Peter and Elizabeth - RTW 2009-11 travel blog

Big church

Another one! St Andrew's Church which was down Andrew's Descent, lined with...

Street lined with souvenirs - Andrew's Descent.

Statue in front of St Sophia's

St Sophia's

St Sophia's - really amazing with the colourful domes

Close up of the domes

Bell Tower at St Sophia's

Kyiv Opera House

The monastery main gate

Inside the monastery grounds

The main church on the upper level of the monastery

More impressive domes

The church on the lower level of the monastery

This statue is the monument to the motherland or some such thing....

Some church we passed on the way to meet our tour to...

Independence Square

Independence Square

Independence Square

Christmas decorations all light up in central Kyiv.

November 16, 2010

Today was a day spent solely in transit and was a day that started off badly, went OK in the middle and finished off badly, too.

After leaving the hostel early we got a taxi to the bus station and there we looked for our bus. I asked at the ticket windows and information desk but both people told us that no bus to Kyiv existed today and that didn’t leave us feeling very hopeful. We looked around for an internet café we could use but even when we did find one we were shunned – the restaurant had a big sign outside saying “internet 5 zloty” but when we asked if we could use it we got a very unhelpful, unfriendly “no”. Thankfully there was a little internet terminal in the bus station and I was able to confirm there was a bus going today. Eventually one of the main ticket offices opened and I was able to confirm there that our bus was leaving from platform 13. Yes, who’d have guessed lucky #13? We didn’t have our tickets for the bus as I’d lost our email copy but we had been told we could just give our names and for 2 Euros each they would give us a copy of our tickets. However, the hostess on the bus decided she was going to play the role of bitch today and wouldn’t let us on. This time we were thankful to a Ukrainian guy who spoke excellent English AND Polish and was able to take me back to the ticket office and get them to re-print my tickets there. In the meantime, hostess bitch got a bit of a telling off from the driver – she had a list with all passengers on it but had refused to take our passports as evidence of who we were. The driver was not impressed with her and eventually came to the ticket office to tell me it was OK for us to board. By then it didn’t matter though as we had tickets being printed and it was starting to run to plan. I say starting because we soon deviated again as the 9am departure time came and went and around an hour later we were still only just getting ready to depart. Given the bus ride was supposed to be 12 hours anyway an hour extra really was not what we wanted!

So anyway, the bus ride itself was pretty much a non-event although I am actually a big fan of travelling. I’m sure you’ve realised by now that I like going to different places but I actually enjoy the getting there bit, too. I enjoy flying. I even enjoy the anticipation of flying which many people see as “the two hour wait at the airport”. I enjoy taking trains. I’m not such a fan of buses mostly because I never feel completely at ease with someone else driving me around but it is great to see the world go by as you trundle along the bumpy roads. I decided to spend part of this journey really taking in the surroundings and even made a point of making notes about the things that I saw so that I could make an effort at some point to try and write something a little more poetic and meaningful rather than the drivel you usually read… so here goes:

As the bus pulled out of the station in the dreary Warsaw morning, the brief immersion in a sea of diversity was upon us, with the “old” town peering upon us from one side and the construction sites of the new stadia silhouetting the horizon on the other. Before long, bricks and stone were replaced by trees and fields and little old men in the middle of nowhere. The mist that fell blanketed the fields, empty but for a handful of unsightly pylons and telegraph poles that disappeared off into the distance. The rare sprinkling of trees showcased the season we found ourselves in, with barely a leaf still hanging from the exposed branches. The bus chugged along, its progress almost unabated despite the inclement conditions and the sluggish juggernauts accompanying us on our journey into the unknown. With each mile that passed the light faded, the day having barely broken through the haze of the early winter gloom. On many an occasion, a small village would appear out of nowhere and in no time at all, it was gone just as quick as it came. Should you dare to blink, you’d miss the sights that accompany such stranded isolation – a derelict factory trying hard to look like it hadn’t really been abandoned, a chunk of Soviet concrete which tried hard to resemble a cozy home, farmhouses, warehouses, outhouses all showing their age and all wishing and waiting for that new lick of paint to brighten up their dowdy exteriors. You know that excitement is truly lacking in many of these places when the highlight of the day is a woman, equally dowdy and just as old as many of the houses you’ve long since forgotten, standing by the roadside holding a chainsaw. Do you imagine her going home to chop down that tree which blocks her wonderful view of the empty, sodden fields or do you imagine her running amok and causing some semblance of exhilaration in her little isolated town? Your thoughts are only interrupted by the songs on your iPod which seem to enhance your viewing displeasure and lack of creative thought. The “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” seems a touch too realistic for many of the lost souls out here. You spy a man accompanied only by his bicycle and he must be at least a million miles away from even his version of civilization, let alone yours. Do you not think the timeliness of hearing Somewhere Only We Know is a little coincidental? As the journey continues and the road disintegrates then reappears and then goes astray again, your mind begins to wander elsewhere and the sheer stupidity of the McDonald’s sign telling you to buy a Big Mac when you haven’t seen a building, let alone the golden arches for at least an hour barely even raises a titter. It should. It’s bloody crazy. The sheer endurance required for sitting still for what now seems like days makes you question such things – if that doesn’t make a person laugh when did you last laugh and when might you again? Thankfully, the blank surroundings don’t blank the mind and you quickly recall the loud Ukrainian sex scene on the television and the bus hostess’ rubbish effort to throw herself at the off switch. You laugh once again as you did originally and the next laugh doesn’t take much longer in arriving as your travelling companion bends over to get something out of her bag and inadvertently shows the nun in the seat behind the majority of her behind, almost as if the earlier sex scene hadn’t scarred God’s daughter enough. The borders came and the borders went, all too slowly in many regards, but the opportunity of finally seeing a smiling face, albeit on the face of a questioning immigration officer, was a relief from the doldrums. The laughter might’ve returned pretty quickly but there wasn’t much chance of seeing a smile on the next endless section of road ahead. As we crossed the new wasteland, the road signs changed but the scenery did not, although the arrival of dusk meant squinting to inspect it. As quickly as it arrived, dusk departed and the empty spaces outside the window became black holes in your mind and only a truly imaginative being could fill such a void. As the truck headlights zipped by, as the obnoxiously loud Ukrainian shouting on the TV continued, you wished you could be out of this place. Had “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” filled your headphones at that moment you’d have raised an ironic smile but as the graveyard up ahead lit only by candles appeared and “Hotel California” kicked in you hoped for a happy ending.

So, there it is. The long and short of it is though that we were an hour late leaving, spent an hour and a half at the two border areas and arrived in Kyiv at nearly 1am rather than 10pm…

November 17, 2010

After having to take a taxi from the bus station to the hostel and being knowingly ripped off (I was past caring as I was tired and wanted some sleep but Elizabeth was pissed off at me for paying way over the odds for a taxi), we finally got to be but sleep was at a bit of a premium. Given Elizabeth’s visa issues we had an appointment at the Polish Embassy for 8.30am and as we weren’t totally certain where it was we made sure we got up early enough to get there. The last thing we wanted was to miss the appointment. On arrival at the Embassy we were asked why we were there and we told the gentleman and he tried to usher us away telling us Americans didn’t need a visa for Poland. We managed to persuade him to let us in and when we finally got talking to one of the clerks she kept telling us we didn’t need a visa either. Neither of them understood the Schengen visa rules and it was like arguing with a brick wall. She disappeared to speak to the consul and came back and said she could not accept our application. We asked to speak to the consul and when he turned up he happened to be the guy we’d originally spoken to so we weren’t getting anywhere with him either. He basically told us we could not go back into Europe for another three months as we had already spent three months there. Quite honestly, that is f’ing ridiculous as I very much doubt Elizabeth is the first American ever to want to spend more than 90 days in Europe!

We returned to the hostel thoroughly pissed off and annoyed and wondering whether we were going to be able to get back into Poland. We were both tired so we went back to bed but a few hours later the situation was still the same! We decided that maybe we should cut short our time in Ukraine and try to get back into Poland as soon as possible, thinking that the sooner we know the full consequences the better we can plan to deal with them. We have a lot of stuff booked around Christmas and New Year and hopefully we can still make these places now.

We headed out for a late lunch, deciding that moping around the hostel wasn’t doing us much good. The weather was really dreary and foggy today and it certainly didn’t help our mood but when we got to the Crazy Mama Bar, themed after The Rolling Stones, we were hopeful of some comforting food. The “international” menu didn’t seem like much more than a few local dishes and a lot of Asian stir-fries, which really weren’t what I was after. We both ordered the sausages and fries and grabbed a local beer and were at least grateful for something edible and a change of scenery.

