Dave the motorhome has only gone and made it across the border into Ukraine (N48.39901 E25.65314). Not only that but he’s not fallen apart on the bumpy roads and has found himself a place to kip for the night tucked between a restaurant/conference centre/party venue, a pink and grey church, a hotel with four rooms and an old train station somewhere on the N10 just outside of Nepolokivtsi (Неполоківці).
Last night Jay stayed up as late as he could in the hope that we might get a visit from a bear. We noticed after we’d parked up that there was a comment on the French ‘camping-car infos’ database that we use from some folks who had a visitation and Jay is desperate to see a bear. Luck was, or should that be wasn’t, on our side and the night was quiet – only the gentle snoring of Charlie and a few spots of rain to be heard.
This morning I was on a mission. If customs officials were going to search Dave he was going to be at least a little bit cleaner and tidier than he was. A flurry of activity saw Dave get into the best shape he’s been in for a while as any trace of additional wine (our import limit for the country is 2l each!) was hidden. There was nothing I could do about the €50 value or 2kg limit for food imports – our ‘treat cupboard’ alone would blow us on that count.
Once Dave was looking a tad more presentable we headed off towards the border. When we reached Radauti, the last reasonable sized town – we stopped at a Kaufland supermarket and I jumped out for a final Romanian shop. A few more super cheap beers, several litres of milk and some ‘expensive’ coffee made their way into the trolley along with several litres of drinking water and a couple of new bedsheets (well things in Romania are much cheaper than at home and we’ve had to throw a couple after they got thin and full of holes).
All set and as ready as we’ll ever be we photographed our way out of Romania. It was as if the country knew we were leaving and rolled out some extra horse and cart combos for us. We passed a customs sign, then in the middle of the road was a stop sign – so we did. An octagonal glass and metal booth by the roadside sprouted a hand from its little hatch and we were waved on by an invisible person. We reached the Romanian passport control, handed over our documents and were given them back in seconds – the guard smiling and telling us what good English we spoke. Then there was no turning back, we were in the queue for the Ukraine border.
At this point I think I should point out the reasons I was feeling very nervous. Our V5 document (the offical registration document for Dave) is a photocopy, a colour double-sided photocopy, but a photocopy nevertheless. The reason is that we’ve realised we won’t be going back to our old house when we get back to the UK, so the V5 has gone off to the DVLA to have our address changed in the hope that it will all get changed over before we have to renew our insurance in early August. Add that to the fact that we have more than the import level of food, wine and now beer, pampered pooch and Jay’s passport with only two months left on it and, well, we weren’t overly hopeful we’d make it in.
As we approached the now familiar, but for once in use, border control a woman in army fatigues stopped us and looked at our passports and asked the nature of our trip. She spoke really good English and things were good when she waved us straight on. Joining the back of the green ‘nothing to declare’ line a chap in black fatigues wandered up to Dave’s window, spotted Charlie and waved us into the red ‘something to declare’ line. Having said that, the red line was the only one with a picture of a motorhome/minibus over the top of it and the line was much shorter. We waited to see what would happen next and were approached by the most official looking fella about, sporting a crisp white shirt adorned with shining metal badges, a shaved head, green trousers and matching green peaked cap. He didn’t speak a word of English and you can guess what standard our Ukrainian is at! But we sort of guessed at what he might want and handed him all three passports (yes he got Charlie’s too).
Ten minutes later he was back wanting ‘passport machine’ so we handed over our ‘V5’. Another 10 minutes later he gave us back all our documents and wandered off. Black fatigues man walked up, stamped a bit of paper for us and pointed at the space in front of Dave outside the customs office – our next destination. We rolled Dave forward so he was right behind the white mini-bus in front and waited. And waited. We watched to see what others were doing, but they were all in the green lanes being given their passports back, having photographs taken of their open boot and registration plates by an official with a digital camcorder and driving off. We were certainly in the slow lane.
