Odessa – Bucharest, the shortest way

I recently went to France for a couple of days. I had a flight from Bucharest to Paris, a city about the same distance from Odessa as Kiev, so not as remote as it might sound. The problem is that there’s no really convenient way of travelling Odessa-Bucharest. I have done it once before, then I took the easy way and went by bus through Chisinau, a little far but this is the conventional route and what most people would recommend. However, this time I decided to try a straighter but very custom route, something that proved to be a real hit for a dedicated traveller. I went the same way both to and from Bucharest, but these two trips turned out to be quite different. I’m writing this to anyone who is thinking about doing the same trip, alternatively to someone without anything better to do than to read about me going from one place to another in a corner of Europe.

Odessa – Bucharest

  1. Got up early and took the tram to the central bus station in Odessa
  2. Was lucky and within 20 minutes I was on a bus to Reni, a town down in the south western corner of Ukraine, just by the border to Moldova and Romania.
  3. Arrived after 4-5 hours. The driver turned out to be a local celebrity and stopped a dozen of times to talk to people on the street while driving through Reni. People started to jump of one by one until only me and one other guy were left. It turned out that we were both going to Romania, so the driver drove us to the border in the outskirts of the city, let us off and wished us good luck.
  4. So now I had a travel mate, Daniel. A young Ukrainian gentleman studying economy in Bucharest and on his way back after the May break. A very nice companion, not only for the good company, but who did the trip several times before and now naturally lead the way.
  5. We walked up to the first border control, which turned out to be a combined Ukrainian and Moldovan one with two offices located on the road opposite from each other.
  6. After some standard border hassle and silly questions we got our stamps and walked about 3 km, through the very southern tip of Moldova, until we reached the Moldovan/Romanian border
  7. This border is not allowed to cross by foot so we had to try to find a car. After many rejections by people who probably thought we were trying to bring something fishy into the EU, a guy stopped and offered us to cross with him for a symbolic fee, of course we said yes.
  8. We passed the Moldovan and the Romanian border checkpoint and our driver was kind enough to drive us all the way into Galati, the first Romanian city on the other side.
  9. Got to the Galati bus station only to realize that the bus to Bucharest was full, so we walked over to the train, waited for a couple of hours, and 4 hours later we arrived in Bucharest. I said goodbye my new friend with a promise to stay in his student dormitory whenever I happened to pass by.
  10. The trip all in all was about 12 hours and 560 km. I even had some time to visit a friend in Bucharest before I got out to the airport a little after midnight and continued to Paris a couple of hours later.

Bucharest – Odessa

  1. After a couple of productive days in France I once again found myself at the airport in Bucharest, Henri Coandă International. The trip I had in front of me should show not be as easy as last time.
  2. Went straight from the airport to the train station, Gara de Nord. Was lucky and had a train to Galati departing in 8 minutes and 4 hours later I arrived in Galati, so far so good.
  3. Took a while before I managed to find a reasonable taxi to the border, but eventually found one and a little later I got dropped off by the Romanian border checkpoint.
  4. Found myself standing at a more or less traffic-free road together with a Romanian border police waiting for a car willing to take me across the border. This time I had to wait much longer, Sunday afternoon turned into evening and was not until I joined a group of three Ukrainians, standing by the road of the same reason as me, I managed to get a ride, this time for an even more symbolic sum then last time. The driver also offered to drive me all the way to Odessa for 150 Euro, I said no.
  5. Once again I walked the 3 km through Moldova to get to Ukraine. I asked the border guards if there possibly was any chance of getting to Odessa in some way this late Sunday evening. The answer was “probably not, but if you wait for a couple of hours there might be a bus from Varna heading for Odessa passing by. Otherwise I could advise you to hang around here and try to get a seat in a car going in the right direction”.
  6. Really needed to be in Odessa the day after, so I walked down to a bar some 100 meters into Ukraine and asked around. I ended up hitchhiking with Konstantides, a Greek truck driver in a beautiful Volvo, transporting an elevator from southern Greece to Moscow.
  7. The roads down there in the south western corner are quite terrible (or “katastrofa” as my fellow Greek repeated at regular intervals) and we sick sacked between the holes and bumps in 20 km/h for 60 km, listened to Zorba and managed to have some kind of conversation despite Konstantides very primitive Russian.
  8. 3 hours later, an hour before midnight, I got dropped off on a pitch black road outside of the city Izmail, where my driver planned to spend the night. I found three women standing by the road having a late night neighbour to neighbour talk. I explained where I came from, where I was going and asked the way into town. They said it’s not every day a Swede who left Paris in the morning gets dropped off by Greek truck drivers on their road, and helped me to call a taxi.
  9. It was the best kind of taxi, old-Soviet-man-in-very-well-taken-care-of-Lada. He drove me with great enthusiasm to the train station, I had my last piece of luck for the day and got a train ticket for the train to Odessa at midnight. I even had time to have a well-deserved steak at one of Izmails culinary venues before I left (first time I had to eat anything since my breakfast Ciabatta on the plane).
  10. Got on the train, travelled the 250(!) km, arrived in Odessa at 07.00 after 7 hours sleep and went straight to the office, boosted with energy after the wonderful trip. This resulted in a total time of 20h for the trip back to Odessa, but since it included almost a full night of sleep I still consider it a success.

