Hitchhike to India leg 28: Kiev to Lviv and The Tunnel of Love

Thursday 05 June

Oh lordy where do I begin.  At the beginning I suppose.  It was time to move on.  Russian separatists, Canadian alcoholics and depression were getting the better of me.  I don’t know what was making me lower; my recent romantic loss, or the last Game of Thrones episode.  I dragged my carcass to the roadside at 8am.  The seemingly impossible mission; to hitchhike to Lviv via Klevan; a small town in the sticks famous for one thing: The Tunnel of Love.

Now I’m sure you’ve all seen pictures of this leafy architecture.  It’s always on those sites listing the top 39 places to see before you die or something.  Why it’s always 39 I don’t know.  Anyway I thought since I’m here it would be rude not to attempt a visit, but with such a long distance to cover, some 570 km, time was of the essence and it was a big risk.  I’m lucky the weather was holding.

Except it isn’t.  Nearly three hours and I’m only about 7 km out of Kiev, and the clouds begin to loom.  Two girls pass me by carrying a sign for Rivne.  Exactly the same as mine.  Two girls.  The best hitch combination possible!  Damn them!  I’ve got no chance.

A few minutes later I’ve turned away from yet another unsuccessful stream of traffic, to find ‘Johnny building-site-wanker’ standing near my bags.  He mouches away as I approach, but returns with the reinforcement of his friend.  They speak in Ukrainian, and I attempt a smile and response with “SCHOTLANDIA!”  “AAAHHH, SCHOTLANDIA!” They exclaim, before the bigger one has moved to toe touching my valuables bag.  By this time I’m sitting on the curb side.  I can see what they’re trying to do.  Just as it’s about to turn ugly, and ironically without making any attempt to attract a ride, a driver swings in and nearly takes my face off.  Usually I negotiate a destination, but I grab my stuff  like lightning and haul myself into the cab.  “GO, GO, GO!”

He’s a lifesaver, but after I’m in sitting next to this grizzled, tanned and wrinkled Ukrainian, he’s on the phone and I convinced he’s saying stuff like; “we’ve got another one…”  Trying to talk with him is about as much use as speaking to a post, but as the rain really starts to lash down, I’m happy I’m on my way.  Another concern however, was that he chose me over the two girls.  Perhaps he saw what was about to happen and decided to intervene?  Maybe he’s into boys?  Regardless, they’re still hitching as I speed past.  In your face females!  You’re up against a pro!

He’s driving like a maniac in monsoon weather, tailgating big rigs and overtaking at speed.  If they brake, we’re aquaplaning into the afterlife.  As the skies clear though, he’s dropped me on the outskirts of Rivne; 22k from Klevan and the tunnel.  After some friendly negotiating with bystanders, he’s managed to find a woman who will take me by bus to where I can get a ride to my destination.  What a hero.  Bit by bit I change hands between friendly curious locals, with passengers gawking at the sweating Westerner with the huge back pack.  The sun is well and truly out as I make it to the village.  With luck I spy a sign saying “Love Tunnel.”  Something of a different interpretation – lost in translation – but there you go.  It’s a 2.6k walk round trip.

It’s simply beautiful.  I’m lucky to get there as a train is emerging and a smiling driver waves an acknowledgement.  I rue the fact I don’t have time to walk the full 3k of the tracks, but even the starting point is a breathtaking work of natures architecture.  Couples wander hand-in-hand, an old guy doesn’t miss a trick playing romantic tunes on an accordion.  They say if you make a wish here is comes true.  I know what mine was…

It was for these fucking massive mosquitos to stop eating me alive!  The size of wasps they were, and as I’m lost further down the tunnel, I’m attempting a lonely selfie.  One jabs my arm and I catch him out, splattering blood down to my wrist.  These things take no prisoners.  As I emerge, I can feel golf-ball welts flaring up on my upper lip and forehead.  Romance maybe, but bring insect repellant.  I suppose if you’re already in that loving relationship it doesn’t matter, but it’s hard getting a girls number when you look like the Elephant man.

The sun is high and hot as I walk another lengthy distance back to the main road.  Now here it gets tricky.  I could go two ways; back to Rivne on the bus, or plow on for Lutsk and then South to Lviv.  I chose the latter, and hastily form a sign.  In a now cloudless sky and in open fields with no shelter, I was done for.  Fried to a crisp.  With nothing biting but insects, a young guy approaches.

Within seconds we’re speeding back towards town and he’s dropping me at a better spot to strike for Lviv.  Three students speaking decent English, intrigued as to my adventures.  The beautiful girl on the back seat with me smelled divine.  Certainly more agreeable than a slobbering dog; it was one of my more pleasant hitch experiences.

