I had previously been to the Ukraine in 2007 when I visited the Black Sea resort town of Odessa but was always disappointed that I wasn’t able to make it up to Kiev, which was actually the only capital city in Europe I had not been to so it was a natural choice for me to stop here on my way up to Latvia and Estonia. This city is awesome. It’s the best former Soviet city that I’ve been to and that’s every major city. The boulevards are grand in typical Stalinesque fashion but the buildings aren’t bland and cold. There is life and this place has an energy about it that is unmistakeable.
The people are very Russian looking but the big difference I see is that they smile and are all out having fun in the streets and it’s very loose here. The food is also good, when was the last time you ever said that about anything Soviet? I’ve never said that. In fact, last night I went out to dinner with a hilarious French guy named Pascal whom I met on the bus from the airport and we went to this place called Pervak which was supposed to be the Ukrainian restaurant in town and I can report that the Chicken Kiev was the best I’ve ever tasted. The borsch soup was also very good and of course the Ukrainian beer and vodka consisting of names I cannot possibly pronounce or remember were outstanding as well. It’s amazing how good vodka is in these countries whereas I’ll never or very rarely drink it at home in the States.
I am staying at this 3 star concrete monolith of a building called Hotel Lybid and it’s very nice-certainly for the price. It has typical Russian hotel staples of a casino frequented by the mafia and certainly just gangster types. Last night after dinner, I wanted to check out the casino and play some cards and was looking for a hold ‘em table. I spotted one and it was two massive Ukrainian dudes who looked really pissed off playing and I was watching because I was trying to see the rules they were playing because it wasn’t set up like a normal hold ‘em table.
They kept looking at me like they wanted to kill me but I wasn’t going to be intimidated by these Ruskies…then a manager came up to me and explained that these gentlemen didn’t want me standing near them and watching their game and he gave me an eye that I clearly knew what he was referring to. I have been to these places before and know how prevalent the Russian mafia is and they don’t even pretend to hide it. Anyone who tells you they don’t exist has no idea what they’re talking about because they are everywhere in these countries, especially Ukraine and Russia.
Anyway, so then I went to the bar to grab a perrier before I went to sleep and of course again in typical Russian style the whole bar is just jammed with prostitutes who primp themselves up and start smiling as soon as a new guy walks into the bar. Needless to say, I got my water and went to sleep but it’s just funny how it’s the same everywhere.
This morning I got up early and headed over to the Kievo-Pecherska Lavra which is the biggest tourist site in Kiev and really an awesome place to see. It is a series of caves containing mummified bodies of saints who these people believe have healing power. In these extremely small and chlaustrophobic caves these pilgrims will kiss the glass coffin and start saying things to them and every time there is a picture of jesus or one of his apostles they kiss that too. You walk through the caves holding a candle as there are no lights and the whole experience is kind of surreal and weird and one that I won’t soon forget as I have never seen anything like it before.
It’s funny because they have monks guarding some of the prayer rooms where only pilgrims can go into and the sign says they are experts in spotting foreigners and non believers. Anyway, they didn’t have much trouble spotting me as I towered above most of the people in the caves while I walked at a sideways angle to avoid the ceiling that was no more than 5’10” high. They kindly directed me to the exit when I unknowingly tried to enter one of the prayer rooms. I didn’t mind though because a panic attack may have ensued with all those people down there in that little space. From there I checked out the rest of the site and the many gold domed churches that dot the landscape. It was really very cool.
Next, I went to the awesome and I do mean awesome Museum of the Great Patriotic War, aka WWII. The set-up is incredible. There are just tanks and helicopters everywhere that you can climb into and on. It was really neat. There were hardly any people there as well so I basically had it to myself as the weather was really cold and rainy today. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to drive a tank but being in one was still pretty cool.
Finally, there is this massive statue of a female warrior holding a huge shield and sword that looms over the city. It is called the defense of the motherland monument but it is more commonly known as tin tits or the iron lady. It was really something to see and if you google it, you’ll be in slight shock. I haven’t uploaded my pictures yet to show it but I will soon.
Anyway, about to finish walking around the main part of town and check out the Chernobyl Museum. I decided not to go to Chernobyl itself as there is still radiation there and although they claim its safe I don’t even really care to see a busted up nuclear reactor as I remember the pictures from TV when I was a kid.
Check back soon as I go to Riga, Latvia tomorrow.