The night before, I had wild-camped by a lake in the woods just outside Agustow, in Poland. I wasn’t attacked by a bear, but didn’t feel terribly at ease so I packed my tent onto the bike as quick as I could and headed towards Zamość, and the Ukraine border at Rawa-Ruska.
On the way, I rode past several horrendous accidents — cars upside-down, trucks smashed into pieces in ditches, vans literally ground into the tarmac— and coincidentally, lots of very ornate and well-tended graveyards.
When I arrived at the border, there was a queue of several hundred large container trucks stretching kilometres up the road. I wasn’t sure about queue-jumping past rugged bearded ex-communist truckies so I rode very slowly, and looked down pretending to read my map as I crawled towards the border post. A jolly lady on a scooter buzzed rapidly past, motioning ‘follow me’ as she went. I followed.
EU passport holders can get a 90-day Ukraine visa simply by turning up at the border, so I flashed my passport, waited for some form-filling, then rode from Lidl-raddled Poland into a living fragment of the old Soviet Union. Deserted buildings, ripped and sad-looking flags and empty, lumpy roads greeted me. I headed through Lviv, which looked like the Soviet tanks had just rolled out, and where a roll-up smoking local gave me the thumbs-up for riding through a field that I mistook for the road.
Not sure where to go next, and not being very familiar (read: completely baffled) with the Cyrillic road-signage, I headed south for Ivano-Frankivsk. I had no idea what it was like, just that it showed as a fair-sized town on my map. On the way I passed relics from the Soviet years; rotting factories, massive motherland statues, rusting radio masts and decaying homages to the space race.
When I arrived, Ivano-Frankivsk turned out to be a wonderful, stylish, superbly historic and utterly welcoming city. But still with all its road signs in Cyrillic, dammit. As my map had zilch local info, and was in English, I got very lost and failed completely to find anywhere to stop, let alone lay my head. On the third circle round the central square I began to panic, just as a local biker on a Yamaha Drag Star came up beside me at the lights.
I mimed sleeping, eating and shrugged a question. He said “Follow me” in perfect English, and headed off. Stefan — his name — guided me around town for about an hour, checking out several potentially bike-suitable places to stay. Eventually he found me the perfect spot at Pid Templen Hotel; “…no problem showing you the way,” said Stefan. “I had some time to spare anyway.” Brilliant.
At the hotel, the receptionist said it was OK to leave my bike inside the entrance because she slept there and could keep an eye on it all night long. I slept like a baby under the crooked eaves of the three-hundred year old hotel, and thanked Stefan in my dreams.
Next morning, I discovered a Russian cyber-attack had crippled all the local ATMs and post office systems, but nothing could take the shine off the attractions of the city. I wandered the streets, wide-eyed at the wonderful places western media don’t tell you about in so called “dodgy countries”.
But time was ticking by, and I knew I would have to keep moving; I reluctantly packed and headed south, looking for the 1900m high Говерла, or Mount Hoverla — the highest point in Ukraine. On my trusty map the road to it was marked as the H09 and printed in a nice deep red — a major highway, without doubt. Indeed, the road turned out to be wide, tarmacked and well surveyed. Sadly it hadn’t had any attention or repairs, I’d guess, since the Russians trundled out of the Ukraine in 1991.
The H09 was way worse than any road I’d ever ridden in Asia, and I’ve ridden some horrors. Huge old Russian trucks bludgeoned their way through strings of ankle deep potholes, and the few cars venturing out had to slalom round the pits at walking speed, or risk losing underbody parts. Abandoned wrecks dotted the roadsides.
I seriously thought my bike’s forks would explode with the unremitting, jack-hammer pounding. Tellingly, I saw no adventure bikes at all over the 150kms of H09 torture. It was obviously way too rough for them.
Several hours later, I crawled into the town of Mukachevo through a rainstorm, having completely missed Hoverla although I did manage to buy a fridge magnet of it at a roadside stop. I was almost out of petrol too; there had been one service station on the way but the rain was so heavy all its fuses had blown and the pumps didn’t work.
Mukachevo was the first place I had ever booked ahead — I wasn’t going to get tangled in more Cyrillic hide-and-seek this time. Astonishingly, I rode straight to my lodgings and was welcomed out of the rain by Lydya, who was so shy she didn’t speak a word, only used sign language. A bit strange, I thought, for a bed & breakfast host, but it was Ukraine, after all.
Luckily, her friend from next door, Katya, was very chatty — and had Google Translate on her phone as well. Katya looked at my dripping motorbike, and told me proudly (via Google): “My boyfriend and I did it a lot on a Jawa motorbike many years ago.” I collapsed into bed and slept like only a survivor of the HO9 could.
Next day, I discovered that Mukachevo was another hidden gem, with the best Transylvanian castle ever (Palanok), a genuine communist-era market, and almost no English-speakers. Still grappling with non-Cyrillic syndrome, I sought out the local police station (I could tell by the uniforms) to ask directions to a bank, supermarket and so on.
Inside the police station it was like a Cold War movie set. Chunky crew-cut police types with big sticks sat behind a massive iron grille, studying a bank of flickering screens featuring CCTV and baddie-data replays. I shivered. “Bank? Supermarket?” I queried squeakily.
“Come with me,” said a brisk policewoman, clanging her way through a heavy iron security door. She walked me outside, a way down the street and round the corner where she pointed out both a bank, and a supermarket. “OK, there they are,” she smiled. You don’t get that kind of service in Frankston.
I stayed two days, wandering around the absolutely stupendous castle (dating from the 10th Century) which was tough enough to withstand a two-year siege, as well as the predations of local teenagers posing cheekily and looking for a date.
I also went to the market and tried to photograph the huge chunks of freshly-killed cow, horse or whatever else was on sale, but was warned off by almost everybody inside the building. “No photo!” plus a frown was the standard response. Curiously, a bunch of Romany people did the complete opposite, wishing me a “no problem, God bless, safe visit” selfie-pose.
The last night in Mukachevo, Lydya and Katya took me out for a beer. They had both dressed up, and insisted on buying me a drink too; I almost felt sad to leave their warmth and Android-assisted friendliness. I was even introduced to Katya’s son and girlfriend, who were about to nip out for a meal. Before they did, I learned that several of their friends had just been drafted to fight against Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
As they walked off, Katya tapped into her phone. Google came back with its translation. “We cry for our young men,” it said.
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