Before coming to the UK I had this romantic vision of hitchhiking through the bucolic British countryside. But now I’m not having a very good time. The thing is these country lanes are often pretty narrow, with hedges on both sides and little room for pedestrians and even less room for cars to stop. My first driver tells me she actually saw me too late, but turned around further up the road to come and pick me up.
Still it’s pretty efficient and by the end of the day I end up where I was planning on being: after a lunchtime visit to Ludlow I’m now in the town of Shrewsbury. Like the places I’ve visited in the last two days there’s plenty of Tudor architecture, but the most interesting place is a prison that was until recently still in use and is now open to the public. I was randomly advised to come here by people giving me a ride but it’s a fascinating place. It looks like it was just abandoned yesterday: the monitors are still hanging on the walls in reception, and the kitchen looks ready for a meal to be cooked in it.
In the evening I make my way to the nearby town of Wrexham where I’m being hosted by a vegan activist. There’s some festival happening tomorrow and she asks me to lend a hand which I’m more than happy to do, especially since there’s not much else to do in town. As I walk through town it comes across as a pretty bleak place, and someone tells me later it was one of the areas of the country with the highest pro-Brexit vote. The town’s atmosphere and scenery seem very different from the pretty villages and towns I’ve been passing through in the last three day – almost a reminder that the country isn’t just a tourist destination.
The festival is a pretty pleasant affair: a few local organisations are cooking food and informing passers-by of their activities. Initially I’m assigned to watch over a bouncy castle, and I’m pretty pleased that after only a week in the UK I am already in charge of my own castle. But somebody else quickly takes that power unto themselves and I assume the less glorious function of helping people build their stands and lugging stuff about.
I wouldn’t have come to London except that I have a friend living in the city. My hitchhiking route through the UK is based on three things: I want to avoid big cities (because they’re difficult to hitchhike out of), and my destinations will mostly be whatever places I find somebody who will let me sleep at theirs. And finally, I have a little over a month to spend before the weather will be too cold to sleep outside and my money runs out.
Cheltenham is the first town where I’ve found a place to sleep. It’s not far from London, but I have to wait three hours before someone gives me my first ride. After a small break wandering around Oxford I find another ride and arrive in Cheltenham by evening.
It’s not a terribly exciting town, but my host is nice and I spend an evening with her and her friends playing board games and watching Rick and Morty. My next host is a few hundred kilometers away in Shrewsbury, but the weather is nice enough and I’ve heard there are some pretty towns around. So after a trip leading me through Gloucestershire heading into Herefordshire past some picturesque medieval market towns I find a place to sleep under a railway bridge on the outskirts of Ledbury.
I consider asking people for a ride to London on the ferry, knowing that getting a ride in Dover itself might be tough but I’m just too tired. I find a little bench in a corner, lie down and try to sleep. When I wander off the ferry I walk over a bus lane and immediately a cop yells at me. This time two days ago I was still in a place where such safety concerns weren’t even an issue. I’ll have to readjust.
Dover is wedged between the cliffs and the sea. It’s just a few streets deep and there’s one main street leading to the motorway and it’s filled with trucks, cars and every other vehicle getting off the ferry. I try to find a good place for cars to stop but it’s getting late and I’m still tired. Also, because the town is fairly tightly packed, I don’t immediately see a good place to camp. Figuring I’ve not seen a bed or shower in the last three days and I’ve just spotted a hostel on the map I decide to fork out some cash in exchange for a roof over my bed.
I start off the next day full of hope. London is only an hour or two away, so it really should not be a problem. Ideally I’d get a straight ride there but it’s still difficult to find a place where cars can stop, and I’ve been waiting for about an hour before the first guy offers me a lift. He’s only going as far as the next town, but I’ve hitchhiked out of there once before so I figure it’s good enough. However two hours later I’m still at the place where he dropped me off, so I walk to a smaller road which, on the map, I’ve seen leading to a petrol station by the highway.
There it doesn’t take long to get a ride, but it also doesn’t take long for black smoke to start billowing out of the car’s exhaust right on the highway. The two friends driving call another friend of theirs to tow us to the next town where again I’m stuck for several hours. This time there really isn’t a good place for cars to stop. But finally someone offers to take me to a service station several dozen kilometers up the road.
I’m still there when the sun sets. I’m considering finding a place to sleep in the bushes, but I decide to wait by the road a little while longer. I’m pretty angry and frustrated. These last two days have definitely been among my worst hitchhiking experiences progress wise, but then again stuff like this happens. And I should know that nothing is guaranteed in this way of travel. By nine o’clock I’ve been on the road for 11 hours for a 60-kilometer journey. But thankfully two women finally stop and offer to drop me off at an underground station in London. They’re driving pretty recklessly and the driver occasionally takes sips from a can which I think has alcohol in it and I’m not sure whether I feel more nervous or relieved.
