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Published: October 26th 2016
Kiev's Independence Square, where two 21st century revolutions took place.
In my younger days, the only things I associated with Kiev were the eponymous chicken dish and its football team; Dynamo Kyiv. The time had now come for me to see if there was indeed, anything dynamic about Ukraine's capital.
Now I've caught buses from some strange places on this journey, but the university building to which I was directed to catch my bus to Kiev definitely didn't look like a place where you caught buses. Inside, there was one lady who spoke reasonably good English and she was so kind as to walk me to the correct place a hundred metres down the road, while scolding me off for arriving to catch my bus so late. Well, I had arrived half-an hour before the bus was due to leave and I needed that half an hour to find the bus. Good new habit, this arriving-at-the-station-early business. In the bus, other locals kindly pointed out that the seat numbers were located below the seats rather than above them and the man sat next to me kindly picked up my ticket for me when I dropped it.
All of which made me think that Ukrainians aren't unfriendly at all - it's
Bell Tower At Pechersk Lavra
The bell tower at the Caves Monastery provided some very good views over the city.
just their natural expressions and mannerisms that make them seem to be.
I was originally supposed to catch an overnight train from Odessa to Kiev but the places on board sold out fast. I then had to find some alternative way to get there and discovered online there are buses; buses that take just seven hours, a journey that could be done in a day. It was a bit of a pain finding the ticket office the previous day however (it wasn't located at the bus station) and indeed it was a pain finding where the bus left from! But I think I prefer taking all day to travel rather than an overnight journey - with accommodation so cheap and with plenty of time up my sleeve, I thought a bus would be much more comfortable.
Maybe it wasn't. It was a full bus to Kiev unfortunately and the man sat next to me was a man-spreader. Pretty sure he took my window seat too. The bus stopped every hour for five minute breaks which was welcome since the bus was so stuffy, but unwelcome at the same time because I like to keep moving and to get to
St Michael's Domed Cathedral
The showpiece building inside St Michael's Monastery.
my destination quickly.
When I eventually got to Kiev, I jumped on the metro and I have to say from the elaborately designed stations, to how long and deep the escalators go; from the signage, to the high frequency of trains and the expressions on people's faces - it felt like I was in Moscow
There is a surprising amount to do in Kiev and I formulated my own walking tour of the city. Walking through Peizazhna Alley, which had some street art and some interestingly designed playgrounds and park features, I came to Andriyisky Urziz, one of Kiev's oldest and most famous streets.
The street even has its own museum; The Museum Of One Street contains a plethora of objects from the street's history, detailing the lives of the people who lived on it. It was magnificently laid out and the swing music in the background helped to transport you back to the early 1900s. It was probably quite interesting - I wouldn't know because all the displays and captions were in Ukrainian!
Walking up steep, cobblestone Andriysky Urziz, you pass the Castle Of Richard The Lionheart and the mint-green, iconic St Andrew's Church, sitting atop a
Iconic street in old town Kiev.
hill as if on a plinth.
Moving towards the heart of the city, I dropped into St Michael's Monastery and its impressive seven dome cathedral. It was absolutely blinging inside - so much gold - but you weren't meant to take pictures. It was too striking a place not too however, so I managed to sneak a couple of pics - something I've become very good at doing.
I then marched down to Independence Square aka "Maidan". It was here that Ukraine had both of their 21st century revolutions.
The first was the Orange Revolution, which saw massive daily demonstrations in the square following an election that was widely believed to have been rigged in favour of the victor, Viktor Yanukoych. The revolution was successful; a re-run was ordered and under intense domestic and international scrutiny, Viktor Yuschenko was declared the victor with 52% of the vote opposed to Yanukovych's 44%.
It was also here that a revolution much more recent took place just two years ago. Students camped around the independence column demanding that President Victor Yanukovych (who won the 2010 presidential election - fairly, this time) accept a trade deal to take the Ukraine closer towards the
The showpiece of Independence Square, this monuments celebrates Ukraine's independence from the USSR.
EU. Many Ukrainians were desperate for Yanukovych to sign it; instead, Yankovych decided at the last minute to accept a deal offered by the Russians and this did not go down well. Government forces then beat the peaceful student protestors which caused outrage around the country. As well as a protest against the Russian deal, it was also a protest against corruption and increasing oppression; the beatings of the students was the last straw. The next day, one million citizens came to the square to protest and perhaps predictably, the protest as cleared by force and 73 people lost their lives. These people are remembered with plaques and ribbons tied around trees just up the road. However, the revolution was successful once again - Yanukovych fled to Russia and a new government was formed. This came at a price though - just over a week after the end of the revolution, Russia had annexed Ukraine's Russian-leaning Crimea peninsula and fighting eventually broke out in Eastern Ukraine which continues to this day.
This was all explained by our walking tour guide Marina who also gave us info on many other sights around the newer part of the city, including the presidential
Indeed. In the Death Star section of Star Bars, a Star Wars themed bar we visited twice.
palace, the national bank and the friendship arch. As always, the walking tour was a handy way to see the sights and learn a bit about the city's - and the country's - history.
