Archive for the 'World Tour 2008' Category

Oct 01 2007

The big 2008 trip

Published by under World Tour 2008

2008 will be my big cycle trip across Eurasia. I’ve been thinking about this for a few years and I would have done it this year if not for PBP.

My rough plan is to leave around April 2008 at the latest, spend a month travelling through Germany and Eastern Europe (Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) and finally stop for a couple of months in Saint Petersburg to study Russian in a private school. 8 weeks of study with accomodation in a host family should cost less than £3000. It will be useful to improve my very basic Russian and also give a nice focus to the journey.

After Saint Petersburg I am thinking about cycling to Irkutsk near lake Baikal. It should be around late September by then, and just the time to cross Mongolia before it gets seriously cold. After crossing the Gobi desert I would then get into Northern China and from there probably head towards Beijing.

Mike Vermeulen has just recently finished a similar tour to Vladivostok: http://www.bikerussia.com/.

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Oct 17 2007

Inoculations for Russia and China

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Today I saw a travel nurse in preparation for my 2008 trip to Russia and Asia.

I will get these recommended inoculations (descriptions from the official NHS travel website):

  • DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and polio)
  • Typhoid and hepatitis A
    Spread through contaminated food and water. Typhoid causes septicaemia and hepatitis A causes liver inflammation and jaundice. In risk areas you should be immunised if good hygiene is impossible.
  • Rabies
    Spread through bites or licks on broken skin from an infected animal. It is always fatal. Vaccination is advised for those going to risk areas that will be remote from a reliable source of vaccine. Even when pre-exposure vaccines have been received urgent medical advice should be sought after any animal bite.
  • Tickborne encephalitis
    Spread by tick bites. It is a serious infection of the brain and vaccination is advised for those in risk areas unable to avoid tick bites such as campers, forestry workers and ramblers.
  • Japanese B encephalitis
    Spread by mosquitoes. Risk is only in the very far east of Siberia close to the Chinese border. Advised if likely to be repeatedly exposed to mosquito bites, such as during prolonged stays (e.g. more than 4 weeks), or repeated visits to the infected area.

So far I got the DTP and Hepatitis A inoculations.

I’ll get the ones for Typhoid and Rabies closer to departure, probably around the end of January. I will also need to see a doctor for Japanese B and Tickborne encephalitis as these are not free on the NHS and need a specific prescription.

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Nov 02 2007

New Russian visa restrictions

Published by under World Tour 2008

It looks like the Russian government has recently introduced tougher visa restrictions:

Up until last month (October 2007) it was relatively easy to get a multi-entry 12 months business visa even for tourism purposes, no questions asked. That’s what most long distance cycle tourists opted for.

The new restrictions now impose the following:

  • A 12 months multi-entry business visa is only valid for 90 consecutive days and no more than a total of 180 days per year in the country.
  • Multi-entry visas can only be issued to people who have already been issued a Russian visa in the past.
  • Foreigners applying for a visa must do so in their own country, or any country where they are permanent resident or have the right to live for 90 days. In practice this should mean that EU citizens can apply anywhere in the EU.

Therefore it is now impossible to get any visa to travel any longer than 90 consecutive days in Russia.

3 months would be enough for me to cycle without too many detours from St Petersburg to the Mongolian border near Irkutsk (about 6-7000km). However I will need to change my plans about studying Russian in St Petersburg for 2 months…

You gotta love these Russian bureaucrats, although to be fair I don’t think the UK or French visa restrictions for Russian citizens are any more lenient. Restrictions on immigration are more popular than ever in any country… I find this rather hypocritical in a world where “global economy” is the rule.

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Jan 31 2008

New touring bike

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A couple of weeks ago I received my new touring bike: a Thorn Nomad.

In the Cotswolds with the Thorn Nomad
In the Cotswolds with the Thorn Nomad

Compared to my previous touring bike (Cannondale T800) it’s heavy and slow but it feels much sturdier. The rear rack is guaranteed to 60kg (25kg only on the T800!) and the bike itself handles like a big lorry, which is A Good Thing when you carry a lot of stuff. It comes with a Rohloff hub gear for easy maintenance (provided the hub doesn’t fail!) and S&S couplings to split the frame in two for easier transportation. I also added a Schmidt dynamo hub to use with this German Dynalader AA/USB charger to recharge batteries when cycling!

