khar_muur: (khar_muur07)

TOP 3 best (omni) restaurants

1. Khevron, Odessa, Ukraine
2. Café Pushkin, Bakhchisaray, Ukraine
3. Rustic, Baia Sprie, Romania.

TOP 3 worst border crossings
1. Lithuania – Belarus
2. Belarus – Ukraine
2. Ukraine – Romania

TOP 3 most English spoken
1. Lviv, Ukraine
2. Vilnius, Lithuania
3. Sighișoara, Romania

TOP 3 accommodations
1. Casa Olarului, Baia Sprie, Romania
2. Hunting House, Kujbyshevo, Ukraine
3. Hotel Telecom Guest, Vilnius, Lithuania

TOP 3 most impressive cities

1. Minsk, Belarus
2. Odessa, Ukraine
3. Lviv, Ukraine

TOP mammals
1. Cow
2. Dog
3. Horse
4. Goat
5. Chicken
6. Cat
7. Sheep

Bonus mammal:
+ Donkey

TOP birds
1. Pigeon
2. White Stork
3. Sparrow
4. Western Jackdaw
5. Barn Swallow
6. Rook
7. Hawk

Bonus bird:
+ Peafowl

Achievements unlocked
⭐ Drove through the Carpathian Mountains during thunderstorm
⭐ Swam in the Black Sea
⭐ Sat in the chair of a missile base command centre
⭐ Saw the elusive city of Minsk
⭐ Bribed a police officer in Ukraine
⭐ Climbed the Potemkin Stairs in Odessa
⭐ Saw a white stork in a nest on the roof of a house
⭐ Saw a flock of bats flying over us on a dark forest road in Transylvania
⭐ Visited a crypt in Transylvania

Cases of blatant animal suffering witnessed
😡 a man striking a horse hard with the blunt side of a pitchfork (Bonțida, Romania)
😡 multiple cases of tying horses' legs together (to prevent them from wandering away, one assumes) in Ukraine, Moldova and Romania; saw two horses hopping down a road with legs tied in Romania
😡 dozens of strays everywhere, the majority of them ill and/or malnourished
😡 dog strongman contest; the animals were made to pull very heavy loads, and kept alone in small cages inside cars. Judging by the picture in the event poster, the dogs are pumped with steroids. (Gmina Wasilków, Poland)

Things the border guards inquire after or search for

- girls, tasers (Ukrainian; Belarus to Ukraine)
- petrol (Polish; Ukraine to Poland)
- gifts for guards/Finlandia vodka (Ukrainian; Ukraine to Romania)

Craziest drivers:
Kiev (Ukraine)

Best roads:
Belarus and Poland

Most white storks:
Romania

Most Hesburgers:
Lithuania

Easiest hotel to find:
Vila Chesa, Romania

Most difficult hotel to find:
Vilari Guest House, Ukraine

Most horse carts:
Romania

Most strays:
Ukraine

Coolest museum:
Strategic Missile Forces museum, Pervomais'k, Ukraine

Most insane memorial:
Dzyarzhynskaya Hara, Minsk, Belarus

Best cemetery:
The cemetery of the Church on the Hill, Sighișoara, Romania

Best overall service:
Ukraine

Best starry sky:
Crimea, Ukraine

Greatest bird density:
Belarus

Lushest lands:
Middle Ukraine

Most epic memorial:
Батьківщина-Мати (Mother Motherland), Kiev, Ukraine

Most impressive church:
The Church of the Saviour at Berestove, Kiev Pechersk Lavra, Kiev, Ukraine

Highest temp 30°C (Polish-Ukrainian border, day)
Lowest temp 13°C (Kujbyshevo, night)

khar_muur: (Default)

I love the smell of mould in the morning, especially when it's right at the level of my nose.

We tour the old Lviv on foot, merely scraping the surface of all the things this city has to offer. Flea markets, alleyways, churches, marketplaces, parks, palaces, museums, cobblestone, pavement, statues, monuments, townhouses, manors, old and new, from 18th century to 21st. Nearly everything about the city speaks more West than East to me, but with a twist that's completely unique. It's too bad we're constantly in a bit of a rush.

