Category: Ukraine (Page 1 of 23)

Why I am cycling: Part 2

I decided to raise some money to help a group of people who really need it…

The Cause
Джерело Надії (Spring of Hope)


Spring of Hope is a small charity working in central Ukraine to help and support some of the most vulnerable and unsupported people in Europe – including thousands of families who have been displaced by the fighting in Ukraine.


They don’t have a shiny/professional website  and they don’t have the resources that some large aid organisations have but they do have a huge amount to offer as they support those who are trying to cope with circumstances harder than most of us can ever imagine.

How it works 

You can sponsor me via this link.

Your support will keep me going and if you donate even a small amount – you’ll be doing a wonderful thing to help some amazing people. Keep giving and I’ll keep pedalling

 

Podil’s ‘self garden’ offers hope for a better Kyiv

Podil

Podil (Podol in Russian) is perhaps one of the oldest, quirkiest and most diverse district in Kyiv. Its mix of ‘pre-revolution’, Stalinist, 1970s and modern ‘fake-old’ buildings, dotted with ancient burial grounds, hills and ‘elite’ tower-blocks makes it a fun place to explore. In Podil you’ll find small winding streets of faded pastel-coloured houses, ancient trams, crappy roads, sleepy boulevards, students, businessmen and babushkas all jostling for space on its small squares, ruined pavements and a patchwork of small courtyards.

Since the Maidan revolution last year, Podil has also become a hipsters paradise of coffee shops, animal-themed kiosks, tech companies, galleries and burger bars.

It’s the home of Kyiv’s most famous street (Andriyivsky Spusk) a large University, a massive Soviet market and a port where you can take a small ferry along the river to drinking beer and listening to loud Russian pop-music. It has Kyiv’s poshest hotel, three million sushi bars, a mosque and the bizarrely-named but wonderfully cheap bar called ‘Beer Online’ where you can eat and drink with local students, alcoholics and expats – all for the cost of a bottle of Evian in western Europe.

Podil is the kind of place where a drunk a man can introduce you to a small bronze statue which he claims to have married, where a bar called ‘live fuck die’ may appear in the middle of the revolution and where you can invent entirely new words during an excessively drunken underground karaoke session. I know because all of these things have happened to me in this crazy district on the banks of the Dniper. Basically, for those who love Kyiv because of its striking contrasts, weirdness and unpredictability – Podil offers everything you could wish for and more and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

However, nothing in Podil is as cool as the new ‘Samo Sad‘ (СамоСада) or ‘self garden’.

I first saw a post about Samo Sad somewhere online but didn’t pay much attention to the article as it looked like ‘just another park’ amongst the hundreds of others that literally ‘Spring’ to life in early May. About two weeks later on a typically warm and sunny Sunday, my housemate Gregory invited me to join him at a new ‘garden’ near our house on Horiva Street.

Misjudging the weather quite spectacularly, I put on a large orange body-warmer and wandered down to join him and Vika and to see what ‘new garden’ he was talking about.

“Our Grandmas are very clever”

Samo Sad is a small square of land which is about 20 meters wide and is guarded by two straw sheep. Well, at least I think they are sheep and in authentic Ukrainian-style one is wearing sunglasses and the other has a pink bow tied in her hair. Along one side of the plot is a pub, there are two restaurants across the street, a ‘produkti’ (corner-shop) on the opposite side, a ridiculous but fun ‘Crab Coffee’ kiosk on one corner and a recycling centre for used bottles on the other. The cetnre piece is a large tree and if you crawl through a hole in the bushes and fence there is a basketball court behind.

So what is it? Well, it was (and officially probably still is) a peice of land which is being leased to the Russian Embassy (yes its occupied territory), and right now Samo Sad is a community garden and 20 square meters of cool.

I met Gregory and Vika sitting under the tree on the newly erected bench which now circles it, and just as they just started mocking my winter jacket an old lady stopped to inquire about this random new ‘garden’. Vika explained that a bunch of activists had reclaimed the land and were building a community space, a stage and a herb garden. The old woman responded that she also lived in Podil and was very proud to see such an initiative.

As a stood there like a big sweaty orange, I felt a sense of pride too. This garden isn’t just another space – it represents a complete 360 degree change of mentality and symbolizes not just a new-found confidence which has spread through Podil, but also a shift in power back to the people and their neighborhood.

A local activist explained in more detail.

The space, she said, was reclaimed and landscaped by the same Volunteers that took it upon themselves to patrol the streets of Podil in March 2014 when the police vanished following the grim climax of the Maidan protests and massacre in the city centre. They have built and planted a vegetable garden in boxes, erected a stage, built a number of wooden chairs, found a piano from somewhere and assembled it all around the grassy square. This will not surprise anyone in Ukraine, but the Babushkas (grandmas) often come to the garden and tell the young growers what they are doing wrong and how they should be growing this and that vegetable. The hipsters come on their bikes, families bring their kids and the drunks come and sit and get quietly drunk. It is the first real, organic community I’ve seen in five years in Kyiv.

