This was going to be a comparison between the the capital cities of Ukraine and Russia which conveniently fell next to each other on our route. However after having spent three and a half days in each we have come to the conclusion that there really is no comparison .... it would be like comparing Manchester and Paris!! Anyway - the pun was too good to waste so here goes...
We arrived in Kiev hot and sweaty after a 4 hour train journey in 'hard seat' class. In this case hard seat means exactly that - a hard and uncomfortable seat. We had been advised that hotel prices in the capital were extremely high - starting at around 50GBP for a room without bathroom and sky rocketing from there. Apartments were apparently a cheaper option, but we couldn't find anything on the internet at a reasonable price. We thought that if there was a market in apartments then there would be a few agencies at the station (like there is in Prague) - but we were mistaken. We tried phoning a few numbers that we had found on Google, but the prices quoted were the same as for hotels. Just as we were about to give up and go and book into a hotel we came across a group of women offering cheap flats - we took one for around 16GBP a night and moved into our own soviet style tenement building. The flat was a bit shabby (you get what you pay for), but was adequate for our needs, it had a bath(abrasive), a balcony(precarious), a gas cooker (scary), a bed (sloping) and a TV (ancient).
Kiev itself looked a lot better than it does in any photo's you might see. The central boulevard was rebuilt after the war in the 'Stalinist' style - which means a sort of flowery gothic - but monumental in size. Actually I can see many similarities in the Soviet style architecture with the Nazi style that we saw the remains of in Nürnberg - that's probably a bit radical but is certainly my impression. The city, like the country is rushing headlong towards consumerism at a rate that is far from healthy. All of the young girls (who seem to make up about two thirds of the population) seem to be slaves to the fashion industry to the point where you sometimes feel as if you have arrived at 'Chav Central'!! All of this seems to be supported by mass borrowing from banks - of which there are hundreds in every town. We both liked Ukraine a lot, but it does seem to be heading for a rather rude awakening.
The best way to get around is by Metro - not a large system but fast and convenient. The escalators are about twice as long as those in London and go twice as fast. You rarely have to wait more than 2 mins for a train - which is probably the most impressive thing about it.
On our first full day we decided to have a look at a museum we had spotted in our guide book dedicated to the lives of the inhabitants on one street. It looked good on paper (as it was in fact), but proved to be very difficult to locate. This was partly down to our poor map reading of a poor Lonely Planet map, and even poorer signage on the metro - or anywhere for that matter. You just have to know where everything is - we are slowly getting better at reading Cyrillic - but you have to have something to read first.
On the second day we visited Ukraine's 'No 1 Tourist Site' - the 'Cave Monastery' at Lower Lavra. This is a series of caves and churches built into the cliffs of the Dniepro River. The caves contain the mummified remains of monks going back over a thousand years (unfortunately clothed in full religious regalia - so we only got the odd glimpse of a finger or a toe). This has become a major pilgrimage site as the mummies are thought to be miraculous (it's actually the cool temperatures and lack of moisture in the caves that preserves them) so we bought our candles and trooped around to have a look. Anyone who knows Anne's thoughts on religion can imagine the reaction!!!! It was quite interesting to get close to the Orthodox religion - something we hadn't actually done so far.
Afterwards we took in a few more of Kiev's sights - the massive Rodina Mat statue, the 'Friendship of Nations' monument (built by the Russians), and some stunning views across the river towards the Eastern suburbs....
Some Notes from Anne
Yes, I'm still with him, he's just better at writing the blog than I am, but he does miss a few things out. I mean he hasn't mentioned toilets once !!!! We are still in Kiev as I write this and toilets here are worthy of any capital city, but they aren't always easy to find and it's always better to go for a modern cafe or restaurant if you need one or you may get the squat variety.
In the Czech Republic and Poland you will have to pay a relatively large amount for a very small amount of loo paper, that's if you find one that is not locked. They do seem to lock all the loos even in the bus and railway stations and you have to find someone with the key, which may explain the unfortunate encounter in the first Polish town we visited, after all if all the toilets are locked and you are desperate, what do you do ? ......
We are off to Moscow on a sleeper train tonight, I will report later on the loos there !!!
The Ukraine has been a very mixed experience, here in Kiev it's like any other large city with lots of people spending lots of money on lots of 'stuff'. There are loads of 4x4's usually driving on the pavements! Pedestrians are very low down the pecking order. You have to be brave to use a zebra crossing and just step out or they won't stop for you.
The Metro here has the longest escalators I have ever seen and also the most people on them! Often you are accompanied by piped opera music of the deep manly sort !!! One of the most boring jobs in the world has to be that of the woman who sits in a booth at the bottom of these escalators just watching, presumably ready to stop them in an emergency.
