as a note…thanks for your patience. I know its been a while! I’m focusing for Ukraine on this post..as its one of most unique experiences I’ve had on the tour. Regrettably, I don’t have many pics..cus this was more about people then epic landscapes…it was a social adventure..which is not always conducive to taking pictures,…so there’s a lota dialogue here and not much eye candy…at least for not for the reader(clearly there was for me:). And of course the story of Ukraine…started for me, long before I arrived there.
Back among the dust and glory riding of Mongolia I’d come across a convoy of one super truck and a Land Cruiser doing a recon for potential adventure tour operations. I like trucks, especially weird ones that exude Dakar with a dash of Mad Max. Serious man toys!
And I hadn’t seen another Westerner for a long time..so I stopped off to chat.
Considering where I was going and where they had come from, the advice dispensed.
“When you cross the border into Ukraine,..dont stop, just get through as fast as possible.” They ruffled through some weathered maps, while pointing out potential routes. ”Not only is there nothing to see out there, but they target foreigners.” Another piped in, “I got stopped 4 times and coughed up a total of 300 euro to the Ukrainian police, recommend you get through as fast and as efficiently as possible.”
The nature of a travel destination is always relevant to the one’s personal experience. Its not the place, but a place in time, the people you meet, your interests, and of course your “joss”. As that Canadian rider I met in Siberia claimed,” its all good!” Although it may not always be good for you, I’d add! Luck of the draw. I’ve turned sour on a country before…nailed by police, forced to pay bribes, mistakes on my part, miscommunication, fear,..whatever,..no one’s above it. For example, Colombia was the absolute best experience of my tour,..yet if you reference a rider from years past that was incarcerated by the FARC,..you’d hear a very different story.
Bad news travels faster than good news. Although some societies claim to ride above others on some holy cloud of intellectualism, fear (usually based on misinformation) is a human trait spread thoroughly around the globe. The challenge is to be aware of potential threats, but keep an open mind. This concept dawned on me through personal blunders abroad…and from the timeless rhetoric of my two favorites Robert Fulton, and Richard Burton.
I’m not harping on the truckers I met in Mongolia…they were excellent folks and experienced overlanders,..they just had a hard go of it in Ukraine wanted me to be aware of it for my own benefit.
I planned a two day crossing of Ukraine, not based on their advice, but rather for concern of the approaching winter, low funds, and excitement to see friends in Czech and Germany.
The two day plan didn’t work.
I had such an outrageous blast in Ukraine that it took me over two weeks to make it to the Polish border. Ukraine, or I should say the Ukrainians, were good to me! Real Good! And I’ve been looking for a way to return ever since.
The country embraced me from the minute I stepped over the border. Riding the 20 feet from Russia to Ukraine was culture shock! I pulled up to the border post and almost fell off my bike as an attractive gal in uniform smiled with a lovely “welcome to Ukraine.” A friendly, helpful, smiling border guard! I looked around desperately in hopes that someone else was present to witness this epic anomaly! Taken by surprise, I was all thumbs with my documents. Fortunately, she was patient with me and helped sort it out.
Next stop was customs, where I was beset upon by a pack of young enthusiastic soldiers. It was hand shakes all around and I absorbed a massive amount of helpful advice as they searched my bags. They started with my left pannier…getting as far as my bottle of Ruski Standort Wodka…nodding their approval the search was abandoned in lieu of more important issues…like listing off a plethora of excellent Ukrainian dishes that I was required to taste before exiting the country. I was loving it. These guys were top notch!
The afternoon sun graced the Ukrainian countryside, lighting up a full spectrum of autumn colors. It was a country road rolling gently through the woods, meandering through meadows and villages. As far as I was concerned I’d completed the long ride from Vladivostok to Europe…and it felt sooooo good!
The plan was to pull in to the capital,..use the classic tactic of riding for the city center and then wander in gradually widening circles until I stumbled upon an affordable hotel . The unavoidable flaw was entering a BIG foreign city at night.
