Thursday, July 22, 2004

Trip Report - Ukraine Part 2

UKRAINE (Part 2)

Photos may bw viewed at

The final chapter!

Armed with some local knowledge from my roommate I proceeded into the train station in Kiev to negotiate/hassle with a taxi driver for a ride to the hotel. Of course as soon as I opened my mouth and spoke English $$ signs registered all over most of them and they demanded $20. After arguing with three or four I finally found a sane/honest driver who agreed on 30 HV ($6). The only way I could get a lower price would be to argue in Russian so I accepted and off we went to the Hotel Rus. I had selected this hotel from a list provided by the agency mainly because of price - $79/night for a 3-star hotel. Turned out to be a good choice. The hotel was located next to the Olympic Sports Stadium, close to the metro and only a few blocks from the main street (Khreschatyk). It had been renovated recently and was modern and luxurious. It was a big step up from my previous 1-star hotels. The front desk staff even spoke English! But I also hit my first travel snag – the hotel only had me booked for one night vs the four nights I had paid the agency for?

But they let me check in at 6am so I managed to nap for a few more hours and shower before venturing off to explore Kiev. It didn’t take long before I determined that I liked Odessa much more. Kiev is the capital of Ukraine, big, spread out and more difficult to explore. I also came up with these quick observations: 1) Somebody had money as I saw several Hummers in the first hour 2) There were more beggars (mostly old people) in the streets 3) There just as many alcoholics walking around at all hours with a bottle of beer in their hand and 4) Beautiful women must be prohibited in Kiev because I could count the number of pretty women I saw in four days on one hand? (Same observation I had on my trip to Moscow four years ago). To top of my assessment/opinion of Kiev I was the target of a scam within the first hour of my walk. What was the scam?
As I walked along the main street a guy passed me quickly, bent over and found/picked up a big roll of bills/money. He showed me the roll that included some US $50 bills and then exclaimed excitedly “we were so lucky to find this money and we should share it”! Well, I wasn’t born on a Russian fishing trawler but it took about 10 seconds for the light bulb to light and I realized I was being scammed. So I told him he could keep all the money and to go away! He persisted for a few minutes until I shouted angrily “ Get lost or I will call the police”! He disappeared quickly. I just love big cities. But it was my fault. I had become lackadaisical in my dress in Odessa. I was wearing jeans and running shoes instead of my European/Russian disguise – black pants, black shirt and black shoes! Nobody in Kiev wore running shoes – I was obviously a tourist!

After completing my preliminary scouting trip around the hotel area I returned to the hotel to call the local travel rep to correct the problem with the hotel. Fortunately she spoke English and promised to fix the problem immediately. It was time to explore more of the city but that required using the metro. The metro was much bigger than the one in Minsk with three lines so the interchanges were more complex. And of course all signs were in Russian/Cyrillic. At first I just memorized the number of stops to a destination but by the end of my stay I was able to recognize metro stops even though I couldn’t say the name. My first destination was the Dnipro station on the Dniper River. My friend in Moldova had told me that this was the best place to do a long run and I wanted to check it out and make sure I knew how to get there? Found the station OK and decided that the sidewalk along the river and a park would work for a run. Next stop was the Podil district – the oldest section of the city. The cobblestone Andriyivskyy path is Kiev’s most touristy area with cafes, bars, galleries and souvenir vendors lining both sides of the street. At the top of the hill is St Andrew’s Church, a restored 18th century Baroque church. Enough fun for the 1st day!

The next day I woke very early to go to the Dniper River. I wanted to finish my run and get back to the hotel before the metro got too busy – I was going to have to return on the metro all sweaty and stinky. When I exited the metro station I decided to stay on the path near the river and park but it was only 5km so I ran two loops and called it a day. It had started to rain and people were giving me strange looks – I was the only runner on the path? After a nice hot shower it was time for breakfast. I was hoping this hotel might have something I could eat? What a pleasant surprise – they had a chef to cook eggs any style I wanted along with bacon and hash browns and even toast – the first toast I had seen this trip. It was wonderful!

I wanted to take a city tour but there is no tourist infrastructure in Kiev and no tourist office. The hotel offered to arrange a private tour for $30/hr but it was raining hard and I didn’t want to spend/waste that much money for a tour in the rain. So I ended up spending the afternoon in my room watching the Tour de France in Russian. Euro Sports didn’t spend much time covering Lance? The following morning it was still raining so I decided to go to the track in the Olympic Stadium next door and run laps in the rain – at 7am! I don’t know if I was allowed on the track but the guard just looked at me and shook his head. It was raining too hard for him to come outside to tell me to stop? Needless to say I was the only one on the track as I ran 3 miles and then retreated back to the hotel looking like a wet puppy. But I was ready for the next marathon. And then I became concerned/worried if there really was one? I had never communicated directly with the race director in Rovno because he didn’t speak English and didn’t have email. My friend Dmitry would telephone him and then pass the information to me via email. What happens if I get to Rovno and the race has been cancelled or postponed? Oh well, there is no other plan except to show up in Rovno on Sat and hope that there is a marathon on Sun?

After another wonderful breakfast I decided rain or not I am going to play tourist and explore the city. The front desk gave me an English map of the city that included a suggested ‘one-day walking tour’ so I set off. Most of the touristy sites are within a one-square mile radius of the city center so it was actually quite easy to tour the city on my own. Kiev, like Minsk and Chisinau had been almost totally destroyed during WWII. Only a few monuments and churches survived. However many of the palaces, churches and monasteries have been restored or rebuilt since Independence in 1991. The oldest structure in the city is the ‘Golden Gate’ a wooden and stone gate that has marked the entrance to the city since 1037! There are several church and monastery complexes that are magnificent and very colorful.

My last day in Kiev (Fri) fortunately was sunny so I decided to revisit some of the sites from the previous day to take more/better pictures in the sun. I figured that I probably would not get a marathon T-shirt from the race so I should buy a souvenir T-shirt from Kiev. Had to go back to the Podil district to find the T-shirt. Then I decided to visit Kiev’s oldest and holiest religious site, the Kyiv-Pechery Monastery that sits on a hill overlooking the Dniper River and dates back to the 12th century. It provides some spectacular views of Kiev from the Bell Tower.

As I finished my final tour of the city I figured that maybe I should buy a sandwich for the train ride tomorrow? I knew there would not be any food available on the 8-hour train ride from Kiev to Rovno and I would miss both breakfast and lunch. Good idea but sandwiches do not exist in Kiev – and I looked everywhere?
So on Sat morning I was catching a train at 6:30 am with only a power bar to eat for breakfast. All that was available was a 2nd class cabin (4 persons/beds). The beds were still made up so I just stretched out on my bed and slept for half the trip. When I stepped off the train 8 hours later in Rovno there were three smiling/happy faces to greet me.

