05 August 2008

Unexplored Ukraine

Although the plan was to arrive by rail on the Eastern front, AeroSvit (Ukrainian Airlines) delivered me directly to Kiev with no preliminary peeks of the countryside. I had to miss over half of that eastern segment of the country and wait for a look at rural Ukraine on my way out.

I've long believed in "marching to a different drum," but sometimes the alternate beat doesn't work. That appears to be the problem with my passionate desire to ride the rails between Astana and Kiev. Three days on the train--what fun that would be. However, I was obviously doing it in the wrong direction. One of the first things I learned in Kiev was that the Russian Embassy here routinely issues visas for the train (direction Kiev to Astana) for the pocket change of $25 versus the maxed out $450 Darth Vader in Almaty wanted. I was singing my melody in the wrong key.

Kiev qualifies as a beautiful city and although very green with some lovely parks, it falls short of Almaty in the sheer number of parks. However, it beats Almaty when it comes to Architecture. Right up there in the same class with Riga and Prague.

A holdover from my early days of wandering the planet before backpacker travel kicked in is that I resist the need to book ahead. Often I'm not even sure just when I'll arrive in any particular place, so I trust to luck and the travel gods to take care of things. The gods here in Kiev were napping a bit. The first hostel was full and the second was set to send me away until I put on such a sad face they found me a bed in with a lovely young Ukrainian woman--a teacher from Nikolaiv University near the southern coast.

It was late in the day when I finally settled in, so I didn't stray too far. Hunger did take me out far enough to discover a wonderful restaurant (PecTopaH), cafeteria style Ukrainian food at rock bottom prices, which saved me the hassle of trying to cope with a menu I can't read. Gotta love the advantage of being able to simply point at the food offerings. It's an even better option than Asian picture menus that don't always quite resemble what they really are.

Didn't do so well with my internet encounter. A big beefy Russian guy kept scowling at me saying, "Nyet, nyet, nyet." He didn't have a free computer, he didn't expect to have a free computer, and no he didn't want me to wait. Mostly, he didn't want me to wait because I might see the two guys who came after me get directed to the computers that were not available for me to use. Then a sweet Ukrainian girl turned and spoke to me in English. "I'll be through in a couple of minutes and you can have my computer," says she. Mr. Nyet was not happy with that, but unable to turn me away. I made a special point of finding a new computer place after that.

Early the next morning I set off to explore Kiev on foot. Map in hand I headed for Kreszczatik street (the main drag) and along the way started into the park, but was prevented from entering by a cordon of police. Suddenly I realized there were dozens of police surrounding the entire area. Haltingly I tried to enquire in Russian, "Chto vavava?" (YTO HOBOrO?) The answer, "Yushchenko, den Konstituti!" Okay...XOPOWO! Translation turned out to be "The President is speaking for Constitution Day." He seems to need more security than even Bush does, including the guys with special lenses watching all the rooftops. The group of VIP's walked from the park across the street to the Government Building and laid flowers at the monument in front, all to the accompaniment of a lovely choir of Ukrainian songs. I wasn't able to stroll through the park until the following day. After five days exploring the nooks and crannies of Kiev, I took a night train out to Lviv (Lvov) over near the western border with Poland. A charming city with an eclectic ping-pong history of ownership, Lviv was at one time part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Then for a time it was claimed by Poland, captured by the Germans during WW II and eventually grabbed as a part of the post-war spoils by Russia. Independance only came with the dissolution of the USSR in the early '90's.

I could have stayed on and on in Lviv, the cultural center of Ukraine. Wonderful architecture, cobblestone streets, open squares, to-die-for pastries, and friendly people who are strongly pro-western. What more could any traveler ask for. Extra time I guess, but since the plan was to meet up with my brother in Paris by 14 July, I had to get moving, so after four over-short days, I headed on to Poland where I will visit briefly with a friend in Warsaw. I can easily visualize a repeat visit to Ukraine.

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