Dave the motorhome is reversed onto the grassy drive of what must be one of the best guest houses in Ukraine (N48.52285 E25.02979). We’re just a short walk from the centre of Kolomyya and not far from the Carpathian Mountains, in Western Ukraine. We’re at the On the Corner Guesthouse, and the owner Vitaliy is well up on what we motorhome folks off in the wilds of Ukraine need, having pointed out the water hose and where we can empty our loo! We came here after we read the glowing reviews on Trip Advisor, and after Vitaliy responded to a late email last night to say we were more than welcome to park up here. The cost to park on his driveway: zilch. We’ll make sure we pay our way, partly in payment for his Mum Ira’s home-cooked grub we plan to tuck into later on.
Ukraine’s been a bucket-of-ice-water-in-the-face shock to us. We quickly recognised the stomach-sick feeling of culture shock as we hit the town of Chernivtisi yesterday, the feeling which gnaws at you, whispering ‘turn around, head back to comfort’. It wasn’t helped by an unbelievable sight as we left the last town in Romania. A woman sat begging in a busy street, much like that of our home town in the UK, with her trousers and underwear pulled down to reveal scarred flesh all over her thighs and groin. She sat there in this semi-naked state, as people walked past un-phased. What kind of society can just leave this poor woman sat there? Finding the restaurant which let us stay put us at ease, and once the massive birthday party cooled off about 11:30, we slept wrapped in silence.
Looking backwards, Ukraine’s been sliced and diced over the past 500 years, the Moldovans, Austro-Hungarians, Polish, Nazis and finally the Russians all using and (often) abusing the place. The history books give some impression: 80 years ago Stalin decided to ‘collectivise’ the farms here, as part of the conversion to communism. Basically this meant if you owned a farm in 1932, you no longer owned a farm in 1933. Some folks weren’t too happy about this, objected, and production fell as they were duly ‘persuaded’ by the state to comply. At the same time Stalin decided to increase the amount of each crop the locals had to produce for the government, before they themselves could eat. The result: no-one knows for certain, maybe 3 million people starved to death while around them barns were stacked with food, probably a Stalinist method of population control, but historians argue over it all. Fast forward ten years and a further 1.4 million Ukrainians are killed fighting in the Red Army. Yup – over 10% of the entire population gone. Ukraine’s been abused all right.
Our research last night turned up a few facts:
- The consensus is the roads in Ukraine are bad, don’t bring a motorhome here.
- There are maybe ten campsites in the whole of Ukraine, none of them on our route.
- We found this place, and a reference to a secure parking area on the outskirts of Lviv, but no others.
- Wherever we looked, people were recalling stories of the traffic police asking for constant baksheesh, bribes to let you go after you’ve committed no offence.
No police pulled us today, and navigation wasn’t difficult as we just had to stay on the H10, a ‘National Road’. Our only problem was the roads, and staying out of the way of trucks, buses and ubiquitous tank-like Ladas which dart about, perfectly suited to the on-road off-road conditions here. We both started to get a good idea how to spot the holes from a distance. One was clearly marked by a comet-trail of oil where someone’s sump must have been smashed and trailing vehicles had driven through the spilled life-blood of their engine. In other cases you could see the tracks of cars and trucks as they dodged from either side of the road.
Entering the centre of Snjatyn we passed rows of vans. Market day. Unable to work out which bits were pay parking, which bits were ‘tow away’ and which free, we winged it. Ju stayed in Dave to tootle off if the rozzers arrived and I got a quick look at the market, after I’d jumped out of the way of a bus. The driver had clearly seen me, wasn’t going quickly, but wasn’t going to stop either. His face looked hard. Everyone’s face here looks hard at first glance. The market flogged all the usual stuff, the interesting thing was these faces, particularly those of old men and women, their faces were lined deep with the past, they looked like you could make boots from them, tough ones.
