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.