Saturday, 26 November 2011


I had rather hoped the brand new Certificate of Transit would be ready yesterday, but no luck. As no-one works in Astana at the weekend, we now have to hang on until Monday and hope it comes through then. In the meantime it is beginning to look dangerously as if snow is on the way, and the ground was covered with a fine icy drizzle this morning, absolutely lethal to walk on....

......Tamas skates around on it in his shoes with the gay abandon of youth, but ancient crones like me are reduced to a cautious shuffle.

While I am huddled here in the cold I may as well plug my daughter Iona's new website . She sings to accompaniment of harp or guitar, and is available for gigs and weddings.
One of her new promotional photos in sweet and innocent guise.....
.....and the more sexy version .... what is she not wearing, says her mother in a slightly disapproving tone of voice.......

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A run for the Border

I have caught up with my emails at least for the moment!
On Monday I asked Dr Halascz to print out and try and decipher the emailed documents that Matt has sent at the weekend. Although they were both issued by the Kazakhstan office, one seemed to have a transit authority on it, although it wrongly specified Vylok rather than Chop, which Rowena was in the process of trying to rectify. Rather than hang around for another couple of days for the corrected document I decided to have a run for the Ukraine border and see what happened, a good decision as it turned out.

Early Tuesday morning we loaded up the horses and said goodbye to the vets, hoping we would NOT see them again - here is Hua with Tamas, one of our young Hungarian vet officer friends - and after negotiating the Hungarian customs, set off across the bridge over the river Tusa to Ukraine.
Almost immediately on arriving an Ukrainian customs official was fussing that the photocopied certificate was ineligible because it was issued in Kazakhstan not Ukraine. Eventually a vet officer appeared who confirmed that it contained the relevant authority in the form of a registration number. Sigh of relief, but not for long.
We seemed to be progressing through the system, albeit at the usual snail's pace, when another bombshell. The vet officer told us the certificate was not valid because the Kazakhs had not changed the journey plan and it still went from east to west. Consternation. But apparently if we can get that changed, all should be well, though no doubt they will find something else next time. It sometimes seems to be a game of trying to guess what is needed and then keep on trying until your guess is correct. Although to be fair, the woman vet official we had this time was prepared to give some advice on the phone to my Mrs Fixit Natalia, so hopefully we will get it right next time.

But after most of the day hanging around outside and inside offices in Chop customs, it was back to Hungary with our tails between our legs. The horses are back in their stalls (no doubt to the pique of the vet staff as they had just been thoroughly cleaned out and disinfected) and we are back on our pitch by the muck bins.
Rowena has been on the case pronto, and another hopefully perfect application with full corrections was winging its way to Astana yesterday morning. I cannot imagine what would have happened without her and Matt working behind the scenes.
Most annoying as I will be missing a few functions at home I was hoping to attend.

All Iced Up and Nowhere to go.

Sunday November 20th
We have been stuck here for a week now. Happily the staff at Hungarian border vet service have been incredibly sympathetic and accommodating - I have to thank Dr Bertalan Halascz for looking after us all so well.
The horses have been moved into indoor stalls in their most impressive and well kept equestrian facilities which are totally pristine and hygenic - you could eat off the floors.
Here are Bolashak and little Zorbee in their cosy quarters - I have now removed Bolashak's rug.

The border vet service have also been providing them with excellent hay, so there has been no worries about feed supply, although we do have a couple of bales of hay and some horsehage on the lorry.
Everything is regularly cleaned and disinfected, and we have been provided with disinfectant pans for when we move to and from the lorry or the stables....

As far as paperwork is concerned it has just been a waiting game and I am waiting until office hours tomorrow to see whether our transit authority has been given the OK by Kiev. Matt has emailed a certificate from Kazakhstan, but as it is in Russian I cannot understand most of it.

Meanwhile we have been made relatively comfortable in the circumstances. I have been able to have a couple of piping hot showers in the border vet buildings, and they have provided us with an electricity cable to the lorry which means we have light and I can keep my laptop operational 24 hours a day. The Ukrainian dongle is not working too badly out here in the lorry, though unfortunately it will not work in the warmth of the vet offices, where we are allowed to sit if they are open.
Home, Sweet Home ....

The weather has been absolutely freezing, apparently unusually so for the time of year, and several mornings I have had to break through the ice on the washing up bowl in the living area.

However I am perfectly cosy at night in the luton with two sleeping bags and a double duvet, although the book I am reading below says it all .......
The other plus is that we can walk out into Hungary to have the occasional meal at a local restaurant, and to food shop. Moral boosting bottles of Hungarian wine seem to feature quite heavily on the shopping list at the moment.