The race director Yuri had brought along a friend Alex and an English teacher from the high school, Tanya, to translate for us. They welcomed me to their city and escorted me to my hotel. The Hotel Mir (means ‘Peace’ in Russian) was a one-star hotel but the best hotel in the city (and only $18/night). It was right out of an old Soviet/Russian movie – you walked past a security guard to get to the elevator and when you got off on your floor there was a matron at a desk to monitor the floor. Picture the movie “From Russia With Love”. Remember the Russian bad girl/matron with the knives in the shoes? That was my floor matron! Fortunately Tanya helped me check in because nobody in that hotel spoke English!

After my hosts got me checked in we sat down and discussed the agenda for the race. I had lots of questions and wanted to see the course. Tanya and Yuri agreed to pick me up at the hotel at 6 pm to go to the stadium and the course that were close to the hotel. Then Tanya insisted on helping me shop at the supermarket for water and some snack food. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was an expert shopper in the Ukraine – heck I could even buy ‘monoko/milk’! After I got my supplies back to the hotel I told Tanya that I could survive on my own and would see her at 6 pm. A hasty decision! I realized that I was hungry and needed something to eat. But the restaurant in the hotel only had Russian menus and nobody spoke English. I couldn’t order a meal. So I walked around the hotel and luckily found a pizza joint. By now I could read/understand pizza menus in Russian and was able to order a pizza and coke ($2). After that delicious snack I explored the downtown area. The main street was about ½ mile long with a post office, telecom office and about a dozen shops. That was it! Across the street was the central park with a statue of Taras Shevchenko, an 18th century Ukrainian Poet who is credited with re-inventing the Ukrainian language. The city had torn down a statue of Lenin after Independence and replaced it with Shevchenko who is now a national hero.
At 6pm my hosts met me at the hotel and escorted me to the stadium. Yuri gave me a race number and explained that after the race he was going to give me a book about the city of Rivne (Tanya explained that the city is called Rovno in Russian but Rivne in Ukrainian) and a ceramic statue of the club symbol. His running club was called ‘The Flame’ and the symbol is a runner with an Olympic torch. I thanked him and asked how much for the entry fee. He said that there was no entry fee but that I could make a donation if I wanted. I donated 100HV ($20). I could tell by the way that his eyes and smile lit up that I had probably covered most of his race budget. I asked about water on the course. Yuri showed me some bottles of tea and local water. He also had some bottled sparkling water. I explained that I was concerned about intestinal problems from local water so I would buy some bottled still water and place it at the water station for my own use. Tanya, my dear, sweet translator/angel said that she would come to the race and hand me my water and watch my belongings.

Yuri and Tanya then walked me over to a park near the stadium and showed me the course. It was a figure 8 loop. Because of the strange distance of the loop (about 2.38km)
the race would begin with two laps around a lake followed by 16 more laps of the whole loop. One water table/station would be placed in the path in the middle of the two circular loops. I was ready. Yuri would meet me at the hotel at 6am to escort me to the start line.
To thank Yuri and Tanya I invited them to join me for a pasta dinner (and I needed Tanya to order it)! It costs less than $10 for three pasta dinners.

Sunday was M-day! This trip was really going to happen/conclude as planned! Yuri picked me up at 6am and we walked over to the stadium. I met some of the other runners - a few even spoke English and were eager to practice their language skills with me. There were 12 runners in the marathon and another 12 runners in the Half. The race started at 7am. I had decided beforehand to stop every 2nd loop for water and gel. But this time I would carry the gel with me so that I could eat/swallow it on the run and only have to stop for water. This would save some time. By the time I finished the 2nd lap Tanya was standing at the water table with a cup of water (what an angel). It took about 20 to 30 seconds to stop, drink some water and return the cup to her. I was only allotted one cup. I later asked Yuri why only one cup? Why not have lots of cups and just throw them away like most races? He was shocked. He considered that to be an unnecessary waste and expense! Because of the strange distance of the loop it was impossible to determine my pace - all I could tell was that I was averaging about 12 minutes per loop. At one point I couldn’t remember how many loops I had run. Fortunately they had a volunteer shouting out the number of loops left for each runner.

It got a bit warm/toasty by the end of the race but I finished comfortably in 3:38:50 – good enough for 1st place in my age group and 5th place overall. More importantly I had accomplished my goal of 3 marathons and 3 countries in 3 weeks! After the race Yuri pulled me aside for interviews and photos with the local press. They were writing an article for both the Rivne and Kiev papers. Tanya said that she would translate the article and send me a copy. Yuri then presented me with the book and ceramic statue.
Yuri had invited Tanya and I to a party/dinner at his place after the race. The party was to start at 3 pm so I had lots of time to go back to the hotel for a hot shower and rest. After my shower I decided that I had better eat something because Yuri warned me that there would be lots of vodka at the party. Right – you guessed it! I had to go back to the pizza joint because it was the only place in town where I could order a meal.

At 3 pm Tanya met me at the hotel and we walked over to Yuri’s apartment. He had invited some runners, friends and local musicians. He had prepared a special, traditional Ukrainian meal – a type of meat pie. It was like a meat dumpling with minced pork. It was very good. The specialty was preceded with bread, meat and vegetables. I skipped the raw veggies but enjoyed the mashed potatoes, meat and bread. I think I forgot to mention how delicious the bread is in those countries. They have dark bread that is to die for – I ate it with every meal. I also needed it to wash down the vodka – it was very strong.
I had brought what was left of the bottle of Crown Royal and all the locals drank whiskey while I drank vodka for the many toasts! Everyone was very interested/curious about life in America and asked many questions about salaries, pensions, health care, etc. I answered their questions and then asked them the same questions. Some of the answers were surprising.

When I commented about the Hummers in Kiev they stated that there is a very small minority of super rich but the majority of the people are very poor. Tanya has been teaching for 20 years and makes $60/month. One runner, a retired electrician used to make about $60/month and his pension is now $40/month. He claimed that he lived quite comfortably on that amount. He had to be very careful with his budget – couldn’t buy much expensive food like meat but he was happy. They have ‘free’ health care but it is not as good as it used to be. A doctor makes about $100/month! But nobody that I talked to wanted to go back to the ‘good old days’. They felt sorry for the old people and thought that they had been better off in the old days and that was the reason most of the beggars are old people. But they preferred to continue down the road of freedom and opportunity!

After dinner the musicians played Ukrainian/Russian music for the party. One musician, a professional singer, had written a song to commemorate my visit to Rivne that she sang to me (in Russian). The words/story according to Tanya’s translation were about “John, the American runner who traveled all the way to our city of Rivne to visit us and run our marathon when he could have gone anywhere in the world”. I was overwhelmed with the kindness, warmth and friendship of these people. They are poorer than church mice but all have BIG hearts of pure gold!

After the party Yuri and Tanya insisted on escorting me to the train station. They stayed with me until the train arrived and made sure I got on the right car and only then did they wish me goodbye. I was very thankful that chance or timing had selected Rivne as my marathon in Ukraine instead of Kiev or Odessa – I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that wonderful experience!

