or 6 people watching me.  After I finish the soup, I walk over to them and introduce myself – they were genuinely interested in my travels through the region and a mix of gestures, common words and an ipad translation program makes communication slow but possible!  They ask if Russian culture is on US TV.  I say not very much, but I do have a Russian friend who showed me how Russians drink vodka – with a pickle!  They all nod and laugh, then one goes in the back and comes out with a pickle – carved out into a shot glass!  I tell them that’s one step above what I learned.

The border crossing to Ukraine was uneventful, though I don’t have a Moldovian exit stamp since I went through Transitia. My exchange with the Ukrainian border guard was simple:

Guard: “Odessa?”
Me: *nods*

My campsite last night was one of the sketchiest yet. I was in a “field” in the middle of a bunch of houses. I was a little scared of being seen and bothered, but an approaching storm gave me a little comfort. There was a bar on the beach blaring dance music when I went to bed and I could still hear it when I woke up at 4. My route to the main road took me by the bar and I heard Christian Rock … weird.

The secondary roads here are terrible for biking. In my 2km journey back to the main road, I ran into two barking dogs who started to chase me. I had to get off my bike and stamp my feet and yell, eventually they moved away as I slowly walked my bike past. Already frustrated at 5:30, I see a man in the road with his arm straight at a 45 degree angle to the ground, the hitchhiking sign. He was staggering and I could see it was taking a lot of his energy just to stand straight. He saw me and moved into the passable part of the road – I was going too fast to slow down and go over the potholes, so I try to bike past him. He grabs my arm which I brush off quickly thanks to the 100kg of mass with me. It jostled me a little and when I came to my senses about 10 seconds later, I hear a pat-pat-pat. I look behind my left shoulder and see him RUNNING AFTER ME BAREFOOT! What the hell? I yell something and go faster. This is why you don’t take secondary roads in Ukraine.

Nearly full moon over my campsite

Nearly full moon over my campsite

Soviet Modern Art

Soviet Modern Art. I met a Moldovian couple riding their road bikes to Odessa from Chisinau (~150km) to go for a swim.

The Soviet Star

The Soviet Star

The no-parking signs are wooden beachfront blockades!

The no-parking signs are wooden beachfront blockades! Though the “armed military” is a misnomer … they’re only carrying canteens that I can see.

Flag in Transnistria

Flag in Transnistria

Perfect way to use your mobile

Perfect way to use your mobile

Hollowed out pickle shot!

Hollowed out pickle shot! This is what happens during Siesta

CCCP

CCCP in Transnistria

Road to Odessa.  Flat and boring.

Road to Odessa. Flat and boring.

Backwards view

Backwards view

These drive-on's are all over Ukraine.  Not sure what they're supposed to be used for, but I often find people fixing their cars on them.  Many, many broken down cars here but somehow the drivers know how to fix them and keep on going.

These drive-on’s are all over Ukraine. Not sure what they’re supposed to be used for, but I often find people fixing their cars on them. Many, many broken down cars here but somehow the drivers know how to fix them and keep on going.

Intensity

Intensity

Creepy garden-monster on the way into Odessa

Creepy garden-monster on the way into Odessa

To Chisinau

Yesterday while waiting for the sun to go down, I realized in what a strange situation I was in.  Sitting outside in early evening with a beer and big bottle of water, on the outskirts of a town in Moldova.  I didn’t know the language, I look strange (even for an American), and I don’t know where I will sleep that night.  I attract locked stares from everyone and occasionally the happy gypsy smiling with shiny gold teeth interspersed with teeth less shiny.  Yet I don’t really think twice about it; I’m in the zone.

It’s hot in the afternoon, dripping like a candle in 15 minutes if I’m not careful about the sun.  I start my long siesta at 11 and finish at 6 when the sun’s gaze is slanted enough to slip through undetected.  It’s nearly the summer solstice, so the light works in my favor – sunset is around 9 with good light until after 10.  I wake up at 4:30 with the help of cold instant coffee precisely placed in my tent the night before, eat some fruit bread jam and get on the road.

