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Dear Diary:

1st August 2007  -  Bribery in the Ukraine and Moldova

From Minsk I drove most of the evening to the border with the Ukraine. Exiting Belarus was painless enough and took a matter of minutes. Entering The Ukraine was not so. From memory I think I finally exited customs about 1am or so having queued for about 3-4 hours.

I made the decision to drive the night out and park on the side of the road outside of Keiv as I was not keen to sleep on the side of the road with in 100km of the Chernobyl Nuclear reactor. It did not quite work out that way!

About 20min from the border I spotted a flash of light then realised it was a police officer signalling me to pull over. The silly bastard was wearing his dark day time uniform and I only spotted him as I passed him.

No in the Ukraine, speed signs are not posted. You just need to know that when you see a dull dark blue sign for a “town” (some times just a few shacks as was the case here) the limit drops from 100km/h to 60km/h. In my rather tired state I had not noticed the sign and the officer, while happily licking his lips at the prospect of pulling over a Western European car, informed me I had been doing 80km/h.

He did not speak a word of English and I was invited into the police car to start negotiations on the fine. The bidding to make the fine “go away” started at 100 Euros! From memory I knew that you should be able to get away with a fraction of this. Any way, the bidding went back and forth and we agreed a price. I’m sure I still paid a factor of 10 – 100 more than what the locals were paying, but 45 Euros was pretty good for some one like me who is crap at haggling.

To be honest it was a fun game. At no point did I feel threatened and we were joking – as best you can when you don’t share a language that is. Testament to this was the officer advised me that in 20km there was another speed trap and the limit was 30km/h! What a guy! True to his word, about 20km down the road two local card screamed passed me pissed off that I was going slow and low and behold about 1min later I passed them on the side of the road paying their contribution to the policemen’s ball!

My tip of the day is to have two wallets, one for your pocket with say 35 Euros in it and the other hidden with the real money in it. That way you can simply take the pocket wallet out and say, “look mate, this is all I have other than my cards!” It works!

Any way, not long after the second speed trap at silly o’clock, I decided it best to pull over and sleep on the side of the road with the trucks. The next morning it only took me a few hours to get to Kiev. It’s a massive place that’s for sure! If you’re keen to see how some drivers avoid the traffic queues in Kiev, click here.

I initially got very very lost in an old part of Kiev as I had no map that included the street names in Cyrillic. Eventually I got my bearings and hit the centre of town to get my flag and check the place out. Having found my flag and some good maps including walking tour suggestion, I spent the day wandering this wonderful city. There is so much to see, I would suggest you need at least a long weekend and some good walking boots. As it was, I made the best of the day and took in lots including the main square, the tons and tons of churches as well as the main soviet era war museum and statues. I look forward to spending some more time here and checking out fully some time in the future.

I headed out of the city in the early evening and spent the night in the car again on the side of the main road to Odessa. Not the best nights sleep with 10 million trucks rumbling past all night, but I survived.

The next day I drove to Odessa and check out the black sea. I remember seeing Michael Palin in his Pole to Pole documentary visiting this part of the world and thinking what an unlikely place to find myself! I did not stay long and decided to head into Moldova. Or so I thought...

I made the quick 90min drive from Odessa to the border of the Ukraine and Moldova with out any issues and joined the queue of cars waiting to cross the border. I decide that as the queue was not moving to turn off the engine and have a stretch. A few minutes later the queue moved a touch so I pushed my car a few yards. A few minutes later the queue started to move quite quickly. I tried starting the car and guess what…. Lots of fuel, lots of battery, but no go! DOH! I was dead in the water.

I pushed the old girl to the side of the road and went through the standard checks of electrics, plugs and petrol. But sadly I and a very helpful chap who offered some help had no luck. So off on foot I went in search of a mechanic. I spotted what I thought was possibly a garage and decide to push my car there as it was only 600m away around a corner.

I found myself explaining my troubles in pigeon German to a lovely woman, who then in turn spoke Ukrainian to the guys running the place! It was just the trick as he made a call and in about 10min another couple of guys turned up and gave me a tow (Click here for the video of my breakdown) to a garage I would have never spotted! Any way, about 2 hrs later I was back on the road thanks to what I thought was a top job.

Any way, I thanked and paid the guys and headed back to the border post and more fun and games with bribery!