Crossing borders to Poland takes quite a while, apparently because at one point they completely forget about us and we have to go knocking after our passports to get going.

Poland is mostly what I remembered, and bears a striking resemblance to most of Ukraine. Fields, towns, fields, trees, fields. I leaf through the Polish part of a phrasebook and find the pronunciation actually mostly doable. Mostly.

Today seems to be the official get-hitched-day, since both in Lviv and in Poland we spot couples (with entourage) and cars decorated with pink ribbons and/or balloons.

Driving in Poland is surprisingly uneventful. Roads are in mint condition, straight, and traffic is low. I'd be bored if I wasn't thankful. It comes to mind that actually, with these roads and what most houses and other buildings look like, Poland is starting to look a lot like Germany, probably due to EU standardisation. S.O. says how this seems to be the EU's agenda—to make everywhere like Germany. And that sounds kind of familiar... Well, my only wish is that they never pass a directive limiting the appearance of bus stops.

The only hotels available in Bialystok, the originally planned cite of accommodation, are four and five stars and therefore far too expensive, so we booked a cheap hotel at Gmina Wasilków some ten kilometres north of there. Arriving at Nad Zwelem proves easily the single most surprising experience of today; there's a dog strongman—strongdog?—contest going on right here on the on the grounds (this facility serves both as a shabby hotel and a camping area). Dogs bark and people shout and cheer and laugh drunkenly. It's not exactly a nightmare, but something very close to one. Our room is silly-shaped and very big, and the bed springs have definitely seen their better days. The dog contest seems to know no end, the barking continues, and it's nearly midnight. Posting this tomorrow at dawn when we leave for Tallinn, because the Wi-fi only reaches the common areas and I'm dead tired.

khar_muur: (khar_muur07)

We're almost done at the guesthouse, raring to go, when the ceramics artist's son offers to show us around the workshop. He's apprenticing for his father. And by gods the artist is skilled! Both the little and large figurines and statues and the vases, pitchers and oil lamps are impeccably crafted. There's even a self-portrait there. We indulge ourselves on his very affordable wares, then hit the road.

Up the hill we go, towards Sighetu Marmației and the Ukrainian border. The serpentine road is shaped like a cooked wheat noodle at the bottom of a soup bowl. By the road runs a lively stream, in which father decides to dive. We drive through some very pretty villages, and every now and then we spot a huge stork's nest on top of a pole, usually with one adult stork and at least two young 'uns. I've now seen more storks on this journey than I can count.

At Sighetu Marmației we visit the Memorialul Victimelor Comunismului și al Rezistenței, a communist-era prison turned into a large museum and a memorial for the victims of communist oppression. Small booklets are available in English, and we dash through the chilling hallways, and peek into the cells now displaying parts of the exhibition—apart from the two solitary confinement cells which are pitch-dark, in the middle lies a set of shackles, and there's nothing else.

We're in a bit of a hurry, because you never know how long it's gonna take at the border, and this time it does take quite a while. In the end, we get through. Immediately the road is full of holes and bumpy all over. It's just like in Carelia. Seeing a small bunhc of road repairspeople inspires a spontaneous cheer in both cars and we wonder if there's some kind of fund we might donate to. Feeling quite shaken, possibly a bit stirred. Wel-sodding-come to Ukraine.

The rough roads go on for what seems like forever. Hours upon hours of wobbling here and there is seriously getting on my nerves, and I can only imagine what it's like in the Toyota (father's, sister's and brother's vehicle), what with it being old, low-set and clunky. I must say I'll be surprised if all our precious ceramics survive this party. Finally joining the smoother M-06 feels like flying.

Western Ukraine gives off a slightly different vibe compared to the east side. Once the mountains are behind us, factories and other industrial buildings constantly dominate the skyline, but the landscape mostly consist of fields and petrol stations, just as before. There's more churches either newly finished or under construction. Lviv is supposedly more Central Europe than Kyiv, and the unofficial culture capital of Ukraine.

