Category Archives: 2011 Trip

Odessa to Yalta 14 – 26 September

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.

Yevgen, Keith & Elena in whisky heaven!

Yevgen, Keith & Elena in whisky heaven!

Brighton Mitre cycling club's representative in Ukraine.

Brighton Mitre cycling club’s representative in Ukraine.

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.

No danger of us starving in Ukraine.

No danger of us starving in Ukraine.

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?

Our vineyard 'hotel'.

Our vineyard ‘hotel’.

Not the most salubrious accommodation.

Not the most salubrious sleeping quarters.

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.

An overpriced memento.

An overpriced memento.

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.

Super-friendly members of Kherson cycling club.

Super-friendly members of Kherson cycling club.

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.

Soviet reminders in rural Crimea.

Soviet reminders in rural Crimea.

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.

Some tough climbs but with great views as a reward.

Some tough climbs but with great views as a reward.

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.

Cliff-top church.

A tiny cliff-top church.

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.

A camel at the top of the cable car above Yalta.

A camel at the top of the cable car above Yalta.

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.

The 'Big Three' at Livadia Palace.

The ‘Big Three’ at Livadia Palace.

Constanta to Odessa 29 August – 13 September

Disks, dogs, deltas and ‘Da Svedanya’ Danube!  It’s just over 5 months since we left London and we’ve covered 9200kms.  We’re currently in Odessa, but for a variety of reasons are about 45 days behind our initial schedule predictions, and our Russian visas’ expiry date draws ever nearer!

Oh dear!  After our hard efforts to claw back time lost waiting around for a new bike in Serbia, we then lost any gains we’d made in the black hole of Constanta.  I mean black hole in a good way – it was impossible to leave.

Constanta's Grand Casino

Constanta’s Grand Casino

The campsite, a few kilometres up the coast at Mamaia, was lovely, and more pertinently, full of lovely people.  We were determined to stay just one, perhaps two nights and then leave as soon as we’d caught up on our blog, but every night it seemed we had new neighbours, all of whom were engaging and interesting, and very multicultural….Germans, Austrians, Kiwis, Poles and Romanians all proved excellent company, and far too much of a good time was had.  We’re particularly grateful to Dorin, his wife Violetta and their friend Nikolai, who is an outstanding chef.  We’d spent our fourth night in the campsite and were determined to leave in the morning, but Dorin talked us into staying for lunch, and Nikolai’s fish soup was well worth staying for….as was Dorin’s home-distilled (52% alc by volume) palinka.  So….that turned into a long afternoon of eating, drinking, swimming in the sea and then more eating and drinking, and we stayed for a fifth night.  The next morning we met up with Nikolai in Constanta and took advantage of his local knowledge and generosity as he drove us to a really nice bike shop.  Shortly after we’d entered Romania, a small but stout stick had leapt up and bent the disk of our rear brake.  It wasn’t a show-stopper, but was rubbing persistently and we wanted to get it straightened out or get a new disk.  Unfortunately, it proved too buckled to be straightened out, and the shop (not surprisingly) didn’t have a 203mm (loaded-tandem-stopping) disk in stock, but they said they’d order one for us, if we could wait a few days for it.  We were desperate to get back on the road though, so Keith sweet-talked the owner into ordering it for us and then sending it to his friend in Tulcea, where we would be arriving in a few days time.  At last we were nearly ready to leave Constanta….after taking a quick look at a beautiful Roman mosaic.

Roman Mosaic

Roman Mosaic

And even better than the mosaic were the epitaphs on huge stone blocks displayed outside the mosaic museum, and which had been translated from Roman into Romanian and English.  Here are a couple.  I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I do.

