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...

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