I have realized that maintaining this blog is going to be a lot more work than I thought. I have a pair of posts on Berlin and Bayreuth that I am going to finally wrap up and publish a little late but I want to try to not lag too far behind. So without further ado – this is Kiev!
I got into Kiev late afternoon on Tuesday from Nuremberg. Everything was a breeze up until I needed to get from the airport to my hostel. I was trying to find a shuttle to the Metro and had no luck. So I asked the woman in the tourism office and either (a) she didn’t understand me (b) the shuttle no longer exists or (c) the shuttle never existed and I found misleading instructions (it’s probably c). The woman at the office was super helpful though and told me that an Uber directly to my hostel would be cheaper than the 100 UAH shuttle that I was looking for (which would have only gotten me to the Metro). For reference, 25 Ukrainian hryvnia (UAH) is approximately $1. I kind of love Ukranian Uber.
The hostel I’m staying at is Dream Hostel in Kiev. The room I’ve got is a clean 8-bed and I’m back up on top bunk again. Seems to be a lot of English speakers in Kiev – my first day in the room and we’ve got an American, two Brits and a Canadian. An aside: it’s kind of adorable to watch how excited the Brits get over air conditioners. On top of the AC, we lucked out with a nice little balcony over the cafe downstairs. It’s a really nice set up and I decided to book the same hostel group for my stay in Lviv.
The food in Kiev was excellent. Favorite thing I ate were Varenyky, which are Ukrainian dumplings (like mini pierogi). I got them with potato and mushroom and with rabbit. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the first and third photos are from the same place (Kanapa). The atmosphere was very relaxed and they had a covered porch area that looked out onto the street. Nice place to eat good food, drink beer and read a book.
I spent the day after my flight relaxing in the hostel dropping pins for museums and monuments in maps.me and researching restaurants. While I was in the States I booked my Chernobyl day trip so my Friday was already spoken for. To try to put some sort of itinerary together for Wednesday, I ended up reserving a spot in a free walking tour focusing on the churches of Kiev.
There were three Ukrainian Orthodox churches in Kiev that I visited: St. Michael’s Monastery (blue with gold domes), St. Andrew’s Church (blue with green and gold domes) and Saint Sophia’s Cathedral (white with green and gold domes also the one I apparently didn’t get a picture of). No pictures inside because services were ongoing but absolutely stunning.
Besides going church spotting, I also went to ‘The Ukrainian State Museum to the Great Patriotic War’ which had a permanent exhibit focusing on WWII through the post-war years and then had a separate exhibit on the current war with Russia. The museum sits in the shadow of the Motherland monument, which is a massive figure of a woman with a shield and sword that was put up in 1981 when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union (the shield still has the emblem of the Soviet Union on it). The base of the statue is accessible from a staircase in the museum and on the interior has the names of people awarded the title of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’.
It’s definitely awkward. Right outside the museum under the gaze of the statue, a Ukrainian tank painted blue and yellow is positioned as if facing off against two captured Russian tanks. I’m rather disappointed that the audio-guide didn’t include English translations of the Russia exhibit – the rest of the museum was very well designed and the audio-guide very detailed.
Art on the Street
There were quite a few murals spread throughout Kiev as well as some interesting statues that I unfortunately don’t know the backstory to. Here’s some of them:
Before I left on the US, I booked a day trip from Kiev to the site of the Chernobyl disaster. The Chernobyl exclusion zone, which includes everything in a 30 kilometers from Reactor 4 of the nuclear power plant, is about 1.5 hours outside of Kiev. The tour I went took us there with a minibus that seated 16 people, had air conditioning and occasionally had WiFi. En route, we watched a video put together by the tour company. It was made up of clips from the HBO ‘Chernobyl’ miniseries (our tour guide thought very highly of it), newsreels and interviews with the military personnel and politicians involved and a finally the documentary about the construction of the new sarcophagus for reactor 4 (I think this is still on Netflix). But before trekking out to Pripyat, it’s very worthwhile to check out the Chernobyl museum in Kiev.
Aside from a woman who insisted on narrating the museum exhibits in Russian despite not actually working at the museum (thank God that I could crank up the volume on the audio guide to at least drown her out in one ear), I thought the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev was fabulous. I paid the extra $1 or so to take pictures so I’ll throw those in below. A note that a lot of the museums I’ve been to in Ukraine are very immersive. There’s things hanging from the ceilings, audio, video, interactive exhibits, etc. but it doesn’t look cheap (I’m looking at you, Prague Museum of Medieval Torture). There was space was dedicated to the children of Chernobyl whose health was and still is impacted by the accident. But most of the exhibit focused on the work of the 600,000 ‘liquidators’ involved in the cleanup. The rooms were tiled with photos of these people. For those who had died from illnesses resulting from their involvement in the Chernobyl cleanup, radiation hazard stickers were placed on their pictures.
Now for actually visiting Chernobyl. The minibus picked us up at about 8 AM and like I said it took about 1.5 hours to get to the first checkpoint (they warned us that the toilets got worse as you got closer to the center of the zone – they were right). You can rent a Geiger Counter if you want – you can get instantaneous readings of radiation levels by putting it up against a manhole cover or a tree. However, everyone was issued a dosimeter at the first checkpoint (in addition to having the military check our passports and tickets). The dosimeter measures cumulative exposure to radiation during your time in the exclusion zone.
