Friday, December 16, 2011

The Heart of Ukraine

So Ukraine is big. Of course in Canada it's all relative. Calgary is 12 hours away from Vancouver. Toronto is 6 hours from Montreal. There's big distances to cover. Ukraine itself isn't obviously as big as Canada, but the space between major cities and populations is pretty massive. Driving from Lviv to Kiev was a solid 8 hours in our packed little Mazda 2. Thankfully for the most part the highway between Lviv and Kiev has been upgraded for the upcoming Eurocup to move tourists and supplies through the country. It's of pretty decent quality with an average speed of 90km/h, but that still doesn't mean it's immune to the occasional horse wagon in your lane or a random villager trying to cross six lanes of traffic. Needless to say, driving on Ukrainian roads is a tedious process. Traffic fatalities are a reality of life in Ukraine.

To say we were relieved to arrive in Kiev would be an understatement. The drive had been long and tiresome and fortunately for me, Kat agreed to drive the last half of the journey. Rush house traffic awaited us on the outskirts of town and it took us about 45 minutes of stop and go driving to get us finally to our destination in the heart of the city. The GPS we had been using along the journey so far was a mixture of confusion and success. Sometimes it would lead us off onto a random pothole ridden country road, insisting it was the correct way to a major city. Thankfully as we drove into Kiev it was working as it should and led us directly to "Why Not?" hostel, which we had booked online the night before. Fortunately for us, the hostel has designated parking and we were able to once again not have to look at the car for a few days.

"Why Not?" Hostel is probably my new favorite hostel in Europe. Aside from Fresh Sheets of course. The owners Peter(from Poland) and Volva (from Ukraine) are some of the most chilled out guys I've met in my travels. Staying at Why Not is more like staying at your friends house. It wasn't uncommon for the owners to show up with a bottle of vodka, or birthday supplies and a cake in support of somebody's special day. The second night we were there, it was a guest Elena's birthday and the whole hostel came together in the common room to eat cake and drink vodka in her honour. It was a really great feeling to finally have somewhere to relax and feel at home.

As an owner I was surprised how generous Peter was as on our second day he offered to take us out to explore the town a bit. It's a good thing too as catching the "Metro" in Kiev can be a confusing experience to say the least. Signs in cyrillic, people moving in every which way and a very unsympathetic crowd at the entrance to every train door. The Metro doors are what I would describe as "Soviet". If you are caught within the door frame as the door decide to close, they don't reopen to let you pass. They slam on whatever limb is in the way and then stay closed on it with a death grip as the train rockets to the next station. We were helplessly left behind as only half our group was able to make it into the train before the doors slammed shut, leaving the rest of us lost in disbelief. Fortunately for us Kat knew the name of the stop we were to get off at and using her cyrillic skills managed to decipher which stop was ours. I watched in horror as somebody on the next platform sprinted for a train, prying the doors open and pulling themselves through, only to have their shoulder bag get caught outside the doors as the train pulled away from the station.

As we arrived at our next stop, we managed to scurry out of the Metro as Peter described our destination. We were going to an abandoned stadium on the outskirts of Kiev. Our first stop was an abandoned air vent that had been built to accomodate a new metro stop that was never completed. Apparently the stadium had been used for baseball or some other type of sport and then was eventually abandoned only to be turned into a medieval movie set complete with a large steel castle like structure that had been burned out during the filming. It was waiting there amongst the fog, for us to enter. We managed to make our way up to the top floor of the structure. For some reason it had been built extremely well. Made of angle iron and welded at every joint, it could probably survive the apocalypse. We explored the stadium and watched as a local rode her horse nearby until it got dark and we headed back to the metro and then to the hostel.

The abandoned stadium and movie set.

Stephanie exploring the interior of the air vent

Katarina taking a moment on the shoes of Kiev.

There was a lot to see in Kiev. Everything from outdoor markets to huge monuments and squares. A forever apparent soviet feeling to the city gave it a unique flare that made it different from any other city I had ever been to. The proximity to Russia, Chernobyl and the old eastern block gave it an air of wildness I had yet to experience in Europe. Since the Chernobyl tours had been recently cancelled by the government we decided to go and check out the Chernobyl museum. For a mere 1 euro, we entered and explored what I would call an "Art/Museum experiment". Unfortunately most of the museum was in cyrillic but at the same time a disaster of this magnitude didn't need much translation. On April 26th 1986, the world stood still as a reactor experiment went horribly wrong causing a chain reaction of events that eventually lead to an explosion in reactor #4. Most of europe was heavily affected and to this day there are still high levels of radiation within the exclusion zone of Chernobyl. Within the museum we saw a lot of exhibits decorating people for bravery, photos of citizens of the area and an exhibit of the children of Chernobyl. It was surprisingly quiet as we slowly made our away through the museum. We were constantly supervised by a ukrainian woman during the whole process of the visit which was a little bit strange. Not sure if they thought we were going to steal or deface something but it did make the experience a bit odd.

All the signs are towns within the exclusion zone.

Children of Chernobyl Exhibit.

I wouldn't want these guys knocking on my doorstep.

