Friday, September 8, 2017

Satu Mare, Romania to Chernivtsi, Ukraine: I'm in Ukraine!

Internet here can best be described as "wireless dial-up" so there won't be any photos until I take a day to bike to an internet cafe. Sorry!

After a much needed and well enjoyed rest day in Satu Mare with Soren and his wife – I had the privilege of choosing what to eat for lunch (a salad of my own creation, which they liked so much they said they'd be making it again) and dinner (pasta with cheese, because it had been too long) – I left for Ukraine. It was more than three months ago I committed to this WWOOF, so it had been a long time coming. Finally, I would enter Ukraine!

Just, y'know, some more busy narrow-margin roads and a border crossing to endure.

At a checkpoint before the border crossing I was stopped by a guard and told I couldn't bike across the border – it was motorized traffic only. I asked why and he said he didn't know, but that was the rule. Okay... annoying, but not his fault. He spoke very good English, so as we waited for someone willing to take me across we got to know each other a bit, and when another guard showed up with lunch he even offered me some. Despite the annoyance of having to find someone to take me across (which he would do for me) I felt very welcome there at the border.

In 30 minutes only three cars went through and only two were big enough to hold my bike. The second of these was willing to take me and was big enough we didn't even have to disassemble the bike or take anything off of it. At first he seemed very kind and unassuming, but 20 meters after leaving Romania (eg in no-man's-land) he pulled over and seemed very insistent that I bike the rest of the way. I tried to tell him that I couldn't, I needed him to drive me, but he was really, really insistent that I get out of his car. I'm not sure what the deal was (he spoke no English and I spoke no whatever-he-was-speaking, I assume Romanian), but not wanting to cause a ruckus, I got out of the car, got my bike, and pedaled on after him.

100 meters later, I was stopped at the actual border by a very buff woman with a machine gun who also didn't speak English. She was very kind, though – through about 5 minutes of gesturing and pointing it was established that I would wait by the side of the road while she found someone willing to take me the rest of the way. The first car that pulled up was willing, though as it was a sedan I had to take off all my baggage and lay my bike sticking out the back of the trunk. In any case, he took me through the Ukranian side, and seemed content to drive me home with him, but about 500 meters from the border I decided I'd rather not overstay my welcome and motioned I'd like to get out. He held my bike for me while I loaded it, we shook hands, and went on our ways.

Everyone I encountered seemed surprised that an American was coming through. It was no problem at all, it seemed, just not something that happens often. I'm not sure how many Americans come to Ukraine, but I'm sure most of them fly in (P.S. I am aware it's more accurate to say "US Citizen," but everybody here refers to me as an American, so I'm just going along with it...).

So, crossing the border took a little longer than expected, but... whatever. My first day in Ukraine was fairly uneventful, except some of the roads were terrible: my odometer disappeared at some point, and I'm almost certain it was bumped off by the road quality, not stolen.

None of the banks would exchange my Hungarian Florint, so I ended up withdrawing about $20 worth of Ukranian Hryvnia from an ATM, enough to get me by until I could find a currency exchange. Since getting to Eastern Europe I try and shop at supermarkets whenever possible because they seem to have more quality control than the mom-and-pop shops. I feel ambiguous about not shopping local, but I'd rather know what I'm eating. The only place I could find was in what appeared to be an old airplane hanger. A song from Greece was playing outside, and as I entered, it got all echoey and creepy in the large space, as if I was entering a grocery store in a horror film...

Food here is cheap, sometimes almost absurdly so. I paid 170 RAH, about $7, for what I usually pay $15 for. Cascada was playing when I left. I could have taken the main road all the way around town or a side road through it, so I took the side road, which ended up being dirt and, in some cases, mud.

Another few hours back on the main road and I stopped at what appeared to be an outdoor church of sorts to take dinner. After dinner I decided just to go to bed early and put my tent in a field out back.

Around 4 AM I started dreaming that it was raining, and then I woke up and it was raining. I cursed, jumped out of the tent and put on the fly, finishing just as the rain stopped. Life of a cyclist...

The next day I continued along the main road (there aren't any intercity side roads) which followed the Ukranian-Romanian border for some time. It's very common to see people selling food on the side of the road here -- even just a single basket of mushrooms or a few jars of fruit. I was good on food but at one point passed a jar of raspberries which I just could not pass up. It ended up being 30 RAH, just over $1, for about 2 pounds of raspberries. I ate a few handfuls then and there before realizing I should maybe find a picnic table...

