by Roy Locock
Two years ago I decided I wanted to do one more decent drive in Bridget before retiring her from the endurance touring game. Then, on the 24th of February, 2022, Mr. Putin challenged my plans. So, I decided to ‘play in the backyard’ for three months. I realized that there were a surprising number of countries in Europe that Bridget hadn’t driven and many are the countries that make up the Balkans. We might even get close to the Ukraine border to shout rude things at Mr. Putin.
After performing an upgrade to Bridget’s suspension and checking over the engine, we left on June 15 and traveled through 16 countries covering almost three thousand miles. Bridget is now on her 59th different country and I have decided that Ukraine is to be her 60th. We leave tomorrow for the border.
I had made my way to Siret, a small Romanian town where one of the border crossings into Ukraine is situated. I found a hotel, within 500 metres of the crossing, and booked a room for two nights. This would give me the opportunity to determine if I would be able to enter the country or not.
At the roadside leading to the border there was a queue of trucks waiting to cross that was more than two and a half miles long. When I remarked upon this, whilst signing the hotel register, the receptionist told me that the previous week the queue had been 15 miles!
At breakfast I met the hotel’s owner, a Maltese gentleman, who at the age of 19 bought a brand-new MG Midget as his first car. He was thrilled to see Bridget and learn what we were doing, albeit he questioned the wisdom of crossing the border in the current circumstances.
During the stay-over I chatted with a number of the charity workers that were encamped all along the approach road. Most of the big multi-national charities were represented with row after row of tents. There were tents for adult and children’s clothing, medical supplies, food and drink, baby requisites, sleeping bags, blankets, the list went on and on.
I was told that the refugee evacuation was now very organized, with many crossing in official buses, rather than the huge queues that we first saw on television. That said, I was told that ten thousand had crossed at this point in the last month. At the time of this writing, the overall total stands at
6.5 million refugees.
The officials appeared surprised that I felt I had to ask if I would be able to cross the border the next day, and said, “No visa required. The British are very welcome.” Then I was questioned where I intended to go in the country. The officials made it clear that there were no laws barring me from attempting to go wherever I pleased, but it would make things very difficult for the authorities should I go somewhere and get injured. I would also not be able to pass many of the military checkpoints if I attempted to go near the frontline areas. They said that they would prefer me to travel only in the north-west of the country and not venture to Kiev.
After a good night’s sleep, Bridget and I left the hotel at 08:30 and drove without incident to the border. Private vehicles are directed past all the stacked lorries so our wait was not too long, and in total it took less than an hour to negotiate Customs and Passport control. However, it took another twenty minutes to purchase the green card for Bridget. I had no local currency to pay for the card and the only ATM at the border was broken. Eventually, the insurance broker and I came to an understanding: I only had 20€, so he would charge me 20€.
As we left the border crossing the line of cars and charity workers waiting to cross the other way was quite short. The queue of lorries however, stretched more than nine miles. The drivers at the back would have to wait two days to cross. I was amazed that the border officials hadn’t introduced a streamlined procedure temporarily to get these trucks rolling. They are desperately needing to get goods in and out without delays. To hell with the normal EU paperwork, check that they aren’t carrying drugs or illegals and get them moving.
Unusually for me, I set an objective for the day, to drive to the town of Ivano-Frankivsk.
Observing as much as possible whilst driving, and from walking around the town, life generally appears to be what one assumes is quite normal, or perhaps I should say peaceful. We passed through one military checkpoint. There was little in Ivano-Frankivsk to suggest that there was a crisis, until you look closely. The windows of the main railway station were taped up to prevent glass shards flying in the event of an explosion and, on peering through the window, they were sand-bagged inside. When I took a photo of the sandbagged City Hall, I was quickly apprehended, in a very respectful way, and told that such photographs were undesirable.
The following morning I woke-up a little earlier than normal, startled by the wailing of an air raid siren. Still bleary-eyed, my first thought was “it’s a practice” followed by “What? At five o’clock in the morning?” As a post-war baby, I can remember the sirens being tested every so often in the early 1950s and we always waited for the short ‘all clear’ blast to follow. Do they sound an ‘all clear’ here? Are we supposed to get out of bed and go somewhere? I decided to go back to sleep. But I would defy anyone not to continue listening for the sound of an aircraft, or roar of an incoming missile, for a few minutes at least.
