Walking out of the terminal at Boryspil airport, I was welcomed by that typical Eastern European crisp autumn freshness and I felt at home immediately. The fact that it was the end of the day, the sky was overcast and a drizzle hung in the air, made the gloominess more typical of Eastern Europe of yesteryear than it did of 2009.
Later, when exploring Kiev, which Boryspil services, I had many a deja vu of Budapest, and specifically the Budapest of 1996/7 or even earlier, when I worked on my thesis there. The architecture is comparable, though perhaps Kiev’s is even more grand, and the feel of the city is still a bit exotic, with its inhabitants still seemingly having an attitude which is less European than what can now be found in most former Eastern Bloc countries. Most countries of which, of course, now are simply part of the European Union.
A few weeks back, after I had booked my recent trip to Budapest, the KLM notified me that I was going to lose my airmiles if I wasn’t going to use them. Not wanting to spend them all, I shopped around for a discount destination. A few were available, but only Kiev saw me go to a country in Europe I hadn’t been to before. As I had to throw this trip in during my short stay in Holland, I was only going to be able to fit in a long weekend, at best, meaning that I would have no choice to come back some other time, to see Odessa, Lviv and anything else which might strike my fancy.
What I did need to visit was Chernobyl, which can now be toured on daily organized trips at an unreasonable high price. The concrete hull around reactor 4 isn’t too special, if not imposing; the appeal of the tour is a visit to the village of Pripyat, the town closest to the infamous reactors, which, obviously, has been completely abandoned, though the town’s swimming pool was in use by current employees up to as late as 1998.
I stayed at one of the branches of the enjoyable Independence hostel, close to the city’s main focal point, Independence Square, which struck me as a unimaginative copy of the square, next to Okhovaya ulitsa, close to Red Square in Moscow, both having fountains and monuments on ground level and sizable shopping malls underneath.
Artur, who’s real name is Abdul and who is in fact an Arab from the Emirates, runs several hostels. The day before my departure, trying, and succeeding, to empty a bottle of Teachers with Vahid, he called me asking if I would be okay to move to his newest branch, “nicest hostel in Kiev”. Requesting him to send me updated directions, I happily obliged.
After taking a bus from the airport to the train station, I switched to the metro and got off just off Independence square to walk to the hostel. The directions were decent, though I ended up in the wrong courtyard, where a sombre gentlemen repeatedly barked ‘nyet’ in my face to make it clear that he was not exploiting any type of accommodation. A quick call to Artur saw him pick me up from the street, walking me to the proper courtyard.
The hostel is clean and enjoyable and staff is friendly. I had hoped to find a single room, but none of the hostels were offering those. The mixed dorm in which I ended up staying only had six beds and was also home to the girls working at the hostel, on and off, seemingly one day at a time. The kitchen also doubles as a common room and each morning the most delicious omelets are served, though the accompanying bread could use some improvement.
Incidentally, the Russian word for ‘station’, vokzal, interestingly, is a corruption of the English ‘Vauxhall’, referring to the London’s once opulent Vauxhall Gardens. Usage of the word vokzal seeped into the Russian language when the first train service opened between Saint Petersburg and the nearby gardens in Pavlovsk.
Russian and Ukrainian are very similar, the primary differences occurring in pronunciation.
On my last morning in the hostel after an unplanned night on the town, I was having a groggy breakfast, chatting with one of the other guests. After a few enquiries, realizing that we’re in the same sector, IT and NGOs, we also realized that David and I actually have known each other for many a year, but never actually met in person. David was in Kiev by chance for work. Seriously, what god is rolling the dice?
The night before, after spending the day at Chernobyl, I had drinks and dinner with two young Dutchies, on Interrail, a Lithuanian-Canadian journalist chick, all on the tour, and a Spanish teacher who had driven to Kiev and now was planning on driving onwards into Asia. After dinner, the Spaniard wanted to go out clubbing. I was only mildly interested, the Lithuanian had a journalistic interest and I could see the Dutchies ears go red.