Back at the hostel we planned what we wanted to do in Kyiv and when we wanted to try and cross the border again. We had 5 nights booked here and decided we might as well stay here for those and then get the train out. We didn’t have a lot we wanted to do but I wanted to go to Chernobyl and see if I could sprout an extra arm and there is also an amazing looking monastery south of the city we want to go and see. Having filled two of the three days, and deciding to walk around the city on the other, we just hung out. We didn’t even end up going out for dinner as neither of us were hungry and quite honestly I couldn’t be too bothered as I was still a bit de-motivated by the whole situation. We watched a James Bond film and then went to bed making the most of the biscuits and crisps we had leftover from the bus journey. The mattresses on the beds were particularly thin and the beds were so uncomfortable. I’m trying to be positive, honest!

November 18, 2010

Given our apathy towards Kyiv, a little unfairly, we didn’t exactly spring out of bed this morning and when we did finally drag our arses out the main reason was to go and get train tickets! We found the train ticket office (nowhere near the train station, of course) and after the fourth attempt we finally joined what we hoped was the right queue. Of course, at the previous three queues nobody spoke English and they weren’t overly helpful, giving a very good imitation of their Russian cousins. We eventually spent about 45 minutes at the ticket office but at least we got our tickets. The system was so backwards – the computer program ran on something I’d not seen since I had a Commodore 64 in the 1980s and although there was a printer (dot matrix!) it wasn’t sufficient and so our tickets had to be hand-written. No wonder the women before us in the queue were grumpier than your average Ukrainian.

When I talk about the grumpiness here, I don’t exaggerate. On the few occasions here that Elizabeth and I have managed to raise a smile we’ve been met by stern faces. It is almost as if laughing is a crime. It is so difficult, too, to not refer to it as a “Soviet” issue as it was exactly the same as we encountered in Moscow and St Petersburg (much less so in Irkutsk). However, having been through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and met some very helpful and friendly locals, it is obviously not a hangover from the USSR. Perhaps the fact that certain Soviet states embraced the Moscow regime more than others is the reason. I’d guess then that Byelorussians are moody buggers like the Ukrainians, too!

By the time we were done at the ticket office we were both hungry and we ended up having lunch at an Irish bar. We had looked into some local cafés and bars but the staff were either spectacularly unhelpful or they didn’t have English menu and didn’t seem to want to help. We had the lunch special at the Irish bar which was cheap and very average. Things weren’t totally looking up yet!

We decided as we were out to walk around the town a bit more and see if we could find something marginally more scenic than the area we’d walked through this morning. We eventually found St. Sophia’s which formed part of a multi-site UNESCO World Heritage listed property in the city. We decided to have a bit more of a walk around and head into the gardens of the church on our way back. We found a street known as Andrew’s Descent and here we found plenty of souvenir stalls. We couldn’t find any postcards but we did find a cool magnet and Elizabeth bought a little Santa Christmas ornament. Half way down the hill of the Descent was St. Andrew’s Church. It looked like it really needed a good lick of paint but then it was hard to tell with the bulldozers and scaffolding around it! We then went back to St Sophia’s to walk around. The church itself was closed today but the grounds were open so we paid our 3 hryvnia each and went inside. The noise from inside the church sounded like they were doing some pretty significant building works so we were glad we weren’t going inside to see more building sites! Most of the city, even the prettier parts, is being dug up so we had our fill of dirty streets and diggers! The church and grounds were quite pretty but after about 15 minutes we’d walked all the way around and were ready to head out. As we left we looked at an info board about the related sites for the UNESCO property and saw that another one was close by so on the way back to hostel we stopped by the Golden Gate. This was a weird stone/wooden construction which I guess used to be a gate to the city but now looks nothing of the sort and almost looks out of place surrounded by Soviet era monstrosities.

We walked back to the hostel and just hung out back in our room. We had enjoyed the walk around the city but the streets were very up and down and by the time we got back we were both knackered. We decided we didn’t want to walk all the way back into the centre for dinner and we were recommended a nearby bar which was supposedly good and cheap. It was hidden away behind a bank just around the corner and when we got there it was busy and there were actually locals in there who were smiling! I managed to get a decent bit of steak and some cheap Czech beer. Although the food and beer was good and cheap Elizabeth kept getting distracted by one of the waitresses. All the waitresses were dressed in white like nurses and one of the chunkier “nurses” had chosen to wear a clearly visible black thong underneath her outfit. Elizabeth seemed to notice it more than I did but I always seemed to look at the wrong moment, just as she was leaning over a table! It almost put me off my steak…

November 19, 2010

We got up at an almost reasonable time this morning as we were heading out to the monastery, another part of the UNESCO site. We decided as it was a long walk we would have lunch on the way at a place called Pervak. It was a place that was recommended as a good place to get some Ukrainian food and Elizabeth got to try Chicken Kiev and I had veal liver. It was really good and, for once, we were able to have a soft drink for considerably cheaper than a beer. Everywhere else we’d been lately the soft drinks had been comparatively expensive.

