May 12 2008
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: