Kiev – Conquered

by Garry Cook

I went to Kiev to interview a rock band. Forty per cent of the band were from Leeds. It’s a long story (but I have this one great memory of Death Valley Screamers rehearsing with a performance of The Vapors’ 1980 hit Turning Japanese).

You don’t go to Kiev for on a last-minute cheap deal. The landing fees charged by the Ukraine government to airlines are high. So no Ryanair, Easyjet and BMIbaby flying into the capital city.

The flights that do arrive at Kiev Borispol cost cash so the cheapest way to get there from Britain is via another country. I went London Stansted to Riga with Easyjet and then hopped on a airBaltic flight. It cost me around 300 quid though you may have to make a different journey (for a similar price, cheaper of your lucky).

Prices could go up in the summer of 2012 when the football European Championships visit* – but so will the inventiveness of the travellers seeking the cheapest way to get out there and support their team.

I do have anecdotal evidence of travelling across the country by road and, while it does not reach Indian levels of torment, it doesn’t sound great. But perhaps that is part of the beauty of Ukraine – visiting a country that is yet to be touristified. When you arrive in Kiev you feel like your witnessing one of the last remaining remnants of how the Eastern Bloc was. Like looking back through a snapshot in time of Soviet Union communism.

That’s not to say the impressive city of Kiev is in any way deprived, sunk in poverty or poorly developed.  The first (and only) Jennifer Lopez J.Lo retail store I ever saw was in Kiev. There are plenty of retail chain type bars and restaurants, even if I had never heard of the brand. Apparently there’s a TGI Fridays there (I actually ate in my first TGI at Riga Airport).

But it’s the foreboding megalithic architecture of the city that makes Kiev worth the effort**. It’s not a city that is built-up height-wise but the five and six storey buildings are impressive, particularly in Independence Square which displays all the symmetry and opulence if an imagined Soviet geography. Key government buildings around the hilly city are similar in the statement they make. While there are far more impressive designs in other parts of Europe in Kiev they represent the dominant Eastern Bloc Utopia which communism always tried to project to the outside world.

Now for the bad bit. Kiev is a pig to get around. There are virtually no signs for public transport in the city. For a first-time Ukrainian visitor this makes things hard. For a non-speaking Western tourist it is a nightmare.

It took me over half an hour to find the metro system after getting off my bus outside the rail station. There were no signs anywhere. I was looking for a giant ‘M’ or something similar. Nothing.

When I did eventually find the Metro station I had actually been standing outside for 10 minutes. The relief at finding the station was replaced by the horror of trying to use it. Again, no signs. No signs for which way to go, no signs for where you want to go, no signs on how to pay for your metro token.

The only written words I could find were hidden on the inside windows of the trains themselves and as these are written in Cyrillic, a language with no meaningful resemblance to the English alphabet, finding my destination station was incredible tough.

I actually thought I was never going to make it to my accommodation, which was hidden in an apartment block some distance on the other side of the Dnieper river. Various disaster scenarios flashed through my mind.

Even the bus journies are unusual. Small, frequent buses are routinely jam-packed with cash fares passed between passengers from one end of the bus to the other. The driver sorts out your change while driving and it comes back to you in the same way. Passed from passenger to passenger.

You get used to it but it’s a system I’ve never witnessed before or since. The buses cost 25UAH for each journey. Like the metro that’s very cheap.

And signage apart, my own country of Britain could learn a lot form Kiev’s transport system. Frequent, fast and cheap – any journey on the Metro costs just five pence. Interesting point:

Few people in this city speak English. Cyrillic is such a tough language I guess the locals give up on learning anything else. They’ve got enough on their plate.

So what can you see? Well, in no particular order (and all in very easy walking distance) are the golden Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the National Opera House, Golden Gate and the Presidential Administration building, which is up on the hill and next to the animal-adorned Art Noveau House of Chimaeras.

Then there is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and St Sophia’s Cathedral, the oldest church in the city and are the golden Kiev Pechersk Lavra. These are all quite close to each other. Look out for Bohdan Khmelnytsky square, and you’re there.

The huge Dnieper river is an attraction on its own, with natural beaches and an amusement park on Venetsianskyi island, sometimes known as Hidropark.

Get yourself along to those and you’ll see plenty more along the way, including a stack of statues, war memorials and parks.

kristinas flat apartment blockAway from the city centre is a more bustling, less polished Kiev. Visit the east bank of the Dnieper around Levoberejna to see the queue for buses, fast-food shops, second-hand markets and the communist era housing which are reminiscent of the 1960s blocks that Britain has tried so hard to eradicate.

It is these areas that make Kiev such an experience, a destination not made for tourists but that is so much better because of it.

kristinas flat

I stopped in this area, a place called Kristina’s Flat which was, quite literally, Kristina’s flat. Her mum also lived in the ground floor apartment in a very Eastern Bloc feeling building in the Perova area of Kiev. It’s near the Park of Victory (which I didn’t see).

Kristina was in her 20s spoke decent English and rents out her spare double room to travellers like me for £13.52 per night. As I was on my own there was a possibility that someone else might have been sleeping in the other bed but this was not the case during my stay.

I only spent three days in Kiev and it was the hardest city and country I’ve ever visited (and that’s no mean feat when I’ve been to Egypt, India and the Palestinian Territories). But Kiev and Ukraine is one of the few places I would return to. I think the place has got a lot more to experience.

*NOTE: The 2012 European Championships are being co-hosted with Poland. You can read my travel essay from Warsaw here.
**NOTE: You might also notice an abundance of attractive women in Kiev.

All images © Copyright Garry Cook