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Tips for motorists and a bit of personal experience
Olga Panasyeva shares some of her road experiences
Travelling long distances by car in Ukraine is one of those things, which are considered by many in this country “extreme” and unusual. It takes you 600 km to get from Kyiv to Odesa and when a friend of mine told me of her intentions to drive there ALONE I felt both worried and envious. However, the news from my American pan-pal that in order to get to his new job he has to drive for three hours (one way) did not evoke any special feelings in me apart from being just a bit sorry for his time.
Perhaps the fact that for a long time most Ukrainians did not own a car (and many of them still don’t) and work within their towns, go on holidays or business-trips either by plain or by comfortable sleeping cars in overnight trains — makes the car transfers look unnecessary and tiresome.
It is one of the many wrong stereotypes that the roads here are very bad and anywhere 100 kilometers away from Kyiv is a dense forest with one-lane rutted dirt roads with fallen trees as ambushes behind which lurk blood-thirsty and dollar-hungry bandits. In fact, there are a number of gloomy places, but they can be easily avoided by following the big A and B class roads on your map. Many roads do not look as broad and busy and brightly lit as in the West, but they are quite “passable,” even if you drive a jalopy rather than a four-wheel jeep.
The most popular route from Kyiv is to the sea. There are two major ways to get there from the top northern part of Ukraine where Kyiv is located. The fastest way is by the Kyiv-Odesa motorway and then, depending on your destination, — either further down south to the Mykolayiv and Kherson, or still further to the Crimea (or even Turkey by a ferry if you really want it). In summer most of the way the traffic looks like a busy afternoon in the city — cars and minibuses and buses and long-haul trucks roaring and rumbling and pushing ahead both ways. Some parts of the way can be a bit of nuisance because there may well be a couple of daydreamers crawling 50 km per hour with the road being too narrow to allow overtaking. There is always an alternative to take some less popular routes and there, through endless fields and occasional villages you may not see a single car for several hours. However, there will be no gas stations, no shops and very few road signs.
However, I have to admit, that the distance my American friend travels for only three hours on a high-speed motorway, would take a motorist in Ukraine at least half a day. There is some mystery about our roads here. They are always under repairs or construction and I don’t remember a single journey without the tiresome one-lane crawling with the speed limit below 10 km and men in red jackets, tractors, excavators all driving you mad. The speed limit on most roads is just 90 km per hour and there is a good chance that the moment you succumb to the temptation and stepping on the gas — you will be stopped by a policeman, who hides in the bushes with his special speed-measuring device. They always choose a place where you don’t expect they may be hiding and the moment you stop thinking about them — here they are, waving the striped sticks, signalling you to stop.
Traffic police, in spite of all the stories circulating about them, can be very helpful. It happened with me many times that whenever I needed help or advice — they were efficient, polite and friendly (and their attitude did not change a bit when it was my husband, not me, asking the way, or help with the car, or something of this sort). If you are travelling at night and can’t fight the sleep any more, then the safest way to stop is somewhere near a traffic police road post. By midnight the immediate vicinity of such a post will be congested with huge trucks, like space ships, their drivers quietly chatting, smoking and drinking coffee, buses with a crowd of tired passengers having their breath of fresh air and stretching their legs after the long ride, and many other cars, big and small, shiny limos and clunkers alike. I will never forget that feeling — a quiet and very dark night, bright stars glowing coldly in the soft velvety sky and that somewhat chilling realization that you are very far away from “civilization”. On one of such stops there was just a couple of lamps on — and the rest of the world was enveloped in darkness. An occasional car would come rustling by and then it would get quiet again. And the long silhouettes of trucks, the dim orange glow in the cabins evoked amazingly warm feelings and I felt safe and secure. There was some sort of magic in that overnight parking.
At dawn, when I woke up, the trucks and buses were gone, and several sleepy motorists were stooping near their cars, splashing water over their faces.
In the West you come across “oases” every fifty or so miles — the fancy structures, often bridging over the 5-lane motorway and glowing in the darkness like wonder palaces. In Ukraine you may hardly expect a shower or a heated toilet, but some things are available even here.
Ukraine is densely populated throughout most of its territory and if — God forbid — something happens on the way, there will always be a hospital, a service station and a place to buy food within a reasonable distance. I can’t say much about the level of service and availability of medication in an ordinary village hospital, in all likelihood it will be a very primitive “medieval” place, but you can get there the first essential dental or other aid. Provincial post offices present a more cheerful picture. With Ukrtelecom being the biggest local supplier of telecommunication services, you may get the fax and internet services practically in any town and even in some big villages. The mobile operators are increasing their network practically every day and your mobile will be working most of the time wherever you are.
