The good days in Korostiv, here in Ukraine, are over. As the alarm clock rings, I open my eyes. The first thing I do in the morning is check the windows. Well, not the actual windows, but more what lies behind them. Snow. It’s not something totally new these days, so I get ready for yet another cycle day on snow. Denis is crazy: he’s riding with bare hands, without any gloves on whatsoever. The temperature is already bad enough, but the chilly wind is a whole another level. „Are you not cold?“, I ask him for what must be the 58th time on this tour. „No, it’s ok“, he answers, looking me straight in the eyes. The truth, however, is that he didn’t bring any gloves along in the first place (“I didn’t know I would need them”). I shudder slightly at the thought of having my hands in the cold, while putting the very same in my warm, woolen gloves. Brrrrrrrrr.
Upon arrival in Ukraine I see words written in Russian for the very first time in my life. I won’t lie to you: it was frightening. From one day to another you’re thrown into a completely different world. A world where you can’t communicate, read or understand anything or anyone. However, I made a habit of trying to read the Cyrillic words we come across. There are lots of them: indicators, advertisements, shop signs and so on. The Russian language seems so strange and foreign to me. Even the letters are different but soon I manage to read my first Russian word. It’s „MIHI MAPKET“. Can you guess its meaning? Here’s a tip: this one is relatively easy, as it’s written on a small shop sign. Any idea now? Yes, you’re right: it stands for „mini-market“. That means that the Russian ‚H‘ is our ‚N‘ while the Russian letter ‚P‘ is our ‚R‘. I can work with that.
„Eta vada charaso piti?“, I ask, pointing at the tap. I’m sure I didn’t pronounce it correctly. She looks puzzled for a second. Then her eyes follow my index finger and instantly she gets what I want. She starts laughing, I start laughing, we’re both laughing. For the first time, I could make myself understood in Russian. I suddenly feel almighty. „Da, eta charaso piti.“, she says, smiling. You wonder what that short and sweet discussion was about? Well, now I know that tap water at the motiel is drinking water. We stopped 30 km before the big Ukrainian city Lviv. We stop to often lately. I don’t like that, to be honest. But what else could we do? We’re wet again from a day worth of cycling in the rain. Not one of us thinks of sleeping in his tent under these conditions.
It’s not the first morning that I mount my bike and notice, that the rear tire loses air over night. It’s an ever-so-tiny amount, but still. Day by day, it adds up until the tire is completely flat. So far, I deal with it by asking gas station employees whether I could use their compressor („Izvinite, u vas compressor?“). Contrary to Austria, where the compressor is freely available to anyone, here in Ukraine you need an employee to unlock it for you. After a quick charge, I am good to go but only until the following morning. Anyway, I know that this isn’t a long-lasting solution. At least I’m lucky: in Ukraine there is a gas station every few kilometers and nearly all of them have a compressor. It’s a biker-with-flat-tire’s dream. Regardless, I know that sooner or later I need to fix this problem. „There‘s no time for that now and there are enough gas stations here“, I try to excuse myself. The real reason why I postpone this issue is because I’m not sure whether I can repair that. Yes, I’ve already changed tubes on bikes. But that was actually quite some time ago, and it was on „normal“ bikes. Now our bikes resemble tanks on two wheels (which is exactly what we need, considering the road conditions here). Not to mention that it was pleasantly-summerish-warm back then! However, I remember that even back then it had always been such a time- and nerve-consuming affair. But what needs to be done needs to be done, there’s no way out of it. When we arrive in Lviv, I finally decide to get shit done. Together with Dominik I dismount the back tire and grab the inner tube. In order to find out where the puncture is, I dip it little by little into a container with water. Eventually somewhere, small bubbles start to form and raise to the surface. „Got you!“, I think to myself. It’s the tiniest hole I’ve ever seen! We have a bike-tire-repair-kit with us, so the issue is quickly solved: first, I wipe the tube around the hole dry, then I use a sandpaper to roughen the surface, after that I apply a little amount of special adhesive and finally I put a sticker on it. The tube’s good to go again.
Initially, I wanted to change the whole tube, not repair it. You know, to play it safe. Each of us brought five spare tubes along. Well, guess what: we brought the wrong ones! We can’t use them. Damn, that’s bad, actually. 23.000 km to go without spare tubes! We mistakenly assumed, that we could use tubes with this valve on our wheel rim. That pretty much means that now we have to ride our current tubes (this valve) until they explode. Or, by any chance, find a bike shop that provides exactly what we need. Bizarrely enough, I’m not necessarily annoyed that we brought the wrong tubes along but rather that we carried this dead weight (five tubes add up to around 1 kg or more) for 1.600 km with us! We will send the tubes back home. Denis will take them when he leaves us in Warsaw in Poland.
