Cold War grimness lingers in Ukraine

UMAN, Ukraine Ukraine is different. That thought gets refreshed every day we cycle across the country.

UMAN, Ukraine

Ukraine is different.

That thought gets refreshed every day we cycle across the country.

It begins right at the border where military staff examine the bags and baskets of peasant women and, in a not-quite-hostile atmosphere, we have a long immigration form to fill out.

It is as if the Cold War never went away.

First impressions show this southeastern end of the country to be the poorest place Darlene and I have seen so far.

Potholed roads lead from one shabby village to the next.

Old women wearing simple print dresses sit behind small piles of cucumbers or cabbages though there is no sign of customers, only dark-skinned, barefoot Roma, (real Gypsies) begging their way along the street.

In the gardens behind, husbands hoe between the rows of onions and beans. 

Other than small boys, shy and seriously formal when they walk up for a handshake, no one shows interest in us.

The Carpathian Mountains, arcing across this corner of Ukraine, stand in our way. As we follow a narrowing river valley upstream, the toil of hill climbing on loaded bikes is tempered by the views.

The hills are close, covered by stands of forest and grassy meadows spotted with a few grazing cows.

Ancient wooden farmhouses lie sheltered in hollows while at the highest elevations occasional snow patches gleam in the sunshine.

Wherever there is enough flat space there are villages and fields.

The farming is basic: potatoes, corn and grass the main crops. Grass is cut green and by hand and its sweet wet smell surrounds us.

The rhythmic swish of scythes is a somehow comforting sound and seeing the grass fall neatly behind the blade, satisfying. 

Pedalling and the hum of the freewheel makes the link between their rhythms and mine, even though centuries separate the technologies.

There are no campgrounds on the 12-day ride eastwards to Uman; we stay in hotels that vary in price and quality for no obvious reason. In one expensive, but poor-quality hotel, my bike mirror gets smashed when the bike is being put into safe storage.

In another, the brightly coloured, complex patterned “wallpaper” is actually painted onto the walls of the rooms and corridors. There are no bike paths; route finding is generally the shortest way.

On minor roads rusting Lada cars, buses and trucks smoke us with black exhaust fumes as we all struggle up hills.

The major roads are busy with semi trailers doing international runs judging by the licence plates, from Germany, Spain, and Turkey.

All traffic is held up in one village by a funeral procession. Villagers walk quietly ahead of the coffin, carried on the back of a beaten up, ex-military truck. Father and son balance next to the coffin not looking too upset and both smoking.

Going downhill too fast to stop to take a photo, we pass a giant tank converted to living quarters. Cylindrical, three metres high and 10 metres long, it is painted purple and has a curtained doorway and windows cut out of it.

The history of the town of Kamianets-Podolski could be summarized as a list of wars and conquerors, so it is not surprising it has a castle.

The castle, on a cliff above a ravine, is the anchor of a growing tourist industry.

When a motorcyclist stopped to help us with directions to a hotel — the only occasion in Ukraine we were offered help — we thought it would be a good place to break our journey for a couple of days.

Besides sightseeing, we spent the days trying to start the Russian visa process again by phone and internet.

In the evenings we ate, the touring cyclists favourite pastime.

For $13, our favourite meal was three-quarters of a kilogram of pork steak cubed and spit roasted, with garlic soup, salad, roast potatoes, beer and a tip.

Ukrainian cafes sell their food by weight, be it soup, salad or chicken. In shops, the bill was often totted up nimbly on an abacus before being punched into those old fashioned cash registers where the price comes up on little flags when the keys are pressed.

A few days cycling through hot mornings and showery afternoons, past the familiar sights of women leading cows to pasture and of men endlessly scything, brought us to Uman, a town with about three times the population of Whitehorse.

It is a two-and-half- hour commute to the capital, Kiev, and it was to be our base while we arranged Russian visas. The hotel looked impressive from outside, solidly built of warm brown sandstone.

Marble steps led up to the entrance, so $22 a night for a room with bath and TV seemed like a deal.

Experience proved otherwise.

Cold water ran for a couple of hours morning and evening in our bathroom that was a toilet and hand basin in a closet-sized space. Hot water was available between 6 and 8 p.m. in the shower across the hall and the floor lady insisted on using it first.

Floor ladies are part of hotel culture here, a leftover from Soviet times.

They are part concierge, part cleaner, and all dragon.

Using the shower first or, demanding to see our receipt before letting us use the shower, were just demonstrations of their power.

Still, we preferred this to the hectic crowdedness, noise and expense for which Kiev is famous. As before in Budapest, the Russians put many obstructions on giving us visas until we gave up and rapidly went for a change of plan.

We would now over fly Russia and land in Uzbekistan. Getting a Chinese visa became the next challenge and the only place we knew we could get the necessary six-month visa was Hong Kong.

Leaving the bikes and most of the luggage at the hotel, two days later we are in Hong Kong via Helsinki, thanks to Finnair.

Rain, so heavy it curtained down walls and windows, welcomed us to Hong Kong, but not so heavy to rid the air of Hong Kong’s distinctive smell, a mix of musty dampness, spices, cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes.

The airport bus drops us by the hostel we booked on the internet, the room is ready and everyone speaks English.

The travel agent promises to get us priceless six-month Chinese visas in two days for $95 each, and actually does.

Life is wonderful and now there is little to do but enjoy the few days until the return to Ukraine.

It is June 30th and the Canadian Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce is holding a Canada D‘eh festival.

The famous Star Ferry takes us across the harbour to Hong Kong Island where the crush of people pushes us into the streets of Lan Kai Fong.

A couple of streets, draped with Canadian flags, are closed off to traffic.

There are plenty of giveaways, flags and stickers and free photos in front of a cardboard moose.

I win a T-shirt just for knowing more provinces than the Chinese girl asking the questions.

July 1 is given over to a much bigger celebration, the 10th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China, from Britain.

Each evening we have been down at the harbour to watch the impressive sound and light show flash along the waterfront buildings.

Tonight there is also a spectacular fireworks display.

The crowds are immense, we cannot get near the waterfront. Trapped among thousands more people, we watch the sky explode with colour, over the rooftops.

Back in Ukraine, we get Uzbek visas in one day, and as much as I don’t want to give anything to the Russians, we buy tickets to Uzbekistan with Aeroflot because they are the cheapest.

There is one last sting from the Russians; at the airport check in, when it’s too late to do anything but pay, we are charged $375 for excess baggage.

David Sillery is a Haines Junction-based writer.

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