There’s a huge crowd of mostly elderly people at the Ukrainian-Polish border. I unassumingly stand at the back, but when I spot a fellow tourist with a backpack I head after him. It turns out my EU passport allows me to cut ahead. My backpack gets a thorough checking over, and the border guard even finds the hidden compartment which no other officer has ever detected.
On the other side a bunch of people come up to me and ask if I have any cigarettes or alcohol to sell. My first ride, a woman from Moldova, explains to me that the crowd of old-age pensioners in front of me at the border cross into Poland a few times a day to sell cigarettes and alcohol they’ve bought in Ukraine as a way to supplement their pensions. The driver’s business is taking clothes to the border since things like that are actually cheaper in Poland than in Ukraine.
I end the day just east of Krakow where I sleep for a few hours outside a gas station before waking up with the rising sun. The next day turns out to be a very good day of hitchhiking: thanks to a truck driver, a guy going to his home town to make funeral arrangements for his brother, two evangelical Christians who insist on giving me a bible in Polish once they figure out I understand Russian, a Polish-German guy working in the Netherlands, and a German-Dutch translator I end up 1,300 kilometers down the road at the end of the day.
My luck seems to even out the next day however. When the sun sets I’m still stuck in Calais. It’s stupid: I’ve successfully hitchhiked from Holland to London in a single day half a dozen times or so, and now I can’t manage this little distance? Since camping on the grounds of the ferry terminal doesn’t seem viable, with the refugee scare still going on, I decide to fork over the forty euros for a ferry ticket.
I’ve wasted enough time on this registration business, so I decide not to hitchhike and instead take a night bus to the Ukrainian town of Chernivtsi. It’s a city with a very interesting and multicultural history which still shows. Street names and plaques on houses remind passers-by of a time when the city was home to many different groups of people. There are still several ‘cultural homes’ – centers for different national groups. The Jewish home currently houses a museum.
But it’s time to move on. For the last leg of my journey, by now a three and a half year trip, I want to hitchhike in the UK. It’s a bit out of a detour to get to Holland that way, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. However, Dover is over two thousand kilometers away and I don’t dare to estimate how long it will take to get there.
I get a bunch of short rides on my first day. When the sun goes down I’m in Ternopil, a city I visited over three years ago and I send my couchsurfing host from back then a message asking if I can perhaps stay at his place again. But he answers that he’s moved to New York City. So in the fading light I stick out my thumb again. An old Soviet truck stops and the driver offers to take me to Lviv. It’s not a great distance, but both the roads and the truck are in terrible shape. Luckily the driver is a pleasant enough guy.
On the outskirts of Lviv I take a taxi to the center. The driver’s stereo is playing English-language Evangelical Christian music. I’m kind of curious about the guy but I’m dead tired and don’t feel like speaking anymore and I figure since I’m paying for the ride I’m not obligated to engage in small talk. After a quick wander around the city center to see what has changed since the last time I was in town I head to a hostel to sleep.
The military parade in Tiraspol is actually pretty similar to the one in Ukraine. A few marching battalions, the minister of defense riding past the men and saluting them while standing upright in a jeep, and a bunch of speeches. But the streets of Tiraspol have a much more nostalgic feel to them. Instead of military hardware used on the frontline of an ongoing war, there’s classic Soviet equipment on display. Some people are dressed as World War Two reenactors and there are competitions held for who can disassemble and reassemble a Kalashnikov quickest.
In the evening we go back to the nearby town of Bender where our hotel is. There’s a huge street party going on with stages all along the main road where dance troupes perform. The atmosphere is very festive and it’s odd to be in such a joyous environment in a place about which I mostly read stories describing despondence and boredom.
The next morning we visit an old castle, once the home of King of Charles XII of Sweden after he lost the battle of Poltava. Next up is an old church, but soon we’ve run out of ideas on what to see in Transnistria and head back to Chișinău where we part ways.
I had to get registered in Moldova since technically I entered the country illegally through Transnistria. I hadn’t really checked all the requirements carefully, but now that I’m at the proper government office it appears I’m already too late. In hindsight I should have done it the morning after I arrived from Ukraine and now it looks like I’ll have to pay a fine. Getting caught up in bureaucratic procedures is never fun, but this seems to be a particularly drawn-out process which leads me, over the course of three days, past three government offices (all with limited opening times) and two banks before I have all the paperwork in order. Once I’m facing the final boss, a lady in her twenties, I have to spend a few minutes explaining that my passport is from the Netherlands of which Amsterdam is the capital, and that what is listed on her piece of paper, that Amsterdam is the capital of Holland, comes down to the same thing. It takes an intervention from her colleague to convince her.
The guy driving me to Chișinău doesn’t actually need to go there. He was just on his way home in Transnistria when he picked me up but he has in daughter in the Netherlands and is super hospitable so he offers to go on a detour. Though he works in Moldova he tells me he prefers living in Transnistria since he’s of Russian and Ukrainian decent. He even offers to let me stay at his place for a few days and show me around the country, but I’m meeting people in Chișinău tomorrow.
