“All this shit has to stop soon, or the post will get too damn long” – That’s what I thought about 3 days ago.
When I left Kharkiv 9 days ago I wasn’t trying to set any sort of personal record in smelly armpits, but a “few” obstacles have been thrown my way. Obstacles for me most of the time equals a short burst of rage (mostly as a small implosion) followed by a massive amount of stupid stubbornness. Which is the reason why I’m yet again in another bank, very hungry and very very smelly after a wet night with no sleep at a stadium in Kantemirovka.
I spent some time in Kharkiv trying to figure out where it would be safe to cross the border. Not a lot of people speak English, and most Ukrainians don’t want to talk about the war. But I did manage to meet Inna, who luckily was almost as big a computer nerd as me, so with her computer and language skills, she helped me plot a route into Russia and gave me her opinion about the conflict. Like most young people here, she thinks the whole thing is incredibly stupid, but not just because of the Russian Separatists invasion were the media has their focus, but because in war, no one is usually completely on the “right side“.
The Ukrainian army blew up a water refinery in the area her family lives and told the population there that it was the Russians, even though they could clearly see and hear where the cannon fire was coming from. I fit in quite well here, Ukrainians are very stubborn as well, which is why Inna’s family is still living in the conflict area.
- On a side note, if you’re a chocoholic and ever in Kharkiv, go to Imbirniy Pryanik and get a chocolate cake and what can only be described as choco-espresso. It was a tiny cup of hot chocolate that was so intense it requires a cautionary statement: Take SMALL sips.
Everything takes a couple of days.
Before I left, I wanted to send home a few things to valuable to throw out, and to unpractical to keep. The drone was one of them, it had to go. It may be a practical device by itself, but add a big ass controller, even bigger gimble + charger and the thing took up about 1/4 of all the space on my bike.
DHL was the first company that jumped into my mind, but it turned out I was lucky to get out of their greedy hands. 1. time I went there they wanted 5000 hryvnia’s (about 215 euros) to send it to Denmark. That was too much, so they told me “You can get 15 % off at happy hour between 10 – 12 tomorrow”.
I went back and it was all going great until their “We-don’t-like-money-representative” came out, looked me up and down, asked for my passport and calmly told me to take my money elsewhere. I was missing the appropriate stamp in my passport. So I went to another company that had big professional pictures of parcels plastered on the outside of their store, but when I asked the lady inside if they could ship my package to Denmark she looked as if I had asked her to tattoo my forehead – “Package? To Denmark? What do we look like a post office?”. So that I figured that was a no.
Finally, I stumbled onto what turned out to be Ukraine’s official postal service, a scruffy looking place with 3 extremely helpful babushka’s (grandmothers), I clearly wasn’t allowed to send all that electrical equipment without documentation, but the head babushka just laugh at the two others and signal “It’s ok”. So I manage to get my package to Denmark for 1022 hryvnia (about 44 euros). Later I found the missing stamp in my passport.
- Top tip no. 1: Learn how and what to maintain on your bicycle before you leave. (If I had to do it all over… I would… Well probably be just as unprepared as now. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a good tip.)
Alarm clock set to “canon fire”.
3 days after I left Kharkiv I woke up to a big KABOOM! I didn’t think much of it though and snoozed on, a little later another one. KABOOOOM! “Ok ok, time to get up… What the hell was that sound anyway?” – I crawled out of the tent and started packing it up when another even louder KABOOOOOOOM!!! sounded from behind me and a couple of seconds later a smaller one in the opposite direction of the first one – The direction I was cycling. Apparently, the Ukrainian army wakes up a bit earlier than me. I had just been awakened by cannon fire. I don’t know exactly what it was or what it’s called, but a guy I met later called Valery confirmed this wasn’t uncommon.
When you hear something like that it seems completely unreal – And that’s what it was to me, completely unreal, so I got on the bike and carried on.
