Summer road trip in Ukraine - part I

This blog is about our summer holiday in 2017 where we went on a 10 days trip in the south and central Ukraine. If you are very impressed about my ability to remember what happened more than 2 years ago, then I have to disappoint you. The reason I can remember all these details is that I wrote a travelogue back then. 

But well, let’s go two years back in time.

A Sunday in the end of June, it was finally time. My wife had had her last 24-hour shift on the ambulance and my sister-in-law had holiday. I didn’t have holiday, however, I had told my boss that I would be “out of office” the next two weeks, but would be available on e-mail and Skype.

We drove east toward Vinnitsa and somewhere on the road between Vinnitsa and Uman (that is situated 300 km north of Odessa), we saw a sign about a point of interest and decided to go and check that out. Already from the main road, we could see some large earth walls and when we drove through a hole in them into the area, we could see that the length of the walls was just enormous. My wife found some information about the area and could tell us that the walls were about 5 km long and that there here had been a settlement 800 to 500 BC. (Check out the video at the end of this post to see drone footage from the place).

There was also a little lake and we found a parking spot next to it. To get there we had to drive on a little dirt track, and when I woke up in the middle of the night because of a heavy rain fall, I started to wonder if we would ever get out of the mud again. But when we woke up the next morning, the weather was great and we had a nice outdoor breakfast.

After the breakfast, we continued toward Buky Canyon that is a popular location for people to go on the weekend to camp and hang out. We had some troubles locating the canyon and stopped at a little grocery shop to ask for directions. When I wanted to start the car again nothing happened. I turned the key 5 times and not even a little sound from the starter relay could I hear. I tried to move and rock the car a bit back and forth and somehow that helped and I could start the car and we could drive to the canyon.

We parked a little away from the canyon. It was possible to drive further down, but I wasn’t tempted to try to drive down there. A guy with crutches in a Lada was braver and continued down in the canyon. I secretly hoped that I would be there when he had to get up again.

The Buky Canyon was very impressive and there was also a waterfall. But there was also a lot of trash everywhere. Somehow it is not a problem to bring full bottles for your day out, but it is very difficult to bring back the empty bottles. My wife and her sister found a bag and started to collect trash. As the back was almost full, we found an enormous big trash back that was half full. We added our little bag to the big bag and I, being the perfect gentleman… 😉, volunteered to carry everything up to the designated trash area at the top of the canyon.


In the Buky Canyon there are also the remains of an old water power plant. The first in Ukraine, apparently.


My wish came true… When we returned from our walk, the guy with the crutches and his family were gathered around the old Lada that now was parked even further down in the canyon – ready to be “push started” it looked like. I got into my car and started the engine. When the family with the Lada heard the engine start, one of the guys started to run up toward me. I got out of the car again and when he was within hearing range I said: “No, I will not drive down there with my car”. He didn’t want that. He just wanted to borrow my starter battery. I had two extras (that we use to charge phones etc.) and gave him one of them. They installed my battery in the Lada, but it still didn’t want to start just like that. After 3 – 4 tries, the car came back to life and the entire family pushed the car into motion and the guy with the crutches could drive the Lada out of the canyon. I went to their car to get my battery back. They took it out, gave it to me and the original battery was taken out of the trunk. It didn’t look like a starter battery, it looked more like a melted ice cream in a cone and you would have to be a very big optimist to think that this battery could start a car…

And speaking about optimists, the owner of this other Lada also seemed to be a member of the optimist club….

And from the bottom…

I need not to say that we don’t have MOT or other compulsory inspections of cars in Ukraine.

Our next destination was the Black See. It was about 300 km away, but the road leading there is one of the major roads in Ukraine that connects Kyiv and Odessa. It has two lanes in each direction and is in a decent state so it was not a big deal to drive the 300 km in one day.

