Follow that cab!

Day 9 – Wednesday 3rd of July – Lviv to Kiev (557km)

There is a tunnel at the top of the Transfagarasan pass that connects both sides of the mountain. It is not very long, maybe one and a half kilometers, but it is very narrow, with just enough space for two cars, the road surface is broken asphalt almost turned into gravel with the occasional big pothole and it is pitch black, there is not a single light in it. When I rode it two days ago, the fog that covered the top of the mountains had also got into it, so visibility was almost zero. With the screen covered in moist, I had to stand on the footpegs to see over it, and I could see no further than eight or ten meters, the headlights hopelessly trying to pierce the fog. Had you asked me this morning, I would have said that was the most frightening experience I had ever had on the bike, but what I did today was far, far worse.

In the morning, Igor took me to an ATM so I could get some local money and then to the bike. I loaded it and checked the oil, a bit worried about a developing leak that I had spotted in Romania. When I started the journey I noticed a bit of oil on the bash plate, but since I had had the valve clearance checked and it was a job that required opening the engine, I thought that it had got dirty then. Just to be sure, I checked again when I got to Budapest, and things seem to be the same. However, once in Romania I noticed that there was a bit more oil, and on closer inspection I discovered that there was oil in the V where the cylinders meet, and it seemed to be coming from somewhere in the back of the front cylinder.

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I cleaned it to see how long it would take to get dirty again, and today, after two days and about 1,200 km, enough oil has accumulated in the V to leak down the side of the engine. In normal riding conditions, it would take weeks for that much oil to leak, since I barely do more than 20 km a day, but things happen faster on the trip. I cleaned it again near Kiev to check how long it takes this time. The oil level has been descending at a normal rate for the number of kilometers I have been doing, so I do not know how worried I should be. I will be in Volgograd in three days (1,200 more kilometers) and since I need to have the bike serviced there, I will have the leak checked. I hope it does not get any worse before getting there.

I said goodbye to Igor, who refused to let me pay for the car park, thanked him for his hospitality, and went across Lviv center to get the road to Kiev.

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It is a shame I did not have more time to visit the city, as what little I saw from the bike was great. What was not so great was the time it took me to get out of there, through streets clogged with traffic, and cobblestones and tram rails to make things more challenging.

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Once out of the city the road was good an clear all the way to Kiev. The landscape was beautiful, green fields stretching far, but it was one of the most boring rides so far. After my last experience with the police I was not going to give them a reason to stop me, so I stuck to the speed limit (90), and did not overtake unless it was legal. Since I was the only one following traffic regulations, that meant that I was the slowest thing on the road, and on roads that were mostly straight and smooth, I had to fight hard to stay alert. On the plus side, I managed to get the best fuel economy form the bike ever – 4,1L/100km for the whole journey.

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As soon as I got to Kiev things changed quickly, little did I know that I was in for a hell of a ride. Luda, my host’s secretary, who speaks some English, had told me to meet her at an underground station on the main road on the city limits, because it would be easier if she showed me the way from there. I was glad she had taken the bother to do so, as navigating big city traffic is usually hard. She got on a cab and told me to follow it. I thought it would not be very far, since she had come to get me, but boy, was I wrong!

The cab driver sped off into the afternoon rush hour traffic in 8-lane avenues chocked full of cars, trucks and buses, and I was left to do my best not to lose him. I was determined not to, and that meant sticking to his tail, absolutely no safety distance to speak of, and even so, the moment I left a couple of meters between me and him, somebody would try to get in the gap. And all that at speed well above what you would expect in the city. I could not even check the mirrors, as taking the eyes off the car in front for even half a second might mean an accident. And on top of that, the roads were badly potholed, which meant that the ABS was constantly kicking in, providing some extra scariness tot the whole experience, and obviously, riding so close to the car in front I could not see the potholes in time, so I basically ate them all.

After the longest ride of my life, we got to the apartment, on the 14th floor of another soviet-style building, and I was shown into the shower and then sat down for another enormous dinner consisting of the finest traditional Ukranian dishes.

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Luda made her best to translate for me, and I managed quite a conversation with Sofia, my host. After dinner, a friend of hers told me he would lead me to his car park, where I could securely leave the bike for a couple of days. I followed him, fearing another crazy ride, but by that time the streets had emptied, and it was a lot easier. We left the bike there and he drove me back to the apartment. Sitting on the back of his plush car, I almost dozed off after the adrenalin rush of the afternoon.

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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