Kiev is really something,.. cut through the middle by a massive river and further divided by enough highways and byways to confuse an LA Californian. I was at loss as to which side of the river harbored the city center. Taxed out by trying to refresh the screen with massive amounts of urban data, my GPS was on overdrive and freaking out. Fortunately my GPS doesn’t give voice commands..which would have amounted to a long stream of Boolean obscenities. My arbitrary turns and the high speed of traffic were causing digital mayhem. Attempting to revive my GPS and survive rush hour in Kiev became too much….and I pulled off the road and up onto sidewalk(the GS was practically made for jumping curbs).
“So no shit, there I was”, at night, on a sidewalk in the Capital of Kiev, doing what you do when your lost….curse your GPS and attempt to simultaneously push all the buttons! That’s when and where the Ukrainian Adventure really started.
Distracted by my GPS, I didn’t notice the white sedan pull up alongside, nor the two men that dismounted and approached me. The two Ukrainians materialized in front of me. ”Hi, man, where you from? Where you going to.” I really didn’t have an answer for either of those questions, but introductions and handshakes took over as I was introduced to Boris and Gera. Talking over each other in their enthusiasm, they were asking me all sorts of questions. ”Do you need anything fixed on your bike?” “Where are you staying tonight?” “You should come with us.” “We are going to help you!”
I was bit wary of them, politely refusing their invitation, mumbling something about my bike being in immaculate condition and trying to appear….well…. not lost. I suck at lying, never did come naturally to me.
Fortunately, I would come to learn that when it comes to hospitality Ukrainians are incredibly persistent.
“I’ve got a bike shop and we can fix up your bike”
I was thinking to myself, does my bike really look that bad?
“Were experienced bikers, you can trust us.”
Well, I thought, this might be interesting. Besides, a shop floor and tools to knock out a valve adjustment would be cherry. If they are bikers as they say they are,..then I’d trust them. I figured if I could get eyes on this supposed bike shop,..I’d know for sure what these guys were all about. ”Okay, lets do it.” I’m always game for a potential Black Swan. Unusual invitations are the gold threads of international travel.
It took some ballsy traffic riding to keep on Gera’s tail. He’s a nut behind the wheel, but the fact that he’s still alive suggests he’s got the skills to pull it off. 20 min later my bike was in an immaculate mechanics bay, resting contently among horses of the same breed. One look at all the knobby treads and hardcore adventure machines and I knew I was among friends.
I got the tour from Gera, who’d built a bike shop from the ground up…and was rightfully proud of it. We darted from one end of the shop working our way to the other, swapping faraway stories, gleaning over beautiful machines and all the latest bike tech.
He took a great deal of interest in my GS and we talked over what I wanted to work on. I started to pull tools out and get to work,..but Gera insisted I relax,..freshen up and worry about it later. “Besides” he said, we’re gonna party hard tonight,..I hope you’re ready for it!”
I was more than thankful for the ride to the nearby hotel, and the use of his shop, but when he booked me into a hotel while physically blocking me from reaching forward with my credit card, I didn’t have the words to express my gratitude. Gera waved it off, “Don’t even think about paying…you’re our guest,.stay here as long as you want! I’ll be back in 30 min to pick you up” We are partying with Boris tonight, its going to be a long crazy night!” As it was the second time Gera casually dropped the “crazy night” concept,..I was starting to wonder just what was in store for me.
Gera picked me up and we returned to his Motorcycle shop to regroup with friends before going downtown. Looking to swap out my MX boots for my hikers, I popped into the mechanics bay to retrieve them out of my panniers. Again,..I was left speechless,..there in front of me at 8 o’clock at night was the only certified BMW mechanic in Ukraine adjusting the valves on my bike. My busted windshield, which had been tenuously secured by prayers and duck tape, was now firmly bolted, with reengineered mounting sockets. “Hey Chris, dont worry about it, your bike’s in good hands, we’ve got to meet up with Boris, common lets go!”
Unreal! My valves hadn’t seen a proper BMW mechanic since Brisbane! And now I had a certified expert honeying up my wheels as I was out pulling maintenance on an excellent draft beer and inhaling my way through a high end steak. You, as the insightful blog reader, will began to imagine why my “two day plan” was rapidly becoming obsolete.