Crossing borders

We took a combined work and leisure trip to Chisinau Friday-Sunday with our Niva last week. In this way we got some real insights in the specifics of crossing the border between Ukraine and Moldova as two Swedes in a Ukrainian car (according to the reaction of the border guards, it’s nothing they see every day). We chose the passing in the very south-east of Moldova, which means avoiding Transnistria, but also that you technically need to pass the border twice since there is a small slice of Moldova to be passed before you exit to Ukraine and then go in again. The system for this is quite well organized, you just get a small note telling how many people you are in the car passing the first control, you continue on the one road to follow, and then you give the note back at the end of the slice. We got a hitchhiking Ukrainian border guard onboard for this stretch, it’s normal. The more unusual help we gave to a Ukrainian border guard at the “real” Moldovan border crossing. Basically, he had locked his key into his own Lada, and wanted to test if our Lada key could work instead, it did. 30 seconds of tweaking, and his car was open. Maybe we should consider investing in a steering wheel lock.

Next step was buying a green card -road insurance for Moldova, I thought it was a bit expensive (20 EUR), but was informed that this insurance was valid not only for Moldova, but also for Russia and Belarus, and for 15 days, so I would get a lot of value for my money… right. Anyway, the crossing continued with us getting some comments about our nice car, and the usual questioning session on what we have been doing in Ukraine, what we will be doing in Moldova and so on. One guy thought it was a fun thing to call us the Swedish hackers, so he did so about 10 times, each time followed by his characteristic laugh. A second guy, in the passport control, looked at our latest edition Swedish passports, turned them in inside out with the comment “what kind of a country is this?!”, it was followed by a discussion with a colleague weather we have finger prints or a chip in the little “window”, just for interest. A third guy took a careful look at our car papers, to make sure that we are really allowed to take this car abroad. It’s hard for a foreigner to officially own a car in Ukraine, so the papers of our car is on the old owner and we have a document saying that we are allowed to use it and so on, it’s normal. A fourth guy was seriously interested in joining us to the Leningrad concert on Saturday (which was truly great btw). The last step was paying the road tax of about 5 EUR, since we didn’t have any Moldovan Lei, we had to do it in another box where Ukrainian Hrivna was ok, for this, we got no less than 3 A4 papers as receipts.  The whole process took less than one hour waiting included, and in general, it was a very cozy and relaxed border crossing.

On Saturday we had the experience of crossing another, less official border, the one from Moldova to the generally unacknowledged autonomous region of Transnistria. The idea was to join one of our friends (and business partners) who were going to do some paragliding over the Dniester river. Arriving at the border, the first sight is parked tanks and soldiers equipped with rifles (no need to mention what kind) and dressed in Russian uniforms. You also get the chance to have your passport checked by KGB, in our case represented by a polite and nice guy. Filling the immigration card we got a special note to fill out our “otchestva” which means fathers name. Since my father is Eje, I am Andreas Ejevich Flodström and Gustav is Magnusovich Henman when travelling in Transnistria.

