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Fantastic Voyage

Europe’s getting big on corridors. In fact, transport corridors have made many a headline in recent years and Ukraine is part of the circuit. The EU alone is planning 10 corridors, one of them to link with TRACECA, the Central Europe to Central Asia corridor.

This is what the US and Canada did in the early Sixties. They built a vast transcontinental network the Americans called the National Defense System. Prior to that, it was mostly a viper’s tangle of two-lane highways that made travelling worse than going to the dentist for a root canal.

A 360-mile trip like Montreal to Toronto took 12-13 hours in 1962. You could rarely go over 40 mph and passing was often impossible. In 1960, Canadians had to drive through Minnesota to get from Ontario to Manitoba. That’s sort of what it’s like in Ukraine today. It takes an ordinary driver nearly 7 hours to drive to L’viv*, which is only 300 miles from Kyiv. Yet the Montreal-Toronto trip takes just over 5 hours by car today.**

The resulting web of interstates opened places like Wyoming and its jackalopes to the world of truckers and trailers. It put Idaho and Lake Superior on the map.

Everybody in Ukraine loves to remind everybody else that Ukraine is on the crossroads to everywhere. But everybody else perceives Ukraine as terribly far away from everything.

Wrong. Ukraine is only one time zone away from France. It’s about 630 miles from Kyiv to Vienna. This is much less than Washington to Chicago, Edmonton to Vancouver, or Baltimore to Birmingham. And it’s about the same as Vienna to Paris.

The entire trip from Paris to Kyiv is like driving from Detroit to Denver or Buffalo to Miami. Except that you get to cross at least three countries on the way – Poland, Germany and Belgium, or Hungary, Austria and Germany, or Slovakia, Czechia and Germany – take your pick. Going the other way, this same distance takes you from Kyiv to Baku.

It’s a two-day trip by car – if you had something like I-80 or Germany’s Autobahn to do it on. You don’t, but that’s about to change.

Now, the Detroit-Denver trip, as any retired American in an RV will tell you, is “flatter ’n a pancake,” with nothing but Motel 6s and “attractions” like Corn Palaces on the way. If it weren’t for the roads, no one would do it.

And that’s the point, ain’t it?

If you had the roads, the Kyiv trips would take you through beautiful mountains and rolling rivers, past thousands of years of European and Caucasian history and half a dozen famous towns.

Going east, you could see exotic places like Sochi and Sukhumi on the Black Sea through the Caucasus to Tbilisi. Or you could go through Russia’s sun belt, Krasnodarskiy Krai, to Chechnya and through the mountains to Tbilisi and Baku.

The ultimate destination is the California Dream of the 21st century – China.

Imagine the possibilities.

You pack up your sturdy, souped-up 2005 Daimler-Chrysler RV. It’s got the built-in wide screen satellite TV with Internet and PlayStation 5. There’s a kitchenette with microwave everything, a UV shower (doesn’t need water) and compact super-foam bed. Photosensitive windows to climate control your interior. The whole hog.

You log your car computer onto the TRACECA mapping system. Going through Kerch is somewhat out of the way. Besides, you’ve been to Crimea for the weekend twice this year. The war in Chechnya is a distant memory and the new international highway has given Chechens access to more than just Russia. Oil transit has brought them billions to rebuild their mountain economy. Nowadays, they’re billing Chechnya as a tourism hot-spot, complete with mountain day-trips and a Grozny Battlefield Museum. So you decide to do Kyiv-Rostov-Grozny-Baku.

The Krasnodar Valley is on the way, where there are U-pick berry farms and vineyards. Somebody told you there’s a great new microbrewery not far from Stavropol, so you’ve decided to stop along the way and sample the goods.

You’ve heard great things about Georgia, starting with John Steinbeck’s Russian Journals, so Tbilisi is a major must-see on the way. Georgian hospitality is legend and you can’t wait to see the Caucasus, especially the place where Prometheus was supposedly chained to his rock for giving humans the gift of fire. You’ve always been a mythology nut, so this will be the highlight of your trip.

Baku’s only 300 miles east of Tbilisi and the road cuts through some impressive passes. Baku used to be a nasty mafia town under the post-communist guard, but Geydar Aliyev’s grandson has been changing things since the old man died in 2003. Oil revenues have been trickling down to the average Azeri and life is better than anyone can remember. Best of all, the refineries have been complying with EU standards in hopes of accession some time in 2010. So the air is pretty good now.

The real reason you’re doing Baku is that you want to check out the new high-speed ferry to Krasnovodsk, in Turkmenistan. Word is that the Caspian has been really cleaned up and the sunsets are spectacular over this huge inland sea.

If it looks as good as they say, you might try the whole trip next year: Krasnovodsk, Ashkhabad, Kabul, ending at Kashgar in the Tien Shan mountains. In China.

There’s even a special deal for tourists that would get you back home from there: ship-and-fly for the same as the cost of gas one way.

Imagine the possibilities! •

* if you care about your axles and don’t drive a Merc 600.
** keeping to speed limits.

(Originally published in Eastern Economist March 10, 2002)

Published on 09/07/2005



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