Most uniformed people wear hats like tea trays which looked very odd at first but I'm getting used to them now.
Away from the capital and major cities, there is obviously a lot less money and it feels like another country with crumbling roads and pavements, horses and carts, lots and lots of geese, and people working smallholdings.
Because there isn't really a tourist culture here there is very little to help you find your way around if you don't speak the language and the Lonely Planet maps are often wrong. From Germany onwards the arrows and signs that you can find often don't point in the right direction. In the Czech Republic when you found a map it was usually of the entire area rather than the town and if you did find a town map they never seem to have the "You are Here" bit. Here in Kiev the Metro isn't always well signed and when you are on the train it's best to count your stops as there isn't usually more than one sign to say where you are and that's usually outside another carriage!! The locals all rely on announcements, which of course are a bit difficult for us. Having said that, we are getting better at reading the script and it's surprising how many English words there are hidden in there.
Food... You won't be surprised to hear that I have resorted to eating some MEAT ! Vegetables don't feature very highly here and deciphering menus is a nightmare. The borsch soup in Kremenets was very good. There is a lot of street food of the deep fried type usually with a sausage somewhere.
Fashion... Anything goes, which is just as well considering the odd assortment of clothes we have with us!!! The young girls here are very trendy and they all love 'F.M.' shoes !!!!! For men, it seems that socks and sandals are OK...very strange, but most English men would be fine here !
Back to the Story.....
Accommodation in Moscow was proving difficult - another expensive city with the warning 'Don't turn up with nowhere to stay' written clearly in the guide books. This resulted in several (sometimes lengthy) internet sessions, we finally got a confirmation about 6 hours before we set off. We travelled by overnight train (Kupe class - a four berth sleeper) along with two Russian chaps - one of whom was heading for Siberia - a further two days after Moscow. We slept reasonably well (Anne had an issue with the garlic sausages stowed about 6 inches from her nose!) and crossed the border with no problems - visa worked OK and we got a very polite guard.
Moscow was noticeably colder (surprised!) - but much more cosmopolitan than Kiev - as you would expect from one of the worlds major cities. We loved it - in the same way that we always enjoy Paris. There is no shortage of major world sites - I was delighted to discover that the red stars on top of the Kremlin towers light up at night! St Basil's cathedral is as spectacularly crazy as it looks - and we found barge traffic on the Moscow river - the first since Germany!!!
We negotiated the metro to the hotel we had booked - out in the Northern suburbs. Some of the metro stations are decorated in a style which defies description. Bas reliefs of workers and soldiers, stained glass windows, mosaics, chandeliers, garlands of flowers and fruit all add to the mix. We stopped and photographed some of them - but you really have to see them to appreciate the effect properly. By happy coincidence we had arrived for 'City Weekend' - a two day celebration of 859 years of the city's existence. The streets around Red Square had been closed to traffic and a series of stages erected to host free concerts all around town. Security was pretty tight - numerous bag searches - but you can understand that with the recent goings on at Beslan etc.
We just walked around - visited the Maxim Gorky house (art nouveau), the new cathedral, the Peter the Great statue and Gorky Park. Everyone was celebrating - and it was a great atmosphere. The Russian people are far more like us English than anyone else we have come across so far - they like to get very drunk, have questionable dress sense and have a tendency to eat very unhealthy food. We feel very at home here!!!
On our second day we headed out to the big craft market at Izmaylovo Park. This was a massive flea market - all sorts of stuff on sale. I bought a 'Star Wars' t-shirt with cyrillic script on it and some Lenin badges for the museum on the boat. Chechen rebels had buried radioactive waste in the park several years previously and the area is still officially contaminated. However we thought that after a couple of weeks in the Ukraine we would be alright!
You know how we used to blame the Russians for bad weather during the cold war? - well it seems that there was an element of truth in it. During the concerts on Saturday the city council seeded the clouds in order to guarantee good weather. This worked for around 24 hours but had the unfortunate result of causing severe downpours on the Sunday evening - which was exactly the time that we had decided to go an eat at one of Moscow's 2 veggie restaurants. It didn't help that we had the map the wrong way round - and spent an hour heading in the wrong direction. By the time we had realised and retraced our steps the roads had turned into minor rivers. Anne said that her skirt was getting wet in spite of my having rented an umbrella from the hotel. At one point I had to leave her in the shelter of a building site while I went and swam down the road for a while to find our destination. By the time we eventually reached the place we were both like drowned rats - but we were rewarded with what was probably the best meal of the trip so far. If you are ever in Moscow - Avocado is the place to eat.
The only thing that was wrong with our time in the city was that Lenin's tomb was closed due to security issues. We called back to Red Square on our way out in the hope that it may have been opened an extra day on Monday - but no luck. Maybe next time - if he's still there.