Short Escape to Ukraine. Day 2: The War Zone and the Sleeper down to Crimea

16h23, 22.03.2014: A cafe just off Tarasa Shevchenka Boulevard. Big old walk around town. Legs feel well utilised. Tried to follow a map, failed but meandered about enough to get an ok feel for the place. Nothing amazing but a nice enough place. Quite a bit of wealth, quite a bit of poverty, nice buildings, everybody seems happy and friendly. Some bloke tried to pull a scam on me that started off with him making out that he’s just found a roll of hundred dollar bills. Pull the other one Vlad.

Nothing abnormal looking about the town so was thinking that would be that, then turned the corner into what looked like ‘Main Street’ and came across The Barricades. The whole length was occupied with large tentage; loads of soldiers hanging about; shed loads of tyres piled up as some kind of defence; yoofs hanging around playing ball games in the street, thousands (no exaggeration) of Ukraine flags giving it the Blue and Yellow; bricks and mortar strewn around the place; people chopping wood to throw on the makeshift fires; merchandise trestle tables selling more flags, ribbons, caps, badges; and then what I think is a water cannon truck which must have been involved in the goings on weeks back, left there smashed in from the front at a jaunty angle like it’s going nowhere soon. But surrounding all of this, daily life and shopkeeping continues as normal. I snapped away happy that I’d come across a bit of what I was looking for and went away to find an overdose of caffeine. Two nights in a row on about 4-5 hours isn’t ideal.

18h30, Right, this stuff I didn’t see enough of on the news (BBC pictures from 19.02.2014). And I just didn’t expect that the aftermath would still be all around. I came back to where the action had been and explored further down into and around Independence Square, the part I originally found was only the start. Parts of the city are a war zone. The vibe is like the calm after the storm before the storm. I’ve left my main bag at the hostel but have no concern for any of the camera kit I’m carrying (famous last words) as with such shit having gone down, there seems to be a collective feeling of peace and good will hanging around the air. The soldiers are mostly sans weapons, they just chill, waiting. There’s a lot of people on their soap boxes telling others how it is and everybody seems to be in agreement: it’s not good. There’s a large pro-EU bit. There’s Christian leaders who seem to be rallying to keep others happy. There are thousands of flowers all around, where people have fallen. Sometimes there’s an outline of stones where a body would have been. There’s a large building headed ‘TicketsUA’ that’s been blown to fuck. There’s a tent city within the city as people stand by, unprepared for the next move. It seems as if people haven’t cleared up perhaps because they see it’s not over so why do a job twice. This city isn’t how it wants to be. Why can’t people just get along. I have another coffee and walk away from it all to go retrieve my main bag just as it becomes dark.

19h44, My sleeper is due to leave in 15 minutes. Found an outlet to catch a quick blast of power for the phone and laptop before I board. Quick look through my camera at the day’s phot. I think there’s some good ones in there. Shame I can’t get any uploaded until home (cleverly didn’t bring my CF card adapter, amateur). Really pleased with the day’s discoveries.

The train is due to arrive in Crimea at 09h42. I love long train journies. I guess I need to look ahead already to how/when I get back here if Simferopol Airport is on lock down. First thing I need to do as soon as I’m in tomorrow morning is to locate a car. Once I’ve got that I should be at liberty to be at liberty.

20h34, Boarded the train hassle free. Clean, tidy and the 3 others in my compartment seem fine and are behaving themselves, so far. I’ve ordered a coffee and a beer. Time for a read then sleep.

Short Escape to Ukraine. Day 1.1: Kiev for the Night

Modern airport, middle aged bloke with a hip Klitschko beanie hat, uninterestingly shaking hands with someone he’s introduced to in the currency exchange queue at the airport. Lots of neatly presented young women on their phones. Fat, grumpy, older women serving behind counters. Language may be a bit of an issue here, this isn’t like the rest of Europe where you can rely on the fact that everyone speaks a modicum of English. They don’t. I locate confirmation from Ukraine International Airlines that there will be no flight into Simferopol until April. So putting aside any forthcoming admin nonsense for a potential refund on that part of the flight and my hire car, am heading into Kiev. But I change up the £30 I had left in my wallet and move outside to locate the 322 into town.

18h46, 21.03.2014: Am on the bus. Clean straight road heading into central Kiev, about 45 minutes away. To all intents, just another prosperous eastern European city. Going to go straight to the railway station in the hope that I might be able to catch a sleeper south this evening or suss out what options there are. And surely someone there would know whether I’d be allowed into Crimea (‘Crim’ they pronounce it).

At the railway station I’m immediately accosted by various hawkers with alcoholic breath, I play hide and seek with them for a bit then queue at a ticket window after seeing that there’s a train that leaves tonight bound for Simferopol. After 20 minutes queueing I’m told by another fat grumpy lady that it’s sold out so I go down to the platform to see if I can just get on anyway. I once, maybe 1997, got a train all the way from Mumbai to Calcutta for free this way but no luck here. Every entrance to the train has a guard wearing a really large hat, indicating that they mean business so I retreat back upstairs for a ham and cheese roll (bonus: coriander), beer and a Bounty then queue for another twenty minutes for another fat and grumpy lady to see if I can get a ticket for tomorrow. With a bit of help from a kind woman who clocks the communication breakdown, I walk away a little later, ticket in hand. Looks like I’m going to Crimea after all. And this on the day that the BBC has as its headline: Putin Signs Crimea Annexation.

I haggle for a 40 hryvnia taxi (started at 100, thank you) to the Chillout Hostel not far away. Settle into a dorm, head to a 24 hour coffee shop for a couple of hours so find myself up until 03h20. The guy in the bunk below has obviously been placed there to test me.

