Month 2: Poland – Ukraine – Russia

Setting off from Berlin Schönefeld airport alone felt like the end of a holiday. I had been travelling for a month together with Lauren in countries we had both been to before. Now it was the opposite, I am travelling alone to countries I have never been.

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Last campsite in Germany

Poland – 15th – 22nd May

The morning after leaving the airport I crossed into Poland. The landscape was familiar; flat plains, farmland and forests, quiet villages and busy towns. With a few subtle differences; almost no windfarms, which were common place in Germany, unpaved backroads making picking a quite route a bit more of a gamble. It was also where the people stopped to stare with an expression of what the hell is this guy doing? Probably due to bike touring being less common in Poland than the countries I had recently come through, making me much more of a novelty.

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Poznan Roubaix

It was strange, I had thought about cycling the world on my own for a long time. Now that it was underway, I felt like the same old me and not the heroic grizzled traveller I had pictured, while day dreaming on those boring afternoons sat in the office. It was all really happening, there is no safety net anymore, even though home is only a phone call away. I have set myself a goal of making it to Russia in time for the World Cup, now I just have to do it.

My route to Russia had been undecided until midway through Germany. I had to get to Warsaw, to collect my fan ID (the laminated document that allows visa free entry to Russia, access to stadiums, and must be worn during all matches to allow easy identification of any troublemakers). After this I could follow a northern route through Latvia and Lithuania to Moscow, leave my bike there and travel to the matches by train, or bear south-east for Ukraine and head directly to Volgograd for England’s first match. The first option would be easier; less cycling, better roads, and less hassle in Russia. Everything seemed pretty set. Then, after watching the Liverpool vs Roma match I decided to have a look where the Champions League Final would be taking place. Once I saw where it was the plan changed, I was heading to Kiev. It had to be a sign, on my way to watch the most important competition in football, I was also so close to the city which was holding the final of the biggest club competition, even better, an English team had made it to the final.

There were pros and cons of making it to Kiev by the 26th May. I was going to have to cycle quite a way to get there in time for the match, but I would be there for the match. I would also have made the next stint through Eastern Ukraine into Russia a lot more relaxed with more time to do what I wanted.

The day after crossing the German – Polish border I stayed with Pawel and Patricia in Poznan. Having both just returned from a big trip in South America, they knew exactly what I needed; a wash, a lot of food, and a beer. After a few days on my own, chatting only occasionally to people cycling between villages or outside shops, it was nice to talk about football and cycling. Pawel also helped me with some useful Polish phrases.

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Patricia and Pawel

My days cycling went from roughly 60km to 100km a day, with my longest day so far coming in at 162km on Friday 17th May from Szetlew to Nieborow, which was also through a rainstorm. It was not the best day in terms of cycling, but I had put myself within striking distance of Warsaw to get to the Visa Office before it shut for the weekend. If I didn’t make it before it shut, it ended my chances of making it to Kiev the next Saturday for the match.

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Moody scenes in Pyzdry, Poland

In Warsaw, once I’d collected my Fan ID, I stayed with Tadek, a host I met on WarmShowers. Tadek is a former chef who worked on the canal boat through the wine regions of France. After slogging it through the last week, I had decided I deserved a day off to recover before another big week to Kiev. Tadek and I thought it would be nice to go for a short roll around the city centre. This turned into a 40km tour around the various monuments, old/rebuilt town centre and the newer embankment. There is still a lot of issues regarding ownership of buildings in Warsaw, with disputes dating back to World War II and the Communist period. This resulted in a lack of investment as it’s unclear if you’ll benefit from spending when the building may be taken away by the courts.

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Central Warsaw

Later we headed to a BBQ at his friend Anna’s Dacha/allotment, in a suburb of Warsaw. Fortunately Anna’s husband Sebastian is a big football fan, particularly of Legia Warsaw, and so he arranged to watch the FA Cup final on a tablet while we enjoyed a few beers.

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Dacha – Similar to an allotment but also includes a building

More than a few beers later, and after watching the German Cup final, which my new friend Max’s team lost. Tadek and I decided to call it a night and cycle back across Warsaw, slightly more worse for wear than the ride here. Reminder, always wear a helmet. Tadek had a slow motion crash on the way home. To recover from this ordeal we had some traditional Polish food, some sort of pork gelatin and a herring gelatin products.

