Category Archives: ukraine

Two months of zigzagging in Romania (2014-07-03–2014-08-28)

Every new country that I visit is a puzzle that I should solve. To understand why it’s a separate country, not a part of some another one. To figure out what common people of that country have. Everyone separately—individuality, but altogether—the whole, called “nation”

That wasn’t my first visit to Romania. Back in December I’ve already crossed it on the way to Montenegro. At that time it happened fast, I didn’t understand it plainly. For that reason I came back to unknown Romania and did a long way. However I haven’t found a solution for the puzzle, as people from different parts of the country differed too much.

My old visa has expired, so I went to Moscow to get a Schengen visa. I got used to Moscow reality quite fast, though, for example, it was strange not to hear polite “добар дан”, “изволите”, “приjатно” in Moscow shops. A feeling of tiredness was my permanent companion during this visit. Maybe it’s true, that a big city squeeze the juice out of a human.

I’m in the Austrian visa centre.
“Do you really want to get a one year long visa?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I’m afraid you won’t get it without a document that confirms you have some job.”
“Hmm… got it. Gonna go to find a job. Good bye.

Luckily, Spaniards were more compliant, and the precious insert shows off in the passport.

Apart from Moscow were also St. Petersburg, unplanned visit to Kharkiv with adventures on the Ukrainian border, and so on. But those are another stories, so I’m continuing about Romania.

After taking away my bicycle in Zaječar first of all I went to the Bulgarian border. Just didn’t want to cycle the same way in Serbia for the third time. Forty kilometers on a deserted road in Bulgaria, and finally I’m in Romania.

Painful first days, they were full of thoughts about the tiff that happened in Zaječar. Unbearable heat. Surprisingly I didn’t endure it well, even though I’ve spent in sunny Tashkent 14 years of the childhood.

Deeper in mountains I’d felt a sense of relief. There is no more sun, there are downpours in the evenings. There are no more thoughts, there is their absence. There are no more people, there is only something called “I”, and it’s moving on the abandoned road DN66A, crossing Retezat National Park. Though I met up a few people: five-six amazed dirt motorcyclists and a few guys driving heavily loaded trucks with wood. There was also a man, who clapped and laughed when the ducks in the lake scared the claps and rushed to swim away.

Two days that I spent on that road ended up by the half-hour downhill, it was an incredibly high-quality road and there wasn’t even a single car.

As though I didn’t get enough adventures on DN66A, I continued the route by a small road DJ666. Such an attractive number! It had fully justified itself. That was absolute hell lasting just ten kilometers, but a few hours. At first I got lost, and after I got stuck on a such steep uphill, that even pushing my bicycle I could move only one meter forward after every push.
It isn’t true that only legs of cyclists get trained.

But that was over as well. I came down from the mountains and returned to civilization. After watching the castle in Hunedoara, a souvenir seller, who looked after my bicycle, reached me a cigarette. She didn’t have it in the beginning, but managed to find while I was exploring the castle. A random cyclist asked me where I’d come from. His last phrase was: “Romania not safe! Gypsies, bum-bum! Go Moscow!”

A crazy grandpa in Deva. He was wearing high fur boots silently drinking beer on a terrace at a pub. Suddenly he’d asked in Russian: “Do you speak Russian?” I replied affirmatively, so he started speaking strange language, neither Russian, nor Romanian. A waitress brought me a piece of cheesecake and added funnily: “Don’t worry, it isn’t taken from trash”.

A week of camping had ended, I was hosted by Dana from Timișoara. It’s strange, just a few days ago I was in total isolation from people (but one of the evenings was brightened up by a mouse; it found dropped rice seed near my tent and didn’t want to run away), and now I’m in a crowd on a square, jazz sounds from the stage are reaching my ears.

On the next day jazz festival is still going on. We are dancing near the stage in downpour. We are moving into a pub. We are going outside and there are a couple of stoned guys. One of them is giving me a hardly started joint. New friends of mine don’t understand how I’ve managed to get a joint in such short time.

Right after that is Oradea, the city that I really liked and kept in mind thanks to Silviu.

In the morning we are going in the city to buy contraband cigarettes from Ukraine and Belarus. It’s interesting that you’d hardly find those brands in the country of origin. “Ţigări, ţigări,” a dude at the corner is blurting out through clenched teeth.

Before my departure Silviu wants to take a picture of me under water in the bath for his photo exhibition.
“Should I put off my underwear?”
“No-no-no… it’s ok like that.”

A short visit to Hungary to “open” the Schengen visa and be able to enter Kosovo with that visa later on. Again Romania, Maramureș.

