Ode to Elena, our guardian angel in Odessa:
There once was a girl from Odessa
Who coped very well under pressure
When two cyclists she saw
Whose campsite was no more
She invited them home – God bless her
Once again, the kindness of strangers has made our trip especially memorable. We’d arrived in Odessa slightly unprepared with no guidebook or street map and no idea of what the city had to offer. We meandered around for a while, bought a street map from a newsagent kiosk but still couldn’t work out where the actual city centre was. There was no signage for either the centre or a tourist information office, so in the end we made our way to the main train station and tried to work things out from there…with little success. Our next step was to find a Macdonald’s and get logged on….surely there would be some info on the internet about things to see and cheap places to stay. We eventually established that there was a campsite called ‘Delphin’ about 13km out of town, so, as time was ticking along, we had a quick ride round what looked like the main streets of the city and then headed out along a busy highway to where ‘Delphin’ was marked on our street map. Unfortunately, when we got there, we discovered that the campsite had been closed down and turned into a car showroom. Damn! It was clear from our map that we’d be unlikely to find any wild camping opportunities for many kilometres, and in any case we’d wanted to get the computer charged, photos sorted out, the previous blog entry written up and posted, some research done for when we get to Russia, and, time permitting, also head back into Odessa to try again to find the sights. We enquired at a couple of nearby hotels which were expensive and had no wifi, and in the end, reluctantly paid for a beachside chalet, where at least we could wash ourselves and our clothes, plug the computer in and write up the blog if not post it. This was where we met our guardian angel, Elena, on her way home from a ride on her very nice SRAM-equipped Specialised Epic mountain bike, which we duly admired. She spoke excellent English so we chatted for ages and not only did she tell us about a nearby cafe that had free wifi but she also very kindly offered to meet us the next day to show us the best parts of Odessa. We said we had quite a lot of computer chores to do, but would text her and arrange to meet if we were going to have time to go into Odessa. As ever, our blog writing and photo sorting took far longer than anticipated, so at 3pm, we decided that we would not have time to see Odessa, but would quickly post the blog from the cafe and then ride off in search of a wild camp. We texted Elena to thank her and explain, and then whizzed over to the cafe, where, to our surprise, Elena was waiting for us. She said we should stay with her and her husband and son that night. They would show us the city and we could use their wifi. Of course, we said thank you very much and proceeded to have a wonderful evening. Odessa is gorgeous and somehow we’d totally failed to find the main tourist attractions as we’d ridden round aimlessly on our own the day before. It was so much nicer strolling the streets on a warm evening with a couple of locals, chatting about everything from Odessa’s history to bike components and mountain bike racing, to whisky tasting. Yevgen and Elena are members of a whisky club in Odessa and took us to see the tasting room which is lined with hundreds of bottles of rare, and not so rare, whiskies. If you’ve seen Keith’s whisky and spirit collection you’ll understand that we felt we’d found a pair of kindred spirits in Elena & Yevgen.
Back in their flat, after a delicious meal, the co-incidences kept coming. Yevgen told us that through his work he’d discovered that one of his British clients shared his interest in cycling so they exchanged a number of personal emails on that topic in addition to their business ones. The British client had then asked Yevgen for his home address, and a few days later a club jersey had arrived in the post. It was definitely one of those ‘small world’ moments for us when Yevgen went and changed into his Brighton Mitre Cycling Club jersey! Of course, as we left, Keith gave Yevgen his Bec C.C. jersey so he’ll have something tasteful to wear in future. 😉
It was with great reluctance that we left Elena and Yevgen’s and we hope very much that we can return their hospitality if they make it to the UK sometime.
Back on the busy Ukrainian roads, we gritted our teeth and made slow but steady progress towards Crimea. It has to be said it wasn’t the most enjoyable riding of our trip. There were some stretches of good tarmac with nice wide hard shoulders, but, sadly, there were also far too many kilometres of rippled, uneven tarmac, with little or no hard shoulder and a wearisome stream of cars, coaches and lorries. On the worst sections, the road was barely wide enough for two coaches to pass, and we were frequently in a battle of wills with six-axled juggernauts to hold our place on the road and not be squeezed onto the gravel strip at the side. Even with a fully functioning bike we wouldn’t have wanted to be forced into potholes too often, but we were acutely aware of the cracks in the rear rim that we’d spotted in Romania, and were trying to ride the bike as gently as possible until we could pick up the replacement in Sevastopol, still over 500kms away. At one point our map showed a minor road running parallel to the main road, so we escaped to that for a break from the constant roar of traffic and beep of horns, but after 15 kilometres of creeping cautiously along a broken stretch of crumbling concrete slabs we decided to take our chances with the lorries again. It would take us a long time to get to Russia at 10kph.
