Ukraine – a pleasant welcome to Europe

in Ukraine by on August 20th, 2010

It was in Ukraine that we started feeling as though we were really in Europe. In spite of its history as a former Soviet state, there were not that many grim and drab Communist-style buildings around. Instead, the cities of Kiev and Lviv, where we spent a night each in, turned out to be lovely European cities with beautiful historical architecture. And indeed, Lviv has a UNESCO-listed Old Town.

In Kiev, we hired a cab with a super enthusiastic driver, who once he understood we were on a tight schedule, drove us to see all the top sights in the city, even giving us instructions on where and how to take our photos! In Lviv, we walked around the Old Town and soaked in the atmosphere, especially with many locals out and about as it was Friday night.

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Our super enthusiastic cab driver in Kiev

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The Golden-domed monastery in Kiev

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Intelligentsia at a cafe in Lviv

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Soviet relic Lada cars on the streets of Lviv Old Town

Riding in the Ukraine was also a pleasant experience, particularly considering that only two weeks before this, we were riding dirt/gravel roads in Tajikistan! In the Ukraine, we had highways for almost all the way from the Russian border to the Hungarian border. And probably uniquely to Ukrainian highways, there were fruit and honey sellers on the sides of the road every 20km or so. Even on a rainy day (as was the case when we left Kiev), the fruit sellers retreated but an enterprising vendor set up a stall for hot coffee instead. Furthermore, there were restaurants, cafes and motels which appeared along the road in such numbers that it seemed that Communist-style central planning clearly had not been applied here. There is no way one could stay hungry or tired on the Ukrainian highways.

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One of the numerous motels/cafes along the highway in Ukraine

The Ukrainian highways also seemed to be in the midst of what is the longest stretch of road repair we have experienced so far. All along our way, there were long sections where one side of the road was closed for repairs, leaving vehicles with a one-lane highway instead. Sabby was very excited at seeing all the road construction crews and equipment, though the Chinese road construction crews will always remain her first (construction crew) love. MJo, on the other hand, had a lot of fun overtaking trucks on the one-lane highway sections.

Final point about Ukrainian highways – there seemed to be a super high concentration of police lurking around with radar guns waiting to catch speeding drivers. Indeed, we had heard many reports from other foreign drivers/riders about Ukrainian police and how corrupt they were. But MJo quickly developed a keen eye for them and figured out that they tended to hang out at the entrance/exit to towns, hoping to catch drivers who did not pay attention to the changing speed limits at these points. Whenever we approached a town, MJo would deliberately slow down. We got through the whole of Ukraine without getting pulled over a single time, except one time when MJo simply ignored the policeman swinging his baton and just kept riding ahead. Their Soviet-era Lada cars were no match for our AT so no one came after us.

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A scene we would see many times - cars pulled over by the police for "speeding"

On our way out of the Ukraine, it certainly felt like Europe (Austria to be precise) as we rode through the Carpathian mountains. The landscape of pine trees and mountains, as well as the Alpine-style buildings, could definitely have passed for Tirol. Turns out that this part of the Ukraine used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We found it fascinating to think that many of the European national boundaries that we take for granted today, did not exist a hundred years ago.

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Guess where? Austrian alps? Nope, it's the Carpathian mountains in Western Ukraine

Being in Europe is an interesting experience for both of us given MJo grew up here but has not lived here for the last 20-plus years whereas Sabby lived here for the past decade. An Asian European and a European Asian in Europe together…hmmm?

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Good-bye Russia and hello Ukraine

in Border crossings, Russia, Ukraine by on August 19th, 2010

For the next 3 days we will be crossing the Ukraine, this former Soviet republic (gained independence in 1991) is a rather large country in terms of size. It was surprisingly easy leaving Russia after all the schnick-schnack entering. But then the Ukraine customs made us buy some more insurance, interrogated Sabby on her life story due to some confusion over her purpose of travel (“Transit” or “Tourist”?). After 2 hours of back and forth, they finally let us proceed.

There is only one road that leads towards Kiev (some 870km from the border) it seems and it goes on for hours and hours through fields of sunflowers, wheat and corn. Not to mention, the melon trail that started in Tajikistan continues…

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Around 7pm we decided to look for a place along the road to stay for the night and Sabby’s sharp eyes spotted a motel on the other side of the highway.  It turned out that this nondescript motel had some cute little wooden cabins in the garden. So we had our own little log cabin set amidst apple trees.  Interestingly enough, the room rates were based on 1-6, 13 or 24 hours’ stay…guess most guests do not stay long here despite its beautiful surroundings.

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Oh one more update, the landscape became more green and lush about 200km after Atyrau.  Much to MJo’s chagrin, no more camels!!  Instead, he now has a new obsession – road signs. We now have an extensive collection of photos of them in various languages.

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