PLANETBUILDING BLUES: Europe. Ukraine

 Kiev.

It was a frigid denial of spring.

It was good training for a Russian winter, or to put it more accurately, the coldest spring for 100 years in the Ukraine. Or just Ukraine as the name was preferred by the people there.

I’d decided to try going there in the spring of 2013 because I’d never sampled a European Science Fiction convention before. The furthest I’d been through Europe was the Iron Curtain when that still existed. Europe had changed a lot since then so it was something of a dark continent to me. Ought to be easy enough to organise for I’d travelled around the world and it was so close.

However, a request for leave extending the Easter holidays led to a severe letter from my boss listing reasons why it shouldn’t be granted while still granting it. A phone call enabled me to explain that I was asking a question rather than making a request – not obvious when having to send in a form – and revealed that pressure was being put on my superiors to tighten up everything. Meanwhile the convention registering process was much worse than anything I’d known and now it was getting to the stage where a fulfilling job that had given me more freedom than any other might become jeopardised; so maybe it was time to abandon this trip but I wasn’t on my own this time, so I consulted Jocelyn.

Jocelyn was a supply teacher in the local SF group, of a similar age to me. She wanted to see something of Europe with me because I was ‘a seasoned traveller.’ Physically the chemistry wasn’t there so our friendship was platonic apart from an occasional hug and she was married anyway; but we seemed just right for each other mentally and she’d certainly become good company. I welcomed her company instead of travelling on my own for a change.

Jocelyn proved to be more than an asset. Saving the trip in fact by getting the registration process going, booking the airfare and the hotel, while understanding my need to cut the convention short by flying back on a Sunday. My boss had offered Monday but I found I couldn’t guarantee future emergency leave if I really needed it so I’d turned her offer down.

Everything else was planned thoroughly and went smoothly. I found myself boarding the early train at Portsmouth. Trouble was, I’d forgotten the name of the station I was going to meet Jocelyn at though I knew where it was and would recognise it by sight. Sometimes I make a point of not worrying about money as a reaction to the pain of saving nitpicking amounts of it through most of life, and had got a ticket for a place in that general area.

Sometimes it seems that no amount of thorough planning will save one from complications that insist on arising from one trivial mistake, courtesy of Sods Law. A ticket collector approached before the train left who shouldn’t be this early but shouldn’t be a problem I thought.

Wrong. On inspecting the ticket he revealed himself to be ‘a jobsworth.’ Doing his best to extract the maximum irritation by finding a problem with the station name, thereby forcing me to explain my mistake, accompanied by his stage managed time wasting pauses and negative deliberations such as:-

“Well, you should change at Fratton.”

“I’m meeting a friend at the station I’ve forgotten the name of. We’re going on holiday together.”

Another time wasting pause. So I had to say something else before this portentous prat wasted enough time to jeopardise our plan. “I suppose I’d better go back and get the right ticket then!”

“I said ‘should,’ but I’ll let you off this time.”

My relief was obvious but I said little or nothing. Just let him continue on his self satisfied way with his cherished illusion that he was a valuable person helping people. The more you say to people like that the more chance there is of a mess out of all proportion to their importance. One example being a Canadian railway ticket collector who’d gleefully trashed a conversation with another lady teacher I’d just met who was genuinely interested in my work, who might have become a good friend.

My meeting with Jocelyn though went like clockwork. “Welcome to my world of international travel and adventure!” While waiting for the train to Gatwick she told me that the station I’d chosen had cost more so the ticket collector was probably being irritating for the sake of it. Just to be irritating.

Before long I was able to look down on all of that from an Olympian height with Jocelyn in the plane. Gatwick airport had also gone according to plan, though Jocelyn went to the wrong check in to start with and my luggage handle broke. Take off in a plane is the closest one can come to commencing space travel I thought, as acceleration pressed me back in my seat like gravity when a rocket blasts off. Then we were ascending into a blanket of cloud over what looked like the M25.

The cloud covered much of Europe. Winter was being extended into April by an anticyclone over Scandinavia. Anticyclones tend to be stable weather systems and winds move around them clockwise so that ensured that Britain got freezing east winds from the Russian arctic. So I shouldn’t have had trouble in working out what the white aspect of the landscape below was when the cloud started clearing. Snow. I’ve never seen features picked out so effectively, the snow wiping out all unnecessary detail: the dark blocks of forest, roads and railways converging on intricate stains of towns and villages, rivers and the odd lake, even hedges and buildings. It was all laid out below in extraordinary fashion like a black and white map!

