Updated: Nov 22
Infamous in the mainstream (scripted, yawn) and alternative (real) media, Ukraine is now a country that many people are at least loosely aware of, if not for the right reasons. I've been reading about Ukraine and geopolitics for some time, so why not visit and see what it's like on-the-ground.
On the day I left Sofia it was blanketed in a thin layer of snow, something this winter has produced little of in countries that should be covered. The view from the plane window on the descent into Kyiv (Kiev) was also white. Finally! My trip to Eastern Europe was partly because I wanted to do street photography in stereotypical 'east bloc' winter scenes. Sadly the thicker snow only lasted a few days, how far north/east do I need to go!
A week in Kyiv
I haven't had any proper culture-shock for a long time. The 40km drive into Kyiv in an un-roadworthy car, passing snow covered rubble, old Lada's skirting about dangerously on the motorway, and endless Soviet-era apartment blocks did it's best to enliven a shock to my nervous system. I also didn't get my usual Vodafone "Welcome to X country" mobile message because Ukraine isn't covered; strange how much more comfortable you feel with mobile internet in a new place; most of my previous, more challenging travel was in the pre-mobile era with Lonely Planet maps and making calls meant buying international phone cards. I am old. This type of arrival in a new place is always much more intense alone, I felt it, but like the snow it melted away pretty fast.
Kyiv is a hugely interesting place, home to two UNESCO sites, and gaining popularity with tourists, mainly the British thanks to a TV documentary shown in the UK about Chernobyl (100km north of Kyiv) and how it's now accessible by means of a tour (requires advanced booking). Still, there are very few tourists in the city in the depths of winter, and this obviously makes me a prime target for every tout, beggar and scammer (I only married twice).
So some facts I found interesting about Kyiv:
One of Eastern Europe's oldest cities: human occupation here dates back to the Stone Age with the city founded between 480 and 900 AD (a debated topic). In 1982 it celebrated its 1,500th anniversary.
The name stems from Kyi, one of its legendary founders, with Kyiv/Kiev meaning to belong to the family of Kyi.
Historically affiliated with Kievan Rus (9th-14th century, a loose federation of modern Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine), Lithuania (14th-16th century), Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (16th-17th century), Russian Empire (17th-20th century), Soviet Union (20th century) and various periods of independence, including now obviously.
In the 12th century it was one the largest cities in the world (population 100,000) but it wouldn't be Europe without then being attacked and destroyed at least a few times; the Mongols completed its destruction in 1240.
Prospered during its time under the Russian Empire until independence in 1918, then like so much, completely ruined during WWII although recovered quickly as part of the USSR.
Now the most pro-Western part of the country, Kyiv was the centre of a bloody, US sponsored overthrow of the elected Government in 2013/14; the fallout continues. The US has significant geopolitical interests here as part of its renewed focus on poking the Russian bear.
There were a number of highlights during my stay, but first a low-light. On the first day, nearby Maidan Independence Square I was encircled by three drunken men dressed as giant bears, forced to take photos with them and then unable to get away until finally handing over 200 Hryvnia ($12) in "thanks" for the photos. Beware these unsavory bears.
Kyiv has two UNESCO sites, both extraordinary and must-visits. The 11th century St Sophia Cathedral, named after Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, is Byzantine and I spent a while wandering around its various structures and climbing the bell tower, which has steps so exposed it's guaranteed to give vertigo. Great views from the bell tower and the snow cover really added character to the city vista.
Undoubtedly my best day for photography was one that alternated between blizzard conditions and sunny spells. It was a maximum of -4c (-12c with wind chill) so for the first time I wore thermal leggings. I chose to visit the enormous UNESCO listed Pechersk Lavra monastery complex, you could spend a day here it's that big. Exploring the monastery during a blizzard with only a few monks and elderly people getting about in heavy winter gear including traditional fur coats/hats etc felt I was taken back a thousand years.
Within the complex there's also an underground Monastery of the Caves which you must navigate with a candle, the passageways are just over 1m wide by 2m high. Along the way you pass small cave-chapels, one was filled with worshipers chanting, and also burial tombs that were being kissed by Orthodox pilgrims. Intense experience that was, definitely no photography allowed here. The following photos are all from the Monastery complex.
Getting to/from the Pechersk Lavra monastery involves using the Kyiv metro (30 cents /ride), built during the Soviet years. It is exquisite (unlike the apartments built during this time) with some beautiful stations and also the world's deepest (105 m) requiring two steep escalator rides that each take over 2min! While exquisite, don't expect even a hint of smile or customer service from the ultra grumpy ticket/service ladies. In general, customer service isn't Ukraine's strong point.
I tried to find them but unfortunately it seemed the Lenin statues have been removed from the metro as part of a recent 'decommunization' law in the city. Speaking of statues. Kyiv is home to the Motherland Monument, one of three mega Soviet statues (the others in St Petersburg and Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad). Including the base it's over 100m tall and the sword alone is 9 tonnes. The shield still retains the Soviet emblem. It now contains the Ukrainian museum of WW2 history.
Scattered around the statue are many tanks, planes and missiles including a mounted (nuclear capable) Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) ready to drive off in. The Motherland statue also acknowledges Soviet Russia's key role in defeating Nazi Germany; quite a few Soviets died in the Battle of Kiev. When I say a few, the encirclement by Germany of the Soviet forces here is considered the largest encirclement in the history of warfare (number of troops). Over 700,000 Soviet troops died in this battle..... need I say more?
From Kyiv I took a 7hr train ride to the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine near the Polish border. Kyiv train station is a monster, the entry hall one of the grandest I've ever seen with two enormous chandeliers. There are 4 ticket halls here and uncountable platforms each with a west and east designation. Finding the train is an ordeal, ticket/ information ladies here are also the grumpiest of humans; no information given. I ended up stumbling on the correct platform while trying to find a toilet. Each train door, on each train is attended by a ticket inspector to ensure a) you have a ticket b) you're on the right train c) you're in the right carriage. Ukrainian State Railways has 700,000 employees!
The display in Kyiv station was full of trains destined to seemingly old-world Agathie Christie destinations: Vienna, Moscow, St Petersburg, Budapest, Warsaw. My train was an enormous Soviet style train with booths (4 person) that included beds, pillows, blankets, power sockets, and drinks service. Note this was a day-train. My cabin companions were two Ukrainian bankers (eek!) and a Serb-Ukrainian of dubious background. The most comfortable train ride I've ever done.
End of part 1 in Ukraine, next Lviv. More photos below.