As beautiful and as welcoming as Lviv was, events were taking a turn for the drunk. It was time to move on. Otherwise I’d get stuck in a wonderful dive bar called Bukowski’s. Those who know me fully understand how that man is my hero, so it was a dangerous place for me to be living in. A friend I met at the Pink Palace last year told me about it, and I’ve been meeting up with him there to drink heavily until dawn, learn about Ukrainian freedom heros, or break/start fights. Charles would have loved the place. As you might expect I did too. A little too much. The road was calling.
So I haul myself out of bed late in the morning. I’m hung over, and I contemplate another night. But I know what that would mean, so with the flesh weak but the soul willing, I make my way to the city limits in a mini bus. These things fascinate me. All modern life is here. Rammed in like sardines, people pass their fare money from the back up to the driver, and then they pass the change back. You couldn’t get that in Glasgow. Some bus wanker would pocket your fiver.
Hitching South to Moldova from Lviv isn’t an option, so I have to hitch East then down. I’ve made a sign for Vinnytsia, which is some 368 km away. Depending on how things go, I intend to either make a dash for the border from there, or stay the night and try again in the morning. As luck would have it, I’m picked up fairly quickly by a friendly guy who phones his English-speaking friend to help me out. He’s going to run some errands first, then drop me just outside Ternopil on the Vinnytsia road. I’m on my way.
I’m buying a bottle of water in a petrol station a few hours later, when I’m detained against my will what appears to be an old drunk. In Russian he asks if I’m a separatist as he shakes my hand with a vice like grip. “Schotlandia!” I exclaim to him, whereupon he gabbles on, pulls me back into the station store, and starts pointing at crap, sorry-excuse-for-malt Scotch whiskey. It appears he wants me to buy him one. The station attendant is grinning as he pulls down a selection, obviously keen to force a sale. I manage to wriggle myself free before it gets aggressive, and I put some distance between myself and trouble.
It’s not long before I get my second ride. A huge, hulking, tanned man called Vassily, crammed into a naff box on wheels. Every time he speaks Russian to me he sounds angry, but he’s beaming away, revealing a string of gold teeth. He drives well, which is a significant advantage on these roads; because there basically aren’t any. 300 odd kilometres of gravel tracks and pot-holed tarmac, loaded with people who can’t drive. No wonder there are so many deaths on Ukrainian roads. Often overlooked, arguably the most dangerous thing about hitch-hiking is the ability of the driver. Vassily drops me exactly where I need to be, all in one piece. Then I need to make a decision.
My head and heart are not really in the right place. My thoughts are still with a distant girl, so distraction is required. That and negotiating my way into the city centre, paying for a hotel, then trying to get back out tomorrow would be a pain in the ass. So the only way is to plough on. There’s just a slight problem. My only other sign says Moldova, it’s some 250 km away, and it’s 6pm. Where I’m sleeping tonight is a mystery, as is my actual destination. Nonetheless, I hike about 5 km out of the city, away from staring eyes and dodgy bus stop dwellers. I’m in the middle of nowhere, with no water and no food, not actually having eaten anything and lugging my 20 kilo packs by the side of a super-fast highway. I’m sweating buckets, and nobody gives a damn. Of all the stupid ideas I’ve had, this is up there with one of them.
A couple of hundred feet in front of me is parked a mini-bus. Gathered outside are five, dark-skinned older men, smoking and staring at me. The younger, skin-headed driver sports a wife-beater. A kid roams around. A woman sits shotgun. As I approach, one beckons me over. This could be trouble.
After some consultation, with no understanding whatsoever, lots of pointing at my printed google map; and we’ve come to some conclusion that they can’t take me down the road. Just how far remains to be seen. I bite the bullet and jump in. Another woman is in the back seat, and I’m rammed in the middle. As soon as my bags are in, I begin to regret the decision. The whole family look like those sex-trafficking types from the film Taken. Things could be about to go horribly wrong. I begin to feel sorry for putting myself into these situations. My thoughts turn to loved ones, family and friends. I mutter apologies to all. We roll on.
I’m always thrilled when pick-ups just keep going, and somewhat disappointed when they slow to a crawl to drop me off. Where are they going to take me? I’ve no idea, but as kilometre after kilometre fly by, I begin to feel hope. Then a wonderfully uplifting thing happens. The pot-bellied hair-fest to my left takes out a passport. And it’s a Moldovan one. They’re actually going to Moldova! A few hours later and we’ve crossed the border. Words cannot express.