Travelling along main roads has also meant our camping opportunities have been a bit more restricted than we’d become used to in Romania. Ukraine is bursting with produce at this time of year, which not only increases the number of lorries on the road but also means that every lay-by and field entrance is filled with stalls selling everything from peppers and aubergines to honey, pickled mushrooms, wine and dried fish.
Sometimes there’d be just an elderly babushka sitting on a stool offering a bowl of grapes, and at other times we’d see a 200m stretch of stalls selling wholesale. It meant we never went short of fruit or veg, but did make it a bit frustrating trying to find somewhere to sneak off unobserved into a field at nightfall. On the night we left Odessa we thought we’d found a great spot to camp in a gap in a line of trees separating two fields of grapevines. It was a good half a kilometre back from the road so the roar of the traffic was reduced to a tolerably dull grumble and we were looking forward to a good night’s sleep. We’d pitched the tent as dusk fell, had finished cooking and were just about to lift the first forkful of food into our mouths when two men pushing bicycles appeared from further along the vineyard. We said good evening but they were evidently not pleased to see us. We eventually worked out they were security guards for the vineyard and were about to let their savage guard dogs out for the night. They said we must pack up and move immediately. B*gger. One guard went away and the other stayed while we gobbled down our meal. Conversation was limited due to linguistic incompatibility, but we offered him some bread, cheese and wine and that seemed to break the tension a bit. We dismantled the tent and repacked our bags and he escorted us out of the field, across the main road and into another field full of vines where he said there’d be no dogs and we could stay the night. We’d hoped to be able to pitch our tent again, but instead were led into a small metal hut containing two ancient beds, a table, an old stove and a chair. There was an awkward pause. We weren’t sure what was expected of us. The security guard motioned for us to be seated, so we perched nervously on the edge of one of the grubby, rickety beds, and tried to understand as he proceeded to address us at length, in rapid Russian, and in a tone of some seriousness. Oh dear, was this good or bad? Were we still in trouble? Finally understanding dawned. He was inviting us to spend the night in his hut provided we were gone by eight the next morning. This was not at all what we wanted, but what could we do?
It was a horrible little shed. Unlit and cramped, with two filthy, sagging mattresses, plus it was just a handful of metres from the noisy main road. But, it was an offer made in kindness (we hoped) and by someone who we didn’t want to get on the wrong side of, so we gritted our teeth, smiled our thanks, and got the vodka out to cement our new friendship. It seemed the best thing to do. A few more guards turned up, and we felt increasingly nervous about our belongings as they milled around smoking and talking amongst themselves, but at last they went to guard the vines and we were left to go to sleep. Well, perhaps not exactly to sleep under the circumstances, but we lay down to rest in our clothes, not touching the bedding any more than was necessary, and awaited the release of morning. There were scamperings and nibbling noises through the night causing us to repeatedly check our panniers for rodent damage, and then the wind began to blow, scattering some rain and disturbing the trees and bushes near the hut. It sounded like someone was walking round the outside, the metal walls distorting and magnifying sounds that we could have easily dismissed from the familiarity of our tent, but which caused some rather vivid and disorientating dreams when I did eventually drift into sleep. As morning dawned though, and we awoke to discover we hadn’t been robbed or murdered in our sleep, we felt a bit silly. It really had been a genuine offer of help, even if it hadn’t been one we’d particularly wanted. We have decided to try to be less mistrustful of people… and have removed fields of grapevines from our list of likely spots to pitch our tent.
Since leaving Odessa, we’ve noticed that more people are smiling at us and the Pino again, and the blank looks we received when we first entered Ukraine seem to have happened in a different country. Whenever we stop we attract the usual crowd of enquirers and photographers and we’ve got our bit of patter off to a tee now, helped by the purchase of a 1:3,750,0000 map of Europe and pointing to the total kilometres on our speedo. One question that causes us continuing problems though is ‘How much did the bike cost?’ We never know whether to tell the truth or not, and to be honest find the question a bit rude, particularly when it’s asked outright with no preamble or even a smile by way of greeting. We’ve taken to being a bit abrupt ourselves on those occasions, either feigning ignorance or acting outraged and telling them to look it up on the internet if they’re that bothered.
