A Second Taste

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Ukraine  ,
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On again. Off again. Too cold. Too bored. Indecision.

I had planned a while ago to come to the Ukraine, and then got a little put off by the cold in Poland. But the combination of the monotony of Bratislava and a lot of happy Russian memories from a few years ago had me to keen for one more bite of the Soviet remnants. It has proved a fantastic decision.

The train trip from Slovakia was cold and slow, yet is the perfect way to warm up for the necessary change in outlook after time in the parts of eastern Europe that are now more western than eastern. Traversing about 800km in 34 hours leaves a lot of time for reading and having a slow lunch as an icy landscape unfolds. There were so many little glitches to look out for... multiple instances of washing on the line dusted with snow and seemingly encrusted and mummified into ice (why would you ever try?), houses with lights on and people home yet with every exterior sign of being abandoned to the wilderness years ago. Ukraine's population is in steady decline, and is forecast to halve again over the next 30 years.

I read the small amount of history on Ukraine I had on the way in: this can be concisely summarised as them getting overrun since time immemorial and rarely being on the dishing-out end of proceedings. I laughed aloud at one point on reading one of the most pragmatic and concise political speeches I had ever heard. In 1991 the appointed former communist parliamentarians felt the changing winds of the world and a vote on whether the Ukraine would declare itself independent of the USSR was hastily arranged. Introducing the bill, the speaker of the house declared, in a manner reminiscent of Washington, Lincoln or Churchill no doubt, "Today we have a decision to make to vote for independence. I suggest we do, or we are all going to be in the shit." His sentiment carried the day, and a dodgy sort of democracy was introduced until a second round of house cleaning was needed after questionable elections in 2004.

Amazingly, Kiev is the first part of the former USSR where I fairly quickly came to the conclusion "I could live here". The city is clean (in its centre) and 'friendly enough' (in a relative sense), grand yet walkable, and the food - for those with simple peasant tastes - is excellent, as my daily consumption of 900 calories worth of cherry dumplings (in butter, dusted with sugar...) attests. Only after a well seasoned stew of course. And two chicken kievs, which may have been very Lean Cuisine in appearance, but were tasty nonetheless.

Kiev is in the dead centre of the country, a place equally old school, die hard Russian as it is the heartland of the new and independent Ukraine. On one hand Independence Square is easily pictured crowded with a million immovable protesters demanding the success of the Orange Revolution (only in 2004). On the reverse, its no surprise to turn up the little Soviet quirks that I had assumed would no longer be around. 

Quirks? After the second very questionable shower in a row, I enquired of our hostel manager if she had any issues with hot water. I got met with absolute puzzlement, the furrowed eyebrows of "how on earth is that my problem?". Normally in cheap hotel and hostel land its a function of a hot water heater the size of a bucket datng back to the tsars or a decision to turn something off to save 9c of power. On picking up a local English language newspaper here just today, I (coincidentally) learned that Kiev still operates its Soviet era hot water system wherein there is one giant boiler that pipes hot water to the entire city.

Guess how efficient this is.

Its actually not as bad as it sounds (many hot showers provided, thank you): I am amazed that any hot water makes it out the other end given the temperature of the ground and the abundance of snow and ice. I have started to wonder if the absence of snow on one side of the street is because there is a pipe heating the earth underneath it.

Another sign of their Soviet heritage is beautifully apparent in a Metro system which, like Moscow, is like a rolling gallery of architectural splendour, poor cost control and the need to impress through infrastructure. A morning on the metro (10c a trip!) is a stylish - and I cannot lie, a delectably warm - experience. While the central stations are spectacularly opulent, the suburban stations are triumphs of 1970's silver tube modernism, and weirdly interesting in their own way. In peak hours, however, despite trains every 75 seconds, it is a melee that made me yearn for the comforts cattle enjoy on their way to the slaughterhouse. Oh the luxury. I felt it actually verged on the dangerous as the crush on my ribs came from all sides, but nobody else seemed to mind.

