Ukraine

Content Display Mode

Slava escorts us out of town, a keen cyclist with a mop of blond curly hair. Bread sells for 40,000 kupon, at 150,000 kupon/dollar. Brandt is sick again. Stay in a backyard pension. I leave my Swiss army knife on the wharf. Oleg wears a speedo

Our welcome party at Sergei’s turned out to be too good to be true. How disappointing. More on that later.

I’m happy to be on the road again, if only for a short day. Good to get the rust out of the legs after seven days off. Oleg has gone to Simferopol to see Natasha off to the train. This was the best way to get out of Yalta and get a few miles under the wheels, and still have Oleg catch up to us by taking the bus. Important to keep Oleg happy. We are still very hopeful that he will prove his value, that he will prove to be something more than a grand emotional drain, that the endless cynicism, pervasive darkness, and awful biking will, in the final analysis, prove to be balanced against cutting-edge insights, critical translations, added safety, and better navigation. We hope.

We find the others in Alushta, staying in a backyard pancion. The owner lets us cook eggs on our stoves on the patio. This being a short day; we walk down to the waterfront. Alex and Nathan walk down to the beach and do some heavy drinking with some guys they meet, returning really buzzed, cracking themselves up. More kiosks. A few tourists. A car that tows around a huge trailer to dispense cheap, hard alcohol. We search for a bread shop and end up buying right from the factory. We are realizing that we must, from now on, always must be on the lookout for food. We never know where we will find it, if there will be any inventory or if the facility will be open. Sturdy babushkas in white hats surround us at the back door chattering like my Timmins, Ontario relatives.

Back on the water, a revelation: Oleg looks stylin’ sportin’ a speedo.

The scenery is nice, but certainly nothing as epic as we thought it would be. Reminds me of the south-central California coast. Rolling hills with low density forest. All of the infrastructure is crumbling. Alex refers to it as the “New Jersey tourist area coastline in January” look. This is charitable. Everything is rusting, crumbling, or zacrete (closed). You know something is wrong with this place when, by necessity, one of your ten most commonly used words is zacrete.

We can see that Oleg is gradually more and more embarrassed. After he continually denigrated Turkey, we look back on it now and it clearly was, on a relative basis, a well-oiled machine of friendly people, a land of prosperity, optimism, peace, decent food, and progress. Ukraine clearly pales and, more importantly, seems to be slipping ever more backward. No one smiles here! This is the surliest bunch I’ve ever seen. We walk into stores the size of a typical convenience store and they only have three items for sale (bread (the size, texture, and flavor of bricks), burnt pear juice (how the hell did they burn all of it? Every jar is black on the bottom from the burnt debris) and fish (not sure which kind, or what body part. We’re not that desperate yet). If you didn’t have a sense of humor, this place would kill you. Or, I guess, turn you into someone who never smiles. I guess the people have largely taken their pick.

Yesterday morning I spotted our first cycle tourists of the trip. How I hope these photos turn out! They were a Ukrainian group, led by the friendliest Ukranian (not a difficult title to obtain) I have yet encountered, Anatoly. They all posed for a photo in their Black Sea Fleet navy shirts. Their bikes are such that, back home, we would consider them trash: rusted, bent, dented, re-welded, with really crappy components. Anatoly and the boys (five total, I think) loaded (meaning their baggage, but God, were they drunk too; vodka breath that knocked me down) with panniers resembling a pair of old football pants sewn off at the ankles, filled with all their belongings, and draped over the rear rack. “How many spoke you break in one day?” they ask. Astounded and disbelieving that I haven’t broken any yet. “That is impossible!!” Where do you make trip to, Astrakhan? Mongolia? MY GOD!!” Odometer talk. They couldn’t comprehend how the radio-transmitting speedometer worked. They all have the old-style clicking type. This place is an incredible time warp, clearly decades behind the rest of the world, and seemingly slipping further back (both on an absolute and a relative basis) every day. A guy at the water cooler gives me his investment proposal after the photo session - he is looking for western investors. I guess they don’t get too many through here; a poor velotourist will have to do. We shake hands, hug, drink vodka and exchange addresses. I have been laughing the whole time at their Black Sea Fleet shirts; though here in Ukraine they are the proud outfits of the once-proud Soviet Navy, at home they are usually what mimes wear. Can’t get over how pervasive the alcohol is. Seems to be about a third of all items sold in stores. Besides university on a Thursday night, I have never seen so many drunken people.

