Into Ukraine

Riding north from Constanta was nice and varied. Leaving the tourist area behind, I passed through an area of refineries, factories, and exceptionally vicious dogs. Then there were wheat fields to the horizon on both sides for miles. I camped, with permission, among some trees at a quarry; at sunset two shepherds, two dogs and 500 sheep passed my campsite. Next day, hills, from the tops of which I could see the Black Sea to the east, and the Danube River Delta to the northeast.

The delta is huge, unique in Europe, and fascinating. It has more than thirty towns and villages, accessible only by boat, some prosperous fishing towns, some with a history of smuggling and piracy. Nobody I met had ever been there. The inhabitants have a reputation for cunning and wildness. I considered hiring a boat to investigate, but no such opportunity came up.

In Tulcea I enjoyed a salad in a sunny cafe while I uploaded my latest post. Before leaving, I checked my e-mail one more time and found that my sister Martha had passed away during the night. I sent some family e-mails and pedaled toward Ukraine with memories flooding my mind, some of them more than fifty years old. Martha had a challenging life filled with disappointments, yet she brought smiles and laughter to everyone, every time. Mom and Dad must be happy to see her.

I was roused from my reverie by Julian, a wonderfully looney marathon runner on a training run who flagged me down. He is a regular Borat; I wish I had recorded the directions he gave to his house. His fractured English made me laugh every time he spoke.

His may be the poorest household I have visited yet. His mother has every inch of the small yard under cultivation and seven chickens. I arrived before he finished his run and, just as he told me, she provided me with a stool to sit on and a small glass of wine. Julian returned with a small fish, assuring me that it would fill all three stomachs to the very top. And with some scallions and lettuce from the garden, some hard boiled eggs, and a loaf of bread from my saddlebag, it did.

With village water on tap in the yard but no plumbing, a reed-thatched roof, and one-bulb-per-room electric service, they live somehow with almost no income (and almost no teeth). Julian told me that February was particularly hard. Wood for heating is scavenged from the nearby hills; most of their income goes to propane (for the small range), electricity, flour and sugar. My tea in the morning was from garden herbs.

Julian hitch-hikes or rides freight trains to Eastern European cities to compete in marathons, begging entry fees from better-off runners and wearing cast-off shoes and running shorts. Mom disapproves and balks at the required food intake. In the morning I pretended to need yoghurt and brought back $15 worth of groceries (a hefty couple of sacks here). It was awkward for a few minutes but we got over it.

Leaving Romania involved a ferry across the Danube, lunch on a park bench with some teenagers in beautiful Galati, and a windy ride across an industrial wasteland to the Moldovan border for a routine crossing. Thirty minutes later I was at the Ukrainian border–I rode through Moldova without ever putting a foot down.

Ukranian customs was serious. A big staff in a complex of buildings was searching cars and trucks. For the first time so far I was delayed with questions and a partial search of my luggage. Only the captain spoke English. They finally loosened up when he asked why I was traveling alone. I said, “Why not?” and he said, “It’s dangerous, you could have trouble.” When I grinned and said, “I LIKE trouble!” he burst out laughing and translated, and they all laughed. They waved me through saying, “Goodbye, crazy American.”

It was immediately apparent that I was in a different land. The roads are crumbling, the cars and trucks are thirty years old, the busses and trolleys even older. Old motorcycles with sidecars were in use in many towns. Crews of thirty men and women were painting the curbs and trees. (In Eastern Europe, for some reason, every roadside tree and utility pole is painted white up to waist height, and most people do the same to the trees in their yards.) People are friendly, but the language barrier is large. The dogs are even more enthusiastic than in Romania. I’ve entered Ukraine in a very rural, frontier area, so my observations so far probably don’t apply to the whole country. I’ve been told that Odessa is modern and sophisticated.


Why? I don’t know.

I found a very inexpensive room in a very nice, clean hotel from another era. After a good bath I went down to the dining room, where half the tables were full of men. I sat waiting for a waiter, and after a while a man from one of the tables came and poured me a glass of wine (from a plastic spring water bottle, indicating home-made). Salut! From their own tables, they brought me a couple of fried fish, a basket of bread, and some cabbage salad. A young man with some English explained, with difficulty, that no waiter would come. They were a work crew boarding at the hotel for a month, and the kitchen was closed.

They were a crew of engineers, electricians, drivers and crane operators who install 300-ton (!!) power station gear all over the world. Sasha was the oldest, the shortest, and obviously the boss—you could just tell from his face. I scored big points with this crew by (A) opening beers with a lighter, (B) lighting Peter’s cigarette, (C) downing my vodka in one go, (D) peeling my tangerine in one piece, (E) calling Slava a fucking lightweight when he said he had to go to bed at 2:00AM. What a great bunch of guys.

