Kiev, Ukraine: to go, or not to go?

Eye-opening, sprawling, unique, unfathomably affordable, safe.

That’s how I’d describe Kiev, Ukraine.

 

FOREWARNING: This post is long…it has headings if you’d prefer to skim.

 

I received mixed responses when I told people I was visiting Kiev, Ukraine. A friend of mine, the only person I knew to have been there before, told me I’d love it. They loaded me up with a list of suggestions of places to eat, things to see, things to do, and basically made me feel I was doing myself a disservice by not being there already.

The rest, who’d never been to Ukraine might I add, didn’t share the same bubbly sentiment. Some common comments I received were:

  • Ukraine? Why would you go there?
  • Isn’t there a war going on there?
  • Is it safe?
  • I wouldn’t go there if I was you, there are plenty of better places you could go.

Better places to go… uhh, what?? Better is a relative term… somebody who’s never been to Ukraine telling me there are better places to go is like a Horse telling me grass tastes better than meat (it’s horse shit in more than one way).

The booking confirmation I received from Wizz Air (yes, that’s a real airline) for my flight from Budapest to Kiev led to the realisation I was actually going to Ukraine. At this point, I decided it wise to do some due diligence (translation: googling). The war in Ukraine concerned me and my knowledge of the war was at a Neanderthal-using-an-iPhone level. After consulting modern-day-Einstein, I discovered the following:

  • The war in Ukraine involves pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government;
  • For now, the war is confined to the Eastern part of the country; far away from Kiev.

“War” seemed a rather inaccurate term to me. The term “conflict” seemed more appropriate… although it’s possible I just told myself this to ease my psyche.

The New Zealand safe travel webpage backed up the danger of travelling anywhere near this conflict, suggesting there was extreme risk” to a persons security in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions (East Ukraine); any travel there was advised against. It also stated “there is some risk to your security elsewhere in Ukraine, including Kyiv [Kiev], due to the potential for civil unrest and we advise caution.”

The US travel advice had a similar flavour: “The situation in Ukraine is unpredictable and could change quickly.  U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine should avoid large crowds and be prepared to remain indoors should protests or demonstrations escalate.”

Avoid large crowds? Can-do. Be cautious? That’s my middle name (not actually, but it should be, I drive slow, always wear shoes outside and look both ways before crossing).

And so, into [Central] Ukraine I went!

Border control: you shall not pass!

My friend James was travelling on his New Zealand passport, and I on my US passport. Border control stamped my US passport without a word spoken (possibly because they were unable to speak English) – smooth as a baby’s bottom. James’ entry was more of a ‘sliding down a dry slip-and-slide’ type experience.

James’ passport was not stamped. Instead, he was taken into a room where he waited for an official of some descript. In this room, he was supervised by a man with a gun dressed in full camouflage – likely military. The military man conversed (in broken English) with James while they waited. I’ll pause here to note this story is being told second hand – James’ account relayed to me, and now onto the page.

Military man asked James for his thoughts on Ukraine. I don’t know what James said to him. Military man then proceeded to tell James that other people think Ukrainian’s are rude. This was perhaps the reason he asked James for his thoughts on Ukraine; an evidence gathering exercise. It’s interesting to me that a Ukrainian military guy was conscious of how the world perceived him. Despite not knowing much English, he attempted to connect with James. We’re all just people! Everyone wants to fit in.

The official eventually arrived. Someone from the secret police (James’ description). The secret policeman interviewed James with a ‘bad cop’ approach, though the need for a translator undermined the intended intensity of his interrogation. After the secret policeman had finished his questionning, the translator said to James [paraphrased]:

“Understand, we have nothing against your country. We don’t want to insult your country. We worry about terrorists… Sorry for inconvenience.”.

First impressions: coffee, communication and a princess

While James was being interrogated, I’d cleared customs and was in the airport lounge trying to figure out how to get a coffee. I decided to commit the ultimate travel-sin and exchanged US$100 for 2500 Ukrainian Hryvnia. Exchanging money at the airport is like feeding American dollar bills to a horse because they’re green – it makes sense on some level, but it’s still stupid and ultimately costs you money. The FX rates are terrible. I know this, but you know, I needed some money for a coffee…

After exchanging my money, an older man sitting behind me who presumably watched me make the exchange shook his head and started talking to me in Ukrainian. I don’t speak Ukrainian. “Not a good rate?” I said. He said something more in Ukrainian, this time much more animated with various hand gestures accompanying his speech. “I should have exchanged in city centre?” I said, attempting to tell him what I thought he was saying…

I didn’t know what his understanding of the situation was, and he couldn’t communicate it to me. It’s hard enough to communicate speaking the same language. This was downright impossible. Realising the communication situation was futile, and not wanting to invest the time required to try to understand the man, I smiled and nodded at him as if I’d understood then grabbed my bags and walked away.

