Russia and the Silk Roads: Arriving in Kiev

May 12, 1998, Tuesday

The sun comes creeping through the window blinds. Hans and I say our good mornings, and do some washing up in the small sink provided in the compartment. We set out to share some more of his food and enjoy another beautiful day. The sun is shining and the countryside is endless with small farms with men pulling their one or two cows along with a rope. Life seems very simple and congenial.

It was a pleasant journey on my way to Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. I learned a lot more about Hans and some of the Ukrainian women he would visit 2 or 3 times a year. During one of the short stops, it was his turn to say goodbye. It was only now I realized just how much luggage he had with him. He had a mammoth fold-down soft luggage, full of cosmetics, perfumes, and clothing that the women desperately craved; maybe because they were not available locally or they could not afford them in the shops. In a way, it’s the sex trade all over again.

I remember my mother talking about when Holland was liberated from the Germans so many years ago. One of her closest friends living there said they had welcomed the Allied soldiers with open arms, and begged them to come. Later they begged them to leave. The chocolate bar and bar of soap were associated with the sex trade then. I feel sad to say that today it is the West liberating the Eastern bloc.

Read about my full journey to Kiev and more in the Russian and the Silk Roads Travel Journal.

Now I have the compartment all to myself, I gaze out the window and watch the landscape drift by. The hours pass pleasantly and we arrive in Kiev on time at 1:30 P.M. I disembark, and for the first time, I am on Ukrainian soil, with nothing more than my small carrying case. I orientate myself in the station and make my way to a London Exchange booth to change some American currency into local currency. I find that when in Rome, try to be a Roman. The exchange rate is not the best in airports or train stations, but it’s a lot better than the racketeering that takes place when you need to get a taxi. Also, when dealing in local currency, there is not the question of where you are going, and the fare being exaggerated beyond the realms of fair play. It is not a big thing, but when you’re on a limited budget, or just do not like the feeling of being used, this is not a bad policy I have used over the years.

I have written down the name of the hotel I am heading to and found a taxi to negotiate a price. To my surprise and delight, I have found quite a few taxicab drivers who speak English. Without any trouble, I make my way to the hotel. It’s a stark-looking building, with little architectural design to it. I found out later that this was referred to as the Stalin-era style, a very bleak functional construction. It dominates a large open-air square, with underground passages for the foot passengers to use for crossing. I had no confusion or problems checking in and was shown my room.

The legend of Kiev says it has been standing on the steep hills overlooking the Dnipro River for more than 1500 years. From what I have seen so far, the city offers both old and new, and obviously has its own stories. One of them is about Kyi, the founder, who was the elder of 3 brothers and a sister. Others have it that Prince Oleg declared the city as his. It is history that you are looking at, and whatever legend you prefer is the true one.

Kiev is the capital of the Ukraine, and also the mother city for all Eastern Slavic people. It is actually the Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus which emerged in the 9th and 11th centuries. Kievan Rus was the place of the original Russian Orthodox Church and all Eastern Slavic art and architecture. I have already found out that Russian is the official language here and has been taught for many years. You hear both Russian and Ukrainian depending on where you are.

St. Sophia Cathedral and the Caves Monastery are two of the country’s most fascinating sites. They date back to the days of Kievan Rus.

The city stands on wooded hills. On the west bank is the Dnipro River. The modern city has wide boulevards and broad squares. The heritage of this city has survived Mongolian invasions, devastating fires, massive destruction in World War II and Communist urban planning. For 300 years, Kiev was dominated by Moscow.

The weather is pleasant, and I feel safe walking the streets. My excitement soars when I am alone, and meeting the challenges that await me. With this in mind, I walk the streets, in a grid-like fashion, to explore without getting lost. I notice people are all well dressed amidst the European flavour of small outdoor cafés where they sit and enjoy the people passing by.

The first thing I notice is the lack of prosperity that I experienced in Poland. I am not saying it is poor; there is just not that feeling of success in the economic revival that I felt in Poland. I stopped and enjoyed two demitasse cups of coffee, and listened to two men converse in Russian a few tables away.

I felt comfortable making my way around and started to explore some of the small shops, I was reminded of the time I lived in England where each shop was unique in itself. If you wanted baked goods, you went to a bakery; if you wanted meat, you went to a butcher, etc. I thought I would welcome my roommate, as yet unmet, with some selections of cheese and cold cuts, bread, biscuits, beer, and a pop for myself. A practice I have been developing is drinking bottled water.

To my surprise, and again with the cooperation and kindness of the local merchants, I now understand why the people carry large colourful shopping bags here. When I was a boy, the standard brown paper bag was the norm. The shopping bags here are similar but they have a glazed reinforcement because they are re-used many times over. Merchants here often do not have bags to give away. Merchants realized I was a tourist. Through all my gestures and pointing, and with their kindness, I was able to get some warping with which to take my purchase away. As I continued to wander, my purchases grew heavier. The thing plastic bags would not support their weight, so I was forced to return to the hotel to store my goods. I enjoyed the adventure as it was my first experience here to walk the streets and absorb the culture.

As with most cities, there are large arteries that carry the traffic flow and then the sheer enjoyment of getting off to the secondary streets and cobblestone roads. The lifestyle seems busting, and people have a purpose in their comings and goings. I had an air of cockiness, as it seemed no matter how far I ventured off; I always managed to find my way back. By now it was getting dark so I returned to the hotel.

My room was on the 6th floor, overlooking a large square. I saw men and women, who at first I thought were farmers, gathering in groups to exchange goods. I found out later that they were the poorer people from the outskirts of the city who worked for what was called the Mafia. I don’t think this has the same connotation that we have in North America. What these people are doing is burning and selling cigarettes: they buy cartons of cigarettes and resell them in packages, or even as singles. These are supposed to be American cigarettes, like the ‘Winston’ or ‘Camel’. Whether they are purchased in the black market or from a pyramid system, or more the criminal elements, I really don’t know. These groups gather extensively. Each organizer seems to have his own peddlers to resell the cigarettes.

I enjoyed my solitude and reflected back on the day. It was quite adventurous. Going through any border, no matter how easy, is always a challenge. From one country to another, I’ve seen the uplifting and downloading of carriages.

I am now in the Ukraine. I have oriented myself enough to buy some supplies and food. I am also waiting to meet the group that I will be a part of for the next while. I freshened up and had dinner.

This afternoon I noticed a theatre and decided I would like to see it. The older theatre, somewhat worn down, is well-attended and within walking distance from my hotel. This particular play I watched is in the official Ukrainian language, but ironically it is an American comedy. It was enjoyable and quite hilarious to watch the plot unravel in a Ukrainian mindset, with a ‘Southern Belle’ set of the American Deep South, of this lighthearted play. Since I didn’t understand the language–and the program was printed in Ukrainian also–the play became more of a pantomime to me than a play to follow along with the dialogue. The theatre was packed, even though it was only a Tuesday night. The arts are supported well here.

After the theatre, I took a leisurely stroll before returning to the hotel. This concludes Tuesday night. God bless, one and all, I love you, Marietta.



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