“So why is the piano padlocked?”, I asked. “Well”, the activist said, “it is because people were leaving the pub playing it late at night when they are drunk”. This (somewhat understandably) irritated an old woman in the apartment bloc next door who vented her anger by logging onto Facebook and complaining to the community via their new Facebook page.

“Our old people are very smart” the she explained in a matter-of-fact way – highlighting, for me anyway, the real and ongoing social media revolution that’s taking place.

The future?

So far it seems that the local authorities have given their silent approval to the project but this is Ukraine and so we can be fairly sure that Samo Sad will eventually attract much drama, scandal and controversy. But, for now at least it symbolizes everything that is good about Ukraine. It shows the very best of Ukrainian community spirit and it is Podil’s stubborn, understated and beautiful answer to the vitriol which has been thrown in their direction by those claiming the city is overrun by Nazis.

Samo Sad is a peoples garden for people who deserve ever inch of it.

Go and see for yourself at Voloska St, 20. Visit them online at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Samosad/1605911233024707?fref=ts

All dressed up and nowhere to go

So, I finally did it. I finally packed everything, loaded it onto the bike and went for a very long ride.

Some may say, that with only a week to go before the start of my journey, I should have done this ages ago. They might be right, but that’s not the point. Yesterday, I learned what it was like to ride my bike fully-loaded, how heavy/hard it is (or actually isn’t) to ride up-hill with all me gear and I discovered that I am fit enough to cover the 80km distance that I’ll need to maintain for the next month. I even did some stairs, which not easy with 35km of bike and luggage.

However, yesterday wasn’t all plain sailing. I had planned my trip so I would arrive at Camping No1, Kyiv’s only campsite, so I could test my tent erecting-skills and camping prowess. I would, I told my flatmate Gregor, sleep the night there and then do another long day on the bike on Sunday – just to prove beyond doubt that I was ready.

Well, I should have known better and checked before leaving because ‘Camping No1’ which is ‘open all summer’ should actually be called ‘Camping No’ because it doesn’t exist. It looks like it might have existed many years ago, but despite the 5 star rating and enthusiastic Facebook page and website – its closed, shut-down, locked up and decaying behind a rusty fence.

My plans for relaxing in the sunshine and drinking a cool beer in my proudly assembled tent were ruined. I was knackered, red and homeless and with only one option – a further 15km by bike back home.

After 55km, I was less than impressed to find this...

After 55km, I was less than impressed to find this…

Today, Sunday, I woke up ate and slept almost all day. I have been absolutely exhausted, so despite the fact that I can cover the distance once, repeating it day after day for a month is going to be a whole different kettle of fish (probably dried fish since I’m in Eastern Europe).

In between sleeping on the beach and eating, I did at least find time to put my tent up today (much to Yulia’s despair) so at least I know that it works and where to put the poles etc. I really didint want to do that for the first time after 80km on a bike in the sunshine, or worse – in the rain.

So, with just a week and 12 hours to go. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

At 06:00am on Monday morning (10th August), I fly from Kyiv to Budapest and will then pedal my way slowly along the river Danube, all the way to the black sea and back to Odessa.

-//-

On a completely unrelated note, I just noticed a large warning label in my boxer-shorts which says ‘KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE’. What exactly do underwear makers think I do in my pants?

Joking aside, since almost everything in life should be ‘kept away’ from fire, the label suggests that my ‘protective’ garments as exceptionally flammable – so much so that they warrant a special warning. Is this a good idea?

What if I enjoy laying in my pants, smoking? (which I don’t but its entirely possible that I would) – surely I shouldn’t be at risk of having my prized assets flame-grilled if I drop a match? If mattresses, sofas and a whole bunch of other inanimate objects must be fire retardant if they wish to be sold in the EU, shouldn’t pants? At least a man can run away from a flaming sofa – what’s he going to do if his crotch goes up like an Iraqi oil well?

Video: when cycling in Ukraine…

HSC Altlandida

After joining the Kyiv Cyclists Association (AVK) a few weeks ago, I decided to check-out their website to see what king of things they were organising and what events, if any, I could attend.

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.

Day 2

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 3.

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.

Day 4.

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…

Video: Cycling in Kyiv. More fun and less dangerous than people think!

Mention cycling in Kyiv and many people look at you in horror.
‘But, our drivers are crazy and the roads are awful’ they say. Or, “I love cycling, but I would never do it here, it’s too dangerous’.

The first statement is undeniably true but Kyiv’s drivers are less crazy than Belgian drivers and if you own a mountain bike then the holes in the road are just fun. The second statement blatantly false. Cycling in Kyiv is no more dangerous than in most other European cities. In fact, if you go to the right places, it is a lot safer, more beautiful and more fun. There are park, forests, beaches and crazy markets to explore!

To see what I mean watch the video below which shows the highlights of a 52km ride around Kyiv yesterday.

