21 June 2011

A Post-Apocalyptic World [Ukraine] Part II

The distances between main cities in Ukraine is not overly large, but even still the main means of transport is overnight train (they run hardly any services during the day). I was a little reluctant to take a lot of overnight trains at the beginning of this trip, as generally the facilities are not great (as in it is more comfortable to sleep on a pile of sharp rocks). Besides that, I had heard a lot about people being robbed... But after experiencing the overnight trains here in Ukraine, it seemed like the perfect option. Safe, comfortable and relatively cheap... I left L'viv at about midnight and arrived in Kiev at 9am feeling refreshed and ready to explore!

I was CouchSurfing with two awesome American girls in Kiev, Teodora and Betsy. There is actually a small American ex-pat community in Kiev, so I was basically just hanging out with Americans the whole time... in Ukraine. Kinda strange, but they were all freakin' awesome people. I was in Kiev for only a few days, but on two of those days everyone got together by a beach or lake and had a BBQ, drunk some beer and just generally relaxed outside and had a good time. One evening (at about 2am) we decided to go swimming in the river... I saw the river the next day, and there is no way I would have swam in it had I known what colour it was (poo brown). While swimming I managed to take a mouth-full of water, as well as cut my foot pretty deep. Needless to say for the next few days I was just waiting to get the shits or for my foot to fall off.

My expectations of Kiev were quite low - after coming from L'viv people kept telling me it is not as nice. But I found it to be a really cool city. It feels like L'viv's big brother; a little more industrial, a little more 'business-ey', but still beautiful (the city center at least.) Outside the center is a maze of MASSIVE soviet style apartment buildings. They are without doubt the largest apartment buildings I have ever seen, and they seem to stretch out as far as you can see. We went for a walk one night and after fifteen minutes I was completely disorientated... To me it all looked identical, one massive concrete building after another. The kinda cool part is that each area is its own self-sufficient little community, with everything you need within a short walking distance. There are also a huge amount of trees and plants surrounding the buildings, and plenty of playgrounds. So although you literally have THOUSANDS of people living right next to you, it is not SO bad... Quick funny story... within an hour of arriving at Teodora and Betsy's place a huge naked woman came out onto her balcony in the adjacent building to show us the goods. Highlight of my day.

Kiev does things a little differently than other cities. Example; the gates for the Metro. Instead of opening when you put in your token, they are always open. If you try to walk through without putting a token in they slam shut on your thighs. This is the ONLY place in the world I have seen this kind of 'control' for the metro systems. And I think I like it... Another public transport related story - I had my first pick-pocket experience in Kiev. I was on a mini-bus with my backpack on (I was actually going to get the train to leave Kiev). The bus was packed and there was literally no room, and here I am with a huge backpack squashed in, pushing everyone around with it etc... There is a kinda drunk guy right beside me with a beer in hand. I look down and his other hand is inside my pocket. I quickly pull away, and give him the 'WTF dude?' look. He starts speaking to me in Russian, no idea what he was saying, but he seemed pissed that I had caught him stealing my phone! Thankfully he got off at the next stop.

Chernobyl is not too far from Kiev, so I decided to take a day trip out there. The bad thing is that you can only go through the government approved travel companies. It seems they have an unofficial agreement to RIP OFF EVERYONE! They all charge US$160 for an English tour (cheaper for the tour in Ukrainian/Russian, but unfortunately my language skills are not up to par). And what do you get for your money? A bus out there, a half-assed tour guide that gives you minimal information, a VERY basic lunch, and a bus back. As I was in Kiev I just called into the office of one of the tour companies to see if I could get it any cheaper, and ended up paying US$150... Better than nothing I guess.

What was it like? Absolutely surreal. The town of Prypiat - about 3kms from the power station - is a ghost town. It feels like walking through a post-apocalyptic world... The town is now overgrown with huge trees, the streets are like forests, the buildings are all run down and broken, peoples possessions are scattered around, abandoned. The most creepy thing is that there was a fair in town when the accident happened, so all the rides are still all sitting there, rusting away, including a massive ferris wheel. The whole thing just did not seam real, I was having a hard time believing what I was seeing.

We were shown reactor four (the one which melted down), at what I thought was an uncomfortably close range - only about 100 meters. Our guide had a geiger counter, and it peaked at 7.5 that day. I can't remember what our guide said was normal, but I think on a flight or during a hospital x-ray you are exposed to somewhere around 3.0?

Yet another (awesome) night train and I was in Odessa, a town of one million on the South Coast of Ukraine. I was surfing with Oleg and Artem, two Ukrainian students, both really friendly and helpful guys, living with their cooool dog. Odessa is one of the more touristy places in Ukraine - having beautiful beaches is a big draw-card. But the city is also really pretty; lots of trees and big gardens. There is also the largest outdoor market I have ever seen in my life (OK, apart from Egypt...), it is truly massive!! Odessa is home to the Potemkin Stairs. Apparently these stairs are very famous, but I hadn't even heard about them before coming to Odessa! They were featured in Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film 'The Battleship Potemkin', where soldiers opened fire on people on these steps. One final thing - we went to an awesome bar which is famous for nuts... they serve everyone penuts (still in their shell). Everyone eats the nuts and drops the casings on the floor. There are HUGE piles underneath the tables. Kinda cool I thought... OK one more final thing; in Odessa there are these guys all over the place holding strange animals. When people come past they try to put them on you or get you to hold them, so you have a photo with them, and then pay the guy. By strange, I'm talking baby crocodiles.

After Odessa I travelled back to Kiev and just spent a day hanging out... most of the time reading in the sun or in a pub drinking beer (and writing this post!). Tonight I will head to Minsk in Belarus. I bought the ticket this morning and am sure I got completely JACKED! Every train ticket so far has been under 100UAH. For some reason, a train from Kiev to Minsk costs 370UAH!!! I tried three different tellers, all with the same result. I didn't have a lot of choice, so just bit the bullet and bought the ticket... I only have a 48 hour transit visa for Belarus starting at midnight tonight. The train actually crosses the border somewhere between 11 and 11:30pm... I am not sure if this is going to be a problem yet, but I think it is one that could easily be sorted out with a few Euros in the back pocket of the border guard...

I think I should quickly sum up my time in Ukraine. It has been really... interesting. It is a really nice country to visit, and I wish they would open up the borders a little more. A few things I have noticed here: 1. The customer service leaves something to be desired. As soon as I utter one word in English, they shake their head and switch off. They are not even interested in trying to help me. 2. The apartment buildings are larger than I have seen... anywhere! 3. And a lot of them have massive pipes running around over-ground. No idea what they are carrying? But it is pretty ghetto. 4. There seems to be a massive difference between the center of town, and the urban district where people actually live. While the center is always beautiful; nice cobbled streets, beautiful buildings, big gardens and parks... the average Ukrainian seems to live in border-line poverty. 5. Ukrainians have no concept of personal space. This combined with their inability to grasp the concept of a queue where one person stands behind another makes for an interesting experience. 6. Ukrainian police like to wear HUGE hats. 7. From what I hear, Ukraine suffers pretty badly from corruption. Speeding? Slip the cop a few notes. Failing at University? No problem, just pay off your lecturer. And the one most relevant to me; need to get across the border? Just drop a €50 in your passport and your set... If only I had known that before...

OK, that's all I got... On to Belarus!!

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful blog & good post.Its really helpful for me, awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!

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