Welcome to a country where the police may demand a bribe if they hear you speaking English. A country where the government takes money from the EU earmarked to protect history’s largest man-made disaster – and uses it for other projects. A country where a politician accused of poisoning his rival and rigging past elections is the current president. A country that still shows parts of its repressed, former soviet history divided between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. A country that still has an active communist party handing out newspapers at train stations. Most residents don’t speak English, but they are friendly to visitors. Here, rent is cheap, but a cockroach-free apartment is reserved for the upper-class. Oh, and here’s a bottle of water – you’ll need it – you won’t be drinking the tap water because of the chemicals. Despite the problems, things seem nice here. People are (somehow) even happy. Some call it the wild, wild east. Most just call it Ukraine.
Ukraine is the second largest country (behind Russia) in Europe by land mass. Kyiv (or Kiev) is Ukraine’s largest city and capitol with 2.7m people. Tough history: They had a famine in the 1920’s that killed millions because of Joseph Stalin. They lost 6 million people to WWII. Finally after years of being culturally repressed by the USSR, they got independence in 1991, but suffered economic chaos and political corruption. Things are looking up for the future, especially with the revitalization of the city as it hosted the EuroCup earlier in 2012.
My flight landed late; 1:30 in the morning, and it wouldn’t be an adventure if my luggage arrived…. so here I am at the luggage office of the Kyiv airport at 2:00 am forced to complete three copies of paperwork (one each in English, Russian, and Ukrainian). I get a text message from my host Danny, my friend’s brother who lives in Kyiv, saying cab he called for me was here. If you hire a cab from the airport without calling for one, you can pay up to four times more.
Both Russian and Ukrainian use the Cyrillic alphabet, so every sign is a complete mystery to me, but luckily for now, most airport signs were also in English. Try to read this: Ось приклад деяких українських письмовій формі, так що ви можете бачити, як він виглядає. My favorite characters are:
Ж , Ю Д Щ , И , Я
After confirmation the airline had no idea where my bag was, I find a blue Volkswagen, license plate AA 1139, driver’s name Peter – exactly as specified in the text. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but welcomes me in. He’s watching a WWII movie on the old DVD player atop the dashboard. We pull away, and I’m hoping that he’s taking me to the right address, but I can’t pronounce it (Давидова 15), so the only thing I can do is to sit back and enjoy the complementary in-drive movie. The driver starts typing on his GPS, then gets a phone call – while the movie is playing – juggling three electronic devices at once – and smoking a cigarette. After 35 minutes and a couple close calls with road obstacles; I learned that in Kyiv, the car actually drives you.
We finally arrive in a dark, graffiti-ridden alleyway, and I’m almost certain we’re in the wrong place. We call Danny and his friends who speak a bit of Russian and the driver asks where they are. They start to argue, so the driver takes me around the block to the other entrance, pointing and yelling bad words in Ukrainian and the whole time. He’s angry, so I get out of the car and pay him so he’ll be stop with the temper tantrum. He parks the car a couple blocks away, sitting there waiting. This makes me worried that he was waiting to rob me. I call my friends, after 5 minutes of describing where I was, we realized that the cab had gone to the right place, but Danny and friends were at another apartment, hence the confusion. About 20 minutes later, the cab driver called my friends to check up and make sure I found them safely. He was waiting for me – to make sure I was safe.
I met Danny and two new friends, all English teachers living in Ukraine, at 3am on a Boulevard under the glow of iron soviet-issued street lights surrounded by tall, simple concrete and brick apartment buildings on a near-perfect summer evening. Since it was already late, we enjoyed the evening, taking advantage of the many kiosks selling snacks and beer all night long. We scooted over to a man-made canal (giant concrete slab with water flowing) to watch the sunrise with Ukrainian junk food – bacon and crab flavored croutons. Since it was already 7am, we found the neighborhood market just opening and we joined a line of 10 people waiting in line for milk and cheese from a babushka (grandma) as Danny impressed some older ladies with his broken Russian. It was finally time for a couple hours of sleep after a long, pleasant night.