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Jellied Pig’s Trotters
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Cycling out of Warsaw with Tadek and a hangover

After this nice break, it was back to cycling. The Ukrainian border was looming ahead which meant another new country, language, alphabet and currency. I was very excited about the progress I was making but I was also very aware of the situation in Donesk and Lugansk where the fighting between the Ukrainian Government and Russian backed separatists is ongoing. My planned route to Kharkiv would take me close to these regions and as I pedalled closer to the border I imagined different scenarios where my route ran straight through the fighting, or that I would be denied access at the Russian Border for visiting Ukraine.

On my last day in Poland I was treated to some amazing Polish hospitality, not once but twice. First, when stopping at a Sklep to buy an ice cream to supplement my lunch of leftovers, the owner treated me to a lunch of bread, ham, cheese, radish and coffee, I wanted to buy a beer to have on my last night in Poland and use up my remaining Zloty – but was quickly told to put my money away and take the beer.

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Gift from the Sklep owner

That evening I stopped to ask for water before looking for a spot to camp in the village of Sawin. That’s when I met Wojciech and Marta who invited me in to their home. I was presented with a big plate of food, a shower and a place to sleep. Wojciech runs an ice cream business but is a former Polish border guard. He phoned ahead to confirm that bicycles could indeed cross where I planned to go the next day.  Wojciech and Marta were concerned about my heading to Ukraine, with the advice to be careful as there are a lot of thieves over there, though for some reason this eased my worries – this is standard advice for neighbouring countries and at least they didn’t tell me to avoid it completely as it is a war zone.

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Feast generously provided by Wojciech and Marta

Ukraine – 22nd May – 4th June

The next day brought the first physical border control since arriving in France, after a month of rolling unhindered from one EU country to another. The Polish guards were friendly and chatted away in English, wishing me luck on my way to Russia. The Ukrainians were a bit more suspicious, though decided after a bit of a wait that even though bikes weren’t allowed through they would make an exception.

If Poland looked similar to the flatland’s of northern Germany but less developed by a good 10 years then entering Ukraine was like going back another 10 years. As with so much it comes down to money, Poland has benefited from being part of the EU and emerged from the financial crises as one of the faster growing EU economies. Ukraine has had years of political upheaval and is an unwilling participant in a tug of war between the EU and Russia.

The first Ukrainian I met was on the road between the border and Kovel, the first town of any size. Sacha was trying to bump start his car, pushing down a slight descent then running to jump in and start the engine. I stopped to help push and after the first 3 failed attempts I started to realise that Sacha had probably had far more than the recommended alcohol intake. I ran 500 metres back up the hill to get my bike and leave him to it, hoping that he wouldn’t get it going and knock me over from behind. Fortunately for Sacha and potentially unfortunately for the other road users, a van had stopped to provide a tow, and an hour later I saw Sacha driving down the road toward me smiling and waving like crazy.

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Sacha being towed away
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First morning in Ukraine

My route to Kiev was slightly uninspiring, I had 5 days to reach Kiev in time for the final and I had to cycle around 500km on the same straight road.

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One road for 5 days

There were vast areas of forest, followed by vast fields of wheat, and the occasional village with a brightly painted Orthodox Church. Camping in Ukraine involved a lot more wildlife than previous places, swarms of mosquitoes faced in Germany and Poland turned into a dense cloud, but also lots of others insects and a few lizards were around. This is probably due to cycling later into the evenings as well as the possible less use of pesticides.

The Ukrainians I met along the way were all very friendly, exchanging numbers and promising to help any time if I got into trouble.

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Pasha and his mates off cycling who I met on the way into Kiev

On my way to Kiev I checked online for tickets for the final; Liverpool vs. Real Madrid. Lots of stories around of fans struggling with tickets and travel to the match, with the usual story of under allocation to the actual fans and the majority going to UEFA and their cronies corporate partners. Regardless, the atmosphere in Kiev was electric with Liverpool fans outnumbering their Real Madrid counterparts and locals mostly siding with the team from England. Liverpool fans had such a good time they even inspired a few joke stories like this.. http://www.thedaisycutter.co.uk/2018/06/billy-toxteth-goes-kyiv-note-spelling/

Sergio Ramos injuring Salah in the first half, when Liverpool were on top took the wind out of everyone’s sails.  Alongside with Bale’s stunner and Karius 2nd blunder the match was over.