Out at the pub I met up with the gang of friends. All good wholesome types and immediately likeable…even with out the booze which was seriously flowing. Gera and Borris, the guys who picked me off the street were clearly the leaders of the group as well as the best English Speakers. Boris yelled over the music…introducing me to every one. It was a great mix of guys,..from all walks of life…from Boris the billionaire lawyer biker and Gera the premier motorsport dealer of Ukraine,..to heavy machine operators and retailers..all bond together by love of the motorcycle, and appreciation for spending a Friday night like it might their last.
With each round of beer,..came a new proposition on how the token American would spend his time in Urkaine. I took a split second to consider all the invitations,…then I sealed the deal with a toast…and my next few weeks were scheduled virtually to the minute.
These guys were Ukrainian patriots and extremely proud of their country, something I understand and respect. They were absolutely determined that I come to love their country and cultures as they did. All decisions were made, all contacts put in place,..all that was expected of me was to ride the wave and soak up the experience. For the entire time I was in Ukraine I would be living like a Cossack prince chasing luxury adventure on an iron stead.
Looking back, I still feel a bit strange about this. When hospitality had came in the past few months, there was usually a way to pay the favor back. When invited into a Ger camp I offered gifts out of my panniers, when guided over the steppes by a local, I offered fuel. I always try to give something back. But this was different,..there was nothing I could give that these guys that they didn’t already have, they wanted nothing from me except that I share the experience of there country. All attempts at catching the dinner bill, or beating the host to the cashier were crushed instantly. All I could do was make a sincere effort to communicate my gratitude, part with heartfelt thank you cards, extend invitations and carry the memory of their hospitality with me forever, and share this story.
After the pub we retired to a private club. You know, no sign and three taps on a nondescript door. I’d never been to a private club in my life.
I’m familiar with the Korean gigs, where you rent a little private room for a party, but this was an entire club. To describe what ensued as a full on party would be an understatement. Given the nature of my new friends and my desire to celebrate the crossing of a continent, I was partying a bit harder than usual. The fact that they got me to participate in Karaoke suggests how far gone I was, and the further fact that they endured my singing suggests that they were out of their minds as well. It was a historic night.
I think we stumbled out of the club at 4 or 5 in the morning. A brief debate ensued on where I was to spend the night. I argued that Gera had been kind enough to check me into a hotel in the vicinity of his shop. However, Boris had other ideas. There were a couple “firsts” that night aside from the private club, singing karaoke and enjoying it, to crashing in a master sweet of a 5 star hotel. I was blown away, there were freaking furs on the bed, original paintings on the wall, suits of armor and balcony overlooking downtown Kiev. It probably wasn’t appropriate,…and not a good indicator of my own maturity …..but…I had to try on some of that old school riding gear for size.
I spent a few more days hanging with Gera in Kiev. He took me to a local paraglider launch just outside town, but regrettably, it was blown out with high winds and rain.
view of Kiev from hotel-
Gera is an exceptional dude. Well traveled and a biker after my own heart. I’ll never forget him telling me about his history. “So as a kid growing up in kieve with rich parents,..it was sort of boring,..so I ran off to New York City and became a cab driver for a few years. That’s where I learned my English” What balls! Who does that!? And a great story at that. Since his return, Gera has become the champion quad bike rider of Ukraine, in addition to pulling off an impressive array of adventure rides into the Stanis on his Vstrom. Just recently, he’s upgraded to a fully loaded R1200GS Adventure, and is schedule to solo ride Iran in March. The dude’s got cred!
The next stage of Operation Ukrainia was for me to ride down to a small town just outside Dnepropetrosvk and visit a friend of Boris. Armed with Boris’ detailed map, a GPS waypoint, and one wicked hangover,..I left Kiev, riding south, skirting the mighty Dnieper river.
What was initially a pleasant ride became quite daunting as I found myself riding at night through a perpetual rainstorm.
