The Green, Green Grass of Home

Last week, Yugyeong and I escaped the KGB in Transnistria, crawled through catacombs in Ukraine, before being denied entry to Belarus. This week, is our last – and we still must get from just-outside Kiev, to just-outside Kidwelly, my family’s house to be exact, in less than eight days. The race is on.

Day 99 – Makariv, Ukraine to Kovel, Ukraine

Our final week began about one hundred kilometres west of Kiev, under wet and miserable skies that we haven’t been able to shake-off since Moldova – I suppose we better get used to it before Wales. Our voyage maybe drawing to a close, be we still have one monumental leg remaining if we are to get home by Sunday. At least the roads will smooth sailing…

Yes, the cow-crossings, foolhardy motorway-sellers, and laborious gravel paths of central Asia have long gone, but instead they’ve been replaced by hour-upon-hour of tedious, regular traffic – which is even worse. Needing some respite from the unmoving highway, we took one last detour into the wild Ukrainian countryside to search for a location described as ‘the most romantic in the world’. No, it’s not St. Moritz in Switzerland, or the pristine white beaches of The Maldives, or even the Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence, it’s right in the heart of industrial, ex-Soviet Ukraine.

The ‘Tunnel of Love’ is a five kilometre stretch of rail-line that’s surrounded by tall, twisted trees on either side of the track to create a long, beautifully-green tunnel. At least, I’m sure it did earlier in the year. However (in the autumn), with only a couple of russet-coloured leaves remaining on the dank, bare foliage; it looks about as bleak and unromantic as the Chernobyl museum. Despite this, the dog walkers and tourists were out in force, violently taking photos and gesticulating at the sheer wonderment and beauty of the place. We quickly headed back to the grid-locked motorway for some peace. On to the Polish border.

Day 100 – Kovel, Ukraine to Koło, Poland

Day one-hundred, and the scorching sun and blistering heat of the Mongolian desert are all but a distant memory. We were camped somewhere close to Poland, and endured a night of rain and frost like none other to date, resulting in my nose resembling an exceedingly leaky faucet. We quickly joined the lurid queue to enter the European Union, and began the wait. Not only were we entering the E.U., we were also entering the Schengen Zone for the first time, just to make the backlog even more interminable. After four mind-numbing hours, we were in Poland; and it was almost night-time again.

We decided long-ago that we would forsake all tourist obligations when transiting Poland, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France, in order to maximise our time in Eastern Europe (we will return to these countries to have a proper look around at a later date). With this in mind, we boarded the earliest motorway, and drove straight through Poland (or tried to), before we could no longer keep our eyes open, and required a service station in which to camp. Another five hundred kilometres to Berlin.

Day 101 – Koło, Poland to Berlin, Germany

Another annoyance of these ‘good’ roads is that after every few kilometres appears another toll both, asking for an increasingly absurd amount of money. No more Iranian free-passes, or Tajik blind-eyes (not that it cost more than a few pennies to pay tolls in those places anyway). We are in Europe now, and bloody hell don’t our wallets know it.

We continued our march along the Polish motorway for several more insipid hours before, finally, reaching the German frontier. Our involuntary patience yesterday, has been rewarded today; as all that exists on the border between the two nations is a small sign informing you of how fast you are now able to drive (just the one hundred and thirty k.p.h. allowed on autobahn’s these days). No more curious customs officers, interrogative passport control or intimidating border guards; oh bless the lord my soul. We made the short drive to the outskirts of the German capital, and checked into our last (and most expensive) hostel – Willkommen in Deutschland.

Day 102 – Berlin, Germany

A day of rest and preparation for the final assault. After Yugyeong went to visit her Berlin-based cousin, I got on with replenishing Toby’s dwindling fluids, and withdrawing enough Euros to last us the tolls until Calais. It was the first time we were separated for more than ten minutes in over three months, and brought about a feeling that must be like Stockholm Syndrome (minus the kidnappers).

We reunited in the evening for a Berliner or two in the homely hostel bar, and momentarily reminisced over the last one-hundred-or-so days – like they do at the end of some god-awful reality show. Despite being unsure how we haven’t strangled each other in our sleep (there are still a few days left), we sure as hell will miss it.

