Position: 45° 021’ 51” North 36° 37’24” (Kerch, Ukraine)
Distance from Sydney: 14,580km
There is an episode of Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s “Long Way Round” where they pass through Ukraine (see here for a recap). In it, they get invited to a house for dinner, where no one really speaks English. They partake in the festivities (which include the host bringing out guns), but Ewan comments “…there is an element of not knowing what the f..k is going on…”. This is Ukraine summed up perfectly for me. We’ve reached beyond the English speaking sphere for the first time (Spanish, French, and German speaking spheres as well) and cyrillic script turns anything written into the incomprehensible.
I’m writing this sitting in Magda, motionless in a queue for a ferry from Crimea, Ukraine, across to Russia. We’ve been sitting in the queue for 6 hours, and likely at least another two before we make it onboard one of the ferries. We will have crossed Ukraine in 5 days. After our first day of run-ins with Ukrainian police we’ve been left alone (which I’m slightly disappointed about but it’s probably a good thing).
Without doubt the language has been the biggest challenge. Andres, to his credit, has been teaching himself the language and Russian alphabet, and can make an impressive entrance to any shop or hotel. However it still usually only lasts as long as their Russian reply where we admit defeat with a hopeful “Engliski?”
However the lack of language has more often than not led to some entertaining encounters – and some conversations have resembled Pictionary, with drawings and gestures doing the talking. On our second night, I headed down to grab a quick bite from the restaurant below the hotel. As usual, I pulled out my best “Engliski”. “No”. Oh. I pointed at the menu: “Menu Engliski?”. “No”. Oh.
Not being one to give up, I leafed through the menu, looking at knowledgeable as possible. Pointing at something that started with C, I asked her if this was chicken. Blank looks. So I did it. I stood in a restaurant and flapped my arms like a chicken.
It wasn’t chicken.
At this point I decided to retreat with as much dignity as possible (which was none), and asked to take the menu back to the room. She probably thought I was stealing it but she let me. Back in the room with Google Translate we worked through the various words, putting them into the Google translate to see what they were. “Substitutes prepared from fish” was one of the more less appealing translations. In the end I prepared a bunch of phrases in the iPhone and headed back to the restaurant.
She was probably happier to see the menu come back than to see me. Armed with iPhone, I selected “Hi” and held up the iPhone. Suddenly she smiled and replied hello back– breakthrough! (At least I assume it was hello – for all I knew she could have said “You are giving me a migraine”). We proceeded through the ordering process quite well, and the food came and was even reasonably close to what I was expecting. Score! I considered desert but didn’t want to push my luck.
A few days later in Kerch, Crimea, Google Translate again saved us at a hotel where the receptionist had the same app. She would dictate to the phone, and it would read out in English what she had just said. We would reply the same way, back in Russian. She thought this was hilarious, and could hardly get her sentences out without bursting into giggles. Particularly when the translator announced to us “We have a room but no Armenians!” Still not quite sure what she was trying to say.
After the language the roads were the next challenge. Torturous tarmac twisted into lumps bumps and jumps that required constant concentration to avoid. At times traffic would be slowed to a crawl as everyone negotiated around the tarmac ‘growths’, tracking from one side of the road to the other. On a gravel road we suddenly hit a pair of unmarked rises that briefly saw Magda air-borne or very close to it. We escaped unscathed, however Magda has collected some small splits in the fuel tank bash plates, which we will have to keep an eye on over the next little while to see if we need to replace prior to Mongolia.
Regardless of the road condition however, Ukranian drivers would hurtle past in their tough-as-nails old Lada “Classics”. These cars, based originally on the 1970’s Fiat 124, are the third most produced car in the world after the VW Beetle and the Model T Ford (useless car fact for you all), and completely rule the roads in Ukraine, having been produced for nearly 40 years. They would overtake at any time: Blind corners and crests were a particular favourite, but using the shoulder on your right was also a definite option. I spent much of the time wincing and squirming with horror as near disasters played out regularly in front of us.
Finally, watching over the madness were the police, with police traps at the side of the road constantly. Have a look at the movie we filmed from Magda for a 30 minute stretch through Crimea along the Black Sea. While this was the most extreme that we saw, it gives you an idea.
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Ukraine is definitely not all crazy driving and language barrier though. The highlight was Sevastopol on the Black Sea. Sevastopol was a ‘closed city’ during the soviet years, visitors needed a permit to even enter it. Long the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, it is a naval city, where Russian is the dominant language, and everyone identifies as Russian rather than Ukrainian. Soviet statues and tanks dot the streetscape, hammer and sickles remain firmly in place on plenty of buildings, and you get the feeling that the locals yearn for the ‘good old days’ where Sevastopol was a key cog in the Soviet war machine.
We took a visit to an ex-Soviet submarine base, the first base built underground, into a hillside. It was like a time warp, and we felt very James Bond walking the cold concrete passages that until recently no public had been allowed near. The photos tell the story better.
These days Sevastopol, and the Black Sea coast in general, is the holiday strip for the Russian speaking countries. Beaches and roads were PACKED with holiday makers from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. And so we headed east towards the border, deciding to cross at Kerch on the Sea of Asov, rather than looping up through Ukraine again, which is where we are now. I’m not too sure that we will miss Ukraine, but it has definitely been one of the more interesting countries so far.
Next stop Russia!