Author Topic: September 3, 1994: First cycling into Ukraine 11-country bicycling tour.  (Read 2969 times)

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Offline Westinghouse

Saturday September 3rd 1994. I woke early, ate a banana, packed, pushed the bike downhill directly onto the highway and pedaled for the border of Ukraine. I was soon at the border on highway 17. Getting across the border from Poland into Ukraine was a process involving seven stages. First, on the Polish side, the candidate had to present himself at an 8-ft by 4 ft shack where a guard dispensed a 1-in square piece of paper with a number on it. Second, the candidate had to conduct himself about 100 yards to a concrete building with an overhanging shed under which were three one lane roads for cars, each with its own guard shack with large Windows all the way around each one. At one guard shack a uniformed female guard asked about things should be declared and how much money the candidate carried in cash. If waved through from that point in the Inquisition, the candidate was permitted to advance upon stage 3 which entailed removing to yet another concrete building with a shed being managed by the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians were all uniformed government personnel. The fourth stage commenced inside the building where the man in the running had to show a passport, and stand interrogation from a guard who understood little English. They issued only 3-day Transit visas at the border at a cost of $15. If one filled out the application for the Visa and agreed to pay, he was privileged to enter upon the fifth stage of the negotiation which involved walking a few hundred feet to their Bank to make the necessary deposit. The bank accepted only two kinds of currency, Deutsche marks and American dollars. The sixth stage comprised walking back to the building with the shed to show the receipt for the $15. The 7th and last stage involved cycling about 1,000 ft up a hill to another small guard shack near the electrified fence at the border of Ukraine. A guard there asked more questions. What is your name? Where are you going? Why do you want to visit Ukraine? Where are you from? I explained that I had been given only a 3-day visa and that much more time would be needed to cycle through the country. He said that Visa extensions were available by applying to the bureau of police in any city that is a regional capital in Ukraine. Of course that Visa would cost more. He said that such a service is available only Monday through Friday. The border Police were competent, efficient, helpful and friendly. The last one even wished me good luck. When I told him I was from America he answered, "Ahhhhhh America." He said it in a whisper. It was obvious he wanted very much to live in America. Who could blame him for feeling that way after seeing Poland? There was a gate across the road with a narrow pedestrian path going around one end. That was my point of entry.

The western edge of Ukraine looked like the outside of a prison. On the border was a tall, metal, electrified fence. Beyond that fence was a clear strip of land about 100 ft wide. Another t-shaped barbed wire fence stood at the edge of the cleared strip. After that at first, Ukraine looked attractive. Large verdant green fields of Short Grass bordered both sides of the road. Cattle grazed lazily in the fields. Horse drawn wooden wagons hauled hay from the fields. Men hand-pushed bicycles loaded down with burlap sacks full of potatoes and other crops. In a short distance though came a perceptible decline in living standards, standards noticeably lower than in Poland. Side roads were dirty rutted muck holes. Buildings were dirtier and even more rundown looking. More human deformities were visible, adults and children with swollen infected limbs.

It was some time before a Ukrainian restaurant came into view. Hungry as hell and looking forward to a nice big nourishing meal with a small price tag, I had been in Eastern Europe long enough by that time to know that only the small price tag part of the fantasy would come true. But I was still permitting myself that singular delusion simply because it was so hard to shake that expectation after living 44 years in places where nice big nourishing meals were always taken for granted. The sickening smell was the first thing that distinguished that particular eatery as I entered it's small dark rectangular gloom. The place smelled putrid like rotting flesh or road carrying rotting in the sun. There must have been somewhere out of sight a big dead rotting animal hanging from a meat hook. The worn tile floor was covered in layers of ground in filth. The walls and tables look gloomy grimy and dank. A glass display case held a one foot in diameter round of cheese. On top of the cheese was a big hunk of rancid meat. There was no way in hell I would eat in that place. The few grimy characters standing at one small table looked more sinister than anyone pictured in the FBI flyers on the walls in American post offices. A small hardware store was in the same building in another room. I walked in to take a look. The few shelves contained a few small farming implements and a few jars of paint. Across the street was a drab gray one story elementary School. The children who filed out of that place were so clean and healthy looking they seemed incongruous to the entire setting. Their clothes were washed. Their hair and complexions were clean and clear. They presented something of a contrast to the rough, worn, soiled appearances of young and old alike in the rest of Eastern Europe. There was also a small food store connected with the restaurant building, but there was no sign of food anywhere.