Good News and Bad News

Monday morning. November 14th
The good news is that on Saturday November 12th I reached the Ukraine-Hungary border at Vylok. The border guards were very touchy about taking photos so I have only included one of Bolashak and I entering Vylok, shown below. I am very happy at this achievement as it was the furthest point I was aiming to get to this year, as I knew it would give me the winter break to sort out arrangements for smooth start in the EU next year, probably in March.
However the problems have already started. When we reached the Vylok border crossing, we discovered it was for cars only, and although the horses could cross the border here, the lorry would have to go round via Chop, probably at least an 8 hour detour, not including time at the border crossing. We decided it was too risky to split up for such a long time and distance, particularly as it was getting on in the day. Vylok fatally and inaccurately told us that there was only a vet check on the Ukrainian side of the border at Chop, so we decided to truck the horses north and cross there.

We crossed through Ukrainian customs without too much hassle apart from a delay while they queried the stamp on the veterinary certificate in lieu of a Certificate of Transit. Luckily I still had the number of the vet office at Dovhzhansky, and they spoke to Vera who confirmed it was OK.

We arrived on the Hungarian side in the dark and were guided into the vet service compound while the resident vet (yes there was a vet check!) went off to get the paperwork checked as there seemed to be a problem. About 2.30am on Sunday morning he called me in. Big problem - the horses absolutely could not be let into Hungary due to EU restrictions on horses originating from Kazakhstan - no matter that they had been out of that country for nearly 3 months and the Kazakh vet had assured us that the paperwork would get us all the way through. Tim Cope had somehow managed to get his horses into Hungary at least for a while, but I had been unable to contact either him for advice, or the Hungarian vet contact I had been given.

There was nothing for it but to go back to Ukraine and think again. So in the morning we drove back across the river Tisza to the Ukrainian side. Even bigger problem - we were now not allowed back into Ukraine as they said the Ukrainian Certificate of Transit had now been used up, although I still had about 4 months to run on it. In vain did I plead that it was impossible for us to go westwards into Hungary.
Frantic phone calls to Natalia, my wonderful Kiev rotarian contact who got in touch with nearby Rotarians in Uzhgorod. But the Chop customs were extremely rude and unhelpful, would not give us advice on the best course of action or let us stay on the Ukraine side overnight while we tried to sort out a solution, and virtually physically ejected us back to the Hungarian side.

So here we are parked round the back of the Hungarian veterinary facilities, which I have to say are superb. We quietly got the horses off the lorry yesterday evening as they had been on the lorry for a day and a half, and tethered them on the lawn - luckily the ground is frozen fairly hard so they will not make too much mess.
Rowena and Matt got on the case immediately yesterday and are organising an application from Kazakhstan for a new Certificate of Transit.
In the meantime we are settling in for a few days wait.

Little Zorbee has a well deserved rest.

I am a National Celebrity

Riding out of Soltvino near the border with Romania, I was stopped by an enthusiastic local businessman outside a very bling house with gold trimmings and fountain at the front. He was insistent that I come in for food. Normally I would try and make my excuses and move on - as much as I would like to take up all these kind invitations, if I accepted them all I would still be in China. But it transpired he had seen me on national news, and hey, who am I to disappoint my fans.
So I tied Bolashak to the railings, and here we are in Vassar's house (apologies if I have spelt the name wrong) in front of a wonderful spread conjured up by wife Lena. And of course washed down with a couple of shots of vodka, although Hua had to abstain as Ukraine is extremely strict about drinking and driving.
I also tried their salo, slices of pure lardy pork fat very popular in Ukraine, and which I had previously found rather distasteful - but I enjoyed the offering here.....
From left to right: Vassar Jnr, Diana, Lena, Hua, Vassar Snr - his friend the local chief of police also paid us a courtesy visit later on.

By the time we set off again it was getting into late afternoon, and we needed to find somewhere to stop for the night. But surbubia seemed to roll on, and the houses seemed to get more and more fantastic in the half-light, I suppose a combination of being even nearer the EU border and close to Transylvania! - Chernivtsi eat your heart out.

I was amazed to come across this monstrosity (but only one tower) .......

...... and then this Gothic fantasy ........ they are sprouting up like mushrooms or have I got triple vision ... I am sure I only had two very small vodkas with Vassar .......

----this is getting ridiculous .........

.......... No-o-o-o-o-o-.................

.thankfully dusk fell after this and put an end to my imaginings ... or were they?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

We reach the Centre of Europe.

Wednesday November 9th
Since leaving Lazeshina, we have been following the rushing course of the river Tusa along a lovely forested valley towards the Romanian border.

