The objective of today was to make it to our accommodation in Ukraine before curfew at 11 pm. Ideally we would be there before sunset. After all: driving after dark in a country understandably concerned about invasion and therefore pock-marked by machine-gun-toting youths feels at best ill-advised.

Our plan was to be up at 6 and leave at about 6.30 (before breakfast again!). We were in fact both awake not long after 5 and set off shortly thereafter. Arriving late and setting off early allows us to cover a lot of territory but is certainly very tiring …

According to the internet Brașov is a beautiful city, ringed by the Carpathian Mountains with Saxon walls, colourful baroque buildings and a thriving cafe scene. Whilst we have both left Brașov determined to return we are unable to verify any of this. In our experience Brașov is in fact dark, fog-shrouded and relatively quiet. Sadly this trip was never about the sight-seeing!

We really aren’t joking when we say that it was dark and foggy when we set off!

Thankfully by mid-morning the mist cleared and whilst most of our driving thus far has been on motorways, today’s driving in Romania was entirely on normal roads, passing through charming villages (and generally less-charming towns), losing count of the number of times that we saw horses and carts and enjoying gorgeous views of the Romanian countryside. This is definitely a country to visit again.

Then followed the first of our border crossings. Our last interaction with a Romanian was with a jolly customs officer who asked us for a transit declaration. We pointed out that we hadn’t needed one when we entered Romania and so were puzzled as to why we needed one to leave. He quickly clarified that he meant for Moldova, not Romania, he was just asking to ensure that we were prepared. No, we don’t have one of those either. He looked surprised, chuckled, wished us luck and waved us on our way.

Immediately upon arrival in Moldova a customs officer asked us about our transit declaration then directed us to the far side of the large customs area where dozens of lorries were parked. We were instructed to locate a customs broker there who would assist us in obtaining the required declaration. With somewhat sinking hearts and an eye on the clock (it was now about midday and the border to Ukraine was at least a three hour drive away) we did as instructed.

We found a customs broker called Edward who thankfully spoke a little English. Edward is a huffer and a puffer. We didn’t have the required documents. We did not have invoices for the goods we were carrying. We did not have their values. He would do what he could and we started to improvise (by taking the Ukrainian customs declaration that we are prepared in advance and annotating that with values etc). Edward huffed and puffed characteristically and added tapping to his repertoire as he started the process of completing the requisite online form. Then bad news. With only about 2 minutes left to go (he said) his computer froze. He could not complete the work. We would have to find a second broker, start the process again and no he wouldn’t explain where he had got to to one of his colleagues.

It transpired that Edward was the only broker who spoke even a little English (Romanian and Russian were the preferred languages). Most were not prepared even to acknowledge our existence when tapping on their windows. Time was slipping away too fast. We had an idea. One of the people whose donations we were carrying – Ilya – speaks Russian. Could we call him and have him intercede?

Ilya – bless him – was very happy to help and immediately leapt into action speaking to the broker who was at least making eye contact. Sadly she didn’t speak Russian. A passing lorry driver, however, spoke both Russian and Romanian. If we spoke to Ilya he could speak to the driver, the driver could speak to the broker and messages could also be passed in reverse. Not ideal but needs must …

This rather ridiculous situation was halted when the driver’s own broker (a Russian speaker) agreed to take us on. He was shortly to wish that he hadn’t. Some two hours later he had successfully negotiated a customs fee of less than £5 (and his own fee of €40 in cash …). We were through.

Negotiating the transit declaration fee

Although Moldova’s countryside has a spare beauty the roads in Moldova started badly.

Driving through the Moldovan countryside

Poor Jenny’s new suspension was properly put to the test; although after about 10 miles the roads inexplicably improved. Then worsened suddenly, improved again and so on. It seemed that whenever we drove through towns (much like eastern Romania there are no by-passes, motorways or dual carriageways here) the quality plummeted, though was generally better in the countryside.

One of the rougher stretches of road!

The sun set and that didn’t improve matters as Moldova’s street lighting is hugely poor. A police car that followed us for a spell whilst Dominic was driving and then put on its blue flashing lights did nothing for us either – although we were hugely relieved when we pulled over and it shot past. We arrived at the border with Ukraine shortly before 6 pm and joined a queue of about 15 vehicles.

Welcome back to the wonderful world of post-Soviet administrative complexity. The Moldovan customs crawled all over poor Jenny and had questions that had never come up on entry to Moldova and even though we clearly had all of the correct documentation. The Moldovan border police likewise. The Ukrainians then took their turn. Notwithstanding that we had been assured that we would not need an original letter from a group in Ukraine inviting us to import Jenny that was exactly what the Ukrainians insisted on receiving.

We were fortunate (in a manner of speaking!) that the Ukrainian customs officers were hugely jolly people. Whilst it was clear that they had certain requirements that needed to be met they were also keen to try to get us through. The time was now approaching 7.30 pm. Ivan, our AirBnB host in Mayaky just inside Ukraine told us that last orders in Ukraine restaurants is at 8.30 pm and they close at 9.30 pm in order to allow all staff to be home by the time that curfew starts at 11.

The temperature was dropping, it was pitch dark and no progress appeared to be being made. We had a scan of the invitation letter but not the original. Sometimes a colour print of the scan would suffice but the customs officers only had a black and white printer. Our jolly Ukrainian customs officers, however, seemed to be relenting ever so slightly. We sent the scanned contract by WhatsApp to one of them. Photos of the aid were taken.

8 pm passed. 9 pm. Dominic was working his considerable charm. The Ukrainian stance seemed to ease slightly. Fraught attempts to provide additional information from the Ukrainian group running the aid programme (thank you Liza!) finally completed the puzzle. The Ukrainian customs process was complete – it was nearly 10 pm. Passport checks were blessedly relatively swift, so too the pre-release double checks and final process with the Ukrainian military. We were off.

When we arrived this area was pretty much full …

Fortunately our home for the night was only about 20 minutes’ drive away – and our lovely host Ivan was waiting at a key junction to guide us through a rather complicated gated estate to our gorgeous riverside property – an absolute steal at £45 for the night. Ivan had even provided food for us (chicken nuggets, chips and some kind of mystery wraps!).

What a day. Nearly half of it spent navigating customs frustrations but we’re here. We’ve made it to Ukraine.

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