The heavy rains were keeping most of the usual traffic off the streets, however there was one event I wont soon forget. I was out in the country, rain pouring down, headlight barely penetrating through the downpour. I’d just come around a corner and there in the middle of the road materialized a man in a black trench coat,…just standing there..like he was auditioning for a horror movie or something. The guy didnt even flinch,..as I just barely missed him. Super wierd and scarry. I’m guessing it was just some guy in a drunken stupor hanging out on the road in the middle of nowhere..in the rain. Maybe his old lady gave him the boot,…who knows,..I’m just glad I didnt hit him.
It was two or three hours of endurance riding in conditions that I’d normally have opted out on. But I’m a sucker for following up on commitments. I said I’d be there, so I pushed through.
The Boris map,..
although exceptional in its own right(and my favorite)…was missing some key terrain features(like roads and stuff), but in conjunction with a GPS coordinate, all was in order and I pulled up in front of Alexi’s business.
It was about 9pm,..not the ideal time for a guest to arrive, especially a stranger. Fortunately, Alexi, an experienced biker himself, fully understood. We put the bike into his garage..next to shiny R1200GS (once again,..I knew I was in good company)
Alexi and his friend’s smothered me in Ukrainian style hospitality. I was as cold and wet as a mountain trout, and they subsequently suggested I de-ice in the sauna. The word “sauna” had my attention. I would find out that Alexi’s business was a Slavic style bath house. Perfect for a biker coming off a frigid wet ride. I slipped into a set of dry clothes and my riding suite, boots and everything else was scurried off by attendants for a wash. Laundry is always an issue for a biker on the road…and I hadn’t located a wash in weeks. Alexi was aware of this,…I was hoping not from just my appearance, but from his experience as an adventure biker. Stories I heard about his exploits on a Goldwing were awesome. The man who takes a Goldwing to the dirt roads of Iceland…solo…is crazy,…crazy but awesome! Crazy and awesome are admirable attributes in my book.
My favorite story about Alexi comes out of one of his Iceland tours. It was told to me by one of his friends. I feel compelled to share a good story.
So there he is, setting up camp along a remote stretch of road deep in the wilds of Iceland. (try to imagine) Jacket turned against the cold wind, hands defrosting next to the camp stove, brewing up some atrociously instant coffee, to be followed by some main course of even lesser appeal. He’s roughing it, as a man does on an adventure. The drone of an approaching vehicle grows louder as a truck approaches along the lonely dirt road. The truck stops out of concern for the lone biker seemingly stranded in the wilds. Much to Alexi’s surprise, a drop dead gorgeous Icelandic gal leans out of window inquiring on his disposition. “Hiya, you al’right?” “You need help?”
No, thank you, I’m okay, Alexi replies. Now, its important to put things in context,..Alexi is a good look’n bloke, and had the premier bike of the time parked next to him. The gal thought a minute then made her offer. “Its gonna get real cold out her tonight, why don’t you come with me.” Stay at my place, I’ll fix you up some hot dinner. ” Alexi,..in all his admirable bravado was still caught up in adventure mode…dedicated to roughing it in the wilderness…and probably not thinking clearly under the gaze of those powerfuly blue Icelandic eyes. Resorting to primordial man instincts to demonstrate his self reliance, he pointed out the tent and cooking kit, “got everything I need right here.” And so the story goes she left (disappointed I might add), and only as the cloud of dust from her spinning wheels hit Alexi, did he thin realize his fatal error. The Zac Brown Band says it best….”dont be falling in love as love goes walking away.” Alexi’s friends LOVE this story, and continue to torment him with it to this day. “you Idiot” they would say,..as Alexi shakes his head smiling, thinking of the possibilities of it all, as he has a thousand times over. Sometimes its what didn’t happen makes the greatest story of them all.
I love that story to,..its the story of a true biker, as every long distance rider has ridden away from love at some point…only to reminisce on a cold night in the glow of lonely campfire. It tares at the soul, builds character, and leaves the rider placing his faith in the wind,..faith that it will all come together in time. For Alexi,..I’m filled with confidence that there’s a second chance, another shot at those blue Icelandic eyes. And I hope I’m there to witness, as Iceland is definitely on the list.