There are two zones that we visited – the 30 km zone and the 10 km zone. You’re not allowed to eat or drink outside the bus in either zone, but there is a Trip Advisor-reviewed canteen in the first zone where we had lunch (we were told all the vegetables and meat are brought in from outside Kiev). If I remember correctly it benefits the resettlers or Samosely who returned to their homes in the years after the accident. It is a very small number of people and they live in poverty with, from what we were told, a bus that comes in once a month with things for people to buy. But these were their homes so they felt strongly about returning.
After getting out of the 30 km zone, we stopped at another checkpoint and entered the 10 km zone which contained the town of Pripyat (built as a model Soviet city, complete with amusement park, soccer pitch and swimming pool) and the Chernobyl Power Plant. They recently built a new ‘sarcophagus’ over the old enclosure for Reactor 4. This new one should be good for 100 years. You can actually get right up to the Reactor – we were standing across the street from it.
The town of Pripyat was weird. If you saw the HBO series, you know that they clear-cut the area around the Plant to get rid of the trees. Remarkably, within 30 years the area has been taken over again by nature. There was a soccer pitch built and that entire field is like a forest now.
I’m going to dump a ton of pictures below. One thing you should know about Chernobyl today is that the area isn’t being maintained by anyone in any way. There’s a lot of looting that has gone on and there are no trash receptacles for tourists so there’s a lot of water/soda bottles floating around. The big Ferris Wheel in the amusement park used to be tethered down so it wouldn’t turn but 3 weeks ago some idiots cut it loose, causing it to turn if the wind is strong enough. Also, a lot of things have been ‘staged’ by tourists looking for the best photo op (there was no room with a mountain of gas masks left and I think a lot of toys in the kindergarten have moved since 1986). Officially, you are not allowed to go into any of the buildings because they could collapse at any point (a lot of the wood floors were really iffy) however I learned a new phrase – “But this is Ukraine”. Which is why most of these photos are taken from inside of buildings.
On the way out of the exclusion zone, they make you walk through this machine that purportedly measures if you’ve been exposed to two much radiation. You step in, put your hands on these metal pads and then a light goes off and the gate unlocks if all is good. Everyone on my bus passed so we were allowed to leave. Oh and as always, exit through the gift shop.
Other Kiev things
There’s been a lot going on in Ukraine recently. The EuroMaidan protests in 2013-14 and the current war with Russia come to mind. I’m not going to dive into these but if you have the time to watch a 6 part HBO miniseries about Chernobyl, take the 30 minutes to see what’s been going on in Ukraine in the past couple of years. Ukraine had it’s 15 minutes in the news in 2013/14 but just because you don’t hear about it doesn’t mean everything is resolved.
Getting out of Kiev
Next stop after Kiev is Lviv (I know it’s a lot of v’s). It’s supposed to be the most ‘European’ part of Ukraine and I’ve heard a lot about it on other travelers’ blogs. I opted for the night train that left at 10:37 PM from Kiev and got into Lviv at 6 AM. I booked a 2nd class ticket which was about $25 (and you can book online and avoid speaking to people!). There are four beds in a 2nd class cabin, two that fold down on top and two on the bottom. Blankets and everything is provided for you (including air conditioning!). There’s a box under the bottom bunk for you to put your luggage in (if someone wanted to steal it, they’d have to lift the bed up with you on it). A Ukrainian guy ended up on the other bottom bunk but he didn’t speak a word of English. I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow so the only time we ‘spoke’ was when we couldn’t get the door open at 5:45 AM and had to page the attendant. I didn’t get the explanation of why we couldn’t get the door to budge – It will be one of life’s great mysteries.
A moment of levity
I got my hair cut in Kiev. It was an interesting experience. I went to a salon by my hostel that had tons of reviews in English, run by women, where I felt super comfortable having someone not go overboard with the scissors. Unfortunately, this place did not have any openings for the next 3 days so that option quickly went out the window. This is called settling. I found another salon near Independence Square with a single English review that gave me hope (as a bonus, the website mentioned taking walk-ins). The man at the counter thankfully spoke some English so we were able to establish that I wanted my hair cut at that moment. Unfortunately, the stylist I had spoke no English.
My hair is very short. When my stylist in Atlanta and I talk about how I want my hair cut, we’ve placed it somewhere between Anne Hathaway’s post-Les Miz pixie and (when I wait too long between cuts) Rachel Maddow. There’s no way I can explain this to a non-English speaker using hand signals so I’ve settled on finding a picture on Pinterest, showing that and hoping for the best. This is what we’re going with:
It surprisingly went really well. We had to go back to the top a second time because he didn’t take any length off but otherwise really good. It took almost 2 hours to cut my hair. I really am not sure how, but it did (he did shampoo my hair twice – once at the beginning and once at the end). It cost me ~$18. As he was putting gel in my hair, the power went out in the salon. We both had a good laugh over that – I think it was a sign that this had probably gone on long enough. I don’t know if I was supposed to tip, but I decided to be the American tourist and go for it.