Short Escape to Ukraine. Day 1: Get to Ukraine

12h50, I’m in the air and above the clouds already. Seatbelts off.

I booked this flight a fortnight ago. Yes I had just returned from the pub but at the time I wasn’t working and saw this as a little opportunity to do something different; to get me a mini-adventure. A UK to Ukraine return flight at less than £300 is money bloody well spent for someone who’s otherwise sitting around twiddling their thumbs/ jobhunting. In the two weeks since booking though, I’ve now got a couple of job offers – so all the more reason to make hay whilst the sun shines.

What’s the big idea? What kind of hay are you making? I’m not quite sure but I have my camera, I have this here laptop and I have intrigue and a want to just see what’s going on out here and share, if it is that I do chance upon anything of note. I also have a workout schedule of sorts to keep. London Marathon is only three weekends away and I keep getting emails from the charity I’m running for telling me that I’m supposed to be tapering. I’ve been tapering for about 6 months now. So shooting, typing, reading, exercise, travel. All good.

Woke up this morning to my phone (Google Now) telling me that the second leg of my flight was cancelled. That’s the Kiev to Simferopol bit which would take me into Crimea as originally intended. No surprise, but not what I wanted. First thoughts are to now have tonight out and about in Kiev, and speak to whoever I can about what would happen if tomorrow morning I took the train down to Crimea. Would I even be able to get in if I got down there? If the bloke at the gates is Russian then he’ll want me to have a visa, which I don’t have. So if I really cannot get into Crimea I’ll travel around as much as I can, maybe keeping close to the Black Sea, we’ll see, until I fly back next Weds 26th morning.

Preparation for a Bicycle Ride

From the evening of the Tues 23rd October through until the 10th of December, I’d been making notes, researching, and buying up kit. Now, what with this trip meaning me not working fora little while, I’m relatively budget. But I don’t want to skimp and then regret purchases or lack thereof when I’m halfway up a hill, cold, wet and lacking in morale. Planning and preparation as a preventative, right?

I’ve had a ScottUSA road bike that’s taken a load of pounding over the time I lived in London. I bought it from new in 2000, it’s good but I don’t trust it. I’ve recently replaced a wheel, there’s a small crack in the frame, so to make up for me blowing a bit on other kit, it’s currently on eBay. I just didn’t have confidence in it. So I needed a touring bike – did a bit of research and it seems to me that a touring bike is really just a road bike with panniers. There are a few that are renowned for the job, but the bargain I saw was a grand’s worth of a bike, which had had zero use as the guy I bought it off had recently come off his other bike twice in London so lost his confidence in cycling the city. One man´s loss is another man´s gain. £530 for a £1000 bike. Happy with that.

I came across what seems to be the site for cycle tourers: Crazy Guy On A  Bike, looking for a similar example as to what I was planning. There I found Julian who´d done a very similar route last summer. Couldn´t have been more helpful, we spoke on the phone for a few pointers and I even have his number in case I get into difficulties. Top guy. I love the kindness of strangers that the Internet can hold.

So Julian in turn told me about Warm Showers, the cyclist´s social network. You open your place up to other cyclists, and they´ll do the same for you. Works for me. Would be happy to have randoms come stay some day at my place, so signed up for that too.

Then once the majority of my kit was in place, I needed to give it a dry run, so on a Monday at the end of November I headed down to Brighton fully laden. 74 miles I think. Getting used to the weight of the bike, the pressure on your knees and relentless work on the quads was an eye opener. Have I bitten off more than I could chew? I revised my daily estimates and therefore timescales. 100 miles a day just wasn´t going to happen. I needed to knock some kgs off too, so out went the bladder (2 bottles should be fine) and out went the SLR and sundries. I wouldn´t have time to fanny about with that along the way anyway. So I reduced 25kg to about 20kg. But that 70 odd mile figure was still heavy going and to do that every day for up to 1300 miles: I have my work cut out.

Inspiration for a Bicycle Ride

A few weeks ago I went to the 3rd birthday party evening for EscapeTheCity.org (the only organisation I’ve ever invested in because what they do really chimes with me, look’em up). It was all good (apart from having to invest another £8 for a G&T!). Some of it I didn’t connect with so much but all of it was interesting and inspirational. The adventuring part rang loudest for me: The idea of setting yourself a challenge and just doing something adventurous, even something small so that it’s affordable in time and money. Like Alistair Humphries walking around the M25, something that’s a little unknown, perhaps risky, challenging but actually quite doable. If only you just take the first steps, the next ones are bound to follow.

Well, I’ve been a little weary of my current contract for some time, and have wanted to ‘do something different’ (as is Escape’s strap line) for some time. So there and then it clicked that what with the old man having recently moved out to Seville, and me having a bit of time out coming up, there was the perfect window of opportunity for me to do something: Cycle down to see him. Then even better, complete the ride by making it down to the Costa and hopping over to Maroc. Berkshire to Africa somehow sounding better than Wargrave to Seville.

So on the 11th of December after saying goodbye to the girls before they leave for South Africa for Xmas, I will get on my bike, and cycle. It should be about c.1,300 miles and I’ve warned my father that there’s every chance I might not make it in time for Boxmas. 1300/14=93 miles a day for 2 weeks solid. That’s not a small ask of myself. If I’m up to a week late, that could be 1300/21=62 miles a day. So as I go, I know that I need to be aiming for about a ton a day in order to then put miles in the bag.

I do however have this vision of finding myself stuck up a mountain in Spain on Christmas eve, dark, cold, lonely as a cloud, blizzard incoming, rear puncture being repaired, drivers covering me in slush, half my kit having been stolen or fallen off along the way. But that’s just not going to happen, is it.