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

Moving to Odessa

I went up early to get going to Odessa and hit the road with two lives packed into the car and a good mood at around 09:00. I managed to drive for 20 min before the car stopped; I suspected an empty fuel-tank since I had my doubts about the fuel indicator’s correctness (which indicated the tank was fairly full).  I am starting to get quite used to these situations – so I grabbed a taxi, luckily I found one of those great old guys who are ready to help you with anything, so that’s what he did. We got the fuel, but the Niva didn’t start anyway, the battery discharged – and once more I found myself in a Lada towed by a random Taxi.  The car started from the towing and lack of fuel turned out to be the actual problem. I then discussed with my driver on how to negotiate the best price for a potential workshop visit. Taxidrivers masterplan: “I do all the talking, and if they ask, you are my friend from the Baltics, it will be 20 % cheaper than if you’re my friend from Sweden”. Luckily we didn’t have to execute the plan, and I took of towards Odessa after a warm hand shake and a after paying a very “democratic” (this is a very common way to describe anything that is fair) sum to the driver.

I arrived to Odessa without further problems. The roads between Kiev and Uman (half way) were awful, with literary thousands of holes in the road, the second part was better.  Another surprising thing for me was to realize that Russian was not enough for me to be able to speak to the citizens of Uman. It’s in the middle of Ukraine, so sure, Ukrainian would be the normal language, but still surprising considering that both Kiev and Odessa are cities where Russian works very well.

The road between Kiev and Odessa:

 

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.

 

Getting to know Odessa

The first 4 Beetroot days in Odessa was focused on getting a grip of the place, both as a city and as a Beetroot location.  As Gustav already spent a month here 1,5 years ago, it was up to me to approve the location. Result: Approved.

Odessa offered a rather warm welcome for the season with some 8 degrees and sun during the Monday when we celebrated Yana’s birthday walking around the streets of Odessa. It has a comfortable wibe, beautiful architecture as well as warm hearted people who love to make a joke now and then. Having gone through a number of meetings with developers, small IT companies as well as the local incubator Wannabiz, I am also convinced that this is the right place to continue to build Beetroot both when it comes to IT outsourcing and our broader vision. For Beetroot’s account it has also been a good and busy week with positive developments in several directions.

One of the main tasks of the week was to search for a place to live. We did this using some of the local broker services. You call a woman, tell what you want, they search for it among their contacts and then call you back, any time of the day, for any reason.  Making phone calls seems to be the main value creating activity for these brokers and every meeting should be booked, confirmed, rebooked, time-changed, place-changed, confirmed again, and of course followed up on, preferably before the meeting has ended so that the follow up can be followed up. 92 phone calls and 6 flat visits (yes, an average of 15.3 calls per flat) led to results though; we have a flat in Odessa, which should offer a comfortable living for quite some time to come. It even offers a guest room, so friends, very welcome!

A relocation on the way…

I am writing on the bus between Lidköping and Göteborg. For once, I have spent a day at our official office address back in Sweden, I will spend another two later this week, doing some sales activities and paper work. I came back to Sweden on Friday last week after having spent two productive weeks in Ukraine. After some time for reflection over New Year, we spent a full day mini-conference to reflect backwards and plan our time forward in more detail. The biggest outcome was a decision for a relocation. By the end of February, we will leave Kiev and relocate to Odessa. Why? Because putting all the parameters on the table, it makes sense for us to do so… It has a slightly lower geographical availability seen from Sweden but it has better location seen from the perspective of where most of our Ukrainian and Moldovan development resources are located at the moment. Weighting costs, skills and a couple of other factors together Odessa itself should also give us a  competitive advantage. Kiev will be missed, but not lost, there will be plenty of visits to Kiev and we intend to keep the good collaborations as well as friends we have made there. One of the later collaborations is the mentorship role both me and Gustav have taken at Eastlabs. Eastlabs is a start up accelerator based in Kiev which invests in, and help out hi-tech start-ups at the very first steps of their operations. As mentors, me and Gustav hope to be able to exchange some ideas with these bright minded entrepreneurs.

After spending a week in January in Kiev, we jumped onto two different night trains. Gustav’s taking him to Chisinau, where a bigger project as well as few good leads is about to get going. Mine taking me back to the very first location of our journey – Kharkov, also for client requests, but also to build stronger ties to our partner teams. We are happy to announce an official collaboration on Python development with anvil8.com. I also got the chance to try the Kharkov ski-slope not fully convincing called “Switzerland”,  but still offering a good amount of fun together with the Anvil8 team.

