By Brianna 31/August/16 Ukraine
Welcome to the Former Soviet Republic of Ukraine, where the train stations are grander than your average European palace and underpasses are consumer havens rather than dingy unrine-odoured murder-spots. Where cultural and linguistic misunderstandings lead to a great time and expecting the unexpected is all part of the fun. As long as you don't smile when you're having all this fun. After all, this is the land where smiling is reserved for con-men and fools...
Despite our best efforts to skip through Ukraine, we ended up staying longer than we had done in any one country so far. Not exactly the route we intended but as far as travel mistakes go this was definitely one of the better ones to make as it lead to an unforgettable and, at times, frankly bizarre week. One thing we did manage to get right was learning the Cyrillic alphabet before we arrived. It was infinitely useful as we realised quite quickly that the Ukrainian/English language barrier encompassed all forms of communication, verbal and non-verbal. We re-worked our way back down to Moldova through Lviv, onto Kiev and finally Odessa. In an ideal world, each of these places would have a blogpost of their own, but instead we've decided to pack them into one.
If you are planning a holiday to the small, surprisingly pleasant, Ukrainian border town of Uzhhorod, which I'm sure you are, you may discover a few cultural quirks. For example, say you want order a beer in a bar and your Ukrainian is as bad as ours; you might think that the act of pointing at your desired pint is a safe bet for communicative success. In most cases you'd probably be right, but, if you're us, you may get 2L of a beer of unknown origin in a plastic bottle to take-away instead. Or say, you're in a hostel and you offer someone a piece of cake that you've carefully sliced into equal sharing proportions. Don't be surprised if they thank you and then just take the entire cake off your hands. Less than 24 hours in this country and we weren't exactly 'fitting in' yet but it was early days - things would start making sense soon, right? We sat in our hostel thinking about this until 4am, coincidentally the same time that the melodically-challenged guys belting out Ukrainian pop at the local karaoke bar also decided to go to bed.
Our train to Lviv the next day was pure brilliance. Sticky, stuffy and oh-so Soviet, we gawped as bodies and all their worldly possessions clambered over each other to get into leather bunks, which seemed to protrude from everywhere. A very large drunk man, the stench of cigarettes pouring from his pores, had decided to make Alex's assigned bunk his home for the journey so we perched anxiously next to some cyclists and their bikes, watching them knock back beers and play cards. We were having a wonderful time, as were the cyclists (we could tell from their cold expressions), however, the very British nightmare of not being in the correct allocated seat on such a busy train caused us so much stress that we were relieved when we arrived into Ukraine's 2nd largest city.
We had 1 full day to explore Lviv before our sleeper train to Kiev, which, naturally, started with food. A local lunch of Borsch, a fresh and tasty beetroot-based soup with meat and sheep's cheese, followed by the Ukrainian plater. This included the dreaded salo - raw pork fat. Alex liked the white, chewy, gelatinous stuff, commenting that it was like eating cold pork with a funny texture. Apparently I pulled the same face when eating it as I did when eating a BBQed grub in the Amazon. I'm still not sure which tasted worse. Thankfully, the delightful Old Town made up for the salo. It was a beautiful and interesting place to while away an afternoon, from Masonic restaurants (too expensive for us - next time!) and markets to coffee roasteries. The roastery got Alex and Cheddar's eyes gleaming. They'd been bugging me about buying a miniature coffee pot and proper coffee for ages. I kept telling them what kind of self-respecting backpacker with barely enough underwear carries around a cafetière with them but they were determined to wear me down. It took them all day but a lot of emotional blackmail (Alex) and genuine blackmail (Cheddar) meant that we boarded the train to Kiev coffee-pot and ridicule in hand.
The train to Kiev could not have been further from the one that we'd taken to Lviv. We shared our 4-bed, lockable compartment (luxury) with a charismatic Canadian whose travel ventures rivalled our own. It was refreshing to meet someone with whom we could have a laugh and put the world to rights until the steady rhythm of the tracks rocked us to sleep. Cheddar was still soundly snoring (yes Cheddar, you do snore) when we got into the capital. Feeling remarkably fresh, we ditched the bags at our hostel and set out to explore the far side of the city, through gardens filled with lavish monuments and underpasses filled with, well, everything. Wigs, sailor hats, banks, food courts, chandeliers and supermarkets were all at your fingertips in these underground metropolises.
