Kiev, Ukraine

So we just touched down from Bucharest.  I’m exhausted getting off of a plane, have a longer than usual ride through Kievan traffic, didn’t sleep much the night before and have no idea where my hotel is compared to everything else as I’m getting settled into my room and all of a sudden I hear “So we’re going to walk somewhere, right?”

That was mom.

The trip through Transylvania was ridiculously cool, tonnes of castles, towns, culture and everything.  However, barring the 1500 or so steps to Poenari, not a lot of walking. There WAS a lot of eating, and a lot of sitting, and by the end I was feeling very Cruise Shippy in terms of lethargy.

So, LOVE the fact that mom wanted to get out almost right away (after she did her hair and make-up, of course).

Now, other thing about this trip, as I’ve noted before – we have these half-day tours all over the place so finding things to do that won’t be covered the next day can be tough. We settled on the “Palace” in Kiev where the Prime Minister holds official events, located in a nice park, and a bit of a walk around. We get there and the palace is being renovated in the same way my condo was being built up until a couple of months ago – boarded over, overgrown plants, whole lot of nothing. So we turn the other way and, out of nowhere, we run into the Caves Monastery.

The Monastery is one of the trips we want to do in Kiev, not covered in the half-day tour but something which I was told was amazing.

I wasn’t told wrong.

I’ll cover it later in the post, as this happened on day one, and it was too close to closing time for us to get anything but the long-distance view.   HOWEVER, in a “cool” development, we found a memorial/museum that commemorates the Ukrainians that died in the Ukrainian Holocaust (Holodomor), where 10 million Ukrainians were basically starved to death by Stalin in an attempt to wipe out the people, their culture, and bolster the Soviet Union.  The Russians still deny that anything took place (because Russia), but the memorial makes a convincing argument otherwise.  Fantastic statues and memorials outside, including a haunting figure of a starved girl.  Absolutely beautiful, absolutely unexpected.

Probably never would have happened if mom didn’t want to walk.

That said, we were pretty exhausted and made our way back to our hotel, grabbing some delicious Ukrainian food before crashing down.

Day two started at the Canadian Embassy.

Washed my passport. Not in a proper washing machine, but in my quick-dry pants, which I was cleaning up in the sink, forgetting to take the passport out ahead of time.  Not that bad, stamps can still be made out, wanted to go to the Embassy just so I could hear somebody say that the Ukrainians won’t be weird about it. They checked it out, said it was good to go and then we were off.

So an anxious start to the day.

All that aside, today was an awesome day in Kiev. We had a half-day guide again, this awesome woman named Luba, a sweet woman with a strong streak, born in west Ukraine, moved to Tashkent, married for 18 years, divorced, worked designing safety reinforcements for Chornobyl post meltdown, then came to Kiev to work as a tour guide. Interesting woman, to be sure.

We hit most of the major sights, including;

The Golden Gate Fortress
One of the three original gates that led into medieval Kiev, and the only one that still survives, this one can be traced back as far as 1017.  Even though it was partially destroyed by the Golden Horde and just plain age, it was rebuilt to its current-and-former glory in time fore Kiev’s 1500th Anniversary.  There’s a museum located inside the gate, which we didn’t head in to, but it still served as a nice “first view” of the city we were going to explore, and gives you an idea of just how old Kiev happens to be.

St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery
Dating all the way back to the 11th century, St. Michael’s is a still-functioning monastery, which is kind of neat, since it wasn’t for a good chunk of time.  While the Soviets turned some churches into museums, others ended up under the hammer, which was the case for this one.  Pre-WWII, the original plan was to tear it down and build some government buildings, of which one was built.  The second building was rejected due to a combination of planning, bureaucracy and that WWII thing that I mentioned.  Pieces were moved, mosaics taken to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the place didn’t regain its form and function until 1999 and, a year later, most of the things Moscow took from it were given back, providing a pretty accurate recreation.

We took a walk from St. Michael’s to St. Sophia’s, passing another Holodomor monument and the Podil neighbourhood, which is the administrative centre of the city.  You end up getting a neat sense of how Ukraine (or at least Kiev) sees itself as part of Europe,  Like, in spite of not being a part of the EU, you see a giant EU flag on one of the administrative buildings, and no Russian flags.

