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.

 

 

Cesky Krumlov: a gem-town of the Czech Republic

I came to this town to do a rafting trip with two of my good friends. Down the Vltava river, the largest river in the Czech Republic.

The weather was not kind during my one night stay. Overcast, and rainy. However, the dreariness was unable to dull the feeling that the place was a little bit magic.

Cesky Krumlov is exactly how I would picture a small town in Europe to be. For starters, there’s a castle. It seems this is a pre-requisite for any European town wishing to attract tourist dollars. The town’s streets are mostly only wide enough for one car to fit through, and are paved by cobblestones. You often need to watch where you step, careful not to twist an ankle in the gaps between the pave stones. Drivers are also a hazard – Czech drivers hoon through these streets at scary speeds; I’m amazed I didn’t witness any accidents. Tour groups are led around by their guides, phones and cameras at the ready. Restaurants and bars litter the place – in a good way. Literally every corner there is somewhere to pop in for a drink or a bite.

Apparently, Cesky Krumlov is a UNESCO heritage site; clearly of cultural or historical importance. I’d love to hit you with some juicy facts about the place, but I don’t know any. I didn’t take a walking tour. Google will do facts better; you’ll just have to settle for only my observations here.

The town square is rather small, and to be honest all the action is to be found in the side streets that weave in and out of each other like spaghetti thrown onto a plate. These streets are home to shop after shop after shop. The shops are trying to sell you all kinds of stuff in a passive, “come have a look inside if you want, or if you don’t I don’t really care” kind of way, which as a customer is my preference. Donuts, beer, coffee, food, wooden things, glass things, postcards, toys, trinkets, knick knacks, paddy whacks, give a dog a… sorry, off topic.

The central town area is surrounded by the Vltava river. Bridges connect the small piece of land in which the central town is located with the lands surrounding. One such bridge leads you directly to the castle’s gates.

The castle is spectacular. Walls stretch to the sky. From the bridge at ground level you can see people walking atop the walls. Inside the castle’s walls are sculptures of priests and warriors, beautiful painted buildings, amazing views of the town, and even a place to grab a beer. Atop one of the castle walls was a row of peep holes built into a stone wall that was much too high to peer over. Each peep hole was the size of a small window. Looking through these holes you could see the town below, and the bridge we had walked over to get inside. I envisaged archers standing beside these peep holes, firing down onto anyone trying to storm the place. It made me think of how difficult it would be to get into a castle – if someone was insistent on keeping you out that is.

Note: the photo accompanying this post is taken from atop the castle.

We walked past a bunch of people standing on a bench looking through thick metal bars with spikes, all staring at something below. I joked to my friends that this is where they kept the tigers. Bad joke (is it even a joke?). It turns out that this is not where they kept the tigers. Nope. This is where they kept the Grizzly. Yep. Grizzly. A very large brown bear eating blueberries off a bush in a sealed off area eight or so metres below attracted many stares. Not sure what this was all about. And honestly not too sure how I felt about it either.

There are some other attractions in the town: a wax museum and a torture museum to name a couple. But I didn’t go into any of these, remaining perfectly happy to wander the streets.

If you ever find yourself in Cesky Krumlov, here are some suggestions:


DRINKS

  • Na Louzi: Little pub with indoor and outdoor seating. Cheap beers, though not a wide selection – light, dark, or yeast (yeah, I don’t know what this flavour is either).
  • Music Cocktail Bar: The door from the street hides the sprawling area underground of this bar. There are plenty of places to sit around the bar, and equally as many tables available. There was a couple drinking out of a bucket that had 7 different coloured straws in it – I imagine this is some kind of specialty cocktail. What I can tell you is that the White Russian’s are good.

There are many other places to grab a drink. We stayed on a Saturday night, and overall the town felt a little quiet. I’m not sure whether this was because we visited slightly after peak season, or because that’s just how this town rolls.


EATS

Breakfast

  • Kafirna Na Starem Plesivci: Cosy. Friendly staff. The scrambled eggs were very tasty; these come with bread, which was average at best. If I ever go back I’ll ask for toast instead.

Lunch

  • Hole in the wall joint (opposite the Mini-market Vecerka): Take-away only and extremely cheap. The pulled pork roll was a massive feed for US$3.25 (Czk 65). If I had to sum the place up I’d say: You get more than what you paid for.

Dinner

  • Traveler’s Restaurant: Very affordable, FANTASTIC food, good atmosphere. The place was full when we arrived at 7pm. I recommend the pork ribs to share. A word of warning: they are RICH. Cooked with the skin still on, the meat surrounded by small pockets of fat melts off the bone. Delicious. Dangerously delicious. FIVE STARS.

ACCOMMODATION:

Skippy hostel: The hostel is located across one of the bridges just outside of the main town. It is right on the Vltava river and was managed by an older Czech lady with spotty English. It seemed to me she had converted her home into a hostel. It was warm and cosy. Four beds per room, no bunks; my two friends and I had a room to ourselves. There was an amazing area to sit out the back right on the waters of the Vltava river; the perfect spot to play cards and drink a beer.

Auschwitz: a tour of inhumanity

Yesterday I visited a place where humanity once died for a period of time. A place where people were starved to death. A place where people were beaten to pulp; tortured. A place where people were medically experimented on. A place where people were stood in front of walls to be shot. A place where people were systematically exterminated.

Auschwitz.

That name has become synonymous with evil.

