Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

28 June 2007

From Russia with love

We are writing this from the Grand Café in Volgograd. After a couple of days of turmoil; several sessions of stabbing voodoo dolls of the traffic police; and wondering whether or not this whole mad-cap trip is worth it or whether we wouldn’t be better turning round and going to Spain for six months, things are finally starting to look up.

Our replacement water system parts successfully made it all the way from Surrey to the Hotel Volgograd and, after some blood, sweat (it is 38 degrees here) and (almost) tears, we managed to fix our water pipe with the assistance of a spanner borrowed from a burly Russian workman. Which is very good news indeed given the vast quantities of water which we will need in the Central Asian heat.

We have been really surprised by Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) which has lots to see (including the huge “Mother Russia” statue in the Battle of Stalingrad memorial park, see attached photo - it is purportedly the tallest statue in the world). The city has a really laid back, distinctly un-Russian, feel: lots of pavement cafes; wide tree-lined boulevards reminiscent of France; immaculately manicured parks; and incredibly well dressed “beautiful people” who would be perfectly at home in South Kensington (Michael points out that strappy tops, stilettos and pert bottoms are very much de rigeur around here – I’m not sure that he should be looking at Russian bottoms).

Today is Day 80 of our trip. We are therefore not doing quite as well as Mr Fogg. But no matter. Our next posting will probably (hopefully) be from Kazakhstan, which will please those of you who have been waiting until the ‘Stans to post comments on our blog (hint hint!!).

Bribes, bribes and more bribes

We were sorry to be leaving Ukraine. We have really enjoyed the past few weeks there – much of the country is really interesting and (with only a few exceptions, mainly in Kyiv and Yalta) we have found the people to be very friendly (not least Svetlana and family, during our random and bizarre Ukranian family dinner with them – see below). As we headed towards Russia, though, things changed.

First we had a terrible night’s sleep, as monsoon conditions brought swarms of mosquitoes which invaded our van. In such a confined space, there is no escape, and despite killing quite a number of the little critters, we were bitten half to death. Normally that wouldn’t matter, but the lack of sleep later proved to be rather less than ideal.

Feeling quite groggy the next morning, we headed for the border between Ukraine and Russia. We were relived to note real contrasts between the Ukraine border and our previous Russian border, notably that the Ukrainian officials smiled (rather than looking like they wanted to kill us) and the female customs officer was dressed in a remarkably normal short skirt and kitten heels (rather than sporting the butch bull-dog look which we had previously encountered in Russia). All of our organisation seemed to be paying off on the Ukrainian side, until the customs man decided that he would try to extort money from Michael in return for stamping Michael’s passport on the same page as an existing stamp (in the continuing saga that is Michael being short of passport pages for our trip). Michael played dumb to his request for a “present” and eventually we were waved on without having paid anything. Bribe number one: avoided.

On the Russian side, Michael’s passport received the usual extra attention: he now has significantly more hair than in his photo; his passport is very old and worn, with no gold GB embossing; and they clearly don’t like some of the stamps in there one little bit (we are not sure which ones or why). But we got our entry stamps with relatively little difficulty. Then the customs searches started. Until now, we have raised little suspicion, prompting only fairly cursory checks of certain of our bags at the borders. But at this border, we had a full search of every cupboard and drawer; our tea bags were examined and smelt for “narcotica”; and every inch of the inside and outside of our van was reviewed with a mirror on a long stick, designed to give a view of hidden corners. We watched the customs man like hawks the whole time. In the end, he waved us through to see his mate.

His mate proceeded to fill in exactly the same forms as we had been given the last time we entered Russia. Except that this time, he wanted money for his efforts. We made clear that we had done all this before and had not needed to pay. Suddenly, the price of the document which had he claimed carried a fee dropped miraculously by 75%. Strangely, we were a little suspicious about whether that fee was ever going to make it into Russian Federation coffers. But having made our point and got the price dropped, we paid him a small sum that we could get all of our documents stamped and get the journey underway. So that was bribe number two.

We didn’t make it very far before we saw our first traffic police. And on it went. Every 10 minutes or so, more of them. They have no interest in whether people are doing anything wrong. They just wave their black and white stripped batons at cars on a random basis, with the same “the power has gone to my head” looks on their face that bouncers often have at nightclubs. There is always a car pulled into the side of the road, so whether you get pulled over depends on whether you happen to be the next car to come down the road after the previous victim has left.

