Biryuchiy to Heniches’k: A Hitchhiking Detour to the Watermelon State (Ukraine)

After seven days on Biryuchiy Island (actually a peninsula), we left for Heniches’k. Both of these towns are in Kherson Oblast, but to get from one to the other, one must travel through Zaporizhzhia Oblast around the Utlyutsky estuary. The whole route is quite a detour as you can see on the map below. This happened on Thursday the 30th of September, 2021.

Preparations to Travel to Heniches’k

Back in Mariupol, I made hitchhiking signs for the rest of the trip through Ukraine. I made one for Melitopol and Kyrylivka, Heniches’k, and Kherson and Odesa. That proved to be smart because the only shop in the last town on Biryuchiy Island (Ukrainian: Бирючий Острів) had closed a few days earlier; there was no source of fresh cardboard closeby.

We packed most of our luggage the evening before. We’d arranged with our host Andrey that we would get a transfer at 9:00 from the remote beach house to a gas station at the edge of Kyrylivka (Кирилівка)—some 22 kilometers away. The route to Heniches’k from that gas station would only be about 110 kilometers.

As we’d come past this road before on the way from Mariupol to Kyrylivka, we knew we’d probably first take a ride to the golden deer (олень) statue at the crossing with the M18 between Kharkiv and Yalta and then get a ride to the crossing of the M18 with the R47 between Heniches’k and Kherson city. But since we’re hitchhiking, anything could happen of course.

We always do our best to give the host in the next place a guesstimate of our arrival time. Via Booking, we sent a message that we’d arrive in Heniches’k at 14:00 assuming we’re starting hitchhiking at 9:30.

The Neighbor Drives us from Biryuchiy Kyrylivka

On the morning of departure, we woke up to one of the young cats curled up on our outdoor bench. We quietly wrapped up packing to not disturb the little cat until we wanted to drink coffee outside there. Just one more time. But the cat was a bit too hyperactive and Jonas wasn’t comfortable with the cat trying to climb his legs and loudly meowing for attention. So we drank the coffee inside and the cat took over the couch once more for a nap.

When we were done packing, we had to get the outdoor furniture inside without the cat. Heartbreaking as it is, we managed to put the couch inside and the cat looked so disappointed at us.

At 9:10, there was still no transfer. We assumed that the transfer would be done by the neighbor again, but we weren’t completely sure. By 9:20, we sent our Airbnb host Andrey a message about the transfer. Meanwhile, we were preparing to hitchhike one of the five cars per hour; the transfer probably wasn’t going to happen.

Ten minutes later, I received an answer that the transfer would be there in five minutes. We went outside to wait with the cat crawling between our legs begging for the few remaining people of Biryuchiy not to leave. But we had to go.

A familiar red van pulled up. Dmitry. He said he’d forgotten about the transfer and apologized. We went downstairs and put our luggage in the van. It was much less than when we went from Kyrylivka to Biryuchiy because we didn’t need to bring food and water for a week. I sat in the front again and took some videos for a potential vlog while we dashed down the Fedotov Spit via the rippled and sandy road.

We passed Stepanok where we’d hitchhiked to a few days earlier to do some shopping. Then we continued along the more inhabited section of the spit. The distance to Kyrylivka was much longer than we’d anticipated.

Dmitry asked us where we had to go since he was planning to drop us off at the bus station. The bus station was definitely the wrong way for us, so he stopped the car and I showed him the gas station on the edge of Kyrylivka. He nodded and started the car again to drive to this road between the last houses of Kyrylivka and a field of still happy sunflowers

He dropped us off and wished us a good trip. We’d later pay Dmitry for the ride via our host Andrey via the Airbnb app.

Kyrylivka to the Deer Statue

35.4 kilometers

It was after 10:00 by now, a little later than hoped. We walked to the corner of the road to hold up our Heniches’k sign with gloved hands. It was windy and cold. Even from Kyrylivka to the main road, traffic was sparse. Many of them were trucks and they often only want to take one passenger, which is probably because of a seatbelt law or something.

We mostly tried with normal cars. Eventually, we decided to put the Heniches’k sign away and just try with thumbs. Soon, a small truck with a large cargo bed stopped for us. I thought we’d have to put my backpack in the cargo bed, but the guy told us to put us and all our luggage inside. He even squished my backpack between me and him, which resulted in him barely being able to move the gear stick. I lifted my backpack up enough to move the stick every time he had to do it. The even numbers were close to us and I had to keep holding my backpack up as we gained speed. Once we were at a good speed and in fifth gear, I could let the backpack down.

