Chernihiv to Kharkiv via Sumy by Thumb (Ukraine)

These events happened on the 19th and 20th of August, 2021. We were hitchhiking in Ukraine. The first day, we hitchhiked from Chernihiv to Sumy. On the second day, we finished our trip from Sumy to Kharkiv.

The Plan

Back in Kyiv, I really wanted to make a visit to Chernihiv and Slavutych. We booked five days in an Airbnb in Chernihiv, left one day open, and then booked an Airbnb for two weeks in Kharkiv. Everything was already plotted from Kyiv and this was the most pre-planning – three weeks ahead – we’d done since the start of the pandemic.

Everything went as planned: we made a day trip to Slavutych by train and hitchhiked back. Jonas knew now how easy it is to hitchhike in Ukraine and how well-understood the concept is.

So on the 18th of August, I arranged a Russian class with my teacher to practice hitchhiking vocabulary. In the evening, we went out for Georgian dinner and brought home some slices of khachapuri Megruli to cool down and become hitchhiking food. At home, we went over the route and possible gas stations and hotels along the way once again and packed most of our stuff. I made hitchhiking signs for Konotop (Конотоп), Sumy (Суми), Kharkiv (Ukrainian: Харків), and an АЗС sign as a wild card. I left the backside of the Kharkiv and АЗС signs empty in case I needed to quickly scribble something else.

Day 1: Hitchhiking from Chernihiv to Sumy

Thursday 19th of August, 2021. Hitched 304.3 kilometers in four rides

Departure to the hitchhiking spot

On the morning of departure, our host came by at 9:00 to arrange check-out. She came with a bag of apples from our garden for us and told us that it’s the “day of the apple” in all of Ukraine. I had to put the bag of apples down on a chair while I was putting on my backpack. But apples are gonna do as apples fucking do and they rolled out of the bag all over the floor, making me look like an ungrateful and/or incompetent person. Jonas picked them up and we finished checkout.

He called an Uklon (i.e. Ukrainian Uber: Google Play Store or Apple App Store) to our location and we took it to the village Kolichivka (Количівка). That’s where a road called P67 makes its funny way through small villages till it meets up with the M02/E101 to Russia. I theorized that this route would be better than continuing straight on the M01/E95 to the interchange at a village called Kipti (Кіпті) and making a left onto the M02/E101 because of the Kyiv vortex.

Our driver dropped us off at the bus stop and we got all our heavy luggage out including the bag of apples.

The angry lady

We put it on the bench of the bus shelter and a minute later an older lady came to the bus stop and sat down muttering some angry-sounding noises while looking over at us. I looked at the bag of apples to see if there were one or two I was willing to take. I do not like apples as road food; they’re heavy, sugary, and I need to pull out a knife to eat them because biting in them like a Neanderthal hurts my teeth. We decided to leave the kilo behind at the bus stop.

hitchhiking from chernihiv to kharkiv via sumy

We walked away with our stuff a little down the road to show we’re hitchhiking and not taking the bus. The grumpy lady now became angry and shouted some angry words at us while we were walking off. Another lady from the village showed up and they talked while we were taking photos at our hitchhiking spot with a stork on its nest in the background and our Konotop hitchhiking sign. They shouted some more angry shit, but there were 50 meters between us now and if the old lady would charge at us, we’d have enough time to run away with all our shit.

For 20 minutes, we stood there with our backpacks on our backs. It had rained the day before and the grass was muddy. I looked at the map again to check the name of the village halfway called Kulykivka (Куликівка). But no matter what I did, I couldn’t remember the name to ask for it. The two ladies were now also trying to hitchhike from the bus stop, which is fair enough if anyone stops. Please go first. Either that or they were signaling shit about us to passing drivers. We switched the sign from Konotop to АЗС because the next gas station is in Kulykivka.