It wasn't really a typical backpacker crowd at my hostel; the majority of the group had been staying there for some time.
It was as if the hostel was some sort of black hole and Hotel California for backpackers - you'd get sucked in and then never be able to leave. There were a couple of strange characters there too.
However, pretty much everyone there was a single traveller and thus making friends was easy; and it was with some newly-made friends that I went out that night.
After a bit of faffing around waiting for people at the hostel, we then took a huge walk to Banka, a pretty cool bar that served some amazing dumplings as well as a good dark beer. One toilet for the whole bar was a bit of an abomination though.
But the coolest place we went to that night was just down the road at Star Bars - an I-kid-you-not, Star Wars-themed bar. There was an inflatable,
Walking through this underground network filled with the coffins of dead monks was an eerie experience.
life-sized Jabba The Hut and the interior was even decorated like Tatooine downstairs and the Death Star upstairs. There were PlayStations, Storm Trooper helmets, Chewbacca faces and Darth Vader masks for customer use; and there was foosball too, which always provides a lot of fun and laughs. Although not anywhere near cranking, the place was sufficiently busy with enough nerds, alcohol and Bon Jovi for everyone to have a good singalong. Limp Bizkit's "Rollin'" was also well received. The peach and mint shisha pipe we all shared was the icing on the cake. Good times.
The next day, American Ben joined me for a visit to Kiev's most visited attraction - Pechersk Lavra, or the Caves Monastery. There are loads of monastic complexes all over the city, usually marked with a huge cathedral/church, sometimes a huge bell tower and always with loads of living quarters and administrative buildings. Pechersk Lavra is the biggest of them all and also has a fascinating network of underground caves, with dozens of niches in which lie glass coffins containing the bodies of monks who have passed on. It is a slightly eerie and awkward experience as you make your way through hot, dark
View From The Great Lavra Bell Tower
Looking south east across the Dnieper from the Great Lavra Bell Tower at Pechersk Lavra.
tunnels filled with coffins, while people pray - sometimes quite vocally - upon them. I've never really seen anything like it, anywhere else before. A cool experience nonetheless.
We then hit an open-air, Soviet-era gym - basically a whole lot of old, rusting, metal weight machines that are free for any shirtless Slav to go and use down by the river. The testosterone in the air was palpable. Vladimir Putin would've loved it. Like Tiraspol
, Kiev also has a beach down by the river and some hardy souls were even having a swim despite the temperature being well below 15 degrees and the water probably even more so. Like in Tiraspol, there was no way I would swim in water that murky.
Our hostel crew then did what we did every night and had dinner at our favourite local pub - Polata! As well as being close by, the beer and food is budget-friendly for foreign backpackers - the Ukraine in general is as well, which is why I suspect many a drifter has decided to spend a bit more time here. Beer is just 15 hryvnyas (yeah, I still can't pronounce it either) which is just 0.50€ for
St Andrew's Church
Iconic church on Andriyisky Urziz.
a pint! For the price of one pint in London, I could get twelve pints here! Outrageous. I was lovin' it. The cheapest place I have travelled by far in Europe. I could also get a steak dinner with fries and salad for just 2.30€! 2.30€! The actual pub was quite cool too - down a dark alley around the back of an apartment block, it is just the kind of dark alley that you know not to walk down from Travelling 101. Then hidden in the basement behind a non-descript door with no signage whatsoever, is the pub. The only clue you get is a bunch of smokers outside and as I walked past them, I was half-expecting them to ask me why the hell I was going into their apartment. Behind the doors are patrons doing the pub's special shot where you don a fireproof suit and a flaming helmet, while being knocked on the head by sticks and a beer barrel by the bartender as you down multiple shots.
Similar to what I experienced in San Juan del Sur
, because people at the hostel were generally part of the furniture there, it meant it created a real family feel
The grounds of former president Viktor Yanukovych's ridiculously opulent residence.
and it became hard to leave the place. However there is also a surprising amount to see and do in Kiev, including the former palace of the former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych, which is why I decided to extend my stay in Kiev by one more day.
Taking the metro as far north as I could go, I then took a marshrutka
- Ukrainian for colectivo
- to the palace itself. The grounds of the place are huge and you can rent bicycles to explore its 140 hectares (350 acres). The gardens around Honka - the colloquial name of the palace itself - are magnificently kept, with rose bushes, carpet lawns, lakes, fountains and even duck houses! But the main event is the palace itself and you have to be in the know for a guided tour through it as it is not advertised anywhere; meet outside the fitness complex on the hour, next to the golden load of bread(!).
And it is the fitness complex that you tour through first, complete with massage room, tanning room, personal gym, boxing ring, tennis court and bowling alley! The tour was completely in Ukrainian so I didn't have a clue what -
The name "Honka" was given to former president Viktor Yanukoych's house on his Mezhyhirya estate after the Finnish company that built it.
which was a lot - was being said but apparently Yanukovych was the only one allowed to use the entire complex. Yanukovych only left the palace two years ago following Ukraine's most recent revolution, so everything is still state-of-the-art and still retains a lived-in feel.
