With the help of Google Translate I found the events section called and shortly after discovered a three-day organised trip to the West-Ukrainian town of Kamianets-Podilskyi. The 100(ish) kilometer trip was to take place over the holiday weekend and included various trips to castles etc.
Desperate to get out of Kyiv and bag some hours on my new bike (with an even newer saddle), and keen to complete at least one multi-day trip before August, I enlisted Anastasia’s help and booked myself a place.
The trip was being organised by a a guy called Sergiy who runs a bike workshop called VeloProstir (bike space) and he quickly responded to me (in English) by email and made a brave but unsuccessful attempt to subscribe Anastasia as a participant.
Having now acquainted myself with a bike-technician as well as tour-guide, I dropped-in to see Sergiy and asked him to install my new ‘Velo Orange crazy bars‘, new brakes and if possible new gears. The new gears didn’t work-out, but he did a wonderful job on the bars and even took my bike to the train station on Friday where I joined him and the other torturers on Friday evening.
There were 8 of us altogether, each with a bike and we weren’t the only ones either. Being a national park and a nice place to cycle, Kaminetsk-Podolsky is clearly popular with outdoor adventurers of all kinds – especially cyclists – and as a result, Sergiy sprung into action, first bagging and then loading all the bike onto the train. This is done by first removing the front wheel, putting the remaining bike in a zippable bike bag and then loading both onto the train and storing them horizontally across the two luggage racks at the very top of the train compartment.
It didn’t look very safe but apart from once incident where I had to jump and stop my bike from falling-on and killing a pregnant woman – it worked out OK.
With all 8 bikes on one carriage, I ate my shashlik, made a few phone calls and then lay down for about five hours of ‘sleep’, praying the whole time that I wouldn’t wake up to find any squashed passengers impaled under the front forks of my bicycle.
The train rumbled across Ukraine and safely delivered us all to Kam-Pod without much sleep, but also without incident.
Even at 6am Kaminetsk-Podolsky was small but beautiful in an old medieval way, and as we cycled across the sleepy LADA-strewn streets, the place was immediately likable and it was a pleasant place to arrive in after being rattled for 8 hours on the train. We stopped first for a cheap/instant kiosk-coffee, then again shortly afterwards outside the castle for breakfast which, in my case, was Borsch.
I took the opportunity to unpack and install my new handlebar bag (four times because I prefer to learn from my mistakes instead of reading instructions and saving lots of time and stress etc) and then added my new lights, new GARMIN GPS/Navigation thing and most excitingly – my new GoPRO video camera and bike mount.
I now had more equipment and less experience than anyone else there and momentarily felt like a bit of a chump pedaling away on top of a fully loaded bike which was covered in technology I didn’t know how to use and was going considerably slower than everyone else. However, I quickly discarded my English sensibilities and adopted the totally acceptable Ukrainian characteristic of not giving a shit what anyone thinks – safe in the knowledge that my compatriots almost certainly didn’t give a shit anyway. Being a chump is perfectly fine in anything-goes Ukraine.
As we cycled between ancient fortifications, castles and medieval buildings, the complicated history of Western Ukraine revealed itself in the design and makeup of the city. Polish emblems adorn the walls of buildings, Romainian-speaking school kids run around the castle and old LADAS trundle past old Soiet-era tower-blocks.
Leaving the city we covered some 27 km passing over numerous hills, through many small villages and along many atrociously bad once-paved and now destroyed country roads. As a result my butt hurt like hell, but it was still a fun day as the air was warm, clean and fresh and rural Ukraine offers a glimpse into a world that has all-but-vanished in Western Europe.
Old babushkas (grandmas) sell home grown produce by the side of the street and families chase herds of cattle down small unpaved paths lined with brightly painted wooden houses. Chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys flap around on the grassy verges while locals ride past in ancient buses, three-wheeled motorized trailers and occasionally riding in a horse and cart. The dogs are kept outside and bark at everything and the cats run around playfully on the rooftops and tops of fences.
Unsurprisingly, given our location near the Moldovan border, it reminded me a lot of the small villages I visited about 7 years ago in Moldova where old women sit outside gossiping and everything is grown, pickled and preserved throughout the summer in order to survive during the impossibly cold winter months.
After some impressive downhill racing we arrived at our new ‘home’ mid afternoon, unpacked, took a swim in the river and then climbed into some overalls for a trip to the ‘special caves’. They are special because they are unique and our camp was built to look after them.
Back at the campsite Luda took one look at, and then vetoed the beds that were provided (a carpet stretched across a wooden platform) and left with her hubby to rent a room. Taking one look at the ‘beds’ I realised that I would be in for two less-than-comfortable nights. I didn’t event have a pillow or sleeping bag,
In the evening Sergiy when to get pork for our shashlik (kebabs) from the woman who grows pigs and Natasha left on a mission to get milk and cream from the woman who has a special milking machine ‘because it tastes less like cow’.
After a massive dinner and one-too-many beers the day finished with a large group sing-song and an entirely joyless night on the carpet-covered wooden bed.
Day three was all about rafting. Rafting on two big inflatable sausages bound together with some wood.
I would like to say it was fun, and perhaps it was for 20 minutes, but the remaining 4 hours were hard work and if I was to repeat this trip again I would definitely skip the rafting. In fact, I wouldn’t do the rafting again even if you paid me.
The evening’s shashlik and sauna saved the day and despite the excessive and unnecessary nakedness on display in our steamy wooden-box, I enjoyed a funny night of hot and cold fun being first heated, then whipped with birch leaves, drenched in cold water and finally sent to sit outside and recover. This was repeated until I couldn’t take any more and I slept like a baby in my newly-rented sleeping bag.
After another ridiculously large breakfast, we packed-up, loaded our bikes and said our goodbyes to the wonderful crew who run HSC Atlandida like one big family. They had been amazing hosts, good friends and wonderful ambassadors for Ukraine’s tiny but important tourism industry.
Happily, day 4 was all about cycling again and we spent the day winding up and down the local hills, through small villages and along some rather treacherous main-roads to Khoitn castle (insert big lunch) and finally back to Kaminetsk-Podolsky and straight into ‘London Pub’ for some Irish beer.
Slightly tipsy, we were late for the train and repeated the bike-loading debacle quickly and clumsily.
We were dirty, exhausted, half drunk but we had survived.
We settled down for some more beer and some drunken train banter. Lena, a young lawyer provided some home cooked pork cutlets (thanks Lena’s mum) and Sergiy provided the last pearl of wisdom I remember from the trip:
“There are no bad swear-words in Ukrainian” he said. “Ukrainian Mother Fucker is very nice.”
“It means Go to the bum” Natasha added helpfully.
Now I know.
Some final thoughts:
Throughout the trip, much to my delight and entirely for my benefit, everyone in the group switched to English as required. In good Ukrainian style they also spent a lot of their time stating the obvious and telling me what to do and how to do it, but despite this I was happy for their hospitality and characteristically-Ukrainian openness, honesty and curiosity.
If you ever get the chance to join Sergiy, Veloprostir or any other group cycling in Ukraine – I highly recommend it.
Here, watch for yourselves…