Tuesday, 1 August 2017

A trip to Ukraine

I'm just back from a couple of weeks in Ukraine. I've visited almost all of Eastern Europe, but a few countries were left outstanding: Ukraine, Albania, Macedonia, Moldova, and Belarus. Well, Belarus can wait, but I'm getting round to the others.

Damn, but travelling in Ukraine is hard. That's partly down to the fact that a lot of public transport is in the informal sector - private minibuses (mashrutkas) - and consequently not well signposted, and without timetables. And even fewer people than I expected spoke English, even in tourist-orientated enterprises. (In Lviv, a lot of hostels, hotels and bars cater mainly to a Ukrainian tourist clientele - two girls from Kiev told me "we go to Lviv to experience a real European city". They don't count Kiev as properly European.)
And the toilets. Oh God, the toilets. The bog at one monastery was, I think, the third worst I have ever encountered, and the two that were worse (Old Delhi railway station and a madrasa in Morocco) I didn't actually use. I had to use my scarf as an impromptu facemask, and take one very big breath outside before plunging in, and I just about managed without losing my stomach contents. A speciality in some places is the chemical toilet, but without actually using chemicals. It's like Glastonbury without the mod cons (bogroll, sanitiser and regular pump-outs).
Plus, what to do for breakfast?  Ukrainians either don't eat breakfast, or eat hot dogs and salad. In Lviv, I was able to find both croissants (food perverts, how about a croissant with whipped cream and prunes? it was actually lovely, but how they came up with the idea I can't imagine) and full English, but in other cities and towns life was more difficult - I ended up buying bread and soft cheese from the supermarket the night before.
Another slight hitch is that many of the historic monuments are reconstructions or highly refurbished, having suffered from both Soviet and Nazi damage. And in many of the churches, you're not allowed to take photographs, which for a keen photographer like me is absolutely maddening.

Okay, that makes Ukraine sound like a place you don't want to visit. Here are the upsides;
Life is very, very cheap. Three quid a night for a bed in a nice hostel dorm or a room of your own in a grottier hostel. About a tenner for a really glorious room in a nice guesthouse in the country. Beer for 50p to 75p a bottle, and you can get a massive mug of draught beer at that price. Three quid for a tasty small meal and two beers in a gastropub. Ukrainian self-service restaurants like Puzata Hata (branches  all over Kiev and in Lviv) offer a meal for two quid, with favourites like borsch, fresh salads with dill, vareniky (dumplings), and all kinds of ragouts, as well as lasagne (possibly not real Ukrainian food but popular, all the same).
The people are fantastic. Almost no one ever admits to speaking English if you actually ask them. But swear at a bus timetable for long enough, or have enough problems buying a ticket at the railway counter, and someone will appear and help. One girl took me all the way round Chernihiv. A lady who really, really didn't speak English showed me how the farm at the Pirohovo open air museum was arranged by making chuck-chuck-chuck noises for the chicken house and making herself 'horns' with her index fingers to show me the cowshed. An older woman in Lviv helped me out with halting German, and smiled when I told her how much better her German was than mine (which was true). A bus driver in Lviv saw I didn't know where to get my ticket and actually deserted his bus to take me to the ticket office, order my ticket for me, and accompany me back to the bus to make sure I didn't get lost. (Life is very unfair; an hour into our journey the offside back tyre exploded, and the poor chap had to strip to the waist to get under the bus, the spare wheel being screwed to the bottom of the bus rather than put in a neat interior compartment. He was somewhat blackened by the experience, though a wash in a bucket got the worst of it off before he put his white shirt on again.)
It's worth getting off the beaten track. Two of my favourite places were Pochayiv and Chernihiv - the first, a monastery set on a hill that dominates the rolling plains, and the second, a town with historic churches in the most delightful settings (and a fine gastropub, it turned out). Yes, it took a bit of doing, but it worked nicely in the end.
Some things are really different. I've been in cave monasteries in Burma and Thailand, but the Pechersky Lavra in Kiev has a completely different feeling; the tunnels are full of pilgrims weaving from side to side to kiss the tops of the glass coffins that contain saints' bodies, and the dim hanging lamps mingle with the pilgrim's precariously held tapers to create an atmosphere of mystery and intensity I've rarely met elsewhere. I don't think you'll get that powerful experience anywhere else in the world.
The open-air museums in Lviv and Pirohovo (Kiev) show you wooden architecture that's characteristic of the region - soaring wooden churches, low thatched farmhouses, shingle-roofed cottages.  To see one such house or church is interesting - to see dozens arranged in a beautiful setting (forest in Lviv, rolling grassland and woods in Kiev) is a dream.
And the flowers are amazing. Ukrainians love flowers. Every little house has its garden of lush greenery; every monastery has flowerbeds inside its walls. There are lilies, roses of every hue from light peach to bloodiest red, delicate hollyhocks in pastel pink and light purple, and garish orange sunflowers everywhere. These aren't neatly trimmed municipal flowerbeds, either; the climate, with intense summer sunshine mingled with heavy showers, makes the plants grow rank and leggy, sprawling, into mini-jungles. Even street artists aren't immune to the charms of flowers - one had airbrushed sunflowers on a wall near the hostel in Kiev where I stayed.

So while I might not put Ukraine right at the top of my list of destinations, I'm very glad I went - it's a country with a definite difference and well worth the effort.

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