Unless you count the fifteen minutes or so i spent in Moldova crossing from Galați (Romania) to Reni (Рені, Ukraine) through the Giurgilești checkpoint, Ukraine was the third country i visited during my latest cycle touring project, The North Cape Hypothesis. (There seem to be no direct crossings between Romania and the Odessa Region along the Danube Delta.) I spent nine days riding along the Ukrainian side of the Danube River and the Black Sea until reaching Odessa, then turning northwest towards Tiraspol.
When i entered Ukraine for the first time in May ’17, i’d already spent 100+ largely heartwarming and energizing cycle touring days throughout much of the European Union (both inside and outside Schengen), Serbia and Turkey. But i’d somehow put the former Soviet world in a whole different compartment, and my excitement about the coming few months in Ukraine, Transnistria, Moldova, Belarus and Russia was mixed with a fair amount of apprehension about how different it might be from the world i’d known so far — would what i’ve been doing still work there?
This is the third in a series of articles on how my prejudices and expectations about each country i visited during The North Cape Hypothesis have been challenged by my actual experience in them. It’s particularly weird to write about my prejudices and expectations about Ukraine, the country where i’m now living (in L’viv) and falling in love with. But let’s try a few words: corruption? suspicion? reservedness? melancholy?
Once again, i won’t say much about the unbelievable support and touching friendship i got through hospitality networks, particularly in cities. But i’ve been Couchsurfing for over seven years now, and all my hundreds of hosts, guests or meetups through Couchsurfing and Warmshowers have yielded overall neutral to amazing experiences.
Perhaps i’ll have to write at greater length about that aspect of the cycle touring experience and logistics in another occasion — but what might Ukraine look and feel like when/where you’re not quite expecting each other?
There are a few joint checkpoints between Moldova and Ukraine, and Giurgilești/Reni is one of them. You still need to deal separately with authorities from each country, but they share the same building and hang out with one another.
When the Moldovan authorities were about to send me over to the Ukrainian ones, they asked me a question that prompted me to divulge the existence of a pepper spray bottle in my luggage — “oh, you might want to surrender it to us, the Ukrainian side is not going to like it if they find it.” Following their instructions, i moved my rig behind the Moldovan checkpoint booth, retrieved the pepper spray from it, and handed it over to the officer. This maneuver caused the Ukrainian officer who was waiting to deal with me further down the assembly line to teleport from his position to the scene — “what’s going on here?” — “everything is OK,” said a polite Moldovan officer — “what did he just give you” — “he doesn’t have it anymore” — “are you done with him?” — “yes” — “come with me, kid.”
He guided me inside the customs room, where my bags would then be thoroughly searched. “What did you just give them?” — “i don’t have it anymore” — “but what was it?” Trying as best as i could to keep my calm and choosing very carefully words that were true but nevertheless revealed as little information as possible, i replied — “what are you looking for?” — “was it something like this?,” he asked pointing to the pepper spray bottle attached to his Batman belt — “i’m not carrying pepper spray” — “but did you have it before, is that what you gave them?” — “i have traveled with pepper spray in the past” — “where?” — “in Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey” — “in Moldova?” — tricky question, i wonder whether it counts if i’ve only been in the country for fifteen minutes — “hm…, yes” — “will i find pepper spray in your bags?” — that one is easy — “no” — “what else do you have in your bags that might be like that?” While beginning to worry about whether the transnational repertoire of over-the-counter medicine and supplements i’ve gathered along my travels between Iceland and Serbia might be yet another potential source of trouble, i tried to remain focused on his question and the only issue he seemed concerned about — “i have two knives, that i use as tools for cooking and repairs” — “show them to me” — that’s yet another difficult one — is answering to such a request from an immigration officer legitimate grounds for holding a knife at an international border crossing customs room? — i retrieved them from my luggage and placed them on the table hoping not to sneeze or have any other involuntary spasms along the way — “anything else?” — nothing else that could potentially be used as a weapon, if that’s what he meant — “no” — and then the search began — “please place all your bags on the table, and open them for me.”
