Mountain mayhem

Trip Start Jun 20, 2010
Trip End Nov 20, 2010

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Heading into the mountains
So first off i apologise that it has taken so long for me to update my blog. I have been trying to do it but when i have the time i don't have internet or power and when i do have internet and power i don't have time. I am attempting to catch up again so that my posts will actually be relevant to my current location (but realistically it probably won't happen). So since leaving L'viv I have had a couple of crazy days in the Carpathian mountains to get from the Ukraine to Romania. I have had to get over the  mountains to which has meant the first proper mountain passes of my trip. The mountains are amazing and I love them, I don't really know why it has taken me so long to get to some. As my GPS doesn't have any of the roads mapped for the Ukraine i decided to buy some maps to make sure i wouldn't get lost. I found a map in English which was pretty good however i had a plan and decided to ask the woman in the shop if they had one in cyrillic. She didn't speak English but luckily one of her colleagues did and was able to translate. As soon as she realised i was asking she looked very confused and couldn't understand why i wanted a cyrillic map even thought i couldn't speak or understand Ukrainian. There was however method in my madness as all the road signs are written in cyrillic so although i cant understand they key etc it makes navigating much easier. It worked really well and navigating was much easier although its quite hard to remember a place name when you cant say it. I ended up remembering either the first few or last few letters which is all right unless places have similar names then you look a bit silly when you end up in the wrong one. My navigation was going well and i managed to make it out of the city (without a map) pretty easily and made really good progress. I left late however i had soon done 70km and decided to find somewhere to camp for the night. I was on a busy main road however i noticed a little track going off to the left. I followed it and it came out to a perfect wild camping spot next to a massive river. The river split into lots of smaller torrents and had gravel beaches between. There was nice grass to pitch my tent and even fireplaces where other people had obviously had the same idea and just to make it more perfect the sun was setting bathing everything in a gorgeous golden light. After cooking my dinner i sat back and admired my days work on the map. I decided to find my exact camping location so i could mark it on my map. I was looking for a while however i couldn't find such a wide section of river next to the road. After a few minutes i spotted a piece of river that looked exactly like the river i was looking at, this is when it dawned on me. I had accidentally (due to not understanding the road signs and being a bit rusty at map reading) taken the wrong riverside road out of town (there were two next to each other) and done about 10 km following the wrong river, my good days work now didn't look so good, especially as i had to ride 20 km the next morning just to get back to where i thought i was.

Warning cowpats!
The best thing about crossing mountain passes is you never know what you will find in the next valley. The first mountain pass was a long climb up through the woods maybe 20 km with no houses and trees everywhere. When I got to the top i descended into a long valley lined with villages. Initially there were alpine meadows, the houses all had steep roofs and the haystacks had wooden hats to protect them from the snow. It was really pretty and the views were  stunning. As I got lower there was a continuous village along side the road. It was very cool watching people going about their daily business. I saw so many people it would have been
amazing to photograph but I don't like to take photos without asking and without being able to speak the language they don't really understand what you are asking so is arkward (also as it was all downhill and twisty i was having too much fun to stop). One quite strange thing in the Ukrainian mountain villages is that it seemed that the cows are allowed to walked themselves to and from their grazing (when it got towards the evening they all suddenly started to walk back up the valley back towards the village. They would wander along the side (or sometimes just down the middle) of the road, eating all the hedges and verges they go, occasionally they would start to eat a vegetable garden and (normally) an old women would come out with a stick or broom and start hitting the cows and (I'm assuming) shouting abuse in Ukrainian. Its a really nice sight and they all wear little bells so you get a lovely tinkling sound as they pass by. I encountered one such cow busy throwing a hissy fit in the middle of the road, I named this one "stroppy cow" it didn't want to move and just stared at people and cars as they tried to get round it, shaking it's head and stamping it's feet. 