To gain some insight into Russian Orthodoxy, we visited the Pechersk Lavra. The monastery itself was a very tranquil place to wander around, although the main draw came from the caves beneath. The maze-like tunnels contained the bodies of around a dozen deceased monks wrapped in white cloth and presented in glass coffins. The sobriety of where we were caught us off-guard as we navigated through the crevasses, observing everybody else ritualistically taking it in turns to kiss and bless each monk and its surrounding religious icons. Definitely worth experiencing, but not to be confused with your regular, light-hearted tourist attraction.
On the dinner menu for us that evening was chicken Kiev. Yeah, that's right chicken Kiev in Kiev. It just had to be done. Kiev disagreed with us, however, and after googling 'Where are all the chicken Kievs in Kiev' a few times, we discovered that the dish is not as popular in its namesake city as the TV series 'Long Way Round' led us to believe. Disappointed at first to discover that there was something you couldn't purchase in an underpass, our hostel-cooked commiseration dinner of baklajan (aubergine) spaghetti was a respectable alternative. We'd become a little bit obsessed with baklajan since crossing the border. At 16p per KG, it was definitely our new favourite staple for hostel cooking endeavours. Our second day in the city was a short one but we still managed to fit in a quick tour of Independence Square, the city's central location. An easy-going city of contrasts, Kiev had been a fantastic accidental addition to our east-bound exploration. It's a shame that our bad accommodation meant that we only wanted to stay one night.
Part III Kiev - Odessa
Similarly to the entire country, when we alighted our spacious and modern uber-train in Odessa station, we weren't sure what to expect. We were aware that the region had received a lot of negative press in the recent months due to its proximity to Crimea and unsure what effect this would have on our stay, especially as we were now staying a day longer than intended (more logistical issues). We needn't have had any reservations. The tourist trade was booming in this Eastern European Mallorca. We fought our way though layers of sunbathers to grab a spot on the Black Sea coast. Lovely sandy beaches, gorgeous sea to swim in and prices to make your jaw drop - we could see why holiday makers loved it here. We never made it to the 'party' district of Arcadia, but we can imagine the shores 8km down were just as full of people taking their stone-faced holiday selfies. Remember, the more miserable you look, the more fun you're having!
While we were here, Cheddar was desperate to revisit the city's famous iconic opera house. He'd been with my grandparents before and despite having to be swiftly rescued by Nana from the flea-ridden carpets back then, he told us, he'd had a fabulous evening. As the 'expensive' tickets were roughly £3, it seemed like the obvious way to spend our final evening in Ukraine. The ordeal of buying tickets, however, sent us a tad crazy. After the ticket officer had finished shouting at the customer in front of us, she began shouting at us. It's probably a good thing we didn't understand what she was saying. A nice woman kindly translated a censored version for us, explaining that you don't buy tickets from the opera house itself but a separate 'kaca' in City Garden. City Garden was a really nice place, but after we spent a fair while aimlessly wandering around asking people for 'kaca opera' in our best Ukrainian accent, we got fed up of being sighed at or sometimes even ignored. Frustrated, Cheddar gave up hope. The country had taken up a lot of our time and energy; clothes washing disasters, playing musical beds for no reason, fighting our way to buy train tickets, it all suddenly felt lot more faff than fun.
Our despair lasted until exactly dinner time, calmed by some top-notch varenyky at our new favourite Odessan eatery, Cafe Alpina, reminding us that life wasn't so bad after all. We loved the food there so much, we managed to go three times in two days, even taking some guys we met at the hostel there for breakfast. We had a great morning, swapping all the hilarious stories each of us had accumulated during our time here. Leaving on a high, we think these pictures speak for themselves as do the amazing experiences the Former Soviet Republic of the Ukraine:
Ukraine you have taught us a lot. Therefore, it would only be fitting, in your honour, to do the unexpected. East? Nah, let's change it up a
bit. For the moment, it's all about the West!
Keep smiling amigos, or, if you're from Ukraine, don't.