We had been stopped in Ukraine, but the police had been friendly and reasonable. In Russia, it was a different story. We had been pootling along, well within the speed limit, for a good few kilometres, with no other cars in sight on a wide open stretch of road. We saw a huge group of traffic police on a roundabout and made sure that we continued to do everything right as we approached. Yet still they waved us down. A deeply annoying policeman dragged Michael out of the car and accused him of overtaking in a no overtaking zone. This was a pathetic work of fiction – we hadn’t overtaken; there had been no “no overtaking” signs or solid white lines in the road; and there had been no car to overtake for quite some time, even if we had wanted to. He clearly knew full well that we hadn’t overtaken, as his efforts to convince us of what we have done wrong were extremely half hearted, but nevertheless he started filling in paperwork trying to invalidate Michael’s licence and fine us a small fortune. Except that, at the key moment, he whisked Michael to one side and mentioned the word “roubles”. And also refused to hand out an official receipt. Again, strange that – but then I suppose that you can’t expect a receipt for a policeman’s beer money. We were both livid, but he had our passports and driving licences and the bottom line is that he could have made life very difficult if we didn’t co-operate, so after some bartering, Michael slipped him the equivalent of a fiver and we drove off. During the time we were there, our bloke’s mates stopped endless other locals who did exactly the same. Which is why they all stand there, on the roundabout, in their big police money making exercise – because it is cheaper for everyone to pay their back-handers than to deal with the paperwork and rigmarole involved in explaining that you have done nothing wrong.

So, welcome to Russia. One day, three requests for bribes, none of them with any foundation at all. And we suspect that it will only get worse as we continue in Russia and onwards to Central Asia. Remind us again why more people don’t come here…..?

25 June 2007

Home vodka, salo and speeches

During Rich’s visit we had been far too sociable and had drunk far too much, so we planned a quiet, alcohol-free night catching up on journals and reading the paper. We arrived in the small village of Velika Krucha nice and early, where we sat reading whilst overlooking the river. All very civilised. Until a group of four school boys turned up and nervously approached so that they could practice their English on us. In fact, their English was impeccable and they were very bright, so we had an interesting conversation with them about school and life in Ukraine. They eventually left, but soon after we had returned to our journals, it emerged that word had spread in the village about the arrival of the English people. Two more groups of kids turned up, this time with much more limited English – though they did know enough to pronounce that “Big Ben is Cool”. They were intent on giggling loudly and excitedly; talking about English and American music; showing us how to text in Cyrillic; playing us every tune available on their phones; and taking lots of photos.

At this point, Michael escaped for a tactical trip to the toilet, during which time I was collared by the indomitable Svetlana, who appeared to be a bit of a local celebrity. She spoke no English bar the words “home vodka” and very kindly invited us back to her house to sample said vodka. We nervously agreed and found ourselves walking the mile or so up the road, accompanied by Svetlana; her 17 year old daughter Tania (who thankfully spoke some English); and Tania’s boyfriend.

Upon arrival at the house, we also met Svetlana’s husband Nikolai and 15 year old son Sascha, who both seemed entirely unperturbed by the fact that complete strangers had turned up on their doorstep. They were all very welcoming and very excited to have English people in the village, which appeared to be a first. We were directed to the living room, where we were proudly shown Sascha’s running medals and the wedding photos of daughter number two, whilst Svetlana disappeared to prepare a huge Ukrainian feast for everyone.

What followed was a slightly surreal evening. We feasted on Ukrainian borscht; salo (slices of pure pig fat – a Ukrainian delicacy which seems to be very popular around here); tomato salad; and garlic bread. This was all accompanied by numerous shots of home brewed vodka, which in turn were washed down with home brewed beer. There was lots of chat (or at least as much chat as you can have when only one out of five people speaks any of the same language as you) about Dynamo Kyiv and life in the village (where temperatures are apparently not all that cold, although Svetlana’s daughter got married in January last year in minus 27 degrees - we thought that was fairly cold, but apparently she wore a shawl, so that’s OK). Svetlana and Nikolai also sang a traditional Ukrainian song together, whilst we sat in bewilderment, quite unsure how to react. They are obviously very proud people: proud of their children; their village; their traditions; and Ukraine. There were lots of toasts, mainly to “beloved Ukrania” and the like.

After a few too many rounds of home vodka, Svetlana insisted on getting out the video camera so that Michael could say something in English. Sascha filmed a rather tipsy Michael giving his thanks for the family’s hospitality. We were then presented with leaving gifs, namely a hand-sewn picture of a Ukrainian sunflower field and a Cossack money box pig, which appeared to have been taken off the family side-board (and which still contained the children’s pocket money). Our protests that gifts were unnecessary fell on deaf ears, so we left (still slightly bewildered) having had a very enjoyable night and now with a Cossack pig in tow.


Partly out of our own interest, but also in large part due to Rich’s mission to visit the “extreme tourism” sites of the world (his trip to North Korea being a prime example), we booked a trip to the site of the world’s world nuclear disaster. Well, why wouldn’t you?

