Monday, July 28, 2008

Ukraine: From Wildness to Wilderness

After a couple of weeks flicking from country to country, it was nice to spend some solid time in the Ukraine, which really gave James and I a chance to explore some of the regions of this wonderful (if somewhat bizarre- see family dressed as bikers posing for family portrait on the left) country.

Due to our complicated travel arrangements to leave Armenia (don’t get me started on that again), we needed to do a 12hr stopover in Odessa en route to Kiev. Fortunately for us, it was a Saturday night, so we threw our bags in a plywood box, had a delightful meal in Odessa’s pretty centre, and hit Arkadia Beach. As I had found before, Odessa is a wild party town, and my thoughts and photos from my previous visit can be found here.

After having headed straight from Arkadia to the airport, James & I were a little perturbed to find our hotel in Kiev didn’t actually exist. Some frantic calls and explorations later, we were sorted in a lovely apartment with a jello ceiling.

It was great to visit Kiev again, a city that has to be one of the most beautiful and compact cities in the former USSR. Interesting sights, great food, fun nightlife and Khreshatik sum to make it a fantastic place to spend a few days and pick up a few visas. For something new, however, (I’m blaming James), we were attempted to be shaken down by the Kiev police twice while we were there. The first encounter was jovial and cost us $20, but by the time the cops accosted Cam for a second time I gave them so much Moscow attitude the guy saluted me and apologised.
For my thoughts on Kiev and some photos from my last visit, see here.

After a few days in Kiev, a Ukrainian friend Yulia joined us to head to Lviv, an historic and strongly nationalistic city in far Western Ukraine. Although Lviv is indeed beautiful and historic, it was also very soggy, since it didn’t stop raining the whole time we were there.

We found the time (between downpours) to visit an authentic “partisan bar” - complete with entry password, drunk ancient soldier at the door, and incomprehensible menu - before heading to an S&M-themed fondue place, and of course endless vareniki till it was time to return to Kiev.

Kiev (Take 2)
Once back in Kiev and back on the visa trail for Central Asia (We LOVE the Kyrgyz consulate, issuing us on-the-spot visas at 6pm), we were excited to be joined by another Ukrainian and b-school friend Lena, and her friend Dima, who showed us how to really eat & drink Ukrainian-style (although I’m sad to report she can’t drink like she used to)! Once again, I was amused by Ukranian girls' passion for dressing identically.

To celebrate Ariel’s birthday, he, Guri, John, Leo, James & I headed to a famous music festival called Kazantip (famous in CEE/Russia, I mean, since we were the only non-Russians there).
Kazantip is held in a specially constructed complex next to a tiny village in NW Crimea, where the most exciting thing to occur other than this festival is perhaps a fresh supply of meat once every 3-4 months. We found that our crew, which included a black guy, an Indian, and Leo looking (as always) like something out of a GQ spread in a town where wearing a shirt is considered formal, were an instant oddity.

The other reason that everyone was staring at us is that we’d arrived a day or so early for the festival, so we were treated to the tiny village of Popovka au naturel. No ATM’s, no restaurants, our “luxury” accommodations periodically lacking water pressure & electricity (although with a surfeit of manically quacking ducks) posed a slight challenge to our crew, but we overcame these logistical quibbles (after a 30km taxi ride to the nearest ATM) and soon found ourselves lying on the beach watching the spectacular Kazantip republic get constructed around us.

Unable to sit still on a beach for more than a few seconds, I went kitesurfing for the afternoon (photo shown for illustrative purposes only, since I was a little out of practice and spent most of the afternoon getting dragged around swallowing half the Black Sea).

The opening of KZ Republic was that evening, and our high-spirited group was ready to party. Unfortunately, KZ wasn’t quite ready for us, as still no ATMs, inedible food, intermittent squalls, and worst of all- NO VODKA! -forced us to drink warm Sovetskoe Shampanskoe. Fortunately, once the DJ’s got going & James located some vodka, things were looking up until we had to walk home after dawn in the pouring rain to an incessant lullaby from those f**king ducks, until thankfully the rain got so heavy I think they drowned.

Sevastopol & Yalta
As the rest of the crew headed back to Moscow, James & I rented a car (after another cash fiasco) and headed south to Sevastopol, home of the infamous Soviet Fleet. We happened to arrive on Fleet Day, and were greeted with the curious sight of a Ukrainian city waving Soviet and Russian flags.

A few kilometres south, the unexpectedly delightful town of Balaclava (yes, that one) had a positively Mediterranean air about it with a ruined Genovese fort, fishing boats, and quayside cafes. The only thing slightly out of place was the secret nuclear submarine factory built into the hill facing the bay, which we toured in a very James-Bond like fashion.

Pushing on to Yalta, we drove past a stunning landscape and discovered this Soviet beach town of old was still very popular, with thousands of Russian & Ukrainian holidaymakers flooding the attractive seaside esplanade, and frolicking on the pebble beaches. One of the strangest sights, however, were entire families dressing up in either period costumes or hardcore biker gear to get their photos taken, which I imagine must add spice to a family photo album!

The next morning, James & I learned how to really handle the Ukrainian roads, as were tore back from Yalta to Simferopol’s practically unmarked airport to make our flight to Uzbekistan. Our only notable stop was the massive Soviet Komsomol camp “Artec” where a 15-year old James once spent a delightful communist summer.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

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