Hitchhike to India leg 27: Minsk to Kiev

Wednesday 21 May

Well now this wasn’t going to be easy.  It’s some 600KM to Kiev, around seven hours without traffic, and of course the area is currently unstable.  I plan to hitch down to a place called Gomel, then strike for the Ukrainian capital from there.  On paper it looks straighforward, in reality it could be a nightmare.  I set off at 9am in already baking weather.  No sunscreen and my skin is a recipe for a lobster.

I take a metro and bus combination to Minsk city limits.  From here I’m battling locals who always pay the drivers for a ride.  It’s a solid spot though with plenty of traffic, and I’m picked up by a guy in a minibus with his son.  He’s only going as far as Babruysk, but it edges me closer, so I opt for the ride.  A little old Belarussian lady joins me, laughing hearitly at my sign for Gomel on one side and Kiev on the other.  The driver makes gun noises.  “Ukraine RATATATATATATAT!”  He warns.  I chuckle, but apparently it wasn’t meant to be a joke.

About half an hour later and we’ve dropped the old lady off.  While crusing down a long road, we spot a family of geese crossing ahead.  There was the mother, and maybe about eight to ten chicks behind her.  They shoot right out before the car infront of us.  We all audibly gasp as the car plows on through them, but somehow, some unfathomable way, every single chick made it across.  It was like the wheels of the car just went through them, with not one fataility.  Incredible.  I took it as a positive sign for the day ahead.

But things take a dip in fortune.  The driver drops me at a bus station in Babruysk, and although he’s picked me up in the first place, he is seemingly unaware that I don’t want to pay for transport.  Not a sinner at the station speaks English.  The next bus to Gomel isn’t until 18.30, and nobody can tell me where the road out of the city is, in spite of lots of drawing and pointing.  I decide to hike back into town.

I’m lucky to be able to figure my way back, but it’s still a stretch, and the sun is getting hotter.  About 2KM in, I spot a young looking guy watching me as we fall into step.  He looks like he’s keen to ask where I’m from, which means he could speak my language.  I chance my luck, and after he calls his English speaking friend, he takes me back to his flashy 4×4, and drives me right to the edge of the city; but not before all his friends at the garage make the same “RATATATATATATAT” comments I’ve already heard.  Everyone thinks I’m crazy.  But things are once again looking up.  It’s 14.30.

It begins to look bleak.  One or two cars every half an hour isn’t promising.  I’m a few metres down from a very busy road, but that’s not where I want to be.  After waiting an age, I cut my losses and turn towards the town.  Perhaps someone is going my way, but has errands to run first.  No such luck.

The sun is high as I march back the way I’ve come, and I’m doing my best to cover my head with my hitch board.  It’s miles to town down a long, open, straight road with no cover.  Cars and trucks scream past, but inspite of waving my sign to both directions, nobody is biting.  The sweat is stinging my eyes, and I can feel my face burning.  I’ve put a hoodie on to cover my arms, but as you might expect it’s causing me to bake in the sun.  I cheer myself at the knowledge of the calories dropping off, but it’s not looking good.  Time isn’t my friend, and niether are the locals.

Then a hero arrives.  Driving in the opposite direction, he swings in and speaks English.  He’s excited and chatty, and he can see I’m in dire straights.  He gives me his food, his water and his time, as he takes me to a much better spot for hitching to Gomel.  I’m overcome with emotion after he snaps a photo with me and he’s pulled away.  There needs to be more people like him in the world.  It would be a much better place.

Literally as soon as he’s out of sight, a new ride screetches to the curb side.  I meet Pavel, a young guy with no English, but somehow we muddle though with sign language and charades.  He can take me all the way to Gomel.  From there, it’s only another 270 odd kilometres to my destination.  My hopes are back up, but I pass out from exaustion as we speed through southern Belarus.

I awake to find Pavel starting to explain where he’s going to drop me.  He draws a crude but effective map, and takes me well outside his city withing striking distance of the border.  40 kilometres no less.  It’s a busy road, and I’m in high spirits as we clasp hands and embrace goodbye.  Honestly there is no drug out there that beats the feeling of a successful hitch, and as it stands, I’m making incredible time, in spite of earlier hic-cups.  I might, just might make Kiev before nightfall.