We stroll around Yalta, a city that was once the crown jewel of the USSR. It is now bleak by any standard of mine. I look in grocery stores for road food. Fatty, low quality meat fit for livestock in Canada is all that I see. One type of bread is available; 40,000 kupon (30 cents). This town, Alushta, has a feeling of November in a small, central Ontario cottage town long after the summer carnival has left. I order a soda and the kiosk owner pulls one from a box - never a cold one- sometimes wet, usually dusty. This place is stuck in the last century. Lena, the customs officer wooed by Alex, has a masters degree in computer science, but makes more money stamping passports. She is a crack-up. Incredibly sultry. She is married but goes out of her way to tell us that her husband lives far away and that they only see each other once a month. She loves to practice her English on us, also seeming to go out of her way to emphasize that her favorite words to practice are those in the “Romance” section of her English book. Then she asks us to meet her at the pool deck on the fanciest hotel in Yalta, where she meets us in the tiniest of bikinis. A battleship loaded with crates of oranges seems ludicrous in Sinop, but in Yalta, not such a misallocation of resources. Here, these items from the ship; oranges and fruit are luxury items to be sold in small quantities on street corners and from kiosks.

We mail a dozen postcards from the Hotel Yalta. Later, I found out that not one of them actually made it. I guess it was naive for us to hope for anything more. Someone on the inside has stolen the stamps and resold them, no doubt.

We were taken to Sergei’s home, fed what they had which was not much: Noodles and bread and tea and a few extras. Our daytime trip to the Lavidia Palace was guided by Sergei on his homemade bicycle. He shows us the 72 spokes he has drilled into each wheel. He has improvised to an incredible degree. It is as if he has heard of the mountain biking concept, but did not have any new gear, so he got his old stuff and a drill press and hacked it together to be thoroughly mountain bike-like. Crude, but nevertheless impressive. We wheel along a perfectly maintained trail cut into the hillside; hidden so we would never have found it ourselves. Great route. The $1 entrance fee to the Lavidia is hiked to $5 when they learn that we are foreign. This is the birthplace of the Cold War, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt carved up post-war Europe. Now it has definitely fallen from grace with its walls cracked and crumbling. Maybe they are headed for better days here, but it seems like no one really cares to fix anything. Seventy years without personal incentive to improve; this is how it all looks now.

We continue along the trail, Sergei leading us to a mock-castle cut into the hillside about seven km from town. It is an Italian restaurant. Go figure. I wonder if it’s authentic. Even we think it is expensive. Full of big-haired Kiev tourists. Who can possibly afford this?

At dinner Sergei presents us with a surprise. We’ve been grateful for his humble hospitality. We’ve been impressed with his 72-spoke bike, his outdoor chin-up bars, his drainpipe covered bike and his 32-tooth granny gear. We decide that we’ll pool together $60 for food and thanks; it is more than enough and the equivalent of two months salary. Oleg agrees. But we are shocked and disappointed when, before we can do so, Sergei presents us with a bill, annotated and itemized, for his hospitality, totaling $130- including a $20 “accompany” fee to the Lavidia palace. We are annoyed. Oleg is thoroughly embarrassed, though initially we suspect him of being in cahoots with Sergei. Clearly not. He is near tears; ashamed for himself and for his country. Alex and I confer on the waterfront, away from the melee, for some perspective. Naive, we agree, to think that our values of hospitality are universal, especially in this land of struggle. Poor Sergei, a starving massage therapist who, at 36, would do anything for a buck and clearly wants to move out of Mom’s place.