Legging it back to Dave with the imaginary breath of a metal-shielded gun-toting rozzer on my neck, we nipped off back onto the road. As we reached the outskirts of Zabolotiv, the Russian Roulette of roads turned into full-on shitness, the entire road crumbled under years of non-repair. There was no avoiding the holes, just lean-forward, engage first gear and crawl, while tensing against the sensation of an essential bit of metal cracking under the strain. Ladas belted past, the Russians knew how to make these little cars to survive on the surface conditions they created. Maybe a mile, maybe two miles, an endurance test for us, but day-to-day life for the locals. What really gnawed at me was that last part: the locals have to deal with these god-awful roads every day, and whatever other stone-age-infrastructure too, why? It’s 21st century Europe, why the hell is this country in this state?
The answer’s probably as simple as it looks: Communism’s massively failed the place. I read somewhere last night that in the 80’s when for the first time the people of Ukraine got to see the standard of living in Germany, the country the Soviets had ‘gloriously defeated’, the people here were astonished and dismayed. Post-communism things don’t seem to have gotten much better. Talks to join the EU have shuddered to a halt, the corruption here is clearly deemed worse than the endemic pocket-lining shenanigans in Italy, Bulgaria and Romania. Perhaps the blame can’t be pinned entirely on the commies, they left over 20 years ago? Whoever the fault lies with, the populace’s temperature must be at boiling point, mine was after a whole day in Ukraine.
As we finally made it out of the other side of the town I let loose a cynical hyena hoot at the sight of a work crew patching up a bit of road. Talk about polishing a turd.
So, today’s been a game of two halves. First half: trying not to snap Dave in half and cursing the thieves and villains who robbed the country of decent roads. Second half: began once we arrived at the guest house in Kolomyya and things seriously started to look up. Vitaliy owns the place with his wife Anna, living here with his Mum Ira. Within minutes Dave was reversed into place, we’d drinks popped in our hands and a plate of fresh-made pancakes and sour cream laid in front of us. I interrogated Katherina who works here: ‘hey, what about the traffic police here, are they as bad as everyone says?’ ‘Huh? no, they don’t stop foreigners, they don’t speak English and it is too much work for them’. Cool. ‘What about this insurance document we bought at the border, can you read it for us?’ ‘Didn’t they give you an English one? Ah, it says you’re covered for £5000 worth of damage and £10,000 if you kill a Ukrainian’. I asked her how much it would be for us to stay, she told me I needed to talk to Vitaliy, ‘he’s the man so he does the money’. I told her Ju manages our cash, she’s the man!
Vitaliy nipped off to drop someone off at the train station. He told us later he’d heard people were put off coming here by grabbing taxi drivers, so he bypassed them and now picks up and drops off for free. The Lonely Planet came by a few years ago as a mystery customer. They were impressed enough to give him a great write up, and it’s all been uphill since then. We know why, the service is spot on. Charlie took an unwanted walk to eye up the folks outside selling second-hand everything in a sort of carless car boot sale along the street, and as soon as Vitaliy re-appeared he whisked us off on foot into the town. Facts and figures flew at us, this guy knows this place like only a man with a passion can.
Meeting up with a couple of fellow Brits at the egg museum (shaped like an egg and containing painted eggs, of course), he took us for a spin at a history museum, dedicated to the Hulsuls. The place would have made no sense without him, with him it was fascinating. I particularly liked the bells women would wear as they walked a few meters behind the men folk, who took the lead in case of attack from a bear, wolf or other fanged wild thang. The bells let him know his lass was still following and hadn’t been picked off by a flanking manoeuvre! He also told us how this part of Ukraine was home to ballistic missiles, and was off-limits to most folks until the Soviets left in 1991, taking the economy with them. It’s recovered to some degree now, a hard path from the looks of it.
Vitaliy rushed off to drop the ladies off for their train back to Lviv, where you can get cheap flights to the UK (a while back he’d had to eject a couple of Liverpudlians who’d come here with the sole purpose of getting hammered, they picked the wrong digs and were asked to leave). We took a walk around the local craft/tat shops and the market, picking up a massive amount of mushrooms for £2 (we wanted 2 mushrooms) and making our way back here in gaps between deluges of water. Ju’s booked us in for an evening meal and I’m about done writing this. Time to head off and discover a bit more beneath the skin of Ukraine.