Operation Steppenwolf: Part One


I've always said that the toughest physical journeys in their essence are mainly spiritual. And the bicycle trip that took me to the Ukraine, Romania and Moldova was no exception. Thus in fact it was a journey to the center of a mind. My mind.

I don&39;t know whether I will be able to express in words what I really went through during these few days, but I will do my best.

Initially cycling for ne was a way to prove to the world that I&39;m not the weakling it thought I was. Obviously just such AB approach proved the world to be right - only a true weakling cares about being considered one. Over time I learned to understand that it wasn&39;t the world that I was trying to impress and to beat but it was me. Thus began a battle against myself - I always needed to go higher, further, faster. This journey taught me a new way to see myself. But let&39;s not run ahead to the conclusions and start at the beginning with me just as I was not so many days ago.

You may ask me - why "Operation Steppenwolf"? First of all, I cycled alone through a steppe. That should be enough. But it isn&39;t all. Along my travels I was looking for something within myself, trying to understand myself better, to fix myself, to leave the magic theatre and to regain the sanity. Or to lose it altogether, depending on how you see it. And many, many times while alone on the road I sang out loud (with my terrible voice) the song "Born to Be Wild" by "Steppenwolf", kinda feeling like I was the easy rider myself.


After I had bought the airplane ticket to Odessa and back, I started thinking about where actually I could go. Obviously I wanted to visit some new countries and the two most likely of those were Romania and Moldova.

As usually I did not spend too much time planning where I would go and what I would see because I trust the chance. The experience one gets from a trip is not directly connected to the number of famous sites he visits during the trip, unless he is more obsessed with statistics than I am. Thus I simply joined some dots on the line, forming a route of slightly more than 700 km which would follow the path Odessa => Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi => Izmail => Galati (in Romania) => Cahul (Moldova) => Tiraspol (Transnistria/Moldova) => Odessa. I had found couchsurfing hosts for 4 nights, planning to use my tent the other times.

This was to be my first "serious" foreign trip on a bicycle - more than for just two days, and it was also to be my first longer trip alone. I had no idea how tough or easy it would be to travel alone like this, through strange countries, by a means of transport considered exotic there (at least for traveling). Some people told me to beware of Ukrainian roads and drivers, Romanian gypsies (yup, I know that there is a fine up to 7000 EUR for using this word instead of Roma!) and people of Moldova in general. But living in fear gets you nowhere, and if you look more closely, people are the same everywhere, quoting a rudely speaking Ukrainian that I met along the way: "В каждой нации есть свои пидоры." (Each nation has its share of morons; ok, the actual Russian word translates as faggots, but that was one of the people who use this word in the wrong context).

Riga - Odessa

The days before the start of my vacation were busy as usual, both due to important issues to be dealt with at work and my way too many hobbies, therefore I packed my bags at the very last minute and left for the airport in a hurry. My flight was late on the evening of the 13th, so I had a nearly full day at work before hitting the road. I wasn&39;t exactly feeling like a ray of light when I arrived at the airport - for several reasons - and I was somehow expecting that this initial negative attitude could also affect the entire trip, thus it was no wonder that there turned out to be several problems at the airport with my bicycle (just to assure you - my lack of inner balance did indeed have an effect on the trip - I seriously think that I got cured). I managed to get the pedals off easily, but for some reason I couldn&39;t unscrew the handle bars which should be turned by 90 degrees for traveling purposes. It seemed that I needed a tool that I didn&39;t have, so I even called Normis for help, asking him to come to the airport as soon as possible with a full set of bicycle tools. While he was packing the bag, I found out that I could get the handle bars in the position that I wanted them in without the extra tools, so support operation was called off.

Then came the registration of luggage. It turned out that no one on the airBaltic staff currently there at the check-in had any experience with handling bicycles on flights. At first they tried to convince me that I should put the bicycle in a box (which it would be impossible to get at the airport at the rather late hour). I told them that I had read on the airBaltic website that putting the bicycle in a box was against their policy (I had even contacted their support about that, because I did want to put the bicycle in a box - and put some tools also in the box). Ok, they believed me on that but in that case I should use luggage wrapping on the bicycle. Again I said - no, there&39;s no mention of that anywhere. The woman who I talked to called somebody with more authority only to confirm my version. So finally I could check the bicyle in, only I needed to deflate completely the tyres and to take the front wheel off and attach it to the side of the bicycle. Luckily the airport staff could even provide me with duct tape to complete the last part. And so finally - the bicycle was ready to fly, and just a few minutes later so was I.