St. Sofia
Construction started on this massive cathedral in 1037, and it was rightfully the first Ukrainian site that was recognized by UNESCO (at the same time as the aforementioned Caves Monastery).  The cathedral managed to survive being destroyed after the Russian Revolution though, ironically, even after the Iron Curtain fell, the cathedral still has yet to return to a fully-functioning religious state.  At one point, there was a plan for it to be a shared space between all Orthodox and Greek-Catholic religions.  Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so smoothly, with lots of arguing and squabling that culminated in a bloody riot where police denied the burial of the then-Kievan Patriach of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  As a result, it’s still a museum to Christianity rather, but nothing of religious importance tends to happen there.  The top of the Clock Tower gives you some great views of the cathedral and the surrounding city, though.

The Chornobyl Museum
So big debate about whether or not we were going to visit Chornobyl this trip.  By that, I meant there was no debate that I was going to visit Chornobyl, but mom was iffy on the whole experience.

Well, if you’re at all scared of visiting the site of the largest nuclear disaster in history, this museum does give you a pretty good sense of what happened there and what you may see.  It’s not nearly the same as going there (look for a future post), but it is pretty harrowing.

From the opening stairway, which features street signs from all the towns that were irradiated by the reactor when it exploded, to a legitimately scary “diorama” featuring a before and after explosion of the reactor, to an eight-legged pig fetus, the museum certainly doesn’t try to paint any sort of rosy picture of what happened.  There are video accounts for survivors, lots of tribute art, examples of equipment used to clear the site – since I’ll be going there, I’m not going to get into too much detail here, but suffice it to say, it’s enough to drive home the severity of the situation.

So much so, in fact, that mom decided to opt-out of going on the actual tour once we returned to Kiev.

After the tour portion of “Day 2”, my views on Kiev were pretty much the same as yesterday – it can be really unimpressive at times, but then you turn the corner and end up in one of the most beautiful or awesome squares you’ve ever seen. Kind of like St. Petersburg but without the feeling you’re being watched. Mom refrained from speaking Ukrainian so I actually knew what was going on with the tour guide, which was also nice.

Mom was pretty tired at this point, so I dropped her off at the hotel for a nap while I went to set up a tour to Chornobyl proper.  This left me to navigate the Kiev subway on my own.  With no Ukraine to English translation.

Now, for any of you who ever said that me joining a fraternity was buying friends, you were wrong – I was buying a rudimentary understanding of Greek letters and their sounds and therefore a rudimentary understanding of Cyrillic. So after staring at a signboard for a few minutes I finally figured out that a Pi with a little tail on it is actually an L and figured out which connections to take and I was off to the travel agency…

Which has three agencies in town. Did I go to the right one? Of course not. Did I find the right one? Yup, and it was a ten minute walk from my hotel. But I conquered (won a battle) with the Kiev subway. Hoorah!  Plus, I managed to see another important cathedral, St. Volodomyr’s, along the way.

Got back to the hotel and mom and me decided we’ll leave the Lavra Monastery for another day and decided to walk up and down Kreschatyk Street, the main shopping street of the city with Independence Square and some awesome Stalin-era architecture – not as overwhelming and a bit more homey than Bucharest.  We wandered up and down the street until about 8pm, grabbed McDonald’s for dinner (yup, it’s in all four countries including, I’ve been told, Belarus) and headed back to the hotel with a quick stop at the grocery store, where we bot a $1.20 mickey of the national vodka, which the saleslady explained had honey and “grass”.  I left mom alone with the bottle upstairs after a sip or two and hope she wakes up tomorrow, or has at least packed before passing out.

Fun note: vodka is cheaper than things like toothpaste and shampoo.  Like, a bottle of vodka would run you an average of $1.50 to $3, while shampoo looked to start at $5.

Go Ukraine!

Our trip to Kiev was split in two by some travel through the west of the country, where would be running through Lviv, Kamyanets Podilsky and Chernivtsi.  I was typing up the first half of my blog notes onto my computer in the lobby of our hotel, the Lybid Hotel, when some guy (who ended up being from Calgary) asks me if I was the Norweigan guy he met in the airport (not a pickup line). Obviously wasn’t, but we chatted a bit and he had just got in town for a business deal with some Kievan company regarding insulated artificial composite building materials.

Exciting. Stuff.

We talked about Kiev and the Ukraine a bit and I it was interesting listening to some of the responses.  I gave him a bit of an itinerary as to where we had been and where we were going.

Most of the places I mentioned in Ukraine?   No idea where they were.  Blank stares.

When he asked which way was north and I showed him a map and said I checked it against the Lonely Planet I had upstairs, he had no idea what a Lonely Planet was.

He had been in the city for the whole day and hadn’t really left the hotel.