It made me think: even when we do speak the same language, how often is it that we assume understanding, grab our bags and walk away? That is, how often do we choose to avoid investing the time and effort required to truly understand each other?

A few hours later, coffee in gut and James through customs, and it’s time to get out of the airport. I need to pay for the coffee. A girl is in front of me in the counter line. An arm’s length separates us. Her eyes are crystal blue with a hint of green. I swear they’re not real. It’s as if two polished turquoise stones have been implanted in the spaces where her eyes once were. Her hair is dark chocolate, and her fictitiously symmetrical face reminds me of a Disney character. I glance at her for a moment, admiring her beauty. She looks at me. I look away, because, you know, staring is the business of toddlers.

Unfortunately, I’m mere male. I look at her again. I’m caught off-guard; she’s still staring at me unabashedly. We stare at each other for an uncomfortable period of time without either of us making a sound… not even so much as a smile exchanged between us.

It crosses my mind that I’ve no idea what she’s thinking. Can she speak English? If she is thinking, what does thinking in Ukrainian sound like? Most likely she’s thinking: why is this creep staring at me? Or possibly I look as out of place as I feel. Or maybe she’s not thinking at all… I decide I’m doing enough thinking for the both of us… unable to communicate, best not to speculate. I pay for the coffee, and James and I leave the Ukrainian princess behind.

Transport: Ubers, and the metro

We take an Uber from the airport. The Uber driver’s car is a total beater. It is a “Dacia Logan”, which Google tells me is manufactured by a Romanian subsidiary of Renault. The car has travelled more than Christopher Columbus – 296,000 kms on the clock. The orange gas light is lit up in the dash. We have a 25min drive to our hostel.

Half way into our journey, we need to take a left. We are stuck three lanes over in the far right-hand lane. Our driver nudges one lane over. We need to move over one more lane. There are 20 stationary cars blocking us and we have a green light to keep moving straight. We can’t stop and wait for a gap. Our driver takes his right hand off the steering wheel and motions in the air the same way he would if he was collecting change after a purchase, as if to say “now what??”. He keeps driving. I assume he’s going straight. I assume he’ll let Google maps do what it does best and reroute us. I’m wrong. He drives to the front of the queue, pulls left directly in front of the first car in the queue. We sit in the middle of the intersection waiting for a green. No-one honks. We make the turn. A while later we arrive safely at our hostel. We pay US$2.90 for the 25min ride.

We took many more Ubers during our stay. The city is EXTREMELY spread out. It’s not realistic to walk between sights/places unless you’re keen on walking a marathon every day. Uber allows you to circumvent the English/Ukrainian language barrier by entering your destination into the app. There must be road rules because everything seems to work, but you’d be forgiven for thinking an overriding rule existed: “do whatever the fuck you want”. Best not to take a coffee with you when you ride, unless you’re a fan of hot black-liquid showers.

I rode the metro once too, but only because a local showed me the ropes. It was an efficient and disgustingly affordable ride (less than US$1 for a multi-stop return trip).

The language barrier

We stayed in a quiet hostel in downtown Kiev.

The last night I was there, an older man and a young 20-something guy were having a conversation in what I think was Russian. I lay on my top bunk bed listening to them. I tried to figure out what they were talking about. I listened to the tone of their voices. I listened for familiar sounding words, hoping to decipher something. It was to no avail. The moment I realised no matter how hard I concentrated I wasn’t going to understand them was the same moment that my brain told me to listen harder, with more intent, as if somehow that was the key to understanding. LOL. Yeah, sure…

The Ukrainian language uses Cyrillic Script alphabet (i.e. not your ABCs like English). Cyrillic is a combination of letters and symbols, which is genuinely impossible to read if you have no prior understanding. Without Google translate I’m certain I’d have eaten some mystery meals: the already difficult task of making a menu choice is made just that much harder. Various signs I spotted in English included: “coca-cola”, “hotel”, “apartments”, “pizza” and “men’s club”. Perhaps an indication of what the Ukrainian people think non-Ukrainians are looking for in their country.

