I left Krakow and the company of Nathan to go solo on Thursday 18th. I headed directly for the Ukraine border and my first major border crossing. Arrived at the border at 3.45pm. I must have passed a 5 mile queue of trucks waiting to enter the Ukraine as I drove to the front to the front of the queue. I then went straight past the polish border guard and got hauled back for straightforward exit check. Then I joined the queue for entering the Ukraine. It was a beautiful sunny day as the initial guard asked where I was going. I said Russia. He said good luck. The second guard asked for my passport and then double and triple checked it. Apparently having cut off my hair I don’t look exactly like my photo. The same guard also requested my car registration documents as well. I seemed to be the only one they asked that I could see. Alas I was the only westerner I could see also. The guard returned and she looked repeatedly at me and then my photo before eventually deciding I was who I said I was. Luckily she didn’t see my UK drivers license with a beard and long hair. I’d have been pulled into a dark room and interrogated for sure. Another gent joined in and began searching the truck. This was when I first rolled out my translation of what I’m doing. Many smiles and crazy looks ensued.
It wasn’t long before I passed through my first major border crossing and was on my way Lv’iv in Western Ukraine. Upon entering I managed to change some local currency but I couldn’t find anywhere to buy the road tax I thought I need to buy. So I just headed off hoping not to be pulled over. Of course as soon as I arrive on the outskirts of Lv’iv I ran into a cop. Thinking he my pull me over I stop at a petrol station. He stopped too. Fortunately he was just stopping for supplies and left me alone.
That night I rocked up to the Jockey Hotel, which was based on a race course that didn’t look like is saw much racing. Anyway they let me camp outside and access their Wifi. I was able to provide pictures live from Boris in tent cam that night.
After a chilly nights sleep I was up for breakfast and a shower. While I was refilling my water bottle I left the electric water pump going and it caused an overflow from the engine. Thought I was in trouble. First day by myself and I’d already blown it!! I stopped the leak when I turned off the water pump and gave my mechanic a call. Should be ok for now was the call. I suspect I might need it looked at shortly.
So I headed off to Kiev. Along the way I was stopped at a police check point only to be greeted with a hello, and a smile and sent on my way. I wondered if anybody will ask me for the road tax? There were still signs of winter, with snow on the ground. Spring hasn’t arrived yet in the Ukraine. It might be warm and sunny but the trees are still bare and the landscape brown.
It took 7.5 hrs to get the Kiev and then another 2hrs to cross town in Friday night traffic and find Lev’s place. I had the wrong location on google Maps. My first technology fail!! Finally I found Lev after a couple of calls and a little help from old lady at the first house I went to. The street name was the same in a different part of the same town!! Upon arriving at Lev’s place he fixed me some porridge for dinner and then we enjoyed some fish and a beer, while we got to know each other. He appears to have ambition to do many things. Very interested in the outdoors and exploring. I crashed at midnight absolutely shattered!!
Slept until 9.45. Luxury!! Got up and had a look around and had some more porridge for breakfast. Yummy and popular in the Ukraine it appeared.
The next morning I did a few checks on Boris. I couldn’t get the main lights to work on low. Not good!! Along with the oil light being continually on it became apparent I was going to have to book into the Toyota Garage in Donetsk for a service. The rest of the day was for sightseeing and Lev was to be our guide. First up we visited Pyrohovo which was an outdoor museum that preserved the historical past of the Ukraine. There were many different periods with each regions style of housing represented as we biked around the large outdoor park. Fascinating place that the locals clearly loved too.
The next stop was to the St Maria Spring, south of central Kiev. Bathing in the water from this natural spring is considered a form of blessing. Lev stripped off and jumped in. Just walking by and jumping in naked is considered a pretty normal thing to do. So when Lev challenged me I was a good sport and said hell yes, stripped off and jumped in. I tell you it was bloodly freezing and I was out in a flash. Though I was wide awake and felt pretty good afterwards.
We headed back into town for a cruise of the sights and to get something to eat. Kiev has the Dnieper River running through it. In a car you can drive along its sides or across a number of bridges. It was a lovely drive. We stopped at Lev’s favourite diner and tried a range of dumplings both savoury and sweet which are popular. Pretty tasty they were too.
On the way home we had to stop at the Rodina Mat (Motherland) statue built in 1981. Wow, was all I could say. It was huge and it’s viewing point over Kiev is spectacular. Definitely a must see for any visitors. It was erected to celebrate the partisans of the Soviet era. Massive statement!!
We returned home with Lev’s girlfriend and chilled out for the evening as I had a big drive to Donetsk the next day. We still had time thought for a home sauna that Lev had built himself. Sauna attire required a hat. A very classy look it was.
The drive to Donetsk was always going to be a big one. I’d been slowly finding that it was taking longer than I’d hope to cover these distances. Therefore I was up at 6.45am so I could be on the road by 8am. Lev cooked me a farewell breakfast, I loaded up the car and did the daily inspection checks. Every appeared to be ok apart from the low beam lights and oil light.
It had been a fun couple of days. Lev has been a good host. I’d seen Kiev through the eyes of a local which is great. We hugged and said our farewells and I hit the road looking to make good time.
Not long after departure I got caught in a speed trap, while watching someone else get caught. The road changes from 100 to 50 in a matter of metres as they have pedestrian crossing on motorway of all places. I pulled over. Stern looking chap told me I was speeding. They showed me at 101km p/hr on the gun. I shrugged my shoulders and handed over my explanation in Ukrainian about my trip. A stream of Ukrainian came my way. I just struggled my shoulders again. He thought about it for while, decided it was too hard and send me on my way. Sweet. 1 speeding ticket dodged!! So it was a win for the good guys. I could see the benefits of my lack of language training coming together like a well oil plan. When all else fails pretend you know nothing!!