The gypsy houses in Soroca are ominous.  The vast majority are all in the same state – partially built and abandoned.  I can see their vision was lavish and large, but something stopped all of the builders in their tracks.  Some people live in the yard in shacks; in the shadow.

Lots of these shallow wells.  I was VERY tempted to drink from these in the heat of the day.  I spoke with the hostel worker looked at me strange and he said they were for horses only.

Lots of these shallow wells. I was VERY tempted to drink from these in the heat of the day. I spoke with the hostel worker if people drink from these looked at me strange and he said they were for horses only.

Regardless, they're still good for wash-water.  There's a hole in the bucket, but nothing a reusable zip-tie won't fix

Regardless, they’re still good for wash-water. There’s a hole in the bucket, but nothing a reusable zip-tie won’t fix

Campsite.  I chose the 'distance' option instead of stealth this day.

Campsite. I chose the ‘distance’ option instead of stealth this day.

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Gypsy houses in Sorcora

Gypsy houses in Sorcora

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Classic Moldova

Classic Moldova

Siesta grounds, day 1.  Always have to dry out my tent from the night rain.

Siesta grounds, day 1. Always have to dry out my tent from the night rain.

Sunset in an orchard

Sunset in an orchard.  I usually get to my campsite and stand there stupefied for several minutes before I even take my bags off my bike.  I have to shift to the mechanical process of setting up camp, but my body and mind are used to biking.

Another stamp in the passport

Biking slowly in Southern Ukraine is pretty nice.  Good landscape, very light and courteous traffic.  Hard to make a wrong turn because there’s only one road!  I crossed an intersection to get a better look at a raised platform, ostensibly there for a better view of the countryside. Before I got to the platform, a big van pulls up with two guys.  They look at me and yell “Ternopil,” the name of a city about 150km North West from where I was.

I pull up close to the passenger side and pull out my map and show them how to get to Ternopil; take this road, then North on the highway.  While I was explaining this to the passenger, I look up and see the driver tapping on a dash-mounted GPS device, pointing the way.  Strange.  I ask the driver if he’s vacationing, as he spoke a little English.  He pointed to the back of the van, promptly the side door opened to reveal an entire family – about 10 people!  There was an older man, clearly the head of the family, who spoke good English and explained they were gypsies from Moldova.  Immediately I was a little more tense – knowing the European sentiment towards the gypsies – but the van in decent condition, GPS, and the fact that they were traveling from their home country made me think this was more or less safe.  Apparently interested in my nomadic lifestyle, the old man smiles and asks me many questions.  The passenger offers a shot of apple liquor – this happens so often – and some crackers, both of which I take gracefully.  The kids pile out and hop on my bike (something that I am used to someone asking permission for!) and the adults take pictures of us.  Then I notice about six cars lined up behind the stopped van – I thought we were blocking traffic, until I realized this was the old man’s gypsy caravan!  I tell him he is doing well for himself to have such a large family and group of friends.  We say our goodbyes.

In retrospect, it was strange they asked for directions with a GPS device.  I should also practice a bit more caution when a van asks for directions, but in this case it was a good experience.  I am getting pulled in different directions!

Anyway, the raised platform turned out to be not much more than a re-purposed garbage receptacle.  Bah.

Lots of 1941-1944 monuments in Ukraine and Moldova.  The German offensive took the lands from the Soviets in 1941 who retook the areas in 1944 or 1945.

Lots of 1941-1944 monuments in Ukraine and Moldova. The German offensive took the lands from the Soviets in 1941 who retook the areas in 1944 or 1945.

Ukrainian people aren’t known to be very friendly.  People don’t smile much here and customer service is terrible.  Maybe Moldava is friendlier?  I take a look at my map – whoops – the route I had planned dips a bit into Moldova! How did this happen?  I double check the map – yes – the highway crosses the border and then returns to Ukraine.  I’m surprised at myself for missing this, as I had no plan to go to Moldova, but it’s either go ahead or turn around.  The turn around option is never appealing and actually looks like a pretty bad plan.  Bolstered by a good Moldovian experience and spirit of adventure, I rethread my mind to travel through the country.

 

Shallow wells are abundant - every few hundred meters (!).  Even in cities.  I guess this is where locals get their water, though I never see anyone gathering water from them.