In Maramureș everything is in its own way. Massive carved wooden gates in front of every house. Men wear big sun hats. Women, even grannies, put on black skirts and black shawls. Men are getting back home from fields on bicycles, sharp scythes are attached to the frames.

I’m standing at the side road waiting for a proper moment to cross the bridge, pass the field and find a place for camping staying unnoticed. Here a man is coming on a bicycle. I’m pretending that I’m look into the map, but actually I’m waiting when he’ll disappear after the turn. Yet he is approaching exactly towards me. Mixing Romanian, English, Spanish and Russian languages Aurel (oh, Romanians have such beautiful names: Silviu, Aurel, Camelia, Roxana!) is inviting me to stay in his house.

What a wonder, every time when a stranger invites me to his house it’s a moment, when I really experience some problems trying to find a place for spending the night.

Aurel and his father are bakers. The bakery takes place on the first floor of the house, the family lives on the second floor. We are entering bakery, and he is poking me hot, baked just now bread: “I know you’re hungry”.

On the next day I didn’t sleep in the tent again staying at Paul and Anna’s house in Bistrița. I couldn’t take a shower there as they fixed it at that moment, but Anna got a genius idea: we went to a swimming pool! Of course there was a shower too.

Beyond question I wanted to meet up with Gherman when I was on the north of Romania. He lives in Ukraine just in a few kilometers from the Romanian border. Yes, yes, that striking Gherman who I met in Lviv, and then we saw each other in Chernivtsi a couple of times.

When I came to the Ukrainian border point I was dressed in colors of Ukrainian flag: yellow shirts, a blue rain jacket. An army cap with a red star from Laos crowned my head. For sure, it happened like that by accident, but it looked a bit ambiguously taking into account current Russian-Ukrainian relations.

I’d spent there about two hours. A border guard asked questions and diligently wrote down the answers. At the end of the conversation it turned out that they recorded everything on dictaphone as well. One more interesting detail: at the entrance point the guard greeted me in Russian, but right after the start of official part of “interrogation” he switched in Ukrainian.

“What’s the purpose of your visit to Ukraine?”
“I want to see a friend of mine.”
“What’s his name?”
“Full name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where does he live”
“In Krasnoilsk.”
“Exact address?”
“I don’t know.”
“How many days are you going to spend in Ukraine?”
“I don’t know. Three-five-six.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Mmm… I don’t know. What do you usually do when you meet up with your friends?”

Pff. Allowed to go. And they didn’t even check what I carry.

We had an agreement to find each other at the selsoviet (rural council). Being already in the village I asked people two or three time where the selsoviet is. They replied me quite distrustfully. No wonder: a strange guy on a bicycles, speaks Russian (everyone in Krasnoilsk speaks Romanian, as it was a part of Romania in the past), and for unknown reason that stranger is looking for the selsoviet…

It’s very easy to communicate with Gherman. At times there is no need in words, anyway you feel everything. During those days I was like his shadow, as if I chipped off a bit of his life.

We went to the forest, picked mushrooms and blackberry, sat under the “legendary” bridge (I’ve heard a lot about that bridge after our previous meetings) and listened to music there.

Gherman mowed down grass, milked a cow, looked after the house, and so on. I watched.

Gherman attended me on a bicycle when I left Krasnoilsk. I didn’t turn round after we said each other goodbye. I know we’ll meet again.

Getting back from Ukraine to Romania was much easier. Just Romanians asked for fun if I carry AK-47.

By chance I met a bicycle mechanic Lucien on the streets of Suceava. He told me that further on the road is another one cycling tourist. Indeed, after a few hours I’d caught up Anton Duma who did charity cycling tour in Romania.

We spent some time together, drank beer, took pictures for our mutual friend Alina and continued our trips separately. In the evening I was in Piatra Neamț.

I didn’t expect anything special from Piatra Neamț, but everything can change due to people who host you. When Radu and friends of him offered me to join hiking in Ceahlău Massif, I didn’t hesitate, I accepted immediately.

We spent some hours on the top and started descending. Radu decided to pick up mushrooms and from time to time he stopped spotting another mushroom. In our turn we called him from time to time, but Radu almost didn’t react, so thanks to these delays he witnessed a big double rainbow. As if a magic source in the rock had been opened, and all kinds of colors gushed out from it. And it’s not a big deal that we came back through the forest in the darkness.

What I remember about the way from Piatra Neamț to Cluj-Napoca is that there are quite many Hungarians. There were some villages and towns where all the signs were in Hungarian only. Leaving Târgu Mureș I hesitated which road to take. Suddenly, I’d got urgent necessity to visit the toilette, so there was no more hesitation, I took the road that allowed me to leave the city as soon as possible.

