Location: 48 40′ 29″ N 26 34′ 18″ E (Kamianets-Podilskyi, Ukraine)
Distance to Sydney: 15,482km
Originally we planned to travel through Turkey, cross the Black Sea into Russia at Sochi, and head north-east from there towards Kazakhstan. However uncertainty around the reliability of the ferry services, and the numbing heat in Turkey made us decide to circle north through Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. We needed to go around Moldova as Andres would need visas in advance. So after a few fun days with my friends Deb and Rob in Istanbul we headed out.
Finally our border crossings have started to settle down. They still scratch their heads at what to do with an Australian car, and I have to admit the registration papers do nothing to help, and much to hinder. The general conversation always starts with something along the lines of “passport machina!” and we hand over Magda’s registration paper. At this point Andres will *always* offer helpfully “Machina Ouss-straliano” (why he says it in a Polish accent I still have no idea). Officer then pretends to read the paper that makes no sense to him whatsoever. He will then repeat “Australiano?” at us. At this point we *always* nod enthusiastically. I’m sometimes tempted to do a kangaroo impersonation to help but resist.
If we are having a bad day they will ask us where on the papers it says “Australia”. Which is difficult, because it doesn’t. Cars in Australia are registered by state (like America) but for some reason it doesn’t mention the state on it either. I swear that we have only managed to get through each border on the back of the confusion the Australian registration papers create.
We hammered north through Bulgaria, stopping overnight at Plovdiv. This town had a great little old town, and I have to say the Europeans know how to create a great living hub in their cities and towns, with large pedestrianised centres full of people, cafes and events. They are less good at roads however, and the speed limits were slooooooow. Much of the time we would be stuck at 60, and corners the limit would drop to 30 or 40! If we did get a faster zone we would almost always get stuck behind a lumbering truck, which is a nightmare to overtake when you are in a right hand drive car on the right hand side of the road. This requires teamwork between passenger and driver, and we’ve been refining our technique, with whoever is passenger at the time needing to yell out “Clear!” to let the other know to go for it. However, at this point the driver often mis-hears over the music, and asks what? “I said clear! Go gogogogogogo!” Poor old Magda gets stood on and we catapult past the truck usually to find another one going exactly the same speed a few minutes further up the road.
Romania however was a highlight. First into Bucharest, where the government buildings built during the communist years contrasted with another buzzing old town centre. From there we headed into Transylvania! I was super excited at this, and multiple cheesy photos with vampire fangs followed to keep ourselves amused as we dodged horse-drawn carts and potholes on the roads. The cheesiness was topped off with a stay in the “Dracula Hotel” and I watched an episode of True Blood that night to top off the vampire extravaganza. We survived the night, though between you and me the food was probably the most dangerous thing in that place.
As we climbed through the Carpathian mountains we filled one day with Transylvanian castles, and the next day with the heritage listed “Painted Monasteries” – a series of monasteries built in the 15th century and covered in ornate paintings, both inside and out. However the beauty of the monasteries was as nothing as compared to the lovely number I was given at the door to cover my knees (see photo…).
Finally it was time to leave Europe once and for all, as we headed to Ukraine. After our previous dramas, we were determined to be prepared this time. We spent the night before researching the border and other bloggers’ experiences, where to get the insurance, etc. We were prepared for hours of waiting, rude guards, and even the girl on the front desk said that we would need to pay a little extra as a “present” for the guards on the Ukrainian side.
It turned out to be the smoothest crossing yet! A fat guard in black stuck his head in the car, poked around, asked “Drugs??” No. “Weapons?” No. “Ok”. And that was it. A lady swung by with our paperwork and stamped passports, marvelled that we were driving so far and said that in that case we should “go! go!”. And we were done! We picked up some currency and purchased the required insurance at a small hut just past the border, and headed off into Ukraine!
Yet another cunning Magda shortcut took us down about 50kms of gravel roads. However it turned out these were far preferable to the highways, and the Ukrainian police. We’d read of how these guys went hunting for $$ by making up random infringements, but were still unprepared for their routine. The first one pulled us over, went through the paperwork, but he had nothing on us and we were waved on.
30 minutes later we were again pulled over. This time he went through the paperwork, and again couldn’t find anything. He then asked me out of the car, and proceeded to explain (via an interpreter on the phone) that I had stopped to give way at the roundabout next to us (as is the common practice in, oh I don’t know, about 99% of the planet). He said that in Ukraine, the cars ON the roundabout give way to those entering the roundabout. Now I’m no traffic engineer, but this has to be the most ridiculous approach to roundabout design that could possibly be invented. I didn’t believe a word of it, but as we watched, two cars on the roundabout gave way to trucks entering!
So began the whole charade about the fine, he was carrying on that all of this was so difficult, and announced that the fine was 510 UAH (about $50). I knew this was way higher than it should be, and was completely unwilling to play along. It didn’t help that the first two times he wrote the number on the paper I couldn’t read his handwriting. I was going to dig in and play the “we only have X amount” card, but Andres wasn’t enjoying the game at all, and decided to just pay to get it over with. Even then, we he handed over 600, they decided they would keep it all! I put my foot down and the 100 was handed back. I was furious – and fumed for the next 20 kilometres. My competitive side was coming out – it wasn’t the money so much as being ‘beaten’ by them. I became determined not to let it happen again.
That night I researched how to handle the police and learnt a bunch of things we did incorrectly: 1. Don’t hand over the papers, give them copies or show them the originals, but don’t let them have them. 2. Don’t get out of the car. 3. Don’t pay money on the spot, get the official infringement notice (which they probably won’t even write out). 4. Record on camera and let them know you are…
So I’m ready for the buggers now, and itching for round two. Let’s just hope I’m not writing the next update from a police cell…