Cycling through Ukraine
Crossing a country from one end to the other is an excellent way of seeing the differences between the regions. While the Ukrainian landscape changes in reverse order at the other side of the train window the memories of a memorable trip come back. I started my trip in the west of Ukraine, in the town of Lviv. Fiercely Ukrainian, and only influenced by Russia and the Soviet-Union for a relatively short period, the town breathes more a Central-European, even quite Habsburg, atmosphere. The city certainly merits a day or two of sightseeing. Now, on a quiet September Monday the population is reclaiming the city from the tourists. Pensioners play chess in the shadow of old trees on the Planta, students have a good time around the fountains of the market square. In the evening I visit a café annex cultural centre. During the day I had seen that an interesting photo exposition is on display there. While entering I stumble over a workshop about folk-music and folk-dances given by two young people from St. Petersburg.
The next morning, I leave early for the mountains. According to the LP, some interesting towns are a bit south of Lviv, only a small detour from my intended route. So I head south to the town of Drohobic. Only a few dozen kilometers outside of Lviv the countryside is complete — small bumpy roads, cattle and chickens running everywhere and a local farmer on a Dnjepr motorbike roaring past with part of his harvest in his sidecar.
Drohobic is indeed a nice town to visit for a couple of hours. Originally I had planned to also visit the Spa town of Truskavec, but a stiff southern wind slowed me down too much to add another town to my itinerary. So I leave Drohobic and continue towards Stebnik. For a while, I think that I'm riding near Roubaix. Roads covered with very rough cobbles and mineshafts at the horizon. Due to the cobbles I have to borrow some tools from a local so I can fix some loose bolts.
As evening falls, I'm near a perfect lake for camping. But I'm not yet far enough, so I continue towards the main road. I expect some sort of hotel near the town of Strii, after all the main road is crossing the town. And indeed, a small motel is right at the entrance of the town.
Sometimes navigation can be very easy in Ukraine. Quite often you can follow the same road for days on end. Like today where in Strii I already can follow the signs for Ivano-Frankivsk. The road climbs out of one river valley, descends towards another along the town of Kalush before scaling another ridge to Ivano-Frankivsk. Everywhere it's easily visible that this region is very Ukrainian — Lenin statues are replaced by statues and busts of the Ukrainian writers Shevchenko and Franko, quotations of both are visible in many places. And of course the "Yushenko Tak!" posters in many shops and on many street corners. While passing Kalush I see signs leading towards a memorial at the place of a former stronghold of Bandera's partizans. Earlier on the road towards Kalush I passed a partizan cemetery.
Also, my hosts in Ivano-Frankivsk tell me, in glowing terms, of their experiences while demonstrating in favour of Yushenko, last winter in Kiiv. Ivano-Frankivsk itself is a pleasant city of Central-European style. Being showed around by locals is very handy for getting a rapid overview of the town.
The town keeps me dragging towards it. The whole morning I spent either talking with the daughter of my hosts or discovering some other parts of Ivano-Frankivsk. When I finally cycle out of town it's well after midday. Again the strong southern wind, this time aided by a false flat along the river valley, slows me down. I'm hardly gaining ground.
In the late afternoon, I fry some eggs next to a shop, to the amazement of some locals. After that, the scenery changes and my legs regain force. I'm now seriously entering the Carpathian Mountains. A small descent later I turn onto the Hungary-bound main road. It's already evening now, while passing the tourist stronghold of Yaremcha I have to switch on my lights. A good place to camp is hard to find here. All relatively flat parts of the valley are already in use. So I don't doubt long when I find a cheap motel in Tatariv.