It’s getting late as they leave me on the outskirts, and traffic is thinning.  Unperturbed, I’m happy I can now ditch two signs and hold my final destination up.  But time is not my friend, and neither is this shady guy who has appeared at the bus stop.  He’s just hiding behind the wall, chewing sunflower seeds, but edging closer to my bags.  It’s just him and me.  If he rushes me, I’m done for.  Unless…unless I go in for a pre-emptive strike.  My mind flirts with martial arts movies.  I’m weighing up the options when someone pulls in and again saves my bacon.  He can take me half way.  As I launch in, from out of nowhere another dude turns up and jumps in the back of the van, sitting on my stuff.  He wants a ride too it seems, but the more the merrier I suppose.

After about half an hour we’ve pulled into a gas station.  I’m alone in the motor, when the driver calls me over.  He’s found me a ride all the way to Lviv!  Deep joy!  Deep joys turn to the depths of despair when I realise it’s with twelve drunk, smelly guys in the back of a mini-van.  Not a word of English, and stinking like farts in a brewery.  200 km of booze, B.O and bums.

My luck is turning though as one makes a call to an English-speaking friend.  She comes on the line and trills in perfect chat, asking where I need to be.  I arrange a drop off in the old town of Lviv, within touching distance of my hostel.  The sun has set, and I’m nearly home.  How wrong I was.

Cruising in for nightfall and we turn off the main drag.  We’ve repeatedly stopped for smoking and beer breaks, and I’m trying hard to stay awake and attentive.  I’ve not eaten since breakfast, and I’m fading fast.  26 km to go, and we make that turn.  I fear the worst.

No Lviv signs.  No lights.  The guys in the van are all passing out.  All my senses on full alert as best I can muster.  Where are we?  Is that the glow of the sunset or the glow of the city?  Why did we turn off the road?  Have 26 km gone by?  Who just dropped that horrible fart?

The van swerves to the curb side.  “LVIV, LVIV” the driver yells.  “YOU OUT!”  I think it would have been friendlier if he spoke English.  I’m deposited by a turn off and told Lviv is 2 km in that direction.  He jabs a finger out the window into the dark.  “That direction” happening to be down a pitch-black road through fields.  A suspicious black car turns it’s lights off in what looks like a dogging car park.  A shopping centre is a hefty distance off, the phosphorescent glow fuzzy like when you don’t wear your glasses.  They speed away, and I curse every man Jack of them.  It’s 22.30.

My legs are going out from under me as I march through the night, with no idea where I am or what direction I’m going.  Then it all comes out.  The tears flow.  The problems.  The crying to the heavens.  The asking mum and dad for help.  The issues with a lost love.  Numerous lost loves.  All I want is someone to love me as much as I love them.  And a dog.  I don’t want this anymore.  I just want to be loved.  Why am I putting myself though this?  Why am I in a field in Ukraine approaching midnight with no sight of sanctuary?  I collapse in the middle of the road, heaving.

But I realise this isn’t a good place to go Bridget Jones, so I haul myself to street lamps.  I’m right on the outskirts of Lviv, with the kind of large bank-note bus drivers would be frightened of.  I stagger into town, walking kilometer after kilometer without end in sight, holding my sign out in the vain hope someone will drive me to the centre.  I contemplate throwing a fall to perhaps de-fib some empathy at such injustice to your fellow man; but give up eventually when I see welcome cabbie lights gliding my way.  I throw myself in and hand him the address.

Which of course he doesn’t know!  Same old same old.  Out come the glasses, out comes the little street index finder, out come the excuses.  After the metre has clocked up a fair figure, I start getting techy.  He doesn’t speak English but he knows he needs to move now.  It’s still a fair distance into the old town.

He rips me off, but I don’t care.  I’m at the end of my tether.  I’m also realising I’m not nearly at the end of this story I need to sort it out for fear of boring you all to tears!  So, to continue.  I arrive at an empty shell of a building, stinking of piss.  Not me; the building.  This isn’t my hostel, and if it is, it’s certainly going to get marked down on Trip-advisor.

