You’d be forgiven for thinking that cycle touring is always fun and easy and to be honest on the most part it’s a fine way to spend your time, but the longer you are doing it the higher your chances of having a bad day. There are a multitude of things that can spoil the rhythm of eat, sleep, ride repeat and with various consequences: Bike parts can break, tyres can puncture, food can run out (or get eaten by animals), body parts can ache or chafe, route choices can lead to nowhere… The list is endless but really shouldn’t be contemplated for too long otherwise you’ll never leave your tent for fear of something going wrong. But the most likely thing to put a dampener on proceedings (pun intended) is the weather.
22nd to 29th October
We leave Lublin late in the day so only made 20km before needing to find somewhere to camp but suitable sites are limited. Our eventual choice is a field that seems firm and level and with the tent pitched we eat pierogi dumplings. It would be hard to imagine a more Polish scene as there’s also a huge pile of turnips alongside but there is one missing ingredient that would complete the picture. In the middle of the night the wind picks up and it begins to rain, a storm is closing in. The soil surrounding the tent turns from firm ground to soft mud within minutes and becomes less capable of holding the pegs so with a particularly strong gust a few are pulled out. It takes a while for us to realise that the loud flapping noise was the tent starting to collapse but when I eventually open my eyes I had to quickly put on a jacket and shoes and run round the tent in my pants trying to get the whole thing upright and stable again. An hour later it happens again. By the morning we are both cold and tired so decide to pack up at first light and head for the nearest cafe. It’s still raining and freezing cold so after packing up the soaking and muddy tent I can hardly feel my fingers and can’t get my gloves on. Somehow we manage to get down to a petrol station and stand in the kiosk trying to defrost while the man behind the till looks at us but says nothing other than ‘No toilet’. Once we feel normal again we venture back out and pedal hard to stay warm longing for a cafe to appear round the next corner. Eventually we find one, scoff pancakes and omelettes and make the decision to push on until early afternoon and then check into a hotel. In all we cover 60km which, given the conditions, was considered to be a good day’s work. The hotel is very smart until we unpack all of our wet and muddy kit into the room but for some reason it lacks hot water which is the one commodity we really need. Kirsty is particularly unhappy about this as you might well imagine. The next priority is to fill up on dinner so we abandon the hotel and head into town to the ubiquitous pizzeria. Saulius in Druskininkai had suggested we try some Flacki (a soup made from tripe, i.e. cut up cows guts) while in Poland and I finally manage to find some. It’s hearty, tasty and much better than it sounds provided you don’t look too closely at the contents. In fact it’s so filling that not all of the 37cm pizza that follows gets finished.
The next morning the skies are clear and the sun has returned but it’s still chilly, barely above freezing. We’re feeling much better after a good night’s rest and we ride out into the Roztoczański national park with forest all around us. We don’t want to stop for long that day so have a quick lunch break with our healthiest menu yet: left over pizza, kebab flavoured crisps and some kind of processed meat stick but balanced out with an orange. Then on to Tomaszów Lubelski to pick up dinner supplies before finding somewhere to camp. The forecast is for -6 degrees that night so we want to make sure we can get a fire going before bed time. Kirsty picks up a bottle of some unidentifiable liquor to help heat us from the inside too. We find a great spot in some woods with plenty of kindling and quickly get a fire going that is just the right side of being under control. Putting most of our clothes on and making sure we are fully heated from the flames and the liquor we retire to the tent to see how our lightweight sleeping system will fare.
It’s not the most comfortable of nights but we don’t catch hypothermia and we now know that our kit can go well below zero, but we wouldn’t want to have to endure that too many times.
We have 20km to ride to our next border crossing and the sun comes out to warm things up a degree or two. On the way we pass a 24hr hotel that was 500m away from our camp site.
Researching the Ukrainian border guard website has told us that you shouldn’t be able to cycle across at the Hrbenne/Rava Ruska crossing as it’s for automobiles only, however we are heading that way regardless. We had read a couple of blogs where one person had hitched across by catching a lift in a passing mini van while in September another couple had simply turned up and played innocent and after a bit of persistence were let through. So it sounded like it should be possible and if we got through we would avoid having to ride an extra 100km south to another crossing that would definitely let bikes across.
