I will admit my decision to visit Kiev was more of a conscious effort to give family and friends grief. After my time in Lviv, I realized there is really nothing to fear about Ukraine and, contrary to what people think back home, everyone I spoke with said Kiev was perfectly safe to visit. With Russia now axed from my travel itinerary, I had a few extra weeks to explore Ukraine and since an overnight train to Kiev was only $12, I figured why not. In all likelihood, this was my only chance to visit Kiev, because I doubt I would ever travel halfway around the world for the sole purpose of visiting Ukraine.
Of course, it also helps that a Ukrainian-Russian ceasefire was announced the day left Lviv.
The accommodations on my overnight train to Kiev were exactly as I expected for twelve bucks in Eastern Europe. The cabin was completely no frills and made a seat on a Ryan Air flight feel like a first class experience. My dreary, antiquated wood-paneled cabin consisted of four durable maroon bunks, surprisingly decent quality pillows, a few worn out (but bug free) sheets, and a ritzy carpet runner in the center of the floor that definitely had seen better days. Honestly, it was everything I could possibly have needed; I got a great night's sleep and arrived in Kiev the following morning well rested.
I can now confirm that overnight trains are, without a doubt, are my favorite mode of transportation.
Before I arrived in Kiev, I made it a point to keep my whereabouts a secret until I posted first picture of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). Thanks to the intense media attention, Independence Square is now associated with revolt, fighting, and death in the US, but I wanted to show everyone how much had changed since the protests. Many of the pictures that circulated following the protest painted a grim picture of the plaza as a chaotic war zone of anarchy (which it was apparently), yet the plaza I found was in surprisingly good condition. Looking around, the city bustled as people made their way through town and otherwise went about their normal lives. The only reminders of the conflict that erupted just months ago were a few cracked panes of glass and some missing cobblestones - which were all in the process of being replaced.
Six large roads converge on the northwestern corner of the plaza and make for a rather impressive vista thanks to the Parisian-like style of city planning. To the southeast, stands the iconic Independence Column with the city’s patron saint, Berehynia, a slavic matriarchal spirit associated with protection of the home. The monument was immaculately clean and the entire structure glistened under the bright sun giving it an air of Roman power and grandeur. Each side of the tower's base is adorned with ornate, gilded embellishments surrounding the Ukrainian trident, or Tryzub, from the country’s coat of arms. I can’t get enough of this symbol, it can be found all over the city and is remarkably simple, but subtly communicates a sense of strength.
Say what you will about the fighting in the east and the resulting fallout thanks to the conflict with Russia, but there is a silver lining at least for travelers - everything is insanely cheap here in Kiev. Granted this is probably not on the level of South East Asia I’m sure, but I was on cloud nine! I can get a great meal consisting of all major food groups and (more importantly) a half-liter of beer for ~$5! Even better still, you can get small “individual” sized 500ml bottle of vodka for less than $3, and a half-liter bottle of good local beer for $0.80 (although I would seriously question your decision to drink beer over vodka in this region).
I’m beginning to notice that my appreciation of a country is directly proportional to its cost of living.
Kiev is definitely not like the other cities I’ve visited thus far, there are no loud, rowdy groups of Australians flooding the hostels like in Krakow or swarms of British tourists on their stag parties like in Ibiza. The droves of tourists that I’m accustomed to seeing in many of the cities I visit are delightfully absent in Kiev. I encountered a few people that spoke broken English in the hostel, but outside I was pretty much on my own. There are a few information signs throughout the city in English, but even these were installed just recently for the Euro 2012 football championship held in Kiev.
Before, everything was just Cyrillic.
Like in every city I visit, I joined a few of the free walking tours (one of which ended up being a private tour) and I saw the sights: St. Sophia’s Cathedral, St. Andrew’s Church, the Golden Gate, the National History Museum, and the Motherland Monument among many others. My favorite of them all; however, was the Kiev Pechersk Lavra or Kiev Cave Monastery. The monastery complex is surprisingly large and still active even though it was founded back in 1051. The site consists of numerous buildings, cathedrals, museums, and shops, but the greatest attraction is the extensive network of underground caves housing the tombs of deceased monks.
