Ukraine Day 1 – Minsk to Kyiv
14th October 2019
Our flight to Kyiv is at 1.30 pm but due to the old man’s ineptitude with time zones, the hire car has to be dropped at 9 am. So today consists mostly of sitting in Minsk airport. There are worse places; there are plenty of old aircraft and bison sculptures dotted around to keep me entertained.
Ironically, the car hire desk doesn’t open until 10 am anyway, which makes returning a car quite complicated – especially as there is no drop off point. Apparently (we finally learn) you park in the general car park and the Europcar employee rides up and down on a scooter looking for his cars. Parking is not easy. The car park is full and it’s difficult to drive round because so many cars are parked in places other than parking bays.
Eventually, after two full circuits of the airport and one of the car park, we are sorted and can settle in the departure lounge. We even have enough roubles left for 2 burgers and one portion of chips.
The flight is only 40 minutes. Soon we have left the flat countryside of Belarus and have a great view of Kyiv as we commence our descent on a beautiful afternoon. It’s 22 degrees – it was minus 3 when we arrived last week. I am in a t shirt lugging my suitcase of fleeces, coat, scarf, gloves etc.
We book an Uber to the flat of a former colleague. He lives in block number 8 but I accidentally enter 18 into the App. As we reach the correct address, I try to rectify my mistake. As luck will have it, I can count to 8 in Russian, so think I can communicate with the driver. This is not the case. As we pass number 8, we ask to stop (a lot) but to no avail. He has been booked to drop at 18 and he is going to drop at 18. A kilometre later, we are released from our taxi hostage situation and have to walk 10 blocks back down the road.
I last saw Tom when I left the immigration service 18 years ago, so it’s great to catch up. We are staying in Obolon, a suburb on the bank of the River Dnieper. We take a walk to a park which runs along the riverside. It’s a public holiday so it’s heaving with families enjoying a lovely evening.
We stop at a play area. Tom’s three small children are keen to show us their skills on various apparatus. It’s the first time I’ve encountered a play area with a punch bag – the park was financed by the boxer Klitschko and there are muscle bound young men working out among the children hanging from the monkey bars.
We return to dinner of homemade borscht and spend the evening drinking wine and reminiscing about the good old days when we worked together in the 90s.
Ukraine Day 2 – Kyiv
15th October 2019
Today we have our own personal tour guide (Tom has kindly offered to show us round, despite a broken foot). We start at Rodina Mat – a huge statue depicting the motherland with a war museum at its base. The design is similar to Minsk’s Museum of the Great Patriotic War, only here the museum, entitled: Ukraine, an unfinished War, tells a far less pro Russian version of events. Outside, from a row of 3 Soviet tanks, one has been painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag and turned to face the others.
The Motherland statue depicts a lady holding aloft a sword and shield. You can take a lift and climb a series of ladders up 36 metres to a viewpoint at the bottom of her skirt or climb a further 64 metres of ladders to the top of the shield. We wimp out and opt for her feet where a 360 degree viewing platform provides a great view of the city.
After a break for lunch (chicken Kyiv, of course, and Obolon beer) we visit the Pecherska Lavra, a monastery consisting of a series of gold domed churches cascading down the hillside.
At the bottom are complex of caves lined with mummified monks. I have to wrap a blanket round my trousers and wear a headscarf. It’s 22 degrees so wearing the blanket is quite a trial, as is trying not to trip over it on the stairs. We follow a group of pilgrims who all purchase a candle at the entrance. We assume this is for religious reasons. In fact, it is pitch black in the caves. Luckily, I have my trusty iPhone to light my heathen way.
Next, we climb to the top of the Bell Tower for a spectacular view of the monastery and the city below.
Our final stop is Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). This was the venue for Ukraine’s pro independence demonstrations. It’s interesting to visit with a local who was here for the latest of these struggles and provides a vivid account.
We return home for a dinner consisting of caviar and champagne from Odessa. Our host is ensuring we get the full Ukrainian experience.
Ukraine Day 3 – Chernobyl
16th October 2019
Today we’re taking a guided tour of Chernobyl, together with Olena, our Ukrainian hostess. We board our minibus in Kyiv and are issued with permits and a Geiger counter before setting off for the exclusion zone.
Upon arrival at the 30 km exclusion zone, we are provided with dossimeters and told not to eat or drink anything we find in the forest. We proceed to the town of Chernobyl where 2500 people still live and work on a shift basis, staying in dorms and spending half of each month outside the zone to decrease their radiation exposure. Following the fall of communism, Chernobyl is the only Ukrainian town to retain a Lenin statue in the main square. Presumably it’s too radioactive to mess with.
