Category Archives: Ukraine

From Russia with Love – Yalta to Elista 26 September to 12 October 2011

After 11,000kms and six months of pedalling, we’re finally in Russia.  We’ve been here over a week and I’m happy to report that contrary to the prevailing opinion of the doomsayers (both those at home and those we’ve met on the way), we have yet to be fined by the police, run off the road or mugged by the locals.  In fact, it all feels pretty friendly and normal here….although we have both been ‘mugged’ by ticks and experienced the Russian health service first hand.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself….the last blog entry left off with us still in Crimea, catching up on a few chores in Yalta.  Chores completed (including getting the tandem frame welded – don’t ask!), we’d planned to get an early start for a full day’s pedalling towards Russia, but a couple of huge cruise ships had just docked on the promenade and as we stopped to take a couple of photos of Lenin we ended up being mobbed by Dutch, American and French tourists, all keen to talk to us about the bike and our travels.  Great fun as usual, but what should have been a 5 minute photo stop turned into an hour or more of chitchat.  Honestly, I don’t know where time goes!

Keith wanted a photo of the bike and me alone in front of Lenin....but people kept coming to talk to us.  :-)

Keith wanted a photo of the bike and me alone in front of Lenin….but people kept coming to talk to us. :-)

The road from Yalta to Alushta follows a trolleybus route (which continues to Simferopol and is the longest trolleybus route in the world) and has a fair number of large vehicles along it, but the tarmac was in good condition and the coastal scenery continued to delight. 

Museum and monument to sea disasters.

Museum and monument to sea disasters.

After Alushta though, we found the holy grail of Ukrainian cycle touring…..decent tarmac AND hardly any traffic!  Alushta to Feodosiya was without a doubt my favourite bit of pedalling in our Ukrainian trip, even though it was the most arduous physically.  The hills followed each other in quick succession, climbing from sea level to 300+ metres and then back down to sea level, and then, straight back up again.  We were grinding out just 50km a day, most of which was crawling at 5-6kph with a few 6-8 minute bursts of 60kph exhilaration, and perhaps 3 or 4 km of level riding in the entire day, but it was just lovely.  Quiet, peaceful, unhurried, beautiful….just lovely.  We would either camp on the beach or hidden by trees overlooking the sea, and the limestone hillside grew wilder and more rugged with each climb. 

Rugged beauty accessible without resorting to dirt trails.

Rugged beauty accessible without resorting to dirt trails.

We were doing it the easy way though, as we discovered when we met some Russian cycle tourists who’d decided to cycle up over the high peaks (1100+ metres) off-road…and had been dragging their bikes up and down rocky trails for the last two days and camping at altitudes which saw ice forming in their water bottles overnight.  We were quite content with tarmac thank you very much and the sun was still shining enough for Keith to be cycling topless (the tart!).

After Feodosiya, the weather started to feel a little more autumnal, and in the space of 24 hours we went from topless tartiness to long-sleeves and gloves…and then waterproofs.   As well as saying goodbye to the sun, we said goodbye to the stunning coastal scenery and constant climbs….it was now flat or rolling farmland all the way to Kerch where we’d get the ferry to Russia.  The only thing of note in that section was the sudden and unexpected lack of roadside vegetable stalls, which meant we had to buy some tinned peas and sweetcorn from a ‘producti’ shop.  Ukrainian (and indeed Russian) shops are, well, to be frank, a slightly bonkers experience.  I think it was probably in Romania where we first started to come across shops where all the goods were barricaded behind the counter and you had to ask the shopkeeper to reach whatever it was you wanted, but for the most part we used supermarkets there (Carrefour and PennyMarket were familiar haunts) where we could browse, pore over labels and work out contents and prices in our own time.  In Crimea, however, particularly in the smaller towns but also in cities too, we found it harder to locate supermarkets so shopped more often at ‘producties’.  The most bonkers ones would work like this: you’d enter the shop and be confronted with a counter running around all four walls, rendering all goods inaccessible.  If you were lucky, there’d be a few other customers in the shop, so whilst they were being served, you could wander about, peering over the counter trying to identify items you wanted to buy.  If you were really lucky there’d also be price labels.  If you were less fortunate the shopkeeper would want to serve you immediately, and then would not serve anyone else until you were done so you’d be praying no-one else would come into the shop.  Anyhow, in either case, you’ve asked for things you know the names for – bread, water, cheese, wine – but have had to guess at the type of wine and ask the price of a number of bottles, and tried to work out if the cheese is priced per kilo or per packet, and you’ve managed to identify some other things you need and obtained them by pointing, but half your shopping list remains unaccounted for, but you decide you’ll manage with what you’ve got so you try to pay, and then you discover that you can’t pay for everything at the same till.  Oh no, that would be far too normal.  You have to pay for wine and toilet paper at the left hand counter, water and cheese at the middle one and bread and everything else at the right hand counter…still being served by the same lady who has to trot round her side of the counter with your items.  Utterly, utterly baffling.  Variations upon this theme include the shops where the serving girl is talking to her boyfriend and is not going to serve you any time soon, the shops where the lady is on the phone and not going to serve you any time soon, the shops where there is a different woman at each till and you only want to queue once at each so have to work out which items are in that bit of the shop, but inevitably there’s something you need to go back for after you’ve then queued at other bits of the shop for other things, and then my favourite most baffling practice is having some delicious looking cakes on top of the counter, which you think will go down nicely for dessert that evening, but for some reason they’re not for sale.  What on earth is going on???????  Has no-one here realised this is just an insane way to shop???