My 2nd class cabin was full but I didn’t care. After a marathon and lots of vodka I just made up my bed and passed out again. The conductor woke me at 4am for our 5am arrival into Kiev. I heard some voices speaking English? Turned out there was a church group of 12 people in my coach from NY State. They had been operating a church camp in Lutsk for two weeks for Ukrainian children. They had been isolated but had the same observation/comment as me: “The Ukrainian people are poor but so very warm and friendly”.

As soon as I arrived in Kiev I headed back to the Hotel Rus. I had wisely negotiated/booked a room for half price for 8 hours. That allowed me to leave my larger bag in the hotel luggage room while I was in Rivne and now I had a place to sleep for a few more hours, shower and have another great breakfast before leaving for the airport. But I was at the airport by 12pm to catch my 2:15 flight to London. I was ready to head home! What a mess at the Kiev airport! First you have to line up and go through security to get into the international terminal. Then you have to line up to go through customs. The customs officer asked all the usual questions about money. I answered that I was leaving Ukraine with only 20 HV and $800 US. He tried to ask more questions but we had a communications problem so he got frustrated and told me to go. I had to go through another security check at that point and another customs officer pulled me aside and into a private room. I didn’t like the looks/feel of this situation? He spoke English and demanded to know how much money I was taking out of the country. 20 HV and $800 US. He inspected both of my bags and had a special interest in my handbag that contained a travel pouch with my address book and other documents. Since I had nothing to hide I let him inspect his little heart out. But I did get the feeling that he was looking for a ‘bribe’ to let me pass. Screw him – I had nothing to hide and I was not going to offer him a bribe! He finally gave up and told me I was free to go. I still had to pass through Passport Control but that went OK. However I felt relieved when I passed that final hurdle and went straight to the Business Class Lounge for BA for a nice English beer and to read my first English newspaper in three weeks. I felt even better when the wheels lifted off the runway and I was on my way to London Heathrow.

Four hours later I was in the London Tube heading to my mate’s place in the Vauxhall district. His house is a few blocks from the Thames River and the MI6 building. After a quick beer we headed out to a pub near Victoria Station to meet up with another running mate – and a surprise. A new English ale has just been introduced and those crazy guys had called the brewery to find out which pubs were serving ‘Maddog’ ale. They had taken me to a pub serving ‘Maddog’ ale. It was quite good – maybe that is why we poured it down like water? At 9 pm we had to head off to another pub to meet up with two more mates – the same two that had just stayed with me in Colorado. We drank at that pub until they kicked us out! But I blamed the hangover the next morning on that damn ‘Maddog’ ale and called it a wee Maddog hangover. To get the poison out of my body I coaxed Tad into taking me on a 5-mile run through London. His route took us down to the MI 6 building and along the Thames past the ‘Big Eye’, then across the Thames and around Big Ben, the Parliament Buildings, and Westminster Abbey and finally back across the Thames to MI 6 and home. Nice historic/scenic route but I am not used to dodging cars, buses and people?

One last wish/requirement before I leave England – I must have a good feed of fish and chips. Unfortunately that is not so easy anymore. Most of the ‘chippys’ have closed down and it is hard to find a good ‘chippy’ these days. But Tad came through and I got my fill of fish and chips. Time to go home, rest up and train for the next adventure?

Stay tuned!

Monday, July 12, 2004

Trip report - Ukraine Part 1

UKRAINE (Part 1)

Photos may be viewed at

As I remember I concluded my previous report with saying goodbye to my new friends from Moldova and stepping off the train in Odessa. I had arranged for a private car and driver to meet me at the train station because I had booked an apartment in Odessa and figured I would need help to find it. It was a good plan because the apartment I had booked had problems with water and the agency had upgraded me to a bigger apartment at a different address. The driver drove me straight to the new apartment and showed me how to work some of the Russian appliances.

I had booked an apartment because hotels were very expensive in Odessa and I figured it would be a chance to live like a local? But that was before I learned how locals lived from my friends and tour guides in Belarus and Moldova! The ‘Khrushchev’ apartments built after the war were based on the central command/control principle. All the utilities were supplied and controlled by the government. For example the buildings are heated by a central hot water system that is turned on (and off) by the government on specific dates. Thus the apartments are heated in the winter but not in the summer. That also means that there is no hot water in the summer months for washing, etc. I asked how they took showers/baths? Cold showers and heat some water on a stove if they want a hot bath for about six months in the summer!. So the first question I asked the driver was “Is there hot water”? Thankfully the owner had added two important upgrades to this apartment: 1) an instant-type hot water heater and 2) a satellite TV system. I was living in luxury compared to my neighbors.

However the driver/agency forgot to inform me that the city turned off all water between midnight and 6am. I could live with that except the first morning the water in my section of the city was not turned back on until 2pm? Apparently there was a problem in that section of the city? But hey – I was experiencing/enjoying life just like the locals!
After I got settled into my new pad it was time to explore the city. My apartment was located in the old city and only ½ block from the main street that had been converted into a pedestrian mall. It was a great location because the main street was the gathering/focal point for the city. It was lined with shops and sidewalk cafes/bars and was a great place to stroll or sit and drink a beer and people watch. My first priority was to find an ATM and get some Ukrainian money – 5 Hryvnya = $1 US. I always try to use ATMs because the currency exchanges tend to rip you off with poor exchange rates and high commissions. The next priority was to shop for water and some food. I was looking forward to a regular American type breakfast (orange juice and cereal) in my apartment. Third priority was to learn the layout of the jungle/city.

Odessa does not have much of a tourist infrastructure even though there are lots of tourists. I even saw busloads of Japanese tourists – there was a cruise ship berthed in the harbor. There is no tourist office but I did find a travel agency that offered several tours of the city. I booked a city tour and a tour of the catacombs for the next day. The only city map they had was in Russian. Since I no longer had access to a front desk staff (that usually didn’t speak English anyway) I dropped into a nearby luxury 4-star hotel and used their concierge staff. They spoke excellent English and were very courteous and helpful. They even gave me an English map of the city. I asked them where I could run and they told me about a road along the Black Sea called the ‘Road to Health’ where all the locals ran and walked. I almost wished I were staying at that hotel but it was three times the price of my apartment. The rest of that day I walked/explored the old city and arrived at the following observations. 1) There seemed to be more money/wealth in Odessa than the previous two countries/cities visited. There were several BMWs and Mercedes parked on the streets and the main street had several high-priced jewelry stores. But there appeared to be a high risk of crime also because every jewelry store and upscale restaurant had an armed security guard on the premises during operating hours? 2) Most of the buildings in Odessa were old, in good condition and there were lots of interesting architecture like you see in other parts of Europe.3) No matter what time of the day you walk around the streets there is always someone (actually several people) walking around with a beer in their hand? 4) The young women (18 to 25) had the same traits as the women in Belarus and Moldova (shame on me for forgetting to report this very important observation until now). They were all slim with long slender legs, unbelievably slim/flat waists and big boobs! I can’t comment on their looks because my eyes never seemed to get above the breast line? The women in Odessa seemed to have more money for nicer clothes and dressed very well to display all their ass(ets)! Yeah, yeah – I know! I am a male chauvinist pig – and I like it!
Eating meals was also much easier because most restaurants had an English menu and at least one server who spoke English. The food wasn’t any better but I was able to enjoy some fresh seafood. The prices were much higher but still a bargain compared to the US.

