Ukraine: May 25-26
Kilometres: many and fast
We reached the border much later than planned. A long queue of cars, people waiting around, chatting, looking at us – we’re falling out of the context with our heavily loaded bikes. We’re unsure about the procedure and what we should do – we’ve never crossed a regulated border on our bikes before. We’re secretly hoping that we don’t need to join the back of the queue, because you can’t see the end of it.
We stopped a border patrol to try and find out what our next steps should be. It seems like they’re unsure of it either, and are simply gesturing us to go to the front. Triumphantly, we pass along the whole line of trucks, cars and all kinds of busses. But upon reaching the Polish border post, we’re told interesting news: you cannot enter Ukraine here on bicycles, motorised vehicles only.
Our eyes popped out of their orbits, we tried to say something, but the answer remained a stern no. We discussed our options – and there weren’t many to choose from: we could try cycling to another border crossing, or try finding someone who would take us onto their car with all our belongings and bicycles. This option seems very optimistic, but it’s worth trying.
We ask border patrol officers for help. One of them decides to help out, however reluctantly: he finds us a car. Some guy is crossing the border and driving an empty minivan. The officer gives us barely any information – just tells us that the car has an English registration plate and will be here to pick us up some time soon. They wouldn’t even return our passports, just told us to wait. We’re not sure of when that car will arrive, where we should be waiting, and what’s going on altogether. But we’re waiting. It’s getting dark and cold, and the sky is all covered in clouds, which are about to burst.
Some guy in a minivan
It’s now raining cats and dogs, but we’re nice and warm inside a minivan. We’re waiting for Roman, the driver who picked us up, to come back with all the necessary documentation. Roman is a young Ukrainian, more or less the same age as Dovydas. He speaks in a rapid manner and is constantly picking up one of the four phones he owns – they seem to be ringing at all times. Looks like he’s well known on the border: all officers are nodding at him respectfully and shaking his hand. The procedure of crossing the border seems very simple to us, as we don’t really need to do anything ourselves.
The rain gets even worse, and Roman doesn’t want to just drop us off – he’s taking us to Rava Ruska, a town close to the border. He says that he knows a motel which is much better than the one we had selected. There are several rooms on the first floor, and on the ground floor there’s a shop and a bar where we can have a nice dinner. A young girl meets us at the motel, and Roman quickly agrees a price for the room for us – 9 euros. We assume it’s per person, but later it turns out that’s a price for the whole room. It looks like the girl isn’t too happy with our bikes – she keeps pointing at them while talking to Roman in Ukrainian. She doesn’t want them inside the building, but we’re left to stand aside and observe as Roman says a strict phrase her way and opens another door to a room. As it turns out, it’s a small conference room. He keeps talking, and the girl starts nodding obediently and finally leaves with her head down. In the conference room, Roman starts quickly pushing away chairs, a big round table and makes enough space for our wet bikes. While unloading our bags, we ask him if he knows that girl. He smirks and says: I was born here and I grew up here, I know everyone around here. We feel like we’ve fallen into the right hands.
While we were driving towards the motel, Roman told us that the next night he’ll be driving towards the Romanian border as he has some business there. He offered us to join him, because in the next few days the weather will be dreadful, lots and lots of rain. Besides, the Ukrainian roads in that direction are in poor condition and most of them have really heavy traffic. Not a lot of pleasure to cycle down roads like that. We’re watching the pouring rain and the offer starts looking more and more attractive. We could rest for a day in the motel, and then drive with Roman to Chernivtsi, and then continue our journey from there. We wouldn’t have planned it this way or looked for someone to give us a lift, but when such an opportunity presents itself, why wouldn’t you consider it? But we were too tired to make any decisions, and were only looking forward to a soft bed. We exchanged phone numbers with Roman and agreed to speak again in the morning.
After having had plenty of sleep, the plan to skip through most of Ukraine in a minivan is just as tempting. The only problem is that we’ll not see that much of this country. But we have a whole day, so we decide to take a short bus ride to Lviv.
We got back from Lviv quite late that day, maybe only half nine, so were in a hurry to grab a dinner before the motel’s kitchen closed, and then onto getting some unfinished work done. Dovydas usually plans our route for only a few days ahead, and we needed to get a new one done from Chernivtsi to Romanian border that evening. I was deleting, editing and tidying up photos. We have to keep doing this all the time, because if we don’t, we get to a stage where there are so many of them it’s not clear where to start anymore. We were both tired, so the work was slow, and the time was flying past. We had a bit of a shock when we realised what time it was. Roman would be here in a few hours to pick us up!
After two hours of sleep, our eyes all puffy and faces sleepy, we met our chauffeur. That’s when the real adventures began.
This is how funny everything seemed to be at the time:
Colleagues on the roadside
Having packed our things, we climbed into the front of the van and started moving. One of four Roman’s phones was ringing all the time. He would answer one ringing phone before finishing the previous conversation. Looks like he’s got plenty of business to get on with.