It was a warm day and it seemed like a big part of the cars on the road had decided to break down. We saw a few trucks and numerous cars where the drivers were trying to get the cars back on the road. There is (or at least should be) a Ukrainian saying that goes like this: “I don’t care what profession you have, if you have a car then you are a mechanic”.

We didn’t enter Odessa, but found a little village close to it where we could sleep with a nice view to the Black See.

The next day we found something that looked like a campsite, but turned out to be more like a private beach. We paid 1.10 Euro to stay there for the day, and for another 0.80 Euro we got our extra starter battery charged, which we use to charge our phones.

I had to work a lot that day, which wasn’t so pleasant. What was pleasant though, was that I could swim in the Black See whenever I had a break.

My car is more than 30 years old and even though I have been fixing a lot of stuff on it the past months I don’t fool myself. I know that there is still a lot that can break. So I know that sooner or later I will be standing on the road side with a broken car and I try to help others in the same situation. So when I saw a guy at the road side with a rope in his hand connected to a little old Ford, I stopped and asked him if he needed help. He wanted to get to Mikolaiv (which was 40 km away), so I tied the rope to our towing hook and we started to pull him. My car had very big problems pulling that little car so I stopped again and asked the guy if he was trying to “push” (or rather “pull”) start the engine. He confirmed this, and I told him to stop it because it was too hard on my car with this extra resistance. We pulled him about 15 km on a road with dense traffic, but in Ukraine we are used to slow cars (the trucks collecting milks at the farms seem unable to go more than 50 km/h), so it didn’t cause problems or angry drivers. At some point the road went downhill for a while and I could feel that the guy we were pulling was again trying to start the engine, but since it was going downhill it was not a problem – it is just less wear on my brakes… At the bottom of the hill he flashed his lights and used the horn. I stopped the car and got out and I could hear that his engine was now running so we said goodbye and continued alone to Mykolaiv.

Here we ended up in the middle of the town. Mykolaiv is a nice and pretty big town located at the river Dnipro. We checked out the town and when it started to get dark, we left to find a place to sleep outside the town.

The next day we headed for Kherson. At some point the road divided into two roads. My GPS told me that there is just one road – hmm. I chose the one closest to the sea and after driving about 5 km on pretty bad road, we got to a village and then the road stopped so even though the GPS still told me to continue straight ahead, I stopped. Here at “the end of the world” there seemed to be a gathering of some kind with a lot of elderly people from the village. We asked one of them for directions and he told us that we should have taken the other road…

The other road was in an even worse condition. A part of it had been given up and instead of patching the holes the entire road had just been covered with gravel. A bad gravel road is also more comfortable than a bad tarmac road – because the holes in the gravel road can’t get so deep and they are also more curved. (You start to make those kind of observations after living in Ukraine for a while 😊 ). After driving about 20 min on this awful road, I needed a break and we stopped at the roadside to prepare breakfast. The girls decided that our home on wheels needed a proper cleaning.

When the first car passed us after about 5 min it was clear that we needed to reorganize a bit if we didn’t want everything covered by dust.

All in all, it turned out to be a pleasant morning break. We eventually got to Kherson, but first we made a stop here.

Kherson was not so interesting or maybe it was just too hot to discover the town. The highlight for us there was this “automat” where a woman was selling Kvas. Kvas is a sweet drink brewed on bread. It sounds a bit strange, but it tastes good.

Here is the “automat” inside. It is an isolated tank that keeps the Kvas nice and cold, and outside there is a tap where the sales woman can pour Kvas into whatever you want to.

Being used to the heat in Kherson we decided to continue to the only desert in Europe. When we left the new build main road to get to a village that should be located close to the desert, I couldn’t get the car out of the 4th gear. And when I finally succeeded, it was pretty clear that the gearstick was no longer connected to the transmission. But since the 4th gear was still engaged and I couldn’t start in 4th, I had to tell the girls to get out and push the car while I was keeping the clutch pressed.