We saw one chap pull up and head into the customs office on the green side of the border, so Jay grabbed our passports and went through the door into the office/booth next to us. Inside there were three desks with people seriously filling out reams of paperwork. Joining the queue of people he leaned on the wall trying to look nonchalant only to nearly go through the paper-thin divider, which was only wood effect. Outside as Charlie and I waited in Dave we could hear the ‘thunk thunk’ of paperwork being stamped and optimistically thought we would be on our way soon. Two guys with ID badges wandered over and peered through Dave’s open door with interest, so I invited them in and gave them a short tour. Several other people had been walking past trying to look as if they weren’t looking in but really they were, it seems Dave is a bit of a novelty here. With a ‘Bon Journee’ they went back to work and the waiting resumed.
The serious-faced customer paperwork lady almost cracked a smile at Charlie’s passport photo, before the stern look of officialdom returned. Handing back the paperwork she said goodbye, so forty minutes after we cleared passport control Jay emerged from the customs office. Of course it would have been quicker if we’d known to go in straight away, but just over an hour wasn’t bad, and more to the point – we were in. Or were we? No one had been to photograph Dave yet, and you know how he likes his photo taken. Stopping another official Jay showed her our papers and asked if we were OK to go, ‘photo?’ she asked, ‘no photo’ we replied and a chap was ushered in our direction to take a snap of Dave’s rear number plate and a random shot of inside which would only have shown closed cupboards – all that cleaning and tidying was for nothing!
We pulled off and drove past the coach parking area on our left, full of people milling around, eating food from the cafes and waiting to be told they can go. On our right lorries queue up waiting to be directed over an open pit so they could be fully inspected – here the guards had screwdrivers, we were glad Dave didn’t have to go there. At the final guard post Jay handed over our little stamped bit of paper to a guy dressed in army fatigues, he looked at it smiled and said ‘English?’, and when we confirmed it he then said ‘have a nice journey’. This was our chance to find out where we could by insurance for Dave, but when we asked the look on his face told us that was all the English he knew.
Just outside the border was a row of little portacabins, most had signs only in Ukrainian, but one sported a Western Union logo and a currency exchange sticker. I took the last our of Romanian Lei and wandered in to get it changed. The woman counted it out twice then worked out the amount I would get and showed me on the calculator. For our 840 Romanian Lei we got 1764 Ukranian Hryvnia (hry for short). I have no idea what the exchange rate is or if it was a good deal or not, but she was nice and spoke a little English and let’s face it, our Lei were a bit useless now. Handing me an even bigger handful of notes (if this carries on I’ll have to get a bigger wallet), I asked if she knew were I could buy insurance. A confused look came across her face. Assurance? I tried, but still no luck. Finally resorting to pretending to drive Dave and saying Green Card, she got the picture and picked up a pad of official green documents. Our photocopied V5 and my passport were used to fill in the spaces on the form, causing many giggles as neither she nor her friend could work out what information went where. I think Dave and I are both Irish now, as the passport says ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ and she just went for a name she recognised. It took around 20 minutes to sort the paperwork and currency exchange, and while I waited the lady fetched some Ukrainian chocolates from out of the safe and gave me a couple – they tasted a bit like praline and were tasty, especially as it was now quite a long time since breakfast. Our piece of paper which covers us for who knows what lasts for seven days and cost the princely sum of 132.67 hry which we think was around £13.
Our next stop was the first petrol station we came to, not just so we could work out how cheap the diesel is (around £1 a litre!) but to buy a map. The chap behind the counter waved two at me and asked if I spoke Portugese. Even in Portugal I struggled to remember what I’d learned and now that was many countries ago there wasn’t a single word that sprang to my mind, so I just shook my head. Two more staff were called upon, but neither of them spoke English either, so I pointed to a map and handed over a 100 hry note. The price for the map rang up at 3600 on the till, but she gave me 40 hry back – no idea what went on there, but the map was only about £6 and we needed it.
Finally getting going it soon became clear that the image of a car on a smooth flat road which adorns the cover of our map is a bit of a fib. The roads are bumpy, very bumpy with a good few Dave swallowing sized potholes in them too. Come back Southern Italy, your roads seem so smooth compared to this! As we reached Cernivci (Чернівці́), our first Ukrainian town, things only got worse, the bumpy, un-repaired road became filling-loosening cobbled with undulations, missing man hole covers, missing bricks and loads of traffic. We took it slowly, very slowly. Cars and trolley buses whizzed past us honking their horns to let us know they were coming through – they obviously knew we would swerve at any minute to avoid another looming axle-breaking hole.