Anyhow, thank goodness for supermarkets.  I’d go mad if I had to shop at producties all the time.  We stock up wherever and whenever we can.  That said, some of the producti cakes are really tasty if you can persuade them to sell you some.

Further shopping frustration was encountered when we reached Kerch and tried to buy tickets for the ferry to Russia.  The ticket desks were initially closed and we were told would open in 20 minutes time.  We stood outside with the bike and after 20 min went back in to discover a big queue, which we joined, but somehow the queue in front of us spread sideways a lot and we kept ending up further back, until finally after about an hour, the desks opened and it became a bit of a free-for all, but by then we’d discovered our elbows are just as pointy as Russian and Ukrainian ones so made reasonably good progress up the queue and managed to get tickets for both us and the bike with less difficulty than we’d initially feared.  We then made the Ukrainian border guard’s day by rolling into view on our long rig.  He was very friendly and escorted us through in front of the queuing cars.  And then there we were….on the ferry….on our way to Russia….and more than a little bit nervous about getting through border control. 

On the ferry, about to arrive in Russia.

On the ferry, about to arrive in Russia.

The visas had been really expensive, the paperwork had been confusing, and we’d had to get business visas even though we’re tourists, which we’d been assured was the thing to do and so long as the right ticks are in the right boxes no-one actually cares if you’re a tourist or a businessman, but I still wasn’t sure what I was meant to say if questioned, or indeed which box we were meant to tick on the visa registration forms that we were given on the boat.  In the end, for consistency, we ticked ‘business’ as our purpose of travel and contrived to look as professional as we could under the circumstances.

Once off the ferry, the foot passengers all made a mad dash for a door into the customs building, and Keith and I pedalled at the head of the vehicle queue to the border guard dealing with cars, who promptly separated us and sent me in to join the back of the queue of foot passengers, which had been further swelled by the cars’ passengers who knew the routine and had all leapt out of their cars whilst I tried to work out what the guard was telling me to do.  Bah.  Keith then got through fairly smoothly but I was a further AGE waiting my turn indoors.  I was asked a few questions that I couldn’t answer as they used vocabulary we hadn’t covered in Russian class but at last we were re-united and on our way into Russia, for about 8km until we came to a permanent police stop where they also wanted to look at our passports for about 20 minutes.  We have no idea why, but nothing untoward happened apart from it was a frustrating delay as the night was drawing in and we needed to find somewhere to camp.

Camping has been a bit more difficult in Russia, especially at this time of year as the crops are now mostly harvested so there are no lovely big fields of sweetcorn or sunflowers to hide behind, and the way the Russian fields are laid out is different to other parts of Europe.  Previously we’d invariably find a nice thick line of trees around the edge of fields, with a farmtrack running alongside to provide access.  In Russia, there are hardly any tracks, and the trees between fields stop short of the roadside by some 100m or so, and the fields are bloody huge (1-2km wide) so we have to go a long way between tree lines and then have to hope it’s one of the few tree lines with an access track, or contemplate hauling over a freshly ploughed field (not really a viable option).  Anyhow, we’ve managed OK so far, but we have to start looking a lot earlier than normal or risk having to ride in the dark, and it’s now getting dark at about 6.30, even though we moved our clocks forward an hour when we arrived in Russia.