Day 103 – Berlin, Germany to Venlo, The Netherlands

An early start was required today, as we had a fair chunk of Northern-Europe to cover, and only a short amount of time to do so. After leaving the clutches of the German capital, we had to drive across the length of the country: around the traffic-laden cities of Hanover, Dortmund and Dusseldorf, before reaching the Dutch border at Venlo.

With every motorway parking facility overflowing with articulated lorries and tankers from the far-flung corners of Europe, we settled for the night at a large, empty McDonald’s car park. That was until we heard a disgruntled knock on our window at midnight courtesy of the ‘restaurant’s’ staff, asking us to move our vehicle about ten metres to the right (as to not be on their property). With all our paraphernalia burying the front two seats, it was a highly bothersome manoeuvre, and the first time we have been forced to move the entire journey (the joys of unnecessary-rule-enforcement Europe).

Day 104 – Venlo, The Netherlands to Calais, France

A beautiful, sun drenched morning to make our final push across continental Europe. Driving through three countries in one day had never been easier; the flowered meadows of Holland quickly turned into the sombre, flatlands of Flanders, and it was still early afternoon when we arrived in the quaint, French port town of Calais (a town that most people think is just a dock, it has a bit more about it than that).

Expecting there to be more suspicion of foreign campers following the destruction of the ‘Jungle’ (the migrant camp razed by French police some months earlier), we deemed it best to make our own camp a wee distance away from the port. We found an industrial estate, cleaned Toby from top to bottom, and drank the last of our alcohol – our final night inside the car.

Day 105 – Calais, France to Keynsham, United Kingdom

A 3:30am text from the lovely people at P&O Ferries summoned us, due to traffic issues, to the port at our earliest convenience, which wasn’t convenient at all. It was close to freezing, we’d only had a couple of hours sleep, and the wine hadn’t worn off; but a very small amount of adrenaline and excitement kicked us out of bed and towards the dock. Upon finding the port in complete serenity, with no traffic to speak of, I almost demanded compensation for my lack of slumber, but deemed it easiest not to. We got on board, rested our heads, and by the time we had opened our eyes once more, we had arrived in our final nation: the great United Kingdom. Huzzah!

Our celebrations were almost cut short as I temporarily thought I should still be driving on the right side of the road (to the understandable bemusement of oncoming traffic), but a quick swerve to the left, and off we went. We were only travelling half the distance to my Welsh home today, as some kind, familiar folks put us up for the night. At last, seeing my sister (due her second baby in just a couple of weeks), gave us our first realisation that we were back. My gorgeous niece, twice as old as when I left, is now talking and running around my sister’s house like Mo Farah! More reunion’s tomorrow.

Day 106 – Keynsham, United Kingdom to Kidwelly, United Kingdom

We left my sister’s house early, and made our made to a well-acquainted bridge, paying the usual extortionate fee – we were back in Wales. Whilst it may sound obvious, returning to my homeland not having boarded a plane is an extremely strange sensation – a feeling of complete confusion as to how we got here in a motorised vehicle. We received the usual glares and waves from passers-by as we made our way from the M4 towards one of the jewels of South-West-South Wales (and our finishing line): Kidwelly Castle. As we made the last poignant turning towards the fort, my family were waiting at the end of the road – our Silk Road, Road Trip was over.

26,252 kilometres, 106 days, 22 borders, 13 bribes, 5 vomits, 3 ferries, 2 punctures, and 1 visit to a Tajik hospital – we have more stories to tell than time to share. For that was the reason we undertook our voyage in the first instance, to saturate our heads with weird and wonderful tales from far-flung places you only ever point to on a map. When our luck run out, a helpful stranger was always willing to lend us a hand, and we will forever be grateful. From Nems and Jirgau Erbagta (who saved us from the desert in Mongolia), to the nurses in Dushanbe (who brought Yugyeong back to life), and the countless Mongol Rallyers (for making us realise that we had it easy in our jeep) – thank you!

Right, I have rambled on enough about our trip now, it’s time for us to begin our adjustment back to normal life. No more washing in glacial streams, swerving around wild camels, excreting next to war zones, getting lost on endless steppe, changing tyres in the desert, eating questionable Russian meat, or watching kids play with sheep intestines – that is no longer our life. At least, not for now…

Thank you so much for reading!

Total Distance Driven: 26,252km

J

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