- Mission 1: Take a special tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (see Destination: Chernobyl) (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 2: Witness the last of the Soviet monuments before their removal (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 5: Descend into the deepest metro station in the world (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 6: Sample a Chicken Kiev in Kiev (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 3: Visit Pervomaysk Missile & Rocket Base (DEFERRED);
- Mission 4: Drive a tank (DEFERRED).
Highlight: Browsing the market stalls in Andriyivskyy Descent next to the bright blue Saint Andrew’s Church, which offer a selection of Vyshyvankas galore (there’s even a national day dedicated to wearing these ornately embroidered shirts).
Lowlight: Buckwheat. Despite my best efforts to like it, it just didn’t pass the ten-times protocol with that earthy residual aftertaste. Forget the breadbasket of Europe; welcome to the buckwheat basket.
Feat of Architecture: The Motherland Monument (Батьківщина-Мати) in Kiev, standing 102m from the base, making her twice as tall as Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro.
Recce Fact: The longest, heaviest aircraft was produced in Ukraine in 1988 and is still in service: the Antonov An-225 Mriya, originally created for the purpose of carrying a Soviet space shuttle like a little parasite.
Kiev must be amongst the mightiest concrete jungles on earth. These are not high rise slums. These are colossal monuments which remind you that you are merely mortal.
The surrounding cityscape is densely packed with towering high rises, old, new and under construction, which are far from drab with irregular protruding geometrical features. You won’t find this sight anywhere in Western Europe.
You can read all about visiting the Exclusion Zone in the Chernobyl Special here.
While the main motivation for this trip was visiting Chernobyl itself , Kiev turned out to be an eye-opening city beyond expectation- definitely one of my favourites so far. Naturally, I am looking forward to returning for Eurovision 2017, despite the fact that it will turn into tourist central for a week. Of course there are cultural similarities between Ukraine and Russia, but that’s about it these days. You can buy some “not-Russian” matryoshka dolls from the souvenir shop, or else pick up some Putin toilet roll if you are that way inclined. The population of Kiev is around the same as Rome (2.9 million). Yet, despite Ukraine being the second largest country in Europe, it only has the 7th largest population. The central streets boast a mix of ornate and Stalinist style architecture and the incredibly wide main street, Khreshchatyk (Хрещатик), with its mix of restaurants, cafes, luxury stores, high street retailers and street performers (including a dancing Minion who was a little over-friendly) was constantly buzzing with animation.
Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square)
In my eagerness to visit Chernobyl, the trip to Ukraine had been planned back in July 2014 in spite of the political unrest and Euromaidan shootings earlier in the year, by which point things seemed to have settled down again. Then on 17th July, the MH17 Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over Donetsk, killing all 283 passengers on board; a tragic civilian casualty caught in crossfire. In light of this, it wasn’t until April the following year that it seemed safe to go without disruption. The aftermath of Euromaidan and the Ukrainian Revolution was still evident, and in the week just prior, legislation had been passed banning the promotion of symbols of “Communist and National Socialist totalitarian regimes”. Several weeks later, the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, would sign the bill to initiate the removal of Soviet statues and monuments over the next six months.
The square was filled with candles and memorial flowers, which seem to have become a permanent fixture. Among the photographs and tributes, military uniform-clad individuals stand
around collecting charitable donations towards the Ukrainian cause. I say military uniform-clad individuals, as I’m not 100% sure if they are presently/were soldiers themselves. Military conscription ceased in 2013, but was reintroduced by 2014 after Russian military intervention in Crimea and Ukraine were attempting to increase their troops by more than double by 2015. Despite the fact that, by that logic, the majority of able-bodied young men should in theory have carried out their compulsory military service, I couldn’t help but notice that wearing camouflage and khaki gear was a bit of a fashion trend, from boys in their late teens courting their girlfriends to elderly men fishing by the Dnieper; they were all casually sporting outdoor military gear. Must be a thing.
The glass dome in the middle of the square houses a large underground shopping centre. The Independence Monument stands proudly in front of the state-owned Hotel Ukrayina (formerly Hotel Moscow until 1991). The hotel’s original grandeur design was de-scoped by Khrushchev as part of his de-Stalinisation reforms which resulted in the towering, unremarkable facade that can be seen today. During the Euromaidan sniper shootings and clashes between police and protestors, this very hotel became a makeshift hospital and morgue. Facing the square, is the Trade Union Building, draped with an exterior curtain to hide the extensive fire damage said to be started by police who stormed the building during Euromaidan unrest in February 2014.
The World’s Deepest Metro Station
At a depth of 105.5m below ground level, Arsenalna (Арсенальна) in central Kiev is currently the deepest underground station in the world. It looked like any other Kiev metro station from the outset, but for a mere 2 UAH (the price of a single metro ticket, less than €0.10) one can enjoy a steady 4-5 minute escalator descent down to the platform. It really is a long way down.
Just a word of observatory caution when boarding the metro. Stay well clear when the doors open. I got completely bulldozed on more than one occasion for standing too close. Ukrainians may be really pleasant people, but they certainly don’t dilly-dally!