After some investigation done lying under the car, it was pretty clear what the problem was. The long stick/arm between the gearstick and the transmission (that is located in the back of the car) was no longer connected to the transmission. The stick consisted of two parts joined together and after releasing the joint I could get the stick back in place. After this the car could be driven again. We couldn’t find the desert, but we ended up at some guy’s yard and he told us how to get to a nearby village where we could camp at a river. It is always nice to camp next to a river or a lake when you travel in a small camper without a shower.

The next day we wanted to find the desert, but that day we were also going to meet Monty and Natalia, the founders of “Ukraine inside out”. We enjoyed a quiet morning at the river and when Monty phoned and told they were just 30 km away, we packed our stuff together and drove up to join them. When we reached the main road where we were supposed to meet Monty, I again found myself sitting with the gearstick in my hand and no connection to the transmission. I stopped the engine and climbed under the car to manually put the transmission into 2nd gear. When I wanted to start the engine nothing happened!!! I asked the girls to get out and push (again!) and while they were pushing, Monty and Natalia arrived – what a glorious way to meet 😊

After being pushed a few meters the car again was willing to start so I drove to a little parking lot and again got the gearshift fixed and we headed for the desert. We asked for directions a few times and ended up on a sandy road (what else did we expect in a desert…) the sand got deeper and looser and I looked for a place to park where the sand was not too deep. When I thought I found such a spot I turned off the road and the car abruptly stopped and we were stuck in the sand. Knowing that no-one would be able to steel the car now 😊 – we left on foot to discover the desert.

It was very warm, about 36 degrees Celsius, but we couldn’t really find anything that qualified as desert - there was just too many trees. So we got back to the car. I had to do a bit of digging, but that and a bit of pushing done by Monty got the car moving, however, before I got back on firm ground again the car got stuck in a sandy hole and the engine stopped. When I tried to start the engine nothing happened. I gave Monty a volt meter so he could measure if the starter relay received any voltage when I turned the key. He is an electrician so he should be qualified for this task 😊 Monty got in position with the volt meter and I turned the key – and the engine started. “Monty did you measure something?” I asked. “No” he replied, “I got so scared when the engine started that I didn’t see anything”.

Together we drove back to the camp spot where we had slept the night before. On the way we stopped to buy some food. The same thing happened again when I had to start the car. The engine didn’t start, I asked Monty to measure, and when he had the probes from the volt-meter on the starter relay the engine started, but Monty got scared and didn’t see anything on the meter.

While the girls were cooking, we disconnected the wires for the starter, cleaned them and put them back in place. We tried to start the engine and twice in a row we succeeded. I also tried to adjust the gear shift to prevent it from falling off – but not with a great success. When the engine was stopped I could change gears without problems, but the minute the engine was running none of the gears could be found…

The next morning we had an appointment with a guide that should show us the desert so with a little improvising I got the car running and later, while we were waiting at the meeting point for the guide to show up, I finally got the gears adjusted.

Our two guides took us for a 45-minute-walk in the “desert”, but first we had to drive about 5 km on sandy roads, which was pretty rough at times for Monty on the motorcycle.

I was a little disappointed about the desert. There was not a lot of sand, but a lot of vegetation and our guides admitted that they hardly knew anything about the history and the nature in the desert.

After the visit in the desert, the plan was to go with Monty and Natalia to a Swedish village about 30 km away, but for the 3rd time I found myself with the gearstick in my hand and no connection to the transmission so we decided to meet at a nearby vinery late in the afternoon. When we arrived at the vinery (after I had spent a lot of time under the car trying to get it back in to shape), Monty and Natalia had just arrived. It was too late for a guided tour at the vinery so we just bought some wine and setup up camp at the river nearby.

This was the first part of our summer holiday. We had to say goodbye to Monty and Natalia and start the trip back home. My wife had to start working 5 days later and we were about 1000 km from home and we didn’t want to race to be back in time. Monty had given us coordinates of some beautiful sites so stay tuned for the second part where we will also see “Satan’s Taxi”.