Our tour guide is quite bossy and a little crazy. We have already been in trouble for eating a banana inside the zone. It happens again when she tells us that the chief scientist was sentenced to ten years in prison but released after 4 and employed at a nuclear power plant. We can’t help laughing.
After stops at various monuments and an enormous 700 metre long Soviet missile detection system (each stop prolonged as the guide keeps disappearing) we head into the inner 10 km exclusion zone. Again, the guide disappears at the checkpoint. Apparently she is feeding feral cats and dogs all over Chernobyl and tour guiding is her way of accessing the zone. She finally returns very excited because she’s found some new kittens.
Eventually we’re off again and stop on the river bank for our first view of the power plant. The Geiger counter goes crazy. From a reading of 0.1 in Kyiv, we are up to 1.3. The alarm sounds at above 0.2, so eventually we turn it off because the noise becomes annoying.
It’s time for lunch at the power plant staff canteen. After a radiation check, we are admitted and have lunch of borscht and turkey with rice and the obligatory dill.
In the afternoon we visit the town which housed the power station workers and their families; Pripyat. The population of 45,000 was evacuated two days after the explosion by a fleet of 1200 buses. Tragically, by this time, people had already been exposed to lethal doses of radiation.
It’s quite eerie in this abandoned city which is slowly being reclaimed by the forest. We visit the fire station, school and swimming pool. We arrive at the amusement park with its iconic Ferris wheel at 3 pm, seven hours after departing Kiev. Our guide asks if we fancy an hour’s walk? The answer is a resounding no.
We spend 30 minutes walking through the funfair (which was never used – it was due to open on May Day, 5 days after the explosion) through the main square where a decaying restaurant and supermarket display Banksy style graffiti of people going about their daily business wearing gas masks.
Here, we are offered an optional 10 minute walk to the river station and hospital. It takes 30 minutes to reach the river station through the forest which was Lenin Avenue, trying to dodge the man holes hidden beneath the fallen leaves (the man hole covers were looted for scrap metal). Our hour’s walk has been achieved by stealth. Fearing a mutiny, she cancels her hospital plans and we return to the bus and depart the exclusion zones, via radiation checks and random animal feeding.
It’s 7 pm when we reach Kyiv. It’s been a fascinating but long day and we still have bouncy children and packing to negotiate before it’s over.
Ukraine Day 4 – Lviv
17th October 2019
A compulsory element of any trip is a journey by train. This morning we are travelling from Kyiv to Lviv. It’s an early start to get into town for a 6 am departure.
The train is way nicer than in the UK; it’s extremely clean and modern with tv screens and a trolley service with excellent sandwiches (chicken, cheese, pickled cucumber and dill mayonnaise – a winning combination).
The journey to Lviv takes 5 hours. There’s some initial jostling over the blind; the person in front thinks it should be closed. She’s wrong. Half the fun of a train ride is watching the world go by, so it’s not a battle I’m going to lose. I win (obviously) and get to enjoy a spectacular sunrise over the city before we plunge into the forest.
5 hours later we arrive in Lviv. It’s very different from Kiev with its modern buildings and skyscrapers. In Lviv the old buildings and cobbled streets give a sense that it’s been plucked from a previous century and dumped in 2019. Once part of Poland until it was gifted to Stalin by Hitler, Lviv has an eclectic border town feel.
We head first for Lvivarniya; a centuries old brewery, now owned by Carlsberg. Downstairs is a museum and upstairs is a tasting room, where for about £1 you get 4 generous measures to sample. After 2 rounds of beer on little sleep and no lunch, we stagger our way to our hotel.
Something Hotel No 10 neglects to mention is that it’s on the 4th floor (101 stairs) and there’s no lift. We climb to reception, check in and descend again in search of food.
It’s a lovely sunny afternoon so we settle ourselves in the outside seating of Baczewski Restauranta Polish restaurant and order our meal. Lviv is packed with buskers and literally the worse singer ever, armed with a microphone and accompanied by some woman randomly whacking a drum to no apparent rhythm, starts to crucify the complete works of the Beatles right next to our table. It’s briefly amusing trying to identify the song but the amusement soon wears off and I just want it to stop. In addition, the restaurant staff are constantly coming outside to smoke by our table.