Needless to say, you can’t just pitch up and wander around the site of the Chernobyl disaster. We found a travel company who could organise the permits which we needed to enter and set off in a minibus driven by a large, moustachioed Ukrainian on the two hours ride north. Given our lack of previous experience in visiting nuclear disaster sites, we weren’t quite sure what to expect, so we were a little nervous as we approached the 30km exclusion zone. We stopped for police checks at the exclusion zone border, by the side of several nuclear danger signs, before proceeding towards the town of Chernobyl itself.

On arrival into the 10km exclusion zone, after more police checks, we were surprised at how many people were working in Chernobyl. It is by no stretch of the imagination a “normal” Ukrainian town, as the buildings are a mixture of seemingly bomb sites and run down 1980s facades, but there were perhaps 20 to 30 people on the streets, chatting, smoking or driving old Ladas. We had expected that the only people here would be scientists, but it was immediately clear that there is more going on than we had realised.

We met our guide, Dennis, who gave us a brief introduction to the area. Actually, Dennis was the gruff and silent type, so his introduction actually just involved him standing there in camouflage jacket and black shades; cigarette hanging out of one side of his mouth; waving a long pointy stick at a map, but failing to tell us basic things like how, when and why the reactor exploded.

First stop on our tour was a memorial to the fire-fighters who died trying to put out the fire which resulted from the nuclear explosion. No-one seemed able to confirm to us whether these fire fighters understood what had happened and the risks involved, or whether they believed that they were just putting out a regular fire. Either way, by all accounts they died pretty horrific deaths from significant exposure to radioactivity. Already we were realising that this wasn’t going to be the most uplifting day trip we would make.

From there we headed off towards Kopachi, a village so badly hit by nuclear fallout after the “accident” that the authorities entirely flattened it and buried all of the buildings under the ground. A triangular yellow nuclear marker now stands on the site of each of the houses which were destroyed. All very eerie.

We then drove off to meet Julia, a representative of the International Chernobyl Organisation, who works in a viewing platform overlooking Reactor 4, the reactor in which the enormous nuclear explosion took place in April 1986. Quite an odd office location, we thought, but she seemed oblivious. Julia explained a bit about what work has been done in the last 21 years to stabilise the reactor and the problems which are still being faced. It seems that the sarcophagus which now stands over Reactor 4 was erected in just 206 days stating about three weeks after the explosion. It is balanced precariously on the walls of the reactor itself, and by all accounts is in a bad state, with gaps in the concrete shell and real concerns about it shifting, thus churning up the radioactive dust which still lies within. Although they have recently erected some yellow scaffolding to prop the whole thing up, progress in the last 21 years appears to have been otherwise painfully slow. Plans for a replacement sarcophagus still seem a distant prospect – the technical, financial and (we suspect most significantly) political barriers seems to be too much to deal with. It seems than Ukraine, Russia and Belarus (which lies only 8km up the road and whose citizens have been worst affected by the nuclear fallout) can’t agree on very much. So let’s hope that there isn’t an earthquake or hurricane near Chernobyl any time soon, or Ukraine and much of the rest of Europe may well regret not sorting out that concrete shell…..

We paused to take photos of Rich in front of Reactor 4. The scary thing is that Reactors 3 and 4 are joined together and used the same chimney, but even after Reactor 4 exploded in the world’s worst nuclear disaster, they carried on using Reactor 3 (until 2000). We decided that we might have been a little more cautious and stopped using it immediately. But no, why not carry on for another fourteen years?

From there we drove to Pripyat, which is the closest town to the reactor (closer than the much better known Chernobyl). The experiment to bury Kopachi under the ground had failed, as the whole place stayed radioactive, so they didn’t bother to bury Pripyat. As a result, it still stands as an eerie, deserted town. It was abandoned three days after the explosion (the Soviet authorities didn’t tell people for three days about what had happened, which is a source of much anger in the Ukraine, where they believe that many of the deaths and illnesses which have followed could have been avoided had people been evacuated properly). The swimming pool, fun fair, hotel, restaurant and apartment buildings are all still there, but now surrounded by 21 years of vegetation growing out of the roads, pavements and buildings. The whole place was looted in the weeks after the explosion, too, so there are broken windows aplenty. Again, we still don’t know whether the looters understood the risks when they came back to steal things and presumably ended up with a big dose of radiation.

On the way out of Pripyat, we saw some houses which are clearly still lived in – some of the elderly people who were resettled to Kyiv after the accident never quite got used to it and came back against government advice. It must be such a strange life for these so-called “self settlers”, living in a largely abandoned town, next to looted houses, in a area which looks to all intents and purposes like it has been bombed and never rebuilt. Not to mention the ongoing health effects, which are more severe when you are growing mushrooms and picking berries from the land, as the self settlers do, because those foods absorb high levels of radioactivity.