Update 02/2008: the Dynalader charger doesn’t work properly. I found a possibly better solution with a product called TuneCharger. Unfortunately it requires a bit of soldering and things can get rather hot when going downhill… I’ll give another update after more testing.

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Mar 25 2008

The routes to China

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There are 3 main routes from Europe to China:

  • Northern route (Russia and Mongolia)
  • Central Asia route (Russia and Kazakhstan, possibly Kyrgyzstan)
  • Southern route (Middle East and India)

Continue Reading »

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Mar 25 2008

Visas and a departure date

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I’ve applied for 2 visas:

  • Russia: 1 month – entry date: 15th of May
  • Kazakhstan: 3 months – entry date: 5th of June

I used a French visa agency to make things simpler. So far my applications seem to be going smoothly and I hope to receive the visas (and my passport!) by the 10th of April.

I am moving back to France from the UK in early April and I should leave for the trip around the 15th.

I have a 12 months sabbatical from work. It shouldn’t take more than 6 months to cycle to China (especially with the visa time limits) so I would have enough time to cycle back through India and the Middle East, or maybe I’ll take a plane further West…

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Apr 18 2008

D-2

D-2

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Apr 19 2008

Last update before departure

Published by under World Tour 2008

I am now pretty much ready to leave in 48 hours (Monday the 21st)

I received my visas for Russia and Kazakhstan last week, so now it’s a race against the clock to get to Russia early enough to have the time to get to the Kazakh border before the Russian visa expires on the 15th of June. I’ve planned a fairly direct route (See map) through Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the South of Ukraine: about 3000km altogether from my parents in NE France to the Russian border in Crimea. If I cycle at least 100km each day, I’ll be in Russia before the end of May and in Kazakhstan around mid-June.

I’ve heard very bad news about obtaining a visa for China: the Chinese government has just tightened its visa regulations following the recent anti-Chinese protests around the world. More information is available on the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum, but in short they are now even tougher than Russia: 30 days maximum stay; need to show proof of airline tickets and booked accommodation; need to apply in a country where you have right of residency; etc…

With these limitations it’ll be virtually impossible for tourists to cycle all the way to China, especially when entering through the West border as this is an area forbidden to foreigners anyway (this rule wasn’t strictly enforced until now). I am not sure what I will do once in Kazakhstan, I may actually have to fly from Almaty to avoid China altogether. I won’t get there until August anyway so I have 4 more months to think about it…

Regarding my preparations, I wish I’d have a few more weeks to research all the places I’m going through and also re-think some of the stuff I’m taking with me: my bike fully loaded is 70kg, and with all the cakes I’ve eaten recently I’m also 10kg overweight so the total weight is about 155kg. No way I’m leaving the laptop at home though!

A very overloaded bike
A very overloaded bike

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Apr 19 2008

How to send me SMS texts for free

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I’ve created an account called frogonabike on twitter to be able to send and receive SMS updates on the road.

I’ll still have to pay from 29 to 49 pence (outside Europe) to send texts but I can receive them for free wherever I am, and with twitter you can also send me texts for free.

You’ll need to create a new account on twitter.com (you can ignore the “invite” screen after signing up) and then to send me a direct message, just type in the “What are you doing?” form:

d frogonabike YOUR MESSAGE

and twitter should tell you that it has sent a direct message to frogonabike.

To send more texts, just prepend all your messages with “d frogonabike”

Unfortunately I can’t guarantee a direct reply by SMS but I’ll try to keep in touch by email!

Update: I just realised that twitter won’t send SMS updates from accounts that I am not “following”. So if you send me a twitter message and I’m not following you already, I won’t get it until I can connect on the net and update my twitter account.