Arriving at Lviv at dusk, we're first greeted by very large and very ugly Soviet-inspired concrete apartment blocks. A bit further and closer to the centre the view slowly changes to include some more variety in architecture. Unmistakably a Central European city. The hostel is much crappier than expected, but it is of little consequence.

Once again, we sit at a restaurant at the end of the day, and have to wait for the food quite a while this time. When the dude at the next table lights up his third cigar, I call it a night and go to bed.

khar_muur: (khar_muur07)

A lazy morning, then to the Malibu Beach of Odessa! It's the beachiest beach I've ever been to, white sand and blue sea and everything. After bouncing up and down the big, crashing waves, we go and have lunch at a kosher restaurant called Chevron. Everything's awesomely delicious, and we practically roll out of the place. Little brother dearest bumps his head for the third time today.

We wander through the Prymorskyi Boulevard to the statue of Richelieu and the famous Potemkin Stairs, then wander back, and turn our cars towards the mysterious white spot on the map that is Moldova. Rather than driving through the separatist area of Transnistria, we take the slightly longer route and take Chișinău from the south. The shortcut way isn't available, at least not to us, but the slightly longer one is.

The fellows at the ukrainian side of the border are strangely intimidating in a laid-back sort of way. And, indeed, they "expect presents from Finland". Insert nervous laughter here. On the moldovan side, things are far more official but fairly smooth.

The roads to Chișinău are mostly pretty good, and, conveniently, there's a separate road for horse carts, so we don't have to compete. Gas station toilet is a hole in the ground.

We arrive at our destination after sundown.

khar_muur: (khar_muur07)

The star pictures turned out alright. We clambered a small hill to get a good view over the village and the mountains. Also woke up every guard dog along the way, and witnessed a return home by taxi and subsequent argument between (presumably) husband and wife.

Khan's Palace is half bewitching, half disappointing, the former because it's quite large and ornamental, with many different buildings and rooms to inspect, and the latter because it's packed with tourists, and because it's been rebuilt so many times there's precious little to see of the 17th century it was originally built in. The Fountain of Tears is there, though, with a Pushkin bust beside it. We dine at Café Pushkin—we're more or less dragged there by an enthusiastic local fellow, but the cozy terrace and hanging vines have us at hello, anyway. A very zen stray cat approaches our table, promptly jumps into dad's lap and settles there, only moving when he gets up.

The narrow street's completely blocked by a tourist bus and a herd of cars, so we try taking the long way round, only to discover that the only way through the village is via said blocked Lenina St. so we just waddle through like everyone else.

The drive to Odessa is uneventful, apart from driving a little too fast before a bridge; playing the foreigner's ignorance card and paying a fine (20€) settled the matter nicely. Starting to get a real taste of Eastern Europe...

khar_muur: (khar_muur07)

Daylight reveals our hotel to be in the middle of some quite beautiful mountains. Not bad. We drive down to Balaklava and tour the submarine base, which is exactly as magnificent as expected, with large hallways, the dank, musty smell of water and concrete, and sound effects to further liven up the experience. Inspired, I buy a stripy sailor shirt, of which there is an abundance—apparently a typical Crimean souvenir. We also take a small stroll around the small harbour, marvelling at the beauty of the bay and the Crimean mountains. People are fishing, swimming and sunbathing at the harbour, cats and dogs trod around lazily and nap on chalk stone stairs.

Trying to find a panorama hill, we end up in the Malakhov hill museum, instead, but it's an interesting display, nonetheless.

Ah, Ukraine, the land of war monuments, endless fields, nutty drivers, and elastic toilet paper.

The greek ruins of Cherseson and the basilica of St. Nikolaus are next on the agenda, and we spend hours admiring gardens, strolling through ruins and watching swallows and other small birds by the strand. The basilica is actually very new, rebuilt since the original one was devastated during WW2, (mostly) finished in 2001, and gives the overall impression of a tourist spot and not much else. There's a mass going on upstairs, however, which we stare at and listen to for awhile.