A little local woman hitching in the same spot starts screaming at me.  I haven’t a clue at what she’s saying, but she’s angry.  I think it’s just because I’ve got a nice, shiny sign and she’s just using her thumb.  She walks off with her partner in a huff, and for a moment I think they’re going to grab my gear and make a run for it.  I’m relieved when they’re dots on the horizon, and resist the temptation to wave at them from my pick-up two minutes later.  I make the Ukrainian border by 18.00.

From here it should be plain sailing.  The fastest rides I’ve ever had were from walking through a border and hitching on the other side.  Everyone is going your way.  They’ve no choice.  You’ve got a captive audience, and they find it difficult to leave you stranded.  The border guards are amused at me.  They don’t get many Westerners down this way, and they all come out of huts to peer at the stranger.  One guard is bemused by my unused ice hockey ticket.  As they crowd around, he asks in Russian if he can have it.  I figure out what he’s requesting.  “DA DA DA!” I cheerfully exclaim, sending all the guards into fits of laughter.  The big guy shakes my hand and fast tracks my passport stamps.  I never thought I’d bribe someone at a border.  I march accross with aplomb.

Of course I always forget that getting out of a country is only half of it.  You have to be able to get in on the other side.  I must have gone through about 4 different check points, with one in particular being difficult.  The guy asks if I’m from Ireland.  “SCHOTLANDIA” I exclaim.  I’m slightly concerned he thinks I’m an IRA mercenary come to join the fight.  After a lengthy phone call (maybe back to the bribed official) with relief I notice him reach for the stamp.  Following a quick curious raid of my belongings by armed personel (“ahhhh Panasonic Lumix…mmmmm…do you have and guns or drugs?”) I’m through.  It’s aproaching 19.00, and I’m in Ukraine.

I take a couple of clandestine videos, but the final guard spots me and demands I delete them.  He’s perfectly nice about it, and I can understand the concern for security in these parts at the moment.  He draws a large 1.5 in the sand and points in the direction I’m heading.  Apparently a better spot for hitching.  I thank him and move up the road.

I’m astonished to find another check point, but breeze through with ease, and just after the hour, a car swings in.  “We can take you to Kiev”, he beams, “if you don’t mind a dog!”  Of course I don’t mind a dog!  Even if he’s a big slobbering mess in the back seat.  He looks at me curiously and beings to drool on my hitch sign.  I’m thankful of it’s use as a spittle sheild, as the torrent of saliva from his chops is relentless.  My pick ups both speak perfect English, and as the sun is going down, I sit back and bask in my astonishing good fortune.  Quite simply the most incredible hitchhike to date.  It’s taken me only 13.5 hours, and I’ve taken much longer in other places over shorter distances.  The hospitality of these people is to be praised, even more so when after a quick call to his mother, I’m offered a place to stay for the night.  A few hours later and I’m in the capital, eating Ukrainian dumplings and drinking vodka with my hosts, and it is with great happiness that I realise how much today has lifted my spirts, and changed my focus regarding recent romance issues.  A weight has been lifted.  Travel makes you richer; tonight I’m a millionaire.

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Belarus, Minsk and the National Ice Hockey Championships

Tuesday 20 May

I’ve crammed more cultural and tourist stuff into the past two days than I’ve managed in months of getting pissed up in bars around the world.  This is due in no small part to traveling with my Czech friends, who of course have their own car.  So up and down the country we zip, visiting sights ranging from the historical to the comical.  It’s a total hoot, and a real stroke of luck that I’m getting to see stuff I wouldn’t normally have managed.  Like old Father Frost.

Father Frost is the Belarussian equivalent of Santa Claus.  He lives in a forest in a national park, and you can visit him all year round.  This is just too tempting for my companions to ignore, so we pay him a visit.  A state employee who sits in a log cabin and waits for kids to yell at him.  With a ridiculously fake long white beard and hair, he comes out if you call, and starts ranting something in Russian.  He’s surrounded by surreal and creepy wooded sculptures of fairy tales and myths, and it turns out to be quite entertaining.  Apparently it all kicks off at Christmas as you would expect, with thousands of visitors everyday.  All those screaming kids.  No wonder his hair’s white.

Across country and Belarus is littered with old Soviet statues and memorials.  Particularly spectacular is the fort at Brest, which contains some incredible rock carvings, and harks back to times behind the iron curtain.  We whisk from site to site, filling the day with experiences.  I’m enjoying myself, as it’s reminding me of my time in Russia many years ago.  I have a penchant for old Soviet iconography and propaganda.  I find it fascinating.  It’s worth a visit here if you do too.

