“Driving Lessons in Ukraine”
In the field of military tourism, Ukraine occupies a special niche. This is a country with an active war, after all, and it is also host to an untapped network of Soviet-era missile silos, bases, and arms caches. Ukraine is equally home to a growing cohort of dynamic, youthful, and English-speaking tour operators working in start-up companies.
Drawn by such factors, curiosity-driven travellers are increasingly flocking to this central European destination which is accessible, affordable, and, aside from a pocket in the war-ravaged east, quite safe. The country’s position as an emerging economy means it is possible to pursue experiences here that would be litigated or regulated out of the market elsewhere.
I get an appreciation of this reality when I tag along with Adventure Tours in Ukraine, a seat-of-the-pants start-up, on a mission to Bila Tserkva, an industrial town 70 kilometers south of Kiev. The object of our visit is an active duty military base, where we will be “borrowing” a Soviet Armoured Personnel Carrier (BTR-80).
Alex, our tour guide, rangy, six-foot-something and dressed in second hand fatigues, is a stand-in for a sergeant. Loud and funny, he teaches us how to slide down the emergency firemen’s poles at the base. Also representing Adventure Tours is Svetlana, our civilian driver, a tough-as-cookie Soviet mama who is pushing pension age, but looks younger. Sharjeel, a bespectacled, soft-spoken, Qatari-resident I.T. researcher in his twenties, is a customer.
The armoured vehicle, as it turns out, is a bit of a clunker. Green and squat, it features seats that are a punishment to the ass.There are no seatbelts for passengers, and it is fitted with eight wheels instead of treads. To an observer (say a Ukrainian soldier at the base) we look like a motley gang, but it is I, the Canadian without the driver’s license, who am the real outlier on this expedition. Upon reflection, there are not many countries in the world where a guy without a driving license would be allowed behind the wheel of a BTR, but Ukraine provides this opportunity.
After some introductions are complete, we clamber into the vehicle, where we are chaperoned by three soldiers whom we are “liberating” from the base for the morning. For the first few minutes, as we ride over blacktop through Bila Tserkva, the trip goes smoothly. A soldier drives, and we can’t see much ‘cause there are no windows near the passenger seats. When we reach the edge of the forest, a soldier gets out to remove the chain barrier guarding the entranceway to a steep woodland track. At this point, Alex orders Sharjeel and me onto the roof of the vehicle, and we climb through the hatch and perch precariously on a strip of metal, gripping a handrest with one hand, as the driver nosedives down the battered road. We are heading through a pristine maple forest, and the shifting light is beautiful, but the driver is navigating around tree roots, and it occurs to me that it would not take more than a cough of the engine, or a big pothole, to send Sharjeel and myself sprawling into the wood.
After a period of enduring this, we emerge into a clearing worn with tire tracks, whereupon the vehicle crew pours out for a smoke break. Here follows the real point of the exercise, which is to teach the greenhorns (Sharjeel and me) how to drive. The obstacles are numerous; there are saplings dotted around the track, which Sharjeel and I will do our best to avoid. Alex prudently exits the BTR, before Sharjeel seats himself behind the wheel, and a soldier, belting instructions out in Russian, sits beside him. For the next fifteen minutes, my fellow passengers and I are shaken about like rocks in a can.
Manoeuvring an armoured vehicle is physically challenging; the steering wheel is massive, and it would appear to take a mule’s leg to move the clutch. With its plated metal and low ceiling, the BTR looks, and feels, like the inside of a sardine can, while the bullet-proof windows make you believe you are peering out from the inside of a fishbowl. On the whole, Sharjeel does tolerably well, accelerating and decelerating to a cadence of jolts, but keeping to a straight line as we thread through a bottleneck-like gap in the trees. When he is done, Svetlana, our civilian driver, takes to the wheel and does just as well, if not better.
From what I can glean from the soldiers’ rapid-fire Russian, it would appear that this vehicle, which was not built for comfort, was manufactured in the Soviet Union thirty years ago. Significantly, APC’s of precisely this make, the BTR-80, are on combat duty today in the country’s east where the Ukrainian army is confronting separatists. Besides being bulletproof, the APC’s plate metal walls can filter out half the radiation that might be present on a battlefield.
When it comes my turn to try my hand at driving, I wedge myself behind the wheel. Compared to Sharjeel, I have the advantage of being able to understand some Russian (and therefore the soldiers’ instructions), but unlike Sharjeel, I have never driven. The results are equivocal. Slumping over the wheel, leaning into the clutch like an organ pedal, I am startled to find the machine reacting, like a stung bull, to my efforts. By jerking the wheel back and forth, I am able to draw the vehicle now left, now right. There is a dissettling time lag between my motions and the APC responding by doing anything. Multiple saplings disappear under the front bumper as I blunder my way around the track, with a soldier bellowing “NYE BOIYSYA!!” (“Don’t be afraid!!”) in my ear. By the time I have rounded
the far end and am heading back through the bottleneck, I have tamed the vehicle to the point of tracing figure-eights, while Alex, who has been inexplicably absent all this time, appears spontaneously at the roadside, and is filming my progress like a drunken sailor’s.
Now, this might qualify as enough of a near escape for one day, but it turns out the fun and games are not over. After our “driving lesson” is finished, Alex will treat us to a lunch of borsch and salo (Ukrainian pig fat), and later we will visit a Shooting Range in Kiev.
In sum, it seems easy to rack up more excitement in twenty-four hours in Ukraine than I would encounter during a normal month in Canada. The time spent with the staff at Adventure Tours in Ukraine is unforgettable. And hey, though tank driving might not seem the most transferable skill, that knowledge may help me if I ever settle down to a normal life and decide I need to learn how to drive a car!