On the other side of the bay is a beautiful park and a boulevard, which we inspect thoroughly, then have sushi for dinner at an amazingly inexpensive restaurant with English-speaking waitstaff. At some point, a guy dressed as a cowboy and two ladies in golden sequinned mini-dresses make a sales pitch at us, and all we understand is that it's about a drink called Olmeca. After sundown the boulevard is filled with party people and loud music, there's even a karaoke stand in the park.

Two very small foxes run by the road back to the hotel.

We hope for a clear sky so we might be able to shoot stars a bit before retiring for the evening.

khar_muur: (khar_muur07)

Godsdammit the Tactical Missile Museum was worth every hryvna. Not only were the tactical vehicles, heavy machinery and missiles outside incredibly impressive, but we also go to go inside the actual base, walk the cold concrete tunnels and climb ladders and cram ourselves into a tiny lift and end up in the bloody command centre itself, 35 metres below surface, and there was the red button of doom on the keyboard of doom, blinking lights and switches to flick, and we got to sit in the actual seat where the komendant sat. The guides were old military guys, which was very apparent from how they spoke and behaved, but under there they suggested all kinds of cool photos we could take (by speaking Ukrainian and waving their hands a lot)—and boy, did we.

As soon as we left the missile museum, we were taken by a massive rainstorm, and knowing the locals would be about as safe to drive among as nuclear warheads, we took a small break by a flooding petrol station. Heading south now. A hailing strikes, too, and we wait some more.

Lightless cars bug us severely, and surpassing lorries proves difficult at times. Slowly but steadily, the vegetation shifts from very familiar to familiar to slightly strange, and at times the landscape greatly resembles northern, rural Italy. Indeed, the word 'rural' describes the southern part of Ukraine quite precisely, as the vast fields (sunflowers, wheat and corn) are only sparsely punctuated by little villages, and in them, people selling goods on both sides of the road. Stray dogs wander around nearly every petrol station and market stall, crows and hawks fly over our heads, and butterflies flutter on and beside the road. There's a hillock with a numbered door in the field every now and then, presumably a bunker. The golden light of the setting sun forms a ukrainian flag together with the perfectly blue sky.

A few close calls happen with the traffic, specifically after nightfall in Sevastopol', where we also see the aftermath of a small car crash.

A vigorous search, consulting the map, and several language barriers later we arrive at the small village of Kujbyshevo near the mountains, our destination for tonight (and the night after that).

