The potholes started almost the moment we left Moldova and entered the Ukraine, appearing suddenly out of the darkness and pounding the Corvette, though going almost unnoticed by the cosseted occupants of the Rolls Royce. The bad roads led us to Vinnytsya, where we checked into a once-opulent hotel in the centre of town, whose decline since its Soviet glory days had left it with no hot water, stinking bathrooms and rather unhelpful staff.
The following day further outbreaks of potholes punctuated our overcast drive through uninspiring farmland to Kiev, a city whose first impression was of dreary buildings, grey skies and a seemingly unsmiling populous. Our first attempt to get a meal resulted in a brush with uncooked chicken, and the cold, bland weather did nothing to sell the city’s bold Stalinesque architecture to us.
After 24 hours in the country, the Ukraine wasn’t high on our list of favourite places.
But no country I have ever visited has had the ability to grow on you as much as the Ukraine has. Our second day in Kiev saw us strolling around Independence square beneath a crisp blue sky, the grandiose architecture no longer dulled by overcast and tiredness. At night the restaurants, bars and sidewalks were filled with Kiev’s beautiful people, enjoying the moment and forgetting the past.
For few countries have a more unlucky recent history than the Ukraine. In the 1930s, Stalin used the nation as a test bed for his unique brand of internal policy, the most destructive being the policy of confiscating land and forcing the population into inefficient collectivized farms, a folly which contributed to a famine in which up to 5 million Ukrainians died. In the ‘40s, the nation had the misfortune of being a prime swathe of land slap-bang between Germany and the Russia, and was effectively raised to the ground, wiping out another 6 million locals. There then followed 40 years as a satellite of Moscow, which cumulated in the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.
But as our time in the country increased, it became easier to ignore the nations negatives – its bad roads, poor socio-economic outlook, ugly high-rises and abundant poverty – and focus on the positives: a generally friendly, fun population with a joy de vivre seemingly undented by past and current problems, some wonderful landscapes and unexpected, quirky places to visit.
We spent a week in the Ukraine, before crossing the border into Russia late last night. During our first few days there I never thought the place would grow on me like it has, but I’m glad we gave it the chance to, and I’ll be leaving with plenty of happy memories. Memories of exploring a Cold War nuclear missile silo, it’s control room buried 13 stories underground and its arsenal once aimed at the West. Memories of wandering aimlessly around Donetsk, being amazed at the quirky bar culture and Anglophile-ness which the nations new money elite have lent the place. And finally, more sobering memories of thousands of faces staring out from black and white photos in the Chernobyl museum, and of passing through villages still seemingly living in the dark ages.
As for the road trip,the cars are both going well, having settled into the grove of cruising along dodging potholes which will characterize the next few weeks of the trip. We’re currently in the evocative Russian city of Volgograd – better known as Stalingrad – and can sense the Kazakh border looming large to the west…