On a trip by car around Europe, we decided to pop into The Ukraine (as you do). A brief bit of research told me that I couldn’t take my hire car, so we decided the best plan would be to drive to one of the crossing points, park up, walk across and pass 24 hours in the city, before returning to hopefully find my car where we’d left it and head on towards Poland.
Uzhhorod calls itself the nearest city to Europe, but I’m not 100% convinced, being that Istanbul is in two continents, but anyway whilst the argument for the closest city to Europe rages around me, we’ve parked the car up and are walking towards the border post. The hotel has already called me to tell me my car is waiting on the other side.
The smiling Slovakian border guard, resplendent in his bottle green uniform, shook his head, “not possible crossing with feet here. Wait” and turned away, heading towards the Vysné Nemecké crossing into Ukraine.
He surveyed the line of cars before stopping purposefully next to a battered old black Fiat.
Ten seconds later he waved us forward, still smiling, saying “go enter this side,” pointing to the rear passenger door.
Delighted to have overcome the ‘crossing feet” issue I pulled the handle but nothing happened. As I wrestled, a huge figure moved in the passenger seat. The door opened, and a bear got out. A behemoth, the largest human being I’d ever seen.
Without apparently moving he placed his arm into the back and opened the door. The stench of petrol hit me, whilst his hand told me to wait. An expansive forearm pushed decades of cans, wrappers, and general detritus onto the floor. I shoved the jerrycans across and made myself comfortable.
The Bear eased himself in, then uttered, presumably, a Slovakian curse as the glass fell out of his door. Thirty seconds and a length of tape later, it was repaired.
Silence reigned. “English? French?” I asked.
A belly laugh, then “German, a little.”
A stilted conversation began, and I learned that the Bear crossed the border daily, filled the secret 120 litre tank and jerrycans with cheap Ukranian petrol before returning home to sell it at a profit.
In all this time, the driver hadn’t moved, or spoken. The antithesis of the Bear, small, wiry, silent with eyes constantly moving. The Weasel inched us to the Slovak border, passports were shown and we headed into no mans land. The Bear explained that we would have to get out on the Ukranian side, and to be prepared for questions and waiting. I watched two cars in front being given the third degree by the former Soviet block border guards before it was our turn. I clambered ungracefully out and walked towards the booth. The Bear smiled, and showed me his slightly opened passport. Inside was a 50 Hryvna note.
“Only half a euro,” he whispered, “always works.”
Sure enough, four passports crossed the desk, and one fell to the floor. The passport controller bent down and was up in a flash with the passport retrieved.
“Touristika?” “Da!” Our stamped passports were returned. The immigration officer opened Bear’s and Weasel’s, spaces were found amongst the plethora of Ukranian visas, stamp stamp, and we were off.
We drove into Ukraine for ten metres …… and stopped. Bear and Weasel swapped seats, and the latter uttered his only word of the shared 50 minutes.
We drove out of the border zone to where the hotel taxi was waiting. The battered Fiat stopped, I climbed out, and with a wave of a gigantic paw they were gone, leaving us smelling faintly of petrol and forever wondering what the “tactica” had been.
A five minute drive and we arrived at the hotel, spent a great 24hrs in a wonderful vibrant city, and had a similar issue on the way back, this time with an incredibly badly behaved child and an exasperated father, before finding the hire car and heading to Poland.
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