There is something to be said about the number of macho looking blokes walking around with bunches of posies for their significant others. This common sight was endearing, as they were far from ashamed to maintain the tradition. Initially I had assumed it was some sort of Ukrainian Valentine’s Day. Then the next day was the same, and the next. Of course, if you are’t into flowers, you can always stop by the luxury Rochen confectionery outlet and pick up a box of chocolates- chocolates and other confectionery controlled by President Petro Poroshenko (who is incidentally a diabetic and can’t actually eat chocolate). In accordance with Sod’s Law, I managed to pick up a box of ornate looking but vile chocolates containing rum to enjoy at home. Next time I’ll be sure to check for alcohol.
End of the Soviet Era Monuments
The Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War (as it was), home to the giant lady (Motherland Monument), a UFO-like (Eternal Flame) monument and main site of the annual Victory Day celebrations (which I had sadly just missed, granted it might have all been a little bit too much excitement). The very same month of my visit, the name of the museum was changed to the Museum of The History of Ukraine in World War II as part of the effort to sever USSR Communist ties. The exhibition includes decommissioned military equipment including the USSR S-20; a solid-fuel, two-stage, theater-based ballistic missile complete with transporter erector launcher. Oh how I do have a predilection for oversized phallic missile launchers akin to the Topol M and I shall acquire that “self-portrait” with one before I give up the ghost. This was the next best thing. Ukraine has military graveyards all over the country and I had heard that it was possible to drive tanks. Likewise, there are exclusive tours available to the Pervomaysk Strategic Missile Base, but I had to save all that fun for next time.
Walking alongside the Dnieper, there were a few surprises in store. Who knew that Kiev had its very own golden sand “beach” strip? It’s ideal for a spot of relaxation on a summer day and thankfully wasn’t like a “Where’s Wally in Crimea?” scene, as with most of the Black Sea coast in summertime.
In the distance, a gigantic steel arch emerged over the treetops like a Soviet style Rainbow. Wondering if I would find a pot of hryvnia at the end of it or some other enticing reward, I followed a direct line of sight right to the centre. No rewards sadly, but it was still mighty impressive; the recently defaced Friendship of Nations Arch (Арка Дружби Народів). As irony has it, it was announced in May 2016 that this symbol of union and friendship between the people of Ukraine and Russia would be dismantled imminently. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to see it before it vanishes forever, like many others of its kind. The “last Lenin” statue in Ukraine (I believe) can be seen now only in Chernobyl, standing alone in a small park now that over a hundred of his other comrades have fallen as part of the Ukrainian government’s decommunisation initative. I’m not a sympathiser, but couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for the poor old chap.
A popular non-Soviet era building is the Golden Gate (Золоті ворота), rebuilt since its original construction in 1017. It is pretty distinctive. Not far away is the Hedgehog in the Fog statue who stands intact today despite having been through the wars, much like Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid. Vandals tried to steal his pouch and they defaced him, likely trying to obtain the metal for salvage. The 1975 Russian cartoon was nominated as one of the best animated stories of all time and is fondly remembered by Ukrainians alike. But honestly… it was wasted on me as a complete head-melt of a story, even with English subtitles! The message I took from it was just “surrender to the current of life and go with the flow, for better or worse- hopefully it will wash you up somewhere better eventually”. I’m quite positive that wasn’t how it is to be interpreted… Last stop was the Red University (Червоний корпус Київського університету). I was about to ask my new local friend why it was called the Red University as we turned the corner (assuming it was due to connotations with Communism) and immediate felt stupid mere seconds later (see image). It’s not red brick. It’s just red. Red as a Royal Mail post box. That explains it.
Chernobyl, Pripyat and the Exclusion Zone
This experience certainly deserves a special article of its own. A place frozen in time that nature is ever-reclaiming. The exclusive tours aren’t cheap, no, but the memories are priceless.
Soviet Aircraft Graveyard
When a friend returns from their holidays do you immediately ask them which type of aircraft they flew on? Do you refer to British Airways as Speedbird? Can you describe in detail what happens when you flush the loo on a plane? Congrats, you are officially an aviation geek. Boasting a vast number of aircraft exhibits, the State Aviation Museum out by the international airport is quite the treat for aviation geeks and non-geeks alike. Alas, you won’t find an Antonov An-225, but you will find, amongst the bombers, fighter jets and helicopters, very large civil aircraft from the USSR, i.e. the Ilyushin Il-86 which was eventually banned due to excessive noise levels in 2002. For a few extra UAH, you can even have a butcher’s hook inside.
Food of Ukraine
Let us put the buckwheat issue aside for the meantime. In Kiev one can find a very unique kind of fast food chain establishments with traditional style, cheap-yet-good-quality Ukrainian cuisine, canteen-style, e.g. Puzata Hata. It turns out that Chicken Kiev really is a a Kiev invention (although some sources suggest it may have originated in St. Petersburg), but it’s not overwhelmingly popular. Be sure not to leave without trying Ukrainian/Russian honey layer cake (medovik) and yeast drink, kvass (квас)- albeit a bit of an acquired taste.
Mission Ukraine Summary
Five days in Ukraine is nowhere near enough, and that’s in Kiev alone, without visiting other major cities, Odessa and Lviv. I look forward to returning, armed with my proper camera. Some cities I have encountered could have easily been done in a day. Kiev is not one of them. Two weeks still wouldn’t be sufficient. It’s a modern city that just keeps on giving.