A tunnel then connects the fitness complex to the actual palace - which is MTV's Cribs on steroids. The outside of the place actually looks fairly modest; this is because almost the whole palace is made of wood including rather ironically, the chapel, which is right next to the staircase with one of the more impressive chandeliers you've ever seen outside of a royal palace. There were so many lights on it that it heated up the room when on! I say that it's ironic that Yanukovych had his own chapel here because of how much money he embezzled to fund his extravagant lifestyle - but then again the Mafia all believe in God too. Almost every room had a massive TV in it although Yanukovych's bedroom - as well as the separate bedroom of his mistress - had two.
There was a room made completely of salt - sleeping in it was supposed to
This is the main lounge of former president Viktor Yanukovych's palace. Rich.
be good for you although Yanukovych never got the chance to find out - and there were several bird cages (some made of gold) housing all sorts of exotic parrots and budgies. Oh and he also had a stuffed lion.
The most ostentatious feature of the palace had to be the bathrooms and their gold faucets and showers. Oh yeah - the trash cans and toilet brushes were DIAMOND ENCRUSTED. If there was a definition for something so grotesquely over-the-top, Mezhyhirya would surely be it. At two hours, the tour was perhaps unnecessarily long though it probably would have been outstanding value-for-money if it was in English.
On my last day in Kiev, I had a 5pm train to catch, which left me just enough time to see the last major sight I hadn't seen in Kiev yet which was St Sophia's Cathedral and the grounds of its monastery. The inside of St Sophia's didn't quite bling as much as St Michael's or the churches at Pechersk Lavra, as all the frescoes have faded somewhat and there isn't so much gold around the altar, but its dark lighting did give it a bit of atmosphere. Shaped much like the
Egg MosaicAya Sofya
This mosaic made up of painted Ukrainian eggs was on display inside the cathedral at St Sophia's Monastery.
- its namesake church in Istanbul - there are a couple of galleries on its mezzanine that includes a mosaic made completely of traditional painted Ukrainian Easter eggs, which was quite impressive. There were also models of what both Kiev and St Sophia were like in the early centuries of the second millennium, so there was a bit more to see than just the church.
While in Odessa I had booked a flight from Basel back to London, which would signal the end of my European travels this time around. It also meant that I was now on a strict schedule, much like I was in Central America after I had booked my flight to Cuba. Suddenly I didn't have the freedom any longer to linger anywhere if I wanted to, which was annoying and meant I had to keep moving. For the next month it was now going to be non-stop.
Which was why I was in a rush to get to the train station to make my train to Lviv. While I could afford to stay another day, it was going to make things tighter on the way to Basel. The train left at 5.20pm and
Architecture In Kiev
This very interesting building is located on Kiev's most iconic street of Andriyisky Urziz.
I left the hostel at about 4.45pm. I figured it would take fifteen minutes to get there, five minutes to buy my ticket and then I'd be right on time to board the train.
That was perhaps naive. First of all, I got a little lost getting to the train station itself which was further away than I had thought. Once there at 5.10pm, I then had no idea where the ticket desks were. When I finally located them - no thanks to the unfriendly, unhelpful, impatient, non-English-speaking ladies at the information desk (a usual phenomenon in Ukraine) I then discover there are 37 of them and all of them have massive queues. No thanks to unfriendly, unhelpful, impatient, non-English-speaking ladies at one of the ticket desks, I then finally locate the correct ticket desk that I need to buy from. But by the time I get to the front of the queue it is too late. The next train is not for another twenty minutes but it wasn't a fast train but a slow one arriving in Lviv at 2am.
As I saw my train heartbreakingly take off into the distance I then considered all of my options. I
Government building that houses the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers.
really wasn't keen on a late arrival or an overnight train when I know I could get there in just five hours - but I would have to wait 24 hours for the next fast train. To be honest I had wrestled for most of the day about spending another night in Kiev as I felt like I wasn't quite ready to go; now I decided to follow my instincts.
Which worked out in the end; I got to spend one last night drinking with my hostel crew and got another night in at Star Bars. Two of the crew were leaving for Lviv the next day anyway so now I had travel buddies. And I also got to see another monastery before I left where the main church inside it had arguably the best interior (so much gold!) of all the ones I had seen in Kiev - for no admission fee too (though I was told off by a nun for taking a photo - I apologised and legged it out of there straight away).
Although I was well and truly monasteried-out - all churches in Kiev look the same - by the time left, there is
Bohdan Khmelnytsky Statue
Khmelnytsky was a leader of Cossacks in the 17th century. You can see St Michael's Monastery in the background.
nevertheless plenty to see and do in this dynamic city, something that surprised me. Kiev really is a dynamo.
For now however, it was time to head back west on the loop back 'home' to a city supposedly more Central European than any other in the Ukraine; Lviv.
До скорої зустрічі (do skoroi zustrіchі)!
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