Despite Russia having been something of a focus for us for the last six months, we hadn’t really had much of a plan for what we wanted to do when we got here.  Partly because it seemed so far away and we were busy researching the places we were travelling through on the way, and partly because we didn’t know how much time we’d have here or where we’d be going to next, and partly because we’re just a little bit disorganised.  We entered Russia with no map to speak of, but had a rough idea that the seaside resort of Anapa, on the Black Sea coast, would be a good first stop to find a hotel and get our visas registered (something you must do within 3 working days of arriving in Russia and if you stay anywhere longer than 3 days whilst there).  We then thought we might head to Sochi, on the basis that the weather might remain better longer if we stayed south, but after buying a map at a petrol station we changed our minds.  The route out to Sochi looked even hillier than the south coast of Crimea, and whilst we’d enjoyed the scenery and quiet road from Alushta to Feodosiya, we reckoned that with Sochi about to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, the road leading to it would be fairly busy with trucks taking building supplies there, and from Sochi there wasn’t anywhere obvious for us to go next that didn’t involve rather high mountain passes…which we really didn’t fancy.  Then whilst in Anapa we heard that Keith’s parents have finally completed on their house sale, so we will be pausing our travels for the winter and flying to Northern Ireland to help them renovate their new home.  That gave us a bit more impetus to make the most of what, suddenly although not really unexpectedly, would be our last couple of weeks on the road.  We decided to risk the weather and head north east across the Kuban Steppe to Elista, capital of the Autonomic Republic of Kalmykia  and apparently the only Buddhist enclave in Europe, and from there back west to Rostov on Don, where we’d fly back to Northern Ireland (via Moscow and London).  It was nice to have a plan and we left Anapa in high spirits, determined to make the most of the remainder of this instalment of our travels.  Plus I, for some reason which currently escapes me, had the notion there was something rather romantic about pedalling across the wide, open spaces of the Russian steppe.  How wrong I was.  In reality it’s really, really, really boring. 

Enjoying the romance of the steppe.

Enjoying the romance of the steppe.

Being chased by dogs was actually a welcome break from the tedium.

Being chased by dogs was actually a welcome break from the tedium.

Endless fields, giving way to endless grassland, interspersed with the odd clump of trees or small village.  Things started well enough with a nice tailwind and we were zipping along at 30kph doing 130km days, but then the wind direction changed, and we spent far too many days slogging along at 15kph, unable to hear each other speak because of the wind, with nothing to look at but the road, the grass or my monotonously pumping knees.   

As usual though, it’s the people who make a trip and most of the Russians we’ve met have proved to be just as friendly and generous as anyone else.  So the tedium has been broken in a nice way by cars tooting merrily, people waving and stopping to take photos of us and offer us drinks (non-alcoholic) and chocolate, and when we run out of people there’s still a fairly regular supply of woofing dogs which amuse me by their ‘bravery’ as they chase after us but never quite dare catch us.

The tedium was also broken in a less pleasant manner when I awoke one morning and discovered a small brown tick firmly embedded in my inner thigh.  I was not best pleased, but had to be grown-up about it so swallowed my disgust and set about trying to extract it.  I’d read about how to deal with ticks before we left home, but that was a long time ago…..were you meant to twist them or pull them?  One was definitely not recommended, but could I recall??  Of course not.  So I poked and rummaged and the damn thing kept wiggling its legs in a very off-putting manner, and eventually I pushed the tweezers as deeply as I could to get a grip on its head, and pulled steadily.  Well, my method clearly wasn’t quite right as it came to pieces and I was left with its mouthparts firmly embedded in my leg.  I wasn’t at all happy about the way the morning was panning out, but then Keith inspected his own legs and discovered he’d got a little passenger too, and suddenly I felt a whole lot better.  It’s really true what they say about a problem shared you know. 

