This blog entry has been brewing in my mind for a while but is really difficult to form in actual words. How do you write about a place you find extraordinary? It was more than two months ago, when we had the opportunity to spend 10 days in Kiev Kyiv (Київ), but some of the memories still feel so fresh, as if they happened last week. It is, without doubt, an incredible city with many riches, but often somehow ends up hidden from the vacationers and travellers wish-list. (Or should I say – forgotten?)
Kyiv has, however, become the central topic of conversation in the past year, considering the active conflicts taking place in the country. The Ukraine (Україна), I find, has suffered greatly and has never really had enough recognition from the world for its simple, natural beauty, and while I can’t ignore the timing and circumstances of our trip, I find that it is a place for travellers to go to not only because of the recent revolution that took place in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Майдан Незалежності), but also because Kyiv is one of the biggest cities in Europe and has a lot to offer – from great, rich history and its own unique sense in the arts – to a flaming, hot spirit.
But let me start from the beginning:
On September 28 we woke up with curiosity boiling inside us to see Kyiv – the capital city of the second biggest country in Europe. The sun was shining and Roman and Sveta took it upon themselves to show us around town, but not before we had some breakfast (or we could call it brunch, since it was a lazy Sunday meal) Ukrainian style. Finally, we were off to the city and sights of interest.
The sightseeing started with exploring one part of the incredibly large Holosiyvsky Park (Голосіївський парк), famous for the vast variety of flora in some parts. The Holosiiv National Nature Park is spreading through the south side of the city with the total area measured in thousands of hectares. Even if only visiting a small part of it all, we saw fishermen lazily trying their luck in the ponds, side by side with people having picnics, teenagers entertaining themselves at a theme park and families out on Sunday bike rides, enjoying the bright autumn colours, all right next to our hosts’ home.
Then, we cycled to the National Sports Complex “Olympiyskiy” – the stadium of the Euro’12 football cup, and the reason I find it to be important to mention is because this seemed important to Ukrainians – various people kept mentioning the event regularly. This was a somewhat successful way how to introduce Ukraine as a touristic destination for more people, only now short-lived.
One of the favourites in Kyiv, during the 10 days we spent there, was definitely a photo exhibition “The People of Maidan” by Sergey Melnikoff, set in the courtyard of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery and Cathedral (Михайлівський золотоверхий монастир). We only realised this later, but what an incredibly wonderful gesture the exhibition turned out to be, and the “venue” – perfectly fitting. Since, during the Euromaidan revolution, this was the same Cathedral, that served as a shelter and hospital for the protesters – the People of Maidan. And finally we reached the Independence Square itself – The Maidan, described in our previous blog entry.
There were also, of course, countless other beautiful churches and squares; museums; sightseeing platforms; the quirky and figurative Kyiv Academic Puppet Theatre; the Lovers Bridge with many so called “bird whisperers” hanging around, providing the “unique” opportunity to hold and take pictures with their pets prisoners, who we masterly avoided; monuments of Taras Shevchenko (Шевче́нко) and a park, and “the best National University of the country” (according to the locals we met) is named after the man who was the founder of modern Ukrainian language and literature and so much more.
Friendship of Nations Ark (Арка Дружби Народів) which was designed and built in the late 1970s/early 80s to celebrate the unification and friendship of Russia and Ukraine has lost its glory these days. The monument has graffiti written on it, and “tired people” resting by it. Even though it is, in some ways, a landmark of the city, we were a little surprised that it is still there, particularly since it is so close to Maidan. It is, however, a busy place with a small attraction park next to it.
We arrived in Kyiv by train, whilst crossing the Dnieper River. And even at night and from afar, we could see the grandeur, 100 m high, Mother Motherland (Батьківщина-Мати) statue illuminated on top of the hill. It is quite often referred to as “Rodina Mat”, and is actually part of the Museum for the Great Patriotic War. When we actually got there a day later, we found ourselves surprised, how big the statue actually was. Overpowering the silhouette of the city, I am not entirely sure if we were fans of the monument, more like – of its grounds. Countless tanks, cannons and other military equipment, all part of the museum, are situated on the grounds.
Deciding we want to somehow thank our hosts for the past few days, when they’d looked after us, we set out to a market where we could buy the ingredients to later make Latvian style potato pancakes a.k.a. as draniki – Belarusian style. A great practice and opportunity to test our bargaining skills (this realization only came later, after we had been purchasing goods with no prices written on any of the products for some time) in Demievskii market (Деміївський ринок).
One afternoon we set out after a FTF geocache “The pearl of Tatarka”, the description said it is not far from Saint Makarii/Macarius church – the only standing wooden church left in Kyiv, apparently, located on the other side of the city but, quite conveniently, accessible with the Metro. This took us on a little adventure itself, since the hints lead us into some sketchy looking wild bushes, a lot of brushwood from the surrounding trees and sadly quite a lot of garbage. After a successful find, we went to have a look at the church itself and were surprised by the size of it and how peaceful, colourful and figurative the small grounds around it looked. After, we had to get back to a geocaching event, organised by the avid geocacher in our group – Ivars.
We’d set to meet at the Arsenalna (Арсенальна) metro station, which is the deepest metro station in the world. Quite an interesting place to go to since people have to stand for more than 5 minutes waiting, while the escalator takes them down. (Occasionally, when I take the metro, doesn’t matter where, as long as it’s busy, I get flashbacks to watching the mass scene in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” where the workers change shifts, and I can’t help but be surprised – how accurate he was, for it has now, if not 100% as grim, but become reality.) Nonetheless, it is a great place for people watching, since everyone seems to be browsing their phones, reading books or covering their faces with massive newspapers, the lazier ones just sit impatiently on the steps while the escalator carries them down. The metro system itself is very easy to use, since there are only 3 lines and it is also very cheap, costing only 2 UAH and can take you to the opposite part of the city.
