Ukraine is not an obvious choice for a daytrip from Bratislava. For a start, it is a long way: more than 500km. For another thing, getting there is not straightforward. (There is also the small matter of 'why?', but we shall address that later.)
By rail, there is a break of gauge where the wheels of trains coming from western Europe must be changed to allow them to run on the wider tracks of the former Soviet Union. This is an interesting process for the technically-minded but, along with the lengthy border formalities, makes for a ponderously slow crossing.
By car or bus, the queues at the border are notorious. There are no regular flights from Slovakia to Ukraine.
The answer? Train and bicycle.
Or so I thought. As it turned out, this is probably not the answer. Exactly what is still eludes me. But, for the record, here is an account of my experience.
The 'Zemplín' train, with couchettes and sleeper wagons, makes the trip from Bratislava to Humenné every night, arriving at around 8am. Mist was rising from the fields of eastern Slovakia in the early morning sunlight as my companions for most of the journey, a friendly young couple from Michalovce, regaled me with tales of the roads in Ukraine ('like being in Africa'), the border crossing ('hours of delays') and bade me farewell with heartfelt wishes that I would not be robbed or mugged. So far, so discouraging.
From Humenné, a local train carried me at what seemed like only slightly faster than walking pace to Stakčín, from where the Ukrainian border near Ubľa is an easy 20km ride through the rolling Bukov Hills. A side road through Klenová avoids most of the main road, though even that was very quiet on a Saturday morning.
The border crossing is small but officious: the Slovak official gave me a suspicious look, then wandered off with my passport, emerging a few minutes later absent-mindedly scratching his backside with it as he chatted to a friend on his mobile. It was finally returned to me with a smirk.
Heavy traffic near Perechyn, Ukraine
Photos by James Thomson
His Ukrainian counterpart, after pulling me from the queue and ushering me into the seclusion of his booth ('here we go...', I thought - unfairly as it turned out) proceeded to question me at some length about my plans. My protestations, in garbled Russian, that I was a tourist and proposed to cycle to Uzhgorod (the nearest large town) were met with incredulity.
But my plan so far had paid off: arriving by bike had allowed me to skirt the (admittedly fairly short) queue of cars waiting to cross. After much rueful shaking of heads by Ukrainian officials in a variety of colourful uniforms and large hats I was waved through.
Almost immediately, a change is noticeable: the houses are similar to Slovakia, but generally in a poorer condition. One catches a whiff of an aroma that defines the former Soviet Union: the sweet smell of unburnt petrol, from a million poorly tuned engines running on low-grade fuel.
While it seems safe to say that Ukraine is not about to win any awards for laying smooth tarmac, the main road south to Uzhgorod was a relatively easy ride and the 'African' description seemed hardly justified. The main scenery consisted of villagers working on their smallholdings next to it.
The almost flat road through the Carpathians follows the broad valley of the River Uzh past a series of dusty, neglected-looking towns and villages. The biggest, Perechyn, has a well-preserved Soviet univermag (department store) that looks as though it last opened for business in around 1989. Opposite it is an apartment block of sufficiently imaginative design and quality to be a legacy from the Czechoslovak First Republic.
Feeling underdressed? An Uzhgorod wedding party.
Photos by James Thomson
Because, of course, this whole region - Podkarpatská Rus as it was then known; now the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine - was part of Czechoslovakia between 1918 and 1939. For anyone with an interest in history, this is one of the reasons to visit. In common with the Baltic republics and what was once eastern Poland (now part of Belarus and western Ukraine) it offers an opportunity to compare how areas once governed from the west fared once they came under direct administration from Moscow.
The results are sobering. Reaching Uzhgorod, some buildings have a familiar pre-1918, Habsburg appearance. But many are in a ruinous condition. The centre of town is quite appealing, if decidedly run-down. Given its pleasant riverside position, something which a number of outdoor bars take advantage of during the summer, it could be extremely nice. It even has a castle.
But it has clearly seen little of the attention lavished on town centres by civic-minded leaders the length and breadth of Slovakia. Michalovce, the nearest Slovak town, lacks any of its physical attributes but has contrived to create an appealing town centre promenade, with trees and fountains, which feels a world away from Uzhgorod - despite being just 30km distant.
The former Baťa shoe store, the most obvious Czechoslovak architectural legacy in the centre of Uzhgorod, facing the river, now hosts a perfume shop, gaming parlour and mobile phone store, replete with gaudy billboards.
I enjoyed a passable pizza at Astika, a restaurant in the centre, before witnessing a wedding party emerge from one of the town's best-preserved buildings, the seventeenth-century Greek Catholic cathedral.
Uzhgorod's seventeenth-century cathedral.
Photos by James Thomson
If the church was impressive, the bridal party was even more so: the bride was dressed (if that is the word) in an almost entirely transparent outfit, with brief lacework covering up the strategic bits, while her groom sported a white silk morning suit. As I gazed around, open-mouthed, I noticed that no one else in Uzhgorod seemed at all taken aback by the spectacle.
Sadly, the daytrip clock was ticking and I made for the border, on the edge of town - where my queue-jumping plans came unstuck.
Despite this being the main crossing between the two countries, the money-changers loitering near the border told me that pedestrians and cyclists were not allowed to use it. I ignored them, only for a Ukrainian border guard 50 metres further on to confirm what they'd said. Needless to say, there was no notice to this effect.
Fortuitously, a Slovak bus turned up whose friendly driver quickly grasped my predicament and agreed to let me stow my bike and travel across as a passenger in exchange for a small emolument. The bus ride turned out to be a useful illustration of the everyday frustrations of people trying to cross the border.
No one was making quick progress. On the Slovak side, Ukrainian vehicles were being literally dismantled, presumably in a search for smuggled goods. People's passports (mine included) were held, without explanation, for more than two hours. As the bus finally left, the queue of trucks waiting to cross into Ukraine was visible through the gloaming, almost 3km long.
The train (the 'Zemplín' again, on its return leg) carried me and my bicycle from Michalovce back to Bratislava, arriving, my dreams filled with border guards and semi-naked brides, in the early morning.