Hitchhiking to Kulykivka (Sasha)

That didn’t matter, because an old Soviet truck with an enormous amount of logs stopped and the guy told us to hop into the tiny cab. Jonas held my backpack for a minute for me to climb in and then I put it on my lap sideways to make enough space for Jonas to sit with his two backpacks. It was tight, but I managed to squeeze my leg away so our driver could still put his truck into gear. We rode off.

His name was Sasha and he’s a local of Chernihiv. Despite the loud engine and the discomfort, the conversation went really well and he said my Russian was good. At home, he speaks a mix of Ukrainian or Russian. He thought it was extremely cool that we’re traveling around Ukraine by hitchhiking and that we put Chernihiv on our itinerary. After I mentioned Slavutych, he asked if we’d done a tour of Chornobyl. I said that we’d done that and he thought that was very cool. I couldn’t really involve Jonas in the conversation or translate to him because I couldn’t see him.

Whenever we crossed railroad tracks, we came to a near halt, and lots of gear switching needed to happen. The road quality was not great as expected and that was also a topic of conversation in the car. Just like eight years ago when hitchhiking in southern Ukraine. Towards the end, one of my toes had fallen asleep from the lack of motion and the cutoff of blood supply.

Sasha dropped us off in Kulykivka in the center of the village. We thanked him for the ride. I thought this was an excellent start to the day and felt a little more confident in my Russian.

Kulykivka to M02/E101 intersection at Nizhyn (Vladimir)

We decided to walk the 2.3 kilometers through town to the gas station past a pretty unexpected mosaic and the center of Kulykivka. Hitchwalking didn’t work with my Konotop sign. At the central plaza, the women and girls of Kulykivka were practicing some kind of dance, perhaps for a local festival later this summer.

Once we were almost out of town, we overtook an older lady who was very enthusiastic about Jesus. I translated to Jonas what she was saying “Иисус жив!” and when she noticed we weren’t from here she enthusiastically said, “Jesus lives!” “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” and asked me to repeat it with her. Sure. She then crossed the street and met up with a young local woman and waved at us. Jehova’s? It somehow felt different from your regular Orthodox worshippers. More… energetic.

At the gas station, we discussed getting a coffee. I was in favor. Then, a minivan stopped. The guy rolled down the window and said he’s going to Nizhyn, not Konotop. I said with hands and feet that at the АЗС at the crossing with the шоссе was perfect and he understood. We put our backpacks on top of boxes with electronics in the back and hopped in the three-seater front.

kulykivka chernihiv ukraine oblast hitchhiking

His name was Vladimir and he’s also from Chernihiv. He’s delivering these electronic household devices to shops in the region. It was a comfortable ride without our luggage on our laps. We told him our rough travel plans around Ukraine. He complimented my Russian and asked me how I learned the language. I told him that I did most of it on the Duolingo app but that I also have a teacher now. He thought that was very cool and said he was learning some English on Duolingo.

He dropped us off at a restaurant at the intersection to Nizhyn. There we sat down for a coffee and some cold khachapuri with an adorable stray cat.

Intersection to Bilopillya (Sergei + Valery)

After our long break, we crossed the intersection to the side with the bus shelter. There was a large puddle of water which made our standing space limited and we had to keep our backpacks on. We used the Sumy sign.

nizhyn to sumy hitchhiking ukraine

We didn’t wait long before a car stopped with two men inside. The passenger reeked a little of alcohol and cigarettes but he wasn’t the driver. It took a while to explain where they were going because they were constantly talking over each other. Something, something, forty or forty-five kilometers from Sumy, bus station. Sounds good, except for that last bit. I asked again where they were going with a map and saw they’re going to Bilopillya. That’s a town along ‘the northern route’ we’d identified. It runs really close to the Russian border with Kursk Oblast and I was definitely intrigued. We got into the car, but because of the difficult communication, they’d already decided that my Russian is shit.

But what was cool was seeing one Russian plate on a big van and one double-trailer truck with, and I shit you not, UZBEK plates!

