It was a sunny and warm day when we left my grand-parents’ house in Kazimierz Dolny on the 26th of April. I’m glad it was, otherwise I think I would never have had the courage to go!
After two chaotic weeks back at home in France spent sorting out the last details for the trip, it had been lovely to arrive in Kazimierz and relax a few days before the departure. I love my grand-parents and I love being at their house, so when the time came to leave I was somehow sad as well as excited… I truly hope they stay healthy and fit while we’re gone!
We said our goodbyes, packed Babcia’s sandwiches, took some souvenir photos and finally hit the road, “just” one hour late… Ten minutes into the ride, one of the bolts used for tightening the seat-post broke as I tried to adjust the height of my saddle… Was it the bicycle gods trying to tell us that this was a bad idea? Or just a proof of my poor bike-building skills? I found a spare bolt in my tool-bag and saved myself the embarrassment of having to cycle back just half an hour after having left…
If you have been to Poland, then you probably know that it’s better to avoid being anywhere near Polish drivers, unless you have a death wish. So we decided to stay on the smaller and less frequented roads. The reason why they are less used is most certainly because you can’t drive on them unless you have a 4×4! I had planned a route before leaving but hadn’t really checked what kind of roads it would take us on… So from times to times the tarmac would suddenly end and transform into a small forest path, where we’d have to push the bikes in order to keep moving forward. Angela wasn’t impressed but the scenery was beautiful and the kamikaze drivers nowhere to be seen. This, combined with the potholes, the hilly terrain and a constant head wind, made the days a bit harder and longer than expected, but as I mentioned before the countryside was pretty and the cycling through deserted little villages enjoyable. And every evening we managed to find somewhere nice and cheap to stay at. One of the highlights in Poland was arriving and having a break on the very colourful centre square of Zamosc and seeing storks almost everywhere along the way. After three days of hard cycling we arrived at the Polish-Ukrainian border. The crossing was fairly smooth, although I didn’t really know what to answer when the Ukrainian border policewoman asked me why we are doing this trip on a bike and not with a car… Why indeed? After about three quarters of an hour our passports got stamped and we cycled into Ukraine, feeling sorry for the one kilometre-long queue of Ukrainians who were waiting to get into Poland on the other side of the road.
In Ukraine we adopted the same tactic and left the main road as soon as we got the chance. For the first time since we’d left, we felt like we’d passed the point of no return! We were in the Schengen zone no more, but it was also the fact that it felt a lot different. The Ukrainian countryside was a lot wilder and the villages further apart than in Poland. A lot of the time we had the impression that we were cycling through no-man’s land. The only similar thing was the state of the roads… The weather was still lovely and I truly enjoyed my first impressions of Ukraine. Every village, no matter how run-down, would have a stunning church, with a shiny colourful roof that would reflect the sunlight. Lviv was 90 km away and we were determined to get there on that first day. It was Friday and we wanted to spend the weekend there. So we pushed on in the head wind and in the afternoon decided to get back on the main road in order to gain some time. That road ended up being as bad as the small ones, but with more traffic and less fresh air! We eventually arrived in Lviv around six in the evening, where our Warmshowers host Slavik joined us and took us back to his nice little apartment in the city centre. We met his wife Oksana and his lovely little baby-girl, Sofia. We stayed three nights with them and had the most wonderful time. They showed us around the city and we talked about life, bikes and babies. It’s funny how people you have never met before can so quickly let you enter their lives, as if it was a natural thing to do, and how quickly you can befriend them. The wonders of travelling!
I really enjoyed Lviv. It was busy and lively and it reminded me of Bratislava a little bit, only slightly more rugged. But we had to carry on cycling and in the morning of the third day Slavik led us south out of the city towards the Carpathians Mountains. We cycled and talked for about twenty kilometres until it was time for him to turn around. As we watched him cycle back towards Lviv I felt genuinely sad and hopped that we would see him and his family again one day.
The small roads took us to the heart of the countryside again. Just as I started thinking that not many Ukrainian would return my nods or hellos, an older woman started talking to us in a mix of Ukrainian and Polish, wishing us good luck on our trip, then five minutes later another woman called us from her front gate and insisted on giving us something for the road, the reason being that I reminded her of one of her nephews. She invited me over inside the courtyard, gave me an empty two litres plastic bottle and started filling it up with warm fresh milk. What a legend!