The next morning, I'm even more satisfied about my decision to find a roof. When I look out of the window I see the last remnants of rain. And it's quite chilly, I even leave Tatariv wearing my autumn gear. In Vorochta I stop. The local market is an excellent place to resupply and shoot some scenic pictures. A salesman even sells some basic cycling gear. Luckily the sun appears again just before I want to leave Vorochta. A little further on the road — towards Ukraine's highest peak, Mount Hoverla — branches off. Originally I planed to hike up the mountain, but I couldn't find any space for my mountain boots in my luggage. With all the photography gear I carry, my bike is already hopelessly overloaded. The bus-shelter at this crossroads is a good place for lunch. An elderly man joins me at the bench. He's surprised about the luxury a traveling cyclist can afford to carry, even a teapot. After a while he continues his hitchhiking while I repack my kit and resume climbing Krivolivskij pass. The pass is very irregular but at just over 1000m not too difficult. When I pause for pictures at the top a man passes with a backpack full of collected berries and mushrooms. He confirms for me that the small road along the valleys is a better itinerary for me than the main road climbing up to Kosiv. And indeed, the valley road is a pleasant ride. Only a small section is unpaved, at the border of two oblasts. I'm already used to this, oblast authorities seem to dislike those citizens who wish to travel from their oblast to the next one.
Still the wind is influencing my progress heavily. In the valley I'm slowed down by a headwind, when I leave the mountains and turn towards Chernvchi I feel the wind changing in a more favourable direction, a very welcome change since it's still a long haul to the town. Some 50km before Chernivchi it's time to switch on my lights. It's dark early in this time of the year. The same problem I had three years ago while cycling to Odessa in October. Light fades so fast that you resort to cycling long stretches in the dark. I decide to equip my touring bikes with the same quality lighting I have on my audax bike, a good job to do this winter.
It's already nearing 22 hours when I enter Chernivchi. An unpleasant surprise is the location of the town, on a small hill a bit away from the river. Along the 'bmuur' of Chernichi I climb to the centre. Finally I find a place to stay in the former Intourist hotel, my bike can stay behind the booth of the carpark guard. Chernivchi itself is a disappointment for me. On a hazy Saturday morning this university town turns into a dull provincial one. Even the scenic university building is closed. So I head out, back again onto the main road. Destinations given on this road are often abroad, like the Moldovan town of Chisinau. Still I choose the left branch of the road heading to the scenic fortresses of Khotyn and Kamjanetsk-Podolski.
Again the main craft of the villagers along the route is easily visible. Yesterday a continuous line of woodwork was displayed, accompanied by regular sounds of sawmills and other woodworking; now I see whole villages lined with the results of metalwork and the sounds of metal being hammered into shape. I arrive at the fortress of Khotyn in the late afternoon. Under the beautiful autumn light the fortress turns into a real fairy tale fortress. I stay there for several hours, trying to see all corners of the castle. It's already dark when I arrive in Kamjanetsk-Podolski. The darkness masks the beauty of historic town, turning it into a quiet provincial town.
Only in the morning I can enjoy the beauty of Kamjanetsk-Podolski. And Sunday morning is probably the best time for visiting the town. Before the touring groups arrive I've seen the old town. It's very calm now, the scars of the 2nd WW are not yet mended. Buildings which on old postcards are surrounded by a mass of houses are now standing alone in a park. The fortress at the edge of the city misses the stunning beauty of the Khotyn fortress but is still a must-see. The new fortress I skip, living in a city where some of the fortifications are built by Vauban, the new fortress of Kamjanetsk-Podilski looks too normal for me.
I leave Kamjanetsk-Podilski via minor roads. Progress is very slow on them, rough surface and constantly going up and down. After only 50km it's already dark. I ask water from an old man selling apples by the side of the road. He doesn't only give me water from his well but also wants to give me a whole bag of apples. I manage to convince him that more than two apples won't fit in my panniers. Only a few km further on I find an acceptable place to pitch my tent.
It's already noon when I reach Novaja Usycja, the place where I intended to stay for the night. The lanes I had been taking yesterday and today are not suited for long days in the saddle. Potholes everywhere make it impossible to ride in the evening and the constant steep hills slow me down during the day. And just in this region I had planned some long days. Services like hotels are scarce in this area, the border district with Moldova. In the shadow of the first Lenin monument I see on this trip I check my maps. I decide to alter my itinerary and ride a bit more on main roads, more through the centre of Ukraine.
