Things described in this piece happened on Tuesday the 5th of October, 2021. Jonas and I hitchhiked from Heniches’k at the Sea of Azov to Kherson. Kherson is the capital of Kherson Oblast, which hosts both towns. The city of Kherson is located on the Dnieper River close to its mouth in the Black Sea.
Preparations to Hitchhike to Kherson
After five days in Heniches’k (Генічеськ), it was time to leave. We’d booked an apartment that looked rather central in Kherson (Херсон) via Airbnb. But the day before departure, we figured it wasn’t actually very central. There was a slight panic, but we decided to roll with it eventually when the ‘Sushi Wok’ restaurant across the street had quite some vegetarian options on the menu. I guess then we’ll manage?
In another panic, I obtained more fresh cardboard from the АТБ supermarket in Heniches’k. I wanted to write “Kakhovka” (Каховка) on one side and leave the other side empty for another spontaneous destination in case we got severely stuck. Our route research showed it would be about 210 kilometers from Heniches’k to Kherson over three hours. Jonas said “Double it” for calculating our arrival time. I said, “Just add two hours.” We decided to give our host in Kherson the arrival time of 15:00 when starting hitchhiking at 9:00, which was Jonas’ preferred guesstimate.
Our Booking host in Heniches’k had driven us around the Arabat Spit (Kherson Oblast but geographically part of Crimea) the previous day and we had good communication with him, so Jonas decided to ask him to drop us off at a suitable gas station for hitchhiking.
On the day of departure, we finished up packing our three floors of house and our host Yuri drove us to the Shell station. The issue at the Shell gas station was that the road surface was brand-new and the surface at the gas station hadn’t been replaced yet. This caused quite a steep drop for cars to go down diagonally, which can be a problem if you have a normal small car with not the greatest suspension. Even our host Yuri didn’t want to drive it down just anywhere until he found a spot where it wasn’t as steep and he dropped us off to start hitchhiking.
Young People Don’t Know What Hitchhiking Is
At 9:15, there wasn’t a whole lot of outbound traffic going from Heniches’k. The steep drop wasn’t our friend, and we considered walking to the next gas station some 700 meters down the road to see if the problem wouldn’t exist over there. If I had a typical car for the roads of Ukraine that’s a bit older and with older tires, I would probably also not stop to pick up a hitchhiker. Perhaps we should have asked Yuri to drop us off at the railway crossing, which would be 3.6 kilometers further from the Shell and quite far out of town.
It was very windy and quite cold, but after 20 minutes of trying with our Kakhovka sign followed by just our thumbs, a car stopped. A young man opened the door and asked what we were doing. I asked him if he was going to Kakhovka or Novoolekskiivka (Новоолексіївка). He said something I didn’t catch except for the word Novotroits’ke (Новотроїцьке). That’s another town beyond Novooleksiivka, which is even better.
There was some more confusion, but he eventually told me to get in, but that the back doors didn’t work. So I had to climb in via the passenger seat. That’s when I realized I need to start yoga again.
Jonas gave me his backpacks and he sat in the passenger seat with my big backpack. We drove off. His name is Dima and he thought to drop us off at the bus terminal in Novooleskiivka to go to Kherson. I repeated that we’re hitchhiking, so at the railroad tracks in Novooleskiivka it would be better for us. His eyes reflected in the mirror were saying “What do you mean hitchhiking?”
Heniches’k to Novotroits’ke with a Couple of Stops
The road past Novooleskiivka goes southwest to bypass the railroad tracks. But when we came to the crossing with the road that formerly led to Simferopol, Dima went straight instead of left. He asked us what we were doing and I said I’m a writer and Jonas a programmer. He said that his brother in Kyiv is also a programmer and that he speaks English and in general is very smart. I asked him what he does and he said something like “Milk… bread… sausages…” and pointed to the cardboard box with some produkty next to me. He said that he lives in Novooleskiivka, but works in Novotroits’ke to buy these groceries. He will need to make a few stops in Novooleskiivka before driving on to Novotroits’ke.