I’m still slightly concerned as to where they’re going to drop me, especially as the shady border town smacks of South America. Tanned kids peer into the van, wrinkly old blind women beg for scraps. Lots of folk are trying to flog mobile phones, which for some reason my companions are interested in, and they spend some minutes negotiating prices. A small boy will not leave me be, desperately trying to sell this one handset, begging me to take it. I show him I’ve got one, but he’s relentless, accosting all of us with his one product. Eventually they have to push him out and slam the door. I’m thankful that we’re making tracks before nightfall.
Which comes quickly. It’s pitch black and we’re rolling through countryside on worse roads than Ukraine. Every few miles we stop for a smoke break. There’s constant, animated chatter in the van, along with ear-bleeding, Moldovan turbo-folk. With nobody to converse with, and nothing to see out the windows, I’m left to lose myself in my thoughts. Which is a bad idea. They run ragged.
I’ve been struggling to come to terms with recent events. Fretting over if she’s found someone new. Worried I’ll never see her again. Upset that we’re not talking anymore, when once there was never a silent or dull moment. Her smell. Her kiss. Y’know…other stuff. Utter perfection on so many levels. But how did something so wonderful come to this? How am I this unlucky? I’m totally and utterly helpless, and as the night gets blacker and the wheels turn on, I sit and invent conversations I’d have with her if we could talk again. It’s an empty, cold and pointless exercise. Time passes.
The fan belt blows. I’ve been needing to have a number 2 since Vinnytsia, so I risk leaving my bags to the mercy of the van occupants, and make a dash for the local garage while they fix it up. Locals cast confused glances my way, but one of them was a total babe, so it bodes well. Alas though there’s no way I was dropping my kegs in the toilet; which was basically just a stinking hole in the ground piled high with shit. If I’m going to India I’d better get used to it.
Underway again and we’re dropping people off here there and everywhere. The driver picks up another hitcher, and I decide they’re actually a friendly bunch of folk and I’m safe. I start to change my mind when, after the women and kid leave, we spin down a dirt track for some distance. In pitch darkness we stop in a small gathering of houses, and all disembark. I keep my back to the van, and reluctantly follow when beckoned into a nearby yard. This is it.
A glass is thrust into my hand, with some kind of coloured beverage in it. In my other appears what looks like a spinach bake. We take turns to drain the glass of what turns out to be wine. And not just any wine. As my eyes adjust to the dark, The house sits in a vineyard. This guy makes the stuff. It’s a tasty potion too, and we shake hands when we’re ready to depart. I’m thankful for the food as well, not having eaten a thing today for one reason or another. Then I discover we’re going all the way to the capital; Chisinau. I cannot believe my luck. If only I could actually appriciate it more.
It’s approaching 5 am as they drop me on the outskirts, but they leave me close to a parked taxi. I’m utterly exhausted by this point, emotionally and physically, but grind on, getting the cab to the centre. He drops me at a hotel. I’m in no mind to pay these prices, but of course not realising where I would end up tonight, of course I’ve not taken an address of a hostel. The security guard is of no help, doesn’t know the wifi password, and doesn’t have a map. A hotel without a map. I curse his uselessness and walk back up the long main street in the dark.
5 o’clock in the morning and I’m stumbling around the capital of Moldova with all my gear. I was a walking target. Might as well have an arrow over my head saying “rob me.” Luckily, trusty McDonald’s is still open, and after warily negotiating my way past a group of unwashed bin-dippers, I get access to the internet and locate a hostel. Which isn’t there.
I’m screaming obscenities at the blank wall where the hostel should be. The street is right, the address is right, the number on the wall laughs at me. Two girls approach and lead me round the block. Here we go, survived a potential gang of slavers and get caught in the honey trap. But amazingly, they know where the hostel is. It’s round the back of the building. I throw myself at them hugging them close to my sweating carcass, and profess undying love. They must have thought I was raving mad.
My head is on a welcome pillow just after the hour. Yet tired as I am, I can’t sleep. Once again the kindness of strangers has shone through in an almost impossible hitch – and one that appears has not been done before according to my sources. Lviv to Chisenau. Over 8oo km taking 18 hours. Nobody to talk to but myself. In spite of such astonishing luck; I’m still broken-hearted. I can’t help it. I love her.