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Apr 22 2008

Departure

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Departure, bike and cyclist both overloaded
Departure, bike and cyclist both overloaded
The hardest bit
The hardest bit

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Apr 25 2008

In Rothenburg

Published by under World Tour 2008

Arrived in Rothenburg this evening. Staying in a B&B and will quickly visit by day tomorrow morning. Found some free wifi in the street and I am typing this on my mobile so no pictures for now. (Show on Google Maps)

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May 08 2008

Uzhgorod

Published by under World Tour 2008

Uzhgorod in Ukraine
Uzhgorod in Ukraine

After 2 days in Uzhgorod (Ужгород) doing various admin tasks (posting some excess luggage back home, buying a local SIM card, replying to emails, etc…) and also visiting a bit I am now ready to cycle into the Transcarpathian mountains. It will probably be my last mountain range for a while. After this I’m heading towards Odessa, carefully avoiding Moldavia and especially Transnistria, well known for the corruption of its border guards.

The crossing into Ukraine from Slovakia didn’t go as smoothly as I expected as I was told by the Slovak guards that the Uzhgorod crossing was only open to motor vehicles and that I should go 50km South to cross in a small village barely visible on my 1:200k map. After a bit of talking (and lots of gesturing) they asked a passing bus driver to take me and my bike to the other side and I ended up with a free 5km ride into the centre of Uzhgorod.

Uzhgorod itself is quite nice and a very relaxed place!

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May 09 2008

A few pictures from Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia

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Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia

Some pictures of the first couple of weeks of my cycle tour 2008

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May 12 2008

On the roads of Ukraine

Published by under World Tour 2008

Traffic on main road
Traffic on main road

I haven’t stopped much since I left France 3 weeks ago: half a day in Rothenburg (a great town in Bavaria) and a whole day in Uzhgorod. Cycling in Germany is fantastic, the cycle lanes separated from the main roads between cities are really good. I also met a lot of cyclists there, tourists and racers. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have been a bit of a blur, I wish I didn’t have these visa deadlines looming above my head and could have stopped more in these countries. I remember the hilly South of the Czech Republic (a succession of 12% climbs, probably the maximum that lorries can climb as I rarely saw anything worse), the Tatra mountains in Slovakia (the highest peaks of the Carpathians), the beautiful cemeteries and the crazy main roads in both of these countries (heavy traffic, narrow roads, no hard shoulder). If you cycle there, avoid the main roads!

After Slovakia it took me a few days to get used to Ukraine. The roads are badly corrugated and in some places the potholes could stop a tank. Everything rattles on the bike and at the end of each day I find a new small hole in my bags and fine aluminium dust in the pannier that contains my canned food. Now that I’ve left the Carpathian mountains things have improved a bit, but in some places (especially town centres) the roads are still giving me and the bike a good battering.

As a cyclist in Ukraine you have absolutely no rights, especially in cities. In less than 10 minutes 3 cars turned right in front of me in Ivano-Frankivsk (Івано-Франківськ). I’m glad I fitted a mirror on the bike before I left! On the main roads if a car or lorry can’t overtake he’ll let you know with his horn and you’d better get out of the way fast, even if that means going into one of these potholes large as a bathtub. Fortunately the traffic is much lighter than in Slovakia and the roads very wide. And the gravel on the side of the road is sometimes much better than the road itself!

I am also not as anonymous as I used to be up to Slovakia. Overtaking cars don’t hesitate to slow down and passengers get their mobile phones out to take a picture. When I go through a town people look at me as if I came from another planet, this is especially disconcerting when I go up one of these 12% at 5km/h. Fortunately most people reply when I say hi, and more and more don’t hesitate to ask me questions (how many kilometers? Where are you from?) or come to help me when I stop to look at the map.

Accommodation is rather cheap, as cheap as £4, with hot water even! The norm seems to be somewhere between £10 and £15 a night. The rooms always stink of cigarette. Staying in these hotels is much better to interact with the locals, so I’ve decided to camp less. Also it is now very hard to find a quiet spot to camp wild, the fields are always busy with people working. If there is a muddy track going off the main road you can be sure that someone won’t be far with his cows or farming his plot. I have noticed that the small fields in Transcarpathia are now being replaced by much larger ones further East: the kolkhoz are still going strong here.