The following morning I woke early to try a run along the Black Sea before the temps got too hot. My apartment was about one mile from the Black Sea and I got some strange/curious/dirty looks from some people as I ran through the city streets to get to Shevchenko Park and the ‘Road to Health’. I ignored them. However I couldn’t ignore the packs of stray dogs in the Park. I was very alarmed/leery at first but soon realized that the dogs were afraid of people and stayed out of my way. However I did watch a pack of about 20 dogs attack a pet dog that foolishly wandered into their pack. They would have killed that dog if the owner hadn’t stepped in and saved his pet. Once I got through the Park and on to the Road to Health it was much better. The road runs along the Black Sea for 6 km to the sea resort of Arkadiya. The road is lined with shade trees and is marked every 100m in case you want to do speed work. There were hundreds of locals running and walking along the Road to Health. I felt very comfortable while running on that road. That first day I continued on into the sea resort to check it out. Arkadiya is the ‘play’ area for Odessa. There are great beaches and the resort has several restaurants, bars and discos. The locals and tourists play on the beaches during the day and at the discos at night. They were still drinking and partying at 6:30 am that first morning I ran through the resort?

I arrived back at my apartment at 8am only to discover that I had no water? And I had booked the Catacomb tour for 10am. Fortunately I realized that this was not an uncommon occurrence because the apartment had several large jugs of water spread about the place. I used one of the jugs to wash myself in the sink. Not as good as a hot shower – but hey – I wanted to live like a local? The next surprise came when I started to pour the milk on to my cereal –‘Snow Flakes’ – the Russian version of ‘Frosted Flakes’. It wasn’t milk! It was thick and yucky! Not as thick as yogurt but close. I threw that in the sink and walked across to a store to buy ‘milk’. Of course everything is labeled in Russian/Cyrillic so I can’t read a damn thing. This time I decide to buy a plastic bag of white stuff that looks like milk and is very liquidy? Take it home and it is the same shit!
Now I am frustrated so I go back to the store and stop a young person (hoping he can speak English) and ask “milk”. He can’t speak English but he takes me over to the dairy cooler and points to a bottle and says “monoko” – “milk”. I trust him – pay for it and rush back to the apartment. Halleluiah – it’s milk – monoko – whatever – and it tastes wonderful on my Snow Flakes! It’s great living like a local!

After a great American breakfast I was ready to tour the catacombs. When Catherine the Great founded Odessa in 1794 she granted the citizens free land and the right to mine the limestone under their land to build their homes. The city and surrounding region is built on a solid outcrop of limestone. The residents would mine/cut the limestone down to 12 ft for a basement and use the blocks to build their house. Then they would continue to mine down two or three more levels and outwards from their property to get more limestone blocks for their house. It was free building material. Every building was built with limestone blocks mined from the ground below it. The result is a labyrinth of catacombs stretching over 2,000 km under the city and surrounding area. Most of the entries and exits have been closed because there are only maps for less than half the catacombs and people (mostly children) were getting lost in them – never to be found again. The city has left only two openings to the catacombs on the outskirts of the city. This section of the catacombs were used by the resistance fighters in WWII. They lived in the catacombs for four years. The tour takes you through a section of the catacomb where the resistance fighters had set up a camp. It is very cold and very dark in those catacombs. I couldn’t live or stay down there longer than a few hours. But it was an interesting tour and story.

In the afternoon I decided to take a tram to Arkadiya to check out the beaches and cafes. The beaches are sandy and nice and they are packed – from sunrise to sunset. I never did find the ‘nude’ beaches but based on some of the bodies I saw with little clothing (and should have been clothed – in a tent) it was just as well. I had an early seafood dinner at one of the cafes and decided that I couldn’t stick around till midnight when the action really started. Hard to party till 4am and run 10 miles at 6am?

So a new day and another pleasant run along the Road to Health followed by a hot shower and a hearty breakfast of Snow Flakes and I was ready for the city tour. I had already explored much of the old city but was eager to learn the history of the city. As previously noted Odessa is a relatively young city in Europe only being founded in 1794 and built in the early 1800s. Catherine the Great wanted a seaport on the Black Sea and therefore opened the development of the city to all nations and nationalities in Europe. There is an interesting mix of architecture and buildings and almost all of the original buildings survived WWII. Romania had asked Hitler to give them Odessa as a present for joining his alliance and therefore Odessa was spared from bombing except for the train station and seaport that have been rebuilt since the war. The landmark of the city is the 192 steps of the Potemkin Stairs that descend from the old city to the seaport. There is supposed to be an old murder/mystery movie shot in Odessa and around the Potemkin Stairs – I’ll have to rent it? There are several interesting building to see including the city opera that was unfortunately under restoration.
After the tour I explored the old city on my own and enjoyed some time in the city’s central park. The local artists set up booths in the park every day and sell arts and craft such as matryoshka dolls. It is a great place for watching the local scenery (read –beautiful women with long slender legs, big boobs, etc).

I was running out of things to see and do in Odessa and I still had one more day to go? On that last morning I did a long 13-mile run along the Road to health because I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to run in Kiev. I had to check out of my apartment by noon so I took my bags down to the train station and checked them into the baggage storage. Then I went back to the central park with a good book, bought a few beers and sat down and spent the afternoon in the park reading – and watching – you are right - slim waists, slender legs and big boobs. It’s so great to be a male chauvinist pig!
After a nice final seafood dinner on the main street it was time to head back to the train station to catch the overnight train to Kiev. The train left at 8pm. I found my train and 1st class cabin easily but discovered that I had a roommate – a businessman going to Kiev. Didn’t matter – after drinking beer all afternoon in the park and then a bottle of wine with dinner – I immediately paid the conductor $2 for the sheets and blanket – made my bed and passed out!

The following morning the conductor woke us early for our 5am arrival into Kiev. My roommate didn’t speak much English but I was able to ask him how much to pay a taxi for a ride into the city center. I thanked him and stepped off the train to begin the next part of my adventure in Ukraine.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Friday, July 09, 2004

Trip Report - Moldova

7/7 –7/8/04

Photos may be viewed at

Now where was I? Oh yes! I had found my train, coach and seat in Minsk and was on my way to Chisinau, Moldova.