I had been rather intrigued by some strange empty wooden structures I had seen in the Carpathians, when it suddenly became apparent what they were - expandable hay barns! The roof can be moved up as more hay is added - see the half empty barn to the right of the one in the foreground.

Do cars grow on trees in the Carpathians? A novel way to advertise the local garage!

But in fact horses as much as cars are a way of life in this region, and I have seen many horses with carts in the last few days.
The school run!

This larger than life character with his face emblazoned on the poster on the barn behind him, runs a horse trekking business and was very curious to know what I was up to.

Most outfits are pulled by a pair of horses attached to a central pole, although in this strange case the pole appears to be dragging along the ground at the back! The red tassels attached to the bridle also seem to be a traditional local feature.

And we even saw this sight - horses put to the plough. Interestingly they are led at the front by a helper who walks backwards.

Just past Rakhiv we came upon this surprise - the Geographical Centre of Europe. Which should mean I am halfway across Europe and about halfway from Atyrau to London.

A Short Cut through the mountains

Tuesday November 8th
A welcome change in the Carpathians has been the abundant presence of clean running water and we have hardly had to use the containers of water in the lorry at all.

Just to prove we are in the mountains - 1013metres above sea level! A pass on the road from Verkhovina to Vorokhta, which is a Ukrainian skiing resort.
On the road into the Carpathian National Park.

I had expected the Carpathians to be deep in snow at the beginning of November, as they were last year. As a result I had decided to play safe and stick to the main roads rather than look for more scenic tracks over the mountains. However the weather has been cold but excellent, and I have rather regretted not researching some more adventurous routes.
But in my notorious map book I had seen a track marked which not only looked fairly straightforward, but was a considerable short cut from Vorokhta to the small town of Lazeshina.

Locals in Vorokhta expressed doubt, but I have sometimes found that such advice needs to taken with a pinch of salt. As an example, a couple of guys at Kosiv had warned us strenuously against taking the road from Verkhovina to Vorokhta as they indicated it was almost impassable, whereas it turned out to be one of the better roads we have been on in Ukraine. I have to admit I was slightly disappointed as I was all set to get out my horse packing equipment, strike out on my own for a couple of days, and meet Hua at the other end.

Although it was getting late in the day, off I set up a good gravel road which soon turned into an earth one - below is the view looking back before I reached the top of the hill ...........
.........where a highly dubious local boy eventually reluctantly pointed me down a grassy track into the forest. His hesitation was soon explained when the track petered out into a frozen and almost impassable gully filled with fallen logs.

Below is a distinctly pissed off Bolashak as I have just made him scramble down the gully and over all the logs in the background.............

.....and more was to come - a tunnel under a railway line .......
........but eventually after scrambling along a stony river bed we reached a logging track as dusk began to fall .......

....although it was still a couple of hours ride to the town of Lazeshina where Hua was waiting in a bit of a panic as by now it was pitch dark, and locals had been regaling him with tales of the wolves that roam the forests here.

At home with the Hutsuls

Monday November 7th
Since leaving Chernivtsi I have been heading towards the Carpathians and Count Dracula territory.

This gentleman was overcome with excitement to talk to me and gave me a very exuberant send off with sloppy kiss - I managed to avoid lip contact. Not really husband material, though on the plus side he did have a horse and cart.

In the last few days I have seen quite a lot of gates decorated like this for happy wedding couples with ribbons etc and always a pair of entwined rings.

A storks nest on a telegraph pole - another sight one increasingly comes across!

Early morning rays of sun catching the gravestones around an Orthodox church. It is common for gravestones to have photos of the deceased as shown here. In the distance the Carpathians are looming into view.

Into the Carpathians

People keep small numbers of sheep in this area, and these colourful hand woven wool rugs were for sale along the side of the road as I gradually rode up into the mountains. Usually they have grey and white traditional patterns, rather than these colourful Carpathian scenes. And they are always for sale with the ubiquitous hand knitted woollen socks that seem to be for sale all over the world in colder climes. So the family can once again greet their Christmas presents with cries of 'Oh how unique'.

As I was riding down into the little town of Krivorivnya, I was accosted by a small and friendly group of locals including the two shown above - charming priest Ivan and teacher Mariya who spoke fluent English. Would I be willing to stop at the school in Krivorivnya and talk to the children there? Of course I would. Then it transpired that Australian Tim Cope, who rode unsupported with 3 horses from Mongolia to Hungary, (see ) and had passed through Krivorivnya in 2007, had talked to the school and stayed for ten days with Ivan!
So I rode on to the little school, was greeted by the headmaster, presented with
a lovely bunch of flowers, a natty purple to match my jacket, and taken to the school hall to give a question and answer session, conducted by Ivan as shown below ...
This part of the Carpathians is home to the Hutsuls, an Ukrainian mountain shepherding people who are fiercely proud of their unique culture and traditions - look at Tim Cope's website for much more detail of their lifestyle than I can give here. To the right of Ivan is a group of girls who had run off to attire themselves in their traditional Hutsul dress. To my right is Mariya, and on my left is Ivan's bright son Pavlo also in Hutsul costume. The woman on the far right is the English teacher - Pavlo being her star pupil - his command of English was remarkable for a 13 year old who had only been studying English for 4 years.
A school group on the front steps - I am in there somewhere!