khar_muur: (khar_muur07)
Driving in Kiev is a complete nightmare. Impatient drivers take every chance they get to cut each other off, people park literally anywhere and any which way, and everyone drives extremely fast. Most cars are new, some very expensive, and, unlike in Italy, most are completely intact, despite the chaos. Finally we get to see the caves of the Cave Monastery. Dress code states no short sleeves or short trousers, and women must cover their hair and wear dresses or skirts. The near caves are completely crowded, hot, dark and humid, lighted only by small, hanging lanterns and the prayer candles of visitors. Photography is forbidden inside, but I wouldn't even want to, nor be able to. You just have to keep moving at all times or get told off by pissed-off tour guides. Narrow stony corridors, monks, pilgrims, icons, prayer niches, dead saints in coffins under vitrine glass—which the devout orthodox christians kiss and practically throw themselves upon—and awestruck tourists desperately navigating through the crowd. The other caves farther away are for 'praying only', and dad and brother take a pass, but me, S.O. and sister want to see them. They go a long way down underground where it's cool and nice. The passageways aren't any wider, but there's only a handful of people here, among them a small group of italian catholics and nuns. This was definitely worth climbing and descending all those stairs and hills. The monastery's garden is in full bloom, and the smell of roses is sweet, almost nauseatingly so. Next stop: The Great Patriotic War Museum, and it's exactly what it says on the tin. Just walking there to the sounds of uplifting Ukrainian music is an experience in itself. Inside. Massive granite halls full of war memoraphilia from both sides, weapons, pictures and various other exhibits from the late 30's to the mid-40's. There's precious little material in English, but there really wouldn't be time to read everything very thoroughly. Basically the entire take on WW2 here is that the evil Nazi Germany was evil and tried to conquer the world, and it was horrible, until the Soviet army gloriously pushed them back. Unlike in a similar museum in Arkangelsk, Russia, the attack on Finland was briefly mentioned. Clearly, the image they wish to convey is that of surviving severe oppression through the heroic deeds of common people and leaders of nations alike. We leave the place very impressed, and also convinced of ukrainian national pride. The nice fellow who keeps the hostel we just left helped us find a place for tonight, located along the way from here to Sevastopol', in a town called Pervomais'k. (There's plenty of places with exactly the same name, most of them in Russia. I expect giggles from any Finnish-speakers who are reading this.) Leaving Kiev, we spot a number of old and middle-aged ladies selling strawberries—wild ones, even!— on the highway. We buy some from a pleasant duo who shake their heads in wonder when we tell them we drove through Belarus. On a petrol station, two guys apparently try to swindle us, and they practically try to enter the vehicle, but we just don't understand enough of their babbling to react in any way other than repeating how we must go, and slam the car door in front of their noses. I check the phrasebook for a handy way to say "go away". "Pa!" ("Bye!") would have suited the situation, too. Pervomais'k is a town not unlike the ones we traveled through in Carelia, and the hotel is a bulky piece of concrete. Inside is mostly empty and dim, but when we get to go and see our rooms, the very ukrainian-looking receptionist takes us to a gleaming corridor with shiny black doors, and inside are very clean, spacious and new-smelling rooms with equally nice-looking bathrooms. Not what I expected! What's more, we get to park our cars behind locked gates, which is a relief. A quick stroll around town, then some grocery shopping, and back inside. Us vegans retire while the omnis go restaurant hunting, and a moment later we get a text along the lines of "No menu in English, waitstaff speaks no English, expecting surprise food."
khar_muur: (khar_muur07)

This hostel is incredibly shabby. What better way to start a day than a dry shower and a toilet that doesn't flush? Yes, there's currently no water in this damn hostel.

Amazingly enough, there's yet another raw restaurant available, and even our omni company likes what they've got. After that, we plan a little, and walk through the city centre to the Dormition Cathedral to see the cave monastery. Unfortunately, we arrive too late, and take a stroll around the historical site around the cathedral instead. It's hot day, and we're all dripping sweat, walking up and down the old stairs and ramps around the monastery gardens. Sister buys a traditional embroidered shirt. Failed to buy a card. Still haven't sent any cards, but I promised, so I shall.

We loiter around town, and visit a high-end restaurant called Whisky Corner, and confuse the very polite and orderly waitstaff by ordering silly things like fries and fruit. The fruit plate is huge (700g, they always state portion sizes in menus here), and I'm given a fork and a knife. So there I am, in a fancy ukrainian whisky restaurant, cutting mega-sized grapes in half with a knife and fork, marinated in a whole day's worth of sweat and dust, feeling like one big exclamation mark.

A random guy asks us for light, then pot, but we haven't got either. Back at the hostel, I'm happy to notice the water's back. We'll try the caves again tomorrow, as well as The Great Patriotic War Museum and adjacent previously mentioned ginormous statue, called Mother Motherland.

khar_muur: (khar_muur07)

A quick stop to get some cakes to boost us up, then off to the border we go. Sparrows have built nests between and under the ceiling structures, and they whoosh above the queuing cars and lorries. Past the initial check-up the radio only plays Belarusian schlagers.

The amount of paperwork it takes to get to (and out of) Belarus is simply incredible. I keep thinking, "This is why EU. This very thing." They check our luggage every chance they get, and stall us due to some minor details in our documents, but after two hours we're done with it all and on Belarusian soil. It's warm. Fields and meadows everywhere. The road is brand new and in excellent condition.