I had booked a first class sleeper cabin (two beds) for the 25-hour train ride from Minsk via Ukraine to Chisinau. As the train pulled out of Minsk I was pleased to see that I had the cabin all to myself. However problems with communications/language started immediately when the conductor entered my cabin and started asking me a lot of questions in Russian. Fortunately a gentleman/businessman in the next cabin came to my rescue. He spoke some English and explained that if I wanted sheets and a blanket for my bed there was a $2 fee. I paid the conductor and she was happy. Since it was shortly after noon I asked my neighbor if there was a dining car/restaurant on the train? I had assumed (hoped) that a train that took 25 hours would have a restaurant? Bad assumption – no restaurant – in fact, no food on the train! I could buy tea, coffee, beer or pop from the conductor but no food. Fortunately I had a Plan B – I had considered this possibility and had packed six Power bars for emergencies. Heck – I could have a power bar for lunch, dinner and breakfast!

But again my new neighbor/friend came to my rescue. He invited me to his cabin to share a lunch that his wife had packed for him – bread, cold meats and some kind of pancake stuffed with fruit. It was delicious and much better than a power bar. In return I went to my cabin and brought back a treat which I had packed as Plan C – a bottle of Crown Royal to wash down our lunch. Boy, could that guy drink! I mixed my whiskey with pop and still couldn’t keep up with him as he downed his whiskey straight! As the train traveled southeast towards Ukraine we drank more whiskey and asked each other questions about our respective countries. Funny – but the more he drank the more he spoke in Russian and the more I seemed to understand him? What a great learning tool?

The countryside in Belarus is very similar to Ontario and upper New York State. The scenery became pretty boring after a few hours. As we approached Chernobyl, Ukraine I noticed that there were very few farm animals? My friend explained that there was a
100 km restricted zone around Chernobyl that nobody was allowed to enter. The zone will not be habitable for another 200 years? The train actually passed very close to this zone and he explained that many people still lived and farmed just outside the zone but he thought they were crazy. There are still many people (especially children) dieing from various types of cancer. Russia has forgotten the incident and Belarus does not have the money required to clean up the region properly. Both he and my guidebook said not to eat mushrooms in Belarus because they store radioactivity. Too late – I already had mushroom soup in Minsk. So don’t be shy/embarassed to tell me if I glow in the dark the next time you see me?

Soon we approached the border and the typical customs process on a train. First the train stops on the Belarus side and the Belarus border/custom police check your passport and baggage. Then the train proceeds across the border to the nearest town/station and stops again for the Ukrainian customs police. I was lucky that I had my new friend to help me because neither police spoke English and he either translated for me or answered all questions for me and I was passed through both customs easily and with no hassle.
The countryside in Ukraine is more like Iowa and Nebraska – i.e. really boring so I ate a power bar for dinner and went to bed early.

The next day I woke early and my Belarusian friend invited me to his cabin for breakfast – more of the same bread, meat and pancakes. But still better than a power bar. By mid- morning we reached the border of Ukraine and Moldova. This time I had a harder time with the Ukrainian customs police. They wanted to know how much money I was taking out of the country? This seemed to be a point of paranoia with them? I played the old innocent/naïve tourist part “English – I only speak English”. So they radioed for an English-speaking officer to interview me. He was actually very nice and polite so I explained that I had no Ukrainian money and $1000.00 in US funds. That was fine and he cleared me through customs. After we crossed the border and stopped in Moldova the Moldavian customs police didn’t even ask me for my passport? Soon we arrived in Chisinau and I said goodbye to my Belarusian friend and thanked him for all his help and hospitality.

As I stepped off the train in Chisinau, Moldova I was greeted by another friend, Dmitry. Dmitry is a 2:20 marathoner that I had met last year in Belgrade and Podgorica. He is one of the best runners in Moldova and works for the Moldova Sports Federation. He had been instrumental in helping me obtain information and organize this trip. Because the other race directors didn’t speak English, Dmirty would email or telephone them to get the necessary information and pass it along to me. It would have been impossible to put the trip together without his help. And Dmitry had spent two years in San Diego, CA and spoke good English! He escorted me to my hotel and helped me check in because again the front desk staff did not speak much English. I invited him to lunch – the first real meal I had eaten in 24 hours – and than we walked over to his office at the Sports Stadium to discuss our plans for the marathon. Since there is no ‘official’ marathon in Moldova Dmitry had agreed to support me to run a solo marathon. We planned to use the same course that is used for an ultra/24 hr race in Chisinau – a 1.6-mile loop around a lake in a city park. Dmitry had measured the course and determined that I needed to run 16 loops plus another 200m at the end to complete a ‘certified’ marathon. He offered to run part of the marathon with me but I figured that it would be too slow and painful for him so I suggested that he just show me the course and I could do the rest. But he insisted that he would provide support for me during the marathon – he could bike along with me or just stay at one point and give me water. We decided that we would run a few loops the next morning (Tue) so I could check out the course.

Then I decided to explore the city on my own while he caught up on some work in the office. Chisinau is a small city (pop –700,000) with one main street that is about one mile long. I knew it very well by the time I left. Chisinau, like Minsk had been totally destroyed in WWII and rebuilt by the Soviets in the ‘grand Stalinist’ style. There were maybe a few statues and one church that were older than 60 years – everything else was ugly, gray concrete built after the war. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and I had expected it to look poorer and dirtier/filthier than some of the Balkan countries that I have labeled as the ‘shitholes’ of Europe. I was pleasantly surprised to find the city clean and few signs of poverty. Yes there were beggars (more than Belarus where I saw very few) but they didn’t bother or hassle you. The country and city has absolutely no tourist infrastructure. There are no tourists! As I explored the city center and shops for my standard souvenirs and postcards I quickly realized that they have no need or understanding of such products. There were lots of shops selling new fashions and jewelry so there must be some money in the country (more on that later). But most residents are poor and prices reflect it. I enjoyed a great dinner in a fancy restaurant for about $10 including beer and wine.

The next morning Dmitry met me at my hotel and we took a taxi to the city park. He explained that most of the people frowned and cursed at him when he ran through the streets. They considered it frivolous to run. One should be digging ditches or picking vegetables, etc (to survive) instead of wasting time and energy on sports! It makes it difficult for him to train. We ran two laps around a paved path that looped around a lake in the park. There were very few other runners or walkers but lots of stray dogs and a few dogs that owners did not leash. They were my biggest concern. We decided to start very early (6am) on Wed to beat the heat.

I had arranged a tour with a private guide and car for that afternoon and invited Dmity to join me. Our car was quite humorous – it was an old Russian limousine left over from the Soviet days that had been used to chauffeur Soviet diplomats around town. The interior (seat, floors and doors) was upholstered with multi-colored Turkish carpets. Looked like something you might find in the Bronx ghettos?
Our guide toured us around the many districts of Chisinau while explaining some of the history and culture of the country and city. There were only a few ‘tourist’ sites to see.
When I tried to ask Dmitry and the guide about politics and the government they just clammed up and said they did not want to discuss politics? They stated that the government was corrupt and there was nothing they could do about it? They also said the same thing that I heard in Belarus. The majority of the people feel very strongly that they would be better off if they could rejoin Russia and go back to the good old days! Moldova is several years away from emerging from the ‘good old days’ and becoming a dynamic, entrepreneurial, capitalistic country with a strong economy (in my opinion). I don’t know the reasons why because the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are not having the same problems?