Eventually I came to Transalpina road, the highest road in Romania. I have to admit that I wasn’t impressed. There isn’t that high correlation between altitude and scenery you can see. But I didn’t hurry to go down after passing the highest point. I wanted to luxuriate in mountain coolness a bit longer, when you don’t have that delicious mix of dirt, sweat, sunscreen and repellent on your skin.

In its turn, Transfăgărășan road was absolutely splendid.

I camped there on a paid campground. There was a nice company of Poles who travelled by cars, and thanks to them the dream, that I had during that day, came true: I had a company to drink beer.

A bear came to a trash bin during the night trying to find something eatable there. They say he comes every night to that place. Funnily, my first reaction was: “Wow, a bear, finally! Faster! I need to grab camera and torch!” There were many places on the map in GPS-navigator marked by bear pictogram, and once a couple of Romanians in Apuseni mountains promised me that I won’t sleep alone there (a bear will join me), but so far I witnessed a bear in relatively natural conditions only once, on that paid campground.

It was not that hard to go on the top as in case of Transalpina. I didn’t even expect that I have enough power after all previous climbs. There were many motorcycle travelers on the way, almost everyone with a GoPro-camera. Some other mountain roads in Romania are also occupied by motorcyclists. I even wonder how many times I was filmed and how often I smiled when I went uphill, rather than cycled with the last bit of strength.

Robert M. Pirsig wrote in his “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”:

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

It’s more true if you will just change the word “motorcycle” to “bicycle”.

By the way, another very steady partners on mountain roads in Romania were gypsies who sold exactly the same dinnerware set wherever I was in Romania. They even offered me to buy it.

Fascinating descent, another forty kilometers, and I’m in Sibiu. Finally I could take a rest staying at Vlad’s place.

When I’d left Sibiu at last, I’d forgotten the laptop charger. Fortunately, Vlad noticed it in time and handed it over a bus driver who followed the same route as me.

And then Brașov where I continued to get energy being hosted by Ivan, a guy from Ukraine. Usually I went on the hill where the citadel is located, watched the city from the top, and read a book. Ivan drove me to Bucharest by car as he was going there as well.

As in previous time Andrei and Roxana hosted me in Bucharest. It’s really nice to meet again with friends.

After Bucharest I went to the Black Sea. It’s hard not to notice mountains, but it’s easy to miss a sea. Here I’m at the entrance to Constanța, a few minutes later I’m cycling on the streets of the city, just a few more houses, last turn, and, finally, I’m seeing the sea.

I’m sitting at the seaside, sea wind is blowing on my face. Suddenly, like I did quite recently, a picturesque man with a snowy white beard is coming up. He also travels by bicycle.
“Hey, man, how are you doing?” Who was the first who said that?

With Lars we rode together just a little bit and said goodbye. That was my last day in Romania, but only the first day of acquaintance with Lars. Sometimes our paths cross with amazing people, and sooner or later we are lucky enough to meet up again. I met Lars on the very next day. In Bulgaria.

Odesa–Focșani (2013-12-09–2013-12-13)

After leaving Odesa I went by a road that goes along the sea. Initially I planned to go along the sea as long as possible and admire the views on the way. Unfortunately, the coastal area is full of buildings or there are fences, so you can’t see anything. I couldn’t see anything even when I was on the narrow stripe of ground where the sea is on one side and gulf on another. In rare good moments I saw sea edge and dirty icy crumbs there. A cold breeze was blowing hard.

I had to change my plan and left the coastal area in the evening. On one hill I’d overtaken a man who pushed his bicycle uphill hardly. Then I stopped to turn on the rear light. He came to me and started asking questions. It was the first time that a person was so negative and skeptical. He didn’t ask about good things happen with me during the trip. Mostly he told I’ll get sick, I’ll be robbed, and so on. He couldn’t get what moves me forth. Also he asked me where I usually sleep. I told him that a forest is the most popular place I choose. He’d hemmed, went further and turned to his house after fifty meters.

During the day I tested thermoses that I’d bought in Odesa. It’s cool (no, warm!) to drink hot tea when it’s -5°C or lower outside. Moreover is helps against dehydration: you don’t want to drink much in the wintertime, and for sure you don’t want to drink icy water. But you drink hot tea with pleasure. So, I drank even more liquid than in warm days.

In the morning on the next day I tried to start riding, but wind was so strong (45 km/h according to weather forecast), that I could do only a few kilometers and then hided behind a wall of a battery farm. Birds (not from the battery farm) desperately tried to fly against wind, but were frozen in one place, flapped their wings, then gave up and glided in the opposite direction for long time. When I tried to fill a cup by tea from a thermos, one third of the liquid flew away out of the cup. Drops on the thermos wall got frozen fast.