We’re also beginning to think we’re missing a trick by not charging for the hundreds of photos that people take of us. We realised this when I persuaded Keith to dip into our budget for 20 gryvnia (about £2) for a photo of me holding some kind of bird of prey near a tourist attraction, and the bird guy then tried to charge us 40 gryvnia because he’d (unilaterally) chosen to take extra pictures of the bird in different poses (sitting still and wings aloft). We refused to pay as we’d only agreed to 20 gryvnia, and now, every time we see a camera pointed our way, we grin and mentally add another 20 gryvnia to our budget. We reckon that even a very conservative estimate of two photos each day of our almost 6 month trip, at 20 gryvnia a time, would more than cover the cost of the new trailer and other unexpected expenses. And our landlord here in Yalta has just informed us that his friend saw us on Ukrainian TV yesterday! We have no idea how or when this happened. I only hope I was smiling and not looking grumpy because of the speeding juggernauts.
Anyhow, stardom aside, it’s always nicest when we meet people who are genuinely excited by and interested in our trip and we wished we could have stayed longer in Kherson where we met a whole bunch of enthusiastic cyclists from the local bike club. They were riding round the city raising awareness of their club (they’ve increased membership from 80 to 450 active members in the last year!) and spotted me guarding the bike outside a supermarket whilst Keith picked up a few bits and bobs for dinner. A solo cyclist had already stopped for a chat and had noticed the wheel of our trailer had punctured, so he had insisted on helping me fix it, when six or seven other riders appeared and began enthusiastically asking questions, taking pictures, and also joining in with helping to fix the puncture. They were a great bunch and I was given a load of reflective strips to put on the trailer and really enjoyed chatting to them, and was very sorry not to be able to take them up on their offer of going for a coffee with them…but we really wanted to get some more kilometres done, and in any case Keith was still shopping.
After they left, I thought briefly of checking that the trailer wheel was fully pumped up and properly seated in the dropouts, but then someone else came over to admire the bike, and then someone else, and I was trying to return the tools to their proper place and make sure all maps and things were accounted for, so what with one thing and another I forgot, and then Keith came out of the shop and we started packing food away, and then another group of riders from the same club came over so we had the whole Q&A and photo session again and even got an escort out of town to make sure we got on the right road (have I mentioned Ukraine doesn’t go in for useful signage that often? Loads of info about which hotel or shop might be down a particular street, but very little about which towns you might come to). We left Kherson with happy smiles on our faces until about 5km down the road when we went over a bump in the tarmac and the trailer wheel was jettisoned from the dropouts. For once there wasn’t a juggernaut on our tail so thankfully the wheel wasn’t run over by anything, but the mudguard is now totally bent out of shape and the reflector is pointing skywards. I was cross with myself for having failed to check it had been replaced properly by the multitude of helpers, and Keith was furious with whoever hadn’t tightened up the skewer properly.
Of course, no-one intended the mistake and we just had to learn from it and then put it behind us, which is what we did, helped in no small manner by the following day’s tandem-maintenance challenge which made a detached trailer wheel seem small beans.
Our bike’s rear wheel, which had begun to develop a series of small cracks back in Romania, was not lasting as well as we’d hoped. With 200km to go to Sevastopol, we decided that the cracks were just too severe to continue safely. We came to this decision rather inconveniently one evening whilst camping in a nice field about 10km from the nearest town. So the next morning we decided to try hitching.
I’ve never hitched before and was a bit worried about the whole thing…not to mention a little sceptical that anyone in their right mind would stop for a pair of grubby cyclists with a large tandem & trailer. Sure enough, after an hour, during which two people had stopped, but only to take us not our gear, we gave up on that plan and rode gingerly back to the town to enquire about trains.