This event was at least a bit more successful than the event in Minsk and three other people showed up (a small group, success nonetheless), and we spent well over an hour just exchanging stories – geocaching or not.
Another day and another place that we all found to be quite interesting – there is a market in the very centre of the city, that people between themselves call “the deputates” Besarabskiy market (Бесарабський ринок), since it’s close to the governmental buildings and frequently visited by them. A whole different scene unfolds here. As soon as you walk in, the ladies start advertising loudly around you: “Caviar, caviar, flowers, great caviar, fish, meat!” So only after a while we realized that the market itself is empty and definitely not as lively as the two more simple ones we’d been to previously. Or did we just manage to get there in a quiet time and all the politicians were actually working? No, that doesn’t seem right.
We also met a friend of Dainis’ – Julija and she showed us some of her favourite spots in the city. We wandered about the older town that evening and it gave us an absolutely bizarre feeling. The streets were very beautiful with great architecture around, looking even more romantic and “scenic” in the poor street lightning. On one side of the area – authentic old town, on the other – newly constructed buildings in the same style, trying to mirror the first. The streets were completely empty. The daytime buzz with overloaded stalls was gone and the Andriyivsky descent (Андріївський узвіз) was silent, dead. It made me realize, that the essence of the city would not be found here, even if we searched with “all the magnets around”. (Magnetic souvenirs have, unfortunately, replaced postcards and seem now the main choice everywhere.) Since during the day it is a yet another tourist attraction zone, famous for its souvenir stalls – during the night it’s dead. Apart from Ukrainian millionaires (most of whom already have villas in the outskirts of the city), no-one can afford the prices that are being asked for the flats there, but the realtors are not willing to drop them, so the buildings stay empty. The spirit of Kyiv is found where Ukrainian people are – whether it is on the small streets between the block housings, on the sides of the motorways and at bus stops, or – the little hubs of life close to metro stations and not in the form of an empty shell of a “dream house”.
We spent an afternoon, that dragged well into late evening, wandering the streets of Podil area, and Kontraktova place, which was again, very quiet and did not have many people on the streets, so went by the Dnieper river and had some luck with people-watching there. Later we unexpectedly stumbled upon the Kyiv Funicular (Київський фунікулер) – a small hill-tramway system connecting the Podil area and Old Kyiv – Uppertown (Старий Київ). The system only has 2 stations – one at the bottom of the Volodymirski hill and the other – at the top.
Peculiar fact we had noticed already before, but it just kept on reappearing. If you are ever going to visit somebody in Kyiv and you don’t have a gift, you should not worry at all, since there are flower shops on every corner and around every corner. Not to even mention the flower stalls and women simply selling bouquets on streets in Kyiv. Ukrainians – much more prefer to keep occupied than sit and do nothing.
On October 4th Latvian parliamentary elections were held and we set out to Latvian Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine to take part in them, as we later found out, we were 3 out of 75 Latvians who used their rights that day, democracy is a gift.
We were probably the most surprised by the residence of the former president of Ukraine – Viktor Yanukovych. We set out to the former private residence – Mezhyhirya (Межигір’я) one day with our bicycles. Since the former president fled the country, it has been opened for public. We knew that the place would be an excessive symbol of power, but we were not prepared for what we saw there. The private grounds spread some 140 ha and the more time we spent there, I think the less appealing this man-made “natural” beauty seemed and as Dainis already wrote: “It was unsettling to see the enormous greed that made Janukovich continue his efforts to grab and steal as much as he could even though he no longer needed any of it.” Needless to mention, it still is maintained by the country and paid for by the people, who now, by buying the simple ticket, can access the grounds and by purchasing an extra ticket for each of his extravagances, look inside his galleon, SPA, the private car museum or his famous golden toilet etc. Before one enters this open-air museum, there is an opportunity to hire bicycles or go on a bus tour around the area. I mention this to point out on the scale of the place again and even though we had cycled there and so had our own preferred transportation, there were parts of the grounds that had proper streets and traffic, something that also made me unsettled.
The tourism industry in the whole country has suffered greatly during the past year, simply because of the proclaimed matter of unsafety there. I am not so naïve not to understand the reasons behind this, but during the time we spent in Kyiv (and during the whole month we spent in Ukraine), Dainis, Ivars and I met so many good, colourful people who made me feel safe and inspired. Inspired by the patriotism of people, by their hard work and the effort they put into something they believe in, and the sheer humanity. There were people who seemed very patriotic and hopeful about the future, also Ukrainian flag can be seen in many residential windows, cafes and in clothing, but we also met people, who, unfortunately, do not believe in their country any more. And even though our opinions differed from time to time, I did not feel threatened by or sense any hate coming from the people living there. Every now and again, whilst looking for answers to some questions regarding the past and the current situation in the country, we were left with silence instead of a reply and people seemed to shut their eyes and ears sometimes and I found this unpatriotic from their part at first. I considered our interest in this subject, which the whole world is discussing, perfectly reasonable, and so I felt disappointed and puzzled by the lack of responses, this looked like ignorance to me. The realization that families are still being torn apart, because of different views, only came later. Friends and siblings don’t speak to each other; colleagues fight; neighbours and childhood friends – people, who went to the same schools, are still at war, at war with each other. Of course, it is painful, so who are we, coming from outside, to question them and their stories or silence?
And even with all this, I felt this fragile, but constantly growing light and hope. Kyiv, in my eyes, was vibrant and alive. And it is possible that without realizing it we’re actually balancing on a fine line whilst being there. But in my opinion, going to Kyiv and meeting the hospitable people there is nothing to be scared of.