Shallow wells are abundant – every few hundred meters (!). Even in cities. I guess this is where locals get their water, though I never see anyone gathering water from them.

Greetings from Briceni!  Today is a day off the saddle.  No suspension + no springs on my saddle + Ukrainian roads is painful to the butt.  I don’t recommend a non-suspension Brooks saddle in this instance.

Crossing the border was fantastically uneventful.  After passing through a ridiculously dolled-up Ukrainian military border guard, I hand my passport over to a woman behind the Ukrainian booth.  After she left and returned about three times with different stamping devices in her hand, I get my passport returned.  One would expect at least the border crossing area to be fairly nice, which was not the case.  Piles of dirt in the middle of the pedestrian path, bee nests in the corners of the buildings and stray dogs seem a bit strange to me at such an official location.

Thanks for visiting Ukraine.

Wild camping pull-off about 25km from the Moldova border in Ukraine.  I was almost observed by a cow herder in the morning.

Wild camping pull-off about 25km from the Moldova border in Ukraine. I was almost observed by a cow herder in the morning.

Sudden rainstorm

Sudden rainstorm in Moldova

When I get a hotel room, I TAKE OVER

When I get a hotel room, I TAKE OVER

Lenin.  The Communist Party of Moldova occupies 42% of parliament, making it majority.  The party has been losing momentum since 2001 to various liberal democrat groups.

Lenin. The Communist Party of Moldova occupies 42% of parliament, making it majority. The party has been losing momentum since 2001 to various liberal democrat groups.

As I was walking to get groceries, fearful that everything would be closed tomorrow (Sunday), a beater grey station wagon with two guys pulls up in front of me.  I look the part of a tourist – high wool socks, shorts, strange yellow handbag – so it’s not surprising I get singled out a bit.  He asks me if I’m a tourist – I cautiously say yes, a little weary after my gypsy experience.  He then asks to see my passport because he is police!  I find this really hard to believe, so I ask him for his identification first.  He says “of course” and whips out his wallet.  Sure enough, it does look like he’s a police officer – or best I can tell – what the hell?  He looks at my photo page of my passport (not even this visa sections) and asks me where I’m going.  “Odessa.”  Ahh, OK “good luck!”.  Strange experience.

The Ukranian Experience

I was going to write a fairly scathing commentary on Ukraine cities and infrastructure, but typing this post in the very nice city of Kam’yanets Podil’s’kyi is making me withhold judgement for a while longer.  Still on the road to Odesa.

Where are the homeless in L'viv?

Where are the homeless in L’viv?

Wild camping here is easy.  Plenty of nice spaces to get yourself out of sight.  Often other people have the same idea as you and campfire remains are in the area.  It’s hot – 31 C, sunny and buggy.

Riverside campsite

Riverside campsite

 

Classic Ukraine.  Reminds me a lot of South-Western Wisconsin.

Classic Ukraine. Reminds me a lot of South-Western Wisconsin.

My water-rule is simple: don’t drink from the source unless you see others doing it.  This one looks particularly unsuitable for drinking, even if it does have an “official” road sign.

Well

Well

Well depth measured in centimeters....

Well depth measured in centimeters….

 

The countryside is speckled with monuments.  It looks like this one is to the Cosmonauts.

The countryside is speckled with monuments. It looks like this one is to the Cosmonauts.

Up close

Up close

Good bridge across the Dnister

Good bridge across the Dnister

I want to kayak this river

I want to kayak this river

Even fairly small cities have elaborate entrance signs.  Most of them look very Soviet-Industrial, with gears, cogs and interesting mechanical geometry.  Others appear to extol the virtues of grain production.

On the road

On the road, crossing into a new state (Oblast)

Orthodox Churches look like ornaments.  Beautiful Russian blue.

Orthodox Churches look like ornaments. Beautiful Russian blue.

The centerpiece of this city is the well-preserved castle in the West.  It covers a huge area and the walls lead you to the city center.  There were two traffic police (DPA) here who seemed to stop every third vehicle or so.  They would hand over registration, occasionally the driver would get out of the car with the policeman and go somewhere…perhaps some shady business going on here.  They would come back in a few minutes and the driver would leave.