We eventually made our way back from this bumpy unpaved road to the main road and across the railroad tracks. Dima had called his brother and there seemed to be some clarity of what we’re doing. He would not be dropping us off at the nearest bus station. Phew.
In Novooleskiivka, we went to one house where Dima went inside and came out with some groceries. Then he drove to another house and dropped them off before we left Novooleksiivka to drive to Novotroits’ke.
For the rest of the ride, we just talked about casual stuff. Dima is 23 years old and he looked a little shook to learn that we’re 30 and 34. He asked for my Instagram and we joked about the Great 2021 Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp Outage from the day before. Dima also asked how we got to Ukraine and what our route was before and within Ukraine. Upon hearing that we came to Kyiv by plane, he asked if we’d been to Chornobyl, which I affirmed. I expected this to go somewhere but it didn’t.
By the time we reached Novotroits’ke, he had decided to drop us off one gas station further on the bypass road. There was no intention of dropping us off at the bus station there, which was great. We thanked him for the ride and I crawled out of the backseat as elegantly as I could. He followed me on Instagram a little while later. It was about 10:30 now and we still had plenty of time for the remaining 166 kilometers to Kherson.
Wind, Dust, and Losing Time in Novotroits’ke
At this town, though, it was really fucking windy. The landscape around is rather flat and nearly completely treeless. There were some empty fields around that had no crops to keep the soil down. After a few dry days, it was free to roam.
We walked from the gas station where we were dropped off a little further to the edge of town. We tried multiple spots along the way, which were only windier and dustier and some had barking dogs that made me uncomfortable. It was really hard to stand still, hold the sign up, and keep my eyes open for passing vehicles. “At least it’s sunny,” Jonas said. One bus to Kherson which would probably make a million stops passed us, so we knew there was some form of a backup in case of emergency.
At the edge of town where the last road from Novotroits’ke joins the main road, things weren’t great. We tried with our Kakhovka sign and without it. I wondered where all these people from (Nova) Kakhovka are… There were so many of them before.
There were loads of fancy middle-class cars on the road and they barely ever stop in Ukraine. Asking for a ride from here to the junction with the M14 – a nice 69 kilometers – didn’t seem too big of an ask. Yet the first car that stopped, a really fancy Jeep with one guy in it, said he was only going some 20 kilometers to someplace nearby. Not yet desperate, I thanked and declined that ride. A mistake? Probably.
We stood there in the cold wind for another 20 minutes to half an hour. By now we were rather sure we wouldn’t make it to Kherson for our 15:00 meet. Then a car that’s begging for a little more love and attention stopped. Two older men with knitted caps and serious sweaters sat inside and they said they were going to Chkalove (Чкалове) and could drop us off at a bus station. I wanted to get away from this spot so we said yes and hopped in. Once in the car, we figured Chkalove is about 20 kilometers from our position.
Huh? Now Older People Also Don’t Know What Hitchhiking Is?
The car was nice and warm compared to the outside world. We drove a little bit until we hit one of the many, many roadworks in Ukraine. There was a guy with an analog red light, green light sign to stop cars while only half of the road is being used by traffic from the other direction. We were first in line, so we had to wait a very long time before we could drive again. One small Lada didn’t have the patience and sped past the human traffic light and just went for it. Are there even consequences?
We talked to the two older guys. I introduced ourselves but they didn’t tell us their names. The driver said he would drop us off at the bus station in Chkalove, but I said that we’re hitchhiking. This didn’t ring a bell, again.
My Russian was not in a bad condition at that moment, but I decided to come back to the topic when it was relevant again. Meanwhile, we chatted about our countries, languages, and the ethnicities of the region—including a mention of villages founded by Germans. The driver said that the president of Ukraine is a komik—comedian. We knew this was actually president Zelensky’s former job, though without prior knowledge we would have thought this to be an insult. He also said that Zelensky’s current obsession is with improving Ukrainian roads. Something we’ve definitely noticed before. He then proceeded to say that things were better under Yanukovich because he was fighting fascists (?).