We had been told to wear long sleeves and covered shoes due to the radioactivity in the area. The local construction workers didn’t seem to care, though, and wore short sleeves T-shirts. Dennis carried around a Geiger counter and was fond of testing the ground from time to time, though I suspected that this was mainly for effect as although the readings were higher than Kyiv, they were still fairly low for most of the time. They only rose at sites where there is still lots of radioactive dust, such as the “Red Forest”, which as its name would suggest is a forest which turned entirely red after the accident and had to be chopped down before being buried. When driving through there, the Geiger counter went crazy and off the scale. Our moustachioed driver’s love of speed suddenly came in very useful, as with his foot to the floor we were out of there in moments.

We ate lunch (which was guaranteed to have come from outside the area) in suitably kitsch Soviet surroundings and then headed out of the exclusion zone, via more police checks and a slightly theatrical fiasco during which we were frog-marched into a Soviet checkpoint building to take our turns standing in tall grey radioactivity testing machines. Thankfully, we all passed with flying colours and were left thinking that the guards were rather playing up to the crowds by making us go through the rigmarole. So, no need to worry, mum. We are not glowing green, so it must be OK….

Then it was back to Kyiv for much discussion over beers and Georgian fare about how odd the trip had been; why people would bother to risk exposure in order to loot some vodka; what the lives of the self-settlers must be like; and how on earth it has taken 21 years to do little more than build some yellow scaffolding. An interesting, if very odd, day trip. And a fitting end to Rich’s twice extended “long weekend” (aka 15 day trip) in Ukraine.

Kyiv Mark II

Armenian Fish Market, Ukraine
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
After a couple of days in Yalta (ЯЛТА) we were all beginning to suffer from the heat; the sheer number of (largely Russian) tourists; and hugely inflated prices, so we decided to start our long trip back to Kyiv. Before leaving the Black Sea (which may well be our last sight of the sea for a long time now) we visited Livadia Palace, where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin carved up Eastern Europe at one of the important conferences post World War II. The palace is full of photos from the event, showing the three big guys having a laugh and a chuckle (and, in Churchill’s case, smoking a lot of cigars). No mention is made of how unpopular the decisions taken there were (for example in the Baltic States, where the popular view seems to be that they were badly let down by old Winston and his cigars) or of the fact that Stalin later ignored the vast majority of what was agreed at the conference.

As we climbed up through the mountains, the plan was to find a spot for lunch, but the weather broke suddenly and spectacularly – we went from blazing sunshine to a tropical style monsoon. At one moment on the mountain road, all the traffic had to stop as we were being bombarded by enormous hailstones in thick mist. We made a brief stop at an Armenian dried fish market, where hundreds of dried fish of every species imaginable were being sold from stalls or from the back of clapped out old Ladas. One of the stallholders insisted on giving us three fish, but in the end we weren’t brave enough to actually eat it (mainly because we couldn’t find any fish on the dried carcass, only fins and scales).

From there it was on to the first of a series of motels that would follow an established pattern – arrive at motel; Richard takes grotty room; we all drink too much outside whilst being eaten alive by mosquitoes; we sleep in van; and Rich fails to sleep due to nightmares about cockroaches, passing trucks or dreadful wall paper. Having said that, we generally enjoyed those places, mainly because people in Ukraine have been so friendly and really keen to hear about our trip or where we come from.

To spice up the long journey back from the Crimea to Kyiv, we sought out a couple of bonus “sights” recommended by both the Lonely Planet and Bradt guides to Ukraine. The first was a safari park established on the Ukrainian Steppe by a mad German settler a long while back, populated by animals from all over the world. We arrived to find the safari shut due to the heat (?!?). The associated “zoo-park” was a bit depressing: lots of animals who clearly weren’t designed for 35 degree heat on the Steppe. The second bonus sight was allegedly (and I quote directly) “a hidden Swedish city” in southern Ukraine. The books say that the buildings are in Scandinavian style and the villagers speak Swedish. We can only assume that the authors have never visited – the village is actually a very ordinary, entirely Ukrainian village, with barely any Scandinavian buildings in sight and Swedish which was written and spoken strangely like Ukrainian. The main consolation was seeing some German tourists who were looking very bemused – they had clearly read the same thing in their guide book, driven for 20km along the same dodgy road, and were wondering how they had been taken in by the same joke.

Bar the fiasco of visiting non-existent “sights”, all was looking good as we headed north, until Michael turned the tap on in our van to do the washing up. Unfortunately, no water came out of the tap (which had been working perfectly well the night before). Checking the water levels, fuses etc etc and employing our standard tactic of turning everything off and then back on again didn’t work. Upon further exploration, it emerged that a small plastic piece of pipe has completely severed in two, so we have no connection between our fresh water tank and our tap. All very annoying, given that we are about to head into the boiling hot ‘Stans and will be heavily reliant on our water supply. So, we have spent the last few days desperately trying to arrange for a spare part to be shipped to Russia, which isn’t easy when you are in the middle of Ukraine with no email, no land line and no fixed abode for anyone to ship to. Fingers crossed it turns up in Volgograd and we can make the necessary repairs. We shall see.