Horse carts, doll houses, broken-down houses, storks flying over our heads, little rivers, forests. Cows, sheep. More cows. People working in the fields. Warnings for potential speeders ("Your licence will be revoked"). This country is extremely flat, and the highest point stands at 250 metres high.

TomTom takes us through Valožyn, which has us confused a while, but I consult the map, and everything is in order.

Overall I get the feeling that this country is run on strict rules and regulations, with little tolerance for deviants of any kind.

Approaching Minsk, the first thing we see are enormously tall buildings at the horizon. The closer we get, more buildings appear, then suddenly we're smack-dab in the middle of a 60's inspired science fiction metropolis, with buildings tall as the sky, neatly in rows, streets pristine and colours harmonious. Some SU era houses look unpolished—in fact, everything only seems to be either brand new or Soviet, nothing is older or in-between. I begin to understand what a belarusian fellow told us at the border. "You must visit Minsk", he'd said, "beautiful city, new city!"

We meet with my family by the Palace of Republic, a ginormous multi-column building that is impossible to miss, even amongst the other pompousness that is this city. We shoot some pics at the plaza, then we must carry on with the journey. I dread that we have yet another border to cross today.

The southern side of Minsk offers far less dramatic views, and sci-fi turns into modern Europe. Soon we're back at the countryside, with the endless fields, road construction sites and colour-coordinated cow herds. The police randomly stops both of our cars to check our documents. A little dog is trying to cross the heavily trafficked road, which breaks my heart. Everyone drives quite recklessly here, and there are lots of new cars on the highway.

Our plan now is to drive straight to Kiev, Ukraine, ETA 2:45 AM. The evening proves uneventful, and we watch the sun set at around 10 PM. This part of Belarus resembles the Carelian Russia in many ways, from the colourful but shabby houses to the weird bus-stops and the constant sightings of smoke from, one assumes, burning trash. The only significant difference is the quality of the road.

The four stages of Belarus are: 1) field 2) forest 3) tiny village, and 4) Minsk.

When we cross the border, the cars get sprayed with disinfectant. Getting out of Belarus is surprisingly painless, and into Ukraine the only additional nuisance (besides the mosquitoes) is an officer who searches both cars and asks strange questions, such as if we've got tazers, or either girls or drugs in our car—the guy's pronunciation was quite interesting. Well, we had none of those in any case, and got to be on our way.

It's stupid o'clock and still we drive towards Kiev, current ETA being 4:31. It sure paid off to get those two good nights in a row. Roads here are more random chance than in Belarus.

First impression of Kiev: shabby. We arrive at 3:51 AM, ogling at the blinking lights, lorries parked in the middle of the road, and very dodgy buildings. This looks a lot more like Russia than Belarus, only messier. Huge billboards dominate the cityscape. Some new buildings resemble the sci-fi ones at Minsk. On the other side of the river Dnjepr is clearly the newer and cleaner part of the city, also one mind-bogglingly gigantic statue. Clearly, this city has it all.

I'm posting this update a little late, since our hostel's Wi-fi didn't reach our room or, specifically, my bed.

Road Trip!

Jun. 2nd, 2013 12:57 am
khar_muur: (khar_muur07)
At approximately 6:00 AM, it begins. The little journey we've been planning. See new countries. Speak new languages. Navigate new routes. Eat new foods. Capture new images.

We'll be leaving on a ferry at nine o'clock today, and returning somewhere around midnight on the 17th. First across the pond, then driving through the Baltics and to Belarus, then, circling the Black Sea, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania; and returning via Poland and again through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I'm just filling in an online form at matkustusilmoitus.fi so if we end up in a ditch somewhere, the Finnish foreign ministry will know which one to drench. I'm really excited, not very nervous, and slightly tired from all the organizing and tidying and shopping... mostly just excited.

Most hotels we've booked have free Wi-fi; if it's not a complete hoax, I'll be sure to send some signs of life when possible and/or convenient.

Yay!

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A Journey in the Dark

March 2016

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