I wander the streets for ages.  Nobody knows where it is, people send me all over the place.  Of course everything is in cyrillic, so street signs (when there are some) are impossible for me to read.  Words like Вул. Дорошенка and Вул. Мечнікова adorn the walls.  Helpful folk with iPhones still give me the wrong addresses.  A cafe of beautiful girls direct me to my destination, but it’s not the right one.  In dire straights, I speak to a woman holding a baby at another wrong hostel.  She puts the kid down on my hitch sign, and she starts to jump all over it, before turning her attention to my colourful GPS SOS device.  I spin to discover her jabbing at buttons, and leap across in bullet time to pull it to safety.  However bad it’s been today, I don’t need a team of specialists converging on my location just because I can’t find my hostel and I’m being harassed by a two-year old.

We bumbled on for an age and eventually establish not only has the hostel changed address, but it’s also changed its name.  What I thought I was booking turns out to be something of a shit-hole, and one I still can’t find after numerous directions.  Nobody can give directions abroad!  Nobody!  Not in South America!  Not in Europe!  Not anywhere!  “Follow this road until you get here, then turn left;” is actually a dead-end and a right turn.  Eventually I mange to find an English speaker who helps my cause. I’m seething by the time I’m let in.

It’s 2am when I’m finally through the door.   So what do I do?  I go for a pint. I’m tired, I’ve not eaten since 8am, a girl is on my mind, so I need a beer.  I end up finding an underground all-night Ukrainian bar after wandering around for an eon.  Again nobody could give directions to a late bar.  Nobody knows anything.  But at around 4am, I’m hammered on local ale, eating Pig ears, and fending off the advances of a male bar staff member who wants me for sex.  What a way to finish the day.

Phew.  I got there in the end.  But let me ease any troubled minds.  No matter how bad it gets, no matter how upset I am, no matter how crazy things seem to be;  when the chips are down, and my back is to the wall, that is when I’ll fight the hardest.  With anything.  The night is darkest before dawn, and I will always come out stronger.  The hostel I left in Kiev had a nice little idea.  On the wall it said “take what you need”; then below, written out like those numbers you tear off from adverts, were words like; love, forgiveness, hope, friendship, faith, etc.  What would you think I took?

I took courage. Courage to get through days like today.  Courage to get through and battle with demons I’ve been harbouring a long time.  Courage to beat this depression and conquer my heartbreak.  Love will come.  It will come when I’m ready for it.  But right now I’m lying in a warm bed utterly amazed at how I got here.  Apologies for the length of the post, but it can’t really do any justice to days like this.  It’s your life.   You just have to feel it.  You have to experience it.  I’m living for it.  So should you.

 

 

 

 

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Kiev today

Tuesday 03 June

“Oooooh don’t go to Ukraine!”  Said everyone.  “It’s dangerous!”  Well so is your kitchen.  After spending a couple of days aclimatising to the local vodka, I’ve ventured into the centre of this beautiful city, and I’ve never seen anything like it before.

Now I’m not a political genius, or profess myself to have any actual knowledge of such matters at all.  As far as I can glean, Ukraine’s former president Yanukovych was pro-Russian, while the majority of the people were pro Ukraine/the West.  Clashes between protestors and police happened back in February, which after some bloodshed resulted in the overthrow of the powers that be.  Yanukovych fled to Russia, allegedly taking billions of dollars with him.  The new factions asserted control, and arranged diplomatic elections to be held in May.

Meanwhile in the South, Putin decided it would be a good idea to invade Crimea.  Pro Russian separatists sprung up in Donetsk and other Eastern cities, and violent clashes have still been taking place there.  A journalist and translator were recently killed in a mortar attack, tensions are high, and hitchhiking out there is probably a really stupid idea.  I wisely decide to keep West.

So I arrived in the city on the eve of the elections, and after a very hospitable stay with my last hitch pick-up, I find myself in a hostel filled with a mix of journalists, humanitarian workers, and pro-Russian separatists.  The latter being massive wankers.  I take a stroll through the city’s Independence Square, or “The Maidan”.

Thankfully the protests have calmed down to a whisper, and peace has graced the city.  Although I was told last night that I would have to be “killed if I didn’t like Putin.”  Regardless, with the elections all but passing with barely a whimper of protest, the popular new man in charge (a chocolate factory owning diabetic) , has called for the barricades to come down.  They have served their purpose.  Where once the country rallied to the cause, now stands tumbledown tents and tyre walls, devoid of all but homeless and drunks.  They’re not going to give it up easily, although the first have started to be removed.  Hopefully in the East, common sense will prevail, and the clashes will settle down sooner rather than later.  But that is like saying the troubles in Ireland are over.  It’s a rocky road ahead.

But do visit Kiev!  Ukrainians are a friendly bunch.  So long as you don’t say the wrong thing to the wrong one.  Check to see if they have Russian sympathies first.  Or just give them a shit-load of Vodka.

 

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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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