I joined Alexi and his friends in the spa. Beer and some truly tasty dishes arrived on a table in the spa room. A classic error I’d make more than once in Ukraine was mistaking the appetizers for the main meal. I’d chow down with enthusiasm,..filling up on epic good food,..then to my embarrassment the main course would appear and I’d nearly kill myself trying to at least get halfway through it. Then it was into the Sauna, a unique experience its own right.
In this part of the world, saunas are an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Imagine my surprise when Alexi enters with a wooden bucket laden with freshly cut tree branches. The tradition…as I would experience, is to take turn thrashing each other with these branches…until you nearly pass out from the heat generated from a full on tree-branch- whoopping in a suana. Try to imagine…I’m bare assed in a sauna with a Ukrainian Dude that I don’t really know thats twice my size …and he’s whipping me with tree branches. Is life too weird or what! Anyways…as strange as the ordeal may have seemed to me,..its a cool custom. And now I know what to expect in a Eastern European style bath house. I think I’m going to bring this cultural anomely to the US,….walk into the YMCA coed sauna,…bare naked, armed with a particularly mean tree branch…and commence to give someone a whooopping for their own good..and cultural awareness of course!
Okay, I’m exaggerating, its not really a whipping from a green twig, but more of a flushing from all the green leaves attached to the branch. At anyway, its enough drama to drive out a demon, or at the least raise your body temperature enough to kill any potential case of the snivels.
As I’ve mentioned before, everything was planned out for me to the hour, the next day- maps were put in my hand, contacts were ready and off I rode to meet up with Borris,..or more correctly Boris’ escort. I was instructed to make link up with Boris’s assistant at a service station just outside town. I was told I’d recognize them by their black SUV Lexuses, and was given license plate numbers to verify. Alexi really went over the top to make sure I didn’t get lost or wander off with the wrong folks.
Sure enough, there were two immaculately clean black SUV lexuses waiting for me. I had the pleasure of introducing myself to a very attractive assistant/translator flanked by a number of well armed body guards. I’d spend the next few days, trading the torn saddle of my motorcycle for the plush leather seat of a Lexus, surrounded by vigilant guards and receiving a personal tour of Dnepropetrosvk from a Ukrainian billionaire. This was definitely an adventure of its own kind.
Boris is not your average upper class bloke. He might even be referred to as an eccentric by his business associates, for he chooses to affiliate himself with people and activities from the entire spectrum of society. He’s not the guy in a 4 piece suite, gingerly sipping a martini at a polo club, but rather causally dressed, perpetually wearing motorcycle boots, and fully keen on worthy pursuits like motorcycles, travel, and swapping a good yarn. His list of professional pursuits go on for miles,..as does his touring experience in Europe, Russia, Africa, America, and the Middle East.
Dnepropetrosvk is a major industrial center in Ukraine.Its not a tourist attraction in its own right, but Boris’s enthusiasm for his city was contagious and I thoroughly enjoyed the sightseeing. I found it fascinating that there’s often two or three names for every location,..as each historic power(Cossak, Tzarist, Communist) to control the city enforced names that met their likened their own agenda. So it’s a bit confusing,..but as Boris is an astute scholar of local history, he managed to answer all my questions.
wwII relics,..check out those Katyusha rockets!
meeting a Russian Orthodox Priest was a very cool experience. You will notice some serious wind burn on my face…rode Russia with my windshield up due to cold/condensation problem….gives you that freaky red triangle.
Following the city tour I was put up in yet another 5 star spread,..and instructed to prepare for dinner within the hour, for I would have the honor of dining with Boris and his family.
I didn’t even know they made hotels like this….there were five rooms for one dirt bag biker and the bar in that pad was better stocked then most pubs.
I wasn’t picked up a black Lexus that night,..instead it was a jacked up ford F350, chromed out.. suitably armed with serious bumping speakers.
The driver, “Little Boris”, managed the mathematically impossible task of maneuvering this massive American monstrosity through the traffic of Dnepropetrosvk, pedal to the medal, while we jammed to ADCD at stage front decibel levels. Yep, we got some looks from folks. A decked out F350 is a big deal in the states, here it was,..well, the only one in the country.