After about two miles we spotted sanctuary – a hotel with a car park. Not only that but a posh hotel, with a man to hold the door open for me as I trotted into reception to ask if we could sleep on their lovely smooth tarmac. ‘Of course’, smiled the receptionist in perfect English, ‘what is your room number?’. It would seem you can only pay to park in the car park if you’re a guest of the hotel and she was at a loss to suggest anywhere else we could try. So off we rattled back into the chaos.
The camera wobbled itself off during filming – sorry!
As we shuddered on we searched for anywhere that might take us, but all the parking signs were only for parking at shops. Cars lined the streets but we really didn’t fancy sleeping on the roadside, not in a town, so we jittered on over the River Prut (its tarmac bridge giving a moment of respite) and past a huge queue of traffic waiting to get into the city as we left. An almost total lack of road signs ended with us inevitably getting a bit lost. Jay gallantly jumped out at a petrol station and asked where we were, but the attendant and other petrol purchasers couldn’t comprehend that we didn’t know where we were because we didn’t know where we were going. It’s true we hadn’t actually decided on a destination, we were going to drive until we found something nice.
Working out by the sun’s shadow on the road that we were now going east, we made a u-turn and headed back in the direction we had come. I’m pretty sure that by avoiding the huge queue of cars we had passed going into the city, we hit the road of huge potholes that they were queueing to avoid. Still we made it round them all in one piece (almost, a screw on Dave’s front grill has worked itself loose) and finally, finally picked up the main road west. Tempers were wearing thin in Dave’s cab, but the smoothish road and a road sign for Kolomyja (Коломия), a town mentioned in our Lonely Planet guide as being tourist friendly helped to ease things.
We passed a nice looking hotel complex and by nice looking I mean sort of western looking and almost pulled in. Fate had the train coming and the level crossing down, so instead of joining the queue we turned around and stopped at Restaurant Astoria. I headed into what I thought was a hotel, but found only a bar and stage with DJ kit on it. At the bar were several young fellas having a drink, one of them looked at me and obviously asked what I wanted. I said I was looking for reception and he led me out of the building, across the car park and to a smaller building opposite. He then got some room keys from the cleaner and was about to show me the rooms when I stopped him and in my best mime tried to explain that we wanted to stop in Dave. Finally ‘sleep in machine’ got the message through. I asked him how much to stay and he shook his head before proceeding to show me the best places to park in the car park – and pointed to the unmanned security hut.
We parked up Dave out of the way behind the main car park and next to the church. As Jay took Charlie for a walk a couple of Ladas parked up and people got out in their party gear brandishing boxes of chocolates and bottles of vodka. The bloke who had shown me the parking spaces reappeared with a few more fellas, one of who spoke Spanish and was therefore designated as spokesman – in Spanish. They moved a car and a van to make a space for us tucked into the corner of the front car park and then all shook our hands, thanked us and left. We’re not sure if they are anything to do with the hotel complex, but everyone seems friendly enough. We’ve been inside for a large beer (£1) and a bottle of sprite (80p), and sat at the bar surrounded by white and pink bunting as more people arrived and went upstairs. Is it a wedding? we asked, ‘happy birthday’ someone replied, of course it’s Friday night – we hadn’t realised. Was it really only a week ago we were dodging the traffic in Bucharest?
We’re settled in, using the hotel’s free wifi and have had a curry for tea. The birthday party is in full swing with whoops and cheers coming from the bar area and the DJ has begun. But there’s no rest for us, we need to do some serious planning as the roads are rubbish and we’ve a week to get to Poland. Our mobile data contracts are very limited here in Ukraine (which isn’t part of Europe if you ask any mobile phone organisation!) so we’re going to rely on wifi – so we might not get a post out every day, but we’ll write them and put them up as soon as we can.
I have to say despite the warm welcome from everyone, my nerves are still on edge and I’m shattered from just trying to get here today. Even though I’ve seen four people out walking their cow and several good memorials as we’ve driven along, I’m still looking forward to reaching Poland right now – and that’s not a thing you hear every day in team Dave! Hopefully things will change as I get over my new country nerves.