Places I Remember – Ukraine

There are places I'll remember, all my life, though some have definitely changed! Some for ever, not for better, some are gone off the prudent-traveller map, and some remain. Some are no longer as safe as you would like, especially bearing in mind that your travel insurance is not valid if you travel to areas with certain Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warnings. Parts of Ukraine are not lost to the Solo Lady Traveller (parts are!), but let us say that it has slipped in desirability as a travel target. I have several times driven hundreds of kilometers east across Ukraine from Kiev towards Dniepropetrovsk, through beautiful undulose fields of fertile soils and rich grasses. Most times I never saw one single cow, sheep or pig. A few times I saw a scrawny pony tied to the verge, occasional dogs, but no flocks of chickens or ducks. When I commented to a government Minister that they should be the pork capital of Europe, it was explained to me by my translator that corruption and extortion make it unprofitable to raise animals commercially. The USSR may have fallen in 1991 but the paralysing and corrupt bureaucracy and police force stifle any enterprise. If you intend driving, I strongly suggest that you carry $20 or $30 in US dollar bills; if you are pulled up by a traffic policeman, waving your hands and being unable to speak a word of Russian may work (personal experience) but if not, just hand over $20 and hope it is enough. There is no point in getting angry. Similarly, when leaving at the airport if an official demands to see your wallet, make sure they find only a small amount in it, including a US $20 bill. Getting angry or arguing will just guarantee you a miserable experience. Hotels are extraordinarily expensive, and on one occasion I was shown into my pre-booked room, a tiny sort of maid's room with a single bed and no window, for US$300/night. If this happens you do need to complain, firmly and persistently, and you will get a better room. Major hotels like the Hyatt were about US$600/night when I was there. Kiev is a strange city, a mix of heavily ornate Soviet architecture painted pastel green and interesting old churches with gilded cupolas. Under Imperial rule Church spires had to be gilded, and since the end of the Soviet era they have all been restored to glittering glory. kiev_ukraine Kiev contains some enormous and elaborate churches, notably St Andrews (Andreyiv), a joyously white, gold and emerald green church above the street markets on Andreyivsky; St Michaels Golden Dome Cathedral in the centre of the city, a sky blue and white wedding cake; and St Volodymyr which is bright yellow and has some interesting mosaics and a massive bell in the courtyard. St Volodomyrs is just above the enormous Museum of the Grand Patriotic War (they do rather go in forukraine_kiev_missile grandiose names), a park rolling down towards the river which contains numerous statues of heroic men fighting their way through fountains, dozens and dozens of tanks and armoured cars, bunkers and fortifications, a massive statue of Mother Ukraine 68m tall, and behind it, rather chillingly, a massive intercontinental ballistic missile pointing skywards (only the top of it is visible in this photo). It all looks uncomfortably ready to go back into service. An even more horrific memorial is Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev where somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 people were murdered by the German forces, notably "all the Jews in Kiev". Over two days in 1941 33,771 Jews were killed, history's largest ever massacre of Jews at that time. This quiet forested ravine is a place of pilgrimage for Hasidic Jewish people, and when arriving at the airport my heart would sink when I rushed around the corner to immigration and saw queues of men in black robes with dreadlocks, beards, flat hats and aprons. Immigration always seemed to take a particularly close look at their documents, and the queues would creep forward at snail pace. ukraine_kiev_art_marketsKiev is not in general a lovely city for strolling, but in the mornings there is the most wonderful art market in the street leading to Andreyivsky, where I have bought 6 or 7 paintings. The standard of the painting varies but some of it is outstanding, and likely to cost under US$100 even for large oils. The cafes in summer have sheer white curtains looped back against the pillars on all the outdoor seating areas, which looks so pretty that you want to sit and drink coffee in every one of them. In cooler months pretty rugs rest on every chair to keep your knees cosy. The central Besarabsky markets, on the main street of Kiev, are a wonderland of flowers, fruit and vegetables, stalls selling unattractive chunks of sturgeon which looks a bit reptilian, and caviar. Every tourist leaves Kiev with tins of caviar (except me, I do not like it), apparently at very low prices. There are also endless tiny shops selling handbags, phones, excessively sequinned and lace dresses, and kitsch. DSC00304Outside Kiev are picturesque villages which once held families, but now mostly have only old people living without electricity. Beautiful scenery does not make up for electricity in a cold climate where the temperature can by -20°C with a fierce wind. The Pyrohiv Outdoor Museum of Folk Architecture and Life of Ukraine (good grief) is a 1.5km2 park just south of Kiev, which contains hundreds of pieces of folk architecture including wooden windmills, churches of different regions of Ukraine, and villages which are lived in. It is very charming on a sunny day to wander amongst the buildings scattered through beech forest. ukraine-windmillI bought for $100 a hand-made cross-stitched rug of huge roses and poppies on a black background from an old lady in a Pyrohiv, where I had gone to see the old wooden windmills. The rug measured 2.5 x 1.8 metres, and I really bought it to give her the money, and to save this beautiful rug, which would have taken thousands of hours to make, from the damp and mould it was suffering. I brought it home, cleaned and dried it, and finally gave it to a Ukrainian association. My biggest regret is that in my numerous visits to Ukraine, I did not take the opportunity to go to Chernobyl. I would have really liked to see the abandoned town, the sarcophagus, and the wildlife which is apparently now the most thriving in Central Europe. I always intended to go on my next visit. Memo to self, do not put off unique experiences! Facts Pyrohiv Museum is open 10am-5pm but better check as you need to know that handy Russian phrase, "Nye rabota syvodnya" - it does not work today. See the link above for how to get there by public transport, but it is not an expensive taxi ride. You will find that very little English is spoken except in major hotels.  
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