Happy Thans-Kiev-ing!

Happy Thans-Kiev-ing!

 

Thanks Fanny for the pun of a title!

I realized that whenever people ask for advice for what to see in Kiev and I look through my blog to rev up my memory again, all I have on Kiev is a crazy night out that began at the infamous Palata no. 6 (aka Hospital Bar), and nothing on what to actually see.

 

6 years ago in Kiev:

 

And we returned to Kiev today after a week in Armenia for an extended layover, I understood nostalgia and traditions are hard to quit.

Today in Kiev:

There’s been a few more tricks up their sleeves since then:

And yes, we even returned to Sorry, Babushka! afterwards.

 

 

But we also saw things this time! And when Ukraine International Airlines e-mailed me to say that our final flight home from Kiev to NYC would be delayed a whopping 8 hours, that left us with plenty of time to explore Kiev the next morning sober. 

Let’s begin — (Some of these photos are credited to Mihaela, who arrived in Kiev on an earlier flight than the rest of us)

 

 

From our hostel, we started at Andriyivsky Uzviz (Андріївський узвіз) or Andrew’s Descent, a steep but charming cobblestone path lined with souvenir sellers, art galleries, coffee shops, restaurants and museums.

 

 

The descent’s official start is at Saint Andrew’s Church, and it ends at Kontraktova Ploshcha in Podil.

 

 

From Saint Andrew’s we walked 10 minutes over to St. Sophia’s Cathedral, Kiev’s oldest church dating back to the 11th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage site that boasts the world’s largest ensemble of frescoes and mosaics. 

Admission fee is 60 UAH.

 

 

For an extra fee you can climb up the bell tower for these views:

 

 

We then walked 5 minutes over to Golden Gate, which is a 1982 reconstruction of the Golden Gate of Kyiv, which was immortalized in Mussorgski’s “Pictures of an Exhibition.”

 

 

Afterwards we turned onto Kreschatyk Street, the main path of Kiev’s center, where we took advantage of it being closed on weekends for pedestrians.

 

 

This street would then lead us to Independence Square or Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Майдан Незалежності), which as I recall was also where we scrambled around for an hour thinking that we missed our bus to Chernobyl 6 years ago. 

More importantly though, it is Kiev’s central meeting place as well as the site where people camped for weeks on end during the Orange Revolution in 2004 that led to the election of Yushchenko and the violet crackdowns of the 2014 Ukranian revolution that led to the ousting of President Yanukovych.

 

 

You can take a small set of stairs above the mall for elevated views:

 

 

Nearby is a tribute composed of scattered bricks to the 113 of those who died during the 2014 Revolution.

 

 

We then walked to Globus Mall for dinner at Ostannya Barykada, a famous speakeasy restaurant devoted to purely Ukrainian cuisine.

 

 

You have to find the dedicated entrance first:

 

 

Then take an elevator to a hidden floor:

 

 

Grab a few drinks at the simple bar and give this password in Ukrainian: Boritesya i poborete! (Fight and you will win!)

 

 

Once your table is ready, head through a hidden entrance inside the walls:

 

 

And eat, eat, eat away. Our recommended dishes were the goat, steaks (big cuts for $10 USD!), catfish, black pudding (pork blood), and borscht.

 

 

After a filling dinner we walked about 8 minutes to St. Michael’s Monastery, which is an active monastery that dates back to the 12th century.

 

 

If you’re still up for a longer walk, head 20 minutes south to Friendship of Nations Arch where you can get great views of northern Kiev.

 

 

From there you can walk into a pleasant park beginning with Park Bridge:

 

 

Right at the end of the park is 140 year old Mariyinsky Palace, which was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who is also famous for designing the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.

 

 

Walk another 25 minutes south to reach the Holodomor Holocaust Memorial and its underground exhibit in the park.

 

 

A few more paces south from the memorial will be the entrance to Kiev Pechersk Lavra, one of Ukraine’s oldest monasteries. Dug out by hermit priests, these cave monasteries are still intact today for visiting, where pilgrims and tourists alike can venture to see their mummified remains.