Central Europe2928

I think the cloud started clearing over Germany but later I’m sure we were over Poland. I’ve seen the same longitudinal field patterns there on Google Earth. Kiev was at the other end of the anticyclone that had bedevilled Britain and also had no spring to speak of; so I was surprised to see the snow waning over the region east of Poland now known as ‘Ukraine’ to its nationals.

We were descending and there was the Dneiper River! One of the big Russian rivers it was really a Ukrainian one, at least for now. Central Kiev was sited on its west bank. Now we were over a pine forest. They seemed to encircle Kiev and the airport must be just beyond.

My strategy for arriving in an unknown place is military in nature: seize the initial objective then consolidate. That means secure reliable transport straight to the hotel without trying to do anything else. Then once there secure valuables, clean up, eat and booze without leaving the hotel and get a good nights sleep. The logic being that one may be tired, strung out and suffering from jet lag after a long journey, especially when arriving late in the day or at night; so to do anything else under those conditions could make one easy meat for trouble. Next day is the time to get out there and see what one can do. I’d used that to good effect in the Philippines, though on one occasion the hotel was only a mile from the airport through a town that turned out to be safer than Gosport where I live! Still, I didn’t know that at the time and the Philippines is not reckoned to be one of the safer countries one can visit.

So I’d arranged a lift to the hotel which was about as far out of Kiev on its western side as Borispol airport is to the east: the airport we landed at. I felt the hotel was cutting it fine with their transport arrival but was assured the driver would wait for us if we got held up at customs and luggage retrieval, which I felt was almost certain. We’d been warned to take a large paperclip for the paperwork needed with passports at customs; Gawd!

It was nothing like that. It was one of the quicker customs I’ve gone through and no paperwork! Things went more according to plan at the luggage carousel where people were leaving with their stuff but we weren’t. I was hoping my attempt to learn some Ukrainian during winter – interrupted by phishers sabotaging my computer – would help smooth the way, but when I’d tried a little with the hotel and customs the response had been blank incomprehension. It didn’t help that their alphabet was Cyrillic. Anyway finally our luggage turned up and we were heading into the area where there were people with names on notices. Now for the moment of truth!

I couldn’t see my hoped for name at first so I forged ahead through the throng; there it was!

“Moje imja David Angus!” I exclaimed triumphantly striding up to the man holding my name, and got 2 fingers.

Well that’s what I was told ‘my name is’ should sound like on the language website, but I gathered that instead of an insult it meant he was expecting 2 people not one; in my eagerness I’d outpaced Jocelyn.

There she was coming up. Then despite total communication breakdown we established that we were the people expected, my suitcase handle was ‘kaput’ and that my plan for a linkup with transport was a success. The vehicle was substantial like an SUV.

The guy was so taciturn though I wondered if he was a member of the Russian mafia with a grudge against westerners? Still, my love of adventure coupled with apparent success took over as we left the airport and drove down a wide multi-laned road through the belt of pine forest. There was still snow on the ground in some places and at the airport it had been piled into heaps. We passed a bus stop too with someone waiting there but the shelter looked too big and enclosed, like a longitudinal blockhouse. A mystery to be solved.

We reached the suburbs of Kiev: great blocks of flats 20 to 30 floors high, possibly Communist era but then again maybe flung up since in a property free for all generated by independence. There were also dirty great dumps of snow, occasional hovels selling things, unplanned looking open spaces and in at least one place a pond almost big enough to be a lake. The flats were pale in colour, sandy actually, which added to the look of the area which felt somehow…dusty. The ground floors though frequently sported the garish colours of commercial enterprises, looking impermanent under the monolithic buildings above. The enterprises were here to stay though. Communism must be dead I thought when a McDonalds opened up in Red Square.

I tried to take photos of this scene but huge long passing trucks kept screwing up the image when I took any shot.