I stood behind the wall about one and half hour and come to conclusion that I have to choose one of two options: go to a nearest shop, then find a place for the tent and don’t go anywhere on that day, or go further in spite of everything. Anyway, it was pointless just to stand on one place.

I tried to throw out all the thoughts in my head and concentrate only on the road. Only one word buzzed in my mind: “road, road, road…” After a while even this word had disappeared. I, bicycle and road—we had become the whole. I went uphill without tiredness, went on a broken road, went against the wind. I stopped only once to put balaclava on. I went quite much on that day.

It was snowing slightly in the evening. It took more time to cook food due to the low temperature outside.

On the next day I stopped at a shop in Zhovtnevoe village close to the border with Moldova. Slightly drunk, friendly men were in front of the stop. Some hryvnias remained in my pocket, so I spent them to buy expensive sweets. In the evening it started snowing hard, I lost a chance to stay in Galați, and I ate almost all the candies to boost my mood.

I had to find a new host, it was hard to do from mobile phone, so I took my notebook and “spammed” many people. Alina from Focșani in Romania replied me back, I could sleep easy.

Snow didn’t stop for the whole night, everything was covered by 20 cm deep layer of snow in the morning. It was the first serious snow in that place, so it was ice-slick on the road. There were almost no cars on the road due to these conditions, a truck driver was hesitating to go downhill. Vibram sole didn’t work nice on ice.

I’m not sure that even studded tyres could manage that ice-slick. I went along roadside, there was crumbly snow. Rules of safe riding in the snow are simple: go slowly and straight. But you have to be ready to falls, even with proper tyres (which I didn’t have) falls are inevitable. I fell down three times: first time I just got used to cycling in the snow, second time a shoelace got stuck in a pedal, third time someone decided to “greet” me and honked in the back. I was frightened, pulled the handlebar and fell down.

Actually I don’t understand such people. I understand when a truck goes slowly on the opposite lane, driver makes a short honk and shows his palm. Or sometimes I meet moto-travellers. Usually they slow down, raise their hand up and respectfully nod. It looks like they admit me into their brotherhood. But I have no idea about thoughts of the drivers who honk me in the back. And I have no doubts that this is kind of “greeting”— I can’t impede anyone taking snowy roadside in one meter right from a paved road.

After 30 km snow started melting and turning into dirty slush, cycling became easier.

On the Moldovan-Romanian border everything happened very slowly, I got a bit chilly. Romanian border guards were very polite, but in the same time quite cheerful. One of them spoke Russian a bit, he wished me luck for a long time.

I went around Galați in hope to find a camping place. Nope, nothing suitable. Bought a pack of cigarettes. Quite expensive compare to previous countries—12 lei (3.6 $, one third of my usual daily budget). OK, Romania is a part of the European Union now, so it’s explicable. In other countries of the European Union it’s more expensive.

On the map there was a forest behind railway road, but the main part of it was behind a river that wasn’t marked on the map. So I put my tent up close to the railway road.

On the next day I had arrived in Focșani without problems. Roads are great in Romania, the very riding itself was a pleasure. Before coming to Romania I read outdated Lonely Planet and they wrote in details how terrible Romanian roads are. So, the times they are a-changin’.

Typical buildings of the communist past surrounded me near Alina’s place, she’d found me and we went home.

Odesa (2013-12-06–2013-12-08)

On the way to Odesa I didn’t imagine how big it is. But this is a good reason for travels, to get your own experience. If I’d know everything beforehand, it’d be pointless to go somewhere.

Two days I spent wandering in the city. Historical center, harbour, beaches, slum.

Most interesting place for me was slummish Devolanovskiy descent or “Kanava” (means “gutter“) as locals call it. I get attracted by such places, I like that anxious feeling I get when I’m in such places, my imagination draws strange pictures there. If I’d try to explain my admiration for aesthetics of ugliness, it’d take too much time. Fortunately, there are some more clever people, who can explain it. Good introduction into this theme is “On Ugliness” by Umberto Eco.

At least three people gave me advice to try falafel in a kiosk on the crossroad of Troitskaya and Preobrazhenskaya streets. Once I tried that falafel, I didn’t want any other food and ate in that kiosk only.
Warming up icy palms using falafel and plastic glass with hot tea, I had understood I can’t delay anymore and had bought two thermoses, 0.7 liter each, for the following winter days.

I’d overslept carelessly the morning when I had to leave Odesa. I felt guilty because of that, but I asked Tanya to host me for one more day. Tanya, forgive lazybones and thank you again for the hospitality!