I saw later in the news that the city of Odessa was hit by two missiles with another two missiles destroyed. If they were fired from a ship in the Black Sea, the trajectory would have crossed us, among many other towns, and there is no way of knowing where the target is, so the alert must go out along the total path. It’s un-nerving, which is probably a secondary objective of the Russians.
After breakfast, Bridget and I set off for Lviv. There is a good chance many of you will have heard of Lviv, as it was mentioned frequently in the early days of the conflict. Many news reports came from there and it played an important role in the evacuation of many refugees.
Driving steadily, I was able to observe my surroundings more closely. With the absence of any mountains the countryside looks much the same as areas of Britain. There is a considerable variety of trees, not all pine, as is the case in some parts of Europe, and the fields of wheat, maize, and sunflowers look healthy. The villages have a reasonable housing stock, of largely traditional architecture, rather than broken and unkempt barns and outhouses. Plenty of people were working the farms, and it was difficult to believe the carnage happening just a few hundred miles away. The most obvious difference between their villages and those in the UK is the compulsory village church. I know some village churches in Britain have tall spires or towers, but the Ukraine version is an altogether larger building with several onion shaped domes, an architectural feature of the Orthodox Church.
In no time we were on the outskirts of Lviv and as we took a left turn I spied a car wash. We did a U-turn and ran straight into the third bay. I took a good half an hour and Bridget was looking very much brighter. The paintwork on her bonnet was looking lacklustre so I treated her to a little wax once I was booked into the hotel. This time the receptionist briefed me on safety measures in Lviv, including what to do in case of air raid warnings and the location of the air raid shelter.
After an uninterrupted night’s sleep, I went down for breakfast, and in the restaurant there were several families, including two with babies. On the wall is a large flat screen TV showing a children’s cartoon when, without interrupting the show, an announcement, that is transmitted across all channels, in both Ukraine and English, warns of a possible air raid. It is indicative of the normalization effect of the situation that the parents, with babies to care for, hardly look up from their tasks. It is totally understandable why millions have fled.
Two hours on and another air raid warning; I decided to go to the gym for an hour and work off any tensions. Then I wandered into the outside world to explore this city that is rich in culture and history. Lviv was founded in 1250 AD and there have been many periods when it has been under the rule of others. The main periods were under the Mongols and the Poles. The Polish influence has probably been the strongest in both cultural and architectural areas. Of course the Germans occupied Ukraine in World War II and the Russians since, but there is no confusion over whether or not Ukraine is an independent sovereign State.
Several times I met with a Ukrainian couple and their three-year-old daughter, Sonja, in the hotel. They were taking a short relaxation break from their home in Kiev. They asked if we could meet-up and go for dinner in town, but we couldn’t get our timing in sync. We settled for a walk, a drink, and a visit to a playground. Their daughter is a confident, but not precocious, young lady who understands how to get what she wants. Her mother is an IT professional and dad worked for an importing company. I asked how they coped with the situation in Kiev, where you are ill-advised to ignore the sirens’ wails. At first they said life was fairly normal, but gradually admitted normal really meant that they had become used to the difficulties. In their daily lives they avoided all public buildings unless they had business there, and whenever going from A to B, plotted a path between heavily built-up streets where missiles find it hard to penetrate.
Life around Lviv was teaming and all the shops, cafes, and restaurants were open as normal. All along the tree-lined pedestrian paths were benches, each occupied by groups of gentlemen watching a pair of men playing chess— and very earnest games they were—with official clocks timing every move.
On the Saturday there were notable numbers of soldiers, with their families, taking in the sunshine and entertaining their children. They clearly had weekend passes and were getting some respite in an area of relative safety.
On the morning I was due to leave, Sonja and her dad met me and invited me to Kiev for a few days to see their city. I had to decline their lovely offer and explained that the border officials had specifically asked me not to go to Kiev, Odessa, or the Donbas region.
The drive to the Polish border was easy and uneventful except for a couple of checkpoints where the soldiers were so excited seeing Bridget they dropped everything else they were doing and came over to have their photos taken.
There was a short queue at the border and, as it was fairly warm, I decided to get out of Bridget and stretch my legs. A people carrier passed by and stopped opposite the customs office. Several officials came out of the office and went over to the carrier, opened the rear doors and there was a family of ten, with all their worldly goods. Customs have to thoroughly search all vehicles including those of refugees. Watching these events was too much for me and I had to return to the car. With my passport stamped, Bridget and I drove off through the barriers, but I had the most awfully mixed emotions. I was happy to have visited their country but couldn’t help feeling that I was abandoning them to their fate. MM
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