One thing you can be sure about flying airBaltic - the flight will be late. Not obligatorly a lot, but at least a delay of 10-15 minutes is considered to be the good practice by this company. Luckily on this particular night it was no problem for me - as the flight would land in Odessa at approximately 2AM, I still had no idea on what I would do upon getting to Odessa. I didn&39;t even bother to search for a couchsurfing host who would be willing to take me in at around 3AM on a Friday morning, so I would have to kill the night on my own, which meant - the later the night in Odessa would start, the more time I would have for sleeping at the Riga airport/on the airplane. Of course, on this particular night even if we started off a little late, we arrived in Odessa right on time, and even my luggage, including the bicycle, arrived very quickly.

When the bike was ready to hit the road, I stepped out of the airport building without a clear plan - what to do next? Theoretically I could go and see the city at night, but:
a) it might be dangerous;
b) my host for the next night had told me that due to a recent storm almost no street lights were functioning in Odessa.
Also I knew that my host wouldn&39;t be getting up very early - not sooner than at noon most likely - thus I really had a LOT of time on my own.

So I started cycling in the direction of the city. And then I got the idea that I could sleep a few hours in some park. Why not after all? I&39;ve heard about many people doing so, and I&39;m certainly not the one who would complain about the place being too dirty, dangerous or loud. What did bother me though was that there were packs of angry stray dogs about. I had met homeless dogs previously in Turkey and Bulgaria, but there they seemed friendly and even philosophic. Dogs in Odessa are by no means philosophers, and you have to be fast and shout loudly to escape them. Or at least that&39;s what I did. But sleeping in a park full of garbage and with dogs lurking about still seemed like a better idea than going to the city where I could encounter more dangerous creatures, so I followed a path which took me a bit away from the main road and got my sleeping bag out. Yes, I did not even put up a tent, because it was warm, there didn&39;t seem to a chance of rain and I didn&39;t want to be seen. This was the first time ever when I slept in a sleeping bag in the open, without a tent. And - it wasn&39;t so bad. If you didn&39;t count the smell of garbage that is. And if you ignored the fact that actually I was no more than 10 metres from the road. After a couple of hours during which I managed to get at least some sleep, I decided to move further and managed to find a better clearing - less stinky, not so close to the passing by cars, and I slept some more. I got up quite early though because with the daybreak I was becoming too visible for passers-by. Overall this wasn&39;t as bad as it sounds - I got some sleep and I was neither eaten by dogs, robbed, murdered, raped or even slightly disturbed while I was sleeping. But I don&39;t plan to turn this into a regular practice - I still prefer sleeping in either beds or in the wild.

It was still early obviously, so I decided to do a random tour of Odessa - without having a map with the main sights of the city, to simply cycle around, see what catches my eye, observe the local habits, enjoy the fact that everyone else goes to work while I don&39;t. So I did. The randomization algorithm in my head worked so well, that I managed to see very little of the "classic" Odessa - whenever (as I later found out) I had approached some famous landmark, I always made a random turn and ended in a place of no particular interest. Already early in the morning I had the first conversation with a stranger - this is something you should expect while traveling on a bicycle in a country where tourists of this kind are rare. A local man asked me about my plans, where I was going and why, and I had to dissappoint him that so far I had very little to report - my journey hadn&39;t even properly begun yet.

I did eventually find at least a couple of interesting spots in Odessa - the first one was the Track of Heatlh - a road along the seaside on which you would find most of the local people who do care about being healthy and doing some excercise - there are cyclists, people on roller skates, several locations for working out, and this place is quite crowded even in the morning. Near the track I managed to find a geocache - my first and so far the last in Ukraine. I also searched for another one at the statue "The Rape of Europa" but I didn&39;t find anything at the location where the cache was supposed to be (directly below the bull&39;s cojones) The other noteable place that I visited was the park dedicated to Taras Shevchenko (no relation to the famous footballer) - a poet and an artist, who is considered to be the father of modern Ukrainian literature (with which I&39;m not familiar at all). In this park among other things you would find the stadium of the local football club Chernomorets - the stadium itself is an interesting work of art, which incorporates elements of several landmarks of the city. And you could find there a couple of Japanese tourists desperately trying to reach something from a tree. I could had helped them, as I&39;m probably taller than the Japanese girl (even without standing up on a chair as she was doing), but they seemed to be having a good time even without my assistance, so I did not disturb them.

And then it turned out that I had trouble with my camera. I won&39;t go into details with the previous troubles that I had with it (thanks to rain getting into the camera), but the current problem was that the SD card did not work. So I went looking for a new one. I found a row of kiosks selling all kinds of technical equipment somewhere in the city center and wanted to buy an SD card. However I was not entirely sure that the problem was with the card and not with the camera, so I wanted to try it out first, before paying. This turned out to be a bit of a problem, but finally the woman working at the kiosk let me try a card, and it turned out that it worked fine, so I bought it and was able to take photos with both the phone and the camera. What surprised me at the kiosk though was that the woman was chain-smoking. Not only am I not fond of smoking women (or any smokers for that matter), but this woman also happened to be (by my judgement) in at least the 7th month of pregnancy. Later I found out that in Ukraine almost everyone smokes (not my hosts though).