It was a distinct pleasure to meet Boris’ wife and daughter, both which were wonderful hosts, spoke flawless English and offered intriguing conversation.
For the second time in two days I made the painful error of mistaking the appetizer for the main meal,..and nearly killed myself on the main course…which was amazing by the way! When your absolutely stuffed,..and starting to fear your food,..and it still taste amazing.. that’s when you know its fine dining..and probably worth the pain of overeating! Besides,..as a biker on the road,..you never know when the next round of good chow is coming your way. Although, if I used chow to describe the elegant food in that fine diner, the head chef would probably materialize next to me and hit me over head with a sauce pan. This is a long wordy way to say that the dinner was amazing, and almost as great as the conversation and rich experience with Boris and his beautiful wife and daughter.
A massive party ensued afterwords at the hotel..a story in which I’m sure a few of my friends would love to hear about…however, as I’m going on 10 pages now in an attempt to record this Ukraine experience,..I’ll be withholding certain tales, certain tales that are best recalled in glow of a campfire deep in the backcountry.
After a few hours sleep, I stumbled out bed..not daring to miss my next hit time of 0830. Like I said, everything was planned to the hour. I stood there behind the hotel in anticipation of meeting another famous Ukrainian biker, and supposedly some employees of Boris that would assist me in locating a paragliding spot.
They arrived by private helicopter, as you do…apparently! Boris in his infinite generosity, loaned me the use of his chopper to run off and look for paragliding sites. As we hovered over the Dneper river, I found myself pondering the extreme weirdness of life….and wondering…did someone really just loan me his helicopter?
Even though they never really pushed me, I found myself under enormous self imposed pressure to get a flight in. Not only was I using a very expensive recon asset, these guys were particularly interested in seeing how a paraglider works. At first, the pilot wanted me to jump out the door at 800ft, which I declined having no D-bag..and nor any experience in launching from a D-bag.
I did my best to explain the terrain and conditions I required for a foot launch.
So we toured around, landing here and there on random hills.
I tried very hard to make it happen, but even with such an incredible asset at my will, I never did find a paraglider launch. The country side was barren of any serious vertical terrain and even a launch from a small hill could have been fatally dangerous due to high winds. Even with all the assets in the world, I still needed mother nature to play along..and this time she wasn’t game, and I wasn’t going to risk it.
So, I compromised with an impromptu class on the Paraglider. We landed in a sheltered field behind a random farmhouse,..I pulled out the glider, explained how it worked, hooked in,..and flew the wing from ground handling position. It certainly wasn’t a big let down,..as it was an epic beautiful experience flying the contours of the Dnieper tributaries.
Afterwords, Volf and I got to know each other over coffee back at the hotel. This is an Adventure biker of the highest order. Riding light on a very capable enduro, he’d ventured far into the exotic lands of southern Kazakistan and beyond. I liked him even more as he revealed his impossibly difficult ambitions to pioneer new routes in northern Siberia. For me, few attributes offer as much credit to an adventure rider than modestly proposing ridiculously challenging motorcycle adventures that are almost certainly doomed to failure. Although for the adventure rider,..not having a go at YOUR dream is the only failure,..anything beyond trying is a technicality reserved for bystanders.
In the famous words of Digby the Great of Perth,..while looking at a 10 year old photo taken on the Canning stock route,… “mate, that sand doesn’t look that deep,…f**k it mate, have a go!” Truly …words of inspiration!
As Volf and Boris revealed the ethnography of the Dnepro region, I became enamored with Cossack culture and history…an important piece of world history that had evaded my education.
The Dnepro region during the 15th century was quite remote, lightly populated, and offered excellent natural defenses among the islands of the Dneiper river. The fiercely independent communities that arose from this region produced the unique warrior culture of the Cossacks. They were a wild look’n bunch, best portrayed in Ilya Yefimovich Repin’s painting, as he captures the historic scene of the Cossacks drafting a letter to the Sultan of Turkey(essentially responding to the Sultan’s demands of servitude, with brash letter of “piss off”) I love this painting!
This small yet incredibly capable Cossack culture, became a serious pain in ass for the great empires of Europe, Russia and Turkey.