I am now in Dunayevtsy (Show on Google Maps) not far from the border with Moldova and heading to Odessa. I’ll have to maintain a daily average of at least 100-120km to have the time to stop at least one or two days there. Then it should take another week to get to the Russian border at Kerch in Crimea. In any case I don’t want to get to Russia any later than the end of this month as my Russian visa runs out on the 15th of June and I’ll need at least 2 weeks to get to the Kazakh border.

My routine is quite simple: on the road about 8 to 10 hours a day for at least 100km, find a place to stay (wild camping or hotel), unpack bike (a good 15 minutes), set up tent (if camping) or take possible cold shower (hotel), eat, answer emails or SMS, write a few notes, prepare the route for the next day, sleep 7 to 8 hours, wake up, fiddle for 2 hours, pack bike (30min), repeat. My average speed varies between 13 and 15km/h including stops.

Foodwise, since Germany no more Backerei so I’m left with biscuits or stale cakes. After an initial disappointment in Ukraine (Cigarette ash-flavoured biscuits) I’ve now found some great stuff filled with caramel, yum. Once in Ukraine no more supermarket either (bye bye Tesco) but lots of little магазин that sell stuff behind the counter, you need to tell the bored shopkeeper what you want (or point with the finger in my case). During the day I eat biscuits and bananas and I drink at least 2L of Coke or other sugary drink as well as water. In the evenings I make sandwiches or eat pasta if I feel like spending another 30 minutes with the stove and washing up in the morning.

Here are a few photos of Ukraine. I bought a SIM card with 1GB internet data (£7.50) in Uzhgorod, the GPRS connection (Edge) isn’t fast but it seems to work almost everywhere and I’ll update this same gallery as long as I am in the country:

South Ukraine - Odessa to Mariupol - May 2008

Along the South coast of Ukraine, from Odessa towards Rostov

Odessa

Odessa - May 2008

Ukraine - May 2008

Ukraine from the bicycle

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May 14 2008

Following the Moldovan border in Podillya

Published by under World Tour 2008

Countryside road
Countryside road

The last few days have felt like some sort of vicious training for Paris-Roubaix mixed with a mountain stage of the Tour de France.

All the roads look flat and smooth on my 1:500k map and I unknowingly entered a very hilly and unpaved part of Ukraine when I decided to follow the Dniester river along the border with Moldova. Dozens of smaller rivers flowing into the Dniester have carved deep valleys 150 metres down from the main plateau and the road is sprinkled with steep climbs. Eventually the bad tarmac ends and the rough track begins. My average speed drops to 10km/h and after barely 100km that day I am looking for a quiet spot to camp when someone hails me from his house. I end up in Sasha’s house for the night. I meet the whole familly and I feel like Salvatore in The Name of The Rose when I try to communicate: a bit of French, English, German and Russian, all mixed together. “Hitler Kaput” says Sasha… A good start!

Tania, Babushka, Sasha, Frog & Koshka
Tania, Babushka, Sasha, Frog & Koshka

I have a chance to taste homemade products that night: pig fat, goat cheese, fish, everything extremely salted except the vodka. Sasha’s wife, Tania, is interested in the wages difference between Ukraine and Western Europe as well as the price of my bike, my camera, a haircut, etc… I give them numbers which are half the actual price but that’s still 3 or 4 times more than in Ukraine. In the morning I start the day with green Borscht, a Ukrainian specialty from what I understand. We exchange addresses; Sasha was impressed by my map of Ukraine so I’ll try to post it to him when I’ll get into Russia.

I am now in Odessa Oblast, about 120km from the city itself. (Show on Google Maps) I had a great tailwind and sunshine today, apparently this region doesn’t see much rain and that’s a nice change from my first few days in the country. There are now a lot of large fields everywhere (the “breadbasket of the USSR”) and finding a quiet spot to camp isn’t as hard as in the North West. This still generates a lot of barking from the dogs in the surrounding villages though.

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May 17 2008

Trouble in Odessa

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Odessa city limits
Odessa city limits

I am staying in another Soviet-style hotel in Odessa (Одесса) for a couple of days and yesterday I managed to make two really stupid mistakes worthy of a newbie traveller:

I hadn’t slept much the previous night (catching up with emails) and had spent all day walking around the city before heading towards the beach a few kilometres away. I was almost there when two obviously drunk young men asked me something aggressively. I didn’t understand and gave the usual nyet and kept walking but they persisted.