On 25th April, we again cross a border, this time the one from Ukraine to Poland. Will it be another hassle, like the one we had when we entered Ukraine (read here)? At first glance, everything looks pretty fine. 5 km before the border trucks wait in line. We overtake them joyfully. However, after the trucks comes a line of cars. We can’t really worm our way between them. So we do what every sane man in our situation would do: we switch the side of the road and drive against the direction of traffic. Why not? I can see people laughing at us inside their cars when we overtake them (“Haha! Look at these idiot bicyclists with all their luggage and weird clothing.“). What they don’t know is that on the inside I am laughing at them too („Haha! Look at these idiots inside their cars. We reach the border in a few minutes and you will possibly have to wait the whole day to get there.“). Sure enough, after a short ride we stand in front of the first border official. He just gives us a small piece of paper after writing something on it. He then gestures us to carry on. So we do. After another hundred meters two border officials stop us, smirking. „Atkuda vy?“, they ask. I don’t understand, but Dominik does and answers: „Ia iz Austria (I’m from Austria)“. They want to see our passports and the small piece of paper we received seconds ago. „Ok. First go right to custom official, then go left to border official with passport, understand?“. He points at the actual border. „Spaciba (Thank you)“, we reply and carry on.
Standing in front of his office the custom official simply signifies a „No“, while checking passports of other people. Suddenly, here at the actual border, it seems that nobody wants to be responsible for the three foreign bicyclists. So here we are, waiting. Ten minutes pass, half an hour, an hour. It’s getting cold, again. Little snowflakes start to gently fly around our faces. Finally, the border official on the left side has mercy on us. He shouts for us in Russian. So we push our way through the group of people that is waiting in front of his office. „Passports“, the young man says. After a quick glance inside, his face shows understanding. „Here“, he says, pointing on the stamp that we received at the Ukrainian border when we entered the country. The red stamp shows the entry date and depicts a car. It slowly dawns on me where this is heading. “Please not again”, I think. „You with car“, the border official says. „Program nerabotaiete bicicli (the program doesn’t work with bikes, just with cars)“, he tries to make me understand while in turn he points to the computer, then to our bikes, to the stamp and finally to a car that is randomly waiting around. I know exactly what he wants: again we are restricted to cross the border only inside a car, in no case by bicycle. Although I understand, Dominik, Denis and I beforehand agreed to act dumb, whatever happens. I mean, I can’t imagine them wanting to have three guys with their bicycles congesting the border forever. I take advantage of the fact that he doesn’t know what really happened when we entered Ukraine: „Ia vas panimayu (I understand you), but they let us in on our bicycles, njet problem“. I insist that it was like this and he insists that he can‘t help us. Then, a female border official, gestures us to follow her to another office. I deeply hope that she’s some higher ranking official here; the cold gets worse, even worse when you’re just standing. Suddenly everything goes fast: she wants to see our passports, she asks some questions in Russian which I answer with „Izvinite, ia ne-panimayu (Sorry, I don’t understand)“, she smiles and puts the exit stamp just beneath the entry stamp. „You can go“, she simply says. „Interesting, suddenly the program does work with bicycles.“, I think to myself, shaking my head.
The Polish border is not necessarily easier, sending us back and forth, from one colleague to another. At least they speak English here. They ask whether we carry drugs, meat or any other animal products along. We negate it. „Although, I have a sandwich with ham and cheese in my luggage“, Denis says, honestly and dead serios. I hold back a laughter. The border official is not amused. „Show me your luggage, please“, he asks all of us, putting white rubber handgloves on. I don’t know why but he takes only a short glance at my luggage and gestures me to close it again. Maybe because I showed him the pannier with my used underwear. After he saw Denis‘ sandwich as well, we’re good to go and the barrier opens. Finally!
We take our first meters in country number six on this tour. Soon enough I spot the sign saying „Welcome to Poland“. I always felt Austrian and never really considered myself a European citizen. However, seeing that big, fat „European Union“-sign, depicting yellow stars on a blue background, just underneath the Poland sign, gives me a strange feeling of security. Just like a blue chicken-mother gathering her three fluffy yellow chicks under her wing. It’s good to be back home, again.