Auschwitz is in Poland. My tour guide was a Polish woman, perhaps in her fifties. What immediately struck me was how much passion, or perhaps disdain or disgust are better words, was detectable in her voice whenever she spoke of the persecution of her people – the Poles. Many Poles were taken to, and died within the barbed wire surrounding Auschwitz. Throughout the tour, whenever she spoke of the plight of Poles during the war, there was extra conviction behind her words. Raw emotion seeping in. She seemed unable to suppress this emotion. Though I honestly don’t know whether she tried.

One such moment was at the very start of the tour, while still standing outside the gates of Auschwitz.

But first, some brief history: at the start of WW2 Poland was invaded by Germany in the West, and the Soviet Union in the East. The Soviet Union and Germany entered into an agreement to split the lands of Poland between them.

Our tour guide spoke of the lack of support received at this time from allies – namely, the British and the French. Our tour guides’ words [which I have paraphrased]:

“We [Poles] have always been ally of British and French. Always. When we were invaded by the Germans, they did not come to help. If they come, German army was still weak, and they would have won. But they did not come. We have always been ally. Always. But they did nothing to help Poles.”

The bitterness behind her words was palpable. It is clear that the wounds left by the war in Europe have not yet scarred over. Perhaps they have only reached the stage of scabbing… a small bump, and the wound may once again be exposed.

Entering into the camp, I expected to feel more, well something I guess. Walking through the gates with the banner that reads “Arbeit macht frei”, a German phrase meaning “work sets you free”, I didn’t feel much at all. It seemed a peaceful place. The weather was nice. Sun beat down onto my shoulders. Tour guides and tourists wandered around with their headsets on listening to their respective tour guides. Nothing was particularly alarming about any of it.

We were taken through various buildings, where we were educated regarding the operations of the camp.

Jewish people throughout Europe were herded into trains. They were told that they were going somewhere to work. That they would be given jobs where they were taken. They were told to pack a certain amount: 25kg for those living in the East; 50kg for those living in the West. They were packed onto train carriages. Very little room in each carriage. No toilets. Many died on this journey. The journey from Greece was the farthest, and took 9 days. Many died on this particular route. They had no idea of what awaited them at the end of the train tracks. I can only imagine they thought it an impossibility that it could be worse than the ride itself. I imagine they couldn’t wait to get off those cramped trains, away from the dead, the sick, and the human excrement.

Once the train arrived at Auschwitz, these people did not know where they were. They were not told. They were told to leave their belongings. Told to line up in two lines. Men to the right. Women and children to the left. Instructions shouted in German. Families were separated. Babies taken from their mothers. And then began the “selection” process. An SS officer looked at each person, and pointed them in a direction: to the right, or to the left.

Women, children, the disabled and the elderly were pointed to the left. Those who appeared capable of working (mostly fit men, nurses) were pointed to the right. Those pointed to the left were told they were going to showers to de-lice. After spending days cramped on a filthy train without washing, I imagine they may have been delighted to hear this.

They were taken to a gas chamber. The first room of the chamber was set up to look like a changing room. I cannot see any reason why these people would suspect they were being deceived. Why would they? And even if they were told the truth, would they have believed it?

They were told to strip naked. The SS told people to remember where they had put their belongings and their clothes. They told people to put their family’s things together so they would be easy to find after they had showered. This was said to avoid causing panic… the SS wanted these people to enter the gas chamber willingly. And that is what these people did. Once everyone was inside the chamber, the doors to the chamber were shut and locked. Poison was administered from the top of the chamber. Within 20 minutes, everyone inside was dead.

Thinking about the deception these people suffered hurt me. I love to play games. Deception is a key part of being great at games. Withholding crucial information in order to get someone else to play into your hands. The games that were played here by the SS were… well… yeah. No words.

At the second camp, the site where two gas chambers operated, and the majority of Jewish people that died in the Holocaust were exterminated, I was nearly moved to tears. A thirty-meter wide monument was erected between the ruins of two gas chambers (which were blown up by the retreating Nazis to hide their crimes). Placed in the middle of the monument was a large circular flower reef.

The tour guide ended the tour with a particularly moving speech [I paraphrase]:

“You are free. You are free. Free. You are free. You have a home. You have a family. And you are free. Think about this.  

It is important that we remember.

We must help each other. Ask not what you can gain from this person. Ask what you can offer this person.”

A true offer, to me, is one that is made without expectation of reward or gain. It could be, as our guide mentioned, something as simple as a smile. And that is something we’re all capable of offering.

 

Some other notes and observations from the tour:

  • Signs throughout the camp refer to “the SS”. I did not ask, but I imagine this to be very intentional, careful not to attribute responsibility to the Germans as a people for the atrocities that occurred.
  • There were pictures throughout the camp of: people boarding trains; people in lines with their belongings; people getting off trains etc. There were no pictures of dead bodies; no pictures of people in prison outfits.
  • People’s things were on display: suitcases marked with names, hair brushes, shoe polish, shoes upon shoes upon shoes, pots, pans, and most disturbingly, mountains of human hair.
  • A plaque hung on one of the walls reading Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana.
  • Initially the Germans took photos of prisoners admitted to Auschwitz for record keeping purposes. However, these photos proved too costly and so were stopped after a time. A life seen as not even worthy of a photograph.

 

I’m grateful I was free to get on a bus and leave that place, but I will never forget it.