Fog, Bribes, and Hitler’s Wehrwolf in Ukraine

Speed limit suddenly counts down, 110, 90, 70, 50, ding ding ding! A Ukrainian traffic cop waving to collect his bribe. I have driven in many countries reputed to have traffic cop shakedowns, surprisingly never had an issue until Ukraine. Despite the frequent stops I always played dumb and managed to outlast them, never paying. Too many cars for them to stop to waste too much time on one clueless foreigner.

This was late October and I was due to fly in from Tallinn mid-day and have a leisurely drive from Kiev down to Uman. Estonian Air canceled for mechanical. Rebooking was only available outside arrivals so without checked baggage to collect I was the first out and to be rebooked on Air Baltic connecting in Riga. I arrived in Kiev hours late, after dark, and to the confusion of multiple terminals and no Hertz booth. I found an intra-airport shuttle and got to the terminal with Hertz, only to find the Hertz rep had just gone to collect me. A kind man, he was surprised to see an American attempting to drive in Ukraine and the pinpoint inspection of the car before departure presaged the road conditions.

Kiev was blanketed in fog and I had a white-knuckle, 6-hour drive for what should have been under 3 hours. The Kiev-Odessa expressway was under heavy construction with numerous lane diversions. Visibility was so poor I could only manage to stick to tail lights of cars ahead. A few times I pulled off the road.

Driving in Ukraine 01

Driving in Ukraine 02

Driving in Ukraine 03

Uman was pitch black after midnight with no one around. My GPS did not not take me to the right spot for the hotel, whereby I learned in the future to have exact GPS coordinates, not just street address. After circling for an hour I located Fortetsya Hotel, felt relief at the smiles from the two women at reception, and collapsed in bed. The next morning I wolfed down the simple breakfast.

Uman is a place of pilgrim for Hassidic Jews. The main secular attraction is Sofiyivka Park, which was shrouded by lingering fog.

Sofiyivka Park Uman 01

Sofiyivka Park Uman 02

I had a tight loop to travel to reach Kiev by night so set out to the southwest to find the Strategic Missile Forces Museum and its deactivated ICBMs. That experience gets a post of its own, here’s a preview.

Ukraine Strategic Missile Forces Museum 01

I then drove west for Vinnytsya, primarily to see Hilter’s easternmost bunker, the Wehrwolf. A fittingly somber sight, with a new exhibition center under construction.

Wehrwolf 01

Wehrwolf 02

Wehrwolf 03

Wehrwolf 04

Vinnytsya also has the chapel tomb and a museum dedicated to scientist Nikolay Pigorov and is a pleasant town. I caught the museum just as it was closing. Slow-going on the roads put me several hours behind plan, with no hope to stop off at the Korolyov Cosmonaut Museum in Zhytomyr, en route to Kiev. I stopped for a heaty dinner in a dimly lit roadside restaurant and then headed for Kiev.

Vinnytsya Ukraine

Ukraine Driving

Why did I pick this Kiev – Uman – Vinnytsya – Zhytomyr – Kiev loop for my Ukraine sojourn? The big attractions in Crimea seemed to be overwhelmed by Russian holiday-ers (now soldiers) while logistics to get to the traditional sites in Lviv are more conducive to continuing west. I still had Lithuania and Belarus to see and it was only $36 to fly from Ukraine to Vilnius. The Strategic Missile Forces Museum and Wehrwolf fueled my imagination and as a tight 1.5-day itinerary, where I lost most of the first day due to flight delay, it worked. Though by the time I pulled into Kiev I wanted to park my car and abandon it. Trying to reach parking for Hotel Ukraine among the one-ways and pedestrian streets nearly put me over the edge. And then I was stopped one more time for a traffic cop shakedown.

When I finally looked out my window upon Maiden Square my nerves were still jangled but I was thrilled.

Kiev Maidan Square 01

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  1. Interesting post. Interesting stuff in Ukraine. I have always been frustrated by how thin guidebooks are for eastern europe. I always thought there must be more to see than the very few things in the books. So again thanks.

    Did you pay a bribe? how much?

    is the expressway a real access controlled highway or just a higher speed crappy road?

    You are pretty adventurous with the driving. Ever since I read Pelton’s thoughts on driving abroad (“the worlds most dangerous places” book) I have been reconsidering the idea in the crappiest of countries. Basically he says that in many countries you put yourself in a lot of risk by driving because if anything happens they can come down on you really hard.

  2. Tell us more about your cop adventures. I have never experienced this…but never rented a car in that area of the world.

  3. @john, @Lively – the traffic cops are notorious in Ukraine. They hang around everywhere and stop people for infractions real or imagined. The ones I referenced were true expressways with no cross-traffic, but at point like near exit ramps, the speed limits for all traffic would drop precipitously and if you don’t hit the brakes fast they are waiting with radar to scoop you up. I had several in that theme. Then in Kiev, I don’t know if right or wrong, but did a u-turn when I finally found the entrance to the hotel. Each time they wanted around US$50, each time I was able to get out. I did have to pay once for something really stupid that had nothing to do with driving and entirely my fault, that will be in the Chernobyl post.

    I agree on all the points with driving. While in Asia I never did it, so much reliable public transport or taxis to charter at reasonable prices. In some regions, like Eastern Europe there is so little public transport, and chartering a driver for my arduous schedules is not easy. Belarus had me worried and I needed a one-way, so Leana at Miles for Family located a friend that drove me. Good thing as it turns out speed limits are strictly observed in Belarus despite the empty roads.

    The Baltics driving was a breeze although very slow going as most roads are small highways that go through villages. Similar in Poland.

  4. Sorry to hear your time was cut so short and that you had numerous obstacles along your journey. It seems like a fascinating part of the world, though. Thanks for sharing.

  5. We did a tour to Chernobyl a couple of years ago. We heard about it at a Chicago Seminar. It was very fascinating. Enjoyed the tour and the guides we had for both the Kiev Walking tours and the Chernobyl tour. Our tour guide made an interesting comment about the road police…she said “they will not mess with you as you have a blue passport”. Guess you got “messed with”…but, that comment has always stuck with me.

  6. @OceanBreezes – I never felt threatened however they sure were interested in my USD that I may have. Perhaps I look too much like could be a local.

    I did a Chernobyl tour as well, very educational and much different from what I expected. I had not idea several of the reactors have continued to operate all these years.

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