The driver mentioned Uzbekistan three times during the entire ride, so I thought he might be from there or something. The first time he mentioned Uzbekistan was after he asked me about which foods we’ve eaten in Ukraine. He’d mentioned Ukrainian borshch and vareniki, and I’d added the Crimean Tatar chebureki to that list. Since we’d just been to Uzbekistan, I thought it was such a coincidence that he mentioned it. Now I understand that he probably meant that Stalin deported the Crimean Tatar population to Uzbekistan back in 1944, which is something I vaguely remember reading about several months ago. On their return to Crimea in the early 90s, many Crimean Tatars brought back Uzbek dishes such as plov and somsa, some of which I’d seen sold at markets nearby Heniches’k.
The man turned his sign to green and we could go. We encountered many trucks from a construction company called URD. Before we knew it, we were in Chkalove. The bus terminal was at the beginning of town next to the road, but I asked if we could instead be dropped off on the road at the fork at the Askania-Nova nature reserve some 1.5 kilometers further. I just improvised and said “вилка в дороге” or “fork in the road”, to which the driver replied “на развилке дорог”. That worked pretty well. They finally understood that we were going to continue to travel the way they’d found us in that windswept place before.
Ckhalove to the M14 at Nova Kakhovka: Overlap With the 2013 Hitchhiking Route?
After getting dropped off and thanking our drivers, I started filming a bit for a vlog when a big influx of cars came. Jonas put up his thumb, I put down my phone and we tried to stop one of the vehicles. None did. We were at a bus shelter and walked a bit more to include one side road from Chkalove into our traffic feed. There were no cars after this trickle and we knew there were none coming for at least a little while. I continued the vlog.
We waited for two more cycles till a van stopped with two younger men inside. I asked where they were going and they were talking through each other, resulting in me not picking up anything except Nova Kakhovka. I asked if we could ride till the перекрёсток or crossroads with the шоссе or highway. The driver said something about money but in a joking way. We were taking this ride no matter what because it could be the one thing to turn around our bad luck. The other guy opened up the sliding door which revealed a backbench that had been turned into a bed. He shoved some stuff and the mattress around and we hopped in.
The remaining bit of the regional road R47 was in a poor condition as promised by the previous drivers. The noise from the road plus the two guys talking through each other to us led me to understand nearly nothing. I managed to gather their names: Sergei and Alexei. It didn’t help that they were mostly attempting to talk to Jonas, who was like
As people in Ukraine are super comfortable with silence, eventually we just sat there. Jonas got rather drowsy and he gave in to the reclined position of the chairs. Meanwhile, I sat up trying not to be rammed into the window every time we dodged a massive pothole or a tsunami-shaped edge of asphalt.
When we approached the main road, we started talking again. I tried asking if they were going straight at the roundabout or left, but they weren’t listening to me and looking at Jonas instead. I eventually gathered that they were going left, which was good for us because they’d take the road to Nova Kakhovka that would have more overlap with our route.
Unconvincingly, I asked them if they could drop us off at “AZS Prime”, the gas station mentioned on my map. The passenger seat guy, Alexei, grabbed Google Translate to say that they intended to drop us off at the bridge. I looked on the map and that bridge was their exit, but not ideal for us. I showed him on the map the Prime gas station before the bridge. He communicated this to Sergei and all was good. We took a left on the roundabout and entered the fancy and shiny M14. Not a pothole in sight.
I have experienced before with a few lovely but chaotic people that we agreed on a place to drop me off, but then they drove right past it and it was a total shitshow to get back to the right gas station to drop me off and not screw over the hitchhiker. So I paid extra attention to make sure we’d stop. But this level of vigilance didn’t prove to be necessary because they remembered. Also, the M14 in Ukraine doesn’t have dividers between the driving directions, meaning the stakes aren’t that high.