First mistake of the day, which I blame on my lack of sleep, was to tell them to P* off, in a less gentle way and in English. Next time I’ll keep my mouth shut or at least swear in French because one of the drunks immediately got very angry and obviously wanted to share more than foreign words. Knowing I had just made a terrible mistake I went to ask for some help to two guards standing around a nearby hospital gate. They weren’t keen to help me, more interested in keeping me and the drunks outside the hospital. Eventually I forced my way in, they restrained the drunks a bit and I asked them to call the police. After a few minutes of shouting from everyone’s part they eventually called and the drunks went out of sight. At that point I was inside the hospital’s courtyard and a few patients were quite supportive, much more so than the guards who didn’t want to let me out anymore! After 30 minutes the police (militsya) came, 4 guys in a military-type uniform in an enormous 4×4. I thought that was a bit overkill, after all no one was hurt and I just wanted a safe way out, a taxi would have been good enough. A nice lady at the hospital explained what had happened and we drove a few minutes around the area in search of my attackers. We were on the way to my hotel (I think!) when I saw them on the street.

Second mistake of the day, which I blame on me still thinking like in England, was to tell the policemen. The car stopped, 3 policemen came out, started beating up the drunks (enough for them to bleed) and eventually arrested them. We drove to the central police station where I was expecting to be briefly questioned, sign a few papers, and out maybe an hour later. It took two hours for one of the policemen to write down a rather long statement (not mine as I hadn’t been questioned), during which the young drunks were not restrained as I was standing next to them, often with no other supervision. No one stopped them trying to intimidate me, or me talking back to them, in French this time as I thought it would be better to pretend not to speak English. I started to get a bit more worried about the police than my attackers.

We all went back in the 4×4, driving to the beach. This time I would be questioned at the local police station. It was a slow process done by 3 or 4 different people (I had quit pretending not speaking English but that didn’t make much difference) and it wasn’t really going anywhere. I was wondering why I was being kept for so long, after all I was the obvious victim and the affair was quite simple.

I ended up in the chief’s office and then it took a different angle. He searched my bag for “narcotics” (weed would have made his day) and that gave him a good excuse to go through all my stuff: cameras, mobile phone, counting the dollars and kopecks in my wallet, etc… He and his colleagues were all quite impressed by the cameras (an SLR and a compact) and didn’t hesitate to try them. I carry some pepper spray (not illegal in France) and I was rather worried but that didn’t bother him when I said it was against dogs (I haven’t used it yet). He eventually noticed a missing bit of paper in my passport. I had lost the immigration paper they give you when you enter Ukraine (It looks like a cash machine receipt and fortunately I found it later in my hotel room) and apparently that was a big offense: deportation! Gulag? He threatened to stamp my passport with his “deportation stamp” which would have apparently meant me leaving the country ASAP by plane and not being able to come back for many years (that latter part was fine by me at that point). He also told me that the two drunks were pretending that I had actually robbed them and they didn’t know who to believe. I strongly suspected all that was mostly for show but after an hour of this I started having doubts about where it would lead. I was starting to make new plans in my head: in case of quick deportation maybe I could catch a ferry to Turkey in Odessa instead of having to fly with my heavy bike. At some point the chief made me understand that he was after money but he wouldn’t give me a figure. He knew how much I had on me (about $140 in local money and dollars). I didn’t want to make an offer either. I asked him his name but he would only give me a first name. This went on for another hour as they made me come in and out the chief’s office many times. Eventually I offered all my local money (about $70) which he refused, and at that point I was already dreaming about Turkey so I said ok you can deport me. He waved his fake stamp a few more times over my passport, another 30 minutes of waiting in a separate room and at last I was free to go. I jokingly asked if I could take his photo but he refused. It was all a big show that had lasted almost 5 hours and entertained the bored militsya of Odessa.

It wasn’t all that friendly though: as I was leaving, the two young drunks (sober by now) came in the chief’s room with a few other policemen and started to be seriously shouted at and pushed around. I made a very quick exit and headed out to a bar for a strong coffee!

