Cycling through Southern Ukraine

First of all, we must apologize for the delay, the article which should have been published on 10th January 2015, is being published almost one month later. This has happenned due to some objective (we have had to take care of a lot of things) and subjective (laziness) circumstances. We are still in Tbilisi, Georgia and trying to raise some money so we can continue our journey. All three of us have found a job here and even though the salary is small, it is still better than nothing. We will cover all the happenings in Tbilisi only when the events leading up to our arrival here will be covered. One thing we can already say about our lives here – we cannot complain about boredom. So, here is the promised article about our journey from Odessa to Crimea.

Farewell to Odessa

November was approaching at the speed of wind (as we found out the wind was not blowing in the right direction) and that meant that we had to say farewell to Odessa to start moving in the direction of Crimea. Taking into account that Crimea is under Russian control, in order to enter we had to possess Russian visa. He had received Russian visa without any problems already in Latvia, so we only had to get to the Crimean border. As we had acquired a tourist visa for 30 days and it started on 1st November we wanted to get to the border on 31st October at the latest. We said good bye to our lovely couchsurfing host Alina and her family on 27th October and we were ready to get back on our bicycles.

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From left – Dainis, Alina, Ivars and Laura. Alina, thank you very, very much!

To get to the Crimean border we had to cycle for approximately 300 kilometres on Ukrainian tarmac (which in places reminded us of WWII). Time was on our side as we had exactly 5 days and 4 nights to cover the distance. But as you can never know what lies in head of you on the road, we could not waste any more time. I was a bit worried about my health, as I had spent the last week in Odessa fighting with a nasty virus. Surprisingly this nasty beast let me go as soon as we set out.

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This is how I spent most of our time in Odessa.

Night on the shore of the Black Sea

Once we got out from the city we stopped to supplement our food, cigarette and water supplies at a roadside shop. While Ivars and Laura were doing the shopping (this task usually rotates between all of us) I had an opportunity to explain to a Ukrainian gentlemen the capabilities of our bicycles – he was very surprised to hear that it is possible to cycle at 30 km/h with fully loaded bicycles (we did not say that it is easy).

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Lovely cat guarding our bicycles on the outskirts of Odessa

As the winter solstice was closing in on us and because of the daylight saving time the day ended much faster that we would like. The twilight started around 17.00 and we had to start looking for a place to camp. Just before that we said our last goodbye to Odessa – while standing at the shore of the Black Sea we could see this beautiful city on the shore of the sea. For an unknown reason this very moment has left a mark in our memories. In this moment we felt that our previous lives had started slipping away. It did not happen on 15th September, we came to understand that this is an ongoing process – you may not notice it at the time when it is happening, but sooner or later you wake up to realize that you have changed as a person. You have left a part of “you” behind “you” for better or worse.

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A bit before sunset next to the shore of the Black Sea

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Odessa from far, far away

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Laura keeping watch after our bicycles

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Fancy a swim? No, not really!

Sun went down without giving us a chance to find a proper camping spot. As we were used to the comforts of a city life, we decided to try our luck in finding a place to stay in one of the nearby houses. Theory was fairly simple – we will talk with the locals asking for a place to put up our tent hoping that they will invite us to spend the night in their house. Theory is one thing, but it was not so easy to practice it. After a few unsuccessful attempts we finally decided to give up on this errand. Harbour security officer warned us against camping in this area as there are a lot of stray dogs (dubasari), criminal vagabonds from Eastern Ukraine and the wind is blowing from the sea, thus we would have a really cold night. Of course we did not listen to his advice and, without him noticing, we sneaked inside the territory to camp at the shore of the Black Sea.

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The best thing about our chosen campsite was that we could see huge ships entering the harbor

The night was quite peaceful, if one does not count the blowing wind. Morning brought us good news – there was no water condensation in our tent (wind did have a positive effect after all). The morning was very cold and thus we did not want to hang around for much longer, after small breakfast we started to pedal.

Wind, bonfires and Ukraine

The following day was memorable for the constant headwind and ongoing fight against wind induced runny nose. Headwind is the most annoying thing for a cyclist. Everything else is BERABLE, but the physical and psychological fight against headwind was a real challenge. If you are cycling uphill you know that the uphill section will end sooner or later and in addition usually the mountain scenery is just breath-taking, but with headwind you can never now when it is going to end, it may very well blow for eternity. Wind does not care, wind just blows for its own mysterious reasons.

