100 km on Russian rough roads while enjoying a soft drink from a small plastic cup, it’s a new discipline of an extreme sport. Zafar and boys are tired, 3000 km from Uzbekistan is taking heavy toll. They agree to drop me at petrol station 150 km West from Kazakh border. We say goodbye.
The petrol station is quiet and I want to stretch a bit. I walk along the road looking for a better hitching spot. I find a bus stop with a great place for cars to stop nearby. A couple of drivers stops, but departs without me, they travel a short distance. My next driver is going straight to Saratov. Fields full of wheat and sunflowers spread through horizon. My companion is chatty and likes to joke a lot. His golden smile brightens up the old Lada car.
It’s Sunday. Banks are closed and I can’t change money elsewhere. We have 21st century though, I cash out Russian ruble at first encountered ATM. I walk through the centre, observe people and city life. Late evening, I reach outskirts of the city and find campsite close to a petrol station. I want to be ready for the next day. My visa allows me to stay another 3 days. I want to hitchhike 900 km and cross the border in next 2 days. No fooling around, I can’t afford to waste time in Russia.
My second day is filled up with many short rides. I get soaked thanks to passing by storm, but dry soon after in a comfortable car. Delivery drivers, employees on the way to work, adrenaline junkies pushing their car limits. I’m treated with the fruit from driver’s garden and told stories of the Soviet Union past.
My last 200 km to Voronezh I travel with Sergey. I ask him about his experience with hitchhikers. He helped three people before me. First passenger was pushy, he wanted his cigarettes and food, also wanted to sleep in his bed. Second man was drunk. He wasn’t fun. Third passenger, a young boy, offered him a sexual massage… I am laughing, I am lucky he picked me up.
Sergey left me in the city centre next to McDonald’s. I make use of free WiFi and order a meal. I receive a present from an employee, a glass with the company’s logo. I look for cheap hostel nearby. After 5 min walk, I pay 8 dollars and fill in registration form. All foreigners need to register their stay with the local police. I pay another 2 dollars to use a washing machine. I rest and get ready for the next day.
I buy a fresh croissant and start sightseeing Voronezh. Tserkov Rozhdestva Khristova is the first Russian orthodox church I visit. I notice a playground for kids outside and enter the main building.
I take my time and admire the beautiful temple. It varies a lot from places I’ve seen before in Armenia or Ukraine. I expected it to be painted gold and dark with a dim light. Surprise. The church is simple and well organised with detail presented in an orchestrated way. It’s also very clean. I see older lady cleaning the floor and undusting icons during my visit.
Outside the orthodox church, I see a small garden with numerous benches and a bird feeder attached to a tree. I also have a closer look at kids playground. It’s colourful with multiple toys laying around. It fills cosy.
I’m walking through the streets of Voronezh. I see many people standing in groups, selling eggs, vegetables and salad from their garden. It’s another formless local market on a random street corner. A local quirk.
Numerous overcrowded marshrutkas and buses pick up people rushing to work. A local park is very quiet, it’s well organised, but feels sterile. I don’t stop. I walk through square with monument of Lenin and stare at Russian flag on top of the city hall.
I enjoy an interesting mix of architecture style of local opera house and other close buildings. I descend towards Voronezh River and continue along the beach to the bridge. There are quite few interesting monuments in the area.
Time pass quickly. I check out from my hostel and continue to hitch. I approach a truck at nearby petrol station. Anatolij is the first driver I ask for a ride. He is driving South-West to Belgorod. I decide to join him.
We stop an hour later at a parking lot. I see a butterfly stuck to front of a truck. I release it, but it can’t fly and struggle middle of the road. I help it to climb my hand and carry it into a grass. I believe it realised I wanted to help… once in safe place, it does not want to withdraw from my hand. It’s beautiful. I can’t have it hitchhiking with me. I take a picture and say goodbye. I feel like I’ve done something good and it makes me happy.
We stop again a bit later for a hot drink. Anatolij do not allow me to pay for my tea. I try to buy some food with my money, but he scolds me and pays for my lunch. I like area around us. Orthodox church nearby, a small town and familiar nature make me sentimental. I realise I miss home.
Anatolij leaves me in an excellent spot on the Belgorod bypass. From there I catch a short ride to the border. There is a surprise awaiting me on an arrival. I had no idea foot traffic is allowed here. A few minute of walk and a couple of passport stamps later, I’m in Ukraine. So simple!
Maybe not. I fill relieved and accomplished. Getting into and out of Russia on transit visa was my biggest challenge during this trip. It took me only 3 days and I’ve hitched 1200 km. I could be stopped by police or border guards. Due to visa sticker in my passport, my destination supposed to be Helsiniki in Finland, not Ukraine. I made it! Sweet!!
The first car I approach has Polish plates. I talk to the owner. A Russian guy travel to Kharkiv with his friend. We get along, share jokes and stories. We stop on the way. I take opportunity and change some dollars to Ukrainian hryvnia. Russian ruble rates are very bad, I’m happy I used an ATM machine previously.