I’ll remember than from then on, the police (especially in large cities) can’t be trusted…

I still have one more day in Odessa, doing admin and planning rather than visiting. The beach is definitely a no go for me anyway! (Show on Google Maps)

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May 17 2008

Odessa photos

Published by under World Tour 2008

Some photos of Odessa:

South Ukraine - Odessa to Mariupol - May 2008

Along the South coast of Ukraine, from Odessa towards Rostov

Odessa

Odessa - May 2008

Ukraine - May 2008

Ukraine from the bicycle

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May 18 2008

Another frog on a bike

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Olivier, another frog on a bike
Olivier, another frog on a bike

This morning I was replacing my bike chain on the side of the busy road to Nikolaiev (Николаев) when a recumbent bike stopped behind me. Another traveler! And what a coincidence, a French one too! Olivier also started his trip 4 weeks ago but he went through Romania instead of Slovakia. He’s also heading towards Almaty in Kazakhstan and maybe China if the visa situation improves (doubtful). We’re going to cycle together for a few days and maybe meet later in Kazakhstan as the validity dates of our Russian visas do not match and he must stay at least another 2 weeks in Ukraine.

Traveling with Olivier and his recumbent bike makes me totally anonymous again. His bike attracts tons of attention and for some reason makes all the kids laugh. The circus comes to town!

Later that day we also met 2 Danish guys on a 3 weeks tour of Ukraine. This road along the Black Sea seems to be very popular with cycle tourists! (Show on Google Maps)

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May 21 2008

Separation in the Ukrainian steppe

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Leaving Olivier
Leaving Olivier

Three days after we met in Odessa, Olivier and I must split because of the Russian bureaucracy: he still has 10 days to spend in Ukraine until his Russian visa becomes valid whereas mine has started running out 5 days ago and I only have 25 days left to cycle the 2000 kilometres to the Kazakh border in Astrakhan. It would have been great to cycle together all the way, maybe we’ll meet again next month in Kazakhstan where I will have more time to wait for him.

Today I also had to make a decision regarding where I will cross the border into Russia. I had initially planned to cycle in Crimea and take a ferry to cross the strait of Azov at Kerch but Olivier told me of another French cycle tourist, confusingly also called Olivier, who is a bit ahead of us and heading towards Rostov-on-the-Don (Ростов-На-Дону)in Russia. I will try to meet the new Olivier there next week and I am now following the main road to Rostov. The distance is about the same but the road may be a bit less scenic, although in Crimea I wouldn’t have had the time to visit the South coast which has the most dramatic landscape.

Ukrainian cycle lanes
Ukrainian cycle lanes

This part of Ukraine where I am now near the Black Sea (Show on Google Maps) is totally different from my first 10 days in the country further North. The road surface is better but there is much more traffic. I haven’t seen any horse drawn carriage on the road and the battered Ladas are now a minority. The green steppe starts here: the terrain is completely flat with a few trees here and there, finding a camping spot becomes difficult again! Although there are no hills and the road quality is good, I still can’t average more than 15km/h because of a headwind from the South-East. Looking at how the trees are bent this is a predominant wind which must blow year round. The temperature now reaches 37C in the afternoon.

Today I stopped in a small shop where I’ve been asked if I was French and was cycling to China. I am actually on the same route that a group of 120 French cyclists (Paris-Pekin 2008) followed a month ago. It will be hard to catch them up!

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May 23 2008

Tailwind in Ukraine

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Into the wind
Into the wind

After 300km of straight roads fighting a headwind at 13km/h I reach the Azov Sea. The headwind slowly becomes a crosswind and eventually a feeble tailwind! Will it last until Rostov? I am 130km from the Russian border (Show on Google Maps) which I’ll probably cross in 2 days. I’ll try to find a hotel on the Ukrainian side tomorrow evening to get rid of my last Hryvnias (the local money) and try to spend the 500MB left on my Ukrainian SIM card… The mobile internet access (EDGE) in Ukraine has been fantastic, it is slow but it works almost everywhere, from the Carpathians to the middle of a field in the steppe. I hope I’ll find something similar in Russia.

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