After we finished the tour I told Dmitry about my problems finding souvenirs and he insisted on helping me to shop for them. As we were going from shop to shop without much success I asked why there were so many currency exchanges on the main street when there were no tourists? Simple explanation. Because of the poor economy in Moldova about 25% of the population works outside the country and they send money home – thus the family has to exchange the currency to buy food, etc. After many hours of shopping/frustration we finally found a silver charm of a buffalo –supposed to be a symbol of Moldova but no silver teaspoon that represented Moldova. So I improvised and bought a plain silver teaspoon and had a jeweler engrave “Moldova” on it. The last thing I wanted was a T-shirt with ‘Moldova’ or ‘Chisinau’ on it since I wouldn’t have a marathon T-shirt. In spite of our efforts to find such a simple tourist item it did not exist in Chisinau. Even Dmitry couldn’t believe it. He promised that he would have a solution by tomorrow? Like most good shoppers we decided it was time to eat after a day of shopping. I had to find the Italian restaurant for a pasta dinner because Dmitry never eats in a restaurant (too expensive)!

On Wed morning Dmitry met me at the hotel at 5:45 am and we took another taxi to the park. I had purchased two –2 liter bottles of water plus a smaller bottle to drink from. I started my solo marathon at 6 am. I didn’t see any sense in killing myself and ran easy - I quickly discovered that it took about 14 minutes to complete a loop. Dmitry sat at the start/finish line and handed me a carbo gel and water after every second loop. Unfortunately it took about 30 to 60 seconds to swallow the gel and wash it down with water but there wasn’t anything I could do about it so I decided not to let it bother me. He also recorded each loop and the time. He sat there for four hours! I had no problems until the very last loop when a stray dog decided to challenge me. But as soon as I turned and became the aggressor he took off! I finished the marathon in 3:50:55.
I took a taxi back to the hotel and Dmitry went to his office. We agreed to meet at 3 pm for a celebration beer.

At 3 pm Dmitry showed up at the hotel with a friend. He had prepared an ‘official’ diploma certifying that I had completed a solo marathon in Moldova in 3:50:55 and it was signed by both Dmitry and his boss – the President of the Moldova Sports Federation! The next surprise came when he introduced me to his friend Sergei. Sergei was his coach and the coach of the Moldova National/Olympic Running Team. Sergei congratulated me on my marathon and presented me with a T-shirt that had been given to the Moldova Running Team. It had the Moldova crown and Olympic rings on it – I think I am now an honorary member of the Moldova Olympic Team? Needless to say I was overwhelmed with the hospitality and friendship of the Moldova people. They may be poor but they are very friendly and sincere.

Unfortunately Dmitry had plans for Wed. evening so I had to enjoy my celebration dinner and last night in Moldova by myself. Probably a good thing since I had to catch a train to Ukraine at 6:40 am. I was at the station by 6 am to ensure that I could find my train. My ticket said that I had a 2nd class seat but unfortunately Dmitry had been right. The train was a local milk run that only had wooden bench seats and no reserved seating (for a 6-hr train ride)! No problem getting a seat in Chisinau but as the train stopped at every little town it filled up with farmers carrying boxes and baskets of vegetables and fruit. They were taking their produce to Odessa because there is more money in Ukraine and they could sell their produce for more. A few tried to talk to me but all I could say was “English” and that ended the conversation. The train traveled east on the same route I had entered the country and after a few hours we entered a region called ‘Transdneister’. This region declared independence in 1992 and a civil war followed. Transdneister emerged as an autonomous state and now and then will flex its muscles by stopping all transportation going through its territory and giving travelers a hard time. Our train was stopped and their police came on board. However they didn’t even ask for my passport – they just asked to see my baggage and walked away when they saw it was full of dirty clothes? I was expecting to have to pay a ‘bribe’ to pass through the territory. I don’t care to go back there although with my luck it will become another independent country and I will have to run it?

A few hours later we stopped across the border in Ukraine and I had to go through the same customs ritual about money. Fortunately they called in the same customs officer I had met a few days earlier and he recognized me and cleared me without any hassle. During these discussions my fellow passengers discovered that I was an American. Most had never met an American before and were very curious about me. Unfortunately nobody could speak English but a few of the kids approached me and asked me my name. I would ask them their name but that was about as much conversation we could carry on.
I had a bunch of American change with me so I gave all the kids some change. Boy – did that ever make their day! The parents wanted some to return it but I said no and so they gave me a bunch of their fruit and vegetables as a gift. I didn’t really want it because of the risk of bacteria and parasites in uncooked food but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings so I accepted it. I later gave it to a beggar in Odessa.

Soon we were in Odessa and I said goodbye to all my new friends and stepped off the train for my next adventure. Stay tuned! (unfortunately it will be longer because I spent 10 days in the Ukraine and visited three cities.)

Monday, July 05, 2004

Trip report - Belarus

6/29/04 –7/4/04

Photos may be viewed at

Where to start? This is the first of three trip reports to be written on my 3-week trip to Eastern Europe. There were three ex-Soviet countries in E. Europe that I needed to run in my ongoing quest to run a marathon in every country in Europe.

I had met some good contacts last year while running the Belgrade Marathon in Serbia and this spring decided to follow up to see if they could help me. Out of four contacts -only one responded to my emails – a runner in Moldova who worked for the Moldova Sports Federation. He promised to help me find marathons in Belarus and Ukraine and confirmed that there were no ‘official’ marathons in Moldova but he would help me run a solo marathon in that country. When we moved to our summer home in Colorado in early May I got real serious in my efforts to arrange a single trip that would complete all three countries. A friend/runner in Latvia informed me that there was a marathon in Minsk, Belarus in early July and my friend in Moldova was able to find a small marathon in Rivne, Ukraine in mid-July. I had enough general information to start planning the trip.

But then the problems and worries began. All three countries do not make it easy for tourists to visit. They require a visa to enter the country and in order to get a visa you must have a ‘letter of invitation’. The letter of invitation is typically from a local citizen or the hotel where you are staying but it must be submitted on the appropriate ‘official’ government form. If you have lots of time it may be easier to obtain a visa but by now it was the end of May and I had to leave at the end of June for the first marathon. I was almost ready to give up because of all the problems I was having trying to book hotels, etc. when fortunately I found a travel agency in Atlanta that specialized in travel to Russia and the former Soviet countries. In desperation I handed the whole trip over to this agency including the visas. It cost me a lot more money because the agency charged a fee to process the visas. In fact the three visas cost me about $550 (US) which would have killed the trip if I did not need those countries to complete my goal.