A strange day in the mountains
My strangest day in the mountains started on a mountain pass with a event involving a half naked man and a van. It was probably the scariest thing which has happened to me so far on my trip  however I can't really go into any detail due to the un savory nature of the event. Despite this the views were stunning and round every corner they got better. When I finally reached the top I was relaxing when some French camper vans turned up, which was quite strange considering it was a mountain top in the Ukraine and i hardly seen any foreign cars. What was more unusual was that i had actually been overtaken by at least 10 French camper vans on separate occasions the day before. It seemed like too much of a coincidence, i said "bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?" (that's about as much as i can remember from French classes, but i was pleased) and typically being French they didn't speak even a word of English (French people are normally really bad at speaking English, and even if they can they don't want to) so i wasn't able to find out exactly what they were doing. Also being French, and as it was exactly 1 o'clock it was dinner time (if you drive in France you will know that at exactly 1 o'clock everyone will pull off the road for lunch and the service stations become packed with people demolishing baguettes and cheese in vast quantities). So, out came the tables in their camper vans along with a massive spread of food (they didn't offer me any, or a cup of tea which they didn't have to but its a poor show, British campers would right? especially given the fact i had just ridden up a brutal 850m mountain pass). I am pretty sure they were part of an organised holiday for really lazy people where you take your own camper van but all the routes and over night stops are organised. I don't know how many there were in total probably 15 but they went the same route as me for three days all the way up to the Romanian border and every time i would give them a wave. I think some of them found it quite funny (or thought i was crazy) as every time they saw me i was 50km and another mountain pass further along.

Czech out this village
The saw the next unusual thing at the end of one of these long mountain valleys. I came to a very long stung out village however it was odd as on the way i passes two Czech buses which  looked very out of place. It was an strange coincidence (especially as the village was very remote and right in the mountains) but i thought nothing more of it. A bit later i found a nice spot and was sitting eating my lunch when a guy with a backpack came over and said "hello". It turned out that he was also Czech but luckily spoke some English. He then explained to me that he was a tour guide off one of the buses. He said that this particular village was one of the most popular destinations for Czech and Slovak tourist as they have a story similar to Robin Hood (some guy who lives in the mountains and steals money from the rich to give to the poor, he did tell me the name but i can't remember) which is for some reason (i have no idea why although it is a really pretty spot)  is based in this tiny mountain village in the Ukraine. The story is not known by any other nationality meaning that virtually all the tourists in the area are all Czech and quite a few houses in surrounding villages are owned by Czech people. This is a shame as there are walking trails up all the mountains and they looked like they would be amazing, maybe I'll have to go back and do some hiking one day.  

A dead-end decision
From this village i intended to head across the mountains to the next valley which i would then follow down to the Romanian border which was a river between Romania and Ukraine. I went to attempt (unsuccessfully) to buy some still water from a small shop on the way and the guy was very helpful. He soon realised i was on a bike and saw that i was heading along the dirt road outside his shop towards the mountains. He didn't speak any English but i could tell that he was saying to me that the road was really bad and that he wouldn't take a bike down there. I often get this from people that don't normally ride and under estimate what a crazy Brit on a bike is capable of. I asked him if the road was the same as the road outside his shop the whole way and he confirmed it was for 10km and then it was paved. The road in question was dry dirt and strewn with small stones but fine for riding. I was confident it would be ok and it was only 10 km so pressed on. After a few kilometres through the tail end of the village (and also following many strange looks from the locals) i reached a point where i had to ford a small river. I managed to get my bike through without getting wet and continued up the road. I was a little worried that no cars, jeeps or lorries had been coming the other way, and all the vehicles i had seen along the side of the road were all pretty battered off roaders. After about 6 or 7 km i turned a corner to see that the road had obviously been swept into the river very recently and then rebuilt in true Ukrainian fashion. They had used drift wood stakes then piled stuff behind them to make a very precarious road which stuck out of the bank along the edge of the river. This would have been ok if it wasn't for the foot deep mud making riding impossible. It was hot, i was knackered and faced with one of the most frustrating decisions when  riding on your own. Do i plough on which is probably quite dangerous considering I'm on my own, no one else was using the road and risk a possibly lonely death injured by the side of the road or do the sensible thing and turn round and head back all the way i had come then ride even further down the other valley to get to Romania. Anyone who knows me knows that i don't give in easily and i like a challenge, that was why i found it very hard cycling back through the village seeing the same people looking at me coming the opposite way. They didn't say anything but in my mind they were all going "ha, i knew he wouldn't make it over the mountains that way". To add to my frustration none of the 5 or so small shops in the village sold still water. I ended up having to ask a young girl who i spotted getting buckets of water up from a well if i could steal a bucket full. Luckily she could understand me and even more luckily the water tasted pretty good and i didn't suffer any adverse consequences. 

