After racing around Japan for two weeks, Dad and I flew to Kiev via Dubai. Our ride to Dubai was pretty sweet: an Airbus A380, currently the world’s largest passenger liner. It is so well insulated that you can barely hear any noise during takeoff. And you have a decent amount of legroom, even in steerage! I actually almost enjoyed the eleven hour flight. Almost.
We arrived in Kiev, but alas our bags did not. They didn’t make it out of Dubai. As we made our way to the hotel from the airport, I was feeling very self-conscious. Being in a Kiev metro is a bit like being in a mosh pit with a bunch of supermodels. Everyone is beautifully made up and looks well put together. I, on the other hand, after about twenty hours in transit and thirty hours awake, was looking like even more of a grubby backpacker than usual.
Luckily, our bags arrived the next day. We had to go back to the airport to pick them up (“I’m sorry, but FlyDubai doesn’t deliver”), but they came! With clean clothes, I started to feel a bit more human again.
Kiev is a beautiful city, and the weather was gorgeous for our entire stay. We visited the Pecerska Lavra, a huge Orthodox complex. In addition to churches, there were mini-museums, including a folklore museum featuring costumes and art from all the regions of Ukraine. I was in heaven! There was also a museum of microminiatures. In the one-room museum, you look at things like strands of hair or flower petals with images and text engraved on them. You can see the images only when you peer through these giant microscopes. I still don’t understand how the artist, Mykola Syadristy, managed to make such tiny pictures. The main attraction at the Pecerska Lavra is the underground cave network where the monks used to live. You can purchase a candle and go down into the caves (women need to cover their heads with a scarf), and all through the halls you see mummified monks lying in their coffins, dressed in robes. The Orthodox men and women bend down and kiss each coffin as they go by.
We also visited the memorial to the Holodomyr, the Ukrainian genocide, near the Pecerska Lavra, and the World War II museum under the giant statue, the “Mother of the Fatherland.” It was very interesting to learn about the war from a Ukrainian perspective. The metro station Arsenal, the closest station to all these sites, is apparently the deepest in the world. You take two endless escalators to get down to the metro. I saw people sitting and reading a book or eating breakfast as they rode down, it took that long!
My favourite spot in Kiev was the area around the Andriyivski Descent, which starts at St. Andrew’s Church and winds down to the lower part of the city. All the way down, you encounter souvenir stands selling blouses, vinoks, beads and other costume pieces. There was a neat little alleyway where artists sold paintings depicting the Ukrainian countryside.
The best part of my time in Kiev by far was when I was invited by a friend to watch the rehearsal of her local amateur folk dance group called Vesnyanka. Like my group Svitanok at home in Ottawa, Vesnyanka is made up of students and professionals who dance as a hobby. I watched them practice in preparation for their 55th anniversary show, so there was live music and I got to see many of their dances. In addition to Ukrainian dances, their repertoire includes Moldovan, Polish and Bulgarian dances. Here is a link to their website (Ukrainian only). They are a fantastic group, and it was such a treat for me to be able to see them! When I planned my trip to Ukraine, I had been hoping to see some dancing, and this was all that I had dreamed of and more! My friend told me that Vesnyanka was like family to her, which is how I feel about Svitanok in Ottawa. I love travelling, but I miss going to dance rehearsal very much at times.
After we were done with Kiev, we took the train to Lviv in Western Ukraine. Lviv is an amazing city. You can spend an entire day just sitting at a cafe in the main square and watching it come alive. You can see people racing around on a giant eleven-person bike, or magicians or Hare Krishnas. You can listen to talented musicians playing Ukrainian folk songs on the accordion. You can visit all the little museums describing the history and culture of the region. You will never be bored!
Since Lviv is the culture capital of Ukraine, Dad and I went to see Carmen at the beautiful opera house. One ticket was 50 hrivna, about six dollars! The music was fabulous, but I have to say the plot eluded me. I know French, but I could only decipher certain words. The Ukrainian audience could read the electronic “subtitles” displayed at the top of the curtain. The translator in me was dying to know whether the translation was any good.