By that time there was a typically entitled American hitchhiker being thoroughly searched as well, and i’ve been looking for a good opportunity to judge that guy ever since — being searched like that was certainly unpleasant, but i was just grateful the officer didn’t do anything beyond his duty — once he realized the problem he was worried about didn’t exist, he let me through. This guy on the other hand seemed almost insulted about the extent to which he was being searched — “i’ve never been searched like that!” — i felt like saying, “well, i guess you’ve never tried to hitchhike into the US with a Ukrainian passport” — or simply enter the country by plane with a Brazilian one, for that matter — i lived in the US for six years on a student visa and had my bags thoroughly searched like that every second or third time on the border, a couple of times all the way through Granny’s cheese rolls.
But i digress.
I’m in Ukraine now. So far, so and so — hopefully i’ll only need to deal with civilians from now on, at least until i leave.
more countryside hospitality
My Couchsurfing host Yuriy in Izmail had found me a backyard to camp the night after at his friend’s Gannady’s pension in Prymors’ke. That was my goal for that day, but the sun, encounters and sincerely bad roads slowed me down a bit — if i were to reach Prymors’ke before dark, i’d have to bypass Vylkove, which i’d been told would have been a pity — “it’s our Venice!”
This brought me to Sasha, Rita, and their adorable kids Elia and David.
Between Kilija and Lisky, the Danube bank seemed quite difficult to access, and it was all otherwise endless farm fields ahead and before me — oh, wait, here comes a small village! — let’s ask them if there’s any way i could get closer to the river, or perhaps simply camp in their backyard 😀 A small girl played on a swing while what looked like her dad fixed a wheelbarrow — she saw me far before her dad noticed me, even though i’d been standing there for what must have been at least a couple of minutes already — i was convinced he’d just shamelessly ignored me when he finally turned around and greeted me with one of the sweetest smiles in the whole spectrum — “hi, how may i help you”? Sasha told me i could pitch my tent anywhere in the premises, and then continued making incrementally better suggestions — there were a couple of houses under construction further in the back, and he offered me space in either of them — it was quite dusty inside though, so i asked him if i could borrow a broom — he responded by taking me back to what looked like a guest room/house, probably for seasonal workers.
Sasha and Rita were a bit shy in the beginning, compared to what i’d gotten used to from countless other such invitations, but they slowly warmed up to me. By the time i left next morning, Rita was proudly showing me some of her sketches, one of which she gave me. We exchanged a warm goodbye hug, and i was invited to return.
I had no phone or Internet that night, and was therefore unable to tell Yuriy and Gannady that i was doing very well despite not having reached Primors’ke — in hindsight i realize i could have likely asked Sasha and Rita to use their phone. But i once again digress. I figured next day i’d just swing by Gannady’s along my way and say, “hi.” The road magic once again took care of that for me — as i’m pulling out of a secondary dirt road back into the main road, a red van driving by stops, while the driver steps out of it shouting, “Brazilia!” — what the fuck? — could he see the tiny flag sown to my handlebar bag from all the way out there? — probably not — it was Gannady!!
That’s just how much fun cycle touring is, folks!
But between Romania and Ukraine, it’s now been 17 nights in a row in someone’s home, and i really feel like having a night by myself, alone inside my tent. Apparently the Universe felt otherwise — as i’m making my way out of their village towards the suggestion from the gentleman who had just filled up my water bottles, i get a roadside call from Goge. He actually just wanted to share a shot of whatever that was — “i’d love to, but it’s not a good idea for me to drink right now, it’s getting dark and i need to keep riding to find a place to pitch my tent” — “oh, you’re looking for a place to sleep, follow me” — he asked me if their guest room would work — absolutely — “should i pour your that shot now?” — “i guess so!”
Another joyful evening eating, looking at pictures and overcoming language limitations with Goge, Luda, and their daughter Ira — another invitation to return.
As usual, these overnight hospitable offers were interpolated by shorter but no less intense encounters throughout the day, such as the one with Tanija, Natasha and Valija from Magazin Kashtan, in Kilija.
institutional hospitality, even!