An unusual campsite
This strange amazing and frustrating day ended with the most unusual campsite of my trip so far..... a petrol station forecourt. I hadn't intended staying there, in fact I didn't even ask. I had stopped at a fork in the road which happened to be next to a garage to check my map. The strangest thing about this petrol station was that there was a white limousine parked outside. This would stand out in most cities, so it was really very strange in a small Ukrainian village. I was half staring at this and half at my map when I noticed out the corner of my eye the garage attendant talking to a man. When I looked they waved me over and started talking to me in Ukrainian. The attendant was a large smiley woman dressed in overalls, who was very chirpy. The man she was talking to looked to be in his 50's, he had a very Ukrainian look with dark hair and a moustache (think a slightly older Borat), he was quite smartly dressed in a checked shirt. It was soon established that I didn't speak Ukrainian and they didn't speak English. Despite this they continued to look at my map and give me directions with the customary pointing and waving of arms. After a while they started asking questions, how old was I?, how far i had been? and where was I from? all the time very exited, interested and enthusiastic. I replied "England" the guy then wandered off and I continued trying to have a conversation with the attendant. Moments later he got out his phone, called someone, started talking Ukrainian then after a few seconds handed it to me. This was an unusual situation and i had no idea what i would come across on the other end (you have to be prepared for anything to happen at any time when you are travelling). I tentatively said "hello?" and a woman replied very politely in English. She explained that this was her father and he owned the garage (and presumably the limo). She also explained that she had studied English at university and apologised as she was no longer in the village because she was now living and working in Kiev. She then said "my father thinks you were trying to ask him something, and thought I might be able to help?" I explained that I wasn't really asking for anything and that her father was just really happy to meet someone who speaks English. I said that i was trying to tell her father that I might take the longer route as it was getting late and I needed to find somewhere to pitch my tent. "I'm sure my father can help you, put him back on" came the reply. He looked very happy at the thought he could help and a big beaming smile came across his face. The phone was passed back and forth a few more times so she could translate some of the questions they had wanted to ask. Each time the attendant would wait eagerly bouncing around anxiously (like a puppy) it was quite a funny conversation. After we had said farewell he took me over to a spot on the grass next to the petrol station fore court. "chi?" he said "kaffee?" signalling drinking. I said "chi, thanks" and he scurried off. I could see them both watching from time to time to check the progress of my tent erection, but when i looked they would pretend to be working or having a conversation. Not long after i had finished I heard footsteps and the owner appeared with a cup of tea and a pastry. He had a peak inside my tent, as if the tea was an excuse to be nosy. A few minutes later he was back with some polystyrene sheets he signalled that I could sleep on to make it more comfortable. A bit later the attendant sauntered over with her hands in her pockets to look at my tent and say hello, she looked around in a half interested way even though it was obvious it was the main reason she had come over. She also looked a bit sheepish because she knew she should really be working. She kept asking if i got cold, i think they thought i was mad for staying in a tent. I wasn't sure what to do about dinner, i had bought food cook and was really hungry but being a chemical engineer and having worked on an oil refinery i was a little worried about lighting my camping stove given the current location, so i decided to play it safe and have sandwiches instead. Later that evening i went for a pee in the petrol station, as i asked for the key they noticed i had a hat on (when its colder i tent to wear a hat in bed to stop my head getting cold in the drafts, i was wearing shorts as well so i guess it looked a bit odd to them). I got back to my tent and a few minutes later i heard foot steps and a "hello?" my tent was unzipped and i was passed a blanket, he said i could sleep in the petrol station if i wanted. I declined and said i was fine in my tent (although that would have made a good travel story). The Next morning i was greeted with a kettle full of hot water to make coffee. It was all really kind and they were so happy to be able to help me out and it reminded me that Ukrainian people are some of the nicest i have met.

