The Mother and the Monks

Day 56: 14/05/19
Location: Kiev – Dubovychi, Ukraine
Miles driven: 172
Our morning was spent with Alan (who was also staying at our hostel) at Pechersk Lavra, also known as the Monastery of the Caves. We bought candles to light our way through the narrow labyrinthian underground passages in which dead monks have been laid to rest in glass topped coffins. We were marginally disappointed that the ‘caves’ were actually rendered passageways with electricity (although the lights were turned off for ambience). Inside the occasional coffin a decaying hand or foot had been strategically placed poking out through the thick embroidered fabric that the bodies were wrapped in. Locals walked through the passageways stopping at each monk, saying a prayer, and leaning down to kiss the coffin. With so much potential to be creepy, it was instead very calming to walk silently through the passageways, and admire the insides of the beautifully decorated churches that had been built above the caves.

Putting the size of the Motherland Monument into perspective

Back overground again we walked down the road to the Motherland Monument – yet another monument that the Ukrainian’s have a problem with, this time due to the hammer and sickle on her shield, which they (understandably) want to be replaced with the Ukrainian emblem. The Motherland Monument sits on top of the ‘National Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II’, and in the grassy surrounding area there were several memorials for WWII as well as seized Russian military vehicles from the current civil war.

Poppies for WWII in the shape of Ukraine

We said our goodbyes to Alan and left Kiev. Stopping off at a supermarket to stock up on supplies for the next few days, we drove towards the border, setting up camp for the night in a forest about an hour from Russia.

Day 57: 15/05/19
Location: Dubovychi, Ukraine – Krasnaya Polosa, Russia
Miles driven: 76
It was once again time to cross into another country. For me, Ukraine had been a pleasant surprise. Driving through the country had been more picturesque than I had imagined. The churches were brightly coloured and beautiful both outside and in. In Ukraine the 9th May is Remembrance Day and many of the towns and WWII memorials were decorated with balloons, flowers and poppies. Even a lot of the bus stops were pretty: the older ones decorated with mosaics and then newer ones with painted murals.

Waiting for the bus

Whilst the driving was more difficult and the drivers were becoming less and less predictable, the road condition improved as we drove closer to Kiev, and the range of cars, so different to those seen at home, were interesting to look at. Kiev had been brilliant: just the right level of authentic Ukraine mixed with tourism – not yet sold out or over populated with tourists. Prior to coming, it had been somewhere that I had only ever intended to visit once, however as we drove away I was already thinking up an itinerary for our next visit.

As always, it was with a level of apprehension that we arrived at the border, not knowing what the next few minutes/hours (hopefully not days) would entail. We arrived just before midday – later than we had originally intended, due to not wanting to get out of bed. The border was busy. Leaving Ukraine took us an hour, the majority of which was spent queuing. Entering no man’s land we joined a huge queue of standstill traffic. Based on the size of the queue, and the fact that most people were standing outside their vehicles chatting and smoking, we realised that this could be a long wait and had some lunch. Over an hour later we had crawled our way to the front of the queue and to the first barrier of the Russian border.

Long and inefficient are the only words that can be used to describe the process of the Russian border. At passport control we were given a white piece of paper on which we had to put our names, passport number, and the name of the company from which we received our letter of invitation to Russia. First slight panic of the day – we struggled to remember the name of the random company we had paid a tenner to write us a letter of invitation. With some help from the only English speaking official we could find, we filled in the form, and I found the name of the company (Hotels Pro) on my phone. Our visas, passports, and white forms were given the stamp of approval by the passport officer.

This was only some of the paperwork we had to complete to get across the border

Our English speaking friend searched the car. He struggled to make up his mind about what he wanted to see. Many people around us had been asked to empty the entire contents of their cars. When we opened the back of Natalie, he indicated that he wanted us to take everything out. Chris asked him what he wanted to see and pointed to the drawers – no he didn’t want to see them. The shelf? No, not that either. The fridge? Nope. He got bored and moved onto the roof. He pointed to the tent, we explained it was a tent, he seemed satisfied and asked to look in the roof box, we obliged. I think he quite enjoyed being on the roof, and wanted to stay there longer, so he pointed to the tent again and said “open open” whilst sitting on top of the roof box. Being watched by everyone now, we started to undo the clips to open the tent, being told again “open open” by the guard. When we started to lift off the cover he was surprised, he hadn’t realised it was a tent, and now he knew, he didn’t want it to be opened, or to look inside, his ‘search’ was complete.

He directed us to a wall covered in paperwork, where people were completing customs forms. The form was written in Russian with no English translation. We didn’t have any items that we needed to declare – did this mean we didn’t need to fill in a form? We went back to our man, who told us to wait and disappeared into an office. He came out, dealt with a few more people, went back in again and then came back with 3 English forms for us to fill out. We very carefully went through the forms, filling out the sections as best we could – the translations didn’t completely make sense, however neither, it appeared, did the Russian versions of the forms, as many of the locals also looked like they were also struggling to complete them. When we were finished we went back to our man who told us to wait until someone came to us to collect the forms. Eventually a different man came to collect the forms, and beckoned Chris into the office. We had done them wrong and had to start all over again. Essentially they needed two identical copies of a ‘passenger customs declaration form’ (no, they could not photocopy it, and yes, they did have a fully functioning photocopier). In the section that said to declare how much money below $10,000 you have (in any currency) you were not supposed to put the amount of money below $10,000 you had (in any currency). In the section that said ‘chassis number’ for the car, you were not supposed to put the chassis number for the car. It was so obvious that I don’t know how we got it so wrong the first time. At least this time we had clear instructions about what to put where, and it seemed to work. Handing our second attempt back, Chris joined the mass of people waiting to get the form approved and be able to leave.

Not being from Ukraine/Russia, and not being able to understand any of the people or writing did not seem to put us at any disadvantage. The cars that had entered the border around the same time as us took just as long as we did. Over an hour after handing over our correctly filled out forms, they, and Chris’ passport were returned, and we were free to go. It was 5:30pm, we were hot, tired, and still needed to get car insurance.

If it hadn’t been for Google maps, we would have never realised this building was the bank!

The car insurance would have been a very straightforward procedure if only we had enough money or they accepted credit cards. From previous experience we guessed it would be cash only, and had got extra cash out the day before crossing the border. Annoyingly, we did not get enough cash out. We had maps of the local area downloaded on our phone though, so we found the nearest cash machine, withdrew more money, drove back to the border, and purchased the insurance. Exhausted from a day of doing nothing but waiting, we drove a few miles from the border, found a suitable spot to camp in, cooked a quick dinner and went immediately to bed.

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