16 June 2007

Crimean Capers

Richard has joined us for the Crimean section of our adventure, so for the past few days we have had some company on our trip. Following a lazy time drinking and wandering around Odesa, we headed out on the long (but thankfully less potholed) road south to the Crimea. The area is very Russian – people here speak Russian rather than Ukrainian; someone tried to poison (and successfully disfigured) the pro-Ukranian Viktor Yushchnko when he ran for president a few years back; there are rumours of a move back to join the motherland; and there is a huge contrast between this area and the west of the country (which was very much more European).

We spent our first night in Simferopol, the capital of the Crimea. The Crimea is all about looking good – even during the middle of the week, people were promenading up and down the main street, drinking beer from bottles, all dressed up to the nines. Girls are all immaculately groomed; almost without exception rake thin; most sport skin tight dresses or the shortest skirts imaginable; and metallic stilettos are de rigueur. Most of the men strut around in very tight T-shirts looking extremely moody and very much up for a fight. We promenaded with the best of them and also, bizarrely, ate pizza from a fairytale themed restaurant, complete with several stuffed dwarves. Post-pizza, Helen wisely retired to bed whilst Michael and Richard spent the evening in one of the dodgier bars of the locality, where the “ladies” wore rather less than even the miniscule skirts we had seen on the street…..

From Simferopol we headed towards the south coast and firmly onto the Russian tourist trail. In the days of the USSR, the Crimea was the major holiday destination for Soviet workers, and it is still incredibly popular with Ukrainians and Russians. There are barely any European tourists at all, which is a shame as the area has a lot of offer, including some stunning scenery; spectacular castles; and interesting history. In the Arabic-Tatar town of Bakhchysaray, we visited the Khan’s Palace and ancient mosques, which date from the period when Islamic Tatar culture ruled in these parts. It is very odd to be plunged into an Islamic world and scenes that reminded us very much of Morocco, despite being in a Russian speaking (and mainly Orthodox Christian) part of the world. From there we moved further up the valley to a tiny Orthodox church carved into the rock, and then onto the “cave town” of Chufut-Kale (literally “Jewish Fortress”) where we wandered around an amazing, peaceful network of caves, enjoying a fantastic view over the valleys below.

Our accommodation that evening was pure Soviet kitsch. The Hotel Sevastopol is in the town of the same name, which until 1996 was a closed Russian naval base which was completely inaccessible to the public. Even now that the public can visit, it is a very odd place – the town seems to be stuck in the Soviet era, with large concrete Soviet stars decorating the park; naval cadets guarding the fighters’ memorial; Soviet military music blaring out over the tannoy during the day and mock air-raid sirens being played over the same public tannoy to accompany our Ukrainian beer drinking in the evening. The Hotel Sevastopol itself is all 1970s psychedelic carpets; Soviet stars in tasteful Artex on the walls; brown floral bedding; and (or so Richard thought) odd devices on the ceilings which looked rather like bugging devices / microphones. We, however, did not get the full on kitsch experience, as we hatched a secret deal with the car park attendants (on a strictly Mafioso, you line my pocket and don’t mention it to reception basis) to sleep in the van out in the car park.

The drive from Sevastopol towards Yalta is pretty spectacular, with seemingly endless swathes of pine trees on craggy hills above the road to the left and turquoise sea to the right. We headed to a couple of castles which sit in spectacular locations between the mountains and the sea, or overhanging the sea. Romania may have the reputation for stunning castles, but Ukraine beats it hands down. We also braved the cable car up the mountain, which neither the writer of our Lonely Planet guide or Richard’s Bradt guide appear to have done (on the basis that it all looks a bit dodgy). We were rewarded with the steepest cable car ride imaginable, which felt like it was manoeuvring straight into the mountain face at points; brilliant views over the Crimea; and a whole village, entirely hidden from the road below, made up of a mixture of tourist souvenirs and Tatar food stalls selling cheap, tasty fare (which all looked a lot like a cross between Marrakech and Kashgar – again, incongruous given that we are in the middle of a former Soviet, and still very Russian, region).