At the junction of the M02/E101 with the P61 to Konotop, they talked about how we should be going to Baturyn and not Sumy. They said Sumy is a crappy city, but Baturyn has history and shit. I’d considered making a stop in Baturyn when planning the route but dismissed it because it wasn’t far enough for a two-day hitchhiking stint. Anything after Konotop would have been satisfactory. But Sergei and Valery kept pushing that we should stay in Baturyn and visit its fortress citadel and not go to Sumy. Having such a strong opinion, they literally couldn’t let it go during the rest of the ride and it became a recurring topic.

Passing corn fields, sunflower fields, and harvested fields, we drove in silence to Konotop. They made a stop there to get some coffee and we got some bubbly water. I tried to make small talk with driver Sergei about Bilopillya and how close it is to the Russian border. He said that the border is closed because of coronavirus. I told him that I can’t go to Russia because I need a visa and he responded rather aggressively with “I don’t know if you need a visa.” I tried to clarify that I was telling him, not asking him and he responded with the exact same thing. Okay, silence then. We made another stop at a gas station and continued to Bilopillya.

When the road was smooth, I could understand their conversations pretty well. That’s how I figured out that the party-hardy in the passenger’s seat goes by the name Valery. For the rest of the ride, we sat in silence and relative comfort—though I did hear them talking shit about us ‘turisti’ for a bit. One stretch of road was full of gravel and every car passing from the opposite direction at high speed would make tiny cracks in the windshield, much to Sergei’s dismay.

We drove via these small roads that are hard to maintain through tree tunnels as tall and wide as the biggest trucks that pass here. At the closest point, we were less than 8 kilometers away from the Russian border as the bird flies. That’s nuts.

Upon arrival, they dropped us off at the bus station in Bilopillya that’s at the end of town. Yes, 45 kilometers from here is Sumy. Jonas had already found a hotel where we could stay at but didn’t book it from his phone. We held up the Sumy sign for one more ride.

bilopillya to Sumy hitchhiking ukraine

Bilopillya to Sumy (Pyotr)

A car stopped, but we weren’t sure if it was for us or if he just needed a break. An older man got out of the car and started casually opening his trunk. For us? He told us he’s going to Sumy and that we should put our backpacks in. I asked his name, Pyotr, and I introduced ourselves too.

We tried talking for a little bit, but I got weird vibes off of him. He was mumbling and didn’t answer my questions in a straightforward way, so I decided that silence was the better choice. What I did get is that he lives a little on the outskirts of Sumy and that he’s not going to the center. That’s fine, we’ll either catch another ride or take an Uklon to the hotel.

At some point, we drove over a hill past a mosaic gateway sign when Pyotr said “Sumy”, pointing at the distant city that revealed itself. Though short-lived, it was a cool view and I grabbed my phone to take a short video, but Pyotr shook his head and said no. What no? No filming? No phone?

Though we didn’t ask for this, he ended up driving us all the way to the Voskresenskiy Hotel inside Sumy. When we’d taken our backpacks out of the car he said something about payment, so Jonas grabbed his wallet and I asked him in Russian how much, and then he shook his head again and headed back into the car to drive home. Okay?

Exploring Sumy (until it rained)

We checked into the hotel and unpacked a little. We were quite hungry by now and I’d found a restaurant that does Indian and Arab food online. The walk there took us past a nice church, some very nice brutalist buildings, and down a hill. The restaurant was inside an old block of industrial houses and we ended up walking around the whole block to find the entrance. But their Indian food was only of the chicken tikka masala variety and none of the vegetarian stuff. The Arab food? Unless chicken or lamb mandi, it’s only available during breakfast times.

We walked to the pizzeria with a rooftop terrace called New York Street Pizza and sat down. But there was no table service. I walked downstairs to figure out how it works. Lo and behold, this was the shittiest restaurant system I’ve ever seen!

First, there was an enormous queue before checkout, then a salad buffet, and then the beer taps. The pizza? You had to order it at the checkout and receive a number for your table. There were no fixed table numbers so the servers who bring the pizzas when they’re done have to walk across the entire two-floor restaurant to find the right customer, sometimes having to walk back down with stacks of plates of hot food because the customer wasn’t upstairs.