 

 

Finally, at the southern end of your walk will be The Motherland Monument, adorned by scores of military vehicles and classic Soviet-era memorial statuary dedicated to the sacrifices Kiev made during World War II.

 

 

And the motherland statue itself looks much larger in real life. Of note, the design on her shield is the only example of a Soviet hammer & sickle insignia allowed in Ukraine.

 

 

This whole walking tour took about 4-5 hours, after which we returned back to our hostel to pick up our bags and headed to the airport for our return flight home.

 

 

Perhaps because it’s my birthday tomorrow or Thanksgiving Day is in 2 days, I gotta say when this group first spontaneously formed a few weeks ago I remember not being able to help myself but have this gut feeling I would be traveling with and getting to know a solid bunch of special, amazing, funny, mature, and down-to-earth people. I didn’t know why; except for Mihaela, I never traveled with any of them before. While I tried hard not to overhype expectations, my expectations instead would be exceeded. By being themselves and coming on this trip with me, they gave me one of the best birthday presents I could ask for.

I’m already finding myself missing everyone before the trip even has ended, and I’m beginning to feel this sense of bittersweetness that because there are so many moving parts in this thing called life, these 4 people may never travel together with me all at once like this again.

I hope the universe may one day prove me wrong. Thank you for an amazing 9 days. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

- At time of posting in Kiev, Ukraine, it was 5 °C - Humidity: 72% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

You’re Going To Miss…Ukraine & Poland

You’re Going To Miss…Ukraine & Poland

 

Pictures courtesy of Mandy Cheuk, Simon Lu, Kai Tan, Cynthia Koo, and yours truly.

With contributions by Cynthia Koo.

 

If it’s not already playing, press play. And then start reading.

 

 

“…Because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” – Jack Kerouac

 

You’re going to miss…

 

You’re going to miss that first meal together, the seemingly unending introductions to the 16 other people you will spend the next 6 days with, the mental scramble to match faces to names and pictures from a blog.

You’re going to miss the butterflies before waiting to board airplanes going halfway around the world, those moments leading up to a trip promised to be filled with first-times and new experiences and unknowns.

 

You’re going to miss those first moments of dawning realization that barely a day into the trip you are already lost, navigating signs and subways in a language you can’t read, trying not to lose anyone in a city you know of only from the first scene of “Mission Impossible.”

 

And you’re going to miss the comforts of your first overnight bus into Odessa, being bored to death by what seems like your 5th walk around the city’s pocket-sized city center, your 2-hour wait for the group that was flying in later, and the subsequent joyous, movie-like reunion of 15 strangers amid the backdrop of one of the world’s most famous stairways on the other side of the world.

 

You’re going to miss breaking bread over a belated Christmas dinner with new friends, followed by standing on random street corners trying to find a way to the supposed “spectacular” nightlife of Arcadia beach.

 

You’re going to miss arriving at a deserted carnival that is Arcadia in the dead of winter, suspecting that zombies might be lurking in the fog, but heading in anyway only to stand on a forsaken beach, staring off into an uncertain abyss over the Black Sea.

 

Arcadia Beach, Odessa

You’re gonna miss taking photos of yoga poses next to crashing waves before crashing a dance party for old people, and then passing out in an empty restaurant before assumingly missing the last tram back to the city and, to the chagrin of several curious Ukrainian locals, subsequently haggling down 4 taxis that could help you make it onto your overnight train to Kiev.

 

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You’re going to miss waking up on a moving vehicle to a snowed-in Eastern European city and trying not to slip on ice-covered streets to get to your hostel before catching a 10:30am bus.

 

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And you’re going to miss the 4 hour bus ride passing through barren Ukrainian landscapes during which you finally found time to write in your journal, stopped by a roadside gas station to pick up cup ramen for lunch and a supply of cookies, meat chips, and candy that would last you for days. You’re going to miss eating the aforementioned ramen with coffee stirrers, and you’re going to miss belting out the lyrics of “Drops of Jupiter” before drifting off to sleep to the lyrics of “Just Breathe.”