“Salutation, passer-by! And also (salutation) to you!  You stopped, saying to yourself in your mind: who and where from is this one (who lies here)?  Listen, stranger, my homeland and my name: My place (of origin) before, was Hellada.  I was born [that means] by a mother from Athens and my father was coming from Hermione, and my name is Epiphania.  I saw many lands and sailed all over the sea, because my father, as well as my husband, were ship owners, whom, after death, I laid into the grave, with clean hands.  Really happy was my life before!  I was born among the muses and I shared the goods of wisdom.  As a woman, to women I gave much (help) to abandoned wives, being ruled by pious sentiments.  Also I much helped the one retained on the bed by suffering.  Because I well realized that mortals’ fate is not according to their piousness.

Hermogenes, the Acyrian and Tomitan, from the Oinopes tribe, full of gratitude to his wife, devoted [this monument], as remembrance.”

Funerary altar, Tomis (now Constanta), 2nd – 3rd century AD

“Andrys built this funerary monument, carved skilfully, for his deceased wife – Kyrille, to remember her outstanding wisdom she had in marriage and in life.  Devout deed was done only by the burial.  Because he knows that the memory of those who were before is flourishing for the mortals remaining.  (Also) he understood that time destroys everything, but retains this: the glory of the living and the virtue of those who are dead.”

Funerary epigram.  Tomis (now Constanta) 3rd – 4th century AD

Aren’t they good?  Anyhow, Roman epitaphs admired, all we had to do was pick up our kit from the campsite and say goodbye to the campsite dogs, who we’d developed a real bond with.  They did bark rather annoyingly through the night at intruders, but made up for it by being very playful and gentle during the day.  They also had the hilarious habit of stealing any shoes that were not placed inside your tent.  Under the flysheet was just not good enough.  I warned the other campers, but nevertheless awoke on at least two occasions to see random shoes and sandals strewn around the site, and bleary-eyed, hungover cycle-tourists trying to locate the missing half of their pair.  The boldest of the shoe-thieves was still just a pup: all soft, round belly and rolling puppy-gait.  She would follow us down to the beach and dig holes in the sand whilst we wifi’d, and would then sleep under our flysheet for the night.  There was also a shy, black, wire-haired terrier-type pup and a sandy coloured whippet-type who was the trio’s leader, and even though we never fed them, they would regularly sleep by our tent and trot along beside us as we went about our business.  It was hard to leave them.

Eventually we wrenched ourselves away and headed northwards up the Black Sea coast, past ruined castles and an old Roman port & town that had been abandoned when shifting sands made the port inaccessible.

The ancient port town of Histria.

The ancient port town of Histria.

The site was extensive and still being excavated, but we could almost hear the bustle of its hey-day as we walked through the maze-like remains of walls and foundations, deciding for our own amusement what each building’s role might have been.  Frustratingly, the curators hadn’t seen fit to explain, which is a shame, as with just a little bit of signage the place would burst into life.

Reaching Tulcea (pronounced Tuul-cha), we received a text from the Constanta bike shop to say that they couldn’t actually send the disk to Tulcea as agreed and could we come back to Constanta.  Needless to say, we said ‘no’.

At Tulcea, we had rejoined the Danube again, although it was unrecognisable from the little river we first saw in Donaueschingen.  It becomes a large delta that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to vast numbers of birds and other wildlife.  There are three main channels in the delta, and we took a ferry along the middle one to Sulina, the most easterly town in Romania, and, more importantly for us, the site of ‘kilometre zero’….the official end of the Danube.

Kilometre Zero

Kilometre Zero

You can just about make out the zero sign in the photo.  It’s on the far side of the canal above the Pino’s front saddle.  We would have liked to have cycled to the end, but there are no roads that go that far, so we had to haul the bike and baggage onto the ferry for the four hour journey.  Once in Sulina we could either return to Tulcea the next morning at 7am, after just 13 and a half hours (overnight)  in Sulina, or wait a further two days for the next ferry.  We decided to wait.

Black Sea beach life in Sulina.

Black Sea beach life in Sulina.