There were a gazillion children and you had to get back into the 15-minute queue for every little thing. Several old ladies jumped the queue constantly. I made a note of what I wanted in Russian to streamline our order and I did manage to get everything we wanted, which was good and tasty.

sumy new york street pizza restaurant ukraine

But as someone who has worked a serving job in a restaurant before, making them walk more than absolutely necessary on an eight-hour shift is fucking criminal. QR code menus exist for a reason. Fixed table numbers exist for a reason. Checkouts at the end of a buffet exist for a reason.

/rant

We walked around Sumy the Transfiguration Cathedral, Shevchenko square for some ice cream, the I❤️Sumy sign, and the riverfront. The skies had turned dark and there was lightning in the distance. Torrential rains started and we got really wet without having a dry bag to protect our tech on us. Jonas eventually managed to arrange an Uklon back to our hotel from the safety of the scientific library. This one happens to also be a brutalist beauty:

Day 2: Sumy to Kharkiv

Friday 20th of August, 2021. Hitched 171.8 kilometers in two rides

Packing up, again. Uklon to the hitchhiking spot, again

In the morning, all our clothes had dried from the rain. We packed everything up again but didn’t depart the hotel as early as the day before. It’s only another 180-odd kilometers to Kharkiv from here and this should be an easy hitchhiking day. Kharkiv is the second-biggest city in Ukraine, so it should have some kind of vortex of its own as well.

I predicted that unlike in the UAE, the hotel staff would not want to check our hotel room before letting us leave. I remembered we always needed to calculate an extra ten minutes for checkout because of this practice. And it was true, they trusted we hadn’t trashed the room and we were free to go.

Our Uklon driver showed up and we put our stuff in the trunk. The ride to the gas station in an industrial area of Sumy was quite short, but it took us past the best brutalist beauty of Sumy: the youth center called “Romance”.

There were a bunch of other brutalist/socialist modernist structures along the way and this led me to conclude that Sumy is the brutalist capital of Ukraine. Perhaps I would have liked to stay here another day just to admire them.

At the gas station, we unloaded and Jonas bought two coffees. There was an adorable gas station dog and quite some people passing through. I think it wouldn’t be a stretch to catch a single ride to Kharkiv.

sumy to kharkiv hitchhiking ukraine

Jonas had asked me to make a guesstimate for what time we’d arrive in Kharkiv. It was 10:45 now and Google Maps said it would be a 3-hour drive. Add 1.5 hours to it and it’s 15:15, so round it up to 15:30 and that’s our arrival time in Kharkiv. Jonas messaged our host this time.

To Kharkiv? No, but Medieval festival in Trostyanets’ (Dima)

We hadn’t really tried hitchhiking yet when a young man said he’s not going to Kharkiv but to Trostyanets’. We quickly looked on the map to see where it was again. It was a good 60 kilometers away and past the dreaded three-way junction. We decided to come with and we put our backpacks in the back of the banged-up van.

He introduced himself as Dima and a local from Trostyanets’. He didn’t stop talking to catch a breath for the first fifteen minutes of the ride and it was difficult to keep up. When he asked me something and he saw I hesitated, he asked Russian or Ukrainian. I answered Russian and then he continued for another ten minutes.

He was telling stuff about things to see around Ukraine and this three-day medieval festival in Tostyanets’ that was gonna start the next day. We could camp or go into a hotel, which wasn’t that expensive. There’d be medieval fighting with knights (рыцари) in chain mail and metal helmets and such. He showed me the Facebook page of that event, called стара фортеця.

Why are you going to Kharkiv, he asked, saying that it’s a shitty place in a way that felt familiar. I said we have a friend from there and we’re staying for a while, which he accepted as a legitimate answer. Still, the festival starts tomorrow. He said there normally are buses every 30 minutes from Kharkiv to Trostanyets’, but that during the festival it’s every 15 minutes (hard to believe). I told him we’d consider taking one of those buses to Trostanyets’ tomorrow to see the festival. It looked like an excellent place to let a smith sharpen my Swiss army knife.