It was a massive day on the road. 2 crashes (witnessed), potholed roads, crazy drivers, dodgy route, 800 kms and making it just in time before sunset left me weary to say the least. I nearly got lost and probably added an extra couple of hours onto my trip with a few wrong turns care of my dodgy old sat nav.
Finally thought I made it to my hosts place just before darkness and my dodgy lights left me in the middle of outback Ukraine. Anton, Victoria and Nadia welcomed me into their house. We had a meal together and an interesting chat. Anton’s English is pretty good. They are children of the USSR. It was interesting to hear about the history of the Ukraine. It was basically created by the Soviets in 1924 as a republic. It had never existed before. It was either a part of Russia or Poland. They both have dreams to travel in Europe and Anton wants to ride a motorbike to the Eastern coast of Russia, which I think is pretty cool. They are both teachers. Anton in Computer Programming for software for designing computer chips and Victoria in Graphic Design.
The next day after breakfast we decided to take Boris to Toyota mechanics instead of waiting until Tuesday. It was time to find out if Boris had any major problems. With the lovely Tatiana has been acting as translator between me with the service guys (including a young Tim Robbins look-alike called Sasha) it seemed like the whole service department seem to be interested in Boris’ problems.
Many humorous discussions went down as I tried to explain the issues and what I wanted checked. They wanted to know what oil I was using as the engine had lost 1L and needed replacing. I said don’t worry as I have some in the back. When I showed them the 30 odd litres of different oils they thought it was hilarious. Though not as funny as went I told them how far I was going to be travelling. Just another 25,000 miles I said as they burst out laughing. They looked underneath to find all the oil leaks and recommended a clean up job which will take half a day to complete. I was not entirely sure but ultimately determined that they would remove the transmission and reseal it along with the sump outlet, to stop the visible leaks. What they were suggesting seemed wise, and it was important to have them try to resolve the issues this early in the trip. The price I was quoted was $150 USD which seemed like a bargain compared to UK prices. So I left Boris there overnight.
Any number of things could be the cause of the problem. In the rush to finish something was missed or not completed properly. The long distances covered in an effort to make up time may have pushed Boris to hard after his repair work, or it could be a new problem. Boris is old and is prone to breaking in places. I’m fully aware that I will be nursing Boris along the route. I’d planned for regular servicing along the way anyway. Covering these sort of distances and terrain is going to require maintenance and the chances of a major breakdown will always be a possibility.
Got the tram back into town to meet Anton at 5pm. He gave me the info to get the bus back to his and I headed off to see the sights of Donetsk. It’s a beautiful city in the centre. Spacious and easy to get around. Checked out the stadium and Donbass Liberators monument. I did a bit of filming before walking back to bus station. Here I got a chicken kebab before catching the little yellow number 14 bus back to the eastern side if town where Anton lives. I loved street vendor food and this was a pretty tasty kebab. I also loved the system on the buses. If you get on at the back of a full bus you just hand the cash forward and then you change comes back. Easy. I can’t see that system working in a lot of western cities. They just don’t let you on unless you have paid.
Tuesday was rise and shine at 7.30am and had breakfast with Nadia (translation means Hope) and the family. We worked out plan of attack with Anton. Then I headed into town on the 11a bus to pick up Boris at midday. Hoping he is all ok. I was planning to head for the Russian border that night so I could cross first thing the next day.
Boris’ oil leaks have been repaired with the transmission resealed to stop future leaks. There will be a slow leak around the top of the engine that will have to be fixed properly at some point. They had to testing the lights and replacing a few old parts. New bulbs / lamps. So I took the opportunity to teach the Toyota Donetsk mechanics the finer points of cricket in the car park while they serviced my truck. A few hours later Boris was ready to go. Vitali the service manager, Sasha the lead mechanic, Tatiana and Kate the lovely interpreters along with the rest of the service crew took great interest in Boris and my trip and made great efforts to help me on my way. While I think they thought I was a little loco, it was an interesting diversion from all though nice new Toyota’s they normally deal with.
I loved staying with Anton and Victoria. They were very warm and friendly people. They were incredibly helpful with food, washing, Internet, health and Boris. They have a beautiful daughter Nadia who was sick unfortunately but still incredible cute and charming when she felt better. We drove through Donetsk to Toyota a couple of times so I got a good view of the city. It’s an industrial city and it feels a little that way. A cold grey day doesn’t help the general feeling the place is a little run down and lacking some infrastructure. Still after a few days, some sunny weather and a stroll around the in city I started to warm to Donetsk. The inner city is definitely pretty and an enjoy place to stroll around. It’s definitely worth a visit.
I departed Donetsk around 6.30pm and made it to Krasnodor just by the border around 11pm. It was a nice drive which made for a good night time test. I was ready for the Russian border in the morning.
Next stop Russia!!
Ukraine in Review
I’m struggling to put my finger on how to describe the Ukraine. It moves from beautiful countryside to unkempt cities. General street maintenance is not at the same level of European standards I’ve become accustom too. The people are friendly and helpful. They are not cash rich but generous with their time. Helpful and humorous. There seems to be a playfulness with the girls, and a dark humour within the men once you unmask the somewhat expressionless faces in the street. I can’t help feeling I’ve arrived too early in the year as spring has not yet arrived. The trees and ground lack a lot of the beauty of the greenness spring brings. I have a feeling the dull grey feel is replaced once spring arrives as I’ve seen signs in the western part of the country. For me the Ukraine is a place still struggling to find its own identity, after it was created by the Soviets (from Poland and Russia) into regional republic. Like many regions before it arbitrary borders are drawn up and people force to live as one. The eastern part feels more Ukrainian, while the western part feels more closely associated with Russia.
(p.s Nobody ever did ask for the road tax…)