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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.