I found one later, and while eating was approached by a soldier in full camoflauge with a machine gun over his shoulder. He put his fingers to his mouth, then said something in (presumably) Ukranian. "English?" I said. "Smoke?" he replied, putting his fingers to his lips again. I shook my head. He went off about 30 feet down the road to make a phone call. Then he returned and held out the phone. "It's for me?" I said. He just kept holding out the phone.


"Hello," said a voice.

"What can I do for you?" I said.

"I need you to please speak very slowly and simply since I am just learning the English," said the voice.

"Okay," I said, slowly.

"Do you have your documents?"


"Can you get them?"


I got my passport and showed the guard the ID page and the page with my entry stamp to Ukraine – on page 47. Why they couldn't put it on page 2, I don't know.

After giving me a thumbs-up the guard disappeared. Where he came from, where he went, I have no idea. But, I would see many more soldiers along the border for the next few miles. Presumably they are keeping an eye out for illegal immigrants – though I'd later be told the problem is Ukranians that steal things from Romania and bring them back to Ukraine to sell.

After a while the road left the border and turned north into the mountains. I would pass a Museum of Mountain Ecology which sounded very interesting, but was, unfortunately, closed. Since I'd only spent $13 that day I decided to see how much a hostel was. I had it on good authority it would be less than $10. For giggles I picked one called "Dream Hostel," rated 9.5/10 and priced one dollar sign out of three. I was sure anything called "Dream Hostel" wouldn't be much of a dream, but actually, it was really nice. And only 100 RAH, $4.

My roommates that night were a couple backpacking the Carpathians from Kiev. They spoke very good English, but after pleasantries didn't seem too interested in talking. Later that night another couple would join us, but we were ships passing in the night. I spent the night applying for health insurance for when I leave the EU, got in a video chat with a friend from back home, and went to bed. That day I had food, a shower, internet, and a bed for $17. Not bad.

I awoke to the sound of heavy rain, but it would clear up by the time I left, making for a beautiful ride through the mountains. At the summit there was a market of sorts and a beautiful hand-carved pipe caught me eye, but the owner wasn't willing to bargain at all (or didn't understand that I wanted to), so I left empty-handed. Around 4 PM it started raining on and off; at first I played tag with it by hiding under bus stops and porches and covered alters; around 6, I decided I just needed to book it to the next city to find a hostel. It poured and poured and finally at 7 I rolled in to the 9-rated, one-dollar-sign hostel... well, I had to find it first.

I walked around in the drizzle looking for a sign or anything, but the building had only two entrances. I poked my head in one and found two guys hiding from the rain. "English?" I said. One of them did speak English and informed me that there were "other Americans" staying in "rooms for rent" upstairs. Okay, usually that means "rent" on a monthly basis, but I'll give it a shot... so I carried my bike up two flights of stairs to a door with some Ukranian, the words "Rooms for Rent," and two phone numbers. I tried knocking – no response. I opened the door to reveal a hallway with many doors – definitely a hostel, but nobody was home.

I went downstairs to try one of the numbers. A voice answered in (presumably) Ukranian. "Rooms for rent?" I said – surely they must understand the very phrase they put on the sign. "One minute," said the voice. Another voice said, "Hello?"

"You have the hostel upstairs?"

"Say again?"

"Rooms for rent?"

"One minute."

From a door behind me emerged two teenagers, one of them with the phone. "Hello," he said. These kids were in charge of the hostel for the night. One spoke limited English. Actually, the limited-English one was in charge of the cafe they had just come out of; fortunately, he appeared to be friends with the other, who was actually in charge of the hostel, but didn't speak any English.

This time it was 120 RAH – about $5. I was glad to be out of the rain. I got dinner from a pizza place next door, 58 RAH (just over $2) for an entire pizza and a drink.

The next day the rain was kind enough to hold off until I had to turn off the main road for my WWOOF. These side roads were bad – really bad. Potholes upon potholes. But, I made it to the village nearest my WWOOF and turned off onto a dirt road, whereupon the rain was kind enough to stop. Up a few very steeps hills, and there was Maxym and his son Misha (short for Mishael) waiting for me. They led me another 500 meters by foot through some woods and some fields, and finally, I'm at the WWOOF I said I'd be at. A bed of my own for more than a few days, a break for my behind (much needed after three days of crappy roads), warm food, and friends I get to keep for a while. And also figuring out what to do now that winter is coming. And how to get through the Middle East.

Welcome to Ukraine!

1 comment:

  1. What an experience - border crossings, soldiers, raspberries, crappy roads... Finally at the WWOOF. It must be so very good to be there and to relax.

    Love you, Mom