With the dissolution of that old ideological barrier known as the Iron Curtain, travel restrictions have eased and Western bikers now enjoy much greater access to the roads in Eastern Europe. Even so, a tour of Ukraine and Belarus doesn't yet qualify as a care-free adventure, especially when your travel plans include a visit to Chernobyl. But going there was the whole point of the latest of our Eurobiker Association missions.
It's early, seven o'clock in the morning, when we gather in front of the Vienna Hofburg, the residence of monarchs during the Habsburg dynasty. The setting is great but the weather is just dreadful and I'm hoping the rain will end soon. But later on I realize that the morning had only given us a taste of what lay ahead.
Under a police escort 80 Eurobikers take their leave of Austria's capital. Our charity ride to Ukraine and Belarus has begun! As we reach the outskirts of the city the huge convoy splits up into small groups. A short time later we pass the Austrian-Slovakian border. Leaving the capital Bratislava on our left, we head east, and by lunchtime make a scheduled stop in Brezno, where we get a very nice reception from the Slovakian Motorcyle Association. We settle down to enjoy some good food and two hours of blessed sunshine.
The Rain in Ukraine Stays Mainly...
But as soon as we continue on, over nice curvy roads up to the mountains of the Lower Tatra, we're swallowed by clouds again. It's wet and cold and visibility is very low as we drive across the 3,000-foot ridges. We finally reach the Ukraine border at dusk, and Uzgorod, our stop for the night, is not far away - but to pass through customs requires some patience. Although the policemen are not unfriendly, the procedure is complicated and takes ages.
Weeks ago, when aid supplies the Eurobikers had collected for a hospital in western Ukraine were delivered on trucks, the convoy was stuck at the border for 36 hours. Because of the harassment by Ukrainian authorities the whole thing turned into a major crisis for all involved. Compared to that delay, we're lucky: after four hours we have all the stamps we need, and once on the Ukrainian side, we're greeted by our "welcoming committee," two Ukrainian guys on custom bikes who have been waiting for us for hours. But as we roll into Uzgorod their patience is rewarded. Leading our convoy through the city with the police, they must feel like kings.
We arrive at the city hall, in heavy rain, surprised to be welcomed by such a large crowd and the heavy metal sounds of Rammstein. In spite of the low-hanging clouds that prevented anyone from seeing it, a fireworks display arranged in our honor went off as planned. (It sounded great though.) And after participating in the traditional bread-and-salt reception, we're led to the Ukrainian guys' clubhouse, a surprisingly stylish place that looks like a modern diner, for a meal of beer and stew before turning in at our lodgings, the Hotel Zakarpattya Intourist.
It's still raining the next morning, but the roads crossing the southeastern part of the Carpathian Mountains are good. We finally reach the flat Ukrainian plains and the 750-year-old city of L'viv (former Lemberg). The rough cobblestone streets test the limits of my Honda Africa Twin's suspension, but at least the sun is shining again, allowing us to enjoy a short coffee break in this picturesque city.
Lemberg was once a melting pot of Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, Russian and German citizens. That, of course, came to a brutal end during World War II. For the very young, that past is so far away, and those horrors may only come alive through survivors' tales and school lessons now. After enduring decades of privation and mismanagement under communist rule, most of these people prefer to look ahead: they just want to be a part of Europe and better their lives.
That evening, as we arrive in Chmelnicky, many curious onlookers direct their cameras and cellphones toward us, and then another curious throng shows up in front of our hotel to have a look at the motorbikes. We strike up conversations quickly, and most of the Chmelnicks want to hear the same answers: how fast, how big, and how expensive? But in contrast to this friendly crowd, the stern staff and bad food at the Hotel Podilla remind us of the not-so-distant communist past. As we gathered for drinks in a room that night, the mood becomes even more strained and uncomfortable when a security guard suddenly raps on the door and shouts for us to "Go to bed, now!"
Happy to get back on the bikes, parked in the local football stadium, we can't resist having some fun and riding a loop around the 400-meter track the next morning. It's only a short-lived pleasure though, once we get moving again, as there is much about the trip that makes riding even worse today. The roads are lousy, riddled with potholes. The trucks and buses crawl, and the car drivers are unpredictable. And with gallons of spray hitting our visors each time we pull out, every attempt to overtake traffic becomes a spooky adventure.