Stage 33 – Ukraine, Russia & Kazakhstan: To The Edge Of Europe
Two and a half years have elapsed since I returned to the UK on the 1st December 2011, after my initial trip of four and a half years, and my life has changed considerably in this time. My return was rather painful, arriving at the onset of a dismal British winter, and living once again in one place; going from a life filled with adventure and new experiences, to one with seemingly none. By February 2012 however, I had secured a place on a Masters degree programme studying geophysics at Imperial College, including a full industrial scholarship. In April, in between teaching myself basic university-level mathematics, I lead a brief tour to the North Caucasus for a UK-based adventure travel company and by June 2013, returning from a month-long field trip in the mountains of Colorado, I found myself in The Hague, Netherlands making my own research project as an intern at the head office of one of the world’s largest oil companies.
As unexpected and exciting as all this was, nothing could ever really compare to the thrill and deep, spiritual fulfilment of travelling, and I ached to be back in my old lifestyle; to be free, to meet new people in faraway places and explore yet more parts of Eurasia where I had never before set foot. I was offered a job in October 2013 and gladly accepted, but deferred my start date to December 2014. The first seven months of this period were spent completely restoring the truck on a a nut-and-bolt level, emerging in June 2014 in like-new condition. Now was my chance to fill-in a few blanks which had been omitted, usually for lack of time, from the initial four and a half year Odyssey; the eastern shore of the Caspian, the mountains of Iran, the entire countries of Turkey and Armenia, the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and the Kurdish administered regions of northern Iraq. Thus I set off on the 2nd June 2014, the very day I finished rebuilding the truck, taking the ferry from Dover, spending a couple of days with friends and family in Germany, and then heading east through Poland towards the Ukrainian border. For the next five and a half months I would be back in my old traveller’s lifestyle, though rather than having an indefinite amount of time and an uncertain future, I now had a fixed time period and a potentially long-term career to follow.
It’s late in the night on the 5th June 2014 as I cross the Bug River, leaving Poland and the EU and re-entering Ukraine at the Yahodyn border crossing where two and a half years earlier I had ended my initial trip on a cold November night. I clear Ukrainian customs in the early hours of the next morning and stop for the night after a few kilometres, glad to be on the road again and back in the Former USSR. Later, I drive east on a good, quiet road running roughly parallel to the Belarussian border, passing through the southern edge of Polesia, which presents a gently beautiful landscape of rolling arable land and patches of undisturbed forest, between villages of quaint and sometimes decorated single-storey houses and telegraph poles crowned by storks nests. The road remains tranquil until it turns south-east towards the Dnieper River and the capital, with traffic building as I approach the satellite city of Irpin’. Once I am within the city limits of Kyiv, I join the recklessly speeding local traffic along the rough but wide avenues heading directly for the centre, amongst high-end late model SUVs; matching my experience seven years ago to the day, when Kyiv was the first city which I would visit in the Former USSR.
My host in Kyiv is Peter, a New Yorker who last year was my mentor whilst working as an intern in The Hague, who has since been transferred to Kyiv where he lives with his Ukrainian wife in a luxurious top-floor apartment in the very heart of the city. Just as my own life has changed in the three years since I was last in Kyiv, so has the world around me. In February of this year Ukraine witnessed a revolution in the heart of the capital, a European-backed revolution against long-standing government corruption, which saw dozens lose their lives and the Ukrainian president flee to Russia. Peter and I walk a few blocks from his apartment to the central Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), after which the ‘Euromaidan’ revolution was named. Although now calm and peaceful, the once beautiful square and surrounding streets are filled with tents, piles of tyres, rubble and sandbags, with much of the paving having been ripped up by protestors. Men mill around in fatigues and there is an atmosphere both of protest, celebration and tragedy, with colourful political posters and sombre, candlelit shrines with boards of photos of the deceased and disappeared.
Peter and his wife run a small art gallery in the city centre where we take in a classical music concert, before going for a short walk around town. Away from the recently troubled streets of the very centre, Kyiv is exactly as I remember it from my very first impressions of 2007; a beautiful, exuberant, hedonistic city of wealthy young men recklessly driving expensive vehicles, and of startlingly attractive women. It’s a city which likes to show its beauty and wealth without restraint, though which has just enough sophistication to prevent it feeling outrightly vulgar.