Ukrainian Transport
One of the most interesting things and different things in the Ukraine is the transport. It is quite unique because there are still a lot of old Russian vehicles. As i am on the road all the time transport is one of the things i notice the most, the fact it is so different is probably why i found the Ukraine so interesting and different. I decided that i would take photos of some of the interesting vehicles that are common on the roads here. Partly for myself to remember my time on the Ukrainian road but also for my dad as i know that if here was here he would be continuously going, "wow look at that", and "oh look there's a Lada 2107 yada yada yada...." so hopefully these photos give a taste of Ukrainian transport. I have managed to get pictures of a lot of the main modes of transport, the retro yellow buses, the ubiquitous Lada's (many of which are adorned with roof racks carrying just about everything imaginable or modified and with tacky stick on graphics and spoilers). In the mountains everyone seems to own a massive old military style truck, they also seems to be able to use these trucks for just about anything, a favourite seemed to be driving them thought rivers to the gravel banks in the middle to scavenge for drift wood. There were a number of other old military vehicles that were common. I did managed to get a picture of the motorised wooden cart (but they are normally very under powered, or very overloaded or most commonly both and hence all you can see is a cloud of white smoke slowly moving along the road as the engine struggles to turn). Talking of smoke the logging trucks here are also rather special, they are very old huge 4x4 trucks and are normally seem struggling up a mountain roads bellowing out plumes of (really horrible tasting) black smoke and making a horrendous racket. There were quite a few people on bikes in the villages although often people could be seen using their bikes to carry heavy bags of produce back from their allotments. Lada's and square boxy cars are everywhere, which is quite interesting if you are not used to it as everyone sat in their car waiting looks like a really shifty villain out of a bond movie. I saw so many really cool pimped Lada's many of which had really stupid graphics along the top of the windows akin to rally cars. These usually read things like street fighter or chick magnet so were normally good for a laugh. Unfortunately most of the cool ones i saw whilst i was cycling so i didn't really manage to get photos of the really good ones (some actually looked pretty slick). There were lots of other unusual lorries, jeeps, horses and carts and tractors. Its a shame as this won't last for long as most of the new cars i saw where boring European ones so in a few years time I'm sure it will be a different story.

There's a border crossing here somewhere
The Romanian border crossing was very interesting. Firstly i had ridden about 400km over the mountains not even knowing if i was able to cross into Romania at my chosen point. I had met people at the hostel in L'viv who where getting the train to the same town, then walking across the border on foot, then getting on another train in Romania. I had assumed that i would be able to ride across and if they didn't like it i could always just walk and carry my bike. The day didn't start well as it was raining and i got really soaked. I finally got to the town where i thought the crossing was but was a bit surprised when there were no obvious sign posts and no obvious road to follow. I decided the crossing must be obvious so continued to the village next door which was about a kilometre away thinking the crossing must be there. As you have probably guess it wasn't and so an interesting few hour of intensely frustrating riding began. I asked one person they said "oh no, it's not in this village it's in the next door village". Then when i got the next door village i didn't the stupid think and decided to follow directions from a guy that stunk of vodka and couldn't speak a word of English, and found myself back in the other village. I went back and forward a couple of times each time the person i asked sent me in the opposite direction. I was getting really pissed off now and i decided that i would treat as i would a scientific experiment and ask three people then take an average of the answers. This actually worked and i gradually crept towards the right place. It turned out that i had been past the turning a few times but it was obscured by a statue and parked cars. Most of the people had been giving me the right directions (although some must have given me directions without even knowing themselves because they sent me to the wrong village). In most cases either i didn't understand what they meant or they couldn't explain (they had particular difficulty with the difference between a cross road and a roundabout and would just draw a circle for any turn). The border crossing was much better than expected. It was a proper border crossing (although very small) and even cars could use it, however most people were just walking over the border (mostly to work or to buy cheap vodka and cigarettes). Even though there wasn't much traffic there was still a queue as it was a thorough border crossing and the guards were checking under cars with torches, tapping roof panels and inspecting engine bays. The reason is that as the Ukraine isn't in the EU this crossing in basically the entry point to the EU from the east so the key border for drugs smugglers to get drugs across. Cigarettes and vodka are also really cheap in the Ukraine so people have a tendency to get carried away and fill their cars up. As i waited i got my passport out of my jacket and was a bit worried when i noticed it was pretty limp and had started to soak up water from the edges. I was even more worried when i noticed that my customs form (which was on a piece of the worst paper imaginable, like newspaper) had turned see through it was so wet. This is not a problem you would think, however i had a conversation in L'viv and found out that if you loose your customs form your in for an interesting crossing and a large fine as they really don't like it (luckily i kept mine but no one at the border had thought to mention this). I was now quite worried and envisaged sitting in the rain for hours as they decided how much money they wanted from me to cross. Surprisingly the customs officer was good humoured. He looked at me very sternly as he peeled the customs form from the laminated page of my passport to which it had stuck, he held it up in front of me and stared at me as if to ask "what on earth have you been doing?". He called his colleges over and then stuck it on another piece of paper to try and read what was written on it. He continued to ask me questions and tap away at his computer unaware that a lady customs officer had picked up my soggy customs form and was busy sticking it to his back (much as you would do when you are bored in a lesson at school). After a while he just said "transit?, Romania?" i said "yes" and he said "just go" as if he had given up doing it properly and keeping me in the rain any longer. I went back to my bike to find a couple of the customs police staring at it, "oh no, here we go" i thought. One of them spoke some English and asked me a few questions, i then showed him my cycle computer. As soon as he saw how far i had cycled a really funny astonished look came over his face, he couldn't believe it. I was very surprised at how nice they were and actually started joking round with them, a first for any border guards i have come across. The actual crossing was a pretty dodgy looking single lane bridge over the river. On the other side was the Romanian check post. As soon as they saw the British passport they took me to the front and got the one guy who could speak English. He was a very young smiley enthusiastic looking guy. He asked me if i had any cigarettes or alcohol, i replied "no" and that i don't think i would have got as far on my bike if i did" he laughed and straight away he said "ok, go" and that was it, what should have been the hardest border crossing yet was a breeze, it just goes to show you never be sure about anything when travelling.