Keith’s attempt at tick extraction was as unsuccessful as mine so we decided we’d better seek medical advice.  We’ve both been vaccinated for tick borne encephalitis, but couldn’t recall whether that meant we were OK or if we still needed treatment, and we also weren’t too pleased about the bits of tick still embedded in our legs. Luckily we weren’t too far away from a large town, so I drew a passable picture of a tick and went into the first ‘apteka’ to see if they could help or whether we needed to find a doctor.  They advised we go to the ‘polyclinica’ so after some fun and games trying to find out where that was we eventually found ourselves at the hospital.  No-one spoke English, but we managed to explain our predicament and I’d kept the bits of ticks that we’d got out so we were able to show the doctor how small they were (small is good I think….they probably hadn’t fed too much….plus we were pretty sure we’d picked them up only the previous lunchtime where there’d been quite a lot of insects bothering us in general).  The nurse had a rummage in Keith’s leg, but couldn’t get the bits out, so they just stuck a dressing over it and told us which ointment we needed to buy from the apteka….and then took pity on us as I hunted for a pen and paper to write down the name of the ointment and just gave us a half-used tube of it for free.  In fact, we didn’t get charged a thing for the whole experience.  We weren’t sure whether we’d need to pay or not so had been to the bank en route, but apart from the initial difficulties in working out where to go and who to speak to, the whole medical process was remarkably smooth and speedy.  And of course everyone admired the bike and gave us a good send-off as we pedalled away trying not to dislodge our dressings in the process.

The staff at Kropotkin Polyklinika.

The staff at Kropotkin Polyklinika.

I suppose we should be happy we’ve not picked up more passengers after so long living wild, but I have to say I’ve been a bit nervous about peeing in the bushes since then….but where’s a girl to go???

Statue in Elista

Statue in Elista

Anyhow, medical predicament dealt with, we carried on into the continuing headwind, over the tedious, monotonous steppe until we came to a gradual rise (oooh, excitement) and then as we rounded a bend at the top, Elista revealed itself to us. 

Prayer wheel and pagoda.

Prayer wheel and pagoda.

It really doesn't feel like we're in Russia.

It really doesn’t feel like we’re in Russia.

It was a strange sight.  After hours of pedalling with nothing but the occasional dilapidated farm to break the grassy view, we were suddenly confronted with a sizeable and vibrant town, and not only that, but the majority of inhabitants are of Mongolian descent and the streets are full of Buddhist temples and statues, so all of a sudden we felt like we’d been transported several thousand kilometres further east….except the signs are still in Cyrillic.  There’s a beautiful park running alongside the busy main road, so we stopped for lunch there before looking for a wifi-enabled hotel at a reasonable price.  Sadly this was not to be found so after riding round town and then out of town for several kilometers, we ended up back at the first place we’d been to: a big Soviet-style hotel with grim-faced receptionist and exhorbitant prices….but it was the best priced place with wifi and we need to book flights and sort out how to get the bike and trailer back to the UK…so needs must.  Hopefully we’ll get the chance to do some sightseeing too when we’ve got our internet work done.  So far all we’ve managed to do outside of the hotel has been a stroll round the market today where Keith bought some ‘Kalmyk tea’, which is very weak, very milky and floating with butter in the Tibetan style, and really only palatable if you convince yourself you’re drinking a rather oily cuppa soup….but even then we still tipped most of it away behind a tree.  Oh dear, and there we were thinking we were becoming seasoned travellers. 

Odessa to Yalta 14 – 26 September

Ode to Elena, our guardian angel in Odessa:

There once was a girl from Odessa

Who coped very well under pressure

When two cyclists she saw

Whose campsite was no more

She invited them home – God bless her

Once again, the kindness of strangers has made our trip especially memorable.  We’d arrived in Odessa slightly unprepared with no guidebook or street map and no idea of what the city had to offer.  We meandered around for a while, bought a street map from a newsagent kiosk but still couldn’t work out where the actual city centre was.  There was no signage for either the centre or a tourist information office, so in the end we made our way to the main train station and tried to work things out from there…with little success.  Our next step was to find a Macdonald’s and get logged on….surely there would be some info on the internet about things to see and cheap places to stay.  We eventually established that there was a campsite called ‘Delphin’ about 13km out of town, so, as time was ticking along, we had a quick ride round what looked like the main streets of the city and then headed out along a busy highway to where ‘Delphin’ was marked on our street map.  Unfortunately, when we got there, we discovered that the campsite had been closed down and turned into a car showroom.  Damn!  It was clear from our map that we’d be unlikely to find any wild camping opportunities for many kilometres, and in any case we’d wanted to get the computer charged, photos sorted out, the previous blog entry written up and posted, some research done for when we get to Russia, and, time permitting, also head back into Odessa to try again to find the sights.  We enquired at a couple of nearby hotels which were expensive and had no wifi, and in the end, reluctantly paid for a beachside chalet, where at least we could wash ourselves and our clothes, plug the computer in and write up the blog if not post it.  This was where we met our guardian angel, Elena, on her way home from a ride on her very nice SRAM-equipped Specialised Epic mountain bike, which we duly admired.  She spoke excellent English so we chatted for ages and not only did she tell us about a nearby cafe that had free wifi but she also very kindly offered to meet us the next day to show us the best parts of Odessa.  We said we had quite a lot of computer chores to do, but would text her and arrange to meet if we were going to have time to go into Odessa.  As ever, our blog writing and photo sorting took far longer than anticipated, so at 3pm, we decided that we would not have time to see Odessa, but would quickly post the blog from the cafe and then ride off in search of a wild camp.  We texted Elena to thank her and explain, and then whizzed over to the cafe, where, to our surprise, Elena was waiting for us.  She said we should stay with her and her husband and son that night.  They would show us the city and we could use their wifi.  Of course, we said thank you very much and proceeded to have a wonderful evening.  Odessa is gorgeous and somehow we’d totally failed to find the main tourist attractions as we’d ridden round aimlessly on our own the day before.  It was so much nicer strolling the streets on a warm evening with a couple of locals, chatting about everything from Odessa’s history to bike components and mountain bike racing, to whisky tasting.  Yevgen and Elena are members of a whisky club in Odessa and took us to see the tasting room which is lined with hundreds of bottles of rare, and not so rare, whiskies.  If you’ve seen Keith’s whisky and spirit collection you’ll understand that we felt we’d found a pair of kindred spirits in Elena & Yevgen.

Yevgen, Keith & Elena in whisky heaven!

Yevgen, Keith & Elena in whisky heaven!

Brighton Mitre cycling club's representative in Ukraine.

Brighton Mitre cycling club’s representative in Ukraine.

Back in their flat, after a delicious meal, the co-incidences kept coming.  Yevgen told us that through his work he’d discovered that one of his British clients shared his interest in cycling so they exchanged a number of personal emails on that topic in addition to their business ones.  The British client had then asked Yevgen for his home address, and a few days later a club jersey had arrived in the post.  It was definitely one of those ‘small world’ moments for us when Yevgen went and changed into his Brighton Mitre Cycling Club jersey!  Of course, as we left, Keith gave Yevgen his Bec C.C. jersey so he’ll have something tasteful to wear in future. 😉

It was with great reluctance that we left Elena and Yevgen’s and we hope very much that we can return their hospitality if they make it to the UK sometime.

Back on the busy Ukrainian roads, we gritted our teeth and made slow but steady progress towards Crimea.  It has to be said it wasn’t the most enjoyable riding of our trip.  There were some stretches of good tarmac with nice wide hard shoulders, but, sadly, there were also far too many kilometres of rippled, uneven tarmac, with little or no hard shoulder and a wearisome stream of cars, coaches and lorries.  On the worst sections, the road was barely wide enough for two coaches to pass, and we were frequently in a battle of wills with six-axled juggernauts to hold our place on the road and not be squeezed onto the gravel strip at the side.  Even with a fully functioning bike we wouldn’t have wanted to be forced into potholes too often, but we were acutely aware of the cracks in the rear rim that we’d spotted in Romania, and were trying to ride the bike as gently as possible until we could pick up the replacement in Sevastopol, still over 500kms away.  At one point our map showed a minor road running parallel to the main road, so we escaped to that for a break from the constant roar of traffic and beep of horns, but after 15 kilometres of creeping cautiously along a broken stretch of crumbling concrete slabs we decided to take our chances with the lorries again.  It would take us a long time to get to Russia at 10kph.

Travelling along main roads has also meant our camping opportunities have been a bit more restricted than we’d become used to in Romania.  Ukraine is bursting with produce at this time of year, which not only increases the number of lorries on the road but also means that every lay-by and field entrance is filled with stalls selling everything from peppers and aubergines to honey, pickled mushrooms, wine and dried fish.

No danger of us starving in Ukraine.

No danger of us starving in Ukraine.