The exact route + more info are available here:

New Kyiv Police

After the massacre in Kyiv early last year the massive police presence in the city evaporated and almost vanished overnight. The few cops that remained immediately rebranded themselves with Ukraines Blue and Yellow flag and joined joint street patrols with local volunteers. Since those early post-revolution months, they have scarcely been seen. The DAI (traffic police) have still been out annoying drivers but the cities brutally corrupt civilian police have been in hiding.

Needless to say, Kyiv didn’t descend into anarchy and the city returned to, and continued in its usual quiet, safe and self-policing self.

For those of us who live here and especially for those who, like me, have been arbitrarily detained by the pre-revolution police – that has been a welcome state of affairs.

Yesterday however they returned in force. Or more accurately they returned as a new force. Dropping their Soviet era ‘Militsiya’ name, the new ‘Politsyia’ have been completely re-recruited and trained from scratch in a Georgian-style root-and-branch reform.

Thousands of people applied for the new positions and those that were lucky started their work yesterday. 27% are said to be women (apparently higher than the EU average) and last night they were out in their new shiny cars – clearly enjoying their flashy blue lights*.

This is undoubtedly the most visable and well promoted if the post-revolution reforms and I think there’s a general feeling of pride here in Kyiv in their new officers.

Let’s hope they manage to retain this respect and do what all good police forces should – stop criminals and protect innocent people, whatever their views, race, religion or political affiliation.

Good luck to them.

*the new police cars seem to have their lights set to ‘always flash’. Perhaps it’s a way to draw attention to themselves.

How to get down a hill at ‘HSC Atlantida’ in Western Ukraine

Atlantina

A quick post today to thank Sergiy Simonov, my fellow cycle-tourists and everyone at Atlantida for a great weekend on the bike in Western Ukraine.

Starting and ending in the medieval town of Kamenetsk-Podolsk we enjoyed castles, caves, kayaking, sliding down a mountain on a cable, amazing food, naked saunas (banyas to the linguistical purists out there) and lots of sunny cycling.

The place is beautiful, the people are friendly, the roads are atrocious and the villages haven’t changed of centuries.

All-in-all it was a great trip and finally a chance to test my ‘tour bike’ on a tour. It did a grand job but more about that when I have time.

Pictures and videos will follow soon. For now I have to endure another 30 minutes on the less-than-exciting training machine.

Kyiv Bike Day

A few years ago I joined a ‘bike parade’ in Kyiv as part of the national bike day. Back then a few hundred cyclists met in the centre, did a short tour and then peddled over to Truhaniv Island for a bike-picnic.

It was nice, but not really significant and cycling was still seen as a fringe sport for weirdos or people who couldn’t afford a car.

Since then, I haven’t seen or participated in any bike events in Kyiv, but post Maidan I have witnessed a huge boom in the popularity of cycling and the gradual establishment of a cycling movement which looks set to revolutionise the streets of Kyiv.

I decided to join the fun and so, as a proud new member of the Ukrainian Cyclists Association I decided to join this years event.

It coincided with Kyiv day (yes Kyiv has a day too) and it was the start of spring so Kyiv was quiet and sunny – a great day for cycling.

It was a BIG event! There were literally thousands of bikes. Kreshatik (Kyiv’s main street) was closed for a bike race and everywhere you went there were people-powered pedalling machines.

There were …

  • Kids on bikes
  • Bemused shop keepers, street cleaners and police officers (mostly smoking) and watching the cyclists
  • Vyshevankas on bikes
  • Pravy sektor on bikes (just to make sure that RT.com could label all cyclists as fascists)
  • ‘Normal’ bikes
  • Mountain bikes
  • Racing bikes
  • Touring bikes
  • Flat Lie-down bikes
  • Cruising bikes playing System of the Down
  • Belarusians on bikes
  • People drinking beer on bikes
  • Company-sponsored groups of bikes
  • …and even a man smoking a pipe on a bike!

It was an impressive sight and I was happy to be part of the day. It’s hard not to see this as part of a broader ‘Europeanisation’ of Ukraine (yeah that word is ridiculous but its relevant) and it will be interesting how far and how fast Ukraine moves to support its new cyclists.

Also, there were still a few things missing from the day…

Police on bikes
Bike lanes for bikes
Politicians on bikes
Army men on bikes

So maybe they’ll be ready for next year.

 

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On to Troeshina

Following the crowds down to Truhaniv island, I wanted to see how far I could go along the islands and (if possible) across to Kyiv’s left bank.

This means crossing the footbridge onto the island and then heading north on the road that runs through the island. this road takes to you Moscovski bridge (that name wont last long) and then you cross onto the top half of the island. This top half is even more delightful than the bottom half of Truhaniv and I found myself cycling through meadows that could easily have been in England. Eventually you pass some Soviet era (but cute) holiday camps and if you persevere like me – you’ll cross a little bridge and find yourself on the left bank somewhere near Troeshina. It’s a pretty weird place, even by Ukrainian standards, but its interesting in a village-meets-city kind of way. There were no other cyclists by this point other than a few local dedushkas (old men), but there are paths to cycle on and its pretty easy to find Moscovski bridge again from here (just follow the river).

Bring on bike day 2016!

Ian

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