Total mileage: 14,373
Stowaways: 1 – Sir. George Pitcher
Nuclear Exclusion Zones visited: 1
Radiation dosage picked up: 0.03 roentgens
Ford garages visited: 1
Cases of overeating leading to meat sweats: 3
American Mormon families that came to our aid: 1
Our big drive was over, visa free travel was in sight, and we could finally park up and rest, or so we thought…
We were through the Russian checkpoint and heading to the Ukrainian gates when the guards stopped us. This was usual but they wanted to see all our paperwork before we got through the gates too, the unusual part. Harry handed them over and went to the gatehouse to explain things, only to be told ‘No, no entry, wrong insurance’. I quietly sat in the van for some time and let Harry deal with this, I was wavering on the side of delirium. However, Harry’s means of communicating with foreigners is something to behold as double negatives, modal and irregular verbs and strange word choices linger into his vocabulary. I’m sure he is only trying to be polite but as non English speaking people just gawp at him it only gets worse. So I bowled up and explained in the simplest English I could that they were just wrong, sitting in no mans land between Russia and Ukraine was not high on our priority list. We knew we had to buy insurance on the other side of the border, like we had done in Russia and Mongolia as English companies won’t cover you, but an insurance policy is not a required document for crossing an international border as myself and all other border checkpoints are concerned. The young chap on the desk bless him was being so useless that I lost it and proceeded to rattle on at him in fast and furious English not even Harry could quite grasp. Turns out he didn’t speak English anyway, so the jokes on me really, but all the same he couldn’t seem to be bothered to argue and opened the gate. Ukraine lay before us.
After our new insurance was bought from a lovely lady at the border town and our local sim card was purchased we rushed to the border lorry park to shower and flop, made friends with the park puppy and cat and slept like babies until midday the next day. We headed to Kiev the next day and installed ourselves in our airbnb and didn’t move much for the next few days, whilst we washed all our clothes and Tina’s soft furnishings of the Gobi desert remnants. Harry’s brother George was flying into Kiev in a few days so we regained strength ready for tourist mode to be reactivated.
Our plan with George was to spend a few days in Kiev doing the major sights then head to Romania through the Carpathian mountains and end at Cluj-Napoca, a city in Transylvania where George would fly home from, an action packed week. And we were all pleasantly surprised by Kiev, it is far more cosmopolitan and colourful than we expected of an ex-soviet union city, especially after some Russian counterparts. Apart from a sour incident when some street sellers placed five monkeys wearing nappies all over me without me wanting or asking for this we found the Ukrainians and Kiev locals to be very charming people. I shared a very patriotic moment with a Ukrainian women on a pilgrimage as we couldn’t cross the road for about fifteen minutes as a cycling race took place. She originally thought I was a local and began to talk to me whilst I sheepishly interjected with my much practiced ‘nyet Ruski, Angliski’, her reply being ‘Ah, good’, I assumed her only English word. We began to cheer the cyclists on with shouts and fist pumps of ‘Good! Good!’ This quickly turned into her shouting what seemed to be pro Ukrainian chants and phrases as the cyclists responded back with similar ones.
Tensions are still very high between Russia and Ukraine as you all know and finding a safe place to cross the border was of much importance, we didn’t want to go too close to Crimea and areas of conflict. Likewise with Russia, if we spoke the language we may have understood some intricacies of this tension a bit better but it was summed up perfectly to us in the form of toilet paper with Vladimir Putin’s face on it. Jokes aside though the history of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine seems pretty savage and pro Ukrainian monuments and memorials are poignant reminders of this. In western Ukraine, where Ukrainian is spoken and less Russian, the slip of the Russian ‘spasiba’ meaning ‘thank you’ at a petrol station was not met with gratitude at all.
