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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #364

Today was one of those days in Ukraine which involves a lot of driving. I try to stay away from car rides in Ukraine, in particular long ones; but today it was an inevitability and we had to get through it. Having been inadvertently redirected to Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine last night, after the military governor wouldn’t give us permission to enter Kherson under such dangerous conditions of relentless shelling and a massive build-up of the Russnan Armed Dorces on the south bank of the Dnipro River, we had to decide what we were going to do today. I am due in Odessa tomorrow - I have a ticket for the ballet and I am looking forward to seeing my friend and spending a few days amidst the unexpectedly warm and bright weather we are experiencing so early in the year. It’s going to be a long weekend by the beach, if you like, a break from the crazy  and frenetic atmosphere of frozen Saigon in favour of the ornate cultural carnage of the Black Sea Riviera. But to get to Odessa, I had to get myself back out of Zaporizhzhia, which is really the arse end of nowhere when it comes to travel around wartime Ukraine.

I started by buying online some absurdly inconvenient railway ticket, which involved six hours in first class seats going to a place with an unpronounceable double-barrelled name in the middle of nowhere whereupon I would sit on a concrete bench for four hours before catching a second-class sleeper with three other insane drunk soldiers in a cramped ageing couchette over to Odessa on an overnight hell ride and then find myself dumped out on the concrete forecourt of the railway station at 6.30 in the morning having had 30 seconds of sleep. Then I corrected my thinking about this appalling idea when my friend and colleague suggested that he wanted to go back to Mykolaïv where he had come from to collect me in Kryvyi RIh and yes he had a car and would I do the navigating. We were up at the crack of dawn and I cancelled these preposterous railway tickets and we left our dumpy youth hostel full of construction workers and soldiers and other odds and sods and by 7am precisely (my friend has military precision) we were on the road.

The route from central Zaporizhzhia to Mykolaïv is a complex one. It begins with a good 45 minutes’ navigation out of the city of Zaporizhzhia which most inconveniently has no street signs at all. Actually I don’t think it ever did; but this is a genuine problem when this Los Angeles-like town of broad motorways criss-crossing a gigantic area is so incredibly confusing. You end up driving three kilometres in this direction then round a huge circle and over a causeway then across the hydroelectric dam then back over some other causeway, and the roads are jam packed with potholes and my friend would curse every time we inevitably lurched into one of them. In the meantime, my seat was pushed up forward to accommodate my giant rucksack with all this unused body armour for Kherson so that I was crunched up like the hunchback of Notre Dame. We perilously navigated the potholes out of Zaporizhzhia and the aggressive military checkpoint on the road up to Dnipro. At this time in the morning the guards were half asleep and we were waved through. My friend cursed as we hit ever more potholes and then you are faced with the fact that the Ukrainian authorities in the region have actually taken down all the road signs to confuse the Russian invaders; or they have spray painted the signs white, which makes navigating round these knackered Soviet roads even more confusing.

We ended up finding the un-signposted road back to the dreaded Kryvyi Rih, ghastly dump city of central Ukraine, where we stopped for coffee, while trying to find a petrol station that wouldn’t rip us off by watering down the gasoline and ruining the car engine in the process. My friend kept cursing about his shock absorbers, and we eventually stopped in Kryvyi Rih for coffee amidst the wail of air raid sirens while I went off for some breakfast and found what I think was dead rat goulash with a fried egg on top. This was as expensive as it was revolting but it filled the hole in my stomach and on we went. Bump-bash-bang-swear as we navigated Kryvyi-Rih’s interminable potholes, passing giant lines of trucks as we went through residential suburbs. Kryvyi Rih is an abominable city; its residents have to endure constant heavy goods traffic all day as it is a major artery for goods and munitions to and from the front line.

We finally navigated through Kryvyi Rih’s backstreets and started the long drive down a thin narrow but properly surfaced road to Mykolaïv, which is a further three hours if there is no traffic. This road is solid lorries and requires deft overtaking. Thankfully, unlike Zaporizhzhia and Kryvyi Rih, this is a dead straight road and no road signs are necessary. I fell asleep with the GPS navigator in my hand and my friend the driver just carried on relentlessly. Eventually we arrived in Mykolaïv, all sweaty and exhausted, and checked into a dumbfounded hotel above a greasy kitchen and restaurant serving boiled dumplings whose odour wafts up into the rooms and where the internet doesn’t work properly. Now we are both desperate to refresh ourselves with some cold beer and decent food before I contemplate another nightmarish drive to Odessa tomorrow.

But in the meantime, my friend K——, the one who diligently sat through some ghastly opera with me a few weeks ago, replied to my idiotic question about her star sign that I wrote about before. She’s a Capricorn, and she wants to know why I asked. “Because I was drunk” was the answer I gave her, but then I tried to dig myself out of this hole. So I found.a Capricorn dress on the internet with a Google search, which is backless. And as everyone who knows me well knows, I love backless dresses. So now I have promised to buy her a backless dress before I return to the frozen Saigon, and I will be heading to a Mykolaïv shopping mall next door, with Google Translate in hand, asking about backless dresses. The phrase in Ukrainian is Сукня без спинки. So my friend and I will trawl around shops mangling this Ukrainian phrase, before we can go to drink any beer. Needless to say, my friend is quite exasperated with me. This is the last thing he needed after an all-day drive on Ukraine’s horror roads.


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