Day 4 I woke up and was again low on funds but had just enough for 1 night in a hotel, the only problem was Starobil’s’k was close enough to the conflict area that the 2 city hotels were filled with soldiers. So instead of wasting money on hotels, I figured I would use the money on pizza and battle with Western Union the day after. But the pizzaman didn’t feel like making pizza’s, so he started talking to me instead (over google translate) and offered me a place to stay if I canceled my pizza order.
The pizzaman, Valery, was delightfully weird and very friendly. He lived on the outskirts of the city with a roomie, although he wasn’t as pretty as my last roomie, Maksim was definitely just as quirky and friendly as Valery.
Whenever I meet someone here, they feed me and want to offer me to stay over, which awesome! I have to remember to do the same if I’m ever in the same position. But I’m really not good at accepting gifts unless it’s a cool ass hat like the one in the picture (Thanks Valery and Maksim) – and I simply refuse to take money from anyone.
Top tip nr. 3 1/2: Never go into a bank in Ukraine, and never use Western Union if you can avoid it – Bring as many credit cards as possible when traveling.
The day after I again got told by some banker that the Western Union code wasn’t ready and I had to come back tomorrow. (Que stupid stubbornness).
Instead of solving the problem now, I quickly decided to just push through to Russia. I still had about 300 hryvnias, a little food and only about 120 kilometers to the border.
6th day on the road, waking up in another abandoned house – today I would reach Russia.
I’ve passed through a lot of checkpoints after Kiev and up to now I’ve just waved like an idiot at the guards and yelled at their barking dogs, but that changed quickly – I suddenly passed 3 checkpoints in only 40 kilometers and got stopped all 3 times.
You’re not supposed to film or take pictures at the checkpoints, but I had to have something so I put on my best “stupid danish tourist” face and left my GoPro on at one of them. They started pointing and asking about the camera straight away, so I jabbered on in Danish, English, and Russian and handed one of them the recording camera. He got very confused – so I took it back and turned it off while talking, laughing and smiling like I had just fired off a prize-winning fart.
On the way I picked up a cycle buddy called Devid, he had just cycled 20 kilometers to get food and beer. He pointed in the direction I was going and made the machine gun noises you would make at the age of 5. I tried explaining to him I would be turning off before all that, but it’s hard to get across with no common language, so he kept on shooting. To end I played him some music from my iPhone.
The last checkpoint I went through was filled with guys a couple of years older the ones I had when I was a sergeant myself. Ustum spoke English and told me he had been in Copenhagen in 2012 with the Ukrainian Philharmonic Orchestra – He hoped the war would be over soon, so he could go back to traveling with his clarinet, but he and his buddies thought it more likely that the Red Army would come thundering across the border at any moment. Their checkpoint was right next to the border so they often saw soldiers at night.
He told me I probably shouldn’t keep going south from here unless I had a tank in my backpack. There were mortar and machine-gun fire further on and the Russian Separatist would most likely tie my hands and throw me in a ditch. Luckily I this was my turn, so I hammered on in a very good mood and finished the trip down to the border off on a huuuuuuuge hill. Full speed all the with a new top speed of 57 km/h. The guy at the border looked at me and made an X with his arms and said “Закрыто!! – Go Milove..” – So now it was back up the hill in bad mood and loooow speed.
I passed Ustum again on my now 100-kilometer journey up to the border at Milove, and a couple of his buddies gave me a present, with the warning, “don’t show this at the Russian border“.
I went about 120 kilometers that day and camped 35 kilometers from Milove. This time the guards had a sense of humor and sent me through the checkpoint only to have a border guard do the same thing as before. “Закрыто! – Go to the border at Prosyane“. I went another 100 kilometers in total that day in the opposite direction of Volgograd.
Western Union: 1 Million – Walters: 2
Now, 8th day on the road, I was in Markivka without any food or money left.
- I spent about an hour in the queue in the first Ukrainian bank only to get the message “Western Union.. DA!… Ehh… Njet.. Go to Private Bank“.