Rolling up to the first checkpoint the Polish guard waves us past the queue of cars, takes our passports from us and disappears into a booth without any fuss. A few minutes later we’re beckoned to the window of the booth where our passports are returned and we’re sent on our way to deal with the Ukrainian side. At the next checkpoint we encounter a stern looking Ukrainian guard. It’s a Saturday morning, there’s a cold wind whipping round his fur hat (I was wishing I had a fur hat too) and he doesn’t need this kind of complication today. He steps back and chats on his radio for a bit then with a sigh fills out a slip of paper, hands it over and sends us on to the next checkpoint. Here we are interrogated about where we are heading and why and again our passports disappear into a booth. Someone else in the queue tells us it’s not great weather for biking as it’s a bit cold. It’s not great weather for waiting around at a border control either but finally our passports are returned complete with the first stamp of the trip and we’re waved through into Ukraine! Well nearly as there is a final checkpoint where the slip of paper and our passports are checked again, but after that we are free to continue on.
This now feels like a proper foreign country. It’s just been through a revolution, it has a war zone in the East, it uses the Cyrillic alphabet which Kirsty has been busy learning and is excited to try out her new skills, and our mobile phone charges have gone up by a percentage factor that even wonga.com would be ashamed of (data is 26x more expensive than in EU countries). The phones get switched off.
The big open road is lined with petrol stations and money changers and every other car seems to be a Lada. The towns we ride through all have ornate orthodox churches that are brightly coloured and shiny but everything else seems to be in fairly poor condition, particularly the side roads. We cross through 50 degrees of latitude so are at last below our previous southernmost point, which was Brighton some two months ago.
We decide to try some local delicacies at lunchtime and stop at a small cafe that has a pickled gerkin, some ham and not much else on display in the counter. It doesn’t look appetising which is fine as the lady refuses to serve us and points us to a restaurant around the corner instead. Here they are setting up for a wedding banquet but they don’t mind fixing up two basic meals for us but it’s a shame we’re too early for the party as the banquet looks much better. The food with coffee costs us about 60 Hyrvnia which is less than £3. Because of all the things happening in Ukraine at the moment the economy has crashed and with it the exchange rate has taken a hammering. This is very good for foreign travellers but very bad for Ukrainians who may want to visit other countries in Europe.
Back out on the road into Lviv we start to encounter several hills and a hierarchy is soon established amongst the traffic. The tandem is marginally faster than a horse and cart, a Lada is marginally faster than the tandem, and a truck is marginally faster than a Lada. But on the descents the tandem is level pegging with the Ladas. It’s a major road but there are farmers selling vegetables on the hard shoulder so occasionally a car pulls over to buy some cabbages and we have to swerve around them.
Lviv (or Lwow if you’re Polish or Львів if you’re Ukranian) sits in a big natural bowl so after cresting the final hill we freewheel most of the way into the city centre. We’d been having trouble finding a host despite starting the search about a week before arriving as everyone seemed to have a full house. Our last resort was going to be the Ghost-el which claims to be a medieval themed hostel, but in the nick of time we received an email from Irka, a Couchsurfing host, to say we can stay with her. After meeting up in a coffee shop we head back to her apartment which turns out to be even more bizarre than even the Ghost-el was promising. All of the walls in the hallway and kitchen are hand painted with cartoon images of a fairly tale with knights princes and castles. In the bedroom we have an intricate floral pattern on the walls and ceiling and a painting of St Lucias reading to a child. Irka apologises and says her landlady forbids her from changing any of it but it makes for a very unique place for us to stay.
Irka asks if we’re here for the wine and cheese festival. Well we weren’t but we are now so the next day we wonder round the old city with its domed churches, castle and beautifully ornate market square in search of wine and cheese. It’s a Sunday and in the main cathedral they are broadcasting the mass to the crowd outside as it’s full to capacity inside. Also the clocks have gone back so we regain the hour we had lost when we crossed the border and are effectively back on Polish time, but we still try and structure the day according to Lithuanian time to make the most of daylight. It’s getting quite confusing.
When we get to the festival we are issued with a cocktail stick and small cup and head round all of the stalls to try the free samples. The wine is very sweet but works well when mulled. The mild cheese seems better as a hot fondue too. There’s a large dance floor in the shape of the map of Ukraine but it hasn’t been updated in light of recent events so people queue up to have their photos taken defiantly staking a claim to Crimea.