It was a long walk to the monastery and when we got there we paid the fee and went inside. The signs inside the site were all in Ukrainian and there was no real map to look at to show us around. Most of the buildings were smaller museums with additional entry fees so we skipped those to just stroll around the monastery and church buildings. The buildings at the top level were interesting although some looked in need of some restoration. As we walked down the hill the site resembled even more of a building site and the roads were wet and muddy. Eventually we found the underground caves where monks are preserved and buried. Apparently one of the main reasons this site is UNESCO listed is the underground caves. The monks lived here and were kept here after their death and the cool, damp conditions helped preserve their bodies. These monks are now kept here in these caves. As we entered the caves the lady said something to us in Ukrainian and we just shrugged our shoulders and she let us in anyway. Everyone in the cave was holding a candle except us but we carried on anyway. It was really creepy and eerie in the caves and was quite hot with so many people cramped into the tiny spaces. It was almost a relief when we were on our way out into the fresh air. Unfortunately we had a long hike up to the top of the monastery and an even longer walk back to the hostel. It seems like every direction you walk here is uphill – it was uphill to the monastery and it seemed like we were walking uphill most of the way back, too!

The monastery was really remarkable, despite the building works, and along with some of the cool buildings we saw yesterday it certainly made the city look a lot more interesting than our first impressions. Once we were back at the hostel we hung out before heading out for another Ukrainian speciality – pizza! The menu wasn’t in English but the waiter was really helpful and managed to find us a decent pizza based on a few choice questions and suggestions! We ended up with a spicy salami pizza and it was pretty good.

November 20, 2010

See individual entry for Chernobyl.

November 21, 2010

Today was our last day in Kyiv and it was to prove quite a mixed bag. We had our train tickets sorted for an 8.42pm departure tonight but Elizabeth and I were still worried about the border crossing back into Poland given we didn’t have the visa. Elizabeth’s mum had sent us a copy of our marriage certificate and we wanted to print it out so we had it handy in case we were questioned at the border. This, along with copy bank statements and hotel reservations, we hoped would be sufficient. The guy at the hostel gave us an idea of where a few different internet cafés where that we could print at and we headed out. After about half an hour of plodding the hills and the rain getting heavier and heavier we were no closer to finding somewhere to print. We eventually reached the post office where they were open and had internet terminals. Unfortunately, you can’t print there and that was our last option. We decided to give up and head to a nearby bar for lunch. They serve their own beer in here and although it was expensive compared to most other local bars we decided it was as good a place as any to avoid the rain! We both ordered wheat beers and they were both really good and the accompanying sausages and potato wedges weren’t bad, either! It was the most expensive meal we’d had in Kyiv but we were past caring and were just glad to see the rain had stopped by the time we ventured out for the long trek back.

At the hostel we had plenty of time to hang out and I started going through my pictures from yesterday. I’d taken over 600 photos but I knew many were duplicates and many weren’t very good as the light was poor in lots of the buildings. I didn’t want to use the flash in most places as the light makes the picture look unnatural. Anyway, I managed to get through a fair chunk of them and managed to get rid of well over 100 of them, too, but I still had way too many!

Eventually the clock ticked over and we decided we’d make some sandwiches for the train ride and then head to the station. The train journey was about 20 hours and so we’d need plenty of sandwiches for along the way! The walk to the station was thankfully mostly downhill and we were there in plenty of time. All seemed to be going our way as even when we got to the platform our carriage was right at the bottom of the staircase we’d taken AND the carriage attendant was friendly and helpful! The carriages we were in were classed as second class and there were three bunks in the room although it seemed we had it all to ourselves. I guess Kyiv to Krakow isn’t that popular a route! We set up our beds and tried to get some sleep fairly early. Neither of us had much luck falling asleep quickly though as the bunks weren’t comfortable, the train was noisy and we were both a bit worried about the border!

We both have mixed feelings about what we saw in Kyiv but I suspect it is heavily tainted by the visa issue and the concern about getting back to Poland. However, Kyiv is not exactly the most picturesque of cities but there are plenty of nice buildings hidden away and some lovely looking old churches. Even the monastery buildings were interesting even if the site itself was a bit of a construction site. The weather had been quite dreary since we’d been here too and that didn’t help our mood although the inclement and bleak weather had added to the Chernobyl trip. I don’t think a warm, bright, sunny day would’ve done the town of Prypiat any justice. Overall though Kyiv was OK, the people were mostly cold, unfriendly and rude but for me it was worth it for the day trip.

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