 

You’re going to miss the feeling of knowing you are in the middle of nowhere, being unable to pinpoint where you are on a map, and juxtaposing the thought of being in universally-unknown Pervomaysky, Ukraine (did any of you know that was where we were?) with the thought of having just 2 days ago been in universally-known NYC.

 

You’re going to miss being shown what the end of the world might have looked like, and climbing down to the “safest place on Earth.”

 

You’re going to wish you could once again celebrate your birthday in an underground bar in Ukraine.

 

And you’re going to miss the $12 steak dinner, the endless orders of beers, and the anticipation of participating in the next random Ukrainian drinking “tradition.”

 

 

“No one looks back on their life and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep.” – Anonymous

 

You’re going to miss the 4 hour dance marathon…

 

…and you’re going to miss waking up to the sight of one of your group leaders passed out on the floor next to a freshly opened beer bottle, that WTF moment when your hostel was raided by Kalashnikov-wielding cops looking for a massage because they mistook the place for an Asian brothel. And you’re going to miss realizing that you spent that 1 night when you had a proper bed by partying in Kiev instead, heading to bed a mere 3 hours before you headed out the door again.

 

You’re going to miss getting on the wrong train during your adrenaline-fueled rush from your hostel to catch buses that would take you to Chernobyl — the feeling of searching for a needle in a haystack in Kiev’s sprawling Independence Square, the uncertain dread of whether you’ve missed the opportunity to visit the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. And you’re going to miss that sigh of relief and a renewed belief in miracles when a stranger approaches you to ask if you’re looking for the Chernobyl buses, 35 minutes after you were supposed to be there.

 

You’re going to miss the moment when you arrived at a destination that until then, had only existed for you in Wikipedia articles, video games, and bad horror movies.

 

You’re going to miss witnessing landscapes of a nuclear wasteland, the awkward reluctance and willingness of eating a “radioactive-free” lunch, the eerieness of naked abandonment as you navigate a ghost town that’s been stuck in a time warp for 26 years.

 

And then you’re going to miss that second adrenaline-fueled dash to the bus station that night, that momentary panic when you count up your group and realize you’d left one of your compatriots behind, the relief at having him make his way to the bus station in time anyway (leading to jokes afterwards that never got old). And you’re going to miss biting into one of the 100 last-minute orders of shawarma sandwiches made at the bus station to hold you over on your 7 hour overnight ride, and you’re going to miss those late-night conversations about politics, race, sex, and civil rights.

 

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You’re going to miss standing for an hour in the shivering cold while making crude jokes and waiting for the morning bus, telling horror stories on the way to Lviv’s train station, and spending the 3 hours before shops opened at one of the sexiest cafes you’ve ever stumbled upon.

 

You’re going to miss dancing in the streets to music blasting over speakers and you’re going to miss that awkward moment when a passerby gives you a 50 cent Ukrainian coin for your efforts.

 

And you’re going to miss wandering through Lviv with a local, warm from honey vodka shots required of you before you entered that password-protected underground bar, and buzzed from champagne popped at the top of a viewing tower overlooking the city to celebrate having just climbed a million flights of stairs (…and being in Ukraine!).

 

You’re going to miss taking photos in a random car at the top of a restaurant…

 

…and you’ll miss popping another bottle of champagne just in time for a fiery red sunset on High Castle Hill…

 

L'viv Opera Bar

…and you’ll miss that last-minute costume party under a legendary opera house.

 

You’re going to miss trying to figure out the ‘Ukranian Bear’ as he cargoes you across the Ukrainian-Polish border at 1am in the morning, debating conspiracy theories as you’re told to wait in an interrogation room while your vehicle is searched in a sketchy garage.

 

You’re going to miss waking up in a new country after driving for hours, dumb to the awe of Wawel Castle at dawn as you get out of the van, taking over a nearby Sheraton bathroom – the nicest you’ve used in days – walking through atmospherically serene Krakow before anyone else is awake, and getting a rushed breakfast before scrambling for seats on a standing-room packed bus to Auschwitz.