However the agency did earn their money by getting all three visas in a very limited time and they were able to make all my hotel reservations and even book and purchase train tickets between and within the countries – and that cannot be done from the USA. The tickets must be purchased in the specific country where the train ride begins. Two days before I was scheduled to depart my passport finally arrived with the three visas but I still did not have confirmation of some hotels and train tickets for the final few weeks of the trip. The travel agency assured me that the train tickets and final itinerary would be waiting for me at my first hotel in Minsk? Hey! I had visas to get into the countries and I had dates and places for three marathons – so I left on June 29th!

After 24 hours of airplanes and airports I arrived in Minsk, Belarus. Since the airport is located about 45km outside the city I had arranged for a private car to pick me up. I did not want to hassle with a Russian taxi driver than spoke no English and would be trying to screw me. Smart move! Because July 3rd is the National Independence/Victory Day for Belarus all the hotels in the center of the city were booked and my hotel was on the far side of the city. I would have been easy prey for a taxi driver!

The driver of the private car did not speak English so it was a long boring ride to the hotel since he couldn’t answer any of my questions about what I was seeing? The hotel was a one-star hotel on the north east side of Minsk that was used by local businessmen. Bad news – nobody in the hotel spoke English. Good news – the hotel was located right next to the last metro station of one line so I had easy access to the city. And cheap – a metro ticket cost 250 rubles (about 12 cents) to go anywhere in the city. Now I only had to figure out how to use it and where to go. With limited Russian and a lot of sign language I was able to ask the front desk clerk who spoke limited English which metro stop I needed for the city center. Since all the signs and directions were in Russian/Cyrillic that I could not make any sense of I just counted the number of stations to my destination(s) and made sure I didn’t fall asleep or get distracted. After a few days I was able to navigate my way around the metro and city with ease although I still couldn’t read or make sense of any of the signs.

Since I had arrived around 4pm on June 29th I forced myself to stay awake until about
9 pm and then I went to bed and crashed for 12 hours. On Thu morning I wanted to do an easy run to remind my legs why we were there. Since I couldn’t ask the front desk where to run I just took off from the hotel in the direction of a river I had seen and in spite of some very strange/curious looks from the locals I enjoyed a pleasant 5-mile run! Then it was time for breakfast – oh yummy – the standard European breakfast – pickled herring, assorted meats and vegetables and bread. The bread was wonderful and fortunately there was some cornflakes and milk which was all I needed. I could never get used to eating that other stuff!

Now it was time to explore the city. My guidebook indicated that there was a tourist office in the city center. Hopefully someone there could speak English and give me some help? After taking the metro to the city center and much walking around I finally found the tourist office – and there was one lady who spoke English. She sold me a city map for $2 and gave me lots of information. The banners plastered all around the city with ‘1944 –2004’ were for the 60th anniversary of Independence Day. There is no tourist infrastructure in the city or the country and no ‘canned’ city tours but I was able to book a private guide and car for Fri. Then the last and most important question – the reason I was there: “How do I get to the Olympic Sports Center for the race registration”? Unfortunately the Sports Center was located in the eastern suburbs and the metro didn’t go that far so she told me which tram to take from the city center. I figured I might as well get the primary task over with so I found the tram and headed east. After 30 minutes I was getting concerned that I had missed the Sports Center? But the worst thing that could happen is that I loop back to the city center and try again? Fortunately about 5 minutes later I noticed a huge sports complex and decided that had to be it and got off the tram. Another 5 minutes later I found the small room in the center where race registration was held. It was staffed by one volunteer who couldn’t speak English so I showed him my passport and he gave me my race number. I then paid him 10,000 rubles ($4.50) for the entry fee that included the race number, a T-shirt, finisher’s medal and diploma! Wish the race directors in the US would take note – instead of the $50 to $100 they charge here?

I had many questions to ask about the logistics of the race but the volunteer could not answer any (since he couldn’t understand me) so I left him with my phone number and asked that the race director call me. I also got the home number for the race director (Aleksandr Kizil). I called him later that afternoon and he advised me that he spoke very limited English and asked that I meet him at the Sports Center on Fri at 2 pm when he could bring along a translator. The rest of the day I spent exploring the city on foot and shopping for my standard souvenirs. There is not much to see!

The tour guide and driver picked me up at my hotel on Fri morning to tour the city. We drove past many of the buildings/sites that I had explored on foot. The guide was a university teacher (English) and spoke good English so I was able to get answers to a lot of my questions during the tour. Minsk and most of the cities/towns in Belarus were completely destroyed during WWII and 25% of the population of Belarus was killed by the Germans. Thus there are very few ‘old’ buildings in Minsk and the Belarusians have very little love for Germans. After the war Minsk was rebuilt by the Soviets in the ‘grand’ Stalinist style with large, ubiquitous gray concrete high-rises. The apartment buildings are called ‘Khrushchev apartments’ – 4 to 5 story ugly concrete buildings with no imagination and very small apartments. Most of the residents bought their apartments from the government when Belarus declared independence from the USSR in1991. The economy is in bad shape and many of the citizens long/wish to go back to the ‘good old days’ and become part of Russia again. The government is communist and corrupt and in fact the guide was very upset by a declaration in the paper that day that the KGB was being given an ‘open door policy’ i.e. they could enter any home or building in the country without any notice or a warrant? “Where is our freedom and independence”? he asked.

The guide showed me all the important sites and buildings in Minsk: a few old churches that survived the war, the Hero-City Monument, the Island of Tears (an island/monument/memorial for the vets of Afghanistan) and Victory Square –“the holiest place in Minsk”. It is a monument and square in the center of the old city dedicated to the victory over the Germans. He also showed me an old farmhouse near the city center where all the charter members of the USSR met in 1922 to form the USSR. Right next to that museum is an apartment building where Lee Harvey Oswald lived. Like most people I thought/assumed that he lived in Moscow? Although there weren’t many ‘touristy’ things to see in Minsk I appreciated the history lesson and cultural information provided by the guide.

Later that day I had to make my way back out to the Sports Center to meet the race director. He had asked a friend who worked as a translator for a local company to volunteer to translate for us. The race director welcomed me to Minsk and informed me that I was the first American to run the marathon. I had several logistical questions such as: “where does the race start, when, how I do get there”? etc. He answered most of them but I was concerned because his standard answer was to show up at the sports center at 2 pm and he would make sure I got to the start line at Victory Square at 4 pm. Right? He doesn’t speak English and he will be very busy? But at least I had a good idea of what was happening, where and when. Time to find a restaurant for my standard pre-race pasta dinner. Easier said than done. I had already learned that the standard food in Belarus was meat and potatoes – there was very little rice or pasta on the menu – when I could read a menu.

But I was lucky to find a small pasta restaurant near the city center that served pizza and spaghetti. However the race didn’t start until 4pm on Sat so that meant I would have to eat lunch the next day before the race. And what would I do until 4 pm? No problem. Both the guide and translator had told me that Sat was Independence Day and the whole day would be filled with parades, concerts and celebrations. The marathon had originally been scheduled to start at 9am but was changed to 4 pm because of the morning parade.

