A Day's Cycling in Ukraine of the C.I.S.

Discussion in 'Touring and recreational cycling' started by Velotour, Oct 18, 2006.

  1. Velotour

    Velotour New Member

    Sep 14, 2006
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    This is one day of a ninety-four day, 4,500 mile bicycling tour I did in 1994. I cycled France, Germany, Czech, Poland, Ukraine, Moldavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and the east coast of the United States. I carried sixty pounds of gear in front panniers, back panniers, a handlebar bag, and on top of the rear rack.

    Saturday, September 3, 1994: I woke early, ate a banana, packed, pushed the bike downhill directly onto the highway and pedaled to the border. Crossing was a process composed of seven steps or stages if you like. First, on the Polish side, the candidate presented himself at an eight foot by eight foot shack where a guard handed out a one inch square piece of paper with a number written on it. Second, the candidate conducted himself about one hundred yards to a concrete building with an overhanging shed under which were three one lane roads, each with a guard shack that had large windows all the way around. At one guard shack a uniformed female guard asked about articles to be to declared, and about how much money the candidate carried in cash. If waved through at that point in the inquisition the candidate was permitted to advance upon stage three which entailed his re-moving to another concrete building and shed managed by the Ukrainians. All the Ukrainians were uniformed government personnel. The fourth stage passed inside the building where the man in the running submitted his passport and stood interrogation by a guard who understood little English. They issued only three day transit visas at the border at a cost of $15.00. If he filled in an application for a visa and agreed to pay, he was privileged to enter upon the fifth stage of the negotiation which required his walking a few hundred feet to their bank to make the necessary deposit. The bank accepted only two kinds of currency, Deutsch marks and American dollars. The sixth stage comprised walking back to the building with the shed to show the receipt.

    The seventh and final stage involved cycling about one thousand feet up a hill to another small guard shack near an electrified fence where a guard asked more questions; “ What is you name ? Where are you going ? Why do you want to visit Ukraine ? Where are you from ?” I explained that I had only a three day visa and that more time would be needed to cycle through the country. “Visa extensions are available by applying to the bureau of police in any city that is a regional capital in Ukraine,” he said. Of course an extension would cost more. He added that the service is available only Monday through Friday. The border police were competent, efficient helpful and friendly. This last one said good luck. When I told him I was from America he answered, “ahhhh America,” in a low whisper. It was obvious he wanted to live in America. Who could blame him after seeing Poland. The big metal gate blocking the road had a narrow foot path skirting one end of it. That foot path was my point of entry into the former Soviet Union.

    The western edge of Ukraine looked like the outside of a prison; a tall, metal, electrified fence stood stark and grim in a wide strip of naked earth that had been slashed through a forest of verdant green trees; a T shaped razor wire fence circumscribed one edge of the strip. At first the Ukrainian countryside looked attractive; large fields of short verdant green grass encompassed both sides of the road; cattle grazed lazily in the fields; horse drawn wooden wagons hauled hay from the fields; men hand-pushed old bicycles loaded with burlap sacks bursting at the seams with crops and potatoes. In a short distance however, came a perceptible decline in living standards, standards noticeably lower than Poland’s; side roads were dirty, rutted muck holes; buildings were dirtier and more decrepit; visible now were more deformities, adults and children with swollen infected limbs.

    The first Ukrainian restaurant came into view after some time cycling. Hungry as hell and looking forward to a nice, big, nourishing meal with a small price tag, I had been in Eastern Europe long enough to know that only the small price tag bit of the fantasy would reach fruition. Nevertheless, I permitted myself this singular delusion simply because, after living forty-four years in countries where nice, big, nourishing meals are a birthright, it was impossible to disjoin expectance from my physiology.

    The first distinguishing aspect of this eatery as I entered its small, dank, rectangular gloom was its sickening odor. The place smelled putrid, like rotting flesh or road carrion in the sun. There must have been somewhere out of sight a big, dead, rotting animal hanging from a meat hook. This offended only the olfactory sense, but other repellent enough features were soon laid bare to make me flee in fear of my health. The worn tile floor was covered in layers of ground in filth. The walls and tables looked gloomy, grimy, never washed. A glass display case held a one foot in diameter round of cheese; on top of the cheese was a hunk of rancid meat. There was no way in hell I would eat there. The few grimy characters standing at one small table looked as sinister as any mugshot in the FBI wanted posters.