The Dneiper River was reached and crossed. I recognised an derelict looking industrial area beyond – possibly disused railway – from my studies of maps and satellite images and that gloomy wood opposite on higher ground may be a park or cemetery. I soon lost sense of direction though as the driver dodged traffic through the failing evening light and journeyed through central Kiev, judging by the more ornate permanence of the architecture.

Then suddenly I had a landmark, the Zoo! I knew that to be on the main road west out of town which would lead straight to the hotel, well to a mile from it anyway. Eagerly I reported this to Jocelyn but she was concerned about me gesticulating, a fault of mine when excited, not considered civil in this country, she’d learned from her studies. It said much for her patience that she would correct me from time to time while here without losing it.

The hotel was a mile south of where a ring road met the main road west out of Kiev. We passed through a filling station area and massive security gates, then down a narrow lane into a hotel complex. Almost like another mini-suburban project of substantial buildings distinguished by the exterior walls being a light yellow colour. Here there was a bit of a problem at reception. The girls there spoke very limited English and it was eventually established that they would only accept cash in local currency. The advice we’d been given was in favour of cards and cash machines, until I’d found more advice contradicting that. So I’d brought plenty of dollars and Euros but just in case I had 2 cards too. Luckily there was a cash machine near reception which should solve things and fend off Jocelyn’s idea of going to a nearby supermarket to get food with dollars, which went against my strategy of staying put in the hotel for the first night.

The problem worsened at the cash machine. Language problems led to it having the huff and refusing my card when I’d finally worked out what was going on. Then I had the double whammy of not being able to find the other card when I fished around in my moneybelt! Boy was I pissed off. Jocelyn was saddened at this but it was because we’d come so far with success only to encounter this sort of crap now when I was tired and the end of the journey should have been achieved.

But wait, I’d found the other card! This time it worked. We were able to resolve things and go to our rooms in a block half way up the hotel complex from reception. A security key led to a tiny foyer and lift and 3 floors above was an echoing corridor with a partially working light. All this gave a student accommodation feel to the place, to my mind.

I hoped it wouldn’t be like Montreal where the student digs I’d stayed in were a dump, but no: apart from the rooms having the same overall plan and facilities as western hotel rooms they had high ceilings – a feature of architecture here – and thick sumptuous curtains on the windows to match the height, giving a palatial touch to the room.

Our rooms were next to each other. We unpacked, showered, then met up at an arranged time to go down for a meal.

And walked into another problem that was more of a humorous situation affecting dumb western tourists. After tripping over a step from the corridor to the space at the lift – which we did almost every time at that spot – we went down in it to emerge into what looked like the basement. No number told us what floor we were on and there were no windows. Repetitions of this and climbing stairs eventually told us that we were simply unfamiliar with the ground floor looking like a basement. A hard push on a solid looking crude wooden door led to the outside.

Finding our way out of that we found the restaurant, had a good meal, got pleasantly drunk with beer and the adventure of it all and good conversation with a good friend: And so to bed.

Morning. My room was on the end of the block so it had 2 windows. The view out of the side one was westwards down a lane past a small industrial estate, suburbs fading into morning sunlight and haze. The windows in the corridor revealed pine wooded gardens across the lane with an iced over pond, paths flanked by lights and a folly of some sort, but bare pine needled earth otherwise with no sign of shrubbery or flowerbeds. Beyond were large residential houses with a driveway up to them flanked by piles of snow. It was the walls and gates though that caught my attention. They were big and high and looked like the sort of thing a drugs lord or money launderer might erect. Security looked like being a real issue here to anyone with ‘money.’

I thought I’d check out the TV in case there were any English channels. There weren’t, but it was an interesting challenge gleaning information from news channels and weather maps one was able to find.

Before long I got a scoop I hadn’t bargained for. All I could do was interpret from images on screen but they were of solemn looking people, something hinting at a funeral and Margaret Thatcher. Oh my God she’s dead! This was confirmed by hoodies altering a big notice to read ‘Margaret Thatcher is dead lol.’

“Have I got news for you!” was my wake up call to Jocelyn when I knocked on her door.

“Good or bad?” was the wary response.

Er well, in a sense it could be taken as good news for she was staunchly Labour and I had Liberal sympathies. Jocelyn though looked at it dispassionately saying her time had come and – being in her terms a ‘collapsed Catholic’ – thought it bad taste to have disrespect for the dead. That was a good point of view that I should conform to.

