If I was to drive around the world, I am sure I would see some amazing sites and go on some amazing roads, but I would definitely remember the stage Kharkiv to Donetsk.
In fact, I have been disappointed in this blog so far as I feel that it has been a bit dull – Today certainly made up for it!
Now driving 13 hours through South Africa for a 90 minute FIFA World Cup game is one thing. Driving 30 hours from the Midlands where I live in England to Italy to cover a Serie A game is another. However driving four hours from Kharkiv to Donetsk was hard, real driving experience, involving immense concentration.
Being a man of the Shire from Shropshire I am kind of used to some hard country drives with lots of twists and turns. That was nothing though to compared to this.
Despite all the hype and stories you hear to make you feel uncomfortable driving in the country like the Police stop you for bribes, stop you for not obeying the speed limit, stopping at signs etc the locals drive like mad crazy fools and the Police are the last of your worries.
The best way to describe the trip is in three parts.
The first was driving on the most uneven road surface ever. The road resembled a patterned quilt. The once virgin tarmac now plastered up with quite literally thousands of squares of repairs. In the summer the road melts in 30C+ temperatures. With heavy lorries running on it, it is not surprising that it buckles and re-shapes itself. Then in the cold bleak winter, the road freezes resulting in moon like craters – more about them in a little while!
Our hire car is new and modern, but even so we were thrown about despite suspension systems doing their best to absorbe the bumpy road surface.
Then there were the craters in the road. These were more than pot holes. The three lanes became one big rat race with cars driving in both directions trying to avoid one another and not go down the pot holes.
Being a sunny day, sometimes it was easy to judge if the broken road surface was a little hole or something that would instantly resort in writing the car off. But to contrast this, sometimes crashing in to an oncoming vehicle seemed a safer option than going over the deep shadowy nasty pot holes.
Despite the road, the surrounding area was magnificent.
Unused factories and self built houses that certainly would not impress Kevin McCloud from Channel 4’s Grand Designs and make every day Christmas for the average UK council building regulation chief were on either side of the road.
Then wide open spaces and then long, very long avenues of trees resembling French Avenues to the Ukraine’s answer to Death Valley.
Today we saw people over taking people over taking them with oncoming lorries thundering towards them on the other side of the road.
With stereotypical Ukrainian farmers walking cattle through town, old ladies in fields picking strawberries, this trip was certainly not boring.
We certainly knew we were not far from the Russian border.
There was certainly a reminder of the old communist regime. Concerete sculptures with cold war jet aircraft coming out of them.
Stunning sculptures remembering 800,000 Russians who died in the Great Patriotic War from one region alone.
Hammer and sickle monuments 50 feet high on the road side.
Sometimes 100 foot high walls with gigantic lettering on them proclaiming districts or names of towns in Russian lettering. There was too much to see almost and I personally have another three trips to make and all of us who are normally depressive football photographers when it comes to holiday photography, energise into nothing enthusiasm for tourist snapping over the next week or so!
Usually camera batteries are charged up for big games. Our batteries will be charged up for these long road trips next time. However at the moment we don’t know exactly where we went or where they are! We can’t read the Russian maps and the media helpers in the stadium will have to assist once more.
The final third was prime, flat roadway. I don’t hate the Ukraine. It’s certainly not like Nigeria but equally it’s not the kind of place I would personally want return to here on Wizz Air to show my friends and family.
That was until we got to Donetsk. A city founded by a Welshman called John Hughes, it is a major economic growth centre of the country. And upon arrival we certainly saw a difference in the roads, pavements, houses and general well-being.
Now, I have been to lots of stadiums all over the world, but one I have always wanted to step inside is the Donbass Arena, home to Shakhtar Donetsk.
Instantly it is a new entry into my top ten world stadiums and I can’t wait to explore it more and the sensational gardens surrounding it later in the month.
Today though we were here for England and France training.
With both teams, we only had 15 minutes to get something, unlike the full training session of the relaxed Dutch the other day.
After sending out all of our pictures it was time for some evening food.
A few other photographers came to our hotel in town and we walked to a nice 5 star hotel with new plasma screens to eat and watch Ireland face Croatia.
The food was good and cheap. The company was great too. It was the first time we had all got together really – that was until a local chap with shoulders as big as footballs and a shaven head walked into the restaurant. He resembled some sort of Russian athlete or Rambo type warrior.
Out of the blue I heard a small bang. My instincts told me something had hit the wall behind Carl but I was unsure. Carl’s face then went white. “I’ve just had a knife thrown at me” he said.
I could not properly comprehend what he said as I looked over to this man who was then given a drink of water by the nice waiter who had severed us. Was he angry we were laughing and talking in a seemingly quiet setting? Was he anti-English or something? Did he not like his equilibrium changed with Euro 2012 in town?
Moments later a drinking glass crashed against one of the TV’s and three of the photographers sitting on our table got up and ran out along with some other people on another table.
What was happening!?!
I then saw another glass being launched at the waitress which smashed the window with immense force. It was time for me to leave too!
Some nasty looking heavies – hotel security – came in and soon the Ukraine Police arrived and took the man away in a Lada.
During our meal an Ukrainian Juliet Bravo took pictures of the hole in the window with a Polaroid Camera and then some other men appeared too.
Everything returned back to normality as Croatia beat the Irish 3-1. The Wolves players playing for Ireland, showing why Wolves had got relegated this season.
We took pictures ourselves of the hole in the window – after being given complementary pens, I guess as an apology for the mad man throwing knives and glasses it was time for sleep.
We all went our separate ways with me and Carl discussing the possibility of exploring the “Red Riviera” – the south coast and Black Sea part of the country.