I was advised to try the coffee in Lviv. It was absolutely delicious, but I was reminded why I don’t drink coffee. My heart races out of control, and I get WAY too wired. (“Dad! Dad! Let’s go to Kryivka, the bunker bar! The one where you give a password to the doorman (Slava Ukraini- “Glory to Ukraine”) and he gives you a free shot before he lets you down into the bar! Dad! Dad! I want to send pictures to my friends on Facebook! Dad! Dad! Let’s climb 408 steps to the top of the bell tower! Dad! Dad! What’s that say? I can’t read acrylic!”) Yikes!
After a few days in Lviv, I had a hankering to see the Carpathians, and a friend’s mother kindly offered us the use of her house in Yasinya, a village in the shadow of Hoverla, Ukraine’s highest mountain. The scenery was spectacular and the food was amazing. I ate more than my fair share of varenyky at the local restaurants. We awoke every morning to the sound of roosters crowing and goats bleating. I even went spring skiing at Bukovel, Ukraine’s largest ski resort. Only one rather slushy run was open, but it was great regardless. I don’t regret avoiding winter this year, but I did miss skiing.
Dad and I took the bus to the nearby city of Rakhiv, right in the geographical centre of Europe. We explored the hills around the town, and visited the local Hutsul history museum. We had our first hitchhiking adventure when we flagged down a delivery truck and rode back from the museum into town squished in with other hitchhikers.
In Yasinya, there were fabulous example of “old meets new.” Farmers would go by on horse-drawn carts with modern wheels. They would sit on top of bales of hay and chat on their blackberries.
I had another opportunity to watch some dancing. This time, the local teenage Hutsul group invited us to their practice and they showed us two of their dances. They were very good, and I would have loved to see them perform in a show. I didn’t get a chance to take pictures, unfortunately.
We returned to Lviv for one night before heading to Budapest. We went to see another opera, “Zaporozhian Cossacks Across the Danube. ” It was great! The music was beautiful, and the cast wore traditional Ukrainian costumes. They even broke into a dance at one point! Again, the plot completely eluded me, but it was no big deal.
Thanks to my dance training, I understood when people gave directions (pravo! livo!), and thanks to my beginner Czech lessons, I totally knew my numbers, since the numbers in Ukrainian are either identical or similar (sto!). I also knew basic words (divchata! hloptsi!) and phrases (smachnoho! do pobachennya!). But, let’s face it, thanks to my multilingual super Dad, who speaks (and reads) Russian, and thus can make himself understood in Ukraine, I didn’t have to do much thinking at all!
There were awkward moments, however. In Asia, no one bothered to speak to me in Japanese, or Laos or Thai because I looked like a foreigner. In Ukraine, I looked like I might possibly be able to speak the language. It was very uncomfortable to be spoken to by a stranger in a language I didn’t understand. It made me feel quite helpless. I usually just smiled and nodded. When I was renting skis, the guy behind the counter gave me a series of rapid fire instructions. I looked to my father for a translation, and he told me “I think he wants you to sit down on that chair, and by the way, that was German.” Um, okay!
On one occasion, a mistranslation paid off big time. My Dad read “hot chocolate” on the menu, and we both assumed it was the drink. Instead, the waiter brought me a tiny mug full of melted chocolate. No complaints here!
I was fascinated by public transport in Ukraine. To get around the cities, you take these mini-buses called “marshrutky.” To get on, you flag down the driver, then pay the equivalent of a quarter to ride as long as you like. It is amazing how many people can be stuffed into those little buses. I saw one bus where people’s faces were literally shoved against the windows. It’s not the most comfortable ride, but it’s definitely economical!
Speaking of economical, I could not get over the fact that in some places, my bottle of water was more expensive than my Dad’s half a pint of beer. For the first time in my journey, being a non-beer drinker was not paying off!
I decided to get my hair cut in Lviv, in an effort to look like slightly less of a schlub. Luckily, my Dad was there to explain what I wanted. There is nothing worse for a girl than the result of a misunderstanding in a hair salon. I was quite pleased with the result.
What is with the design of this bathroom at our hotel in Lviv?
It’s like a giant aquarium. And they are way too thorough with the squeegee. Dad and I both walked into the walls at some point. Ouch.