 

You’re going to miss contemplating the range of emotions that overtakes you when walking through one of the worst tragedies in modern human history, learning about the horrors of a place where horrible things happened to good people — a place you had only heard of from high school history class.

 

And you’re going to miss the bitter aftertaste of anger and disappointment when your group leader tramples upon his own schedule and totally lets everyone down (okay, you might not miss that).

But you’ll definitely miss the group dinner afterwards (at least this humbled writer hopes you do), courtesy of a jerkface who learned his lesson.

 

You’re going to miss those first few goodbye hugs as flights started to leave, the serendipity of arriving at the airport a few hours earlier than scheduled, that impromptu 2 hours spelunking through Warsaw in the middle of the night on the vodka, and the gratefulness for a last night of being so far away from routine.

 

And you’re going to miss the impromptu 2 hour tour of Frankfurt on another layover, the unexpected cherry on top to end the trip.

 

And you’re going to miss the feeling of arriving back home, just in time to ring in 2013, just in time to reflect on 2012 and realize you ended the year with a series of 6 days that you’ll never forget.

 

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But most of all, you’re going to miss the first time when it’ll hit you: that nobody else for the rest of your life will be able to understand what 17 strangers went through together in only 6 days.

 

 And yes, most of all, we’ll miss each other.

     “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill

 

Crossing Over From Ukraine To Poland

Crossing Over From Ukraine To Poland

 

Our last hour in Lviv — a costume party at the Lviv Opera House:

 

 

Afterwards, it was back on a bus heading to the Polish border town of Medyka. We figured that a bus would be more convenient than a train as buses have an easier time crossing the Polish border than a train, which would have required an extra hour of inspections and a track gauge change (due to different track systems between the two countries).

This is what it’s like to do an overland crossing from a non-EU country to an EU country…

 

We arrive at the first checkpoint:

 

 

They then take and inspect our passports:

 

 

Then it’s a stop at the duty free shop (of course), where alcohol is unusually 10x cheaper than it is in the USA:

 

 

Then we head back to the bus, with the Ukraine border behind us:

 

The Ukraine border

 

Afterwards we do the walk into the Polish border, where we get our visa stamps:

 

 

Then once we get our visas, we get whisked off to an interrogation-style holding room (like what you see in the movies) while they search our bus in a garage:

 

 

After about 20min of waiting, we’re back on the bus and on our way:

 

Poland

 

And then we’re off to Krakow…

 

- At time of posting in Rzeszow-Jasionka, it was 5 °C - Humidity: 56% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: clouds and visibility OK

 

Lviv Today, Die Tomorrow

Lviv Today, Die Tomorrow

As if our down to the wire panic attack to make the bus to Chernobyl wasn’t enough, it was another down to the last minute effort to make a bus that would take us to the border town of Lviv in Western Ukraine.

We ran back to our hostel (and having lost Andrew along the way), threw our stuff in our bags, and scrambled up and down the streets of Kiev, trying to make sense of a map that I could have been reading upside down, with 17 other people in the group who either trusted me or thought they knew better on how to get there (and they probably did).

Add that to slippery icy streets, the darkness of winter, and the fact we had lost Andrew…and you got yourself another heart attack in the making.

 

Kiev Central AV Bus Station

 

Luckily we ran into Andrew on the way out of the hostel (God bless him for finding a way back on his own) and we thanked our lucky charms nobody slipped and cracked their head open on the icy streets. Down to constant rushing, the bus also waited for us as we arrived to the station 10min late. 

The stars must have been aligned in our favor that day.

We then passed out on our 9 hour overnight bus ride to Lviv.

 

Lviv Bus Station at 5am

 

From the Lviv Bus Station we borrowed a fellow traveler’s phone to reorient ourselves and then we took Bus #10 from the bus station to the train station at 6:15am to drop off our luggage at train station’s left luggage facility.

 

Lviv Train Station

 

From there we headed onwards on Tram #9 to Ploschka Rynok, Lviv’s UNESCO World Heritage city center, where we wandered around a bit.