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Liverpool comes to Kiev

This part of the trip required me to put my head down and get cycling, but doing that for 2 weeks takes some pressure off the next 3 weeks heading to Volgograd, with my aim to arrive by the 18th June for England’s first match of the World Cup.

Leaving Kiev, I stopped to see the Maidan square. This is where the Euromaidan movement centred in 2014, resulting in the “Revolution of Dignity” and the eventual collapse of the previous government, and the catalyst starting the war in Eastern Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea.

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Kiev – Ready for the Champions League Final

There’s a monument to the people killed by government forces and an exhibit showing how the movement developed and organised itself within the square. Many people I spoke with believed the Russian interference in the country was to make a point to the people of Russia, and make an example of Ukraine to show that such revolutions do not end positively. Andrii, my host from WarmShowers is one of approx. 1.6 millions Ukrainians that have been “internally displaced” by the war, he was forced to leave his home and everything he owned in Lugansk.  He has recently started a new life in Kiev, and despite these problems he welcomed me and shared his home with me.

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Andrii – My host in Kiev

Leaving Kiev I headed South East along the Dnipro river, helped with route planning by Andrii. The route was a lot more scenic and relaxed than my race in to Kiev and it was good to be on a different road. I was heading to Buchak Ozero, a lake that sits above the Dnipro river. After the chaos of Kiev I enjoyed a few shorter days of cycling through quiet countryside and arrived for a nice swim in the lake. My route took me down a lot of sand roads so it involved quite of lot of pushing; my tires combined with the weight of the panniers can’t deal with deep sand. Most of the local tourers ride mountain bikes with much thicker tyres and I can understand why.

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Buchak Ozero

I arrived in Ukraine during the strawberry season and people were often out in the fields picking. For 25 Hryvnia/80p I could buy a kilo of deliciousness, though rattling around on the bike turned into jam pretty quickly.

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I followed the South side of the river past Kaniv, I tried to cross by bridge in Chirkasy but was turned away by soldiers who pointed out the very clear no cycling sign I had tried to ignore – hoping it would be a case of better to ask forgiveness than permission. I thought it should be possible as roadworks on the bridge meant all traffic was going at a snails pace anyway.

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Town signs are a big deal in Ukraine

The soldiers showed me to a train platform 500 metres back from the bridge and assured me I would have no problems catching a train. A guy rocked up wearing a Gloucester rugby shirt but even using google translate he couldn’t tell me where he had got it from, or help me explain the rich history of Bath rugby. The train arrived and it was immediately obvious there was no room for me or the bike, it was a metre climb up to start with and the carriage was full to bursting. I recalculated and decided to keep on my side of the river for another days ride and eventually crossed a smaller bridge at Kremenchuk, also with a no bicycle sign but I passed about 5 cyclists on my way over.

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Crossing the Dnipro in Kremenchuk after following it South East for a few days

Outside Kremenchuk I met another touring cyclist on his way home to Kiev after a 500km lap around this part of the Dnipro, and a car pulled up to say hi and let us know he was a big cycling fan as well and he topped up our water bottles.

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Fellow cyclists near Kremenchuk

From Kremenchuk I aimed North East towards Kharkiv and the border with Russia, the direct route to Volgograd was off limits as it was through the regions of Donesk and Lugansk. The language had shifted without me really realising from Ukrainian to Russian, though most people living in this part of Ukraine are bilingual. En route I watched England’s win against Nigeria in a bar in Poltava, World Cup fever definitely starting to simmer away nicely. This was followed by probably my least sensible camp spot,  just off a path in a local park, so when I heard footsteps at 5:30am I decided it was time to get moving. I headed straight to a cafe on my way out of town, this sort of early start was a real shock to the system. The owner kindly stocked me up with free coffee and pastries. These sort of small kindnesses mean a lot and can help lift me for the day ahead.

My relaxed few days after Kiev along with my unplanned extended route after being denied access to cross the bridge at Chirkasy meant I was back under a time pressure.  I wanted to cross to Russia on the 4th, the first day allowed using the fan ID – 10 days before the first match. I had no specific route planned once I arrived, but wanted to stay in the city on the other side of the border; Belgorod. I would decide how to get to Volgograd from there.

My last big ride in Ukraine was 150km to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city and the former capital. It’s one of the centres of education in Ukraine, with over 200,000 university students.