Oleg? We wonder. How long will he last? His dislike for cycling seems magnified around Sergei and Slava, the young cyclist with the mop of blond curly hair, a friend of Sergei’s who accompanied us out of Yalta on his bike. Though he spoke no English, we seriously considered swapping out Oleg and replacing him with the enthusiastic Slava. We fantasize about pulling him over to the side of the road, explaining the situation, giving him Slava’s bike and some money to make it home, then continuing on with Slava in his place. Oleg is obviously very much in love with Natasha and seems to be increasingly despondent now that he has spent time with her in Yalta. Damn shame that Oleg hates biking. Darn shame that he really is not an athlete of any sort. Doesn’t really get the pace thing. Or the anti-bonk. Or how to avoid dehydration. Concerned that all this exercise is bad for his heart. And that we will get weak because we don’t eat enough meat. Darn shame that he hates to translate. Darn shame that is the most negative guy I’ve ever met - obviously an incredible culture clash against our North American can-do, make-it-happen, work-hard, figure-it-out, lets-have-a-great-time attitudes. Not an evil guy in any sense of the word, but clearly an awful fit. Astrakhan, we think, for sure he’ll make it. After that, his fate is a tossup. Certainly no further than Tashkent.

Brandt is sick again. His frailness concerns us. These should be easy cycling days. Many, much more difficult days ahead. How can he possibly be sick after eight great days of bountiful rest? Tomorrow begins a change in topography, and a long, haul-ass ride to Astrakhan. We won’t need our granny gears for probably the next three weeks. There will be no mountains, and virtually no hills, until we are outside of Tashkent. We anticipate a struggle for sustenance. Taste buds will be dormant; survival intake for a very long time. Pickings are meager here now, and this is the tourist capital of Soviet Europe. Things will get much worse, we anticipate. Amid the grayness today came my first pangs of homesickness. A little longing for easy access to things I crave; like shopping in a normal grocery store. Ah, well. I didn’t come here for the food.

Tomorrow begins some real, cruising, long-haul riding.

Oleg didn't like us desecrating Lenin.

Three of us ride. Oleg and Brandt taxi out of Alushta. Strong. Stop at store while good looking woman tries to talk to us. Mafia husband stares at us from tinted window Volvo. Meet in Sudak on Bladk sea coast. Oleg loses his sleeping bag. “Doug, why you make joke me?” He spends night shivering in his clothes

Our last day of climbing for a very long time by the looks of it. Damn, damn, damn. I left my Swiss Army knife on the boardwalk yesterday in Alushta. Not a killer loss but a reminder of how a little stupidity can be magnified here. Normally I’d be able to shell out some cash and get another one, but here you simply can’t buy anything like it. Zero bike parts. Virtually no consumer goods - certainly nothing that is made within the former Soviet Union. They don’t seem to be able to make anything that people want, or much of anything for that matter.

We are camped right on the Black Sea, outside Sudak, at the end of a beach. It is really beautiful. I take a cold bath in the sea. A local cyclist hangs around our camp for a while, talking with Oleg, sitting on the beach as the sun sets. Now, as I write, Oleg is wandering around, in a daze, panicking about losing his sleeping bag. Oleg stands in one spot looking lost himself. Not searching. Not asking around. Damn. This could be a major setback for Oleg. He thinks I am playing a joke on him. “Doug. Why you make joke me. Joke not funny!” Reiterates, again, how a little problem turns into a big problem here. If it was North America we could find one in the next town. Or, worst case, I could call Mountain Equipment Co-Op and get them to Fed-Ex me a new one to the next town. Shit. I have no idea how we will get out of this one. Can get blankets for now, but that won’t cut it when we are in the Tien Shen or on the Karakoram Highway.

Brandt is collapsed in the long grass near our campsite. He called home today to consult his family doctor. He looks terrible: pale and listless. The remaining three of us (Oleg did not bike today) had a very strong day of biking. Alex, Nathan and I hammered. Eight days off, and right back into the climbing. My knees are fully healed and feeling stronger. Kept to Alex on the big climbs. Even Nathan, who struggled the last few days in Turkey, was keeping up with us and joining our pace line.