They made me promise to stay another night (maybe), and visit them in Odessa (definitely). We had only Illya for translation, not very good, so we used google translate a lot. But the alphabet is different so we had to change the language setting on my phone back and forth repeatedly. I had to rely on Illya to return it to English and the last time he messed it up so bad it crashed. It came back to life exactly as it was out of the box—no apps, contacts, music, nothing. I finally got everything back from the cloud but the music, a couple of albums I purchased last week, so long ago it seems like a year. Sasha the boss fell in love with me and is trying to find a reason to hire me.



Slava brought out a laptop and showed me the company web site. Unbelievable. They have a diesel rig with 60 wheels, and a crane that lifts 500 tons. I think they are the dudes of Ukraine, and they think I’m a heroic figure of historic proportions. The innkeeper had to scold us for noise thee times. Incredibly good times. Those poor bastards had to work at 7:00.



Next morning I paid my dues. On an empty stomach, hung over to the point of nausea, I set off in a cold rain along the Danube on the worst stretch of road ever. Slabs of broken pavement, potholes that would make the newspaper in Vermont, shoulders of slimy clay, stretches of soft mud. Cars passed, splashing muddy water on me; tractor trailer rigs lumbered so slowly through the potholes that we passed each other repeatedly in clouds of black diesel fumes. At one point the whole road was under three inches of water, making the potholes unavoidable. This torture went on for 25 miles, which took nearly four hours. I shudder just writing it down.

Eventually the rain let up and the road improved. In the countryside I saw crews of forty men and women planting potatoes on fields that stretched to the horizon, horse-drawn wagons dispensing seed potatoes. Fishermen lined the rivers and held fish up for sale to the traffic. I crossed a great swamp between two lakes, five miles noisy with frogs, ducks, and seagulls.

In the afternoon the sun came out and I reached a small city, Ismail, and found a restaurant with wi-fi. It seemed strange to be sitting there among well-dressed men and women, sipping Coca-Cola, viewing web sites, while the potato planters surely continued their endless task.

Three days of camping, broken pavement, sunburn, and huge fields of wheat and hay followed my visit to Ismail. The camping is basic: alongside wheat fields a quarter-mile down a tractor road, still within sight of the highway. One night a car passed on the farm road so close the wind from it shook the tent.

The area I’m traveling through shows signs of Soviet-style Communist development. The highway passes by towns, not through them. Main-street businesses and commerce were just not a factor in planning. Bus stops on the highway are huge painted concrete affairs with pillars, seating and outhouses. Today they are crumbling from neglect but still heavily used. I passed the remains of old communes, walled compounds where agricultural products were loaded onto trains bound for the cities, and bulk foodstuffs, building materials, clothing, coal and diesel fuel were unloaded for local distribution. Stores are few now because back then there were none. At each railroad crossing stands a tiny cottage, now empty, once home for a bachelor whose entire lifelong career was operating the safety gates. Drawbridges on the larger rivers are still manned this way today. I learned some of this in a small museum in Ismail, some from Wilipedia.

I’m learning the Cryllic alphabet by looking at town and city names on road signs and comparing them with google maps’ English version. Ukranian is spoken in small villages, Russian elsewhere; English is rare. Shepherds and goatherds tend sizable flocks. Here, unlike elsewhere so far, some are talking on cell phones.

One day I was out of water in a village with no store. Ten-year-old Valeria had a dozen words of English, and she led me to the village well, where her aunt Anna, a school teacher, drew water and filled my bottles. They fetched a young man who spoke English and interviewed me while a small group gathered. I was sent off with route directions and a small Coke bottle of Grandma’s wine. I asked if I was the first American bicyclist to come through town. No; they remembered the last time, in 2005.


Gathered by the village well.

Tonight I’m in a terribly seedy seaside resort town, Zatoka, a dystopian Wildwood, New Jersey. The motel I chose didn’t look like much, but behind the walls, out of sight of the highway, is a beautiful compound of clean, modern white stucco and tile, facilities for barbecue, cooking and partying, and nice rooms. The delightful extended family that operates it is busily preparing for the upcoming season. The daughter (with a month-old baby) speaks perfect English. When I asked about a nearby restaurant, she looked at my bicycle and said, “It is too far. You will eat with us.” They are natural-born hosts, and the great family-style meal was relaxed and full of cheer. Once again I have somehow found the right place.

I’ll finish here and post while I have a connection. Apologies for the lack of photos. I’m trying. I’ll spend a few days in big, ancient, historic Odessa, securing a Russian visa and replacing some worn parts on my bike. And finding a good straw hat. Then Sebastopol, the Crimea, and finally, Russia. Wish me luck.

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