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One cyclist taking extra precautions, met on the way to Kharkiv

I arrived in a thunderous downpour to Andrii’s where he fed me a recovery meal of Ukrainian cottage cheese and strawberries. Andrii is another of the people I met whose life had been greatly affected by the war, his parents live in the Lugansk region within what is now known as the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone, this makes it almost impossible to see them and living in an active war zone makes life very hard for them.

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Andrii in Kharkiv

I didn’t see much off Kharkiv, stopping only long enough for a quick roll around the city to find a place to change my remaining Hryvnia into Rubles.

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Kharkiv

Russia: 4th June

With only 80km to Belgorod I had an easier day ahead with only the heat to contend with. The border was about halfway between the cities of Kharkiv and Belgorod , and was a lot busier than I expected considering the countries are engaged in a proxy war in 2 Ukrainian regions directly south-east of the Kharkiv region (Lugansk and Donetsk) with the usual rest stops for trucks and small businesses that flourish where people have to wait to cross a border.

Using the FAN ID as a visa did initially cause some confusion, but once a few phone calls were made and an English speaking border guard asked a few questions about which cities I planned to visit I was waved through, probably waiting only 30 minutes in total.

Arriving in Russia was a significant moment, I had been planning this for a long time and now I had finally made it. I was in the final country of this stretch of the trip and would soon be off the bike for a few weeks mingling in with the crowds at the World Cup. I also nervous, only seeing bad news and warnings for England fans heading to the World Cup, but I was prepared to see it for myself.

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Arrival in Russia
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Battle of Omsk diorama in Belgorod
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Tanks are everywhere in in Russia

From Belgorod I headed South and East, using the app maps.me to pick a town ahead as a target for the day and try to adjust that route to be on paved but not main roads. This was not always possible as I spent sometime pushing through sand or chalk roads and sometime on busy highways. The Russian steppe I passed through was mostly farmland and small villages, and a few smaller towns. I have read that small villages in Russia are disappearing as people migrate away for work and the older population dies out. I am certain I passed through some places that are on the verge of gaining ghost town status.

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Peaceful dirt roads in South West Russia

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Cross country roads from Belgorod to Volgograd
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Typical Russian countryside shop

In Alexeyevka, Belgorod Oblast, I had my first proper meeting with a Russian, staying with Max, a football mad Russian about my age. I thought he was slightly odd as he supports the German national team, however after spending a month here many Russians seem to have Russia as a second team and support Germany, Spain or England ahead of them, that may change now after the Russian teams strong performance in the tournament. When we went for a walk I even asked if it was sensible to wear my England shirt around, having had a lot of warnings about hooligans and also some first hand experiences in Marseille. It was, of course, fine to walk around in an England shirt.

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Wondering around Alexeyevka with Max

From Alexeyevka I had about 600km to go to Volgograd. I took the first few days a bit easier before I decided to try and reach Volgograd for the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia on the 14th June. The decision to speed up was partly made so I could watch as much football as possible and also because of the swarms of midges that seemed to start following me from Alexeyevka. The insects were annoying me, every time I stopped even for a second I was surrounded,  each evening become a race to set up the tent, cook something and hide away from the bugs. They didn’t bite as much as mosquitoes but just buzz around your eyes, ears and mouth and my bug spray had no perceptible effect. Plus side, I now know I will need some sort of head net for when I hit Africa as the bugs.

I crossed the Don River and headed East to Mikhaylovka which is the last big town before Volgograd. I had about 200km to go with a busy main road my only route South. I camped the whole way and not a single bear was to be found.

Here I met Ivan while trying to top up my petrol bottle for my stove. This mainly involves asking someone to fill it up whilst they fill up their car as at 500ml it’s below the minimum fill for most petrol stations. This does present a good opportunity to talk to locals though. Ivan waved away my roubles when I tried to pay him for the petrol, and we talked using Google translate about what it is like in Russia and the UK and how I was finding my time in Russia so far. I then headed off to the supermarket after realising I’d lost a screw from my front pannier, I bumped into Ivan again and I followed his car back to his house, he fixed the bag, made me some lunch and gave me a bottle of homemade vodka with strict instructions to enjoy it before the England vs. Tunisia match.

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Ivan
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Last night camping for a while

2 days later, 14th June, I finally arrived in Volgograd. I headed straight to the stadium to get a photo. After 2 months, 4,500km cycled I had arrived at my end destination for the first stint of the trip. I was ready for a break from cycling while I watched a lot of football and drank a lot of beer.

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Volgograd
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Arrival at the Volgograd Arena

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