In the beginning of April 2013, I cycled over 500 km from Rzeszów in southeastern Poland to Sighetu Marmației in northwestern Romania, crossing the Carpathian and Trans-Carpathian regions of Ukraine. This was my first cycling trip and proved an arduous learning experience, but I enjoyed the journey and am happy to have seen a part of Ukraine hitherto neglected in my extensive hitchhiking across the country.
I built the touring bicycle in Warsaw and took the train to Rzeszów to be closer to the border. Rzeszów has excellent cycling paths, which allowed me to get about 10 km out of the city and find a place to sleep. Initially I wanted to pitch a tent, but everywhere the ground was too wet from snowmelt. Eventually I found a motel, but it turned out to be closed for the Easter holidays. Its concrete patio allowed me to put up a tent, however, though I was woken throughout the night by motorists arriving and shouting
What! It’s closed!
Day 1 (91 km)
My route soon left the N4/E40 road for village roads. I saw very few people walking in the street, but the church parking lots were full, so I suppose everyone was at Easter Monday mass. In the afternoon the landscape changed to vast, barren, snowy fields, with some challenging uphills. At one point I was passed by a group of sport cyclists. Drivers seem used to cyclists and I never felt uncomfortable on the road.
In the late afternoon I reached Przemyśl, another city with excellent cycling lanes that proved a motivation to make it the last 17 km to the Ukrainian border. I aimed for the Medyka border crossing, the only one where pedestrians and cyclists can cross (at other Poland–Ukraine border crossings one must be inside a vehicle). Here the Polish officers had a brief argument about whether a bicycle is a car or pedestrian, but ultimately I was directed to the pedestrian walkway.
On the Ukrainian side, the officers wanted me to show any medicines or knives brought with me, but they were otherwise uninterested in my bicycle and the other expensive items it carried.
I spent the night at the hotel on the Ukrainian side, 250 UAH/25€ for a large room in a charming wooden building that had that distinctive smell of wood walls heated by a stove. The attached restaurant was the typical roadside café found across the former Soviet Union, whose bright lights and colourful decoration clash with the dour mien of the (invariably male) clientele and the unspectacular food. Still, the chicken Kiev, fried potatoes and buckwheat groats proved adequate cycling fare.
Day 2 (74 km)
From the Ukrainain border town of Shehyni, the road goes toward the major city of Lviv and is of excellent quality. About 15 km down from the border, southbound cyclists must turn right onto the H-13 road, which is of a very poor construction indeed. All in all, this is one of the worst roads I have travelled on in any country.
I didn’t know what to expect on this road, but surprisingly, a lot of people live along it. I passed on this day through two large provincial towns, Sambir and Staryy Sambir, and there were plenty of villages along the road, with ornate Uniate churches. The Carpathians are not yet visible on this stretch and the cycling is not challenging.
I spent the night in Staryy Sambir. The first hotel I found was fully booked, so I ended up staying in a strange establishment next to the train station that was mainly a notary and lawyer’s office, but had one hotel room (at 150 UAH/15€).
Day 3 (64 km)
Getting out of Staryy Sambir was taxing. The dirty potholed streets were full of slush and I got sprayed by every passing car. Once I had left that town, the road improved somewhat for about 20 km before returning to its delapidated state. The morning was one gradual climb up to about 400 m, and then a long descent into the Turka valley. This must be very beautiful in the summer, and even on this grey and rainy day it was fine scenery.
Turka is a small town of 10,000 people and looks poor. I stopped at a restaurant and ordered “potatoes à la Turka”, which are chopped and fried with balls of spicy cream cheese.
Once out of Turka, the mountains begin in earnest, with a climb over 200 m out of the valley. I unwisely took the lesser used one of the two roads from Turka back onto the H-13, which was an hour of pushing the bike uphill on a surface that had essentially reverted to an unpaved state. Once I got back on the H-13, it went up and up with no end in sight. There was low visibility, and very little traffic. It was a snowy and utterly silent landscape with not a little beauty.
By the time it started to get dark, I was at 800 m and it was bitterly cold. I passed through a village perversely named Verkhne (‘The Top’ – it’s not, as there is still one huge climb after it) and wanted to ask for a warm, dry place to spend the night, but the houses seemed deserted. Perhaps they are only used now as summer homes. Pressing on another couple of kilometres to the next village, Yavoriv, I asked the hospitality of the first family I saw and was graciously taken in for the night.
Day 4 (92 km)
The village of Yavoriv turned out to be the highest point of the road across the Carpathians. A few minutes after cycling out of it, one comes to a police post where identification is checked, because here the H-13 passes very close to the Polish border. This post is also located on the line between Ukraine’s Lvivska and Zakarpatska oblasts.
Right after the police post, one begins a spectacular descent from 850 m to 400 m. This offered the best mountain scenery of the whole trip and is the reason why I would recommend traversing the western Ukrainian Carpathians from north to south instead of the inverse.