There’s no campsite in Sulina so we pitched on the beach with a few other tourists and made friends with the local dogs.  It was generally quite relaxing lazing on the beach with a small pack of happy hounds, but they did have one slightly annoying habit.  During the day they just milled around, doing the rounds to see who was cooking.  But come nightfall, it seemed that when a new tent arrived, one dog would be assigned to ‘guard’ it.  Your guard would sit beside your tent, leaning annoyingly on the flysheet at times, and then woof loudly (about 10cm from your ear) at any hint of an intruder, real or imagined.  This would goad all the other dogs into action and the whole pack would charge about barking until they were sure they’d seen off whatever threat they thought there was, and they’d then return to their respective tents to doze until 20 minutes later when one of them would think they’d caught scent of an intruder and the whole shebang would kick off again.  Gaaah!!!  I preferred the Constanta dogs.  Broken sleep aside, the beach was still a relaxing place to camp.  And having watched the sun set over the Atlantic coast many months ago, it was a nice counterpoint to watch the sun rise over the Black Sea.

Our trusty guard, snoozing before a night on duty.

Our trusty guard, snoozing before a night on duty.

In Sulina we celebrated the end of the Danube chapter of our trip by treating ourselves to a budget-breaking, but unmissable boat trip into the delta, which we shared with three Romanian tourists.  Our little boat nosed its way through increasingly narrow canals filled with frog-laden lilies, past marshland and reedbeds.  Then, after refuelling, our guide then steered us out into the open sea and to a newly formed sandbank where I was most uneasy as we were led from the boat and marched into a nesting area to see some chicks.  The other boat-goers were delighted but once we realised what was happening Keith and I hung back rather reluctantly and tried in our best combination of Romanian and miming to explain why we didn’t think we should be there.  At last we moved on though and on the way back to Sulina saw some pelicans, and a snake swimming in the water.

The delta was teeming with frogs.

The delta was teeming with frogs.

The Danube delta is home to the largest colony of pelicans outside Africa.

The Danube delta is home to the largest colony of pelicans outside Africa.

Take off!

Take off!

With our disk problem nagging away at us we did some research into trains and taxis from Tulcea to Constanta, and though frustrating, it would be possible for Keith to get a maxi-taxi (minibus thing) to Constanta to pick up the disk after we disembarked the ferry from Sulina….but it turned out the shop hadn’t even ordered it so we scrapped that idea and have ordered the disk (and a new rear rim as we’ve discovered some cracks in ours) from the stalwart JD Tandems who are posting it to a hostel in Sevastopol (Crimea)…..we now just have to get ourselves to Sevastopol on time and hope there isn’t another ‘Serbia/frame’ fiasco.

Getting bike parts wasn’t the only thing frustrating us.  Despite being able to see Ukraine from Sulina and Tulcea, when we finally got hold of a map (something we’d been trying to do throughout Romania) and looked into the matter properly, we discovered that you can only cross the border at Galati, a day’s ride back west from Tulcea, only to then have to ride all the way back east along the shoreline looking across at Tulcea and Sulina.

In the end we spent exactly three weeks in Romania, and loved almost every minute of it.  The royal welcome we received wherever we went was quite giddying and we spent much of each day with big smiles on our faces.  People went out of their way to help us whenever we were looking for maps, water or bike parts.  At one well-stop we were completely taken aback when a man jumped down from his cart and presented us with handfuls of plums and apples…a totally unexpected and spontaneous act of generosity.   We also really enjoyed the ease of wild camping and, of course, I adored all the stray dogs.  The only downsides were the heat and the amount of littering despite bins being placed every 20m or so along the roadside in villages.  And one particularly unpleasant incident caused me several days of impotent rage.  As we rode into a village I thought I could see a bizarre effigy hanging from a low tree, but as we drew closer I saw it was a dog, hanging loose-limbed and fly-black.  A piece of blue nylon twine was drawn around its neck.  This was no accident.  Some b*st*rd had deliberately strung it up.  Vengeful fantasies fuelled the next few days pedalling.  But I don’t want this isolated hateful incident to mar my memory of Romania, and would recommend it to anyone who likes cycling and camping….and dogs.

