Unless you want to count the fifteen minutes or so i spent in Moldova crossing from Galați (Romania) to Reni (Рені, Ukraine) through the Giurgiulești checkpoint, Ukraine was the third country i visited during the North Cape Hypothesis. There were 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 northwest towards Tiraspol.
When i first entered Ukraine, i had already spent a total of 100+ largely heartwarming and energizing cycle touring days throughout much of the European Union (both inside and outside Schengen), Serbia and Turkey. But i had somehow put the former Soviet world in a whole different compartment. 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 worldi knew so far — would what i’d 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 were challenged by my actual experience in them. It is especially difficult to write clearly about my first 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 friendship i got through hospitality networks, particularly in cities.
I’ll have to write at greater length about that aspect of the cycle touring experience and logistics on another occasion. As with the previous articles in this series, this one is concerned with the question of what Ukraine might look and feel like where you’re not quite expecting to meet each other.
There are a few joint checkpoints between Moldova and Ukraine, and Giurgiulești/Reni is one of them. You still need to deal separately with authorities from each country. They just share the same building and hang out together.
When the Moldovan authorities were about to send me over to the Ukrainian officials, 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 direct instructions, i moved my rig behind the Moldovan checkpoint booth, retrieved the pepper spray from it, and handed it over to the officer.
The 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 the measured and 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.”
Shiiit . . .
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” — “how about Moldova?” — tricky question, i wonder whether it counts if i’ve only been in the country for fifteen minutes — “hm . . ., i guess” — “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 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 parsimoniously 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.”
Traveling is still a privilege
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. Although being searched like that was certainly unpleasant, i was 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 without looking any further. 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 entering 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 — hopefullyi’ll only need to deal with ordinary 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 Gennadiy’s pension. That was my goal for the day i left Izmail.
The sun, encounters and sincerely bad roads slowed me down considerably. If i were to reach Gennadiy’s before dark, i’d have to bypass Vylkove, which i had been told would be a pity — “it’s our Venice!”
This brought me to Sasha, Rita, and their adorable kids Elia and David.
Between Kilija and Vylkove, the Danube bank seemed quite difficult to access, and it was otherwise endless farm fields ahead and before me — where am i going to pitch my tent? — oh, wait, here comes a small village — let’s ask them how to get closer to the river!
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. They slowly warmed up to me though, and 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.
Road magic or life magic?
I had no phone or Internet that night and was, therefore, unable to tell Yuriy or Gennadiy that i was doing very well despite not having reached his pension. In hindsight, i realize i could have likely asked Sasha and Rita to borrow their phone — i guess i figured that next day i’d just swing by Gennadiy’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, 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 Gennadiy!!
That’s just how much fun cycle touring can be!
And what if i wanted to sleep in my tent?
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 a village towards the suggestion from the gentleman who had just filled up my water bottles, i get a roadside call from Goge.
At first he 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” — that’s roughly what i typed into my translator and showed him — “oh, you’re looking for a place to spend the night! — follow me” — he asked me if their guest room would work — “should i pour you 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.
It’s now been 18 evenings in a row in someone’s hospitable home.
Anticipating other 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 between Mykolaivka and Kurortne. I pulled into an auto service shop 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 — it’s a 20m high drop to the water though” — i don’t care — let’s just go check what that really looks like before anyone invites us to stay in their home!
Are those fisherman? — what are those guys doing?
It might be too late for me to just turn around now — one of them started walking towards me while the other two continued posing for pictures with their guns — it was the Ukraininian military.
“Excuse me, hi, hm, 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 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.
A quick flashback
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 in Croatian countryside, some 1,400 km up the Danube. That happened in my Copenhagen–Istanbul tour in Fall ’16. He was off duty having dinner with his girlfriend when i walked into 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 with them, that i acknowledge the help from the Croatian Army — i suppose this is a good opportunity to do that?
Althoughi 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.
Back in Ukraine
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. We’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’re not supposed to touch to test how close to it they can get before their parent’s intervention.
He went back to his post while i used all my attention and cognitive apparatus to spell that noise in Ukrainian Cyrillic before it dissipated — thank goodness it’s a phonetic alphabet, much of which is the same as Serbian Cyrillic, with which i had become vaguely familiar — “one can,” returned my phone.
A little later they came by 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 the 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.
Most of those travelers 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 Kyiv 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 that day. The fact that he spoke no more English than i spoke Ukrainian or Russian was not a problem at all.
Adding all of that up, the Odessa Region was not just fine — it was amazing!
I was surprised not to meet anybody from outside Ukraine riding along the gorgeous Ukrainian side of the Danube Delta and the Black Sea shore. Granted, the Odessa region is not particularly easy to reach from outside Ukraine, and that’s a great pity — this part of Eastern Europe unfortunately remains a largely underrated cycle touring destination.
I won’t hide that some roads in Ukraine can be catastrophically bad. That might be the only bad impression about the country that has endured my tenure in it.
Besides the fact that it’s not always the case, the only thing bad roads will do is slow you down a bit — and why would you want to rush on a cycle tour in Ukraine anyways?