Writings By Rahil: Kyiv behind the Curtain

I was very nervous when planning my trip to Kyiv, as it was the first time I was travelling beyond the European capitals which are much more familiar places and getting my initial taste of a country still very much behind the curtain. Although I understood the fact that the Ukraine was much more culturally diverse than destinations in Europe such as France or Hungary, I just did not know how I would adapt to it or if I would get a culture shock!

Anyone interested in knowing my travel plans raised an eyebrow on hearing that I was planning on visiting Ukraine, with all types of questions asked such as why would I want to go to Ukraine, or something related to riots and personal safety.

I had been reading many independent reviews on what to expect when in Kyiv a couple of days before leaving due to the paranoia that had built up.  I must say that this gave me all the tips and insights I needed to ensure I had a great time away without walking into any errors.

On my way

After months of planning the day finally came to pack my bags and get that flight to Kyiv. I was travelling in May so did not pack very much apart from some shorts, t-shirt a pair of jeans and a jacket for the evenings.

The weather in May can reach up to 25C in the day, so pack well. My flight left London at 3 pm on Friday arriving in Kyiv just after 8 pm. I was just amazed at how lovely the Kiev was from the air flying into Zhulany Airport with all its high-rise buildings, greenery, monastery’s shining gold, kick starting my excitement for what was to come. What strikes the most is that almost every building is of the same colour, but then there is one small cluster of buildings in bright orange making all the difference in uplifting Kiev from up above.

Zhulany is a smaller airport within the City of Kyiv, and it can take around 20 minutes to get to the centre. Ensure to have your passports with you as the security does not allow you through if you just show them your ID card. There are no direct trains to the city from this airport, so we chose to arrange a taxi instead. Kyiv has recently started using Uber in the city, so this was my lifeline for the duration of the weekend. The taxi from the airport to the city centre cost 40UAH (£1.30), so it is a good idea to set up an account on the Uber Mobile App before arriving in Kiev to make sure you have not left haggling for the many taxis’ waiting outside the terminal. It was at that very moment the adventure for me started as the taxi driver did not speak a single word in English, so the whole journey was made with the great assistance of Google translate to ensure we were in agreement where we were heading to. Make sure you double/triple check the car registration number before you start your journey. Ukraine is still a young country for tourism, so not many people are fluent in English.

I’m in Kiev I got to the hotel just after 9.30pm after a very scenic drive through Kyiv, with all the beeping cars, buzzing scooters, and some jam-packed bus stands. I was staying at the Bakkarra Art Hotel, which is a floating boat located on Venice Island near the very famous Hydropark, some 10 minutes away from the city centre. The hotel is accessible by Taxi or by the Metro, which is conveniently located on the island and is only 3 stops away from Kreshchatyk, the main centre, on the red line (M1) and takes no more than 10 minutes each way. The hotel itself has a very modern feel to it with bright rooms furnished in mahogany décor with a balcony facing either the gardens or the river.

The metro is the quickest or easiest way to get around Kyiv if you are heading to the centre and has signage in English which is a rarity in Kyiv. Buy yourself 10 green metro tokens, and you will be good for the weekend if you’re planning to hop on/hop off to get around. Each journey requires one token including any interchanges between lines. Make sure you enter the token into the barrier, although not always manned they can detect anyone passing without entering a token and release a big metal plate which can be painful if hits you. Just keep in mind that the last metro train runs at 23.59 each night. The token cost 4UAH each or you can buy 5 for 20UAH from the self-service kiosks. The trains can be very busy at peak times, and the only was to board as I learnt after letting three metros pass is to push on regardless of how room there is as nobody will make space for you.

The metro stations in central Kiev are stunning and as good as walking into an art gallery by a large while arches and golden chandeliers running along the length of the platform.

Being a coffee lover the day started off with a visit to The Blue Coffee Cup Shop, which located on the Backstreet adjacent to Kreshchatyk. This is rated as one of the best places to grab a dose of caffeine here and I couldn’t disagree with the critics. This place had an amazing hip atmosphere and decorated in some rather comfortable floral furnishings with English speaking staff. The menu is rather up to trends with breakfast option including anything from salmon to avocados on toast and a good Selection of coffees expectedly served in a blue cup.