Minsk is pleasant enough, but lacks the charm of Tallinn or Vilnius as you might expect.  It’s certainly more of a concrete jungle.  Communist tower blocks dominate the skyline, and in truth, the outskirts are quite ugly.  Whoever designs these things should be put up against a wall.  The old town has its appeal, but I can’t for the life of me find a Belarussian flag sticker for my guitar.  As the hockey match fast approaches, I’m running out of options.  For the love of god Belarus – and other countries take note – make a sticker of your flag!  No I don’t want a magnet.  No I don’t want an actual flag.  I just want a damn sticker.  I’m in a stinking mood as the shops close.

I’ve opted to move faster, so this means I won’t be making my original planned quarter-final of the ice hockey championships.  As the Czechs are playing tonight, our kind couch surfing host manages to get me a last-minute ticket, so the evening is spent cheering the team against the French.  I’m not a great lover of ice hockey really.  It stops and starts too much, and I find more enjoyment scanning the crowd.  It’s an exciting game sure, but I just can’t buy into it.  The Czechs win 5-4 which obviously pleases my companions.  I’ll stick to football, and watching the stunning Belarussian in front of me.

My plans have changed somewhat.  Things are afoot.  As much as I would like to extend my stay, I need to be somewhere by a certain time.  It’s the fastest I’ve ever seen a country, but largely thanks to my Czech friends, I feel I’ve visited much more here than in places I’ve spent longer.  But on the morrow I will undertake what appears to be the most challenging hitch to date; Minsk to Kiev; and unstable Ukraine.

 

 

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Hitchhike to India leg 26; Vilnius to Minsk and beyond…

Sunday 18 May

This should be pretty easy.  So easy that I break my usual tradition of getting up at the crack of dawn to catch the morning traffic, and I lazily make my way to the first hitch spot for around midday.  I’ve a nice big MINSK sign, added to that a little drawing of two hockey sticks.  With the Ice Hockey World Cup in full swing, I’ve managed to get a visa access to Belarus by purchasing a ticket.  80 quid for a visa, or 20 quid for a quarter finals seat and free entry for the whole of May.  Boom.  Winning.

I’m picked up in minutes by a Belarussian family who can’t speak English but can take me to the border.  A short drive later and I’m leaving Europe behind and peaking behind the iron curtain.  Although communism is long since dead, the evidence and effects are still in place, and approaching the Belarussian border, it’s clear from the comical guards hats that I’m not in Kansas anymore.  The funny thing is, they’re all laughing at me; wandering through by foot with my Minsk sign.  There’s a heart in mouth moment as I hand my documents over.  The ticket didn’t print in colour, and I’ve bought it off a ticket tout website.  I’m nervous as to see if this will actually work, and if I’ve got a fake brief.  The pretty passport control officer makes a face and turns to her superior.  My stomach drops.  After a short conversation she shrugs her shoulders and reaches for the stamps.  CLAMP!  CLAMP!  And I’m in!  I’m through!  Back in the USSR!!  I walk on air across the frontier.

It’s another kilometre or so through all the truck stops and customs control points, but before long I’m in a great spot getting all the traffic I want.  Across the other side, on the road out of Belarus, a back-up of hundreds of trucks trails for mile after mile.  I thought it was harder getting in!

Within minutes a swanky ride pulls in, and I’ve hit the jack pot.  Three Czechs heading to watch their team, with the back seats piled high with hats, scarfs and team regalia.  They all speak English, and the car is simply the finest I’ve managed to hitch in.  A top of the range Szkoda Superb, with more gadgets, gizmos and airbags than you can shake a stick at.  The roof length sun window is a real treat in this weather too.  We blaze into Minsk in style.

After a short time, it appears I’ve really lucked out.  The trio are planning on visiting a beautiful national park near Brest, some 400K away, before traveling back to Minsk on Monday afternoon.  Since they should have been a foursome, they have a couchsurf host in Minsk expecting one more.  So the opportunity to see more of the country and stay for free is simply too tempting to refuse.  It’s a no brainer.  Added to the luxury of car tourism and stopping at sites along the way, it’s arguably the luckiest pick up I’ve ever managed.  And so here you find me dear readers, in a hotel in the middle of a national park, in the middle of nowhere; Belarus!  I’m being sung to sleep by the sounds of the forest, and freaked out by the flying beasties hitting my window.  I wonder if these Czech dudes could take me to Ukraine?