- So I went to Private Bank and they said:”Code canceled“… What the fuuuuuu!!
- Calling Western Unions Ukrainian office gives you a guy that hangs up as soon as you utter a single English word, so 20 min. later in a library with horrible Wi-Fi, I was on the phone with The Walters Emergency Financial Fund (TWEFF for short = my parents).
- WU says to call the Danish number through Skype, I download Skype – It costs money and I have no money.
- Then they say, no no… That’s wrong calls us through Viper. I download Viper – It costs money and I have no money.
- So after arguing back and forth with these assholes through my parents for about an hour, TWEFF steps in and makes their own transfer.
Now it’s over – Everything went smoothly from here on.
Except… Leaving the library I realized I had left my bike under at the edge of a roof and it had started raining, so the water from the roof had washed my bicycle… And my gear…
When I went back to Private Bank. The same bank I visited the first time in Poltava, they gave me an empty Visa Debit card. So all I want now was Private Bank to transfer the money from the WU in Russain rubles or US dollars in my hand, or into that card. That’s it – Very very simple.
The Bank spent the first hour getting the WU code to work. They didn’t have any Russain rubles even though they were 14 kilometers from the border!! So the next hour they spent on getting the money into the Visa Debit card. They got as far as to… Hand it to me in cash?
I now sat there for another FULL HOUR watching 3 different dumb shits chat with the chief dumb shit on some bank intranet to figure out how to get the money INTO the Visa Debit card. After spending 5 hours on this I still had almost 7000 hryvnias I could only make paper planes out of in Russia. (Que stupid stubbornness). I snapped the card in half, left the bank and set out for the Russian border… For the 3. time!
I got the money changed at the border and everything went great. The end.
Only… It didn’t. I have a business visa for Russia so I can stay there for 3 months instead of 1 – but at the border, I said – “Look at me I’M A TOURIST!“. They said – “Go sit in passport control for 2 hours.“…
They finally let me leave and I get to Kantemirovka in Russia at about 22’oclock and find a dry spot at the local stadium. My sleeping bag is wet, I’m wet – and I CAN’T FALL ASLEEP. I lay there for from 22 at night till 7 in the morning not sleeping – Instead I lay there laughing as I go through the last 9 days in my head over and over again.
Top tip no. §5: If you only take one tip from following my trip to India let this be it. Fill whatever electrical device you have with audiobooks – A good story will blow away any frustration, cold weather or obstacle you come across. Audiobooks on a trip like this are like pouring liquid good mood into your ears.
The next morning I swooped into the bank and fixed everything in a jiffy.
Jebus… Only… It didn’t. The Bank in Kantemirovka just like the package girl in Kharkiv looked at me like I was out of my mind when I asked them to change Ukrainian hryvnia into Russian rubles – What did they look like… A bank?!
I had a silent resigned rageplotion in my face as the lady in the bank, so she found the one in charge. They talked for a bit and told me to come back at 13’oclock. I didn’t move, but sat in the bank 5 hours straight writing this and thinking “This is it… Now, these 9 days of lunacy is coming to an end.” – All while being interrupted twice by Russain police coming into the bank and finding me in a full room with about 50 people sitting in the corner, asking for “Papers”.
At 13’oclock… They showed me into a room where the local money troll had appaired. I was so tired and confused at the sight that greeted me inside this bank but could still feel something fishy was about to happen. I proudly showed her the few Russain sentences I knew and bent the truth a bit (through google translate) that my cards had been stolen and I hadn’t eaten for 2 days. This was easier than going through the whole story correctly and I hoped this would make her give me something resembling a fair deal.
She gave me 6000 rubles and took 3000 hryvnias and buggered off. 3000 hryvnia is worth a bit over 9000 rubles. I guess I should be happy, at least I got something.
Through all of this, I’m still convinced the more troublesome days are yet to come with the Russian winter.
As I’m laying here hype up on cola and cookies trying to keep awake to finish this I say:
Bring on the snow, I will melt it with pure unrelenting rage.