May 01 2008

I can now see the Carpathian m…

Published by under Sent by SMS

I can now see the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia on the horizon. Should cross the border via Trencin tomorrow. (Show on Google Maps)

No responses yet

May 03 2008

Camping at the foot of the Tat…

Published by under Sent by SMS

Camping at the foot of the Tatra mountains in Slovakia. Much more touristy than South of Czech Rep. Still on 110-120km/day. (Show on Google Maps)

No responses yet

May 04 2008

Long climb in the Tatras to 13…

Published by under Sent by SMS

Long climb in the Tatras to 1300m but view spoiled by low clouds and rain. Sleeping in fantastic private accomodation for 8£! (Show on Google Maps)

No responses yet

May 05 2008

40km from Ukrainian border. Sa…

Published by under Sent by SMS

40km from Ukrainian border. Saw lots of large Roma shanty towns, shocking!

Update: Bystrany (40km from Kosice) is one of the actually well known Slovak Roma village I passed through.

No responses yet

May 06 2008

Ukrainian border at Uzhgorod c…

Published by under Sent by SMS

Ukrainian border at Uzhgorod closed to bicycles! Had to put bike in a bus! Staying in Uzhgorod 1 day to plan route to Odessa. (Show on Google Maps)

No responses yet

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!

4 responses so far

May 09 2008

A few pictures from Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia

Published by under World Tour 2008

Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia

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

One response so far

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

5 responses so far

May 13 2008

Roads getting much worse along…

Published by under Sent by SMS

Roads getting much worse along the Moldova border: rocky tracks. Been invited for the night by nice family in a small village. (Show on Google Maps)

No responses yet

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.

2 responses so far

May 17 2008

Trouble in Odessa

Published by under World Tour 2008

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)

3 responses so far

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

No responses yet

May 18 2008

Another frog on a bike

Published by under World Tour 2008

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)

No responses yet

May 21 2008

Separation in the Ukrainian steppe

Published by under World Tour 2008

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!

6 responses so far

May 22 2008

flat straight boring road, int…

Published by under Sent by SMS

flat straight boring road, into a strong headwind for 2 days. 37C today. (Show on Google Maps)

No responses yet

May 23 2008

Tailwind in Ukraine

Published by under World Tour 2008

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.

No responses yet

May 24 2008

The end of Ukraine

I am staying in a hotel in Novoazovsk (Новоазовск) for my last night in Ukraine. Only 10km left to the Russian border! (Show on Google Maps) Ukraine had a few surprises for me: I had imagined a country not too different from the Czech republic or Slovakia and I wasn’t prepared for the terrible roads in the North-West and the hills along the Moldovan border. On the other hand the incident with the Militsia in Odessa was a textbook experience which fortunately ended well. In villages ordinary people give you the evil look but are actually very friendly and helpful if you take the time to stop and explain who you are and what you are doing. After Odessa it was great to meet Olivier. He has a great personnality and it’s a shame we can’t carry on together because of the Russian red tape. Olivier also has a blog (in French) at www.bikarouk.com.

I am now on the road that the Paris-Pekin 2008 expedition followed last month and I’m not surprised anymore when people ask me if I’m French and cycling to China. A bit too late to catch them up!

I’m entering Russia Sunday and my first priorities will be to find a cashpoint and a local SIM card. The latter will probably have to wait until I reach Rostov on Monday. In Rostov I will meet the other Olivier who had a bag containing his tent and clothes stolen last week in Ukraine when he was in an internet cafe. He managed to buy some replacements in Ukraine and he’s back on the road! His adventures can be followed on his blog (French again!)

I have updated the 3 galleries in the Ukraine photo album:

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

I know have 20 days in Russia to reach the Kazakh border near Asktrakhan.

One response so far

May 27 2008

Red tape in Rostov

Published by under World Tour 2008

After only 45 minutes, 3 forms, 6 control checkpoints and a quick look in one of my bags by a border guard, I enter Russia. It was easier than I had feared!
The next day I meet Olivier at the Alliance Francaise in Rostov. He’s left France in February and has spent 2 months cycling through the mountains in winter. I’ve had an easy trip so far compared to him! We are going to cycle together to Astrakhan, and both relieved to have found a partner to ride with in Russia. Everyone told us that cycle touring in Russia isn’t a good idea. We hope that in villages people will be more easy going than in a large city like Rostov. Our route will be a straight line from Rostov to Elista and Kazakhstan, trying to avoid the main roads as much as possible.

Today Olivier has a lot of shopping to do in Rostov. He had most of his equipment stolen (sleeping bag, tent, stove, clothes, …) when he was in an Internet cafe in Ukraine. His rear wheel is also split along the rim (Mavic 719, Mavic rims are known to have bad batches…). We spend a day looking for all the bike and camping shops in Rostov. We find a fantastic little bike shop called Samokat on Tekoutchiova Ulitsa. The shop is tiny and very hard to find (between the swimming pool and the stadium) but they have all the top of the range Shimano kit and even the extremely rare oil specific to my Rohloff hub! The prices are the same as in Western Europe though, Russia isn’t cheap! The staff is very helpful and Olivier find a great new wheel for 100 euros. They also gave us a T-shirt and a couple of beers when we leave!

We also found a great camping shop (Kemping-Don) that even stocks a Primus Omnifuel (the stove that everyone uses in the Himalayas) but it’s a bit more expensive than in Europe so Olivier decides to wait to get a replacement sent later. In the meantime we can use mine to cook for both of us.

I also tried to find a local SIM card with Internet access, and it seems that I need to have some sort of registration for 3 months in my passport to be able to buy a SIM card in Russia! I find a helpful shop that makes a few phone calls but the final answer is nyet. I’ll try again in other cities but I’m not very confident. The twitter updates aren’t working anymore either so in the coming days (weeks?) I won’t give as many updates as I did in Ukraine.

Our hotel (Starry Rostov) was also supposed to register our visas with the local police but we’re still not sure if they have actually done it. Wait & See

No responses yet

May 28 2008

How to buy a SIM card in Russia

Published by under World Tour 2008

At last I’ve managed to buy a Russian SIM card! You need to register with a hotel first, show your passport with this very important registration to the shop assistant and fill a few forms in duplicate. Russian citizens have similar constraints! I filled the forms in English and I’m sure all this could have easily been forged but what mattered is that we followed the protocol!
i have a card with Internet access but it’s 15 times more expensive than in Ukraine: about £10 for 100MB in Russia instead of £8 for 1GB in Ukraine!

Back to cycling now with Olivier. We’re leaving Rostov in the afternoon after a last visit at Alliance Francaise. Hopefully the russian villages we’re about to cross will be less hectic than Rostov!

3 responses so far

May 28 2008

Alliance Francaise in Rostov

Published by under World Tour 2008

Olivier, Andrei, Alexandra, Arnaud
Olivier, Andrei, Alexandra, Arnaud

Olivier and I are now on our way to Elista (Элиста) and the Kazakh border near Astrakhan (Астрахан). A big thank you to the Alliance Francaise in Rostov for their fantastic support!

We are now eager to discover a less hectic life in Russian villages and hope to see soon more camels than 4x4s!

(Show on Google Maps)

One response so far