The train to Sevastopol departed just once a day, first thing in the morning, so of course it was too late for that day, and we couldn’t understand whether it would be possible to take the bike on board or not, so we went to the bus station, to be told that it would be at the driver’s discretion whether or not we could take the tandem on the bus. It was another couple of hours until the Sevastopol bus was due, so we had some lunch and watched other buses come and go. None of them looked very big and we seriously doubted whether the Pino would fit into the luggage compartment, even if dismantled. So we decided to give up on the bus and give hitching another go, after first procuring a piece of cardboard and a marker pen from a market-stall holder to write up a sign, and also having a nice chat with some kids, one of whom spoke English and phoned her dad who then called his mates to see if they who could help us…unfortunately no-one could, but it was very decent of him to call round. So, we headed back towards the road…just in time to see passengers boarding an enormous coach with Sevastopol marked on the front. Oh my god, that was our bus….and there was every chance that the Pino would fit after all….if we could persuade the driver to take us AND buy tickets, AND dismantle and load the tandem in the four minutes remaining before its scheduled departure time. Oh, and of course we actually had to locate the driver first.
I don’t know how we managed it, but Keith found and sweet-talked the driver, I sprinted into the ticket hall and bought tickets, and we had the bike dismantled and loaded in nine minutes flat….by which point the other passengers were getting quite vocal about the five minute delay to their departure, but we just brazened it out and then flopped with relief into our seats. Although disappointed that we’d not made it under our own steam, part of me was really quite glad we wouldn’t be spending the next two days battling with the lorries on the busy and increasingly hilly road, and just over four hours later we were re-assembling the Pino amidst some bemused onlookers at Sevastopol bus station. Unfortunately, the bus drove off before we could thank the driver properly for having let us on in the first place. However, we’d made it to Sevastopol, two days ahead of schedule, and with any luck our new rim would be arriving the following morning.
Yuri, the hostel owner, was a total star, and found us an apartment next door to his hostel to accommodate us for the first night (due to our rather early and unexpected arrival on his doorstep), and then the next day at 10am, as we prepared to switch to the hostel, he presented us with our package from JD Tandems, which contained a new rim, new brake disk and a few other bits & pieces …yippee!
The hostel was jam-packed, and we met some really interesting characters, including Jim, an energetic 78 year old American who used to teach history, and loves travelling but unfortunately has to do it alone these days as his wife’s no longer up to it, and Leo a Moravian-born artist currently living in Amsterdam who was sick of the dismal Northern European summer so had headed south for sunnier inspiration.
Keith rebuilt the wheel and we then had a quick trot round Sevastopol (very elegant and airy) before hitting the road again, this time thankfully with rather fewer juggernauts, but unfortunately rather more hills.
The south coast of Crimea is a stunning contrast to the pancake-flat fields and scrubland of the north. Limestone crags soar up to 1500m above the Black Sea and the road winds its way from one stunning vista to another. It was not easy riding but at least all the various delays to our journey meant we were doing it in rather more manageable 20 to 25oC instead of the 35+ of a few weeks ago. And where there’s an up there’s often a down, so we enjoyed a swooping 5km descent on an excellent road into Balaclava where our map indicated a campsite, which turned out to be closed as the main tourist season is over, so we had to turn around and ride back up out of the valley in search of a wild camp before darkness fell. Thankfully the road out didn’t climb as far as the one we’d come in on, and we found a great site, well-hidden from the road and overlooking a valley very close to the infamous ‘Valley of Death’ where the Light Brigade made their ill-fated charge.
The next day we rolled back down to Balaclava and made friends with some North Americans on a Black Sea cruise who let us join their guided tour of the secret cold war nuclear submarine base. It was an unnerving, eerie feeling to walk along a dimly-lit passage beside the still, black surface of the submarine canal. The guide told us a rather unbelievable story of two neighbours who’d worked in adjacent areas at the site for 25 years, but because of the strict secrecy rules, neither had realised the other also worked there.
We strolled back to the tour group’s bus with them, and were astonished and delighted to recognise the bus driver from our journey to Sevastopol. It was great to get to thank him properly and he seemed pleased enough to see us too, so hopefully hadn’t been too frustrated by the delay and hassle we’d caused him.
As well as being dramatically beautiful, the south coast of Crimea is rich in interesting buildings and historical sites. We were mindful of our Russian visas ticking away and our severely dented budget but still couldn’t resist a trip up a cable-car to the high plateau of Mount Ay Petri (actually it turned out to be a rather disappointing tourist-trap at the top, with the only redeeming feature being of a close-up view of some Bactrian camels which were available for rides) and we also indulged in a quick sprint round Livadia Palace near Yalta, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt signed the deal that carved up Europe at the end of the war. We then decided to spend a couple of days in Yalta catching up on a few chores and enjoying the laid-back vibe on the seafront promenade.