As far as the food and drinks are concerned, there are thousands of little stalls along the roads where you can buy mineral water, soft drinks and beer, snacks and ice cream. Most of the gas stations have little shops too.
But the best are the home-made meals. There is one place I really love, where they are prepared to serve you a hot meal any time of day or night. It’s in the village which is located halfway between Odesa and Kyiv. The village looks different from the rest and you immediately notice the difference. Practically in every courtyard there is a table with some cooking pans and big posters with something like “Lunches” or “Borsch” written on them.
For a ridiculously low price of something like three euros you may get a fancy three dish treatment for two persons. There will be a huge plate of Ukrainian traditional soup — borsch, with a pig piece of meat submerged in it; a stake, so huge that it can hardly fit the plate, and a generous dessert of sweet varenykys or home-made cookies. I still remember that blissful feeling — you’ve packed away an enormous three-course meal, you wonder how your stomach could accommodate all that food, and you find you can hardly pick your ass up from the chair. In winter, you are invited right into the house — there is a dining room with three or four tables, and in summer, you eat outdoors — there is usually a shelter in the yard providing shade.
However, you should be very careful about what you eat and where. I have that instinctive dislike for certain road cafes serving some weird meat pies and other stuff. And in general it is always advisable to have a supply of food with you to last the whole journey, even water — because in some towns you may be sold something of low quality and with some undesirable side effects (which may require frequent stops and some stomach medicines to deal with). The same warning concerns all sorts of pizzas and hotdogs. I heard one British chap saying “C’mon you see all those people eating it!”, but there is one significant difference between the Ukrainian stomach, which has been trained for several generations to congest all sorts of local food, and the tender Western intestines which are not hardened enough to deal with some of the more noxious dishes of local cuisine. And if you run out of your favorite ham and cheese sandwiches, don’t rush to the first village store and buy sausage and mayonnaise — try to do with bread, butter and hard cheese and wait till you get to the nearest town with a decent supermarket.
If the idea of sleeping on the backseat of your car near the police station does not seem romantic at all, then there is always an alternative — you can stop for the night at a private motel. But all of them are rather expensive and noisy. They are weekend retreats for local businessmen with drinking, shouting, girls, dancing and karaoke thumping through the walls till dawn. Though, you may be lucky and get the full treatment complete with Russian sauna, barbecue and even horse riding. The addresses of such motels are rather hard to get — in case you want to make a reservation — but you can always find them along any big motorway.
There is a third option — you can stop for some time in big cities while moving from Oblast to Oblast. It is best for those who have enough money and time and are willing to come to know Ukraine better, not just looking at road signs on the way from one destination to another.
As you probably know, it snows in Ukraine in winter, and sometimes it snows a lot. And I remember the chaos which was caused by a day-long snowfall in Britain with all motorways practically paralyzed, wheels dressed in chains and all possible blinking and shining devises turned on. The moment you leave Kyiv, where all the roads are cleaned from snow with salt and sand liberally strewn around, you find yourself in some northern fairytale. Everything is white including the road. You are advised to drive as carefully as you can and be on the lookout for careless, daredevil drivers, extremely dangerous for everyone around, who will be speeding on the slippery surface of ice and packed snow as fast as they would do in summer. Road accidents claim many lives.
You should be extra careful travelling in the Crimean and Carpathian mountains any time of the year but in winter, in times of heavy snowfalls, it is desirable to postpone the journey altogether or go there by train.
They say that drivers in Ukraine are generally more rude and careless than in the West. No one will fine you for not fastening the seatbelts (something as essential for the Western motorist as turning the key to start the engine — my western experience taught me that you just can’t drive without fastening the belt). With the speed limit of 90 km, there is a good chance that there will be someone going much faster behind you, and flashing the lamps and honking at you to give way and in case you don’t, the speedster may overtake you from the wrong side and move much too close and perform some other extremely hazardous maneuvers, making you nearly crash into the rear of his car, and leaving you scared, angry and helpless.
But in general you can see that the economic situation is slowly improving all over Ukraine, and the stories you hear from the Soviet times about day-long waiting lines to buy petrol, seem to be ludicrous and unreal. And believe me, these modern petrol stations do not differ a bit from those you see anywhere else in Europe. I guess sooner or later we will have some world class motorways with all those drive-ins, free shower and heated toilets facilities — not so much because the authorities care about the people but because they need them badly themselves.