And indeed, the more I near Vynitsa the better and easier the roads are. And of course the faster I ride. Although being a fairly large and industrious city, Vynitsa is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet. It hardly deserves a mention. In the morning I rapidly see that this is the sort of city nearly completely destroyed during the war and rapidly rebuilt afterward. Only a few old buildings remain. I leave the town via the Kirovgrad-bound highway. At least it's numbered like a highway. In reality it's a two-lane regional road. Towards the evening I sense the disadvantage of my choice for main roads. Lorry after lorry roars pasts, hardly giving me any space. The nearest known hotel is still a two hours ride away so I quickly decide to look for a camping spot. In a small forest along the road I find a nice soft spot between the trees.
In the morning, I'm woken up by some locals. They wish to stock up with firewood for the winter and ask me friendly to leave. A tent isn't a good protection against falling trees. I eat by the roadside and continue my way to Uman. There ought to be a magnificent park here, but I'm not short on nature during this trip. So I skip this sight, the lake in the centre of Uman is beautiful enough for my lunch.
After lunch, I leave the Kirovgrad road and turn towards Odessa. The side-wind of this morning changes into a massive tailwind. Combined with the ultra-smooth asphalt of his renovated road, the wind gives the chance to cruise easily at 30+ kph. The pleasure is rather short-lived. After an hour of racing along I turn left onto a smaller mainroad, into the wind again. It's a hard decision, not only because of the excellent riding straight on but also because of the beauty of the city of Odessa at the far end of the main road. But Jalta is my intended goal now so I head left towards Cherson. All this racing puts the small town of Pervomajsk within reach for this evening. HGV traffic is a lot lighter here, so I continue through the evening until I reach Pervomajsk and a small pub renting rooms.
Riding away from Pervomajsk, it strikes me again how different Central-Ukraine is from Western-Ukraine. Not only the Lenin statues in the centre of the various towns but also the different usage of the land. In Galicia it were mostly families working on a small plot of land, here in Central Ukraine whole villages work on huge pieces of land. It looks like part of the kolchoz structures are still functioning. The area is very sparsely inhabited. Most villages which state a founding date at the entrance are founded somewhere in the 18th century. Before this period, this was largely very fertile, uninhabited land due to centuries of raids by various armed groups — borderlands, made uninhabitable by man. And in the past century again two periods decimating the population. Only when I reach the mouth of the various rivers large population centres appear. Not that this is a huge problem for the traveling cyclist, along the main road there are enough services.
Slightly more than a day later, on leaving Pervomajsk, I cycle towards the city of Nikolajiv. The city has a nice atmosphere but is lacking major sights. By skipping the sightseeing I am back on schedule. So, I can leave the main road again, which now leaves the valley of the Bug river. Instead I stick to the river valley along a quiet regional road. A local cyclist leads me to the right spot at the end of town. As predicted by him, the road deteriorates as I near the border of the next oblast.
The reward is at the end of the unpaved part of the road. A nice selection of cliffs there where the Bug river enters the Dnipro-delta. Right at the edge is the village of Stanislav. The map indicates a harbour here so I decide to go there and see if I can arrange transport to the other side of the Dnipro. I ask directions from a local and after some searching find the harbour. Some rusty fishing boats sturdy enough to wage the afternoon voyage are there, but the only boatmen I can see are the ones in small fishing boats. Chances are slim, the guard tells me that it's a fishing kolchoz. One of the fishermen suggest that I sleep in the village guest-house and try again next morning but I decide to try and push on to Cherson. After all there is still more than an hour of daylight left. While cycling towards Kherson I see that it was a good decision I made. No way to see the Dnipro from the road, houses block the view nearly everywhere.
The cheapest hotel mentioned went seriously up in price, now being above my budget. But they tell me about a small hotel next to the river terminal. And indeed, this is the right type of hotel for me. My camping gear I haul around hardly used, there are enough cheap hotels now in Ukraine. I might leave it at home next time. Cherson on Friday evening looks like a pleasant town with lot's of life. But again, like Nikolajiv, without any apparent main sights.