We are now in Yalta, which is a bit like Southend-on-Sea and / or a slightly toned down version of Blackpool. Lots of sunshine and tiny bikinis, but all against a backdrop of funfair rides; lots of promenading; too much beer; and multiple examples of the Ukrainians’ favourite pastime – having their photos taken in fancy dress / against a mock backdrop / with a live animal… they are obsessed with it. We have seen on offer photo opportunities to sit in Edwardian dresses on enormous thrones; biker gear to dress up in whilst sitting on a Harley Davidson; or Soviet gear to pose with whilst holding a large machine gun. Not to mention the vast array of animals available – who wouldn’t want to pose for a photo with a snake around his neck and / or a baby crocodile in his arms and / or a holding a monkey / peacock / falcon / owl etc etc?? The RSPCA would have a field day. Not least with the dolphinarium in our hotel, the incredible Hotel Yalta, which was built to house 2230 Soviet workers on their annual holiday (mandated by Lenin to keep the worker’s spirits up with a bit of Crimean sunshine). The hotel comes equipped with 10 bars; seven restaurants; a shopping mall; a subterranean lift to a private beach; an Olympic saltwater swimming pool; and said dolphinarium. All very, very odd and very tired looking. The map given to us by the hotel dates from 1986 and was produced under the Soviet regime. But the statue of Lenin in town now overlooks a McDonalds, showing that even in this still remarkably Soviet heartland, there is no escape from some things.

11 June 2007

Pivo in Odesa

Rich, Mike and Helen in Odesa
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
We are now in Odesa (Odessa in Russian), having enjoyed a week or so in the Ukraine. We left Lviv and struggled for an extremely slow 500km along the miserable E40 and past endless roadworks to reach Kyiv (again, Ukrainian spelling) in time to meet the family Broadwith who came out to visit for a long weekend. Here Mum, Jo and Rich stayed in the luxury of the slightly Mafioso “Hotel President” – lots of large black SUVs with tinted windows – whilst we camped out in the car park of the rather tired “Rus” hotel next door.

Kyiv was so different to the west of the Ukraine - a big city with nice restaurants and western prices that were a shock to the system after Romania and the west of the country. Suddenly we heard English being spoken again and saw lots of business travellers. We enjoyed nice restaurant meals; wandered around the city; looked around some bizarre caves containing mummified martyrs wrapped up in glass cabinets (which lots of Eastern Orthodox believers were kissing); visited the chilling Chornobyl Museum; and spent lots of time in many, many coffee houses.

After waving Mum and Jo off we zoomed down the excellent E95 to Odesa with Rich, which was rather embarrassing as we had been banging on about how bad the roads are only to find that suddenly they were brilliant. Now we’re here drinking cheap Ukranian beer, having spent the afternoon at the beach idly watching Ukrainian women (who pretty much without exception all seem to be very slim, very well dressed and very good looking). Tomorrow – the road south to the Crimea with Rich; our third traveller for the next 10 days or so.

06 June 2007

First impressions of the Ukraine

We’re now in Lviv, in North Western Ukraine. It has a turbulent history and has been ruled buy Germans, Poles and Russians amongst others over the years but is now settled as the most ‘European’ of Ukrainian cities. We arrived reasonably late last night after a long drive. We are staying in the same hotel as Ewan McGregor stayed in when his did his ‘Long Way Round’ trip (we read the book and watched the – very good - TV series before our trip). Unfortunately we were unable to park our van in the lobby as he did with his motorbike, but we can at least drink in the jaded 70s appeal of a Soviet era hotel: psychedelic carpets; gold lame bedspreads; ostentatious yet faded stairways; and strange customers creaking their way up and down the corridors at all hours, to and from the communal chlorine soaked bathrooms.

We arrived in the Ukraine on Monday and had a long, stressful day. The border crossing, although slow, was reasonably straightforward – greatly aided by a younger customs officer who was very keen to practice her English on us. Unfortunately, though, we were unable to buy compulsory road insurance at the border as we had expected (and the customs people didn’t seem in the slightest bit concerned that we didn’t have it). This meant a rather nerve-wracking, uninsured drive to the first large town, making no less than seven stops along the way to seek directions from a series of helpful locals (none of whom spoke English). One local directed us to a hairdresser, which we could only assume was because she had taken one look at my hair and decided that must be what we were after. In fact, it turned out that the insurance office was next to the hairdressers and thankfully was able to provide us with what we needed.

All this navigation is made more difficult as we are back in the worlds of both the Cyrillic alphabet and also tiny (or mainly non-existent) signs for street names. Anyway, suitably insured we then drove 5km in the wrong direction as Michael had misread the map; followed the bizarre instructions of a police man to just ‘go for it’ the wrong way down a one way street (he looked very exasperated when we tried to suggest that we were a little concerned about driving into the oncoming stream of trams, cars and trolley buses and told us to get on with it); drove back to town and eventually headed in the correct direction.

By this point we were both knackered, stressed and in need of a good rest. After a couple of false hopes we eventually found a nice friendly motel with accommodating staff who agreed, via international sign language, to let us park and sleep round the back, whilst providing surprisingly tasty food and very cheap beer (25 pence for half a litre). They even had a dirty video juke box on the bar but we managed to resist, not wanting to corrupt their view of the British.