Sometimes there’d be just an elderly babushka sitting on a stool offering a bowl of grapes, and at other times we’d see a 200m stretch of stalls selling wholesale.  It meant we never went short of fruit or veg, but did make it a bit frustrating trying to find somewhere to sneak off unobserved into a field at nightfall.  On the night we left Odessa we thought we’d found a great spot to camp in a gap in a line of trees separating two fields of grapevines.  It was a good half a kilometre back from the road so the roar of the traffic was reduced to a tolerably dull grumble and we were looking forward to a good night’s sleep.  We’d pitched the tent as dusk fell, had finished cooking and were just about to lift the first forkful of food into our mouths when two men pushing bicycles appeared from further along the vineyard.  We said good evening but they were evidently not pleased to see us.  We eventually worked out they were security guards for the vineyard and were about to let their savage guard dogs out for the night.  They said we must pack up and move immediately.  B*gger.  One guard went away and the other stayed while we gobbled down our meal.  Conversation was limited due to linguistic incompatibility, but we offered him some bread, cheese and wine and that seemed to break the tension a bit.  We dismantled the tent and repacked our bags and he escorted us out of the field, across the main road and into another field full of vines where he said there’d be no dogs and we could stay the night.  We’d hoped to be able to pitch our tent again, but instead were led into a small metal hut containing two ancient beds, a table, an old stove and a chair.  There was an awkward pause.  We weren’t sure what was expected of us.  The security guard motioned for us to be seated, so we perched nervously on the edge of one of the grubby, rickety beds, and tried to understand as he proceeded to address us at length, in rapid Russian, and in a tone of some seriousness.  Oh dear, was this good or bad?  Were we still in trouble?  Finally understanding dawned.  He was inviting us to spend the night in his hut provided we were gone by eight the next morning.  This was not at all what we wanted, but what could we do?

Our vineyard 'hotel'.

Our vineyard ‘hotel’.

Not the most salubrious accommodation.

Not the most salubrious sleeping quarters.

It was a horrible little shed.  Unlit and cramped, with two filthy, sagging mattresses, plus it was just a handful of metres from the noisy main road.  But, it was an offer made in kindness (we hoped) and by someone who we didn’t want to get on the wrong side of, so we gritted our teeth, smiled our thanks, and got the vodka out to cement our new friendship.  It seemed the best thing to do.  A few more guards turned up, and we felt increasingly nervous about our belongings as they milled around smoking and talking amongst themselves, but at last they went to guard the vines and we were left to go to sleep.  Well, perhaps not exactly to sleep under the circumstances, but we lay down to rest in our clothes, not touching the bedding any more than was necessary, and awaited the release of morning.  There were scamperings and nibbling noises through the night causing us to repeatedly check our panniers for rodent damage, and then the wind began to blow, scattering some rain and disturbing the trees and bushes near the hut.  It sounded like someone was walking round the outside, the metal walls distorting and magnifying sounds that we could have easily dismissed from the familiarity of our tent, but which caused some rather vivid and disorientating dreams when I did eventually drift into sleep.  As morning dawned though, and we awoke to discover we hadn’t been robbed or murdered in our sleep, we felt a bit silly.  It really had been a genuine offer of help, even if it hadn’t been one we’d particularly wanted.  We have decided to try to be less mistrustful of people… and have removed fields of grapevines from our list of likely spots to pitch our tent.

Since leaving Odessa, we’ve noticed that more people are smiling at us and the Pino again, and the blank looks we received when we first entered Ukraine seem to have happened in a different country.  Whenever we stop we attract the usual crowd of enquirers and photographers and we’ve got our bit of patter off to a tee now, helped by the purchase of a 1:3,750,0000 map of Europe and pointing to the total kilometres on our speedo.  One question that causes us continuing problems though is ‘How much did the bike cost?’  We never know whether to tell the truth or not, and to be honest find the question a bit rude, particularly when it’s asked outright with no preamble or even a smile by way of greeting.  We’ve taken to being a bit abrupt ourselves on those occasions, either feigning ignorance or acting outraged and telling them to look it up on the internet if they’re that bothered.

An overpriced memento.

An overpriced memento.