In the morning, I wander around Cherson and enjoy the quiet atmosphere. But not for too long, I want to reach northern Crimea today. East of the town I finally cross the river via a long and high bridge. The scenery from the bridge is great. Many locals enjoy it in science, trying to catch some fish at the same time. Directly at the southern shore of the Dnipro the landscape changes again. Now it resembles a steppe. But also the wind changes. It's now northeast, while the road is southeast. Again my progress is slowed down by the wind. It's already dark when I enter the Autonomous Republic Crimea. A small police post guards the entrance. No problems with the policemen here, their questions are more out of curiosity. In the first Crimean village I ask for accommodation. I find a small guest-house with shared rooms for a rock-bottom price. My roommate is a silent computer technician, constantly reading books about computers. The bar below the guest-house still serves food but is mainly catering to the local youth who spent the evening as everywhere — drinking and dancing.
In the morning, the wind hasn't changed direction. Since the road heads straight south/southwest I have to battle a sidewind. Already early in the day, I eat lunch in a roadside café in Krasnoperekops. The café is run by Crimean Tatars, the food is a welcome change from the usual Ukrainian taste. South of Krasnoperekps chances for supplying are slim, only a few tiny villages are visible on the map until the outskirts of Simferopol. Despite being hardly inhabited, the landscape is not too dull. Several details of the landscape, and the locals harvesting, are a welcome change of scenery on the dead-straight road.
The map is an entirely different question. For Crimea, I didn't manage to acquire a topographical map, but only a new car-map of nearly the same scale. As the day progresses, I'm more and more fed up with this map. Altitude information is nearly completely lacking, the road is rather roughly drawn on the map. Especially in a situation of sidewind this is a big nuisance. The estimated arrival time in Simferopol, which I gave to my friend Pasja, proves to be grossly incorrect. I phone him again when I'm in the outskirts of Simferopol, passing the airport at the moment that I'd promised to be near the railway station. So he is already waiting for me when I arrive there. After receiving indications how to get to his place he boards a trolleybus and I mount my bike. Together with three friends, he rents an older single story house on the outskirts of Simferopol. That's good news for me, hot water guaranteed. The evening lasts long, finally I can have a meaningful conversation — Pasja is fluent in Esperanto, some of his housemates speak English.
The next day, everyone leaves early. I don't head for the main road though. Yesterday I discovered a broken spoke, so in front of the house I remove the cassette and take my spare pokes. But the matter is more serious now. A long crack in the hub flange is visible. No way to repair this by the side of the road. With only 85km to go I decide to wage it. I plan to finish my ride anyway in Jalta. Otherwise it wouldn't be a disaster — in Jalta is a good bikeshop.
But first, I head to the centre. In two days time I want to take a train to Lviv. In order to have a bed in a decent location I buy my ticket already now. After that's done I permit myself a few hours of sightseeing and head to Jalta. The northern slope of the Angarskij pass is fairly easy. The gradient is adapted to the many trolleybuses on this road. Five years ago, I climbed the pass via a tiny sideroad — a tougher version of it. The descent is marvelous. Good asphalt and many corners. Finally I can take revenge on the truck drivers, passing many of them on the descent. In the corners I can even outbrake cars.
The stretch from Alushta to Jalta is the most scenic of my trip. And the hardest of course. But the many photo opportunities along the road make it worthwhile. On this road I meet the only other cycletourist on this trip, a mountain-biker from Belarus. Before darkness I find the apartment of Jefim, the local Esperanto teacher.
The next day is filled with taking it easy and meeting many old friends. Jefim even arranged a TV interview with a local TV crew. In the evening Jefim shows a video of the festival that the Jalta Esperanto club organized last month. To my surprise, I see the two musicians from St. Petersburg again.
Traveling back is fairly easy. The only trouble point is the trip to Simferopol. The old Ikarus buses are now replaced by shiny new Mitsubishi buses. Airco and radio on board, but a tiny hold. It takes some effort to convince the driver that a disassembled bike fits in the rear hold. Luckily Jefim and Slava are there to solve the linguistic problems. In Simferopol, I reassemble my bike and buy an excess luggage ticket. No discussion about my bike now, but about my identity. The guards can't read a Dutch identity card. One of them dashes off to a colleague who can confirm that everything is okay. My bike finds it's usual spot at the upper luggage board and I start to write my report.