    There was also a small food store with shelves completely bereft of food. A small hardware store shared the same building but was in a separate room. I walked in for a look. The few shelves held a few small farming implements and a few jars of paint. Across the street was a drab, gray, one story elementary school. The children who filed out of that school were of such clean and healthy countenance that they appeared incongruous to the rest of the people, as if a choir of young shiny faced honor students from an upper-class private school in London had been transported to the land of the penurious to be presented forth on occasions convenient to making favorable impressions on visitors. Their clothes were washed; their hair and complexions were clean, clear and robustly healthful. What a contrast to the rough, worn, soiled visages of young and old alike in the rest of Eastern Europe.

    I needed water, and what better place to ask for it than there, thought I. Asking a woman behind the counter, she just shook her head no. Then a man appeared from around the corner of a hallway. He motioned for me to follow him. We walked across the highway to a round, stone water well, about four feet in diameter and four feet high. A V- shaped wooden roof sheltered its opening. He grabbed a galvanized metal bucket connected to a steel cable and dropped it into the well. He hand cranked the water filled bucket back to the top. He filled my plastic water bottle with the cold, clear liquid. I immediately dropped two iodine, water purification tablets into the bottle and shook it vigorously. A mangy dog chained near a house barked like crazy. Numerous small potatoes lay on the concrete near the well. I thanked the man, took a photo and went.

    Countless men and women were bent in stoop labor in fields on both sides of the road. They carried their crops away from the fields in push carts, in wheel barrows, and in burlap bags stacked onto old, one speed bicycles. Life here was a few rungs down the ladder from life Poland.

    Soon a small, wooden, roadside bistro presented another opportunity for food. Four men played cards at an outside wooden table. I explained that I was hungry and had only Polish zlotych, and asked them to sell me some food. The owner of the bistro invited me in for bread, coffee, sausage, ketchup and a stiff drink of whiskey, all free of charge. An elderly man and woman were bent in stoop labor in a small field of vegetables there.

    Some time later, after getting lost a few times, after repeatedly asking for directions, and after cycling down a few gloomy back roads, I wheeled my way into the city center of L’vov ( L’viv ). I had planned to avoid this metropolis of more than one-and-a-half million people, but now it was the nearest regional capital for obtaining an extension to the three day transit visa. I stopped for a haircut. The barber gave me a haircut and a shave with the hot towel treatment for twenty cents. I gave him two dollars which was damn good pay for a haircut and a shave in that part of the worldn .From there travelling was a matter of hand pushing the bike along the sidewalk .Someone advised that I go to the Hotel George on Ivan Franko Strasse for contacting tourist office and the police.

    One distinguishing feature of Ukrainian people was that their every day people look like our worst down and outers in the United States. The visages of people in the most ragged, low rent quarters of the U.S. were normal appearance throughout Ukraine, even in the up town districts of big cities. They had that disheveled, soiled look. There was much BO as if most did not clean themselves regularly, as if their quarters were lacking in water and soap. They were noticeably shorter than people in the West whose standards of sanitation and health are on a much higher plane.

    A blond haired man about five feet and eight inches tall approached me on the sidewalk. Odd looking and reeking of alcohol his right eye was white and blind. He had obviously sustained past head injury, for a considerable portion of his skull was covered in scar tissue where it had been crushed in. When he spoke something in German, I told him in German that I was seeking the Hotel George. He said he would guide me there and that he did. A grand old hotel in its time, the Hotel George was still quite an edifice for the likes of Ukraine but was long past her glory days. A blond haired woman at the reception desk quoted a price of $46.00 to spend the night. The price was definitely out of line, so naturally I declined. She said that the tourist and visa services around the corner at the police station would reopen on Monday. I thanked her. As I turned to leave I glimpsed the old serpentine staircase winding to the dark upstairs hallway. The building must have been eight or ten stories high.