Our guy didn’t talk much. We’d discussed that we were going to the statue of the deer and I hadn’t understood where he was going. I wasn’t familiar with the name of the village he said, but it must have been something local.

The road away from Kyrylivka felt even longer than when we arrived in Kyrylivka from Mariupol that easy and relaxed hitchhiking day in mid-September. It felt like we were driving back to the year-round inhabited world away from holiday homes and seasonal businesses. Jonas and I were looking forward to eating at a restaurant today and not cooking for ourselves. But the maddeningly straight road we had to take to the bigger road passed through more tiny agrarian villages where people sold dried fish next to the road and only veterinary shops still operated.

At this steady speed, there was no need to shift gears once more. Upon final approach to the shiny golden deer statue, our taciturn and nameless driver shifted down and came to a halt. He said he’s going straight and to go to Heniches’k, we have to take a left. Then he took pen and paper to write that it’s 70 kilometers from here to Heniches’k. I nodded and said I’d understood and shook his hand. Then he had to get out of the truck to open the door because there was a special maneuver that only works when you’re standing outside of it.

He drove straight over the crossing and we crossed the road towards the golden deer statue. We took some pictures and then regrouped to continue hitchhiking.

This Never Rarely Happens

31.6 kilometers

hitchhiking henichesk kyrylivka southern ukraine golden deer statue hitchhiking henichesk southern ukraine m18

Though we hadn’t waited long for the first ride – probably 20 minutes – the insecurity about whether our transfer to the hitchhiking spot would go through had taken its toll. Together with the wind, the cold, and the sporadic traffic, Jonas felt a little less optimistic about today. The hitchhiking spot wasn’t ideal; traffic going straight over the M18 was either too fast or a truck and unable to stop on time. Our only hope was the traffic coming from the road our previous driver had ducked into.

Once a car stopped with an older couple, but they said yada yada “Нет АЗС” after I showed them the Heniches’k hitchhiking sign and asked them for a ride to the next gas station. Then they drove off. Okay, that happens.

A truck stopped on the other side of the road at the deer statue and waited. Ten minutes later, a very full car pulled up on our side of the road and we thought for a second they stopped for us until they swapped a passenger with the other vehicle.

All was getting a little hopeless when a familiar small truck with a cargo bed pulled up from the road our previous driver had gone into. This time, his cargo bed was loaded to the brim with coal. He stopped his truck and we said hello once again and nimbly climbed in with all our luggage. We again didn’t speak much during the ride but he seemed happy to have our company again. It was 11:50.

Getting picked up by the same driver twice (on the same day) rarely happens.

Tire Change

The drive went well until we heard something fling off the vehicle at a high speed. It sounded painful. We kept on driving until our driver noticed something else again. Then he pulled over and checked it out. It was bad news; the front left tire had apparently gone fucked up.

Meanwhile, we were just sitting in the small cabin. I thought perhaps we should get out and help, but then we remembered we couldn’t easily open Jonas’ door from the inside because of the aforementioned special maneuver. Perhaps Jonas should still get out, though, to like… hold a wrench or something?

We talked about changing tires and did a lot of mental gymnastics. I have never owned a car, but because I had planned to join the Mongol Rally in 2014, I’d changed the summer tires to winter tires on my mom’s car in 2013 as practice. Jonas has owned two cars in his life, sorta, not in his name but he was co-responsible for them. He never drove them much and he’d never changed a tire. So Jonas could offer help based on his gendered presumed competence and be useless, or I could offer my help and not be useless but probably be rejected because… I look incompetent. As I said before: mental gymnastics.

But our driver seemed to do this on a more than regular basis. He opened Jonas’ door and grabbed something from below the seat. Presumably a jack. The front of the car got lifted up just a little bit and there was a lot of enthusiastic pushing and pulling. I’d say he even changed the tire with gusto. I never even saw where the spare tire came from as my vista was obscured by my humongous and kinda problematic backpack.

I never got to see it, but it took about fifteen minutes to change the tire. Our driver’s mood remained unchanged and pleasant.

Ten minutes later, he dropped us off at the crossing with Novohryhorivka (Новогригорівка) he’d told us about before. He grabbed pen and paper to write down that it was still some 35 kilometers from here to Heniches’k. Thank you so much for this very special ride. Good luck with dropping off that heavy load to whoever asked for that heap of coal.

The Last Ride to Heniches’k

45 kilometers

This crossing had again the problem that traffic going straight was simply driving too fast. Only cars coming from the road to Novohryhorivka had enough time to think if they’d like to take two hitchhikers today.

