Border crossings and police bribes

Day 8 – Tuesday 2nd of July – Ighiu to Lviv (607km)

Having been to Romania instead of heading for Ukraine straight from Hungary meant that I broke one of the rules I had set myself – to spend the night before a major border crossing near the border to get there relatively early in the morning in case there were problems with the paperwork and it took a bit longer than expected. Another consequence of that decision was that instead of going through an international crossing, I had to go through a small rural one, and some of those only allow locals to use it, not international traffic.

So, having also broken another rule – to keep journeys shorter the furthest east I went – I set off on a 10-hour ride through a border I was not sure would be open. I got there at about 2 pm, and lucky me, they let me into Ukraine! I was quite nervous about it, I was leaving the EU and I was afraid they would find some kind of problem with my documents or the bike’s, but there were none. The good thing about a small crossing is that there were no long queues, only four cars in front of me, but they still took their own sweet time and I baked under the sun for half an hour. Once into Ukraine, the bad thing about a small crossing became apparent quickly – the road.

Remember the Romanian pothole? Well, it is nothing more than a small bump on the road compared to this. Not only were they deep, there were thousands of them, all over the road, meaning that cars and trucks had to swerve around them, using the whole width of the road and often driving on the wrong lane. I had to stand on the footpegs and could only use first and second gear. It was hot, sweaty and dusty. This was the kind of thing that I was expecting in Kazakhstan, not on a road connecting two countries in Europe. It went on for about 50 km, after which the road turned into what I would have described as a bad road in Romania, which was a huge relief after that bit. I am ready to do this sort of stuff, but not as part of 600-kilometer days.

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Once I joined the main road coming from Poland things changed, the road became much, much better and I started making progress. I did not ride too fast, as I had heard lots of horror stories about Ukrainian police and how strict they are with foreign drivers, but I still did what I had been doing for the last four or five days and what every other driver on the road was doing – overtake whenever you had space and was safe, regardless of road signs.

Well, it is common practice and there is nothing wrong with it, as long as you do not overtake the chief of police from the next village going back home in civilian clothes on his private car. Needless to say, he made sure that his colleagues were waiting for me at the next checkpoint, and as soon as I got there they flagged me down. The policeman spoke no English at all, but he made it clear that I had overtaken on a double line using gestures, and when the chief of police arrived he used the same gestures before driving away again and leaving me in the caring hands of his subordinate. The guy asked for the bike’s papers and then asked if I could speak Portuguese, because apparently he knew someone at the Portuguese consulate and was going to get them on the phone so that they could explain me what I had to do. He handed me his mobile phone and I spoke to a girl who spoke English, who told me that the fine was a hundred euros. Now, I had been given some advice on how to try to deal with police in these countries, but in this case it was obvious that I had broken the law, so there was nothing else to do but to pay. That would put a huge dent on my budget… However, the girl on the phone said that I had two choices – I could get an official written fine and then go all the way to Kiev to pay it before I could get the bike’s papers back, or I could pay there and then, it would be half price and I could go my way. I gave the phone back to the police officer and he gestured me to follow him into a smaller room. We walked in, he sat down and took some official forms, which were the fine, and his mobile phone, put them both on the table and pointed at them. I pointed at the phone, and then he handed me a piece of paper and a pen. I wrote ‘50€’, he nodded and then stood up, lifted the cushion on which he was sitting and pointed under it. I put the money there, he put the cushion back and then he was all smiles, asking about my trip while he walked me back to the bike, telling me to be careful where I parked it in Lviv because it was dangerous and even writing the speed limits on his palm to remind me not to break them.

Well, after the money I had saved over the last two days, I was only a few euros out of my daily budget, I had come off lightly and I had had a first hand experience in bribing the Ukrainian police. What a day!

After that I still had more than 200 km to get to Lviv, and once I got there, tired and smelly, it was hard work finding the place where I was staying. In the end, Igor, my host, walked out to the street and found me, trying to get directions from three guys who did not seem to understand what I was asking them.

He took his car and lead me to a car park a couple of blocks down the street where I could leave the bike for the night. He the took me to his flat, a small apartment in one of those big, gray, crumbling soviet blocks of flats, for the complete Ukrainian experience. He was the most wonderful host, prepared a very nice dinner for me and then we tried to overcome the language barrier and talked about the trip and motorbikes. He told me that he had had one in the past, and that was something we could chat about with very few words, watching the twilight sky from his balcony.

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