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Wind, wind and wind again

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Last kilometers of thus far the windiest day

Equipped with toilet paper rolls for our runny noses and patience against the headwind, we managed to finish the day averaging approximately 15 km/h. The nNight, which turned out to be even colder than the previous one, we spent not far from the road. Even though it  was cold, our sleeping bags kept us warm easily and at least we did not sweat during the night.

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Trying to get rid of the excess water in our tent

In the next morning we were greeted by grey and cold sky, but fortunately for us the headwind had lessenned. Hoping not to feel the headwind ever again we started our day. The plan for this day was to cycle to the city of Mykolaiv. We managed to do it in couple of hours and around midday we entered the city (this was probably due to the lack of wind). We did not spend much time in the city and decided to move on after having a short lunch at the local pizzeria and visiting the post office. That night we camped 25 km from the city in a small line of threes next to the road. The night was calm and peaceful, we sat around the bonfire and enjoyed our humble meal.

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Ivars meditating

We woke up on 30th October understanding that we don’t have much time left to make it to the border, thus we decided to pedal for more than 100 km. We arrived at Kherson (city in the southern side of Ukraine, at the shore of river Dnipro) around 12.00. Main memories about the city are connected with trying to find a working post office where it would be possible to send a postcard to Latvia. This never-ending quest and other irrelevant micro disputes almost resulted in our first serious conflict between each other. Of course we have had some misunderstandings and micro conflicts amongst ourselves, and we don’t always share the same opinion or have the same expectations and this time I was the one who was feeling like an egoistic piece of shit just because something was not happening according to my plan. All this faded away when we were crossing Dnipro river and saying goodbye to the city. We camped a good distance after the city in a roadside bushes and once again sat around a bonfire for couple of hours before going to sleep.

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A decent camping spot not far from Crimean border

Crimean border

We reached the Crimean border early on 31st October. We were kind of surprised to notice that there are very few cars on the main road from Kherson to Crimea (basically only heavy loaded trucks were seen on the road). When closing in on the border, the number of Ukrainian troops, fortifications, trenches and even soldier dummies was increasing dramatically. This time we did not try to take photos, as we were afraid that it could be interpreted in a slightly different manner. Five kilometres before the border we noticed a very long line of heavy trucks waiting to get into the occupied territory of Crimea (as Crimean peninsula from Russian side is still accessible only with a ferry, goods from Ukraine plays an important role). From truck drivers we found out that this is not the longest line on the border, this time the drivers have to wait only a bit more than 1 day.

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Trucks waiting to get in Crimea

Probably the biggest surprise was that part of the border territory was mined. Jesus, territory was mined – if you really make a terribly wrong step you can be blown aparat. The feeling was really terrifying!

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This is how the border territory looks like

After an unexpected meeting with OSCE observers (unfortunately our friend Gunars was deployed to a different region), we started to look for a place to camp. This time it was serious business – we really didn’t want to end up sleeping on a land mine. Partially we succeeded, there were no land mines in our chosen spot, but a lot of human faeces and garbage all around. While drying out our tent and sleeping bags, Laura and I went do find some drinkable water – we ended up asking for the water from truck drivers. During our stay at the border our attention was caught by a weirdly looking wire – we were afraid that this wire has something in common with land mines not too far away. Unfortunately we did not manage to find out all of the secrets behind this wire, but fortunately we were not blown apart.

Already before leaving Odessa we had planned something special for the night of 31st October – the night of Halloween. Honestly, I don’t really care much about this weird celebration and I have never actively participated in it, nevertheless this night was a perfect occasion to watch a horror movie in our tent during the night. We had decided in favour of The Blair Witch Project as the action in the movie was connected with outdoor activities. It turned out that the nearby road with uncountable number of trucks humming and waiting in line did not contribute to the movie and thus we were not as afraid as we would have liked. The real horror was encountered in the next morning when Ivars found out that a mouse had chewed a huge hole in his bag.

Read more about Crimea and this huge hole in Ivars pannier in the following days (we promise). So, see you later!

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