Would I recommend this place? The answer would be one big yes, I love this place, and it gives the impression of Kyiv’s vision to be a hip and happening place. A large flat white and avocado on toast will cost you around 150UAH which is excellent value for money for the quality of food you get.

A day out exploring

After breakfast, it was time to go and explore some of Kyiv’s most cherished monuments and monasteries. Whenever I go away, I’m always intrigued by the history and the reason for things to be in existence, so I booked myself on two walking tours for the day, which lasted 2 and a half hours each. There are many tours to discover the history and current affairs of Ukraine and I went for the free walking tours. The tour was dedicated to the recent events of 2014, which has left a significant dent in the lives of many Ukrainians. It also covered major sites including;

Independence Square, the location of the political turmoil’s that took place in 2014 leaving the whole nation heartbroken, which is still pretty evident. The square is located between Khreshatyk Street, one side featuring the Independence monument celebrating Ukraine’s independence, whereas the opposite side features the bright orange Lach Gates which are in an ode to Kiev’s medieval past.

Khreshatyk Street is in simple words the Oxford Circus of Kiev. The long street features Kyiv’s best retail and food outlets including some very high-end home brands, which promise a prosperous future for Ukraine. This is the main road for any tourist and thankfully is the easiest of places to navigate and find more familiar surroundings.

St Michael’s Cathedral is one of the oldest churches in the city with its amazing golden domes, lighting up the bright sky blue walls of the church. This was one of the first churches in Kiev and was completely demolished to rubbles until it was resurrected in 1997. Without hearing its history, one would never think that this church was ever scratched and has managed to keep its historical character even after the reconstruction.

The Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv is possibly the best building I have seen dedicated to academic studies. The building has been painted bright red, which signifies the blood spilt by Ukrainian soldiers during world war one. Taking the walks, you enter the lives of Ukrainians and get lost in the thought of the sadness and the pain they carry with them each passing day. Monuments around Kiev in memorial of the 2014 events keep the memories alive.

I have previously heard that people in Ukraine were not very welcoming or did not speak to foreigners. This is not true at all. They are the most welcoming people I have ever met but may not open up to all as they very much carry the grief of the events that have taken place in Ukraine’s history.

Tears of Chernobyl

If learning so much about Ukraine’s history wasn’t enough, the very same late afternoon I decided to visit the Chernobyl Museum, with which my tour if Kyiv or Ukraine, in fact, would have remained incomplete.

The many political outbreaks in the city of Kyiv have cast a shadow of sadness on the people in Ukraine, yet the pain of the major event that took place in Chernobyl was still fresh in people’s mind. Walking into the Chernobyl Museum, you are greeted by hundreds of road signs bearing the names of towns and villages in proximity to Chernobyl. The most intriguing thing about their appearance was that all these signs were crossed out with a red diagonal line as they no longer exist on the map of Ukraine. It just saddening to hear how many people were affected and torn away from their lives within hours of a disaster that occurred and were left to rebuild their lives from scratch all around the country. Chernobyl as we know it was victim to the biggest radiation disasters in history which took place in 1986 and after all the year gone by is still a restricted zone to this very day. I was lucky enough to take part in an English tour to completely understand the misery that came after the disaster.

Walking through the museum and looking at the many images collected from the disaster zone I just felt so upset and distressed to witness all these towns and cities left stood in time with no apparent future in the sigh. It and what really breaks your heart is that there are still many people out there still living with the after-effects of the disaster. The museum makes an interesting way to experience the turmoil through photographs and video footage, which demonstrate the state of emergency in the way that words cannot describe. The museum also explains how the disaster occurred scientifically via a model of the Chernobyl power station and talks through how the mess stations were designed to avoid any such disasters.

If you are planning on going to the Chernobyl restriction zone, the museum is a very recommendable option as you come out having lived the whole experience and thoroughly educated. The best part of the tour was to learn just how many countries were affected by the disaster minutes within it occurring.

Final Hours in Kiev

The next 12 hours on Sunday were spent walking around city to complete my journey into the past. The first stop for me was the UNESCO heritage site Kyiv Pechersk Lavra which is a huge city within itself dedicated to all things religious and spiritual.