Right after crossing the border, we were stopped by the police at the first crossroad, apparently it’s a common procedure to do so with foreign registered cars. He was looking for some “safety issue” to remark on and it didn’t take him long to find our tinted windows (in fact, even looking for safety issues with two Swedes carefully driving with their seatbelts on is a bit funny considering the safety of some of the other cars that passed). I had to walk after our documents into the police station to sit down with the officer. I pretty much know the normal procedure by now: Let the officer sit down and talk about the seriousness of your “crime” and how much trouble this could cause you. Make him understand that you pretty much understand the non-seriousness of your crime, that you were not born yesterday and that you are not going to open your wallet without any proper motivation. So I got to read the actual paragraph in the law which states that our side windows shouldn’t be too dark. I asked him how we could fix the “problem” since it was obviously both dangerous and illegal and got the answer: “Naaaaaahhh, it’s nothing scary, just pay me the fee, and nobody will bother you more”. I asked to get a receipt of the fee (about 5 EUR), which I got and even managed to get him to write the date. He asked me for my “Otchestva”, I said I don’t have any, he said “but you have a father” and ones again I got a paper saying I am Andreas Ejevich Flodström, maybe I should put them all in a nice frame on the wall, maybe together with some Transnistrian Rubles. The officer wished me a good day and a safe trip, and we where off. On the way back a few hours later we were stopped again by his colleague who soon realized that we already had been there. “Ahhh, you have already visited us haven’t you? Then have a nice day!”

In general, I don’t want to make a to big deal about border crossings, but rather about the very beautiful landscape of both Moldova and Transnistria! I am truly impressed, and for every time I visit Moldova, I want to see and feel more of it. Considering how our partner relations in Chisinau are developing, I will probably get many more chances. Our overall experiences of Moldova, are highly boosted on the plus side. As for Transnistria, I would like to see much more of it, it’s probably the place in the world that has kept most from the Soviet times, a fact they seem to be quite proud of.

The soundtrack of this trip =)
http://youtu.be/QD9ODx2_nNU

A lunch to remember

The Institute

The InstituteWe are doing our best to establish ourselves in our new neighborhood, we are aiming to find a good “столовая” (сanteen) which could give us a good daily lunch to a sustainable price-level.  We put our faith into the Institute on the other side of the street – students usually have a chance to buy cheap lunch food. We went in, met the security guy and asked him if they had a good canteen we could use, and he said that: “Sure it’s over there at the left, but I will speak with the director at first”. We took three four steps into the building were a lady “stopped” us and asked who we are. We made a short explanation which seemed to satisfy this lady.  Nothing seemed to satisfy the next lady though, the director, the big boss. She had decided her mind about the unusual invaders without even letting us open our mouths, “This is not a canteen for everyone so you can leave”.  We said “thank you” and left the building.

The story could have ended there, but we also had our eye on the “Avto remont” (car service) on the other side of the institution territory (don’t ask me how they organized that thing).  So we just crossed the yard and went into the car workshop, simply to ask the guys some Niva related questions. We didn’t have time to open our mouths in there though until the director of the institute was behind us again. She had obviously followed the suspects over the territory and was now ready for some telling-off. She didn’t believe anything of what we said, and our explanation that we need the workshop for our Niva on the other side of the street didn’t seem likely for her. “There is no Niva on the other side of the street, show me your documents!!” I have rarely felt myself so disbelieved before, and our surprised smile over her reactions didn’t fall into taste either “What’s so funny!”.  Finally she let us go without calling the police (which she threatened to do), and we eventually found another canteen connected to the police institute. This turned out to be exactly what we were looking for, with borsch just in our taste, so now we have a lunch place.

After the lunch we had a short walk home and got our sights on an office building close by with the sign “office for rent”. We walked into the building (with our previous experience in mind) and asked for the director. We were showed in to a room packed with flowers and met with “Viktor Anatolevich”. He had been the director there since way back when they used to construct assembly lines for factories from all over the Soviet Union.  We were shown some pictures of the good old times, and also got a look at the room that now might become our office. Overall, this was a lunch to remember!

A day with Stas and the guys

Niva at Stas

Niva at StasThe plan for the day was to move to Odessa, it didn’t happen that way. We had asked our  guy Stas to make a full overview of our new Niva before the first master test, moving all of our stuff from Kiev to Odessa. I knew already that there would be a delay of some hours because some parts were missing, but I kept my hopes high and expected to get rolling at around 2 PM and do the 7 hour ride with style.  When I arrived there were still some “details” left to do, so I was invited to sit down and have a coffee in the meantime. What was supposed to be a small coffe-break turned out to be a full day with the guys in the workshop, I finally left them at around midnight.

It was a quite interesting afternoon for me in any case. I found a good corner of the workshop where I sat and worked for much of the day; let’s say I gave quite a good contrast to everything else in the environment. I also got surprisingly open minded stories about Stas private life, his three wives (from which wife no. 2 is the present one) and about his favorite movie (Braveheart). At around 10 PM, the radio arrived, but the antenna was missing, so we raced through the city to get it from one of the night open car part shops. I was informed (as usual) that the seatbelt wasn’t needed, because Stas has a good friend he can call if the police would stop us. Stas took all of the safety measures needed though since he made the sign of the cross every time we swept by a church. When I left the workshop at midnight, (a time when new clients still arrived), I had passively inhaled smoke roughly equivalent to one year of cigarette consumption.

