Day 24 – How I almost failed at the border crossing
In the morning, eight o’clock, at the border crossing in Korczowa, Poland. A stern-looking border guard approaches me and speaks to me in Polish. I don’t understand her, but she has the kind of look that tells you: we have a problem. Large signs direct cars and buses to their lanes, but this huge border crossing is apparently not designed for bicycle travelers. „Stay here,“ the woman orders me, pointing to a corner, „dont go away!“
I follow her instructions, but her next statement triggers concern in me: „You cant cross the border with a bike.“ I am taken aback. Back in 2018 in the Balkans, I had cycled through hard non-Schengen borders several times; back then, it was simply a matter of riding past the long lines of cars, presenting my passport on foot, and passing. But the polite but determined border guard gives me pause for thought. Was that it now? Should my trip to Kiev fail because of a Polish administrative regulation?
A jump back. Three days earlier, I set out from Krakow together with Wolodomyr and his girlfriend Barbara. First we have a hearty cyclist’s breakfast, then the two of them accompany me for the first 35 kilometers. The native Ukrainian, who has lived in Krakow for a decade and works in IT, is a passionate bike traveler. I talked with him at length about my route for the next few weeks and adjusted it. Wolodymir’s next project: a week riding light through the wilderness of Kyrgyzstan with Tour de France-level climbs. His Kazakh partner doesn’t do such gnarly tours, but the two also have fun together on smaller weekend trips. Like today.
Where Poland surprised me
At this point I have to revise my assessment from a few weeks ago. There are a few of them in Eastern Europe: really nice bike paths and a reasonably well thought-out urban bike infrastructure. Prague had already surprised me in a positive way. In liberal Krakow, too, people think quite progressively in terms of traffic policy; there are some really successful urban bike paths here, considerate drivers – it’s fun to ride here. Of course, there is also the downside: narrow, damaged bike lanes, interrupted every few meters by exits that permanently slow you down or simply end in nothing.
Later, the route takes me through rural Poland again, where storks have built nests on numerous power poles. I watch them and around the next bend I see chickens running around freely. What an idyll! But already I see the next hedgehog carcass lying on the side of the road, which tears me out of my romanticism of nature. On my last evening in Poland, I camped at a campsite barely ten kilometers from the border.
The official finds a solution
Because I want to get across the border quite early on the third day, I am ready to leave at 7 am. I am careful, because when I crossed this border in December 2022 with the aid convoy from LUkraine, the formalities took the whole night. Now I have not had to wait in line as long, but my vehicle is not scheduled in the system. I wait and think about how to react. But then the border official waves me over. She has found a solution to the problem. The driver of a Sprinter, who drives some Ukrainians to Chernobyl, has agreed to take me across the border. So we heave the bike with bags into the luggage area and I join the passengers. My seat neighbor lives in Germany and is now visiting her parents who stayed in Chernobyl.
I am irritated, because I had assumed that no one has lived there since the nuclear disaster of 1986. My neighbor smiles and says, „Yes, people still live there. In the areas where the radiation level is not high. They are people who are so attached to their homeland that they accept these risks.
Sitting in the sprinter, the border crossing is a comfortable affair. My passport passes from the Polish official back to me, then to the Ukrainian officials. After an hour we are ready to leave. The driver lets me off at a rest area a kilometer or two past the border. The chance to take my obligatory photo with the border sign is therefore gone, but so what! At the next gas station I get myself cold water for the first time, because it is now already quite hot and goes – in Ukraine it is an hour later – towards noon. The traffic is manageable on the well-built road to Lviv.
Some trucks speed past me, but most drivers keep their distance. I could ignore the fact that I am now in a country in a state of war, because nothing has changed in terms of the landscape. But I am reminded again and again of the sad reality. By the abandoned military checkpoint. By the large billboards advertising service in the army every few kilometers. By the five flags in the village cemetery flying over the graves of the fallen.
The „Tour de Lviv“ begins
I don’t have much time to take a closer look at all this, because I have to pedal briskly through the midday heat. At 3:30 p.m., I have an appointment at a gas station ten kilometers from Lviv. This was made possible by two Ukrainians who live in Luxembourg: Iryna and Nataliia have been my most active supporters for days. Both are involved in the Ukrainian community in the Grand Duchy, but are very well connected. When Iryna contacted Maks from Lviv, the founder of a network of cyclists in and around Lviv, he spontaneously called for the „Tour de Lviv“ on several channels. So young men are waiting for me at the gas station and accompany me on the way into town.
Once there, we are greeted by other members of the local bike scene and a representative of the city council. They are all grateful that I have come all this way to show solidarity with their country. I am grateful and touched for the reception. And at the same time, I think of the many volunteers at LUkraine who do so much more relief work than I do, but are never in the spotlight. People like Thomas, who is currently on the road in Kiev, bringing relief supplies into the country. Or Anders, a Swede living in Luxembourg, who is currently on home leave but is already organizing the next convoy of five vehicles to Dnipro.
Nataliia has arranged for me to sleep with her parents, who live just outside Lviv. Liudmyla, an enthusiastic mountain biker, has to go in the same direction and accompanies me part of the way. Our mood is as good as the evening summer weather as she shows me some sights, including the 18th-century Lychavivsky Cemetery, a large green oasis in the city with magnificent tombstones and winding paths.Then Liudmyla’s look turns sad. „I’m going to show you the military cemetery,“ she says and leads me a few meters further.
What I see there almost knocks me over: In a large field in the shadow of the historic cemetery, countless flags are flying on a huge field of graves. They are the fallen of this war, their wooden crosses are not yet weathered, the blue-yellow flags and the flags of their battalions are still shining very strong. Almost every grave has a photo of the fallen. I look into the faces of energetic young men who stood in the middle of life. „A friend of mine is also lying here“; Liudmyla says. After a while I ask her if we should visit his grave, but she waves it off; „not today.“ The emotional upsurge is evident in her face, but she prefers to lead me on and says goodbye a little later.
The confrontation with this sea of graves continues to occupy me for a long time. I am all the more pleased to be warmly welcomed by Natalia’s parents and her grandmother. My first day in Ukraine ends with many moving impressions. My Charity Bike Tour has entered the decisive phase.