Now, none of this is really bad because when you’re someplace to do business, you can’t always get away and I get that. The odd thing came when he asked about a plug converter, if I had one he could borrow for the night, or if I knew where he could get one. We were getting up crazy early the next day and he had to recharge two batteries, so I told him where he could pick one up in the city and apologized. He wasn’t too worried about it.

I get back upstairs and remember that I had an extra adaptor, a two pronger with no grounding capability but it would do the job. I get the thing, find the guy in the lobby and say “Here you go” and he asks me if I want anything for it. A two dollar plug adaptor that I explained I didn’t need. Odd.

Compare that to Audrey, a girl mom and me met in Romania, climbing to Poenari Fortress. She took a shuttle to the fort but had to walk an hour and a half back into town. I offer her a ride in our car and she gives the required “Are you sure?” and then hops in for a ride. Nothing more than thank you and conversation, but not awkward.

Just find it interesting. For those who have done the backpack thing, it’s a very “Pay It Forward” type system. You help your fellow travelers because you know you will someday need help and it’s just good karma. The few times I’ve run into business travelers while doing the backpack thing, they don’t know how to react to that and you get responses like “Do you want something (for this two dollar adapter)?” It’s more transactional (which makes sense, I guess).

Anyway, early flight to Lviv, run through the west, back to Kiev!

The Kiev Monastery of the Caves

It took seven tries, but…

One of Kiev’s other UNESCO sites, the Caves have set themselves up as the other major centre of Orthodox religion in Kiev, with this one being tied to the Moscow Patriarchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  Again, built in the 11th century (when, it seems, Kiev was the Dubai of the Middle Ages – everything going up!), the Monastery still functions, with pilgrims coming from all over to visit the various important people buried there, including Pope Clement I.  It’s slightly more expansive than St. Michael’s or St. Sophia’s, with some of the more impressive structures being built as recently as the 1700’s.  That includes the landmark belltower, where mom learned how to use a camera, a feat that cannot be underestimated.

Going from the old to the new again, next stop…

The Museum of the Great Patriotic War
So “World War II” is a western term.  “The Great Patriotic War” is the USSR equivalent.

If there’s one thing the Soviet Union did really well, it was building giant, austere monuments.  Since Kiev was one of the “Hero Cities” of the war (i.e. it got the crap kicked out of it by the Nazis but was still standing), it stands to reason that it, too, would receive one of these memorials.

The “Motherland” statue on the right is definitely the most impressive part of the memorial.  102 m high and weighing 530 tonnes, this lady is visible as you drive into the city, and can be spotted from various parts of the Lavra and the rest of the Museum complex.  For a sense of size, that’s 9 metres taller than the Statue of Liberty.  Except this one has a sword.  So Motherland wins the Power Rangers Zord battle on this one.

Speaking of winning the battle with sharp things (but loosing the battle on segues): high-heels.

Kiev is a hilly city, with lots of cobblestone streets, so you’d think a nice flat, runner or boot would be your best bet of getting around.  Well, Kievan women would disagree, as apparently, the best way to get around the city is to wear impossible stilettos and, shockingly, never fall flat on their face.  These heels are everyday wear: shopping, memorials, churches, McDonalds, name the place you’ll see at least a few pairs of these things.

Not only did we see them at the memorial, we also saw them on women who would sprawl out and do “sexy poses” on things like giant machine guns.  Picture those bad 3 am “Party Line” commercials with the girls in full make-up and negligee who are just “waiting for your call” and you get a sense of the poses.  Not wanting to be a creeper, I didn’t get a shot, but imagine these heels on a blonde sprawled on this machine gun, and you get the idea.

Got the image?  Let’s move on.

The statues, the old military gear, the Soviet stars and steel – shockingly, this wasn’t even the best monument we’d see during our tour, but it’s still amazing.

After the memorial, we decided to hop the metro and head to Andrivsky Street, a long, windy, hilly, cobblestone street which fills itself up with vendors and, of course, high heels.  We picked up some matryoshka dolls and other souvenirs for people back home, tried to take a look inside St. Andrew’s Cathedral, which looks a bit like a rocketship, before making our way back to the hotel for a bite to eat and a nap.

So one of the running threads of the Ukraine posts will be “You need to visit Ukraine”, which seems obvious.  That said, with places like Lviv popping up on the border of Poland within easy access, and with the Crimea no longer a part of Ukraine, some people might gloss over Kiev.

Don’t.  It’s a stunning city with a ton of history.  Totally worth it.  Even worth taking a few moments out of your business day.

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