Kyiv is merely a stopping point however on my journey to the Caspian Sea, and so I must leave Peter’s good company (and comfortable apartment) and continue east. My initial plan had been to enter Russia from Luhansk, the easternmost region of Ukraine; however the events following Euromaidan have forced me to alter my itinerary. I therefore set off towards the north-east of the country, driving on a road which deteriorates soon after leaving Kyiv to the point of being thoroughly appalling as it passes through occasional, tumbledown villages and fields gone to seed. By mid-afternoon I am close to the city of Sumy, and turn south-east towards the Russian border on more terrible roads, through villages which look to be heavily depopulated. Given the state of the countryside, and the ever-growing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, I begin to wonder whether the border crossing will be open. When I arrive at the redbrick customs building in the fields beyond the village of Velyka Pysarivka, I am the only vehicle, but find the border to be fully operational and cross into Russia without issue.
In addition to a very friendly welcome by the Russian customs officers, I have an immediately positive impression of Russia whose smooth roads, neat villages and large-scale mechanised agriculture seem decades ahead of what I had driven through earlier in the day. I stop in Belgorod just long enough to find an ATM and fill the truck up with fuel, and after a side trip to buy car insurance at a larger nearby border crossing, I leave the city’s busy Saturday-night streets and head east into the night. I drive into the small hours on moonlit provincial roads which cross the gently undulating, softly carved limestone river valleys of southern Russia. After a few hours of rest I continue through the seemingly endless rolling fields of the country’s agricultural heartland, detouring around Donbas in the very east of Ukraine where, following the Russian annexation of Crimea, a nascent civil war has broken out with tacit Russian support, little more than a hundred kilometres south of the tranquil fields and small farming towns through which I am passing. By late morning I reach the M4 Highway, which connects the central cities of Russia with the Black Sea Coast and is busy with holiday traffic, then turn east on the M21 towards Volgograd. Here the landscape slowly changes, becoming drier and scrubbier, and the climate hotter. I cross the wide Don River on a high bridge near the town of Kalach on Don, and before long reach the rough suburbs of Volgograd.
I choose to pass through Volgograd and cross the Volga Dam, which feeds Europe’s largest hydroelectric station in the north of the city, then drive east and south along the Akhtuba River, a left distributary of the Volga which flows roughly parallel to it, all the way down to the Caspian Sea. Very quickly the landscape becomes the barren, dry steppe of Central Asia, but the proximity of the damp, fruit-growing strip of land between the Volga and Akhtuba gives rise to terrible swarms of biting black-fly, which aim straight for ones ears, eyes and nostrils, and make getting out of the truck a chore, spoiling what would otherwise be a very pleasant night of camping. So bad are the blackfly that I must brush my teeth in the truck, then drive for a period at full speed with the windows slightly open in order to blow them all out, then seal the windows before coming to a halt and spending an uncomfortable night in the airless and sweltering cab of the truck. The road along the Akhtuba passes several points of interest; Kapustin Yar, where the Soviets first tested rocket technology before the construction of Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the proposed sites of both Old and New Sarai, successive capitals of the Golden Horde who subjugated Russia from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries; both great cities of the medieval world, but both long-destroyed and rather enigmatically vanished, almost without trace.
After following the Akhtuba for more than four hundred kilometres, I touch the very outskirts of Astrakhan and turn east, crossing a number of minor Volga distributaries, with the very last of these, the Kigach, forming the border with Kazakhstan. The border crossing is straightforward though tedious in the sweltering heat and amid swarms of blackfly, though by early afternoon I’m on the appallingly potholed road east towards the city of Atyrau. Outside the small town of Ganyushkino I stop to watch some cows wading in a pond next to the road, lazily grazing at the thick layer of water lilies on the surface, only to attract the attention of two young Kazakh men lying on the grass nearby. One starts to shout in a way which seems somewhat aggressive, though it is clear he is extremely drunk and, as he fumbles to put on his trousers, collapses into a deep muddy puddle, much to my amusement.
Very soon after Ganyushkino the last traces of greenery disappear and I enter a true wasteland of lifeless, parched, salty plains along which a row of electricity pylons march into infinity. Nothing else breaks the monotony aside from a group of scraggly Bactrian camels, and a weather-beaten nineteenth century pyramidal border marker, but the road steadily improves and by the late afternoon I reach the unlovable city of Atyrau, poised on the Ural River on what is notionally the very edge of Europe. Four days and almost 2900 kilometres after leaving the Poland-Ukraine border, and almost 5400 kilometres from my start point in the UK one week earlier, the truck satisfyingly plastered with the crushed bodies of hundreds of blackfly, I stop with my old friend Akmaral, with whom I stayed twice in 2011.
I’ve reached my entry point into Asia; from here I will slow my pace considerably and begin to explore in detail the western shore of the Caspian, crossing the remote deserts of Mangystau and western Turkmenistan, both areas which I have long-wished to visit.