Cycling in Ukraine:Groups of cycletourists are no uncommon sight on Ukraine's roads. Solo cyclists create more surprise. During the Soviet period Crimea was a highly popular spring destination for cycleclubs. Cycletourists, especially those covering serious distances, are regarded as sportsmen with all the respect usually attached to them.
Regions:Best for cycling are Crimea and the Carpathian mountains. Crimea has enough sights to keep you busy during several visits. The west of the country is easier to reach from Western Europe.
Time:Especially when cycling near the Black Sea coast, summer should be avoided. It's way too hot and crowded during summer. Spring and autumn are the best periods. Nights can be chilly in May and October. In October, the amount of daylight is limited.
Roads:Away from the main urban centres M-roads are okay for cycling, although they sometimes are a bit busy. The M3 and the M5 are proper motorways, the other M-roads are more comparable with British A-roads or French N roads. Intermediate T-roads are of varying quality. Especially at the borders of two oblasts, the road surface can be appalling. Despite that they are the best choice for a cyclist who is not in a hurry. Potholes and bad cobble roads are common in towns and villages.
Dangers:Ukrainian car-drivers don't give a lot of space to cyclists. Luckily the shoulders of the main roads are of hard-packed sand so you can evade cars and lorries without risking your wheels. Dogs are more of a nuisance. Several vicious dogs will pursue you until you are well away of their territory. Always carry a full water-bottle to cool them off. In urban areas watch out near bus stops. If someone hails a minibus, the minibus will swerve out of the line of traffic immediately.
Supplies:Food is easy to get in Ukraine. Shops and kiosks are everywhere. Most of them are open during weekends and in the evenings. Best places to buy food are the village and small town markets where you can buy agricultural products directly from the farmers. On main roads you will often see farmers selling their products by the side of he road. You don't need to carry more than half a days supply of food with you, a rare treat for cyclists used to German shop closing times. Spare parts for your bike are hard to get. A very basic selection can sometimes be found at larger markets, sports shops or car parts shops. Usual tyre size is 37-622, although MTB-tyres gain popularity. Tubes usually have Sclavarand valves. For disaster repairs count on the art of improvisation practiced by Ukrainians. Repairs which are impossible in the west can be done by Ukrainian craftsmen.
Sleeping:Smaller towns have enough accommodation in the 30-100 grivna per night range. Along motorways lot's of new hotels are built. In touristic regions there's plenty of accommodation. Usually they have a secure place for your bike. Wild camping is quite common. Just leave the road and hide yourself behind some trees. Farmers won't be surprised to see you in the morning.
Bike:A sturdy tourer or a roadworthy mountain-bike is the right bike for touring in Ukraine. Equip your bike with not too small semi-slicks (37-50mm). Full suspension is not needed for those who don't want to follow the mountain trails in Crimea or the Carpathian Mountains. Although central-Ukraine doesn't have high hills, steep climbs out of river valleys are quite common. So, low gears and good brakes are necessary.
Maps:Excellent maps are on sale in bookshops throughout the country. 1:200.000 topographical maps printed by Kievskaya Vojeno Kartografichkaja Fabrika. Check the dates of the maps since older series with now defunct road-numbers are still on sale. The ones mentioning regional roads under T-numbers are the good ones. New 1:250.000 road maps (http://www.ukrmap.com.ua/) are good, but lack the altitude and profile information which the topographical maps offer. They do, however, indicate some hotels and campsites. On the back of these maps are the maps of the centre of the towns of the region.
Public transport:Long distance trains accept bikes as accompanied luggage in third class (platzkart) carriages. Since a bike and panniers usually are heavier than permitted you'll also need a ticket for excess luggage. Without the front wheel, three bikes fit in one 'compartment' of a platzkart carriage, on the uppermost luggageboard. On long-distance buses it's usually possible to transport your bike, again with a surcharge for excess luggage. Citybuses and minibuses usually don't accept bikes. On the medium distance it depends on the type of bus and the mood of the driver. The new Mitshubishi buses serving the Jalta-Simferopol connection only have space for one disassembled bike.