We started the day the same as any other. Warm under the sheets but knowing only too well, the icy coldness that awaits us on the other side. We lay awake for a moment or fifteen, quietly hoping for the other to climb out first and allow for a few minutes of double bed warmth to ourselves. I win today and Lucy reluctantly arises and begins to pack down.
It’s hard when the mornings are so cold and damp, but I should’ve been full of more enthusiasm because today we were heading to Ukraine.
A few days ago we had spun a bottle to decide the route we’d drive from our spot in the Slovakian Tatra Mountains through to the Făgăraș Mountains in Romania, because making adult, well-informed decisions are still way beyond both our capacities. The choice was between Hungary, a landlocked nation which borders seven other countries and Ukraine, second only to Russia as the largest country on the continent.
I had visited Hungary several years ago and really enjoyed it. I’d never thought about visiting Ukraine until a few days ago. I knew in my heart where I wanted to go, but our heads couldn’t decide.
The bottle chose for us and Ukraine it was. We set about making a plan, finding out what we’d need at the borders and so on. By the end of the day, we had planned our route, found a place to safely wild camp in the Carpathian Mountains and organized all our vehicle documents, licenses and passports ready for inspection at the border. This would be the first time we’d taken the van outside the safety net of the EU on this leg of the journey and something told us it would be a little more complicated than Switzerland.
On the day we felt largely prepared and excited – a little nervous about what to expect – but ready to give it a go.
After our cold start, we arrived at the Slovakian border at around 11 am. After waiting in the queue for around twenty minutes a lady came over to us and took our details and passports. Simultaneously a man dressed in military attire began inspecting the van. He seemed fairly happy we weren’t up to no good and after several people in the queue helped the border control guards correctly identify the van as an LDV – not an Iveco – we were allowed to drive a whole 200 yards to the Ukrainian border.
This is where our fun began. The night before, we had written a note in Ukrainian (surprisingly difficult because of the Cyrillic letters) explaining what our intentions were, where we were planning to stay, how long for and where we would be leaving the country. These are all requirements for entering the country. This was initially met well by the border guards, who were passing it around and having a good laugh between themselves – my Ukrainian handwriting was probably questionable!
However, it didn’t take long for the mood to sour a little. Whilst someone was checking our documents, two guards began circling the van like vultures, tapping the panels with their batons and asking us if we had narcotics with us. There really is only so many ways of saying no, but they continued asking the same questions. One then asked why we DON’T have any marijuana, and proclaimed that he smokes and asked us why we didn’t. If this didn’t confuse us enough, he then reached into the front, grabbed Lucy’s purse and asked if he could take a look. It soon became clear that he was looking for a bribe to speed the process along, but we had nothing and consequently the crossing took over an hour.
We could have probably sped the whole process up a little if we’d have had an International Driving Permit, but we hadn’t had time to organize one and despite supposedly being an entry requirement, thought we’d chance it without. They didn’t mention this once, but we’re definitely having problems interpreting our documents, which in turn gave them more time to prod and poke our van.
After what seemed like forever standing around in the bitter cold, a stern lady clutching our documents emerged from the customs office and returned them to us. The border guards final statement was; “Ahh, I can see that you are good people. You are freedom people!” And with that our passports were stamped and we were on our way.
When I say we were on our way, I mean that very loosely as anyone who’s been to Ukraine will know, the roads are virtually non-existent. They exist in the sense that cars drive along them and they will occasionally have houses either side but that’s about as far as it goes. We soon learned that local driving will see cars using any side of the road they wish, usually whichever side has the least potholes. Cars literally come from all angles, which is actually great fun once you get used to it. What isn’t fun is driving a 2.5 ton home with all of your worldly possessions over a craterous maze of destruction. It’s safe to say the only thing slower than us in Ukraine were the many traditional horse and carts that seemed to populate every street and village.
We decided fairly early on that one day in Ukraine would be more than enough for our sanity and the vans structural integrity. What began as a three-hour journey – according to our satnav – slowly turned into nine. We’d barely left second gear all day and our arses were suitably bruised as the night rolled in and we arrived at the border with Romania.
Initially, we were relieved to be at the end of our brief Ukrainian stint if for no other reason than we hadn’t eaten all day and were looking forward to a well-earned bit of grub. It quickly became apparent that this was not going to be a quick crossing.
Within minutes of arriving, despite there being a queue of cars in front of us waiting to cross first, we were directed to drive into a sealed-off, floodlight-lit room separate to the other cars complete with a pit under the van and our very own personal sniffer dog.
The border guards here were rude, invasive and appeared to be rather stupid. There really isn’t another way to word it. They proceeded to empty out the contents of our van, questioning us in an almost infantile manner on what everything was.
‘That’s incense, no it’s not marijuana.’ ‘That’s water purification tablets, no it’s not narcotics.’ ‘That’s my glasses case, look it has glasses in.’ ‘That’s my contraceptive pills, not cocaine.’ This went on for over an hour, until everything had been taken out, and not a single part of our home had not been poked, prodded and invaded. They still weren’t happy and the whole time they were asking where our narcotics were, if we had knives and all kinds of other stuff. I mean seriously, if we wanted to smuggle narcotics through a border, would we really have chosen a great big, bright blue, English f*cking campervan to do it in?! I think not.
It was gone nine now and we’d been on the road since ten. Feeling fed up, totally invaded and anxious – despite having done nothing wrong – we eventually managed to leave Ukraine and enter Romania to a thankfully much warmer welcome from the border guards. They had one look in the back through the side door, thought it was really cool and let us go on our way!
As a side note, we’re in no way trying to influence people’s decisions to visit Ukraine. It’s a beautiful country with a great landscape and interesting history. The people are curious but friendly. I would say that it’s certainly not campervan friendly at this moment. The guards are suspicious, as are the police and the roads are almost certainly going to cause damage to your vehicle if visiting for a prolonged period of time. Hopefully in the future, the country’s infrastructure will improve and social issues will also be listened to. We would totally recommend a visit, but not in a camper!