I needed water and what better place to ask for it than there, or so I thought. Asking a woman behind the counter, she just shook her head no from side to side. Then a man appeared around the corner from a hall and motioned for me to follow him. He walked across the highway to a round Stone water well about 4 ft in diameter and 4 ft high. A inverted v-shaped wooden shed sheltered its opening. The man grabbed a galvanized metal bucket connected to a steel cable and dropped it into the well. He used a hand operated crank to pull the water filled bucket to the top. He filled my plastic water bottle with the cold clear liquid. I immediately popped in two iodine water purification tablets into the bottle and shook it vigorously. A mangy dog chained to a building near a house barked like crazy. Numerous Small potatoes lay on the concrete near the well. I thank the man and I took a photo and left.

Countless men and women were bent in stoop labor in the fields on both sides of the road. They carried their crops from the fields in push carts, and wheelbarrows and loaded onto old one speed bicycles. Life here was definitely a few steps down the ladder from Poland already.

Soon a small wooden roadside bistro offered another opportunity for food. Four men sat outside playing cards at a wooden table. I explained to them about being hungry and having only polish money, and asked them to sell me something to eat. The owner of the establishment invited me in and gave me bread, coffee, sausage, ketchup and a stiff drink of whiskey, all three of charge. Even there an old man and an old woman were bent in stoop labor in a small field of vegetables contiguous with the lot The bistro was on.

After a while more cycling down the road, after getting lost a few times, and after asking lots of directions, and cycling down a few gloomy back roads, I made my way into the city of Lviv. I had planned to avoid this metropolis of more than one and a half million people, but now it was the nearest regional capital for obtaining an extension on the 3-day transit Visa. I stopped for a haircut. The barber gave me a haircut, and then a shave with a hot towel treatment, both for about 20 cents. I gave him $2 which was damn good pay for a haircut and shave in that part of the world. Someone advised me to go to the hotel George on Ivan Franko Strasse to get in touch with the tourist office and the police. From there it was a matter of hand pushing the bike along the sidewalk. One distinguishing feature of Ukrainian people in general was that their everyday people looked like some of our worst down and outers in the United States. What we in the United States see in the most ragged, low-rent quarters was what was normal across the board in Ukraine, even in the uptown sections of major cities. People had that disheveled worn out appearance. There was plenty of body odor, as if most had not showered or bathed regularly, as if where they lived was bereft of water and soap. People were noticeably shorter than people in the West whose standards of sanitation and health are on a much higher plane.

A blonde-haired man about 5 ft and 8 in tall approached me on the sidewalk. The man was odd looking and he reeked of alcohol. His right eye was white and he was clearly blind in that eye. It appeared that at one time he had sustained serious injury to his head, for a considerable portion of his skull was covered in scar tissue where it had been crushed inwards. He asked something in German, so I told him in German that I was going to the hotel George. He said he would show me where it was, and he did. The hotel George had been a grand old hotel in its time, but now it was long past its Glory Days. Still it was quite an edifice for the likes of Ukraine. A blonde haired woman at the reception desk informed it would cost $46 to spend the night. The price was definitely out of line, so naturally I declined. She said the tourist and Visa services were around the corner at the police station and they would reopen on Monday. I thanked her for the information and left. As I turned to go I caught a glimpse of the old serpentine staircase leading to the dark upstairs hallway. The place must have been 8 or 10 stories high.

