Cyclists hope for better roads after ride in Ukraine

Posted Oct. 16, 2009, at 9:30 p.m.

Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.

French novelist Honore de Balzac died after crossing the country of Ukraine in 1850. Following a torrid 17-year love affair with a wealthy Ukrainian countess, Balzac finally married his lover in Ukraine and the two traveled by carriage to Paris. The arduous journey on muddy spring roads lasted one month and took a toll on the writer’s poor health. Balzac died in France just months later.

Today modern transportation expedites travel; a plane can take you from Ukraine to France in an hour. After already covering 6,200 miles on bicycles, my friend Ellery Althaus and I will travel even slower than Balzac, hoping to reach France in six weeks.

Many consider Ukraine to be the original home of the same Eastern Slavic peoples who migrated east and founded the Russian empire. For centuries, Ukraine was controlled by various European powers. In 1922, the country fell back into the Russian sphere of influence when it was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Ukraine gained independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Today the cultural boundaries between Russia and Ukraine blend together seamless as tendrils of smoke fading into a bright sky. The Ukrainian language is so similar to Russian that I can ask strangers for directions and read restaurant menus.

Ukrainian cuisine resembles Russian fare, too. All Ukrainian cafes serve the Russian staple borscht, a soup of beets and potatoes. Borscht is commonly believed to be Russian, but the soup actually originated in Ukraine. Russia may be Ukraine’s big brother, but like any sibling rivalry, the countries have influenced each other’s identity regardless of whether they like to admit it.

Crossing from Russia into Ukraine, the first thing which strikes the traveler as different are the animals. Everywhere cows meander down country lanes, chickens peck at the roadside, and bearded billy goats munch grass outside of nearly every family home. Farm animals graze anywhere in Ukraine, appearing like the roaming vagabonds of the earth they once were.

If Ukraine were to choose a national bird, it would undoubtedly be the goose. The villages and waterways of eastern Ukraine are mined with fowl tempered geese. They roam in packs waddling to and fro like edgy jewel thieves pockets so stuffed full of riches they walk bowlegged. Rivalries emerge when two gangs of geese cross paths. They stick their necks out unnervingly and hiss like serpents.

I take a break from my bike one afternoon, and observe an aggressive gaggle. They swagger toward me and hiss.

“Listen you,” I imagine them saying. “What are you doing on my turf with that stupid bike?”

I back off right away.

We spend two days cycling on back roads to a more central highway that leads to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. Free range chickens scavenging for food near the road flutter away as I speed past and startle them. I wave at poor villagers harvesting crops in their gardens. Rural Ukraine looks like how I envision the Europe Balzac saw on his arduous trip to Paris.

Several days after entering Ukraine, my friend Ellery falls sick with flu symptoms. Luckily we arrive in the small town of Romny and find a hotel. He gets into bed as a fever overtakes him.

While Ellery recovers, I explore Romny. The differences between here and Russia are subtle. A sign above Romny’s post office reads “Poshta” instead of “Pochta” the Russian word for post office. A borscht that I order in a small cafe is served “Ukrainian style” with beans instead of beets.

Some things never change. One sunny afternoon, I leave the hotel and sit outside on the sidewalk with a book enjoying the pleasant fall weather. Suddenly, an old woman sticks her head from the hotel door.

“Young man, come right back inside,” she says commandingly. “You’ll catch a death of cold sitting there.”

A widely believed superstition persists in Russia, and Ukraine, that sitting upon the ground on your rear end causes sickness, and, even infertility. I have been reprimanded for this before. If Russians see foreigners sitting on a stone wall for example, even in the heat of summer, it is not uncommon for them to look at you in hor-ror before offering you a newspaper to sit on for protection.

“Please,” I beg in Russian, “it is so nice in the sun. I don’t want to leave.”

“But you’ll get sick,” the woman yells frustratedly, and, realizing the ignorant foreigner won’t budge, retreats inside, and brings me a chair.

The following day, Ellery feels better. We decide to take it easy and do a short day. We realize that we took a wrong turn 25 miles out from Romny. Like Russia, some road signs in Ukraine are misplaced and can lead you in the wrong direction. We have no food, and the next town is 50 miles away. Not wanting to backtrack, we decide to push onwards.

Ukraine is often called the breadbasket of Europe. Fields of corn and wheat here fill flat land that resembles the American Midwest. We set off down a lonely road. Infinite dry stalks of corn basked in the autumnal light of early October cover flat plains that stretch before me like an interminable Illinois.

Ellery quickly grows weak trying to cover the long distance. He continually stops to rest, collapsing on the ground in exhaustion. I feel helpless while watching him lay there. Daylight quickly fades. We must hurry before night falls and it becomes too dangerous to ride on the pothole-riddled roads.

Continuing up a small hill, my chain suddenly breaks. I unload my bike and we fix the chain by inserting a spare link in it. The setting sun dips into the horizon. We are running out of time.

As twilight falls, we reach the town and check into an old Soviet hotel. Most hotels in the former Soviet Union were built during the communist era and they each look identical. Entering our room, the sight of concrete walls and two beds on either side of an imitation Afghan rug familiarly meets my eyes. The bathroom’s shower, about the size of a telephone booth and equipped with a small hose to wash yourself, is the exact same type of shower I have cleaned up in from here to small towns in the Russian Far East near China. Soviet hotels stir a sense of familiarity within me now; like my parents farm house in Maine, I know just what to expect before entering.

The next day, we ride through Kiev and continue onward. Soon, we will exit Ukraine and enter the European Union where better roads and more developed infrastructure await.

Leaving Kiev, a brutal headwind billows against us from across the plains slowing our progress. Balzac must have experienced the same anticipatory yearning for Western Europe I feel when he traversed these roads on a horse-drawn carriage. With each mile, we are nearing the European Union. Traveling toward the faster paced modern world at the speed of another century.

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