Chernobyl visit

Chernobyl

ChernobylFriday was spent with a full day trip to Chernobyl under rainy and snowy conditions.  The road towards the contaminated areas was as bad as the weather, and our guide joked that our group had some similarities with the group from the horror film “Chernobyl diaries” (seems like a ridiculous film btw) with three couples, and a driver named Yuri.

PripyatWalking around the snowy and empty ghost city of Pripyat was both sad and fascinating, especially interesting as a museum of how a small Soviet paradise city could look like. Huge efforts were made in Pripyat to attract the best brains from all over Soviet including a modern warehouse, football stadium, hotel and amusement park. I was surprised how close to the reactor 4 we were allowed to be, and how relatively low the radiation levels now are there. We could also see the construction of the “New Safe Confinement” in full action, supposed to be ready in 2015 and replacing the Sacrophagus that has been standing since soon after the accident.

 

How to buy a Lada Niva in Kiev

The other big event of the week took place yesterday.  We had planned to do some cross country skiing with our room mate and his wife, but the weather wanted something else, and offered a couple of degrees above 0 and rain. What would you do on a rainy Saturday in Kiev? We decided to go buy a Lada Niva. Well, the plan was to at least start to look at Nivas to see what was out there. After all, life has felt a bit empty since the old Lada was parked in St Petersburg in November, and a Niva is actually a real car, which can be used both on and off the road…

We went out to the “Авто Ринок” (Avto Rinok) which is a car market some 20 mins drive outside of Kiev. People come here if they have a car to sell or buy. Judging of the amount of sellers and potential buyers at the location, it seemed to be the most common way of giving a car a new owner in Kiev. It could also be that car changes owners a lot. However, at the first, we were a bit disappointed with the low rate of “made in the USSR” cars that we were looking for. But after some minuets of walking we found what we were looking for, 3 Lada Nivas, in quite different conditions. We started in the low end, testing an old piece of eeehh, car, which seemed to have been painted with silver metallic spray just before arrival to the market to cover the worst beauty flaws. After a small test ride we realized there were more more to it than just flaws.

With the next one, we fell in love, and bought 3 hours later. The start price was slightly over our budget, but the condition of it indicated very good value for money. To be really sure of this, we took it to our own car guru Mr “80 Hrivna” Stas (probably the coolest guy on earth btw). With the seller having his friends with him, we having Yana as our own negotiator, and Stas having is guys looking at the “soon to be ours” Niva, we were as most 10 people standing under the car and discussing the condition of this or that part. With mandatory ok from Stas, and some tough price negotiations from Yana, we are now one Lada Niva richer. Isn’t she beautiful?;)

Visits and getting back to Gothenburg

The beginning of December was the time of pleasant visits to Kiev, first by Robert and Einar from CATE Ventures, and then by my own sister and her seconds half. The first one a great chance to discuss our concept in more detail and map out a future direction, and the second a chance to see some more things on the Kiev to see list which I haven’t been so good at yet. I went home to Gothenburg mid December to finish off the first part of my master thesis while Gustav went back to Moldova to kick start our first projects there. It’s great to spend some time back home, to catch up with both family and friends, and to focus on the thesis for a while. It took me only about 24 hours back in Sweden though before my thoughts where back to things to improve in Ukraine and Moldova…

Kick start in Zaporizhya

We spent a full week in the city Zaporizhya (ZP), where we kick started a new Beetroot team of 4 for an important client. The search of the right team for this client really gave us a wake-up call in terms of strategy since we did found it harder than we had expected to fulfill their needs with a reasonable cost for us and them, if to do it in Kiev. This made us search our way further out in the regions, and we landed in ZP thanks to Anton, a friend, and nowadays business partner, Gustav met on a conference in Kiev a couple of weeks earlier. From the week we spent in ZP, only good memories remains. We where warmly welcomed to stay in the home of Anton and his wife Oksana, and we soon got a close and great relation to the whole new Beetroot team after integrating into the office environment. An intensive week of team building, interviews, tests, negotiations and contracts passed with satisfying results for all parties. We could even afford ourselves to visit a Bachelors party for a good friend of Anton as well as a visit to a very special house where local artists have decided to settle and live.