I try to move inside but a fierce waitress says it’s not possible until we’ve finished eating what we already ordered as it will confuse the kitchen. There is a long debate. My main points; 1) the chef knows where I’m sitting, he’s already smoked 2 cigarettes over my head and 2) why would we want to sit in a restaurant when we’d finished eating all our food? Her main point; rules are rules. We are still arguing when our waiter appears with our starters. It’s a mountain of wooden platters and earthen pots. I can see his hands starting to shake and the old man’s soup spilling so I give up and return outside.
My cheese platter comes with 16 pieces of cheese and two crackers. I eat two cheese and crackers then sit wondering whether I can face another encounter over the two crackers per plate rule. I am given two pieces of bread – one with chilli and one with ginger and grape. The food is delicious. It’s a shame the service leaves a bad taste.
For main course I have a ‘burger’. This is a lamb patty with lettuce, tomato and pickles sandwiched between two… potato pancakes. It comes in a bell jar and as the waiter removes the jar, he swings it round a few times waft the burger aroma, almost taking my eye out in the process.
We finish eating. The busker is singing ‘knocking on heaven’s door’. He doesn’t know the lyrics so just sings the same 4 words over and over and over. I’ve had enough and flee the restaurant leaving the old man to deal with the noise and the bill.
Ukraine Day 5 – Lviv to Kyiv
18th October 2019
Our train to Kiev is at 11.26 so we depart the hotel in plenty of time to walk to the station via Lviv’s main sights.
Our train is a sleeper train in day formation. A carriage contains 10 compartments each of 4 berths. Our seats are numbers 44 and 45. This means that when we reach the end of the carriage, the numbers have only reached 40. We stand outside the toilet a bit perplexed, then sit in some random seats, only to be moved on by their owners. We take another look and discover that each compartment has two extra numbers for day time when 6 people share the bottom 2 bunks.
It’s a 6 hour journey to Kiev. This train has no trolley service so we are unprepared. It’s quite dull, chugging through trees for hour after hour. The highlight is a trip to the toilet. The seat looks like it’s been wrapped in a giant condom. You press a button so the plastic rotates giving you a clean strip to sit on, thus avoiding contact with your predecessor’s wee.
We reach Kyiv station. We departed from an old gothic style station and have arrived in a modern building of glass and steel. It’s a bit confusing. There are actually station buildings, one on each side of the tracks. Eventually we find our way to to correct station and make our way through the rush hour to Tom’s.
We spend our last evening in Kiev with our hosts, eating Tom’s pumpkin soup, Babushka’s stuffed peppers and Olena’s cottage cheese pancakes. All washed down with Odessan champagne.
Ukraine Day 6 – Kyiv to Bournemouth
19th October 2019
It’s our last day in Kiev but our flight isn’t until evening, so there’s time for one last outing. We take the metro into town and then the funicular between its 100 year old art deco stations to Kiev’s blue and gold domed skyline with St Sofia’s cathedral, St Michael’s Monastery and Saint Andrew’s church.
We round off our visit in style with lunch at 100 Rokiv Tomu Vpered (100 Years Ago in the Future), a restaurant run by the winner of Ukrainian Masterchef. The food is a modern twist on traditional Ukrainian dishes. There are some whacky things on the menu; I skip the edible bees and the celery with ash and order the chicken with beetroot kvass (bread made with fermented black bread). The chicken is served naked, whilst the waiter brandishes a blown egg with the sauce sealed inside. He cracks the egg on my plate, and the vibrant pink sauce appears from within. It tastes delicious.
By the time we are finished, I’m so full I can hardly walk and we waddle back to Obolon to begin our journey home. The traffic is heavy due to a pile up on the bridge, so we order our Uber in plenty time. The fare and time quoted to complete the 41 km journey are 460 UAH and 55 minutes. The driver waits briefly in the traffic, then announces he knows a short cut and sets off in the other direction. Eventually we cross the bridge and reach the turn off for the airport. He says he knows a better way. We have now been driving for 30 minutes and are 48 km from the airport. We’re not sure what’s happening, where we’re going, if we’ll make our flights or if we’re actually being kidnapped. Eventually, 90 minutes later, we arrive the airport, stressed but relieved. The fare has doubled, the old man’s flight is already boarding (he is continuing to Moldova, whilst I return home for the Great South Run) and I am a nervous wreck. I have just enough time to rush into duty free to buy vodka for daughters number 1 and 2 and board my plane to London. I am in the back row, surrounded by dozens of pensioners returning from a Saga trip to Georgia and Armenia. A lady asks me to swap seats as she can’t sit by the window – she’s afraid of heights. I don’t like to point out that we’re still a hell of a long way up, regardless of where she sits. We change seats and spend the next few hours sharing stories of our Eastern European adventures.
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