The Spaniard, Raymond, in charge, took us on a ten minute walk which saw us ending up at an all night supermarket. Excellent, as the alternative to clubbing was going to be an evening at the hostel with bottles of vodka. We bought two, which I stowed away in the breast pockets of my coat.
Still on the lookout for a club, the first wanted us to pay nearly 20 euros. The second settled for just under 10. We went in.
Surprisingly classy, live lounge jazz and bossanova was being played for a well dressed crowd entertaining themselves on extremely comfortable couches. The music was so well done that when not looking at the performers, a DJ, a female singer and a trumpet player, you’d be tempted to think the music was actually pre-recorded.
After the live music, an MC announced pairs of mostly female dancers strutting their stuff in nearly their birthday suits with some in nothing but a pair of nickers. Appreciated, after a while, all the dancers came onto the stage together, all holding buckets in their hands. With those, they went quite wild on the floor, showing off their moves and their bodies for the patrons of the club, hoping to extract tips from the crowd. One of the scantily clad girls jumped on one of the Dutchies’ back and started snogging him. Understandably, this led to a sizable tip, the whole objective being to collect the most tips in order to win. Winning what was not totally clear to us. One of the Dutchies thought the winning girl was handed a set of car keys.
Having tasted desire, the boys then went and snapped as many photos as they could right in front of the stage. The Lithuanian girl, Medeine, went home and Raymond had fallen asleep. I thought it was time to go home, taking Raymond with me but leaving the Dutchies behind.
At reception, one of the bottles of vodka, which we had to leave behind in order for us to enter, here called gorilka, turned out to have disappeared. All I got for it in return were shrugs from the oversized bouncers.
The Chernobyl tour is seriously overpriced at 170 USD. You get picked up at around 830 in the morning and dropped off back in town at 6 in the evening. The drive is about two hours each way and ends with a communal meal. The visit to the reactor itself is not very interesting. In the area around the reactors, you’re only allowed to take photos at one particular location. Outside of this area, however, is where the interesting bits are. The abandoned town of Pripyat is littered with all sorts of beautiful urban ruins.
At one particular spot, where you can climb up a hotel as well as explore the palace of culture, I had barely finished with checking out the hotel when we were already herded back into the van to be shuttled to our next location.
I easily could spend a few days here when all you get on the day’s tour is barely a few hours.
Though, in places, radiation in and around Chernobyl is relatively high, radiation levels don’t approach lethal levels anywhere and worrying levels almost nowhere. Some of the almost 8000 (!) employees still working on the site work half a month on, half a month off.
Radiation collets in certain types of vegetation, such as moss, something we were told to avoid walking on. Not always an easy task, when everything is overgrown.
Michael Bulgakov, author of the superb The master and Margarita lived in Kiev for a while and his house is now a museum. Wikipedia mentions that the street his house is on also contains a relief of Behemoth, one of the characters from the book, a cat with a penchant for chess, vodka and pistols. I went in search for the relief on my last morning, but was unsuccessful.
My first day in Kiev was spent at perhaps the city’s two main tourist attractions; a statue of mother Russia, indeed something of a less effective copy of the statue in Stalingrad, and The Caves Monastery, the Kievo-Pecherska Lavra, underground dug out caves operating as churches.
The calls of the Ukrainian chain of fast food restaurants, Puzata Hata I could not withstand. Good food, cheap, though a bit crowded and bursting with energy. And serving beer and vodka too!
In total, I was mistaken for an Ukrainian some 6 times, mostly people, Ukrainians, asking for directions. I guess that here, too, I blend in. Or maybe it was just that I felt so very comfortable in Kiev.
Download of difference
The video for the event in Amsterdam related to Vodacom’s World of Difference program is now online. I’m not downloading it as, at this point, the price of bandwidth is comparable to several souls for me.
I clowned around at times, so even though I didn’t win, I might be in it.