After lunch in the school canteen it was off to the next town of Verkhovina, where we were to stay with Mariya. She cleverly managed to negotiate overnight accommodation for the horses in the gardens of the mayoral offices, complete with security guard!

Mariya was truly the hostess with the mostest and treated us to a wonderful tea while we gave some English practice to three gorgeous young girls who were her evening English pupils - if the children I met during the day were representative of Ukrainian youth then Ukraine has a bright future. This was followed by the spread shown below - the meat and potato dish on the left was truly scrumptious, and accompanied by shots of Mariya's golden home made vodka from the decanter in the middle.....

The golden colour is given by a rather spooky looking 'golden root' that is found in the mountains round here, and which Mariya is displaying in the photo below. Any ideas what it is? Something to keep Dracula at bay? The vodka was most fortifying.
Interestingly. Mariya's husband used to be a history teacher, but had to retrain as a psychologist after Ukraine ceased to be part of the Soviet Union. His history knowledge proved useless when the history taught in schools was no longer the exclusively Soviet propaganda they had previously been fed!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Keeping Up with the Yanukovyches

One thing that is noticeable about this part of Ukraine is the number of enormous half-built or seemingly empty mansions. Apparently they are a form of status symbol built by Ukrainians who have made a bit of money abroad and want to show it off. Salaries in Ukraine are desperately low, but because the west is nearer the wealthier EU countries, it is easier for people here to get better paying jobs abroad. Natasha told me that it is mainly women as they can get work as nannies, housekeepers, carers etc The money is invested in these white elephants which are usually only ever really used as show homes, while the householders actually live in more modest quarters at the back which are cheaper to heat etc.

It is also apparent that any self respecting nouveau riche Ukrainian is a nobody unless they have at least one tower on their creation. As you can see, the house above is owned by a two tower family.
A very smart final product, complete with adjacent haystack - one can never quite shake off one's rural roots.
In case you are wondering, Yanukovych is the current President who was accused of poisoning his opponent Yuschenko in the lead up to the 2004 elections and subsequent 'Orange Revolution'.

Chernivtsi hospitality

Saturday 5th November
Now in Chernivtsi after a few days riding from the river Dneister.

A wet morning

Is my eyesight getting even wonkier or it this a pedestrian crossing for those 'who have partaken of more liquid fuel than is necessary for their accurate propulsion' as I saw being the worse for drink described in an old motor manual.
A clean stream at last! And Bolashak can't wait to get in there.

I now see the occasional pair of horses put to a cart, always hitched like this to either side of a central pole and wearing breastplates rather than collars.

Another relatively common sight throughout Ukraine are these funny little lawnmower tractors chugging along.

This apple-cheeked fruit seller presented me with a delicious apple and pear from her stall.

We initially stayed near Chernivtsi at a very grand leisure complex in the process of construction - as well as a hotel, restaurant, extensive sports facilities, a tiny zoo with lion, and chalets in woodland set around a small lake, it had stables to house the horses used to pull various carriages to transport visitors. So we all had accomodation for the night....

The photo above shows the restaurant with sign post - you may just be able to see the distance 1137kms to Donetsk - though this will be as the crow flies, and we have travelled a much longer route.

We were taken for a superb Ukrainian evening meal with Crimean wine at the restaurant by Georgi, the President of Chernivtsi Rotary Club, a contact via the wonderful Natalia Radonov in Kiev who in turn I was introduced to by Mary Warnicki from Wales.

Left to right. Georgi, the delightful Natasha who manages the equestrian centre where the horses are now, another friendly Rotarian whose name I am ashamed to say I have forgotten, and Hua who appears to have sequestered my jacket.

We are now staying at the very grand equestrian centre mentioned above, which is on the other side of town. My fame is travelling before me, as in fact it turned out to be the same one Victor from Zaporrizhia had lined up for us, so when the Rotarians informed the stable manager, they were a little surprised to be told ' Oh yes, we are expecting them'.

Natasha organised a press conference for today which was attended by 2 TV cameras (one for national news) and about 15 journalists. I had to load Bolashak onto the lorry and ride him around a bit for the cameras but he behaved like a Hollywood film star.