I’m stuck at petrol station at the outskirts of Kharkiv. The storm is passing by and my world is blasted by the heavy rain. I buy a local sim card and top up with credit. It costs me slightly over 2 dollars! I find a cheap hostel and catch a local bus into centre of city. It stops to rain. The night is lively, people are practicing dance, dining and socialising. I grab a delicious sandwich and introduce myself to Sergey. He noticed my bag and yoga mat. We share stories of our travels. Nice guy.
I get up early to sightsee the city. I stroll through Shevchenka Park and visit one of the most beautiful temples I’ve seen in my life, the Annunciation Cathedral.
The architectural style of this orthodox church makes me buzz with excitement. It’s diverse with a huge amount of detail. It’s catchy to eye thanks to lively colours. It’s so different from other bleak temples. The paintings and crafts inside could put to shame many museums. I love it.
First kilometres towards Kiev are a struggle. I catch numerous short rides including 5 km on a scooter with a friendly lady. Jana rescues me late afternoon. He takes me remaining 400 km straight to the capital of Ukraine. On the way, he treats me with McDrive and share stories of his fishing trips to Norway.
Kiev is blasted by rain. I use local transport, but the traffic is heavy. I walk last 2 km to Kostia’s and Vika’s apartment. I spend the evening with my friends. We share stories and stuff our mouths with pizza.
I buy a couple of sandwiches and start hunting trucks. I prepare sign and show it to drivers stopping on traffic lights. Sergey is on a phone with his wife. He waves me over. I quickly get into vehicle and get out 200 km later. Potatoes, a piece of meat and coleslaw in a local diner cost me 2 dollars.
With a help of another 2 drivers I enter Lviv. I walk through my favourite Ukrainian city to the hostel, I booked for the night. After a short rest, I go out and explore parts of the city, I haven’t seen before. I visit Trapezna Idey restaurant for dinner and enjoy night life before heading for rest.
I’m not slowing down. Early morning I catch a lift to the nearby border. Marshrutka costs only 2 dollars and 100 km is not a long distance, but it can be tricky. A year earlier, the same route took me four hours, it was a struggle. Jura is driving to Poland to maintain his car. I’m lucky. He stops few km before the border to que for the border ticket. I say bye and leave the car. I walk to the front. A friendly lady let me squeeze into her back seat. I move aside bottles of Jack Daniels and enjoy a short ride.
There is a long wait for non EU nationals and only few people with EU passports. I walk through border check to Poland. Hitchhiking in my country was very popular years ago. It’s still very easy to catch a ride. I’m happy to use again my native language.
Early afternoon, I arrive to Krakow. It’s a nice day, I have some spare time, I decide to stay few hours and look around. I walk through outskirts to city centre. I see many tourists, I knew Krakow is popular, I underestimated how much. Basilica of the Sacred Hearth of Jesus caught my attention. It’s another free entry museum with modern sacred art to check. I admire sculptures and murals.
I continue to walk towards main square and old town. Colourful houses with beautiful ornaments surround Cloth Hall with the Town Hall Tower from 13th century. This place is full of restaurants and attractions, a natural tourist trap. I buy a portion of ice cream and bravely step into despair. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is up, I’m in a great mood.
I leave Krakow and hitch to Dabrowa Gornicza. Few weeks earlier I contacted Piotrek. He is one of my best friends and I haven’t seen him for a couple of years. He just bought a new car and he gives me a tour of his hometown. We sightsee the city, visit nearby castle in Bedzin and enjoy ‘Placek po zbójnicku’. Potato pancake is topped with meaty sauce, mushroom and cheese. The meal is huge, the company is great, I’m a happy man.
We drive to the lake and watch the sunset. It’s beautiful. I decide to camp. Piotrek helps me to find a spot for my tent. I’m tired and fall asleep quickly despite a party on the beach. Morning is very quiet, only me and ducks, people are snoring in their tents. I enjoy peaceful sunrise.
I leave my campsite by the lake and walk to nearby main road. My target are Ania and Rafal, my friends live in a village close to Plock. I don’t wait long. Darek is driving truck from Italy to Poland. The road is busy, it’s weekend. People travel North to rest near the Baltic sea. I prefer lakes, Baltic is way too cold for me. Emanuel and Paulina are going exactly there, a weekend by the lake. We share hitchhiking stories and bond rapidly. It’s a short ride and I regret it. They are fun to be around.
I’m excited to meet Rafal and Ania. Damn, they are awesome. I spend 2 days with them, their family and friends. Eating, drinking, playing tennis and chilling. I have great time in Mochowo, a village in central Poland. I really appreciate people who understand me and accept me for who I am. A sentimental romantic with a thirst of adventure and a freak. I love who I am and I love my friends.
Taxi picks me up and deliver to Wloclawek. Krzysiek isn’t the first taxi driver to offer me a free ride. I walk through city centre and wait at the bus stop. 5 minutes later, I share manga favourites with Lukasz. A geeky ride. A truck driving West drops me in Trzemeszno, my hometown. I’m exhausted. Last 2 weeks, I’ve been pushing a lot, I need a rest. Portugal can wait a bit longer. First my family and friends. I’m home.