The Lavra is a walled complex housing, and it`s open to the public to walk around and enter the caves. The side also includes a miniature Museum and one of most beautiful towers in the city that you climb to get a view of Kyiv. There is so much to see here but it can be very busy with worshippers coming in hundreds to attend the Sunday service. It is interesting experience to witness how much importance faith plays in the lives of Ukrainians. It is recommended to dress modestly to enter the many churches within the complex and a must for the caves. Women must no be in shorts or mini skirts and must cover their heads, whereas men cannot enter if the shorts are above the knees. It’s ideal to carry a headscarf, however, scarf and sarong are provided free of charge for you to use. The complex is also all cobblestoned, so comfortable footwear is advised as it can take a couple of hours to make it to the other side.

The last place on my visit to Kyiv was the mightiest monuments of all, which was yet again another memorial for the lives lost in Ukraine, the Motherland statue. Standing tall, the Motherland Statue demands attention when looking over Kyiv’s skyline and stands on top of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. The museum illustrates Ukraine’s history and paints a picture on the consequences of the war from Ukraine’s perspective. Furthermore, the shield on the Motherland statue bears the emblem of the Soviet Union which again reminds Ukraine of its troubled past during the era of communism.

Where is Ukraine Heading?

I have never felt so much enthused about any country or city I have visited in the past but Ukraine, in fact, has completely changed or inspired the way I develop my experiences while travelling. Kiev just like any other European city is beautiful, bright and colourful but sadness and darkness cast a shadow over it continuously with no end in sight. The country has seen so many life changing political unrests and disasters the extents of which I was completely unaware of before travelling to Ukraine, however, what is much harder to digest is the fact that the problems still exist today.

While part of the country strives to move on and create a modern and prosperous future, another part of the country still lives in the uncertainty of what its future holds. So when does the Ukraine come out from behind the veil? With the people of Ukraine having to go through one tragic event after another with little to no time to overcome, with no opportunity to show Europe that it has so much history for one to explore. Having spent the weekend in Kiev, it so quickly apparent that it has a long way to go before it opens up to visitors when the biggest focus remains on repairing itself as a nation.

From not coming across any signs or instructions in English to walking into restaurants that only have one single menu in English catching dust. It makes Ukraine so unique or wrapped away from the rest of the world as a tourist destination within Europe. Nevertheless, I discovered that regardless of the curtain ever being dropped or not, Ukraine is a country so hospitable that it seeks love without asking for it.

Tips to succeed

Just like travelling to any other country, Ukraine also has its hit and miss moments but saying this I very hope that these tips will ensure that your Ukrainian experience is nothing short but phenomenal.

Souvenirs can be bought everywhere while walking around Kiev or suddenly they will disappear altogether, so it’s advisable to purchase as you go along. If you are doing one of the walking tours, there is a huge market seeking all sorts of craft and souvenirs located just outside of St Andrews Cathedral. Prices here can be haggled so why not give it a try to bag yourself a bargain.

If you are looking for chocolate, look no further than Roshen which is the leading or favourite brand of confectionery within Ukraine. This is any chocoholics treasure cave with mountains of individually wrapped chocolate assortments.

Spending money strangely seems to be the hardest thing in Ukraine if you’re not drinking at a bar or club. I had withdrawn 1700UAH (£50), which surprisingly lasted me for the whole weekend including all food, drinks, and catching the metro to get around. This is a pretty closed currency so unless your think of returning to Ukraine might be worth spending it all before you leave. It also stretched as far as buying a souvenir so only take out depending on your duration and from an ATM at the airport.

Currency Exchange counters in the centre will not accept any notes, which are not crisp, clean. Any tears, excessive creases, marks or scribbles and they will be rejected.

As the tourist market is incredibly non-existent in Kiev, many restaurants or cafes don’t hold much stock. On Monday morning you will find that many things on the menu will be sold out or staff has not turned up to open up the kitchen.

Finally, as with many places around the globe, you must only drink bottled water.

Having a map with you at all times or a GPS Satnav is rather useful in Ukraine as you will very rarely come across someone that can help with directions in English.

• Taras Bulbas, located at Pushkinskaya 2-4/7. Corner with Prorizna Street is one of the more authentic Ukrainian restaurants with a large menu, which thankfully is in English. This is possibly one of the best places to kick start your trip with its traditional tableware and wall decor. If it’s a chicken Kiev you after, this is certainly your place to go.