On Leaving Oral on Friday, I crossed the Kazakh border into Russia and decided to crank out the miles and push through that section of Russia to get to Ukraine. On the first entry into Russia back in April, we had passed through Kursk, Voronezh and Saratov with none of them making a very positive impression. I saw no point in wasting days in the same places on the way back.
The drive from Oral to Saratov is about 540km but I ended up doing more, as a major bridge was closed on the approach to Saratov. The resulting detour and wrong turns added mileage and time. For some reason, the Garmin Monterra acts up in tis part of Russia. For a known distance of 400-plus km, the Monterra wanted to route me up to Moscow and back, for a total of 1200-plus km. I therefore had to ignore the Garmin for the most part and rely on the paper map and street signs. After about 12-hours of driving, I stopped at a roadside cafe for dinner and spotted a pond/lake across the road.After eating dinner, I drove over to the pond, parked up and climbed in the back to sleep.
I left the pond about 5.00am on Saturday morning and began a long day of driving towards the Russia-Ukraine border. By 10.00am, I was feeling very tired and felt myself nodding. Even a bottle of Kazakhstan Cola couldn’t keep me awake! I found a shady spot at the side of the road and pulled over. I took off my shoes and climbed into the back of the Defender where I slept for about 45 minutes. Damn, it’s handy having the bed set up in the back of the vehicle! After my nap, I resumed the drive and didn’t feel sleepy again for the rest of the day. And it was a long day! I pushed on until I was only 40km from the Ukraine border – over 500 miles (800km) for the day. I was ready to sleep in the Defender again but I was also aware that there was a World Cup game on TV that night (Argentina v Belgium). As I passed through a small town, I spotted a motel sign next to a car wash. I stopped to check it out and was able to get a single room with e-suite bathroom for just over $20. So I checked in and watched football in my room. The car washing and accompanying noise went on until about 11.00pm. The car wash was open again at 7.45am Sunday, so I was able to get the Defender spruced up before crossing the border.
I should add that the Russian scenery has improved significantly since April. When we passed through the first time it was all very drab with empty fields and bare birch trees. Now the trees are full of leaves and the fields are full of crops – mostly sunflowers, wheat and corn. It definitely improves the driving when you have nice scenery to look at.
I arrived at the Russia-Ukraine border about 9.00am and it looked as though they were just opening. The Russian side was fairly smooth and then, on the Ukraine side, one of the border yards tried to rip me off! She asked me if I wanted to change any money – not a normal practice of border guards, but I assumed that she was trying to make a little on the exchange. I usually just withdraw local cash from an ATM but agreed to have her change up a $20 US note. Once I handed over the money, one of her colleagues asked that I give him $20 also. That was a red-flag that this was potentially something other than a currency exchange. The woman with my $20 sent me forward to the passport control window and indicated that she’d follow me with the Ukrainian money (I never saw her again). To keep the story short, I told another guard that the woman had my money and that it seemed that she had stolen it. He told me she had left the post to go to the bank to change the money. I told him I wanted to speak to the person in charge. After waiting for some time, my $20 reappeared (with a story that the bank was closed so it couldn’t be changed). Then, as I was leaving the post, another guard asked me to give him money to buy tea or coffee! I came through this same post in April without experiencing cheating, stealing or begging but I have since heard that similar behaviour has occurred in Ukraine over the years.
Once in Ukraine, I headed directly to Kiev and checked into the Rus Accord Hotel, the same hotel that we stayed at on the way through in April. I headed down to the Maidan to see if anything had changed. Now that summer weather is here, the area has lots of outdoor cafes, bars and people generally out enjoying the evening. The protestors tents are still there but it is clear that the government has begun the work of repairing the sidewalks where all of the bricks were dug up as ammunition.
I’m hoping to be able to visit Chernobyl whilst in Kiev but the requirement for several days of advance notice for government permits may thwart this again. I also hope to get the Defender serviced whilst here.