We stop to buy bread in a small farming village – like stepping back in time, until a new Volvo with tinted windows pulls up beside the same bread shop. We all stare shamelessly at the good-looking young woman that emerges. What a body! Her burly companion sugar-daddy glares at us. We keep staring. She starts talking to us, but gets ordered back in the car. Nice dress. I’m amazed that I’m aroused by the sight of an ankle. She is a strong looking woman, yet another potential Oleg replacement.

Begin as Brandt’s pacesetter at 15 km/hr. He’s hurting. Leave Crimea mountains for Alberta style plains and guys collecting hay on motorcycles. Oleg: “They collect this grass because of rabbits.” Leave Brandt at 20 km and break away with Alex. Strong again. Guy we meet in Sudak paces us until lunch in Fedosia. Dill pickles, ice cream and bread. Push final 25 km to small village. Woman at market houses us. Son killed at soccer match in Simeropal. She spends evening crying to us, reminding her of her son. Oleg weeps to himself at night, missing Natasha.

Oleg spent last night shivering, sleeping in his clothes, no sleeping bag, wrapped in a garbage bag and his neoprene booties. At least he is somewhat in his element. These people are professional sufferers, and damn good at it. Most Canadians would attempt to get out of it - very actively. I am convinced that the Ukrainians are actually comfortable suffering, that it is something in which they excel, that they feel virtually uncomfortable not suffering.

Oleg is sure we will be able to buy a replacement sleeping bag in the nearest “sportive store.” We later see how that fails to develop: zero stores sell them. Secondly, he never seems to get it into his schedule to actually arrive when the stores would have been open. He never has a back-up plan or stop-gap measure (like getting a blanket). Damn, sleeping in that Hefty® bag has got to get old.

Big change today. In terms of topography, it seems that we have left the Crimea. In a matter of five kilometers we saw the land change from steep, limestone peaks to rolling grasslands. We could be in southern Alberta were it not for the old guys in the 1945 style motorcycles and sidecars transporting hand cut bundles of grass stacked higher than a their head. Why? “Because of rabbits”, answers Oleg impatiently. Rabbits.

I begin the day as Brandt’s escort/ pacesetter, crawling at 15 km/h as he sweated it out. He is so hurting. Painfully slow speed. At the 20 kilometer mark I break away and started riding hard, the best I’ve felt yet. The local fellow from Sudak paces us until lunch in Fedosia. Alex and I have a kick-butt pace line into lunch. Very exciting. Another keen cyclist on ridiculously crappy gear. He marvels at our equipment. His granny gear maxes out as we climb. Another Oleg replacement? Will our patience with him be rewarded, or should we just swallow hard, be rash, and find a replacement now? When will Oleg pay dividends? Our guest rider stands and rocks his bike to keep up. We gorge on dill pickles, ice cream and bread for lunch. Just like my relatives in Timmins, Ontario, they do make some mighty impressive preserved pickles. Children and drunks lurk around us. We say goodbye to our Sudak companion, and continue towards Kerch.

I fall apart at the end of the day. Bonk. We’ve decided to push an extra 25 kilometers to this town, near Kerch. After leading strongly all day I ran out of gas on a 20 kilometers very slight incline. Bonk-a-tola. We hit town at dusk. It’s hot and humid here. The only food around is sold at a roadside row of covered tables, the village market. One of the market workers, a dye-blond woman in her 40s (but looked like in her 60s), has taken us in to her home for the night. It appears that her eldest son, about our age, was killed four months ago, shot while working as a security guard for a soccer team in Simferopol. Very awkward here, but sad. She has a shrine set up with photos and his personal effects, including his bloodstained shirt. She speaks quickly in Ukrainian, gets choked up, and begins weeping. We remind her of her son. She points at the picture, the shirt, and starts weeping again. She talks to us for minutes on end as if we could bring him back. Now we are nearly in tears. We want to console her but it is obviously awkward. Oleg is rude and even grumpier than usual. Our host talks to us for half an hour, crying, wildly gesticulating with her hands, obviously telling us about her son. We ask Oleg to translate. He sneers and says “This woman has nothing to say.” He is quiet, distant, and sad.