This attitude of disengagement and indifference, extending to open disdain, rudeness and hatefulness, is still delightfully prevalent. To smooth the process of purchasing a train ticket to Lviv, I had written down my destination on a little bit of paper - yes, of course, in Cyrillic script - along with a date, a train number I had deciphered from the giant 19th century painted-to-the-wall timetable in the main hall, a class. I greeted her in my best awful Ukrainian and slid the paper through the grill with a thank you. Somehow I mortally offended her in this process, but I ended up with a train ticket within a few minutes.

Double standard coming. Travelling elsewhere, this can lead to a huff and a puff and a diatribe on a failure to understand customer service. But here, its the experience that you have paid good money for. In a tourist destination, it is unacceptable, but Kievis not a tourist destination - one sub eur50 place to stay, 10 beds in two rooms, the receptionist sleeps on the floor of the kitchen, and there is a smell in the hallway that belies an old woman running an abandoned animal shelter somewhere in very close proximity. Queue me up, treat me bad, spit me out. The day that you buy a train ticket with a smile, or failing that even a basic absence of visible disdain, then part of the reason for being here will have disappeared. Elise and Thomas, also staying at the hostel here, also bought tickets and had the same comedic experience: at one point I looked across and saw Elise rolling with laugher at having bought the wrong ticket (her fault) and realising she would have to go back and try a mea culpa exchange that ran the distinct possibility of reigniting the Cold War.

Aside from the experiences, and the food, and the metro, there is a very worthwhile sightseeing loop. The Caves Monastery sits (unsignposted, so relying on perseverance and dumb luck for its discovery) underneath a sprawling complex of cathedrals. Within the caves (more a series of cellars linked by narrow, low halls) are monks buried from the 11th to 15th centuries. It is spooky and mystic in so many ways. Illuminating the myriad tiny artworks and crypt details with your flickering hand candle, avoiding the procession of the devout exaggeratedly making signs of the cross and leaving very wet and slightly disgusting kisses on the display cases, and hearing the sounds of wind hauntingly pushing through the tunnels is a worthwhile experience - magnified by the occasional sinewed mummified hand poking out from the blankets. Even though they get a lot of visitors, they are part of the spectacle. The devout are the ones visiting and 'making' the scene complete - its not an Athens style tour bus tourist crush by any means.

The one other standout sight for me is the Defence of the Motherland Monument. A stupefying 62m of titanium shows mother still with the hammer and sickle on her shield. There is a museum and war memorial contained in her base, but the highlight is that the approach is through a 100% concrete series of reliefs and statues with stirring anthems piped in filling you with Soviet pomp. It was like the opening credits of The Hunt for Red October. Its brilliant, even if a little surprising that it has survived the changes of recent years. For all the thoughts of independence, this is still a very Russian place.

After much stuffing about, I today declined to take the tour to Chornobyl. It is apparently entirely safe - the explosion punting the nastiest plutonium up into the atmosphere and across into Belarus. I checked maps, and read about it. It was simply my inability to source any foreign (read: trustworthy) report on the site's safety that made me pass. I was also oddly put off by the super cheap price (US$80 instead of the $175 I expected). For a tour where safety equipment and technology will play a major part, the desire to get a super low price falls away. On the plus side, it is a sight that won't be going away anytime soon. I am still keen to see the abandoned city - apparently quite like Pompeii with everything abandoned on a moments notice, and now with the forest reclaiming the entire city. Next time.

The Chornobyl Museum in Kiev is very well reviewed, but is more an emotional and artistic feature than a scientific or historical one - and there is nothing in English, when frequently a simple one page photocopy is provided for foreigners. There is a lot of art inspired by people's loss, but no simple storyline behind just what went wrong using the primary material that they should have access to.

It took me three days, but at last I am finding that I have remembered enough of the cyrillic characters to read a lot of signs and menus. While some transliterations yield simply another word I don't understand, at least its an unknown word I can pronounce.

For now I'm off for one last batch of cherry dumplings and a wander back through the snow before the night train to Lviv for one extra Ukrainian experience. I think I/ we will be back in Kiev before long as this is a place Claude won't want to miss out on, and I can easily take a second bite. 
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