Chișinău–Odesa (2013-12-04–2013-12-05)

Nothing really interesting happened on the way to Odesa.

Following the Jenya’s advice I went around Transnistria. Just didn’t want to have deals with customs. Though it’d be interesting to visit Bender or Tiraspol.

Initially I had a few options for stay in Odesa. But they disappeared later. I’d crossed the Moldovan-Ukrainian border and put Ukrainian SIM-card in. About five minutes later I’d got a message from Ann. She asked me if I’d found a host in Odesa. I don’t how it is possible! Is it a sensible woman’s heart? Or anything else? Just incredible! Ann rescued me again and gave contacts of her friend Tanya.

Tanya was busy in the evening, and I waited for her near the house. After some time I got cold and put more clothes on, still it was a bit chilly. A young man came to me and started talking with me. It turned out that previously he was seriously involved in sport, and currently he works as a bodyguard. He brought me to a gymnasium where his trainer worked and his friends trained. He left me there to get warmer. Those were very interesting guys.

And then Tanya came, so I continued to get warmer in the flat.

Chernivtsi (2013-11-13–2013-11-25)

I’m quite lucky, and every person who hosted me is absolutely amazing. But stay in Chernivtsi is a special deal. I’ve spent there two weeks. More than in any other city. Though I had a formal reason for that (I got a Romanian visa), but even without any visas I’d like to spend those days one more time. Those days were very interesting and unusual.

For the first time in my life I lived in a squat. Huge abandoned building in the city center only for one person (me). Indeed, only one room is prepared for living, but the feeling of expanse and freedom didn’t leave me.

Usually nobody lives in this squat. Guys gather there in the evenings, sometimes people stay there for a night. I was the first who lived on a regular basis. My appearance gave a push to equip the place faster: guys brought stuff to make my habitation more comfortable: heater, teapot, electric stove, etc. The only unsolved problem in the squat is sewerage. But I’m sure they’ll manage it.

There is a film cliché when they show a den, someone at the entrance, and his eye looking through the eyhole and deciding whether a person is allowed to enter or not. It was something similar when I went downstairs, watched through the hole in the door and opened the door for someone.

We chatted, laughed, made sandwiches with marrow paste, played mandolin, did nothing. It was a great time.

When I went out I often followed the same route, and I became to feel I’m a local. Chernivtsi is a beatiful city, it’s a heritage from Austro-Hungarian Empire. The main sight is the university that was a seminary originally. Once I and Alex climbed to the dome of the church at the university. It was frightful to be on the dome, you can stick only to a small staircase or the cross. We did it during the day, some students and professors were below, but nobody spotted us. It seems they’ve got used so much to that dome that they don’t rise heads.

Once I sat on the main pedestrian street and drank coffee. Suddenly German had appeared. German whom I met in Lviv. He’d seen my back from a bus when he came back to his village, and he went out to walk a bit with me. Such an unexpected and nice meeting. We met up two more times after that.

On the third or fourth day I’d got a call from a friend of Archie. She works as a manager of a local TV channel. Archie told her about me and she decided to film me for their channel. It happened chaotically: I’d got a call in the late evening, and they decided to film on the next day. I didn’t even ask anything about the telecast, how I should behave, and so on. I forgot I had no clean clothes.

I thought they were going to explain me something before the shooting, but Tata just had said: “OK, we are ready, start shooting”. She gave me notice that her voice won’t be heard in the telecast, so I had to repeat somehow her questions before actual answers. Of course I forgot about that after a few minutes.
But I like the result. I’m not ashamed to show it to anyone. And I got a lesson for the future.

I’m sorry as the video in Russian, but you can watch how I’m cycling awkwardly in this video.

But still I should write about the visa. My first visit to the consulate ended up unsuccessfully. Booking of a random hotel in Romania wasn’t enough to make a long-term visa. An old man who checked documents said agressively I should bring an invitation letter from a Romanian citizen. But I just asked what documents I have to bring if I’m an ordinary tourist and know no one in Romania.

At first I tried to get an invitation with help of my friends. Many people were willing to help, but it happened too slowly. So after all I’d visited a company where they help to prepare documents and had bought an invitation for 50 $. Taking into account that half of the price is a notary tax, the price isn’t very high. I even met in person the man who “invites” me.

After that I had no problems in the consulate. They said I have to pay 100 $, not 50 $, as they do only urgent visas for citizens of third countries. On the next day I’d got the visa.

Everything had ended up well, I had to go further.
Alex, Jenya, Vlad, Archie, Lena, Maks, David, we’ll meet up again!