Right before stopping at the gas station, I saw a road sign saying Armiansk at the crossing here. I knew that was a town in Crimea I’d passed through while hitchhiking in 2013, so I concluded that the M14 was now the road I was already familiar with. Looking at the map now, I’m not so sure that’s where my overlap begins. It’s more likely that the overlap happened here at these coordinates:
They dropped us off, we thanked them and wished them a good drive to Nova Kakhovka, and there was of course no talk about money. We were standing at this nice gas station where we could ask people for rides but also try on the main road. Beautiful.
The Last Ride to Kherson around
We looked at the time: a little after 14:00. We’d promised our older man host in Kherson to call at that time, though by calling we of course mean messaging on Viber because speaking on the phone doesn’t go well. Jonas calculated how much driving time it is from here to the Airbnb and it was 1:05 to go. He messaged our host that we’d be half an hour late and arrive at 15:30 instead and we received a хорошо back rather quickly.
At the Prime gas station, we tried to catch a ride going straight on the M14 with the Kherson sign. There wasn’t a lot of traffic making a stop at the gas station. One car pulled in but they seemed busy with other stuff. Once the guy got out of the car, I showed him the Kherson sign and he waved us in. Is this real? Okay, I guess we should walk there with all our stuff.
The guy was quite young and he was like put your baggage in the trunk while I go buy coffee. His friend/girlfriend/wife/sister sat in the passenger seat. My backpack had picked up some spikey balls from, eh, nature and I tried to pull them off with my gloved hands to not leave shit like this behind in the trunk. They stabbed me through the glove.
We waited for the driver to return before getting into the back of the car to not spook the woman. We thanked them for the ride upon entering and waited for conversation. I confirmed again that they were going to Kherson and asked if they were living there. He said yes. There was no conversation at all during the ride.
We drove around the entire Oleshky Sands Natural Nature Park area on the north side. Though vegetation became quite sparse and I admired my favorite type of forest, there were no sand dunes on this stretch. Makes sense; you do not want to build your road among shifting sand dunes if you can avoid it.
After the crossing on the west side of the Oleshky Sands, I was really sure this is the road I’ve hitchhiked before. And yes, the surface was still nice and smooth. Back in 2013, I remember that the roads to Crimea were in abysmal condition and that the money was instead spent on making the police fine people for speeding. Eight years later, I haven’t seen any human police wasting their time on catching people speeding, even though the roads are now good enough to not destroy your car while doing that. A curious development, for sure.
Upon the final approach to Kherson, I was anticipating the crossing of the Dnieper River. We haven’t seen that river since Kyiv and it was time again. West of Moscow, the Dnieper emerges from the Valdai Hills, where other famous rivers such as the Volga and Daugava also trace their source. At 2201 kilometers, the Dnieper is only some 450 kilometers shorter than our beloved Danube. The Dnieper strings Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine together. Ukraine has the longest section as well as the home stretch into the Black Sea.
The Dnieper river crossing on the spectacular Antonovskiy Bridge (1985) did not disappoint. The dark blue waters had tiny white waves atop them due to the unrelenting winds. It was wide and would have been intimidating to cross in a tiny kayak from bank to bank.
We drove through a town called Antonivka that slowly became the city of Kherson. Our drivers were driving rather directly towards our Airbnb in Kherson. Jonas looked at me wondering if I’d told them where we need to go in the city before, but I said I hadn’t and despite that things were going great. Within two kilometers from our new home, I told the driver we were at Ushakova street and he replied that he knew where that was—because everyone does, it’s the main avenue. The guy made a right turn at the next crossing, which took us a bit further away from our destination, but I figured he’d drop us off at the train station. That’s more than fine and will still be under one kilometer to walk.
At the train station, he stopped the car and we thanked them. After getting my backpack out of the trunk, we shook hands and I asked him what his name was. “Serhei,” with the soft Г from Ukrainian. Well, thank you Serhei! I never figured out the woman’s name.
By the time we were at the Airbnb, it was 15:35. Not the worst. Our host in Kherson found us wandering in front of the building and checked us in.
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