It’s now been 18 evenings in a row in someone’s hospitable home! Anticipating another inevitable several nights like that between Odessa, Tiraspol and Chișinău starting the next day upon my arrival in Odessa, i was desperately looking for that quiet time alone in my tent — preferably with a skinny dip in the Black Sea. What seemed like the perfect opportunity presented itself when i was approaching the village of Kurortne. I pulled into an auto service shop on the street perpendicular to the main road to ask for water and the locals’ blessing to pitch my tent on the shore and take a bath — “well, sure, you can do that, but i don’t think you can get very close to the water, it’s a 20m high drop” — i don’t care — let’s see what that looks like before anyone invites us to stay in their home :p
Are those fisherman? — what are those guys doing? It might be too late for me to just turn around now — one of them walked towards me while the other two continued posing for pictures with their guns. “Excuse me, hi, i’m looking for a place to pitch my tent, and i’m wondering whether i could do that somewhere around here.” His answer was a terse, “passport” — i don’t think he even said, “please.” Relax, Mika — it doesn’t feel like you’re in trouble yet — there was a small boat in the water a couple of hundred meters away from the shore, towards which they’d occasionally point their binoculars — i guessed there was some sort of military exercise going on in the area, and i assumed they just wanted to establish that my grounds for being there were legitimate, and not in conflict with Ukrainian national interests.
I’d met and interacted with a soldier before in my cycle touring career. Goran and i became friends when i passed through his home village of Grabovac, Croatia during my Copenhagen–Istanbul tour in Fall ’16. He was off duty having dinner with his girlfriend when i walked into the the village bar asking for help with a place to pitch my tent. He mediated my becoming a guest of the village for the night, much of which Goran and i spent talking about the commonalities and differences between cycle touring and military service.
When i was leaving next day in the morning, he asked me that if i ever write about my time in Grabovac, that i acknowledge the help from the Croatian Army — i suppose this is a good opportunity to do that? Although i remain a much bigger fan of diplomats, i learned that night that, so long as nation states exist, protecting their visitors is at least in principle part of the duty of their military — whether or not Ukraine was a place where that duty might be taken as seriously, we were about to experience.
I gave the Ukrainian soldier my passport and pointed to the stamp showing i’d entered the country a few days before through Reni. He made a phone call, presumably to his superior or whatever, presumably explaining the circumstances, and then finally replied, “можна.” Does that mean, “yes”? — “OK, dobre?” — “можна.” How about we assume this does mean, “yes,” then ask about the skinny dip — despite his “disengaged interest” demeanor, it was clear that they didn’t want me to leave, at least not immediately — “можна.” Great. So, i’ve now established that i can either both camp there and take a skinny dip, or do neither. I thanked him, and started very slowly moving towards what looked like a good place to camp, like a child slowly walking towards something they can’t touch to test how close to it they can get before their parent jumps out of their chair.
He went back to his post while i used all my cognitive apparatus to spell that noise in Ukrainian Cyrillic — thank goodness it’s a phonetic alphabet much of which is the same as Serbian Cyrillic, with which i was familiar — “one can,” said Google translate. A little later they actually came to take a selfie with me, and also show me how to get to the water without committing suicide.
Habemus skinny dip!
cycle touring camaraderie
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this stretch of the Danube Delta and Black Sea shore on the Ukrainian side turned out to be a rather popular week-long cycle touring route along which i bumped into several other travelers. Quite surprisingly though, they were all from Ukraine.
Most of them were unfortunately riding in the opposite direction, so our encounters were quite brief — they were nevertheless eager to share information about the roads, where to sleep and what to see further along my way. A large group from Kiev even gave me the suitably annotated paper map they would soon no longer need!
I did meet one person going in the same direction as me though — riding the remaining 60Km from Zatoka to Odessa with Zhenya was rejuvenating — there’s no other way i could have kept up with his 25Km/h average speed, even with the tail winds we’d been blessed with that day. The fact that he spoke no more English than i spoke Ukrainian was not a problem at all.
Adding all of that up, the Odessa Region was not just fine — it was amazing! Once again, i was shocked not to meet anybody from outside Ukraine riding along the gorgeous Ukrainian side of the Danube Delta and Black Sea shore — it seems like this part of Eastern Europe remains a largely underrated cycle touring destination.
Granted, some roads in Ukraine can be catastrophically bad. That might be the single bad impression about the country that has endured my tenure in it.
But besides the fact that it’s not always the case, the only thing bad roads will do is to slow you down a little bit — but why would you want to rush on a cycle tour in Ukraine anyways?
This article is the third one in a series about how my expectations and prejudices about each country i visited during The North Cape Hypothesis, my latest cycle touring project, have been challenged by my actual experience in them. You may read the first two about Serbia and Romania by following the links!
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