Given the nature and history of Ukraine it isn't uncommon to see displays and monuments of military might. Being a boy I found these to be uniqie experiences to get up close to military machines we don't normally get to see in Canada. As we explored Kiev throughout the week, we managed to finx the "Defense of the Motherland" statue. A massive silver statue of a woman holding a sword and shield... I'm assuming in the name of Ukrainian defense. The whole area is a beautiful square with a few exhibits surrounding it to see. The first day we found it, it was a bit too dark to take many pictures as we (more like I) had managed to get lost along the way. But the second time we managed to make it back was very rewarding. There were three museums in the area. One was for the defense of the motherland statue, the other two were military museums. Kat, Emmett and I decided to skip the motherland defense and go straight for the opportunity to sit in and get a closer look at some soviet era military machines. The first stop was the main museum. 5 hryvna (50 cents) for an entry fee. For some reason at most museums there is an extra fee to pay to take photographs without being hassled. It was 12 hryvna for the photo ticket as well. I'm glad I splurged as one of the exhibits was an opportunity to sit inside a MIG-23 fighter jet and put yourself in the shoes of a Ukrainian pilot for a few minutes.

Miles posing on some of the hardware.

More monuments.

Defense of the Motherland statue.

Emmett living out his boyhood fantasies.

For a plane nut, it was a magical experienced. We take it for granted when we watch "Top Gun" how easy it looks to sit in a cockpit and fly a plane. When you finally get to sit inside one and imagine the rumble of the afterburner with 28,000lbs of thrust under your ass it's a humbling experience. One thing I never really thought of. When you're a fighter pilot, there is a shitload of stuff to control. The amount of switches, gauges, controls, knobs, dials, sliders and handles is absolutely insane. In fact there isn't any free space in the cockpit other than the tiny amount of room allocated for the pilot. Kinda takes the romance out of flying a fighter plane but I'm glad I got to experience it.

Next door was an MI-24 Hind. Yet another soviet era machine of death. Built as an attack gunship it was a machine to be feared, especially during the soviet-afghan conflict in the 80's. For yet another small fee you could get inside and explore the guts of this monstrosity. It was especially cool to me because as you sat inside somebody had rigged up a speaker with a gun sound when you pulled the trigger... as it scared the crap out of me when I first found it. Flying an attack helicopter and shooting a gun... at least pretending too. I also realized that all the controls were still very much connected. If you pull on the stick, it would still move all the blades. The only thing missing was a working engine. Most of the time any museum exhibit you see is generally very static. The great thing about the Ukrainian military museums was the fact that you could get inside everything. Push the buttons, flick the switches, move the controls... and live out your boyhood fantasies.

Overall our time in Kiev was excellent. When I return I know one thing though. Fly in. I will certainly save myself the hassle and fly into Kiev instead of driving. Not to mention it's gotta nice and cheap lately with Wizzair. Anyways after six days at "Why Not?" hostel, we decided it woul be best if we started the long drive south back towards Croatia. But not before asking for a little help. Nina one of the girls at the hostel was gracious enough to help me translate some letters we had written to us by relatives who were living in Ukraine back in 1989. We weren't able to understand the letters due to the language barrier and we figured it would make an interesting twist if we could at least try to track down where they were from. Little did we know what kind of adventure we were about to get ourselves into...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lviv'ska Oblast

Finally we were in Lviv. We parked the car and fortunately for us, didn't have to get in it or even look at it for the next few days. Due to a recommendation from a friend we stayed at the "Kosmonaut" Hostel. The theme of the hostel was "Soviet Era" military. Needless to say I think they hit the nail on the head, as when you walk in you notice nothing but old military uniforms, a real russian space helmet, gas masks, old machine guns and plenty of old propaganda posters on every surface. A bit drab I would say other than the theme, the hostel was nothing too special but it was cheap and cheap is good.

I would call Lviv the cultural capital of Ukraine. It has a pretty central square surrounded by interesting districts and churches to see. What really makes Lviv special is the mixture of different restaurants, museums and historical places to see and experience. Everything from a museum dedicated to "Salo" (literally pig fat), to a crazy restaurant that you need a special password to get into. Lviv has all that somebody new to Ukraine needs. Our first visit was for a place of perogies and borscht at a restaurant called "Puzata Hata" (at least that's how it's said!). Home made Ukrainian food a la cafeteria style. I was pleasantly surprised when a try loaded with food and beer cost only 4 euros. Amazing.

We managed to get ourselves onto a free tour of Lviv and saw some of the sights. I've got to say that for a guy trying to film a lot of daily life in Ukraine, a free tour is the perfect way to get out. Traveling with a camera and tripod isn't easy in Ukraine. When you're holding a camera has a value comparable to some peoples yearly salaries, you get a lot of looks. I can't say I felt super safe walking around with the camera out, so I would repeatedly replace it into my camera bag. There is a sense of security you get when you're accompanied by a tour guide and a group of people with other nice cameras. You don't worry about being singled out and victimized or worry so much about people giving you dirty looks as there are about 20 other people taking the same photos. By the way a bit of a shameless plug here. If you're traveling with a camera, tripod, computer, hard drive etc... I highly recommend the Lowepro Fastpack 250. Great system so you can whip your camera out, grab some shots and replace it quickly while being nice and discreet. Not to mention it is well padded an holds nearly all the gear you'll need for the day.