Despite me having cycled a lot around the city already, it was still early. What can I do? What can I do? The most obvious thing - go to the beach! And so I did. The last time when I swam in the Black Sea was... not so long ago - in April in Bulgaria. But the last time when I swam in the Black sea in Ukraine was twenty years ago. Makes you feel old, doesn&39;t it, being able to look back so many years? Well actually - no it doesn&39;t. Anyway - the water was just perfect (a sea this warm is technically impossible in Latvia), the Sun was shining, and after the swim I even had a short nap, charging my batteries some more. When I woke up and it was time to go to my host&39;s place, I noticed that my rear tyre had gone absolutely flat. So I replaced the inner tube and hoped that too much sand did not get into the outer tube, as sand particles could eventually produce a hole in the new tube as well. And then I went to my host&39;s home.

My host in Odessa was a girl named Julia who had agreed to host me even despite the fact that she can&39;t really host anyone when her mother is in Odessa (and like many mothers - but unlike my mother - her mother is very sceptical about couchsurfing). My couch was located on a balcony - again a new experience (not as extreme as sleeping in the park though). We drank tea and talked about this and that - as it usually happens with people in couchsurfing, both the host and the guest have many things to tell and uncomfortable silence and thinking "about what can we talk now?" don&39;t happen to often. I learned to know something about Julia&39;s experience living in the States, and told about my experience doing random silly things (at which, as you may know, I&39;m a semi-pro). And then it was time for me to go and see the right places in the city, not just the random ones. Julia gave me a map and pointed out the most interesting objects, thus I turned into a real tourist for a while - I cycled around Odessa holding a map in my hand, taking photos, moving from one famous site to another, visiting the locations which have made this city popular (at least in our part of the world):
- the famous stairs from Battleship Potyomkin
- a monument to a chair from "12 Chairs"
- Deribasovskaya street - which to me always reminds me this song:

Then there were some statues, some nice buildings, but I&39;m no tour guide, you can look it up on Wikitravel if you want to, I&39;m here to talk about feelings. Ok, not exactly feelings, but not about facts and figures for sure. As it could be expected, by following the main tourist routes I saw a much more pleasant and better kept Odessa than the city that I had encountered in the morning. The good thing about Odessa is that you feel that it is a very lively city - not something kept under glass on the top shelf, but a real place where people live, love, get drunk, steal, write poetry, work, pretend to work, hang out and do whatever you would expect them to do. Therefore - I liked it there. Did I fall in love with Odessa? Do I want to get married to the city and have kids there? Probably not, but it is a fine place anyway.

I had almost completed my tour of the city when I got the feeling that I usually get during travels - I need ice cream! So I entered the first shop that I found to get a cone of sweet and fattening peach ice cream (one of the best ice creams I got during the entire trip!). While I was in the shop, it started to rain. And by rain I mean a real thunderstorm which caused me to wait for a while under a balcony thinking about my next steps. By looking around I saw a sandwich bar on the other side of the street. What can you do while it rains? You can have lunch/dinner! When I&39;m traveling alone it is usually for me quite difficult to stop moving and order some food, but rain helped me decide quickly and I didn&39;t have to bother thinking about "what kind of food I would like to eat now?" - any food that I could get close enough would do. While I was eating, the rain stopped and it became warm again within the next 20 minutes (it&39;s very difficult to get the heat to stop before dawn in that part of Europe). Thus I was able to complete my tour of the city and to return to Julia&39;s apartment. She wasn&39;t at home though (which I was informed about), her mother let me in, and although it was still quite early, I went to sleep soon - since I hadn&39;t slept much the previous night, it seemed only logical to go to sleep now. The part of the evening before going to bed was spent in the company of a cat, actually there were two cats in the apartment, but one of them was super friendly, always purring, always asking to be petted.

The morning came with a heat blast - the balcony got warm very rapidly and I couldn&39;t sleep long. But I couldn&39;t leave either - I knew that Julia had returned home late and that waking her up wouldn&39;t be a good idea (this got a confirmation when she got two phone calls at a time after 11 AM to both of which she replied that she was still sleeping and didn&39;t engage in a further conversation). Thus I spent the morning reading a book and mentally preparing to the real start of the journey along roads less traveled. Julia got up at 11:30, and then it was time for me to leave. Just as it is time for me to leave you know until the next chapter.