Moscow was warm, and the overnight train to Kiev was stifling. I shared my compartment with a family of three Russians: Mum, Dad and teenage son. We had a choice between leaving the window open all night and trying to sleep through the noisy clanking and screeching of the railway, or closing the window and suffering the close heat. Neither was a good option, and no one slept particularly well that night. Even if we had managed to sleep the border control dance took place in the early hours, keeping us awake anyway.
I was dozing on my top bunk as we crossed the border, and sleepily passed my passport to the Russian Dad in the bunk below for him to hand to the border guard. A very young and rather bewildered guard did the honours, glancing over our papers in the most perfunctory of ways and handed them all back to the Russian Dad. I thought nothing of it at the time, but this caused me quite a headache a few days later.
We arrived in Kiev in the morning, and I heaved my backpack, The Beast, back up and headed out of the station. The Beast weighed a tonne by this stage of the trip. It was heavy to begin with, and I’d picked up quite a few things along the way. I had an overflow bag of the stuff I needed to access on the train – washbag, pyjamas, etc – in a plastic bag, and just as I left the station in Kiev it split open, spilling its contents over the pavement right in front of two taxi drivers who were having a row. I crouched down to pick it all up and found, to my great embarrassment, that I couldn’t stand up again. The Beast was still on my back, and I didn’t have enough power left in my legs to get both of us upright. I waved frantically at one of the arguing taxi drivers and he hauled me up, snorting with laughter. I’ve learned my lesson. Ever since then I’ve packed as light as possible.
I found my way to the hotel and immediately settled down for a nap. A while later I woke to the sound of someone coming into the room: my Mum had arrived! It was lovely to see her, if slightly surreal to meet up in this way, in a rather anonymous hotel room in the middle of a foreign city. We had an awful lot of catching up to do, so the rest of the day was lost to a marathon gossip that moved from hotel to restaurant to bar and back.
The next day we embarked upon some serious sightseeing. It was searingly hot but Kiev is a beautiful city, and amply repaid the effort it took to get around it in the heat. That day we saw a lot of churches: St Volodymyr’s Cathedral, St Sophia’s and St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. We also went to Independence Square, site of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and of more recent events since our visit in 2012. Even when we were there a camp of protesters was evident on the main road, Kreshchatik Street.
I followed the Orange Revolution quite closely when it took place and have read up about it since then, so it was exciting to see where it all happened. Apart from anything else, the events of 2004 gave rise to one of my favourite political stories, the case of Viktor Yanukovich apparently being assassinated by an egg.
Briefly, the Orange Revolution kicked off after the presidential election, in which Yanukovich managed to beat his opponent Yushchenko in a massive and blatant case of election fraud. During the electoral race someone (ahem) attempted to assassinate Yushchenko, who was proving to be far more popular than his opponent. The plot backfired as they didn’t manage to kill him and support for Yushchenko grew considerably as a result. Seeing this, Yanukovich decided that his campaign would be boosted by a similar assassination attempt. He visited a part of Ukraine known to hate him and arranged with his minders for one of them to shoot at him at a rally (presumably firing blanks). However, before the shot was fired, a protester threw an egg at him. Mistaking this for the ‘assassination’, Yanukovich swooned spectacularly and was hurried away by his minders. You can see hilarious footage of this if you follow the link above.
This story makes me giggle whenever I think of it; you can see where Andrei Kurkov gets the inspiration for his novels. However, the rest of Ukraine’s recent history is far more sobering. Back in 2012 there was a moment of relative calm, and we were lucky to see it then.
The next day we visited the Bulgakov museum on St Andrew’s Descent, a viciously steep but rather picturesque road in the centre of Kiev. Unfortunately we came at the street from the wrong direction so it was St Andrew’s Cruel Ascent for us. On top of this (so to speak) the Bulgakov Museum was closed when we first got there, so we had to go away and climb back up a couple of times before we actually made it through the door.
It was well worth the effort. The museum, housed in Bulgakov’s childhood home, is a really good attempt at reproducing his fantastical world. We poked about by ourselves for a bit, then an eccentric woman appeared and started to give us a whirlwind tour of the place delivered in high-speed Russian. I tried to translate for Mum but my descriptions were extremely limited. Our guide would reel off a lot of information and I’d turn to Mum and mutter “This has something to do with his sister,” or “I think this stuff belonged to his father,” or “I have no idea what she just said.” Mum, with a perfectly deadpan expression, would nod and say “Yes, interesting,” as though I had actually told her something useful. Then the woman would beam at us and blast out more Russian.
At one point we had to access another room by climbing through a wardrobe. The guide herself seemed to have escaped from a Bulgakov novel: as Mum said, we wouldn’t have been surprised if, at the end of the tour, she opened a window and flew away.
In the afternoon we went to the Hydropark and collapsed on some sun loungers in the shade. It was cooler down by the river, and the whole of Kiev seemed to have descended on the park. The next day was even hotter – forty degrees at noon – but luckily we had planned to escape the city to visit an outdoor museum of folk architecture. Somehow we ended up in a different park to the one we had intended to visit, much further away and less well equipped. It was a beautiful, peaceful place though, especially at that time of year, when everything was smothered in flowers.
The day after that was our last full day in the city. We decided to visit the Pechersk Lavra, the deeply weird monastery of the caves, an important place of pilgrimage for the Orthodox Church. Several ornate monastery buildings sit above an ancient system of tunnels and caves lined with various dead monks and saints resting in glass coffins. In real life, it was exactly as creepy as that sounds. We shuffled through the caves clutching our candles, which struck me as a fantastically dangerous way of lighting overcrowded underground spaces. Old ladies wept and kissed the glass tombs, polishing them with their handkerchiefs after every kiss. I grew more and more freaked out as we progressed – I don’t even like to step on the gravestones in churches and here we were, traipsing through dark twisting catacombs stuffed with mummified corpses. It was a relief to escape back up to ground level.
The next day we were off. I was heading onwards to Berlin by train, and Mum was going back to rush up to Edinburgh for the festival.
I only had two legs of the trip left: Kiev-Berlin and Berlin-Paris. Mum bought me a first class ticket for the overnight train from Berlin to Paris as my birthday present. For some reason I thought it was a good idea for her to bring it to Kiev, rather than for me to take it with me via Nepal, China and Russia. Naturally, by the time it came to pack for Kiev, Mum had completely forgotten about the ticket and I didn’t think to remind her. When we discovered this we made a frantic phone call to my boyfriend David in London, who was charged with locating and sending the ticket – he FedExed it to the hostel I had booked in Berlin as there wasn’t enough time for it to get to Kiev. It was nervewracking because I was only in Berlin for one night and by then I would be lucky to even find a seat on the Berlin-Paris train, let alone a sleeper berth, if I didn’t have my ticket. Plus the ticket was expensive, a really generous birthday treat, and we didn’t want it to go to waste.
I boarded the train more worried about the next stage than the one directly ahead of me, though it turned out that the Kiev-Berlin train was by far the more eventful journey. You’ll see what I mean in my next post.