After our fantastic tour of the city, we decided to hike to the top of City Hall. It's a massive tower that you can climb to the top of for the best view of Lviv. I think it was 10 hryvna which is about a euro. As we climbed to the top we realized how out of shape we were after not seeing the steps of Dubrovnik in over a month. At the top, the view was beautiful as it was definitely the highest point in town. I filmed plenty of clips as I was catching a great birds eye view of the city. Fortunately for us the bells didn't go off as they can be a bit deafening if you're nearby.

Our tour group

A few steps up to the top.

Great view of the city.

That evening we met up with Angela, my friend Katya's cousin. Back in April, Katya gave me a call wondering if I was free for a coffee. It just happened that at that exact moment I was with Emmett grabbing a coffee at 10th an Alma street. We were sitting around talking about the future, about potential travel for the fall and where Emmett would be willing to go. We were talking about returning to Ukraine and seeing the motherland. It was all a pipe dream but now that I think about it, it was all aprt of a much bigger plan that was actually falling into place quietly. The world had something in store for us.

So Katya shows up... with her cousin Angela in tow. Turns out Angela was from Ukraine. Lviv to be exact! So we talked about what it was like, the prices, things to see and at that point I invited her to my going away party that weekend. She came, we ate hamburgers and drank beer and played darts. Never in my wildest dreams would I actually have thought that we would see her in Lviv seven months later. It was a total trip to have Emmett there as well as she walked into the "House of legends" restaurant. It seems over seven months, she seemed to have grown up what seems like a few years. Her English was amazing compared to the previous months. In Vancouver I'm sure she was shy with her english, but in Ukraine she was a pro! We all ordered a vodka (turns out "one" vodka is actually a triple shot back in Van) and some food as she helped us translate some of the documents that we had received from my mother. Documents from 20 years ago that would hopefully help point us in the right direction to reuniting us with our family.

Angela's fiancee Nikolai came to visit us and we decided to head to Krjivka Restaurant. Well actually it was more like a bunker. As you walk up to the door, down the long brick hallway you realize there is no handle on the front of the doorto open with. You knock on the door and a big burly guy wearing a soviet era military outfit and wielding a machine gun answers the door. He says something in Ukrainian along the lines of "What's the password" as he says " Slava Ukraina!" which is your cue to answer "Hrvojem Slava" (I am slava). He then proceeds to pour you a shot of brandy which you must promptly take and then he shuffles you into the place. Based on the Ukrainian resistance movement, it has a pretty rugged setting for decorations. The walls are shingled raw log cuts, the toilet has a bit of an "outhouse" feeling to it, and the dishes are military style aluminum bowls. The food though was amazing and reasonable. Nikolai instantly ordered us a bottle of vodka, many shots were had, toasts were given and plans were made for the weekend. It was a great experience, especially Katarina's delicious potatoes and Mils and Emmett's potato pancakes. We left Krjivka nice and drunk only to be surprised by the first snowfall of the season. Enough snow to stick to items but not enough to cover the ground, I felt honoured to experience the first snow of the year in Lviv. Fortunate for us it was also the last snow we saw throughout our trip. Not sure what the odds of traveling Ukraine in November are without getting snow, but we certainly had a larger power on our side for the trip.

First snow of the year.

The next day we went to the "Salo" museum. A modern art museum, it was about 3 euros to get in, including a plate of Salo at the end. Now for a description of Salo. You either love or hate it. It is essentially pork fat. Pork fat in a cheese like state. Spread it on bread, slice it up or mold it into modern art. Salo was a cool experience except for the fact that at the end you get a platter of salo with a shot of vodka. The vodka was easy, chewing greasy funky fat was not. Needless to say we all gagged down a few pieces before we felt too sick to continue. I had the sick feeling of salo in my stomach for the rest of the day. Ugh, it still makes me feel ill when I think of it.

Potato pancakes at Krjivka

The largest piece of Salo ever exhibit.

A plate of pretty pig fat

Larger than life.

We all left the Salo exhibit a bit sick, but explored the town and checked out the public market in town. Mostly composed of pictures, knitted wool items and old soviet era and metal pieces, the market is a cool but somewhat limited place. I should have done souvenir shopping but seeing as I hate shopping period, I decided to put it off right until the very end of our trip.

Overall Lviv was a fantastic experience. I could easily return and eat myself retarded. Doing Ukraine in winter gives you a unique perspective on things. It was nice to see the town as it really is with the local people in winter. It was also amazing to get to reconnect with Angela and see a familiar face from Vancouver in such a different place. We planned to stick around and see a show at the local ballet show at the theater but unfortunately we realized that if we stuck around Lviv for much longer we would miss out Kiev. So we booked a hostel, hopped in the car the following day and made a B-line for Kiev. It was time to see the capital and all it had to offer.