 

Visited a cafe that literally has its own underground coffee bean mine to explore and,,..have coffee in.

 

We then met up with a friend of a friend, Tolic, who lives in Lviv and wanted to show us around. So first order of business in Ukraine: grab beer and grub at Kryjivka, an underground bar (same building as the restaurant Mason) where you need a password to get past AK-47 wielding guards. 

You gotta monsoon with us one day to find out the password. (or google it)

 


 

Dining at Kryjivka will get you a discount to eat upstairs at the very expensive Mason, a Free Mason themed restaurant. To find it upstairs, you first need to find the right apartment. And once you do, an old man will open the door and give you a puzzled look of “who are you and why do you want to come in?” 

Be insistent on entering this old man’s random living space. If you’re stubborn enough, he’ll lead you past some curtains into a decked out Free Mason restaurant.

 

 

Afterwards we went up to the city center tower, which costs 10UAH and a crapload of burnt calories for a 10min slog to the top.

 

We then popped some champagne


We then were taken to a nearby Jewish-themed restaurant, Under the Golden Rose, where supposedly there are no prices; you haggle the price of the food you order. Not sure if that’s supposed to be flattering (according to the owner, he created the restaurant to honor the city’s Jewish past), but I wouldn’t be surprised if this place got dinged for its stereotyping (for which I’m not a fan).

The restaurant is also known for having a car on its roof and for its views.

 


 

Then we hiked up High Castle Hill to get sweeping views of the sunset over Lviv:

 

 

Afterwards, we headed back down to the city center, playing Coldplay, Jimmy Eat World and other sunset-fitting songs.

 

 

We visited a few churches and then headed to Gaslamp, a gaslight-themed restaurant for dinner. Lviv seems to love its themed-restaurant concept.

 

A guard explains to us the theme of the place prior to entering...check out Ruchika's expression.

 

Due to the the size of our group, we were able to snag a private room for free and without reservations. And here we are, having dinner and taking naps from a really really long day.

Tomorrow: Krakow, Poland — Auschwitz, Auschwitz Bircanaeu, and Oskar Schindler’s Factory from Schindler’s List.

 

- At time of posting in Lviv, it was -4 °C - Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

The Chernobyl Diaries

The Chernobyl Diaries

 

Yeah yeah, I know what you’re thinking . . .

 

We swear our story is way better. 

  

Our first full group photo; some of us didn't know whether to smile or keep a straight face...

The Pripyat Ferris Wheel just got served

 

Close your eyes. It is April 25, 1986.

Imagine if you had to leave everything you knew behind: A split second decision no time to pack. Imagine not being allowed to return home because your neighborhood Soviet nuclear power plant has just exploded. Imagine that less than a mile away, the world’s worst nuclear disaster has taken place.

This is the true story of Chernobyl.

Enough has been documented about what went wrong at the plant: An unnecessary (and ironic) safety procedure was being carried out one morning and in a smorgasboard of a perfect storm, everything went to hell and the plant exploded.

 First responders who came to help put out the fires and clean up the debris died within hours of acute radiation poisoning. Pilots who flew sandbags back and forth to the area to smother the flames and radiation died within days. Miners who dug tunnels to patch up the leaking molten radioactive lava died never lived past 40. Entire generations in the Eastern European bloc would suffer from radiation sickness worth 400 atomic bombs.

 

Memorial to those first responders who died putting out the initial fires of Chernobyl

The entire population of the nearby town of Pripyat were forced to evacuate their homes within 3 hours of notice, packing only a passport and nothing larger than a suitcase. Although they were reassured they would be allowed to come back in a few days, they never did.

 

Passing by one of a few abandoned villages on our way to Chernobyl

 

Today the plant continues to be contained by worldwide efforts with production of a new steel sarcophagus to support the already existing but crumbling concrete slabs that’s keeping in the radiation. Pripyat and its iconic amusement park, remains a true ghost town in every sense of the word.