We’re also beginning to think we’re missing a trick by not charging for the hundreds of photos that people take of us.  We realised this when I persuaded Keith to dip into our budget for 20 gryvnia (about £2) for a photo of me holding some kind of bird of prey near a tourist attraction, and the bird guy then tried to charge us 40 gryvnia because he’d (unilaterally) chosen to take extra pictures of the bird in different poses (sitting still and wings aloft).  We refused to pay as we’d only agreed to 20 gryvnia, and now, every time we see a camera pointed our way, we grin and mentally add another 20 gryvnia to our budget.  We reckon that even a very conservative estimate of two photos each day of our almost 6 month trip, at 20 gryvnia a time, would more than cover the cost of the new trailer and other unexpected expenses.  And our landlord here in Yalta has just informed us that his friend saw us on Ukrainian TV yesterday!  We have no idea how or when this happened.  I only hope I was smiling and not looking grumpy because of the speeding juggernauts.

Anyhow, stardom aside, it’s always nicest when we meet people who are genuinely excited by and interested in our trip and we wished we could have stayed longer in Kherson where we met a whole bunch of enthusiastic cyclists from the local bike club.  They were riding round the city raising awareness of their club (they’ve increased membership from 80 to 450 active members in the last year!) and spotted me guarding the bike outside a supermarket whilst Keith picked up a few bits and bobs for dinner.  A solo cyclist had already stopped for a chat and had noticed the wheel of our trailer had punctured, so he had insisted on helping me fix it, when six or seven other riders appeared and began enthusiastically asking questions, taking pictures, and also joining in with helping to fix the puncture.  They were a great bunch and I was given a load of reflective strips to put on the trailer and really enjoyed chatting to them, and was very sorry not to be able to take them up on their offer of going for a coffee with them…but we really wanted to get some more kilometres done, and in any case Keith was still shopping.

Super-friendly members of Kherson cycling club.

Super-friendly members of Kherson cycling club.

After they left, I thought briefly of checking that the trailer wheel was fully pumped up and properly seated in the dropouts, but then someone else came over to admire the bike, and then someone else, and I was trying to return the tools to their proper place and make sure all maps and things were accounted for, so what with one thing and another I forgot, and then Keith came out of the shop and we started packing food away, and then another group of riders from the same club came over so we had the whole Q&A and photo session again and even got an escort out of town to make sure we got on the right road (have I mentioned Ukraine doesn’t go in for useful signage that often?  Loads of info about which hotel or shop might be down a particular street, but very little about which towns you might come to).  We left Kherson with happy smiles on our faces until about 5km down the road when we went over a bump in the tarmac and the trailer wheel was jettisoned from the dropouts.   For once there wasn’t a juggernaut on our tail so thankfully the wheel wasn’t run over by anything, but the mudguard is now totally bent out of shape and the reflector is pointing skywards.  I was cross with myself for having failed to check it had been replaced properly by the multitude of helpers, and Keith was furious with whoever hadn’t tightened up the skewer properly.

Of course, no-one intended the mistake and we just had to learn from it and then put it behind us, which is what we did, helped in no small manner by the following day’s tandem-maintenance challenge which made a detached trailer wheel seem small beans.

Our bike’s rear wheel, which had begun to develop a series of small cracks back in Romania, was not lasting as well as we’d hoped.  With 200km to go to Sevastopol, we decided that the cracks were just too severe to continue safely.  We came to this decision rather inconveniently one evening whilst camping in a nice field about 10km from the nearest town.   So the next morning we decided to try hitching.

I’ve never hitched before and was a bit worried about the whole thing…not to mention a little sceptical that anyone in their right mind would stop for a pair of grubby cyclists with a large tandem & trailer.  Sure enough, after an hour, during which two people had stopped, but only to take us not our gear, we gave up on that plan and rode gingerly back to the town to enquire about trains.

Soviet reminders in rural Crimea.

Soviet reminders in rural Crimea.

The train to Sevastopol departed just once a day, first thing in the morning, so of course it was too late for that day, and we couldn’t understand whether it would be possible to take the bike on board or not, so we went to the bus station, to be told that it would be at the driver’s discretion whether or not we could take the tandem on the bus.  It was another couple of hours until the Sevastopol bus was due, so we had some lunch and watched other buses come and go.  None of them looked very big and we seriously doubted whether the Pino would fit into the luggage compartment, even if dismantled.  So we decided to give up on the bus and give hitching another go, after first procuring a piece of cardboard and a marker pen from a market-stall holder to write up a sign, and also having a nice chat with some kids, one of whom spoke English and phoned her dad who then called his mates to see if they who could help us…unfortunately no-one could, but it was very decent of him to call round.  So, we headed back towards the road…just in time to see passengers boarding an enormous coach with Sevastopol marked on the front.  Oh my god, that was our bus….and there was every chance that the Pino would fit after all….if we could persuade the driver to take us AND buy tickets, AND dismantle and load the tandem in the four minutes remaining before its scheduled departure time.  Oh, and of course we actually had to locate the driver first.