 

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Vilnius and Trakai Castle

Saturday 17 May

The sun is shining and the people are singing.  Literally.  I’ve managed to stumble onto a day of festivity in the Lithuanian capital, as everywhere you turn people are performing on the streets.  It seems as the whole city has come to life for a traditional “day of music”, when bands and artists of all different genres (and abilities) rock out in the old town.  It’s wonderful when a city becomes vibrant with such displays of life.  It’s a pleasure to walk through the happy throngs of locals and tourists alike.  Everything is alright with the world on days like this.

Vilnius is definitely the nicest of the Baltic capitals.  It’s got a real medieval charm, which is helped not in small part by the hundreds of ancient buildings in the old town.  The architecture is beautiful, with plenty of green space and booming cafe culture.  Of course it’s aided by the glorious weather (everywhere is crap in the rain) but the people are out to play and play hard.  If I didn’t decide to move quicker, I would be happy to dwell longer in this heady hive of culture.

I have a companion to guide me too, a Lithuanian girl I met in Estonia.  She’s very kindly offered to show me Trakai Castle, which sits some 40 minutes by train outside the capital in gorgeous countryside.  Local knowledge always beats the guide-book (and my own attempts to navigate to such places) so I’m more than happy to be given the grand tour.

Trakai Castle is a stunning 14th Century stronghold that sits on an island in Lake Galve.  It’s a beautiful spot, and well worth a visit if you’re in this neck of the extensive woods.  The lake is popular for boating, with an abundance of those peddle craft you can romantically splash about in, and there are also numerous bride and grooms having a wedding off; with happy couples jostling for prime picture opportunities.  A million schoolkids threaten to mar my experience, but as they clear out and the sky clears up, the peacefulness and tranquillity of the location really shines through.  It’s a joy to sip a cold beer by the water’s edge, and watch the world and it’s boats drift by.  I shall be looking to replace messy city party nights with more experiences like this.

 

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Hitchhike to India leg 25: Šiauliai to Vilnius

Thursday 15 May

I’m up at 5am.  That’s FIVE AM PEOPLE.  Actually I’ve been awake for most of the night.  Going cold turkey on years of drinking isn’t really a good idea; you need to taper off.  As a result I’m experiencing my usual bout of nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks and sleep paralysis.  Added to this a genuine fear my heart is going to explode, that the woman I love is having a three-way right now, money worries, dying in a plane crash and wondering if I left the gas on; and you’ve got a recipe for insomnia.  The alarm hardly comes as a surprise.

Nevertheless I put my best foot forward in my hardly used running trainers, and in glorious early sunshine I take to the streets.  I’m knackered inside a few minutes, but it’s all about small steps, and there is a certain smugness I obtain from a trio of all-night drunks slurring abuse at me.  I can already see the benefits of this new lifestyle.

After a set of reps in my hostel room, a freezing cold shower and a banana, I’m hiking the 4K to my hitching spot.  I could opt for the bus, but I’m in the zone here.  The calories are coming off.  I’m getting an abortion for my booze baby.

Less than 20 minutes later I’m in a garlic van with a crazy Spaniard.  He’s delivering a stack of the things to a caterer in Vilnius, and as it’s illegal to hitch in Spain for the most part, he’s keen to pick me up.  As in let me ride with him.  As in…oh you know what I mean.  Anyway it’s not long before he’s tearing up the roads in the clapped out old truck, offering me smokes (which I refuse) and chewing the ear off me about girls and such.  He’s a pleasant sort, but it’s certainly another fly by the seat of my pants rides.  He actually gets more mental upon entering the city; heavy on the gas and breaking so hard it’s a wonder we don’t get showered in garlic.  As he’s done me a favour, he asks me to do him one too.  I’m slightly concerned as to what’s on offer, but soon relieved that it’s only helping him unload the smelly contents of the van.  Throwing boxes of garlic at a Spaniard surrounded by large hairy Lithuanian types was a new experience.

We shake hands and part company in the old town.  I shuffle off to find a hostel, have a quick tour of the city and collapse in my bunk by 2pm.  I’ve now got to force myself to stay awake until a suitable sleeping hour and achieve a body clock balance, and it’s taking every ounce of my flagging will power to not smash back beers and smokes in the afternoon sun.  Still, this is where you’ll find me dear readers, post push-up reps, a cup of water and a broccoli omelette, lying on my bed thinking of painless ways to kill myself.  This healthy shit gets better right?

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