Dima dropped us off at the train/bus station in the center of Trostyanets’ with its mandatory tank. He said it wouldn’t be hard to catch a ride from Kharkiv here, but this was a quick reminder that hitchhikers should take the word of non-hitchhikers with several grains of salt.

Stuck in Trostyanets’

We first held up our Kharkiv sign at a traffic light on the main road out of town. This looked like a great spot at first, until you looked at the map and saw that there was a lot of Trostyanets’ left behind us. Still, we tried it here, ate a snack, drank some water, kept our spirits up. But no one stopped and everyone made the finger circle of “I’m staying in town/the area”. It rained a little bit while the sun was shining bright.

We decided to walk a little out, but it was actually 3.2 kilometers to the edge of town. This was bad. I tried hitchwalking wherever it made sense and we made several stops to catch our breaths. We ended up in front of a church with no shoulder, hoping that someone would feel a little more generous in the presence of Jesus. But that didn’t happen either. There were even two cars with Lithuanian plates that drove past us.

trostanyets' to kharkiv hitchhiking eastern part of ukraine

This section isn’t covering how bad it was, but I ended up telling Jonas to message our host to move our Kharkiv arrival time. Maybe 16:30?

We kept walking past the church. I told Jonas to walk ahead so I could hitchwalk more comfortably without him needing to stop. A minivan drove past us and then made a turn 100 meters away at some mechanic shop. He rolled the window down and I shouted to Jonas that I think he stopped for us. Jonas made the first contact and said something like “Ana panimayet pa Russki”. I showed up and asked Kharkiv, to which he hesitated but said he was going there.

Our last ride to Kharkiv (Sergei)

I sat down in the passenger seat and asked for his name. “Sergei,” he mumbled quietly. He didn’t really want to talk it appeared and after some basics, we just sat there in silence as he overtook car after truck after tractor after everything. We sped past the city of Okhtyrka and I ended up in a kind of trance with fields of crops followed by tree tunnels and small villages and vistas over more crop fields and hills and valleys in an endless repetition, except for that moment when we entered Kharkiv Oblast. I stayed awake.

I remembered how huge Ukraine felt back in 2013 when I hitchhiked here for the first time. I’d hitchhiked in Poland just before that and thought that was a big country with big distances. Ukraine was a whole different game of dimensions. This prior experience helped me manage my expectations of what can be accomplished in one day, especially because separated highway lanes where one can drive 120km/h are missing on this stretch of Ukraine. Still, this felt faster.

The road signs that count down to arriving in Kharkiv were missing except for the first one on the outskirts of Trostyanets’. Only 125 kilometers, but nearly two hours of travel time. Our driver didn’t need a break and just kept going in complete focus. We overtook both Lithuanian cars in the last 30 kilometers before Kharkiv and I’d recognized several other cars that had signaled to us that they were staying local or didn’t have space.

Upon arrival in Kharkiv city, I asked Sergei where he was going. He asked me where we were going, and I said to the center of Kharkiv. He raised his eyebrows and was like “The center?” and then came up with the idea to drop us off at the first metro station. That’s fine with us. Earlier would also have been okay but I wouldn’t know what landmark or spot to communicate with our driver. He dropped us off at the station Kholodna Hora (Холодна Гора) and we thanked him for the ride.

Our arrival time? 15:15. Closer to my initial guesstimate than planned. Jonas messaged again to say we were arriving earlier and we discussed how to get to the apartment. My vote was metro until I figured out we’d need to switch lines twice (!) to our Airbnb. So we took an Uklon to the apartment in Kharkiv city center and arrived at the apartment at 15:50.

Total: 476.1 kilometers in six rides. We walked some 5 kilometers between hitches.

YouTube #Shorts about this Hitchhiking Day


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