ZP is a very industrial city, unfortunately with some work to be done on the emission side, but also with a wonderful island park called Khortytsia which we gave a visit. Next time I hope to visit some of the more industrial sites such as the ZAZ car factory, which used to produce the classical Zaporozhets cars, but that now produces for some of the Asian brands. Also the airplane engine producers Motor Sich that produces various engines mainly for the CIS markets is of great interest. In terms of our company strategy, it has become obvious to us that the place to be for IT outsourcing purposes is rather in the regions than in the capital, at least for two highly flexible and dynamic young entrepreneurs who are ready to get onto a nightrain in any direction when needed. One positive side effect of this is that we are “forced” to learn and get first hand experiences from various interesting locations.  My 60 ECTS master thesis which is in production will be largely focused at mapping out various mid-sized cities in Ukraine and Moldova in terms of feasibility for IT outsourcing from the perspective of a small Swedish start up. Moldova? Yeah… that’s where much of our December focus will be.

The last Lada journey

After having finished of the week in Moscow with a get together of some friends from the Swedish embassy, celebrating a birthday – the aim was set for St Petersburg, well aware that there where some aspects of the health of our Lada that could make it difficult. It turned out that the strange sound which occurred on the way to Moscow was the generator which had shaken out of position. Realizing this only at the Sunday of departure with no car workshops open gave me two options, either turn back to Moscow, fix the car the coming day somewhere somehow, or hope that I would make it all the way on the battery charge as long as I never switched off the engine. Considering that I planned to go no further with the Lada after this trip, and my eagerness to get to St Petersburg that day, I chose the latter alternative.

Considering I am now in Kirovsk outside St Petersburg, with the Lada safely parked at the street, it was a valid decision. 5 hours earlier, when I was standing on the road in the middle of nowhere, exactly half way, exhausted and with a completely empty battery unable to go anywhere, I was in doubt.  This is a time when you really need a supporting hand from a real Russian babushka (grandmother). Walking a few hundred meters from the place of my unintended stop I found a babushka selling berries of different kinds, the kind you will find at any major road in Russia at this time of the year. I don’t know if her mechanical skills where typical or not, but she was happy to open up the trunk of her own Lada, sharing her well equipped toolbox, and involving herself in the attempts to try to restart my car. I guess I have to admit that I was a bit lucky when she revealed that she had an extra battery in the car “just in case”, which she was happy to sell to a Swede in need. That battery took me and the Lada to Kirovsk, where she now is resting, she is waiting for someone to take care of her, and take her to new adventures. For now, I am thankful for the 6000 km and the 6 breakdowns that we have had together on the Russian and Ukrainian roads. She never gave up, gave a lot of joy and life experience and I say good bye with mixed emotions at the end of an era…

Speaker at the Open Innovation Forum, Moscow

What an ambitious event! The Russian government with prime minister Dmitriy Medvedev had really put a lot of effort into making the Open Innovation Forum in Moscow a truly prestigious one with guests such as, the prime minister himself, entrepreneurs like Sir Richard Branson, various ministers of both Russia and other countries, company leaders as the CEO of Ericsson Hans Vestberg and leading people in the fields of science and innovation. I was selected to take part as one out of 100 young innovators, 50 Russian and 50 international. I have rarely met so many interesting people at one place so I really tried to maximize the time spent in communication with people. Four days is a short time, but I managed to get a lot out of it, spending quality time and exchanging ideas with innovators and entrepreneurs from both Russia and abroad. I took the chance to walk around the exhibition area to speak with Russian high tech companies as well as business incubators and technology innovation centers from all over Russia. I just counted my collection of business cards to some 50 pieces, from which at least 20 goes into the category of “very interesting to follow up on” people. At least a couple of those are potential customers for Beetroot and many are interesting from a long term perspective.  So, work still to do there… Richard Branson gave a good advice during his Q&A session, whenever you meet people who you find interesting, let them know that by dropping them just a line or two over email when you come home, and you can come back to the same persons even a few years later in some cases.

My speech? Yes I had it, I as one of the lucky few from the youth forum section to get to present my project in front of innovators and entrepreneurs. The 7 min I was supposed to speak was shortened to 5 because of some time schedule issues. I did my best though, and made a passionate presentation about my first meeting with Russia, the fascination that kept me learning and discovering more in the following 3 years, Beetroot resources business model and vision as well as a few words about exchange in innovation focusing on Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship. I felt that the whole thing was a bit squeezed because of the time limit, but at least I got good response and feedback from people afterwards.