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She caught me!  It's strange taking pictures of people.

She caught me! It’s strange taking pictures of people.

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Ukrainian market.  Everything a supermarket has in a more spread out, chaotic and unsanitary way!

Ukrainian market. Everything a supermarket has in a more spread out, chaotic and unsanitary way!

Play time!

Play time!

Gorgeous street art

Gorgeous street art

Соломон

Over the Carpathians

The roads here would make a Civil Engineer wake up in a cold sweat.  The Carpathian mountains are a pretty easy climb if you can handle the potholes.

I met some jolly Slovakians in the mountains.  Of course we passed a bottle of vodka around until it was gone.

I met a group of jolly Slovakians in the mountains. Of course we passed a bottle of vodka around until it was gone.

Cows and old cars

Cows and old cars

Big city in the Carpathians

Big city in the Carpathians

More Soviet monuments.  They all kind of look the same.

More Soviet monuments. They all kind of look the same.

Secondary roads.  These are terrible.

Secondary roads. These are terrible.

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In L'viv

In L’viv

They DO kind of look the same!

They DO kind of look the same!

 

Triple Point

It’s been an eventful few days and I’m officially out of the EU.  My original plan to get to Ukraine, starting in Vinianska stráň in Slovakia, was to bike a short distance to a large intersection and hitchhike across the border.  This is not as crazy as it sounds – there’s only a few border crossings between Slovakia and Ukraine, and the major one is only open for cars.  Another border crossing, passable on my bike, was available about 30km North.  The hitch here was once I crossed, I would have no other options than to bike on a large Ukraine highway 30km to Uzhherod, not a feat I was willing to try on my first day.  In retrospect, this may have been the fastest option, though.

Nonchalantly bumming around a gas station in Sombrance, I strike up a conversation with two guys about my age.  One of them speaks English….I ask him about the border crossing.  He wasn’t going that way, also it can take many hours for a car to get through.  He told me about an “unmarked” border crossing about 25km South that I could pass on foot or bike, but not on car.  This was a little suspicious to me, but plausible as my map which shows border crossings is technically an “automap” for cars…thus may not show foot crossings.  After an impatient 30 minutes of waiting at the gas station, I started to think the chances of:

  1. Finding an English speaker
  2. That is going to Ukraine
  3. That can take my bike

would be fairly slim.  Deciding to be a man of action on a beautiful sunny day on flat terrain, I bike South to investigate the border crossing.  I arrive around 1:30, there’s a small line of people and border guards and Cyrillic letters and it all looks pretty legit!  I bring my bike up to the guard and hand my passport over.

“American!  Ha!” – I get this a lot

The guard, along with five of his other buddies, gather around.  They tell me, in good English, that this is a Domestic crossing only – whatever that means – and couldn’t let me pass through.  Damn — now what to do?  They inform me of a train which crosses the border which runs twice daily…it’s only 25km further South.  I decide to go Train-Or-Bust and get my butt into high gear.  I stop momentarily to check the train schedule, which I could only find for the Ukraine side.  Looks like the day-train arrives at 4:00 in Chop.  I figure the train could only take 20 minutes to cross (it’s a huge 5km train ride!!!) so kept pedaling hard to Čierna nad Tisou train station.

I arrive to find the train left over an hour ago.  I took a few wrong turns on the way so I was a little late to begin with, arriving at 3:00.  I didn’t realize the train takes more like 45 minutes to cross the border and a time zone difference!  So I’m sitting in this old Soviet-era train station at the triple point – the border of Slovakia, Hungary and Ukraine.  I’m alone, but shortly after munching on a few snacks a man about my age hops off the train with a backpack.  I strike up a conversation; a man from Austria visiting his girlfriend in Kiev.  He tells me about his PhD program, traveling in Central Asia, and places to visit in Ukraine.  Somewhere in the conversation camping gets brought up and he recommended that I don’t camp next to the EU-Ukraine border, as there are some people trying to illegally get into the EU.  I never really thought about this, but it seemed like excellent advice.  After another 30 minutes of talking, we say goodbye.  He gets on a train to Bratislava and I get on my bike to find a hotel.