    Back out on the sidewalk a chain smoking Ivan reiterated continuously about our going to his house. Normally such an invitation would have been courteously received and readily accepted, but Ivan’s breath smelled strongly of alcohol and his behavior seemed abnormal. He kept crowding me on the sidewalk , touching my arm and babbling incessantly in smattering German about going to his house. He must have repeated himself twenty-five times. A pleasanter visit in L’viv required avoiding this man. As I walked along with Ivan jabbering away, I thought of a polite way of extracting myself from the association. I had already declined his invitations several times when he loitered at a street vendor to buy two bottles more of Vodka and a few packs of cigarettes. Staying awake all night swilling rot gut liquor with a chain smoking, brain damaged alcoholic was not how I envisioned passing my first night in Ukraine.

    I saw an intelligent, clean young man wearing dark dress pants and a white shirt. I said, “ Hello, Do you speak English?” He did and we talked. I told him about Ivan, and asked the him to tell Ivan that his invitation was not being received, and that I would seek accommodations otherwise. He told him. Ivan said he understood and left straight away.

    The young man said that there are many hotels in L’viv, but when they find out a foreigner needs a room they charge ten to twenty times more than they charge Ukrainians. He said, “travelers in Ukraine are better off going to a person’s home and offering a few dollars for a night’s accommodation. Nine times out of ten you will be offered a place to sleep. You are better off doing things in a less formal way in Ukraine, not the traditional.” He was good enough to walk back with me through the center of town to show me the locations of some hotels. One hotel refused to take in foreigners; another had no vacancy. This fellow was a post-graduate student at the University of Physical Culture, (physical fitness), in L’viv. He was twenty-four and had lived for seven years in L’viv. He told me this much. “Ukraine is corrupt. We know that. The people want it to change, but there has been little change and it has come too slowly. Most Ukrainians are not interested in physical fitness. The only change in L’viv after Perestroika was the installing of a religious cloister near the university stadium.Under Gorbachev, people who had amassed savings were arrested and their savings were confiscated.While these people were in prison inflation grew at rates of 3000 % to 4000 % annually. When they were released from prison the government returned their money, which by then was worthless.Younger people are finding more work, but the elders are finding themselves left out in the cold. Pensioners are paid $10.00 to $15.00 a month and get only basic shelter, bread and milk. But I believe that Ukraine is superior to the rest of the world, including the United States. I would like to visit the United States only temporarily.” When I asked him where in the world outside of Ukraine he had traveled, he said he had seen only Russia and Kazakhstan. He invited me to stay over a few days at his hostelry near his university. He seemed a decent fellow, and as it turned out he was.

    An hour of tramping got us from the city center to his place. We carried the bike and gear four stories up to his small room. We stood a cold water shower in the first floor shower room. He prepared a delicious dinner of fried eggs and salad. After dinner he invited two of his friends to meet the American cyclist. Sergie, a short man in wiry trim, was a patriot of the port city of Odessa on the Black Sea, and a champion boxer for Ukraine who had trained for nine years. I did not get the other man’s name. They asked many questions: Where are you going in Ukraine ? How long will it take ? Which routes will you follow ? What kind of work do you do in America? I answered these and many others. Everyone left after a while. We hit the sack around 2:00 a.m. Unable to sleep, I swallowed two soporifics which did their job around 4:00 a.m.

    Day 27 conducted me seventy-six miles farther than the day before. There was a seven stage passage leaving Poland and entering the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine where a sharp decline in living standards soon became obvious, standards worse by far than those in Czech and Poland, standards of which I grew gradually more wary. Towns were dirtier. People looked rougher, less healthy, more soiled. Side streets in towns were often just muck trails, passable only by jeep or mule. Buildings were smaller, grimier, more cracked and crumbling than any up to that time. The stench of poverty, of abject desperation permeated everywhere. The Polish cyclists’ admonitions and the fact that I carried more money than most Ukrainians could hope to earn in nine years were certainly not the more comforting. Robbery and murder were real concerns. Ukraine was a cash only economy; it wanted only Deutsch marks and American dollars; everything else could go to hell. I had arrived in L’viv and found a friend who invited me to his hostelry for a few days. There had been some recovery from the illness contracted in Poland. Things were looking up again.