It was still cold and windy and not very enjoyable. Heniches’k by now was so close, yet so far.

I don’t remember exactly the time and the waiting time and my phone also doesn’t remember, but it must have been about fifteen minutes when the next car stopped. It came from the Novohryhorivka road as hoped for.

A window rolled down and a 30-something guy said he’s not going to Heniches’k but some 10 or 15 kilometers. I asked in Russian if he’s passing the gas station, but didn’t understand the answer. He said to get in, but when he saw our luggage he got out and opened the trunk which was empty.

I sat in the passenger seat and Jonas in the back. He introduced himself as Tolik, which was a name I hadn’t heard before in this country. We shook hands and he saw the confusion on my face. “Anatoly,” he said. Ah, so Tolik is the diminutive of Anatoly. Today I learned…

He was mostly interested in what Jonas had to say but quickly found out he depended on me for translations. But Tolik spoke some English as well. He was driving a Volkswagen and he said that the dashboard spoke German and he didn’t understand some errors. He stopped the car on the side of the road and restarted it to show the error.

“Ölstandsmesser”

But that wasn’t the error he was most interested in. The other error said:

“Motorstörung”

The first thing was an oil problem and the second one was engine trouble. I do not know if it was then and there, but he decided he was going to drop us off all the way in Heniches’k instead of the 15 kilometers down the M18 as intended. Perhaps he knew a good mechanic in Heniches’k.

Tolik is from Kakhovka (Каховка). We’d heard before about Nova Kakhovka (Нова Каховка) from our driver from Mariupol to Melitopol arranged by the Ukrainian military. Kakhovka/Nova Kakhovka seemed to be an important bunch of places in Kherson Oblast and I took mental notes for the future hitchhiking journeys. He said Kakhovka was the “Monaco of Ukraine”. I assumed that meant lots of casinos, but no, he meant lots of rich people. Because of the plenty of well-paying industrial jobs, if I understood correctly. He clarified that this was for Ukrainian standards. That still sounds tougher than life in refined as fuck Monaco, though. Jonas would probably compare Kakhovka to Australia, where it’s common for able-bodied men to sell their bodies to work in the mines for a couple of years and then come out filthy rich.

He also told us that this year had been a particularly good year for the арбуз harvest in Kherson Oblast. What is an “arbuz?” though? He described it in many ways till I just typed it into Google Translate and figured it means “watermelon”. I’d already read on Wikipedia that Kherson is the ‘fruit basket’ of Ukraine… so that tracks.

We drove by one of the trucks that can either carry a fuckton of coals or a fuckton of watermelons. This one had watermelons. Tolik pointed at it and said “arbuz” and continued the story. The harvest had apparently been so good that many of them are left rotting in the fields because the price is too low. One of the biggest obstacles to selling them is also rather gas prices, as transporting fruits that are more than 90% water.

All in all, this was a very fun ride in a very comfy car away from the cold wind. Tolik dropped us off at the ATB supermarket in the center of Heniches’k. We wished him a good day and good luck with the car troubles.

Heading into Heniches’k

So today we had hitchhiked a total of 112 kilometers. The walk from the ATB to our holiday home found via Booking.com wasn’t far. We just had to walk past a barking dog and then arrived at the house. It was 13:45.

Someone opened the gate, who turned out to be our host Yuri. There was also an older woman on the premises but she didn’t seem to be involved in the rental business. Yuri showed us around the three-floor house which included a pool table and the option to do a sauna at an extra charge. He seemed like a very cool guy and he spoke excellent English.

After this successful hitchhiking day, we dropped our luggage and took a day bag and some water. We first went to a restaurant called Хуторок (see map) for a vegan burger, pizza, salad, and two unfiltered Chernihiv beer. After that excellent meal, we came past a live beer (живое пиво) shop and bought a liter of wheat beer for the evening.

We walked to the cliff and then to the beach again at the Sea of Azov. It was windy and wavy and either there were no more nasty jellyfish or they’d been shattered to pieces. From the shores, we could see the outline of the lighthouse on Biryuchiy Island… a place we’d never reached from the peninsula. I still had a sliver of hope to visit it with a boat trip from Heniches’k.

Heniches’k also had a city beach with more traditional infrastructure. But it was all closed. We walked via an alley flanked by souvenir shops that were completely deserted. In summer, it must be full of screaming children. This is definitely the better time to visit.

We did shopping at the ATB before going back home. Though ATB isn’t our favorite supermarket chain in Ukraine, this one was the best we’d seen. We went home to our massive, massive house and played pool after watching some Squid Game.

If only we had soju.

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