First Impression of Romania
People give Romania a bad press. I discovered that most of the reason for this is that since joining the EU all the gypsies and uneducated people (chavs) have moved to other countries in Europe like England and Germany and basically go around causing havoc, stealing everything in sight and giving Romanian people a bad reputation. A local told me that they wouldn't dare steal things on home turf because if people find out the local mafia will be informed and they will presumably wake up next to a horses head or something along those lines. The people are actually really friendly something which i discovered within minutes of crossing the border. I had been so anxious about the border crossing, i hadn't thought how i would find out where the hostel i wanted to stay at was. I had no street map, and no GPS and it was late in the evening so the tourist office was closed. I cycled round a bit then decided i would revert to a travellers trick and asked a taxi driver as they normally know all the streets. I found one who knew where it was but his directions were "look for the red petrol station". As i expected this wasn't quite detailed enough and i soon found myself asking another taxi driver. He didn't know where it was and seemed quite upset at this fact. I showed him the exact address in the travel guide, he then went to another taxi driver and before i knew it there was a group, including a guy on a bike all chatting away in Romanian debating where this was. The guy on the bike spoke some English and noticed that the phone number was an orange mobile phone (they have orange in quite a lot of countries, not just the UK). He asked around and soon found a taxi driver with an orange phone (i guess it means you get free calls) next thing i know he was phoning the hostel to try and determine where it was. He came off the phone and spoke to the others in Romanian, there was a big sigh as they all realised where it was. The guy on the bike said, "ah ok, i know this place, you follow me?, i can take you there". This could have been a dodgy situation but i used my travellers instinct and decided to give it a go. It turned out that this guy was also a taxi driver but didn't have his own car so drove for a company (hence the bike). Luckily the hostel was close by and we soon reached it after a short conversation about where he learned English and football. I thanked the guy for showing me the way but he just seemed really happy to have a chance to practice his English. God knows how long i would have been searching if i had believed what people say about Romanian and not followed him so don't believe everything you hear, lets just hope the same goes for Bulgaria and Albania.

Key facts
I can't really remember these from a month ago so i will add them into a newer post but you can be sure that the number of mountain passes won't be zero any more!
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