On the 29th I will fly back to Kiev, and on the 30th Beetroot will be representing Swedish entrepreneurship in Ukraine at the Frydays event “Swedish Business in Ukraine”.  Before that I will enjoy the IT Innovations Expo fair in Göteborg as well as meeting my group mates at Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship.

So long!

Mapping the Moldovan IT environment

We just couldn’t get enough of night trains to interesting places, so after having spent one night back in Kiev we hit the rails again for an 18 hours train ride to Moldova. It happened to be the guest workers train taking Moldovan workers from Moscow back to their families. We found the train to be pretty empty, got our own coupe and got a good catch up of sleep before we reached the border. The Moldovan border guards were by far the nicest we ever met, and the pleasant experience of Moldova continued throughout the week. One reason why we went to Chisinau was an invitation from a friend at the Swedish embassy in Moldova, who I met a couple of weeks earlier in Moscow. He thought that it might be a good idea to research our opportunities Chisinau  he was right. He connected us with some key persons from the IT industry and we did our homework well, after a week packed with meetings, the feeling was that we had met pretty much a majority of the interesting collaboration partners within IT in Moldova (we started to feel sure of this when they started cross referring to each other). We found the potential for us here to be great, from a short term perspective maybe even slightly better than in Ukraine and to make long story short, Beetroot now has operations in both Ukraine and Moldova, and plan to continue on that route. Being active in two countries has both drawbacks and benefits, but for now, with the different set of opportunities that each country gives, as well as the risk limitation effects, the benefits are more.

Chisinau would surprise most first time visitors arriving with a package of the most common western prejudices about Eastern Europe, I was surprised myself even though I consider my package of Eastern European prejudices to be smaller than most westerners. The general language knowledge is impressively high with the younger generation typically knowing at least 3 languages, Moldovan, Russian and English/Italian/French/German. A strong proof of the Moldovan talent for languages is the Swedish company Samres. They have set up a call centre in Chisinau where 80 Moldovans are employed to speak Swedish on the phone with Swedish elders ordering transportation  We were already informed about this phenomenon by Gustav’s grandmother who uses their services, but where happy to be invited to take a look. We were stunned by the slightly surrealistic experience to hear young educated Moldovans speak our native language, knowing that many of them have yet to visit Sweden. Another interesting clash of impressions came on the train back to Kiev, passing by small villages that didn’t look to add too much to the overall GDP, we enjoyed super fast data traffic on our mobiles. Moldova has one of the fastest internet speeds in Europe, partly thanks to Telia Sonera owned Moldcell. While writing this I am in a small French village, and longing back to Moldovan mobile internet speeds.

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…

Lada journey from Kiev to Moscow

The era of Lada travelling is soon to be over for this time. I used it to go to Moscow and will try to take it back to Saint Petersburg after the Open Innovation Forum event. The ride from Kiev wasn’t too bad. I started at 04:30 in the morning and arrived to the border according to plan at around 08:30. I had expected at least some hours of waiting for the border crossing, but the whole process went shockingly fast, just 40 min with both the Ukrainian and the Russian controls. One of the border officials just couldn’t resist commenting on the odd combination of a young Swedish guy in an old rusty Lada with: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself – what’s your salary in Sweden?!”.  The journey had two major challenges though, the first one being that the heating system in the Lada is long gone. As I was driving north, the weather got colder and colder to the level of ice being inside of the coupé. My solution to this was to dress accordingly – in my sleeping bag, it helped at least a bit… The second problem was that with some 300 km left to Moscow, the engine started to sound awfully bad in speeds over 40 km/h. So I adapted accordingly to running and drove in 40 for the rest of the way. I arrived 15 hours after I started at 21:30 local time, frozen, tired but happy.

Finding my way home with Norwegian schlager

I had planned to spend a full seven days in Göteborg this week, but after my little faux pas in Warsaw, there were only 5 of them left. The flight from Warsaw to Rygge Norway went smooth. The bus ride from Rygge to Oslo center wasn’t bad but could have been better if it wasn’t for the bus drivers questionable music taste (some kind of Norweigan schlager), and his need of playing this on highest possible volume in crappy loudspeakers.

Bus4you, running the bus from Oslo to Gothenburg, provided a calm journey with nice big armchair-like seats, Wifi and even electricity. I haven’t experienced this kind of luxury in a while.