Soviet tower blocks still loom over Kiev but Parisian-esque town houses and quant leafy parks give it a far more western feel. We dined very well on local and nearby Georgian food, much to George’s excitement we had Chicken Kiev in Kiev, in a restaurant called Chicken Kiev. Some of the most delicious and perhaps authentic food we had was actually in the canteen of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Yes you read me correctly. We all knew very little about the nuclear disaster here in 1986 but came away after a full day being guided around the exclusion zone experts on it. Armed with Dosimeters to count how much radiation pollution we picked up we quite freely scampered around the deserted towns and villages, even going just over one hundred metres from the sarcophagus and exploded reactor. A new sarcophagus is currently being placed over the existing as it hasn’t quite done its job of keeping the radiation in and certain areas of the exclusion zone are quite toxic due to the intensity of the clean up. Supposedly the area is less polluted than Kiev as there is little traffic or industry but we only picked up 0.03 roentgens, still not quite sure what that means but we were assured it was less than going on an aeroplane and less than a banana my sister told me. This didn’t stop George washing all his clothes after on a sixty degree wash and nearly throwing them away…
We were not aware of the secrecy behind the initial disaster and how some people tried to cover up the immensity of the problem. Had this been addressed many people may have been spared from radiation sickness, been evacuated quicker, and the radioactive pollutants may have been controlled. We also did not know that the reactor was dangerously close to exploding again which would have certainly wiped out most of Europe, an explosion far bigger than Hiroshima or Nagasaki (if I remember correctly 100x bigger). Excuse the expression but the disaster, initial handling, clean up, and aftercare of the explosion was an absolute cluster fuck and the implications are still very prominent today. Chernobyl is in the process of being decommissioned but that will still take about one hundred years. The area of course can not be lived in permanently for thousands of years, the current workers do but live and work in rotations of two weeks to avoid health issues. Spending the day isn’t your average tourist activity but by the far best thing we did all week, perhaps even throughout this whole adventure.
Whilst all this fun and games was taking place Tina was having a necessary and far more expensive than imagined full service at Ford Kiev and when she was ready we all piled in and headed for the Carpathian mountains. In between the two we spent a night in the field of some American Mormons we met in the middle of nowhere. To cut a long story short we were looking for a campsite and asked some locals for directions. Queue Harry’s best conversing with locals technique and his brothers far more understandable shouts and actions of ‘tent’, ‘sleep’, ‘camper van’ they took us to their village, then transferred us into the care of their neighbour who took us to these American Mormons down the road. Marlin who seemed to be running the joint said forget that, you can camp in our field where there is a pole barn with a concrete floor and allowed us to set our bbq up on there. He even drew us a road map on his used napkin. They were so kind and it was just the weirdest circumstance. George got his first taste of wild camping and had a very sleepless night in a tent but it was nice to be back out in the van and we had our first bbq since Norway.
The Carpathian mountains are glorious and we had wiggly journey through them to the Romanian border. It was a shame we couldn’t spend longer here but I for one will definitely go back there. Time seems to have stood still in some of the villages, both sides of the border, as we overtook horses and carts and people were actually wearing the folk style clothing we had seen in the markets. The mountains feel really bountiful as the apple trees and grape vines were groaning with fruit, and the biggest mushrooms we have ever seen were being sold on the roadside. The area known as Bucovina in Romania is famed for traditional methods of farming that are still in practice along with painted monasteries, the tinkering of goat bells mixed with religious chanting from the monasteries was magical.
We had booked another apartment in Cluj-Napoca, the second biggest city in Romania in the North-west. We tried to be touristy and productive but the huge gothic cathedral was closed for repairs, the Transylvanian museum was shut and the art gallery we went to was fairly uninspiring. Instead we happily wandered around and filled our bellies with local delicacies and a lot of grilled meats. Although it is a city it has the feel of a large town, there seems to be a lot going on but then not an awful lot at the same time. It was here we said our farewells to George who sadly had to go back to work, having three in the van is a lot of fun and there are plans in the pipe line for him returning to see us and Tina when we finally get to Spain.
This is the part where the trip grounded to a halt for us. We had left Cluj and were heading for deepest darkest Transylvania when I got that call you never think will happen to you in real life. As I write this now my heart is franticly beating inside my chest as it was my sister on the phone to say my amazing, beautiful, and healthy mother had very unexpectedly passed away that morning. I don’t really have the words to write about this and express this well now, I am not sure I ever will, I can hardly even remember the events of that afternoon, but writing this post without mentioning it is like not addressing the elephant in the room. I am at home for now to be with my family and our friends however I know my mother is proud and was in awe of this trip and the van conversion. My sister had said that the day before she died she was finding us on the map and excitedly trying to figure out our route to Istanbul where we would meet her and my father, as well as Harry’s parents, for my twenty fifth birthday. We won’t be making it to Istanbul this time but Harry has just gone back to the van and is now in Slovenia after spending a week with his father driving to Ljubljana via Budapest. If you ask him nicely in the comment section he may do another post about it, his voice on this blog is long over due. When the time is right I will go back to Tina as I know my dear Mama would have wanted that, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and I have her and my father to thank for my desire to travel and adventure.