Lviv is very patriotic so there are flags everywhere and plenty of anti-Putin material. You can buy a chocolate Putin dressed up like Stalin and enjoy biting his head off, there are Putin door mats so you can wipe your feet on his face and Putin toilet paper with his image on so you can …well you get the idea, Vladimir is not welcome round here. But although voting is taking place for an election that day there are no campaign posters or in fact any evidence at all that it is happening. Speaking to Irka in the evening she says people are getting tired of all the elections and feel that there is not a very good choice of candidates to choose from so as a result the turnout is low. She has dreams of bringing dance music to Lviv and opening a night club as the music scene is decades behind the huge club culture of western Europe. You heard it here first, Ukraine is set to become the next big party destination.
On our way out of Lviv we stop at a market for food and a passer-by gives us a small Ukrainian flag to hang off the bike which should help keep favour with the drivers. We also stop to buy some extra pairs of long johns in case things get colder but at the moment we have fantastic clear blue skies and it’s nudging 12 degrees.
We spend all day on a main road as almost all of the side roads are more pot hole than tarmac, but it’s not that busy and the traffic gives us plenty of room so the flag seems to be working. We spend the night in a hotel in Stryi (Стрий) which costs less than the French campsite and it promises a swimming pool and sauna. The pool turns out to be roughly 7 foot long and roughly 2 degrees so I manage a single length with my toes still at one end while my fingers touch the other before hopping straight out again. Kirsty dips a toe and thinks better of it.
In Stryi the next day we stop briefly at a busy market and while Kirsty heads off for supplies I park the bike next to a fire station where it gets a full inspection by the curious firemen. There is snow on the roofs so the warm hotel was a wise choice.
On the horizon today is an unfamiliar sight, a dark band of mountains in the form of the Carpathians. Up until now we were beginning to think that Europe was mostly flat. In the foothills we begin climbing on a nice shallow gradient through woods, over the River Stryi several times, past shiny churches and ramshackle villages. It’s another bright, clear and crisp day which is just perfect for climbing mountains. Towards the top it ramps up to 10% which requires a bit more effort but the views make it worthwhile. By the time we reach the hotel that sits at just over 700m on the top of the pass the sun is beginning to set and with it we can straight away feel the temperature dropping quickly. But we don’t have enough cash and they don’t accept cards. In a panic we contemplate the options which include camping (way too cold, even with the new tights), riding down to the next hotel (they might not take cards either), offering to do the washing up (not many guests so unlikely to be enough washing up to earn the 250 UAH). But the staff just say it’s OK we can pay some other time, give us a credit card number and show us to our room. We’re not sure what we are supposed to do with this number but are extremely grateful so settle in for the night. Try this next time you need to stay in a Travelodge and see what happens.
In the morning we step out into a bright but frosty landscape and get a lung full of air that reminds us of catching the first chair lift of the day in the Alps. It’s warmed up to -4 when we set off and we are trying out the double layer of thermal tights to good effect. There’s a small amount of climbing which warms us up nicely before we begin the long descent out of the mountains. The views are spectacular and we make rapid progress with 80km covered before lunchtime.
On the way we celebrate our 5000th kilometre. It’s then 40k on mostly flat road into Uzhhorod (Ужгород) for our final night in Ukraine and staying with Natalia and Jan. Over a dinner of varenyky (Ukranian dumplings which are smaller but more meaty than Polish pierogi) Natalia fills us in on some of things that have been going on in Ukraine over the past few years with tales of propaganda, war tax and the fact that it was only a matter of time before Russia took an interest in the eastern part of the country. We also learn that within one person’s lifetime this particular region has been part of 5 different countries as borders and boundaries get changed and land gets passed from one custodian to another. It’s no surprise then that the people of Uzhhorod are not as patriotic as those in Lviv as they must find it hard to know where they should be showing allegiance to.
From here we’re heading over into Slovakia then down into Hungary, aiming for Budapest. The keen eyed amongst you will have realised that this brings us back west whereas New Zealand is in the east but as the old adage goes, to go east first you must go west. Or was that just a Village People song?