Eventually though, it was time to move on from Romania, and enter Ukraine…..via about 1500m of pot-holed Moldovan tarmac.  This double border crossing involves lots of waiting, exacerbated by the border guards’ well-practiced disinterest.  It took us a little over two hours to cover less than three kilometres….but I guess it could have been worse….and the guards, particularly the Ukrainian ones, looked somewhat dour so we put on our most pleasant, acquiescent faces and were patient.

We felt a little sad saying goodbye to the Danube.  Aside from our detour to Poland it had been a reassuring presence in our journey since mid-June, but it was exciting to reach Ukraine.  Although we spent a couple of weeks cycling from Lviv to Kiev in 2010, it was a completely different experience entering through a land border and this southern part of Ukraine feels very different to the western region we visited previously.  On our first trip, Ukrainian was the predominant language we encountered, with Russian only spoken by preference when we reached Kiev, but here on the Black Sea coast there is a notable Russian influence.  The adults we’ve spoken with have said, when asked, that they preferred to speak Russian, and some children we’ve met claim they cannot speak Ukrainian.  This surprised us as we understood Ukrainian to be the official  national language and the school teacher we had met on our first trip had told us that Russian was not taught in her school, only Ukrainian (with German and English as foreign languages).  But here on the coast we’ve met children who are taught both Russian and Ukrainian, and some, apparently, only Russian.

Another big difference, which feels especially apparent after three weeks of enthusiastic Romanian waves, smiles and greetings, is the way we’ve been for the most part ignored as we’ve pedalled through this part of Ukraine.  There’s been the odd toot and wave from a car driver, and we can still draw a crowd if we stop, particularly in Odessa, but we’ve ridden through entire villages and been completely blanked, people literally stare right through us with no flicker of emotion on their faces.  I don’t think it’s a sign of unfriendliness though, as whenever we’ve needed to ask for directions or water, people have been very helpful.  I think it’s just that more people are reserved here and keep their emotions to themselves.  We did however rouse one local’s emotions in a negative way when we thoughtlessly misused some water from a street-side well for rinsing a shirt when the well actually served the local houses with their drinking water requirements.  We’d done this a number of times in Romania and no-one had raised an eyebrow, but with hindsight I can understand that we should perhaps have tipped the water into a different bucket.  We apologised as best we could, to little avail and still feel quite upset about the whole incident.

A further difference has been the type of car.  In western Ukraine the roads were dominated by old Ladas & Volgas.  In the south, whilst there are still a number of old Ladas trundling around (many with jacked-up suspension, fake tiger-fur seat covers, after-market spoilers and ‘LADA’ proclaimed across the sunvisor – yay!), the majority of cars are newer and, like in Romania, include a fair amount of expensive brands, but oddly nearly no Romanian Dacias.

One thing that it isn’t different between western and southern Ukraine is the quality of the roads.  Without doubt Ukraine has the most crap roads of any country we’ve been to – both in the degree of crapness and the number of roads that are crap.  To be fair, there are some sections of good tarmac, but there are also miles and miles of pot-holes, gravel, and cracks.  Many roads see frequent HGV use and the tarmac has softened and then been pressed into huge folds by the weight of the trucks.  It’s not uncommon to see car-wide dirt trails on either side of the remnants of tarmac as drivers prefer to speed along on the dirt rather than wreck their suspension on the tarmac.  Or alternatively cars will weave across the road, picking their way as best they can on the least awful bits of tarmac.

With cars preferring the hardpacked dirt at the side of the road we had Ukraine's tarmac all to ourselves.

With cars preferring the hardpacked dirt at the side of the road we had Ukraine’s tarmac all to ourselves.

We’re currently in Odessa, which feels a very friendly and cosmopolitan place.  Unlike in the villages, people have been much more open about smiling at us, asking about the bike and taking photographs – all stuff that we like.