So on Sat morning I got up – had another wonderful breakfast – and took the Metro into the city center. All public transportation was free on Sat so that all citizens could enjoy the Independence Day celebrations – and the metro was packed! When I emerged from the metro there had to be a least ½ million people making there way to the hill where the Minsk Hero-City Monument is located. The parade was a typical Communist/Soviet military parade. Half (or all) of the Belarus military marched by the podium with all the dignitaries and military brass followed by military equipment – jeeps, tanks, missile launchers, etc – while Migs , attack helicopters, etc flew overhead! After a few hours I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to find the pizza restaurant and have a pizza for lunch.

Then it was time to go back to the hotel to pick up my bag and gear and head for the Sports Center. I arrived at the Sports center at 2pm as requested and eventually found Mr. Kizil who showed me where the men’s locker room was. However by the time I changed and came back up to the lobby he was gone? I wasn’t surprised. So I approached another runner/marathoner and asked him where I could store my bag. He didn’t understand me but he understood what I needed and kindly led me to the equipment room. I then asked him how he was getting to the start. Again he understood what I needed and indicated for me to follow him and a few friends. We walked about a mile through alleys and side streets to the nearest metro station and took the Metro to the start line at Victory Square. In very limited English he told me that he had been in the same predicament last year when he ran the Toronto marathon and some kind runner had taken him under his wing and guided him to the start line. He was returning the favor. We tried to converse but I think he knew about 20 words of English and I knew about 5 words of Russian so the conversation was short.

When we emerged from the metro at Victory Square there were about 100,000 people gathered around the square. Our fans? Hardly! There was a concert in the square. There were 130 runners in the marathon and about another 100 in the Half so we gathered together off to the side and waited for the start. There were only two port-o-potties for the runners (and 100,00 party goers) so I found a tree in a nearby park for my last minute duties. The good news was that it was the hottest part of the day so I wasn’t cold waiting for the start. The bad news was that the first half of the race would be very warm. The race started promptly at 4 pm. The traffic was stopped and one side of the main street was closed down. 100,000 fans cheered us on as we started east on the main street and out of the city. The road was closed down for the first 5 km but around 8km the road became a 4-lane divided highway to goes east to Moscow and at that point we were required to move to the shoulder of the highway and the traffic resumed driving by at 100+ kph. And there was very little (or NO) traffic control beyond that point. I was concerned about safety so I decided to stay with a small group of runners in front of me – safety in numbers? They were running faster than I wanted to but I still felt that I needed to stay with a group of locals that hopefully knew the rules of the jungle?

I also hadn’t seen any water stations or distance markers at that point and began to think that perhaps they should have doubled the entry fee to provide some water, markers and traffic control? Finally we reached the first water station. A sign said 10km – but my time was only 45:30 and if the marker was correct my pace was much too fast! Took my first gel and washed it down with – sparkling water! I hate sparkling water! But at least it was bottled water and I had no choice – other than to die from dehydration. The course was much hillier than I expected. There were several long rolling hills but I managed to stay with my little group. We reached another marker (15km) and water at 1:12:05. That seemed more reasonable so I decided I would stay with my group though the first Half at least. There was no marker for 20km or the Half so I stayed with my group as we made a turn in the middle of the Moscow Highway about 23km and finally there was another water station and marker at 25km. Time 2:03:10. We were running a sub-8 minute pace so I decided that I needed to back off for a few miles because I didn’t think I could hold that pace for another 17km with the hills and the heat.

So I backed off to an 8-min pace for the next 5km and kept the group within sight. Reached 30km at 2:28:57. I was feeling better and it had finally started to cool down so I was thinking that I would stay behind the group until 35km and then make a push to catch them. But at that moment a runner blew by me and he looked like he might be in my age group! Crap! If he can run that fast so can I. So I picked up my pace and dropped in behind him. Damn – this guy is moving! We passed my old group and reached 35km in 2:51:10. No way I can hold this maniacal pace for another 7km so I reluctantly decide to let him go and try to keep him in sight. Fortunately it started to rain lightly which helped to cool down the temps so I was able to stay close but I knew I couldn’t catch him unless he faded badly. Around 37km we turned off the Moscow Hwy and headed into the suburbs towards the finish at the sports Center. I was hurting badly myself and almost got run over by a car as a crossed the road in a curve to shorten the course. “Pay attention Maddog” – you do not want to spend time in a Belarus hospital!

I still had my competitor in sight as I reached 40km in 3:16:13. But I was really hurting. I probably would have walked at that point except that I knew a sub 3:30 marathon was in the bag if I just kept running. So I used every last once of will power to overcome the pain in my body and the ‘deadness’ in my legs to keep the old bod moving. Finally I could see the Sports Center and the old bod gave me a final jolt of adrenaline as I entered the stadium and sprinted a final lap around the track to cross the finish line in 3:27:00. I finished about 30 secs behind that guy who I later learned was in the 5-54 age group. I had actually won my age group by more than 20 minutes which is surprising because the European runners are good!

After a quick shower I retraced the path to the metro and took the metro to the city center. My plan/idea was to find a nice sidewalk café in the city center, drink a few beers, eat dinner and watch the celebrations. Yeh- right! When I emerged from the metro there must have been a MILLION people in the city center. It was wall-to wall people on the streets. Even the beer kiosks had lines a block long! I wasn’t in the mood for lines and crowds so I decided to walk a few blocks and if I couldn’t find a seat in a cafe I would go back to the hotel to eat. Luck was with me as I found a nice café on the main street with one small empty table outside. Unfortunately the restaurant didn’t have an English menu and the waitress and I had great difficulty trying to communicate. This problem was a source of laughter for a couple of young beautiful ladies at the next table who finally came to my rescue. They were university students and spoke excellent English so they helped me order my beer and a steak dinner.

On Sun I had to catch a train at 12:40pm that would take 25 hours to travel from Minsk through the Ukraine to Chisinau, Moldova. Since the train ticket was in Russian the travel agent had written the pertinent information in English for me – train #, coach #, seat # and departure time. All I needed to know was the track #. Thus I took a taxi to the train station about one hour before departure time so that I would have lots of time to find my train. Should be simple? Wrong! When I looked at the station monitor (all in Russian except numbers) there were two numbers beside my train number? One should be the track number but what the hell is that other number? I tried to ask a few young people in the hopes that they would speak English – no luck! Finally I found a young teenage boy and handed him my ticket and pointed to the monitor. He didn’t speak English but he understood my need and led me over to ‘gate 1’ and pointed to ‘track 1’. Sure enough my train pulled into that track about 15 minutes later. I found my coach – showed my ticket to the conductor who didn’t speak English but she nodded that I was in the right place. I found my first class sleeper cabin – put my baggage away – and waited for the train to depart and start my next adventure.

Stay tuned! (It will be shorter – I promise!)