 

 

The question on most people’s minds would be: is it safe to visit? The short and only answer everyone needs to hear is: Yes, it is. A Geiger counter we had with us measured radiation levels to be less than what it was in the capital of Kiev. And it was even far less than the radiation anyone would get when flying on an airplane. Although there are certain hotspot areas that are restricted, the places where you are allowed to visit are certainly kosher.

We even ate lunch at the site:

 

It was actually pretty decent

Walking out after lunch

 

Chernobyl has been a destination for curious, alternative, “off the beaten path” travelers for many years now, and there have been no reports of radiation poisoning given that the appropriate responsibilities are ensured. And since the new steel sarcophagus is due to be completed by the end of this year, this would be our last chance to see the Chernobyl plant in its freeze-frame snapshot as how it looked like exactly as it did on April 25, 1986.

 

Driving towards the iconic Chernobyl plant

The new steel sarcophagus

Chernobyl just got served

 

The tour lasts about 4.5 hours and is about a 2 hour drive north from Kiev.

Pripyat is one of those oppotunities of seeing what happens if time all of a sudden stopped. Pots still on the stove, newspapers half read still on the dining table, children’s toys strewn about on the floor…like North Korea, this is the closest we’re ever going to get to time travel, short of actually having a time machine.

 

Entrance into Pripyat

The long road into Pripyat

"Don't go up the stairs," they said. So I did.

Somebody left behind their shoes

 

Heading onwards further deeper into town, we came across the abandoned town theater, which we decided to spelunk.

 

 

Anyone who’s played Call of Duty Modern Warfare (I know I know) will recognize this iconic Ferris Wheel. This is it!

 

 

After seeing the Ferris Wheel, the sun began to set. For anyone who endured the horror movie “The Chernobyl Diaries” will know why it’s a bad idea to stay after dark. 

Nobody wants vengeful mutants chasing after them on their winter vacation.

 

 

Afterwards they do the responsible thing and check if our radiation levels remains in the safe range before letting us go back home.

 

 

Say what you will about visiting Chernobyl, but it’s a completely different thing to see pictures instead of actually being there. It’s a different feeling to be able to smell the air and feel the snow crunching beneath your feet, as pictures you once saw in history textbooks and on Google Images come alive before your eyes.

 

Safely back in Kiev
Panic Before Chernobyl

Panic Before Chernobyl

So in pulling an all nighter after last night’s festivities, I made a major mistake of letting everyone sleep a little more. Instead of giving them about an hour before having to leave the hostel, I decided to wake everyone up about 20-30min before.

What ended up happening out of such well-intentioned ignorance: a literal race to Kiev’s Independence Square, the meeting point where a bus would take us to Chernobyl.

Although we weren’t lost and we knew where we were going, we had no way of getting to Independence Square in the amount of time we had (10min) by foot. So I decided to take the metro. First of all, the metro isn’t like American subways…they’re Soviet by design and having remembered my time taking the metro in North Korea, I should’ve anticipated that getting *down* to the metro is enough of a time-waster:

 

An escalator ride that took 8 minutes

And by the time we hopped on a train, we realized it was going one stop in the wrong direction. We then jumped out of the train and ran across the platform to take the other train back up, and once more it was a race against the clock journey back above ground:

 

 

Finally, we reached Independence Square, although at this point we were already 17 minutes late. We looked around for any bus but in vain, but nothing was available; it had seemed the buses had tired of waiting for us and left. Luckily Kiev has FREE OUTDOOR WIFI (you hear that USA?!), which I promptly used to Skype my hostel. When the signal got bad (okay, the wifi wasn’t that useful), I used the cell phone of a tourist information kiosk that luckily was nearby. I then got the word from my hostel that they either could have already left or they were still waiting for us across the Square by the McDonald’s.

So we ran across (it’s not a small square mind you). There were no buses.

And then, like a miracle out of a cloud, a man walked up to us asking if we were going to Chernobyl. We were saved. I literally bear hugged all 16 people in my group. The miraculous thing was not that we made it to meeting point over 30min later, but rather nobody got left behind in all this madness.

 

 

The sweet isn’t as sweet without the sour.

And then we were off to Chernobyl.

 

Arriving at the Chernobyl Radiation checkpoint