My favourite interaction, which was common, was with those who didn’t speak a lick of English. This often happened when trying to order food. The server would greet me in Ukrainian or Russian, and I’d respond with “Hi”. The server then would do one of two things:

  1. They’d respond in English – great; or
  2. Their facial expression would change to possum-in-the-headlights, and they’d crack an uneasy smile as if to say “okay, here we go…”.

It’s fascinating to me how immensely arduous it is to communicate with someone when they don’t speak the same language. Thank goodness for fingers; pointing saved me on more than one occasion.

The people

To be totally honest, I didn’t have a tonne of interaction with the local people. It’s difficult to communicate when you don’t speak the same language (see the interaction with the old man above as an example).

However, in the interactions I did have I was never treated rudely or abrasively. I felt welcome. I felt as if people were happy to have me in their country. I liked this.

Safety

I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a concern of mine before entering the country. Ukraine, whether justified or not, has a reputation for being unsafe. I’m not sure whether this is because of the conflict going on, or more of a grandfathering thing (i.e. it has historically been seen as an unsafe destination), or both.

I didn’t feel unsafe at any point during my stay. I spent nights out on the town, in random bars, with people I’d just met, and not once did I encounter any trouble.

It was a little unnerving one night walking through an unlit park. I could hear groups of people in the foreground talking to one another, it was difficult to see them. I was with locals whom I’d just met, and James. I can imagine these scenes would’ve been quite scary if I’d been alone without someone on hand able to translate the local language or culture if we did encounter any trouble.

The sights

The Motherland Monument (the picture accompanying this blog post) is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It makes the Statue of Liberty look like a child’s figurine. I gathered this is kind of the point. The monument is a relic from the Soviet era – the woman powerfully clutches a sword and shield emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle – symbolic of Soviet strength. I can only imagine the disconnect Ukrainian people must’ve felt between this monumental symbol of strength and the impoverished conditions they endured under Soviet rule.

Chernobyl is not far from Kiev. It’s now possible to tour the zone which was evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster – as long as you BOOK IN ADVANCE. Unfortunately, I fell victim to the trap of non-planning. Unable to visit the quarantined zone, I had to settle for the museum. The museum was informative, although I suffered a little from information overload.

Many churches and other monuments are scattered around the city, which are all worthy of attention.

The buildings/architecture

The majority of buildings in Kiev are beat up and square; kind of like how a rubix cube that’s missing its colours might look after throwing it down a concrete street. Newer buildings were confined to more central/downtowny areas. The football stadium was one such building; it’s rounded edges made it stick out like a red balloon in a brown box shop.

Magnificent churches are dotted all over the city. Golden bell shaped tops are a common feature. A strange contrast exists between these buildings of exquisite aesthetic design and the rubix cubes surrounding.

Points of interest / oddities

  • The market stalls sold some unique items: authentic-looking Nazi war medals, arm bands, etc (in actuality, I’m fairly sure they were real, though I didn’t ask). And toilet paper with Putin’s face on it.
  • An odd but unavoidably noticeable observation: all the men wore pants. Literally all of them. I don’t know why as it was definitely warm enough for shorts most days (and that’s saying a lot as I’m one to feel the cold more brutally than others). Yet everyone opted for pants. This makes tourists easy to spot – just find the guy wearing shorts. I’m not sure if this pants-party was due to the timing of our visit (mid-September), culture or something else entirely.
  • According to the internet, and people in Ukraine, it’s unsafe to drink the tap water. I don’t think it will kill you if you do though… the reason I think this is because I did it once. Half a cup down the hatch and I seem to still be kicking.
  • The odd stray pack of dogs can be seen wandering around the city. The pack I saw contained dogs of all different shapes and sizes – kind of like Hairy Maclary’s gang from Donaldson’s Dairy (it’s a New Zealand children’s book series). I was told the strays are harmless.

 

Overall, visiting Kiev was an amazing experience. The city has a vastly unique flavour when compared with other cities I visited in Europe (Prague, Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna…). I honestly only have positive things to say about the place.

If you’re looking for a thoroughly inexpensive destination, rich in unique history, with interesting sights, I’d recommend you check it out.

 

 

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