Running on two hours of sleep, I woke up Friday to be taken on the Kyiv metro and dropped off on my own for the morning. The elaborate metro stations show off their marble, ornate decorations, and communist statues from the soviet era. This metro is the deepest in the world – 100m (328ft) underground. This means you two never-ending and swiftly moving escalators about four minutes each up or down from the ground to the train. I suspect the train rides only cost about 20 cents because of the inconvenience. I emerged, walking down Khreshchatyk street and had spectacular views of Independence square]. I stopped at the Besarabsky market and was surrounded with varieties of fruit, more caviar than could feed a whole country, unrefrigerated raw meat that looked less than desirable, also complete with overly aggressive vendors who wanted you to buy their stuff.
Time for my first glass of the ubiquitous street drink – kvas – a non-carbonated alcoholic fermented drink made from stale bread. tasting between kombucha and beer, but refreshing. I am still regretting the thick-sliced salo – uncured raw pork belly – eaten on brown bread.
After wondering around some more, Danny met up with me for lunch at a Ukrainian cafeteria where we stuffed ourselves with Ukrainian specialties: red and green borscht, local sausages, Varenyky (dumplings like perogi), and more. We went off to see some of the coolest churches I’ve ever seen. The colors were fantastically vibrant and had a modern but traditional look all highlighted with gold leaf. Inside, you’d think it was a chapel – there were no seats to be found- only walls and domes covered with ornate murals, tapestries. The women visitors (fully covered up) passed picture to picture of Jesus to kiss each one. Much more intimate then the giant Western European churches.
Perusing the endless street vendors near Andrew’s Descent you can see some of the most unique and rare-to-the-west merchandise around. Looking through USSR uniforms, busts of former communist leaders, flags from years ago, Matryoshka dolls with anything you could imagine, pins with the immortalized hammer and sickle, and even the occasional weapon – you might think you’re in a hands-on museum. We went home early to nap and wait for the airline to drop my bag around 8-10 as promised. I called them at 12:02 and was told that I wouldn’t get my bag until tomorrow. Oddly enough, at the exact same, the delivery people called. They were outside.
Saturday was a big day. How do you start big days? McDonalds breakfast with a side of Ukrainian replica McFoxy’s chicken balls, which were quickly rejected by my immune system. We took an amazing journey to Chernobyl (which I’ll cover in a separate article) and were back in time for drinks and dinner, where we joined tables and enjoyed several carafes of vodka with Ukrainian people about our age. They invited us to come to another bar with them where we saw a fun but not musically inclined Ukrainian cover band butcher every American song we knew.
Sunday morning crept up on us faster than expected. We took the morning easy, with a walk on the bluffs overlooking the wide river and visited a park that was possibly the most obvious remnant of the soviet era in the city. Strolling through a sidewalk with serious speakers blasting either opera or military marches (depending on the mood), we passed cannons, a military exhibit, and several extremely dramatic communist statue depicting struggling people. As we passed a memorial honoring the strength of the 14 soviet “hero cities,” the pinnacle of the park awaited us. The motherland statue.
She is the exact opposite of the 151ft Status of Liberty. The 203ft high, chrome plated statue sports a sword in one hand, a shield in another, and a look that could melt you, and muscles that could kill you – not the most inviting message. And Ukrainians do not like it when you call her “Mother Russia.”
Just like the Statue of Liberty, you can go to the top for the best view of the city. And of course, as good tourists, we went to the top. They rejected Danny for his sandals and yelled at us to wait 40 minutes. We were met by our guide, who smelled fresh of vodka, and started towards the innards of the statue. We hopped into an elevator that could comfortably fit one person and started our ascent. The second elevator ride was a little more touch-and-go, but we made it. After that, we started climbing stairs in the dark, military green, steel inside of the statue. We were then told to climb several ladders that followed the contour of the arm of the statue without a harness. After we shimmied up the ladders, we emerged outside in a steel cage that was behind the shield to admire the city for a couple minutes.
We took a one of the thousands of the city’s mini-buses (marshuka) back to the central station. One more glass of kvas, retrieving my bags from the cryptic, perhaps bomb-proof, I took the bus (no more taxis) from the train station and launched off to the comfort of the western world.
Truth be told, I can’t wait to go back.