Surprisingly I wasn’t overly tried when it finally came to setting off from Belograd. I took advantage of the lack of traffic and rode around the city taking some snaps and in particular of the impressive square in the centre of the city.
The border with the Ukraine was only about 40km away and my rough calculations suggested that I should get there around nine.
I then ran into a minor problem; it’s a problem that I can now look at and laugh but at the time had me in something of a panic. My friend Anna had put me in contact with a friend of hers who lives in Kharkiv, she hosted her in Saratov and suggested that I go and stay with her. Victoriya and I had exchanged a few emails and all was set up for me to go and stay with her and her father. I wrote to her the night before saying that I would be arriving a day earlier and would that be okay? Now the English I used was this “….I hope this is okay, I hate to mess you around I know your have a schedule and plans.” My biggest problem here was making the assumption about somebody’s level of English.
When I checked my email today some 10km from the border I was surprised, almost shocked one might say to read an email from Victoriya. She said that she could no longer host me and that I had really offended her and she didn’t like the way I judged her apartment before even arriving! Confused? Read on. The problem stemmed from my use of the expression “mess someone around” Victoriya had thought that I was implying that her apartment was a mess. Obviously I would never be so rude as to say anything like this and I frantically went about trying to put it right. I called her via Skype but I found that her English level wasn’t as I’d first thought. It was hard to get through on the phone so next I opted for a series of emails, even sending one cut from the Oxford dictionary. I felt awful and waited a good hour before I got a reply. It seemed that she had finally understood, nevertheless I still got Anna from Saratov to write her an email in Russian explaining the situation. I was re-invited to stay and I’m sure this is something we will laugh about at a later date, but I learned a valuable lesson that one shouldn’t assume anything, being an English teacher it was equally galling that I made such a stupid mistake.
The Ukrainian border was fairly straightforward and it made a nice change that nobody told me I couldn’t ride my bike across the area between the two countries. I apologized in English to the people behind me in the queue to enter Ukraine explaining to them that it would probably take a little time what with me being English, they didn’t understand and neither did they smile. The border guy didn’t speak any English and gave out a long sigh when he saw I didn’t speak Russian. After meticulously studying my passport for what seemed like an eternity he finally stamped it. No filling in forms, no visa just nice and simple, at last I was in Ukraine.
The border first from the Russian side and second looking back from the Ukraine
The sign at the border showed Kharkiv to be about another 40 kilomtres away , I was obviously full of energy what with arriving in a new country but a further 20 kilometres down the road this suddenly gave way to complete exhaustion. The midday sun beating down on me didn't help matters and I was forced to pull off the road and into some shade. I'd been awake for over 24 hours and had put in well over 200 kilometres on the clock during that time, now my body was telling me it was time to stop. I must have slept for about an hour in the shade and was woken by some goats and a female farmer passing by. Despite the fact that I was still pretty tired I decided that at least now I wasn't going to fall asleep while riding and that I'd really quite like to make it into the city centre to get some food. In order to do that I needed a bank as I had no Ukrainian money on me.
The last twenty kilometers into the city were pretty easy and soon enough I was rolling through the beautiful streets of Kharkiv. I've been told to expect an elegant city, a mixture of the old and new and my first impressions didn't disappoint.
The road I took landed me right slap bang in the centre of the city at Ploshscha (Square) Svobody at the end of which is a huge monument of Lenin staring ominously down upon the people.
My Russian SIM card now no longer works and also my battery on my phone was almost dead so I needed to find a cafe with Wifi so that I could a) recharge everythng and locate Vika's apartment and also b) get some food inside me.
There was a small stand at the end of the square with four large Ukranian flags proudly flapping in the wind. I decided to go there to ask for some help. This is where I met Eugene and two twenty something females. Eugene spoke good English and explained to me that they were Ukrainian nationalists and were promoting the use of Ukrainian language in Kharkiv. Like most former Soviet countries the predominant language has remained Russian. Eugene explained that as nationalists they weren't against any other country and in particular Russia but he felt very strongly that as Ukrainians people they should adopt their own language rather than continuing to use Russian. He was a touch on the eccentric side but friendly all the same and with what I believe to be a totally valid point. It was something that I also witnessed while in Kazakhstan where the majority of people, especially the older generation couldn't speak Kazak.
Eugene led me to a cafe just off the side of the square where they not only had WiFi but a huge selection of pastries and cakes, just what the doctor ordered. He apologized that he couldn't stay with me but he had to get back to his stand. To be honest it wasn't such a bad thing for me, I feared that we might simply get into a long English lesson and I really had to find out how to get to Vika's apartment. I did however promise Eugene that I'd go a say goodbye after the cafe.
I fulfilled my promise an hour later and went and said goodbye to Eugene and also passed on my support for his cause. He was concerned that I wouldn't be able to find my way the 12 kilometres to Vika's apartment but I assured him in the politest way possible that I'd be okay. I thought it might sound a touch arrogant to tell him that I'd already travelled over 11,000 kilometres across four countries so navigating a further 12 shouldn't be too much of a problem.
Vika's apartment is out in the suburbs of the city and I gradually made my way from the centre in that direction. Like with all cities and in particular former Soviet countries the scenery changes very quickly and the old grandiose architecture is soon replaced by large pan-alack style buildings.
I eventually made my the her street, Prospekt Traktorobudivnykiv, a bit of a mouthful to say I'm sure you'll agree but you don't really need to know Russian to know roughly what it translates as.
It took me a while to find the exact address after receiving numerous conflicting information from different people but eventually I rolled up there pretty tired and worn out around four. Unfortunately because I didn't have a phone that works here I couldn't call her father who I knew was at home so instead had to wait until someone left their building. After a good half and hour wait someone did emerge from the building and I was able to pounce and keep the door ajar with a water bottle while I went upstairs and introduced myself.
Her father is named Pavel which in Russian means Paul, so it was all rather convenient “Paul please meet Paul” He showed me to their apartment on the fifth floor and I was relieved to finally be there. I'm not sure how much more I had in the tank today and it was so nice to finally just sit down and take the weight off my feet.
Pavel is a very interesting man and at 70 years of age had plenty of stories to tell me about growing up in the USSR and modern day Ukrainian life. He is also an artist and the room I'm staying in has numerous pieces of his sculpture work. He was quick to point out that his English isn't great and told me that if I spoke very slowly then he could understand. We spent the remainder of the afternoon chatting, well me mostly listening.
Vika his daughter arrived home around seven and introductions were made. She is a lawyer and a very experienced couch surfer she has been involved in it for the past five years and currently runs a couch surfing group here in Kharkiv which she informed me has over 1000 members.
One of the great things about couch surfing is how amazingly accommodating people are right from the get go. Immediately Vika asked if I had any washing that needed doing and you soon learn not to turn down an opportunity like that. I don't know what has happened to my clothes since I left Saratov but they've become incredibly dirty. I'm still persevering with the whole clothes washing thing despite the fact that I know once I get back out on the road they'll just go back to being dirty again in no time but you've got to keep your hygiene haven't you?
We chatted long into the evening and I felt a little rude because I kept on yawning I was now functioning on my deepest energy reserves. Thankfully Pavel isn't one for late nights and as we're sharing a room I go to bed when he does. When my head finally hit the pillow it was absolute heaven, it's hard for me to think of a time in the past when I've felt so exhausted but after an eventful thirty six hours I was finally in bed.