The next day we were up early to visit the local fortress as Khotyn, which was fantastic. Then we made the short drive up to the town of Kamyanets-Podilsky which is, like Český Krumlov, located in the middle of a tight river meander. It is a stunning location and we parked up in the old town square before enjoying an amble around the town and down to our second stunning fortress of the day, complete with rickety ramparts, spooky dungeons and poor quality waxworks. I also tried my hand at archery under the guidance of a very scary local.

Everywhere that we have been in the last couple of days has really endeared the Ukraine to us; the castles are fantastic; everything is really cheap; and the people are warm, helpful and welcoming. The only exception so far has been the police, who seem perfectly willing to flag down any vehicle, including us, whether or not they have done anything wrong. We got pulled over yesterday for seemingly absolutely nothing at all, given that we were going at snails pace and not driving like lunatics (unlike the locals) – they had clearly just decided to pull over the next car they saw as they were waving us in before we were even really in sight. Fortunately, the trick of looking completely blank; smiling; and turning on the Broadwith charm ;-) seemed to do the trick and we were eventually waved on with a handshake. Will this continue as we head to Kiev…?

Cows, carts and other rural things

After Budapest, we headed towards Romania. In the Hungarian countryside, we met the first person who genuinely thought that I (the passenger) was somehow driving the van without a steering wheel. He was, as you can imagine, extremely curious. He was also very excited to discover that the steering wheel was, in fact, on the other side of the vehicle to every other car he had ever seen.

Going into Romania was a big contrast to the rest of Eastern Europe. It may now be part of the EU (there are EU flags everywhere) and the cities may well be very cosmopolitan, but the border towns and the countryside are like stepping back in time. We had expected it a bit, but we were definitely surprised by the degree of change. At times the roads have been almost impassable (being little more than tracks and completely flooded, which isn’t great when you are on what is supposedly a major European trucking route).

The Lonely Planet bangs on about Romania being a land of castles, monasteries, skiing and stylish cities. In fact, it is mainly reams and reams of rural life: we have seen more horses and carts in the past few days than in the whole of the rest of our lives; chicken, turkeys and donkeys wander around the edge of the roads (and sometimes right down the middle of them - even on the major “E” roads we have had to slow down to overtake the occasional stray cow); there are enormous numbers of stray dogs – many alive, but many squashed at the side of the road as they seem to have no sense that the middle of the road is not the safest place to be. Absolutely all of the women in the countryside who are over the age of 40 wear headscarves. Many of the men wear hats, either caps or tall Romanian creations made of straw. The passing traffic on our trip through the mountains from Braşov heading north was about 30% vehicles and 70% ambling, sun-wrinkled women in headscarves; equally sun-wrinkled men in hats; horses and carts; and random animals.

We have seen some castles, though. Bran Castle (allegedly Count Dracula’s castle) wasn’t quite what we had hoped, mainly because it was overrun with screaming Romanian school children and really not all that dramatic. Worth a trip, though, if only for the enormous amounts of vampire related tat on sale. Just up the road, on the other hand, Râşnov Citadel was amazing. Our guide book told us nothing about it other than to mention that it exists and is a ruin. We struggled up a very steep slope, losing traction as we went. We arrived to find it closed, but for some reason the old Romanian gate keeper took a shine to us and let us in for a few minutes, though it turned out to be much longer and he didn’t seem to mind. We wandered around the tiny old town, up cobbled streets and past all the old houses. There is a 146m deep well dug by hand by two Turkish prisoners way back when, over a period of 17 years. They dug about 3cm a day over that time on the promise that they would be released once it was finished. There appears to be no record of whether they were released, but the well is huge and apparently kept the citadel going for hundreds of years. There is also a very old human skeleton partly visible in the ground – hopefully not the Turks; that’s not much of a way to thank them. The views from the citadel walls over the town below, the mountains and the enormous grassy plain below were amazing.

Although Transylvania is not quite what we expected, in that it is much flatter and less forested than we had though (and there are fewer grey stone castles perched on hills), some of the old towns are very pretty. Sighişoara is quite touristy, though, hence we met three men (two very tall, one very small with almost no teeth) dressed up in traditional garb (seemingly paid by the Council to promote tourism) who seemed to have “Welcome to Transylvania, Romania: thank you for visiting our Citadel” off pat in at least six languages (including Japanese) and shouted it very loudly every two minutes whilst banging a drum. Braşov is a lovely place to amble in the sunshine and seems to serve as a major wedding destination for all of the villages in Transylvania – the church just off the park had a conveyor belt system going and there was a queue of brides waiting to have their photos taken in front of each statue and fountain in the park.