Before we head back into Transnistria we rent a car and go on a quick tour through Moldova. Luckily the country’s not that big. We visit a giant abandoned Soviet bunker. Built in the eighties it was meant as a backup Warsaw Pact command center, but the Soviet Union collapsed before it could be used. We have to bribe a bored security guard before we’re let in. He tells us where we can enter the buildings, and that we can go two floors down, but warns us off using the rickety ladders to go down further.
Next we visit Gagauzia, a region in the south of the country which also has a separatist past, but is now an autonomous region of Moldova. We head to the region’s capital, Comrat, but apart from the local museum we don’t feel much difference from the rest of the country, though that’s probably just because we’re only there for about two hours. We also visit two of Moldova’s biggest tourist draws: a winery and a cave monastery.
Together with some friends I visited the separatist republic of Transnistria nearly a decade ago. Negotiating our way past the Transnistrain border guards was no mean feat and we ended up having to bribe them to the price of €7.50 per person. But several years ago the central government decided having a reputation for corrupt border guards didn’t help the separatist republic’s international credibility and nowadays the border crossing is about as uneventful as such things can be.
There are two reasons why any tourist would even contemplate going to Uman. First off is the arboretum, a beautifully designed park with a long history. Second, it’s the home of a Hasidic shrine. Every Rosh Hashanah the place practically becomes a Jewish town. But now it’s only the few streets around the shrine itself where at least half the advertisements seem to be written in Hebrew and the restaurants are offering up kosher meals.
Outside the shrine itself I get talking to a certain Mordechai who after having negotiated an agreeable price shows me his pictures and tells me about the history of the shrine. He grew up in the town and actually still speaks Yiddish. Being a local he actually stands out on the street, where most people are wearing dark suits and have payot.
The guy I met in Kyiv invited me to join him and his friends for Transnistrian independence day. We’re meeting up in Chisinau, Moldova, so I head through an unexpectedly beautiful part of Ukraine. For some reason the people living in these parts don’t seem to be so enamored with their region. Two people giving me rides tell me people don’t trust each other enough here to hitchhike around the area. The optimism I found in the other parts of Ukraine I’ve passed through seems not to exist in this remote corner of the country, though maybe that’s just the people I meet. The people taking me into Transnistria aren’t enthusiastic about their lot either. They’re leaving Ukraine after a shopping trip, as things are cheaper than in their home across the border. But still they’re trying to get Romanian passports so they can move to Germany.
During the parade I messaged some old Ukrainian friends to congratulate them on their independence day. As a response I get an invitation to stay with one of their grandmothers in a village in central Ukraine. I have to hitchhike some quiet roads to get there, so for the last leg I end up taking a bus before getting picked up and driven down even quieter roads.
A few hundred meters from the house the earth drops down suddenly. There’s an open pit mine, the reason why the village exists in the first place. It’s a sleepy place but I’m glad my friends invited me over. Besides the good food and company I get to hang out in a very traditional Ukrainian house complete with a picture of Taras Shevchenko in every room.
My friends set up the first ride towards my next destination. I’m not the only one getting a ride from the elderly couple in their Lada. A mother and daughter are heading to the market. There’s no public transport on these quiet roads. Next I get a ride from man with his mother and young son in an even older Lada. After a few kilometers they run out of gas. I help them push their car towards the downward slope of a hill before I try to find a ride myself again. But after I make my way down the hill the car is there again: they found some petrol at a local shop, so they take me a few dozen kilometers further down the road. An hour or so later I get a ride from two young English-speaking Odesa-based Ukrainians who have taken a few days off from work to visit family. I’m back on the main road.
After finding a dirt-cheap hostel I head into town without any concrete plans. I follow a pack of Hare Krishnas for a block as they hand out cookies to passers by before I start to walk down some random streets to see what has changed since I last was in town three years earlier. In the evening I see that there’s a couchsurfing meeting. There I not only run into two Japanese people I met in Georgia years earlier but I also meet another guy who has traveled in Afghanistan. Together we make plans to see the military parade the next day.
We were expecting tanks at the parade, or if not tanks at least some impressive weaponry. But instead we get a bunch of marching battalions, the minister of defense who drives around standing upright in a Hummer as he passes by the men to salute them. After that a bunch of speeches are given which we can only hear because the speakers are a few hundred meters down the road.
After it’s all over we walk down to see the armored personnel carriers, helicopters, ambulances etc on display, with kids crawling all over them. I guess it’s cheaper to just park them here rather than to having to repave the asphalt road after the parade. An attractive girl is selling shells from armaments fired at the separatists in order to raise funds for her volunteer militia. It’s a pretty festive atmosphere. Plenty of people are walking around in national dress or carrying the flags of army divisions. The fact that there’s an actual war going on that these armed forces are involved in only a few hundred kilometers from here makes the whole scene slightly surreal, yet poignant.