Over the centuries,..Russia was ultimately able to dominate the Dnepro region, but knowing they’d never fully subdue the Cossacks,..they offered limited autonomy to the in exchange for military service. Even today the elite Cossack units continue to augment the Russian army with distinction, and as a people they’ve managed to maintain their culture and independence unlike any other ethnic group in the Russia empire.
Volf presented me with a gift, a pewter cast of a Cossack noble,..which I treasure as both a memory of my friends in Dnepropetrosvk and reminder to approach life with tenacity and courage of the Cossack.
As much fun as I was having in Dnepropetrosvk, Operation Ukrainia and its pressing (albight rewarding) schedule, mandated that I ride off and see more of the country…gradually riding towards Poland in my typical non linear(circular) fashion.
I had a full days drive ahead of me to get to the next rendezvous point,..Vinitsa. Borris handed me cell phone, told me to drive west for 5 hours until I saw a large white cross, at the cross I was to use the cell phone to call Borris’s buddy in Vinitsa. After being off the bike for a few days,.I welcomed the open road!
Things had been so unbelievably cherry since I landed in Ukraine, that I had let my guard down. The people, the soldiers, even the cops had all been very friendly. So I had neglected to prep my wallet, like I usually in do in case of a squeeze or robbery. So of course, the one day I’m not prepared, I make contact with corrupt police.
I wasn’t speeding, or doing anything illegal other than sticking out like..well, an American biker in Ukraine. I was making a right hand turn at about 2 mph, when I got the “stick”. They point this black and white stripped stick at you and motion for you to pull of the road. I pulled off expecting the usual paper work check and questions about the bike. I was totally caught off guard when they demanded I dismount and get in the police car. “Damn it,” I was thinking, I knew where things were going. I just felt super pissed off and I didn’t want to cooperate. I sat there in the car playing word games with coppers for about 20 min, until I realized I was not going to get out of this with out coughing up some cash. I couldn’t pull the usual,…look this is all I’ve got in my wallet take it,…cus I was actually packing a fat was of cash this time,.. so I had to negotiate. I ultimately got his asking price cut in half….I’m getting pretty good at this..for a Gringo at least, but I still felt seriously peeved. I’m willing to bet that convoy I met up with in Mongolia had gotten squeezed by the same guys at the same spot.
Looking back I think I handled the situation poorly and was quite fortunate to have only paid up about 30 USD. For one, I should have never got off the bike. Two, I should not have spoken any Russian to them. Three, shit happens, I shouldn’t let it get me riled up, regardless of perceived injustices. I’m a believer in the saying, “Its not what happens that matters, its how you react” Whatever,..now I have had the rich experience of occupying the back of not only a Peruvian and Russian cop car, but a Ukrainian cruiser as well…by far the Russian cop car was my favorite. These sort of experiences, while not exactly on my bucket list, are interesting in their own right.
Everything else ran like clockwork. I arrived at the white cross, dialed the preprogrammed number on the cell phone, and wala!…I was back in the Boris network of super cool people. Alexi(another Alexi) was immediately likable…something I’ve almost come to expect among Ukrainians. There’s never a dull moment with these folks
“Chris, are you tired, no! ..good lets ride!” “But first…lets have a drink!”
“I never drink and drive….but we are going with quads.. different!”
It was whisky, and good whisky at that. “To your journey,” Ukrainians have a talent for making toasts that are impossible to refuse!” Then it was onto the quads. I got a two minute demonstration on how to ride,..since I’m totaly lost on a 4wheeler. Then it was off into the woods…full speed,…at night! It scared the shit out of me,..but I’d be lying if I said it wasnt a blast. Alexi doesnt just ride a quadbike,…he bush bashes with it…no trails,..if he cant go around it,.he just runs over it.
“Dont worry Chris, ….no fear!” I could kill myself on this thing in a heartbeat, I was thinking. “Didn’t Gera tell me something about you breaking your neck on this thing last year?”
We were staying at Alexi’s cottage, a beautiful location overlooking a bend in the river.