The road meets up with the Uzh river and follows it for the rest of the day until the city of Uzhgorod, so there was a feeling of constantly going downhill, in spite of a few minor uphills.
I had become used to very little traffic on the road, so cycling became stressful after the town of Velikyy Bereznyy when more cars started to pass, and after the town of Perechyn there were even some trucks. People drive recklessly here, so I was happy I was wearing a reflective vest.
Once in Uzhgorod, I stopped at the first lodgings I saw, Hotel Eduard, which proved a very good deal. For a mere 270 UAH I stayed in what felt like a luxury suite, with breakfast and wi-fi.
One should be careful when cycling into Uzhgorod and when walking around at night, as most of the city’s manhole covers and rain grates seem to have been stolen by metal thieves.
Day 5 (67 km)
The road going straight southeast from Uzhgorod is the M06, a major international highway that is unsafe to cycle on. I therefore travelled all day on village roads. First I passed through the village of Tsyganiv, which is nestled in a pleasant valley. After bicycling along a marsh and then another small community or two, I crossed the M06 highway and then entered the first bilingual village on my route, known in Ukrainian as Kholmets and in Hungarian as Korláthelmec.
At the end of the next village, Rus’ki Komarivtsi, there was a Roma (gypsy) settlement whose inhabitants were friendly but whose streets wre home to a large amount of angry, aggressive dogs.
From here I could have gone straight and then pushed my bike along 300 m of highway shoulder until the next good village road, but in order to avoid the highway entirely, my GPS routed me along what turned out to be an unpaved gas company service road. The first stretch was gravel, but ultimately that ran out and one could barely distinguish 4WD tracks through a muddy field. Pushing my bike through all of this took two hours and by the end everything I owned was filthy. I should have just backtracked, and I know now to take GPS routing with a grain of salt.
Eventually I made it to a village, but even here the road remained unpaved, so it took longer still to reach the closest asphalt road. Along the way I passed an abandoned kolkhoz (collective farm). It was eerie how so many large buildings were left standing empty.
Once back on the asphalt road, navigation was easier and I passed through a few nice villages that made me think how similar Zakarpatska oblast and Transylvania are. At one point, I ignored my GPS’s roundabout directions and chose to go along a few hundred metres of highway.
Once I turned off the highway back onto village roads, I passed a Russian Orthodox convent. The abbess allowed me to photograph only the grounds, and inside the church no photos were permitted. I must have seemed a disrespectful visitor with my dirty clothes. Such a place is worth seeing, but one should clean up a bit before going in.
By the evening, I had made it only to the town of Mukachevo. I had been here several times on hitchhiking journeys, and I really like the town. It has an enormous amount of smart cafés for a community of only 100,000 people, and the city centre has recently been renovated into a pedestrian-only zone. Decent, affordable accomodation is hard to find here and the best thing to do is just to ask people on the street until you find someone who can rent you a flat for the night. I got a nice place with wi-fi for 150 UAH.
Day 6 (96 km)
From Mukachevo, a driver or hitchhiker can just head straight south to the Romanian border crossing at Dyakove–Halmeu, but cyclists must instead go far southeast to Solotvyn–Sighetu Marmației, the only border crossing between Ukraine and Romania where those without a car can cross.
The landscape southeast of Mukachevo initially consists of rolling hills and lakes. At one point, the landscape became more vertical and the people noticeably poorer. The Austro-Hungarian feeling evaporated, and the town of Khust proved to be an utterly anonymous provincial town of the former Soviet Union. Before Khust there was a dramatic downhill, and I passed the monument at Krasno Pole, where the independent Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine was established on March 15, 1939, lasting only a single day.
After Khust I admit to losing interest in my surroundings, as I was mainly thinking about what great time I was making and how could make it to the Romanian border and the end of my journey by nightfall. But entering Solotvyno, the town on the Ukraine side of this border crossing, I was struck by the long row of newly-built, expensive-looking houses.
When approaching Solotvyno from the west, one has to keep straight on the road until after the railroad tracks in order to reach the turn leading to the centre of the town. There I came to a rickety old bridge over the Tisza River: that’s the border crossing. Getting through was uneventful on both side, and then I was home.
The Carpathian and Trans-Carpathian regions are mostly stress-free except for the potholes, and for a cyclist who has had time to get into shape, the uphills are nowhere near as challenging as one might expect. However, early April was not an ideal time due to the amount of water on the road, as well as the lack of any dry place to put up a tent (I certainly didn’t intend on staying in paid accommodation every night of this trip). If I could have freely scheduled this trip, I think that May–August would have been a better season.
I wish I had learned more Ukrainian before travelling here. Of all Ukrainians, the inhabitants of Lvivska oblast are the most hostile to attempts to communicate in Russian. In Zakarpatska oblast, however, people will readily speak in Russian, probably because it served as a language of inter-ethnic communication among the Ukrainians, Hungarians, Germans and other nationalities here.