After Braşov we headed north into Moldavia, which looked far more like the countryside we had expected in Transylvania: rolling hills, mountains, big open plains between the mountain ranges, and lots of villages strung along the road. It reminded Michael of the Hunza valley in Pakistan - very green; all local life focussed along the road; and lots of people sitting on benches outside their houses, chewing the fat and watching the world go by. It was a really picturesque and interesting drive through the mountains towards the Ukraine.

03 June 2007

Český Krumlov and a brief jaunt into Western Europe

After leaving Krakow, we decided not to head over to Prague as we had planned, but instead to explore the southern part of the Czech Republic. The highlight was a small town called Český Krumlov, near to the borders with Germany and Austria. We have seen so many “Old Towns” on this trip that we thought that we were getting jaded, but Český Krumlov is definitely one of the best – a really laid back atmosphere with lots to do (particularly a huge canoeing scene – our campsite had more than a hundred canoeists staying on it) and all in a very pretty old town with lots of lovely cafes and bars. Amazingly, it was not completely overrun with tourists and was in fact much quieter than many of the places we have seen – it is obviously not on all of the European coach tours etc. It should be and we would definitely recommend a visit to anyone who finds themselves in the Czech Republic, south eastern Germany or northern Austria. We had a really good couple of days wandering around town in the glorious sunshine; sitting in cafes; and pootling along the river in a canoe (see the video of us going down one of the weirs). We had a few beers with some New Zealanders who have been living in England for a couple of years and are now travelling around Europe in an old-ish VW camper van, which is like a slightly newer version of “Hectar” (the van we hired to go to Scotland in 2005), the major difference being that Kitty and Dan have painted up their van with pictures of their travels – see the photo of them with their paint job.

Post Poland, we have racked up a hefty number of miles (and a big diesel bill) by making a side trip into Western Europe: firstly to Munich to have our van serviced and pick up our Carnet de Passage; and secondly to Budapest to organise our visas for China. We had decided before this trip that we wouldn’t spend any time at all in Western Europe, bar doing various bits of admin there, as we want to spend our time and money further east. So motorways have been our main scenery of the past few days.

The trip to Munich was easy and the German Autobahn (complete with German drivers who clearly fancy themselves as mini-Schumachers) is a joy to drive on compared to some of the rutted roads we have experienced of late (and no doubt what is still to come). On arrival in Munich, Michael uttered the fatal words “we have had consistently good weather on this trip - no persistent rain at all”. The following day, it poured down relentlessly for the entire day. We got completely drowned during the morning and thus spent the afternoon, whilst waiting for the van to be serviced, in Starbucks (the first we have seen since leaving the UK, but we weren’t going to start moaning about US chains taking over the world given the decent coffee and a hot radiator to dry our soaking clothes). Thankfully, the VW garage in Munich was very efficient and the service was done very quickly, the only downside being the unexpectedly hefty bill for the routine first oil change (Brooksies be warned for our van’s cousin – VW’s special long life oil for a full oil change doesn’t come cheap at Euro 166 a pop!).

We also picked up our Carnet from ADAC (the German equivalent of the AA) amidst much nervousness. The Carnet is, aside from the van, the biggest expense of our trip. We basically had to lodge a horrible sum of money so that the ADAC will guarantee to various countries around the world that if we try to sell our vehicle there contrary to their rules, ADAC will pay the customs duty to that country. In theory, we get the deposit back when we get our van back to the UK and send the Carnet back to Munich. But that is in theory. If the van gets stolen or written off, the deposit is in danger (though that may of course be the least of our worries). We have to get our Carnet stamped when we enter the applicable countries and then stamped again on the way out. We also have to rely on the customs people at the exit border matching up their bit of paper with the bit of paper which the customs people at the entry border (hundreds of kilometres away) have kept. What are the chances of that? Little to none, by the sounds of things. ADAC told us that countries like India often make claims on the Carnet. This did nothing to ease our fears of never seeing our deposit money again. Anyway, at least the lady at ADAC was very friendly, helpful and displayed typical German efficiency, so we gained some confidence that she would be a useful person to know should we have issues with the Carnet. We are now fiercely guarding the Carnet document and hoping for the best.

Post Munich, we headed into Austria and nearly had our first accident of the trip when a learner driver did his best to swerve into us in a tunnel, but Michael managed to swerve equally quickly and no damage was done bar our heart rates increasing significantly. Given that we were keen to get to Budapest asap, we stayed at a truck stop for the first time on this trip. Sadly, no greasy trucker’s breakfast was available next morning as we had hoped.

In Budapest we were amazed to find that all of our research on opening hours, fees, forms, which window to go to for each part of the process etc had paid off and we got our Chinese visas surprisingly easily on an express, one-day turnaround. They were even fairly cheap compared to the cost in London. If only all our visa applications were all like this – getting Russian visas in Kiev is going to be five times as expensive, take ten times longer and will no doubt be a much bigger headache given our experience to date of the language barrier and Russian bureaucracy.