I don’t know how we managed it, but Keith found and sweet-talked the driver, I sprinted into the ticket hall and bought tickets, and we had the bike dismantled and loaded in nine minutes flat….by which point the other passengers were getting quite vocal about the five minute delay to their departure, but we just brazened it out and then flopped with relief into our seats.  Although disappointed that we’d not made it under our own steam, part of me was really quite glad we wouldn’t be spending the next two days battling with the lorries on the busy and increasingly hilly road, and just over four hours later we were re-assembling the Pino amidst some bemused onlookers at Sevastopol bus station.  Unfortunately, the bus drove off before we could thank the driver properly for having let us on in the first place.  However, we’d made it to Sevastopol, two days ahead of schedule, and with any luck our new rim would be arriving the following morning.

Yuri, the hostel owner, was a total star, and found us an apartment next door to his hostel to accommodate us for the first night (due to our rather early and unexpected arrival on his doorstep), and then the next day at 10am, as we prepared to switch to the hostel, he presented us with our package from JD Tandems, which contained a new rim, new brake disk and a few other bits & pieces …yippee!

The hostel was jam-packed, and we met some really interesting characters, including Jim, an energetic 78 year old American who used to teach history, and loves travelling but unfortunately has to do it alone these days as his wife’s no longer up to it, and Leo a Moravian-born artist currently living in Amsterdam who was sick of the dismal Northern European summer so had headed south for sunnier inspiration.

Keith rebuilt the wheel and we then had a quick trot round Sevastopol (very elegant and airy) before hitting the road again, this time thankfully with rather fewer juggernauts, but unfortunately rather more hills.

Some tough climbs but with great views as a reward.

Some tough climbs but with great views as a reward.

The south coast of Crimea is a stunning contrast to the pancake-flat fields and scrubland of the north.  Limestone crags soar up to 1500m above the Black Sea and the road winds its way from one stunning vista to another.  It was not easy riding but at least all the various delays to our journey meant we were doing it in rather more manageable 20 to 25oC instead of the 35+ of a few weeks ago.  And where there’s an up there’s often a down, so we enjoyed a swooping 5km descent on an excellent road into Balaclava where our map indicated a campsite, which turned out to be closed as the main tourist season is over, so we had to turn around and ride back up out of the valley in search of a wild camp before darkness fell.  Thankfully the road out didn’t climb as far as the one we’d come in on, and we found a great site, well-hidden from the road and overlooking a valley very close to the infamous ‘Valley of Death’ where the Light Brigade made their ill-fated charge.

Cliff-top church.

A tiny cliff-top church.

The next day we rolled back down to Balaclava and made friends with some North Americans on a Black Sea cruise who let us join their guided tour of the secret cold war nuclear submarine base.  It was an unnerving, eerie feeling to walk along a dimly-lit passage beside the still, black surface of the submarine canal.  The guide told us a rather unbelievable story of two neighbours who’d worked in adjacent areas at the site for 25 years, but because of the strict secrecy rules, neither had realised the other also worked there.

We strolled back to the tour group’s bus with them, and were astonished and delighted to recognise the bus driver from our journey to Sevastopol.  It was great to get to thank him properly and he seemed pleased enough to see us too, so hopefully hadn’t been too frustrated by the delay and hassle we’d caused him.

A camel at the top of the cable car above Yalta.

A camel at the top of the cable car above Yalta.

As well as being dramatically beautiful, the south coast of Crimea is rich in interesting buildings and historical sites.  We were mindful of our Russian visas ticking away and our severely dented budget but still couldn’t resist a trip up a cable-car to the high plateau of Mount Ay Petri (actually it turned out to be a rather disappointing tourist-trap at the top, with the only redeeming feature being of a close-up view of some Bactrian camels which were available for rides) and we also indulged in a quick sprint round Livadia Palace near Yalta, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt signed the deal that carved up Europe at the end of the war.  We then decided to spend a couple of days in Yalta catching up on a few chores and enjoying the laid-back vibe on the seafront promenade.

The 'Big Three' at Livadia Palace.

The ‘Big Three’ at Livadia Palace.