After about 20 km we stop at a petrol station. Roman climbs out of the car and says he’ll be back in a moment. He walks towards two cars parked nearby. Some sketchy types jump out of them, start shaking his hand, saying their hellos, their eyes locked firmly on the ground. Roman quickly gives some commands and all those guys disappear from the petrol station. We’re not quite sure what’s going on, but decide to keep our questions to ourselves.
Roads are narrow, going up and down, huge potholes everywhere. Large lorries and so many old cars. Roman keeps putting pedal to the metal – 150 kilometres per hour seems to be his preferred speed, no need for slowing down. On each turn we’re struggling to grab onto something to feel just a bit more stable. Old rusty Zhiguli crowd the road, and Roman is taking them over as if they stood unmoving. It’s strange to see so many old cars, various types of them, Volgas, Zaporozhets slowly moving, minding their own business. It feels as if we’ve travelled back in time to when I wasn’t even born yet.
We’re stopping again in some roadside parking lot, and several cars are already waiting for us. All those guys lined up, each awaiting their turn to shake Roman’s hand. We’re sitting in the van and observing everything from a distance. There’s some discussion going on, but we cannot hear anything. Dovydas and I keep glancing at each other, anxiously waiting to find out what’s next. Roman returns, and upon noticing our confused faces, smiles and says: eta moja banda (this is my gang).
Our journey continues as we’re practically flying through narrow roads of Ukraine, taking over one old rectangular Lada after another. Roman talks openly about himself. This time, he’s got business in Moldova, bringing this van to a client. We ask him how he plans to return. It looks like the other members of his gang should join us soon. Finally, we stop somewhere in a forest and wait. We wait for quite a while. You can only imagine our surprise when a police car stops right in front of us. Roman just smiles and starts telling us about his experience with police. One of his four phones has a magic number… The police vehicle waits for a bit, then disappears. From where we’re standing, this looks like a very unusual situation, but Roman acts absolutely natural. Out of nowhere, he’s got a wide reel of duct tape. The one which you see in movies – kidnapped people get their hands tied and mouths shut with it. Other cars start arriving. The drivers don’t seem too friendly. Roman mutters something and jumps out of the van with the duct tape still in his hands.
Everyone gathers by the back of the van, where our bikes and all of our valuables are – the photo camera, the laptop… Something’s going on. We can hear a lot of noice, rumbling, duct tape being taped around something. We’re start feeling a bit uneasy. We’re glancing at the rear view mirrors, but cannot see anything. Only hear someone speaking, someone laughing, and that never ending sound of the duct tape being torn. Roman is talking about our bikes, and about us, but is speaking Ukrainian and in his usual rapid manner, so we can’t really make out what he’s saying. This stopover is getting really long, as our imagination starts running wild. We feel like we’re in some action movie. The back door of the van shuts loudly and Roman returns. Everyone else goes back to their cars and start moving slowly. We’re driving too, but it looks like we’ll have company with us this time.
A race and other entertainment
We start suspecting that the van is not the only business that our new friend has in Moldova. All kinds of doubts arise… The most unsettling scenario which we can think of is that we might be used to take some contraband over the border. What could be so small and so valuable to fit into our overfilled bags?
Roman acts as if nothing special has happened, keeps asking us about our trip and calling his mates to retell the better parts of our story. We’re going in lightning speed through these old, potholed roads. The van is actually English, so the steering wheel is on the right side. But Roman has no problem overtaking several cars at once. We had thought we’d gotten used to his driving, but are still instinctively looking for things to grab onto.
When other cars joined us, things went absolutely wild – the whole road is now effectively a race track. Other cars of the gang would keep taking over each other, going at mad speeds, trying to stay ahead for as long as possible. As some car would approach to overtake us, they’d slow down, wave at us and dart past. Picture a set of “Fast and Furious”, the Ukrainian version.
The race wasn’t the only entertainment of the day – the guys also started betting on how many kilometres we could cycle in a day…
In fact, it would have taken us 5-6 days to cycle those 350 kilometres, but we sped through Ukraine in several hours. We keep saying to everyone that we’ve chosen bikes as our mode of transport because we can be closer to people this way, to see and understand the country. Well, this time, we took a car and it didn’t lack in adventures or in being close to the locals.
However uneasy it sometimes felt, it was all just our imagination running wild.
When we reached Chernivtsi, Roman bought us a breakfast, strictly refused taking our money and wished us all the best in our trip. He also told us we must let him know if we’re in Ukraine again, said his goodbyes and sped off in the direction of Moldova. And we were left standing in the rain with our bikes in yet another petrol station. We thought at that moment that such stories can only happen to people who aren’t afraid to open their hearts and minds to strangers who wish you only the best.