Some things are more important than road trips. While driving places may be fun, the true benefits of adventures can run much deeper, for there are few better ways of understanding the world we live in. This month, ClassicLine’s resident roadtripper Ben Coombs from Pub2Pub gazes back upon a drive he made in 2013.
The mottled tarmac stretched away to the eastern horizon, traversing a flat, colourless landscape of samey farmland. Overhead, the sky was a sheet of uniform grey through which the sun struggled to penetrate, and the air was cold and still. I was a few weeks into a drive from the UK to Singapore, and my shock n’awe Corvette C4 growled away around me, its thunderous exhaust echoing across the empty landscape as occasionally a sign indicating a turn-off flashed by – Makariv, Hostomel Airport, Irpin. The places were just words to us, quickly forgotten in our dash along the road to the east. Even the city we were driving towards was relatively unknown to us. Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine; another stop-off on our drive to South East Asia, somewhere to park my Corvette and my travelling companion’s ’78 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow and spend a few days as tourists before pushing on with our frivolous adventure.
But to give our location only tells part of the story, because as any physicist or Delorean enthusiast will tell you, our existence occurs in four dimensions, with our wristwatches being the final determinant of where we stand in time and space. And that afternoon, when the sun finally broke through the clouds and flooded the landscape with golden light, and Ukraine stole our hearts by showing us its winning charm for the first time, the time of our visit was all important.
It was on the 14th April 2013 that we found ourselves gazing upon Kyiv’s magnificent Maidan Nezalezhnosti – its Independence Square. And as both history and hindsight tell us, it was our good fortune to be there at that moment in time, for while our visit saw history hanging softly over the city, it hadn’t always been so. For instance:
Were we there 75 years earlier, we would have witnessed Stalin’s purges, and the aftermath of the devastating Holodomor famine he’d unleashed upon Ukraine.
Seventy-two years earlier, Nazi Germany had laid siege to the very ground I stood on, the names of their victims running well into six figures.
If the clock had read 27 years earlier, I would have found myself in a city of fear, as to the north, the nuclear plant at Chernobyl went into meltdown.
And a mere 22 years earlier, I would have witnessed Ukraine declare independence, finally escaping from the influence of the imploding USSR.
Good fortune had led me to visit this often-unfortunate city at a time of quiet, a time of peace. But such times should never be taken for granted.
Seven months and seven days after my visit, the square in which we stood became the focus of pro-Europe demonstrations and within a year, the square echoed with gunshots as a revolution got underway.
And now, nine years after I passed through as a tourist at the wheel of a garish Corvette, history has once again revisited this unluckiest of cities.
But the Kyiv we saw on those few days in 2013 was a place which defied the odds; a place of happiness and hope. We saw smiling people packing out the laughter-filled bars of the city centre, and children playing on flower-power painted tanks beneath the ‘Defence of the Motherland’ monument which stands guard over the Dniper River. And we saw just how well classic cars can bring people together, as Kyivans took photos of our unusual steeds before shaking our hands and – often in English – welcoming us to their country and asking about our cars, our trip and our lives.
From Kyiv we headed south, motoring along for day after day, already in the road trip groove, two weeks and about 3,000 miles after leaving the UK. Distances were vast. Ukraine is 2½ times larger than the UK, and for days we cruised across the featureless hinterland, always alert for potholes on the quiet roads, and often almost running out of fuel, such were the expanses of nothingness between petrol stations, and our vehicles’ insatiable thirst. And still the reminders that we were passing through charmed times kept coming. In the town of Uman, for instance, the past had not been kind, with the once-17,000-strong Jewish population having been deported to Germany by the Nazis during the Second World War, never to be seen again. But at the time of our visit, Nazism had been extinct for 70 years and the birdsong in the park spoke of peace, the growing Jewish population was safe, the synagogue had been rebuilt and pilgrims flocked from Israel every autumn, in a tradition which went back over 200 years.
Another stop-off was at a more recent piece of history – a mothballed nuclear weapons silo. Buried deep beneath the countryside 100 miles northwest of Mykolaiv, what was once the frontline of Cold War Armageddon was now a museum, and we descended deep underground to tour the long gone world. The fact the launch tubes were now open to tourists was down to trust. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine found itself in possession of the third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons on the planet, but agreed to pass the terrible weapons back to Russia, in return for guarantees that military force would never be used against Ukraine, and the nation’s borders and sovereignty would be respected. This agreement was signed off in the 1994 Budapest Agreement, and at the time of our visit, when we parked our English Rolls and American Corvette near a Soviet T72 tank at the silo, the non-aggression pact was holding firm.
But sadly, times can change.
Nine years since we strolled the underground bunkers and launch tubes as gallivanting tourists, it is likely that the spaces which once held the power to destroy nations had become a place in which civilians seek refuge from the bombshells above.
After a week on the road in Ukraine, we found ourselves nearing the Russian border. But Ukraine had saved its best for last, and as we crossed into the Donbas, the city of Donets’k charmed us with its friendly welcome, sun-dappled avenues and extensive range of memorable bars. There was the Liverpool Hotel, where statues of the Beatles stood watch out front and full English breakfasts headed up the menu, and the John Hughes Bar, named in honour of a Welshman and home to a fine artisan microbrewery. There was a bar with a replica Mustang fighter plane strung from the roof, and another built along a German beer hall theme. It wasn’t remotely what we’d expected to find in this corner of the world, and was made all the more memorable for this.
But the following year, the city would become a front line, the bars falling silent as the shells began to fall. And further on, the border post in Luhansk through which we crossed into Russia would see heavy traffic travelling in the other direction, heavily armed and painted a dark shade of combat green.
At the time of our trip across Ukraine, nine short years ago, the country’s future seemed bright. There was an optimism in the air, a spring in the nation’s step. But if the unlucky history of Ukraine tells us one thing, it’s that nothing is a given. Only with hindsight can we see just how fortunate we were to pass through Ukraine in a lull between the storms. But the thing about storms is that however brutal they seem, and however dark the sky becomes, they always pass eventually. And I look forward to the day when the calm returns and I can revisit this enigmatic country and meet the people once again. Because long after our adventure had faded, this brave nation has remained in our hearts, alongside the eternal hope of peace.