Čierna nad Tisou Station

Čierna nad Tisou Station

More happy peasant artwork

More happy peasant artwork

There’s not much tourism around the triple point – so not a hotel in sight.  Three towns and 20km later, I stop in a convenience store (luckily open on Sunday!) and buy water, bananas and oranges.  I motion to the woman at the store that I’m looking for a place to stay.  Suddenly three people arrive and all start talking furiously…of course I can’t understand any of it.  The woman makes a phone call and writes down an address (10 Mal’e Trakany).  It’s only a few kilometers away and it’s my best shot, so I thank the people and get in the saddle.  I eventually find the house which is not necessarily a straightforward task as the numbering scheme is inconsistent.  Gate is locked, nobody home.  No signs that this is a place to sleep, it just looks like somebody’s house.  I’m getting desperate so I wave down the neighbor, show him the slip of paper with the address, and motion that I want to sleep.  He slowly gets up and walks me over to another house where a woman makes a phone call.  After a few minutes, a car pulls up in front of the house!  An older man (Baila) and a woman my age (Galambos) hop out.  Galambos speaks very good English….and yes, I can stay at the house for a night!

Kitchen of the guest house

Kitchen of the guest house

I stayed in the loft

I stayed in the loft

I got stuffed full of soup, chicken and rice while talking with Galambos, Baila and his wife.  I find out all three are ethnically Hungarian.  The region I was in had changed hands so often, the borders don’t really make sense.  Many of the people in Slovakia and Ukraine identify as Hungarian but politicians drew the lines differently. After a few servings of homemade plum and apple liquor, we said goodnight.

Strong liquor

Strong liquor

In the morning, Baila showed me around the house – he’s quite the handyman and antique collector.  Beautiful wooden furniture, rugs and an awesome ceramic heater were in the main room.  He took us up to the attic where he showed us wheels that his grandfather made, WWII Soviet shells, and an old loom among other things.  Before I left the house, we of course got more liquor – this time from a nut tree (?) – delicious – and tasted a little bit like jagermeister.

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I got a whirlwind tour of the city:

Me and Lizzy

Me and Lizzy

On the bridge over the railroad tracks

On the bridge over the railroad tracks.  Think I should shave?  Naaa

Glamabos’ brother Baila (two of them!) helped me get my bike in the train to Chop.  It was a pretty busy train.

Train to Chop

Train to Chop

Anti-Anti Fascists.  I think the AntiFa's are communist sympathizers - not sure what the AntiAntiFa are, though

Anti-Anti Fascists. I think the AntiFa’s are communist sympathizers – not sure what the AntiAntiFa are, though

A parting gift - from the keeper of Lizzy (Christine and Julia?), delicious dried plums.  Pure energy.

A parting gift – from the keeper of Lizzy (Christine and Julia?), delicious dried plums. Pure energy.

Crossing the border in train was pretty uneventful.  After a few more laughs by a Slovakian border guard, he returns with my passport stamped with an exit of the Schengen Zone.  I even ask him if I should open my panniers – he asks me what’s in them – clothes, food, cookware…. “oh, just normal stuff?  Nah”.  I arrive in the Chop train station with one other person.  The train is very high up on the rails so getting my bike down alone was challenging and a little comical to the female-army-fatigues-with-a-big-gun guard in the station (though she of course didn’t show any humor on the outside!).  I got yelled at my another person to get going as I was putting my panniers on … jeez, relax man I’m the only one here!  More laughing by the Ukrainian customs agents.  They looked in my panniers a bit…well one pannier to be specific and let me on my way.  The station is magnificent, laced with a late-Soviet panorama.  It really felt like I was in a military base…there was even a faint “ping….pong” from some device that sounded just like sonar from a submarine.  Creepy.

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Anyway, I made it up to Uzhhorod that afternoon.  A short distance, but particularly slow because of the terrible side-road condition.  There were also plenty of stray dogs, cows, baby ducks and cats just hanging out on the sides of the roads.  Plenty of eyes on this stranger.