These dark, narrow caves are not for the faint of heart or claustrophobic. The steady steam of faithful worshipers - and yours truly - are funneled down a steep staircase into the warm, humid bowels of the caves armed with nothing more than a candle. Once downstairs I stood in what effectively turned out to be a giant line of people passing an never-ending procession of glass topped coffins containing the remains of various monks who’d long since passed away. Initially I was put off by the glass enclosures - I was never much a fan of the Crypt Keeper as a child and I would rather not bring back memories that I have worked so hard to repress over the years. Thankfully, tapestries adorned with various religious symbols cover all of the bodies, so I lived to die another day.
Is that a pun? I think that's a pun.
The most surprising thing I noticed was not the plethora of corpses, but instead the intense religious focus the Ukrainians here share. I realized it almost immediately after I arrived in Lviv, but I still can’t get over how devoutly religious these people are. During my time in the caves I passed over a hundred different coffins and dozens of religious artifacts. Without fail, at every single location people stopped, genuflected, said a prayer, and kissed the artifact/coffin - usually the coffins warranted two kisses one at the head and the other at the foot of the monk.
I know this monastery is a place of solemn reflection, but all I could think about the entire time was how horribly unhygienic it was to have thousands of people kissing all these coffins and artifacts. Coupled with the poor ventilation and confined spaces, I can only imagine how fast illnesses spread in these caves. Needless to say, I didn’t partake in the adoration of these monks, but it was an incredible experience all the same. While this underground traffic jam was mildly irritating for a person who just wanted to see what it was like, being the token heathen of the group, I waited patiently.
Also, the caves too narrow to pass people... I tried.
Out of all the things I did in Kiev I have only one regret - my first regret on this trip actually - I never visited the ruins of Chernobyl and the deserted city Pripyat. I assumed due to their popularity, I could simply jump on a tour since they likely ran every day, but while there are daily tours, I needed to reserve a spot at least two weeks in advance. After contacting the various organizations via email (of which not a single one responded back) and heckling people over the phone, there was no way to circumvent the rule due to the necessary background checks needed to enter the quarantined zone. The earliest trip I could book was nearly a week and a half away and, while I was not opposed to spending additional time in Kiev, I didn’t want to sit around waiting just for the trip. I suppose this is the first casualty of my spontaneous decision making, but looking back, a week and a half ago I barely arrived in Lviv and at that time I hadn't even considered going to Kiev.
Hell, even my decision to visit Lviv was made at the last minute back in Krakow because I needed to leave the Schengen Zone.
Unfortunately there wasn’t a way for me to plan ahead visit Chernobyl in person, so as a consolation, I stopped by the Ukrainian National Chornobyl Museum. I was actually quite surprised by the museum and it chronicles the disaster from the moment reactor number four exploded back in 1986 all the way through the present day. The exhibits are a cross between museum and memorial and are full of pictures, documents, videos and artifacts from the catastrophe. The museum is definitely worth a visit especially if you’re like me and can’t visit the real thing, but I recommend getting the audio guide because everything is written in Ukrainian. Just like in Lviv, as I wandered through the various halls, I stumbled into a fellow traveler visiting from Israel, Ron, who I met back on my first walking tour of Kiev!
Small world! Although it helps when you are only one of five tourists in town.
Kiev is really a fascinating town to visit if you have the courage to step outside of your comfort zone. The city has a great deal to offer and I can almost guarantee that you will become good friends with your fellow travelers since there are so few of them here. Personally, I see this as a selling point for cities as it give you more of a chance to interact with the local population and get a sense for what the city is like. While there aren't many backpackers, the handful you do meet are a very different breed of traveler focused on learning and exploring regions of the world that others are too scared to visit.