That night we decided to try wild camping for the first time. Around seven in the evening we started looking for potential suitable spots and found one behind what looked like an old abandoned prison. We set up the tent and only afterwards noticed a terrible poo smell coming from the ground underneath. We moved the tent ten meters to the side and started cooking dinner. Bad luck stroke again when I noticed a small cut in the ground sheet of the tent. Feeling the ground underneath, I found a sharp piece of bottle glass! After dinner we curled up in our sleeping bags and within ten minutes my mattress was flat. After inspecting it I realised that the piece of glass had also ripped a hole in the mattress. I think at that point I sprung outside the tent, fell down on both my knees and screamed “whyyyyyyyyy????????????” with both my fists in the air. The ordeal wasn’t over… Just as we were falling asleep I heard voices outside the tent. Two people walked past on the small path that ran a few meters away from us. Maybe that spot wasn’t as quiet as I thought… With our hearts beating at a hundred miles an hour we tried not to think about people robbing or bum-raping us during darkness… No need to say it was impossible to fall asleep. On two more occasions during the middle of the night and we heard people walk past us, one time even flashing their flash-light on the tent. When morning came we had maybe managed to get thirty minutes of sleep. We got out of the tent, hugged each other and cried for about ten minutes in each other’s arms, wondering what the hell we were doing here in the middle of nowhere in Ukraine. We quickly packed our stuff and hit the road again. That was definitely the low point of the trip so far.
But the beauty of cycle touring is that as soon as you’re back on the saddle, spinning those wheels and breathing in the fresh morning air, then you forget all about your problems. All your worries are left behind and all you have to think about is what lies ahead of you. Very simple. After a night in Kalush and a night in Ivano-Frankivsk we finally arrived at the foot of the Carpathians Mountains. Seeing the snowy peaks in the distance from the road was exciting and after some fairly easy climbing following the river Prut, we arrived in the town of Yaremcha. I asked for directions to a place to stay in a bike-rental shop, but Ivanka, the very friendly and joyful girl working there, told me that it would be too hard for us to find. So she dealt with the remaining customers, locked up the shop and cycled with us to a guesthouse run by the owner of the rental place. Very nice of her. The next day of cycling took us through the lively little city of Vorochta and its ski-jumping hill then through a 990m pass, followed by a long downhill with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.
Just before reaching Verchovina we met Valery, an old Ukrainian cyclist who was going in the opposite direction and who was hoping to reach Hoverla, the highest peak in the Ukrainian Carpathians. In Verchovina we found a lovely guesthouse and decided to take a day off, mainly because it was snowing heavily when we woke up the next day. Following this recovery day we set off on what we thought would be our last day of cycling in Ukraine. It was raining and after twenty kilometres of downhill on terrible tarmac, we left the main road and started climbing towards the south on a muddy road. Progress was slow and slopes steep, but from times to times the sun would come out and reveal the most stunning views: isolated churches surrounded by green mountains and blue sky. Simply amazing. At the top of the 980m pass was a military check point. After our passports got checked the two guards started asking about our trip. When we told them that we were planning on sleeping in the next town before crossing over to Romania the next day, they looked at each other and smiled, telling us first that the border crossing was closed for renovation and then that there was nowhere to stay at in the next town… Great news. Feeling tired and depressed by the news (I think at that point I fell down on my knees again, screaming with both my fists in the air, but I was too tired to remember) we rolled into Seljatyn and asked around for accommodation. A group a men gathered in front of the city hall told us about a guesthouse run by a local lady, two kilometres back up the hill we had just come from. Eventually we found it and pretty much went straight to bed, feeling exhausted.
The next day we had no choice but to cycle back over the mountains and take the next main border crossing 80km east. The climb was steeper than the day before, with lots of switchbacks, and when we reached about 900m it became foggy and there was snow on the ground. We pushed forward but unfortunately Angela had to push her bike in the steeper sections of the climb since her knee had started hurting. By midday we had reached the top of the 1200m pass and after a well-deserved Snickers break we started the descent out of the clouds. We found a cheap hotel room in Storozynec in the evening before cycling the last thirty kilometres to the border the next morning. In total this detour made us lose almost two days. But looking back now it doesn’t bother me, as it took us to some parts of the Carpathians which were off the beaten tracks, still fairly wild and untouched, and it was definitely worth the efforts!
All in all starting in Poland and going to Ukraine might not have been the easiest start to the trip, jumping into the unknown with both feet so early, but it toughened us up quickly and gave us confidence for the months ahead of us. And at least we know that our bikes can survive the bad roads!
– The beautiful Carpathians
– Lviv and Slavik, our Warmshowers host
– Getting free milk from a random lady in a small Ukrainian village
– The Aliska milk spread: it’s like a liquid version of Krowki sweets, for those of you who know them
– The king-size Picnic and Snicker bars
– The crab- and mushroom-flavoured crisps
– The roads
– Our first wild camping attempt
– My sore bum
– Watching Russian music channels on Ukrainian TV: it’s like watching soft porn.
– Wear black if you want to blend in: Ukrainians in the countryside don’t seem to like colourful clothes. All they wear is black!
– Longest day: 97,7km (day 15)
– Highest day: 1180m (day 14)
– Hardest slope: 13% (day 15)
– Fastest downhill: 70km/h (day 1)
The rest of the photos are here!