As amazing as the 5star scene had been over the last week and as thankful as I am for that experience, it was relief to be outside again, grilling on a barbacue, the smell of woodsmoke, cold brisk air, hanging around a campfire, sleeping in my sleeping bag,..I felt truly comfortable in that setting. Alexi was into these things to.
Alexi had big plans for me, but a family emergency came up while I was visiting. He insisted that I stay at his cottage for as long as I liked. I thanked him but expressed my desire to continue my journey. However, an invitation came up from a friend of Alexi. I was to go horseback riding. Not one to pass up a unique opportunity, I agreed, thinking I’d just leave a bit later in the day.
What was initially an invitation to ride, turned into an amazing day in and around Bratzlav under the wonderful hospitality of Sergey.
I was greeted in the morning by Sergey and his translator. There seems to be consistent correlation between good looks and language ability made evident by translators throughout Ukraine. Irina was no exception to the rule. We sped off into the country side, and I mean SPED, as in raced. I’m thinking that while most of world puts speed limiters on their vehicles…SUVs in Ukraine are not limited,..and only have one speed…pedal to the medal. And the cops new there were consequences to arresting certain vehicles,…this white Toyota being one of them!
I’ve ranted quite a bit about the fall colors in the mostly wooded country side, so I won’t elaborate on how beautiful it was.
I was treated to an excellent and typicaly overdosed country breakfast. Beer wasn’t offered, it was insisted,…the brew being an appropriate Ukrainian breakfast beverage, as opposed to the preferred vodka, which was reserved for latter in the day. The meal was followed by coffee of European refinement.
Few things are as satisfying as heavy stomach matched with a caffeine buzz…followed by pleasant walks among romantically crumbling castles nestled in the countryside.
I was fascinated by Sergey’s stories of the region’s noble history. The land surrounding Bratzlav was at one time encompassed by a polish nobility. It was sort of a buffer zone between the polish sovernity and the ever encroaching Turkish empire. Local castles had underground tunnels running for miles to enable escape from, or routing of Turkish raiders.
As was the way of the times,..the Bolshivik revolution ended the era of nobility and great estates of the region. Reining nobles(men women and children) either fled or were shot on the spot. Their estates and palaces were converted into social service centers such sanitoriums and hospitals. Although it makes a lot sense to serve the greater social good, the demise of nobility came at the price of gradual degradation of the once incredibly beautiful architecture and landscape. Although I reminisce about the age of great estates and castles, I assume the communist revolution was a direct response to a top heavy and mismanaged society. Good or bad is irrelevant, as it was the course of a very rich history, and Sergey was proud of it, as he should be.
I had the unique experience of visiting Sergey’s factory,..where various farming equipment was produced to meet the growing demands of an international market. I gathered, that by manufacturing in Ukraine he was able to undercut European prices with high quality product. I recall him offering me hundred US dollars,..if I could break one his milking machine adapters. After a valiant attempt on my part, I failed miserably,..but only for lack of C4 plastic explosives J and a D9 dozer.
Ultimately we arrived at his private stables. I personally met all of his 15 or so horses, which he clearly adored as his own children.
Some of these were extremely high end breeds. I was given a ride on the Ukraine’s latest champion jumper- a magnificent and spirited creature.
The ride was followed by dinner at the stables. A massive spread of food was placed before us, in addition to a case of vodka.
Here I developed a real taste for caviar…something that had(for good reasons) evaded my biker’s diet over the years. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting a number of his friends and his beautiful wife…who spoke immaculate English.
Each toast was more sentimental then the last. With such sincere and meaningful speeches, raising the glass becomes a matter of honor and not to be refused. Sergey was a gentleman however, and upon my request began pouring half shots for me..so I’d survive the night. It was a warm wonderful experience and I could never fully relate the profoundness and sincerity of their hospitality.
The following morning I was treated to breakfast, a full tank, and topped off on oil. Naturally drawn to the open road,..I was ready to go,..but I left Ukraine with a heavy heart and a life time of warm memories. Who would have guessed the Ukrainians would have embraced me as they had. And therein lies the beauty of riding the world on a motorcycle.