Back out on the sidewalk a chain smoking Ivan reiterated continuously about going to his house with him. Normally such an invitation would have been courteously received and readily enough accepted. ivan, however, had breath that smelled very strongly of alcohol, and his general demeanor was abnormal. He kept crowding me on the sidewalk, touching my arm and babbling over and over in broken English that we should go to his house. He must have repeated that 25 times. Knowing not to trust alcoholics, I looked for a way to avoid Ivan. There would be a more pleasant visit in Lviv without this man. So, I walked along, with Ivan nearby going on incessantly about going to his house, thinking of a polite way of extracting myself from the situation. I had already declined Ivan's invitations several times. He stopped at a street vendor for two bottles more of vodka and a few packs of cigarettes. The last thing I wanted to do my first night in Ukraine was stayi up all night swilling rot-gut alcohol with a chain smoking brain damaged alcoholic.

I saw a young man in dark dress pants and a white shirt. He had the look of an intelligent young man, so I said to him, "Hello, do you speak English?" He said he did, so we got to talking. I told him about this fellow Ivan, and asked the young man to tell Ivan that his invitation was not being received, and that I would seek other accommodations. The young man did that. Ivan said he understood and he left straight away. The man said that there are many hotels in Lviv, and when they find out a foreigner needs a room they charge 10 to 20 times as much as they charge Ukrainians. He said travelers in Ukraine are better off going to a person's home and offering a few dollars for a night's accommodation. Nine times out of 10 you will be offered a place to sleep. You are better off doing things in a less formal way in Ukraine, not the traditional. The fellow was nice enough to walk back through the center of town to show the location of some hotels. One hotel refused to take in foreigners. Another had no available rooms.

This fellow was a postgraduate student at the University of Physical Culture, physical fitness, in Lviv. He was 24 and had lived in the city for 7 years. He told me this much.  "Ukraine is very corrupt. We know that. The people wanted change, but there has been little change and it has come too slowly. Most Ukrainian people are not interested in physical fitness. The only change in Lviv after perestroika was the addition of a religious cloister near the University stadium. Under Gorbachev, people who had amassed savings were arrested and their savings were confiscated. While these people were imprisoned inflation increased at the rate of 3,000% and 4,000% per year. Later these people were released and their money was returned to them, but by then it was worthless. Young people are finding more work, but the elder people are being left out in the cold. Pensioners are paid $10 to $15 a month and get bread and milk only. But I believe that Ukraine is superior to the rest of the world, including the United States. I would like to visit the United States only temporarily." When I asked him where else he had been in the world besides Ukraine, he said he had been only to Russia and Kazakhstan.

He was living in a hostel near his university. He invited me to stay over there a few days. He seemed like a decent enough fellow, and it turned out he was at that. An hour of walking got us from the city center to the hostel. We carried the bike and panniers up four stories to his room. We had a cold shower in the first floor shower room. He prepared us a delicious dinner of fried eggs and salad. After dinner he invited over two of his friends to meet the American cyclist. One was Sergie, a patriot of the port city of Odessa on the black sea, and a champion boxer for Ukraine who had trained for 9 years. I did not get the name of the other man. They asked many questions. Where are you going in Ukraine? How long will it take? What routes do you plan to follow? What kind of work do you do in America? I answered these and many other questions. Everyone left after a while. We finally hit the sack around 2:00 a.m. . I could not sleep again, so I got up and took two sleeping tablets which pushed me over the edge around 4:00 a.m. .

Day 27 saw me 76 miles farther along than the day before. There was a passage through a seven stage process of leaving Poland and entering the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine where an even sharper decline in living standards soon became visible, standards worse by far than either in Czech or Poland, standards of which I was gradually growing more wary. Towns were dirtier. People looked rougher, less healthy and more soiled. Side streets in towns were often just muck trails, passable only by Jeep or mule. Buildings were smaller, grimier, more cracked and crumbling than anything visible from the hard top up to that time. The stench of poverty, of abject desperation was everywhere. The warnings given by the Polish cyclists, and the fact that I carried more money than most Ukrainians could hope to earn in 9 years were certainly not the more comforting. Quite the contrary, robbery and murder were both real concerns. Ukraine was a cash only economy. They wanted only Deutsche marks and American dollars. Everything else could go to hell. I had gotten into Lviv and made a friend who invited me to a hostel for a few days. There had been some recuperation from the illness contracted in Poland, so things were looking up once again.
« Last Edit: August 09, 2023, 09:46:27 am by Westinghouse »