Now in all the countries that I have been to, I’ve only ever paid small “fees” to enter. The guards have there little schemes. At this particular crossing point its was no small thing. I noticed the guards had picked a mark very well in the form of a young mid twenty something Italian guy. The young chap spoke English and was wetting him self about have his passport confiscated and entry denied. He was with a bunch of other guys, and from the look of it, one of them paid a ton of money to make it go away. Oh what a game!

The whole time, I was just sitting there waiting for my fun to start. I must be honest and say I was not nervous or scared in the slightest. I was looking at as a game and that’s the honest truth! I don’t know how much this attitude showed, but after sitting next to my car for about 10min, one of the guards in charge of passport checks called me over. He did not even beat around the bush, he simply said “How much money you got?” I replied “Some, where can we talk”. So I was led into a room full of soldiers that had a nice dark little corner section. Of course you can not just hand bribe money over; one must enter the dark area and leave the money on the little table. So I calmly entered and deposited 50 Euros on the table. (NOTE: I think 20 or 30 would have worked, but I only had 50s on me!) With that, I got a smile and a nod and told I could advance 50m to the customs check.

Time for bribe number two of the crossing! They could not care less about what you have in your car, but they do care what you declare in terms of cash – oh what a surprise! I declared all my several hundred Euros, but did not bother to declare 60 Pounds I still had on me. Of course once the form was signed, the ever so lovely chap conducting this part of the fun demanded I empty my wallet! DOH! My own silly fault really, but he happy pointed out the 60pound would be forfeit as I did not declare it. So I just calmly produced another 50 Euro note and placed it on the table and put the pounds back into my wallet. He smiled and nodded and said welcome to Transnistria!

So what is Transnistria? Well, I’d not done my reading very well as I had landed in a Bloody break away province of Moldova! No government recognises it, but they have political shootings, car bombings and thousands of Russians troops keeping the peace. Just the usual stuff...

Any way, I decided to take the main highway to the capital of Moldova. I think I got about 45min drives from the border when the old girl packed it in! It seams that the wonderful Ukrainian fix-it job, was not so wonderful! As it was getting dark and I was quite literally in the middle on KNOW WHERE, I decided to call it quits for the day.

Fortunately for me there appeared to be a farm of some description not to far down the road, s I wandered over to see who was about. As luck would have it, the farmers had just brought the herd in. So, together we all pushed my car onto the property and I made some new wonderful friends!

They got the wine and cheese out and we made conversation – well as much conversation you can between one Aussie and three Russians and a Bulgarian who have on language in common that is! I guess my scotch and their wine and vodka help the conversation along some what too!

The next day, the Bulgarian chap who was clearly in charge gave me a tow into the capital of Transnistria, Tiraspol and another garage! A few false starts and a number of hours later and the old girl was running again. I was feeling better about this fix as I could see for myself that the major fuel filter was completely stuffed!

I headed back out to the farm and gave the Russian boys some vodka as a thanks. Its was only about midday and I’m sure they were both already drunk! Thanks boys! You rock!

So having said thanks, I headed back down the road I thought would take me to the capital. Guess what, it would have if it was not blocked by a Russian Tank and a bunch of 20 year olds with massive machine guns! The Russian commander was nice enough to show me on the map where the official crossing between the breakaway province and Moldova proper was. Of course while I was shorting out my directions, the local border guards at this checkpoint had blocked the road and I had to undergo an inspection before I could depart. Fortunately I had one last 20 Euro note to “pay” for the inspection.

Eventually I made it to the internal border check point. Of course when I arrived, the chap I had bribed “forgot” to give me the transit piece of paper for my car. So after about 30min of waiting, it was time for one last 50 Euro bribe to get the hell out of Transnistria! Again, REMEMBER to have smaller notes than 50’s on you kids!

Any way, 170 Euros in bribes and 100 Euros or car repairs later I finally made it to the capital Chişinău two days later than planned. I went straight to a hotel and got myself an air conditioned room and took and very very long shower!

As for Chişinău, it was an interesting place to wander around in. No need to bribe any one and the streets are nice and big courtesy of the Soviet era. So wide in fact, you can drive your wheelchair on them as this guys proved! It was a refreshing change from the previous day’s encounters, although as you can see, there is good and bad where ever you go. The kindness of my new farmer mates far outweighs the doggy border guards of the break away republic. (Please do note that the official Moldova border guards were honest, spoke good English and were very friendly and helpful!)

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