Breakfast was not so hot as the meal last night. Small cups of coffee and a light meal more like a lunch salad than something to warm one up in the morning.

Britain had been cold enough to equal Kiev and one had to be careful not to be caught by surprise by outside temperatures, especially at night. However it was a drier cold than Britain and once outside we walked into a stunning day of deep blue cloudless skies, warm enough in the sunshine.

Kiev ringroad2955

We headed up the multi-laned ring road on foot to the intersection of that and the road west out of Kiev. It looked obvious that we couldn’t cross the ring road until the intersection so we trudged past features such a truck park where it looked as though building supplies were being swapped (or maybe tourists for the white slave trade) and another petrol station. Snow was sometimes absent, sometimes caked underfoot into slush or ice, sometimes shovelled into heaps.

Sandy coloured tower blocks similar to the ones on the other side of Kiev surrounded the intersection where it was easy enough to cross towards Kiev on the flyover. Many countries can look untidy compared to the UK and Ukraine was one such but there was that dusty ‘feel’ too. I began to wonder if it was ‘loess’? Wind borne dust which could come from deserts. The central Asian deserts were east of here but I thought Kiev was too far west.

Not far from the intersection we reached the Kiev underground metro system, beginning with a subway. No sooner had we descended though than we began an adventure unlike any other underground train system I’ve been in. In the gloom we had to adjust to after the bright sunlight I nearly collided with a table of fish! A lot more was going on than in subways I’d been used to for somehow a fully fledged market had been stuffed down here! It was a regular Alice down the rabbit-hole feeling as we negotiated tunnels lined with anything from babushkas with bunches of carrots to tailors with designer shirts, and fish of course.

It didn’t help Jocelyn that she was wearing sunglasses which made the problem of adjusting to the lack of light more acute. I was reminded of the Zaphod Beelblebrox ones, where they go black when things become dangerous so you’re not frightened.

The Kiev metro is limited in network and the trains are old and clattering like the New York subway system, but all you have to do is buy one cheap token and – unlike the London underground – you can go anywhere! Also the trains are fast, by far the quickest way of getting around Kiev. This means they are always busy. As luck would have it the line we were on just followed the main road smack into the centre of Kiev. Lucky for us because our first objective was to get to the centre to link up with a trip we were going on tomorrow.

The station where we boarded the train was not far under the road, like the Circle Line in London. As the journey progressed though the line would get deeper until – according to Wikipedia – the next station beyond the one we needed would be the deepest in the world! If that were true 2 factors could cause it. Not only was it the last stop before the line went under the Dnieper River but it was under the high ground of the west bank which was up to 200 metres.

The first 3 stations or so were open plan but beyond that were more enclosed; which made it harder to navigate. All stations were numbered so I was relying on that because it was a good alternative to the Cyrillic alphabet. Luckily for me Jocelyn decided to count the stations.

Kiev metro station2957

The one we got off at had a central concourse that reminded me of Moscow. Not as palatial as images I’d seen of underground stations there but well on the way to that with an arched ceiling complimented by lighting mounted over side entrances also arched, coupled with a plush looking red and blue colour scheme and marble.

This was where we should change to a north south line and go one station north. There was no market down here but a perpetual anthill come beehive of people and after working our way through them and a majestic subway city we took a train north.

The station had the name of the nearest northern suburb. I’d got it wrong and the station we’d got off at was actually the best one for the rendezvous. It didn’t help that on our way back some little boys at the rear of a school party sniggered and pointed fingers at us. Were we that obvious or just old?

We also emerged north of where we should be but this was where I’d planned things right, by checking the way things looked here on Google Earth. Such as that curve in the road and the imposing architecture with that big arch across the road. The building where I thought the tour office might be stuck out like a sore thumb: the only modern one in a neighbourhood imposing older opulent ones that had that ‘west end’ look. The modern one was also brash with a McDonalds and a metro station within. There couldn’t be a better point in Kiev for a link up.

There it was, but here we drew a blank. The building consisted wholly of a station – apart from McDonalds – which was the way out at the other end of the concourse we’d ascended from. We could find no office nearby and worst of all the tourist information point we were to rendezvous at was shut, much to Jocelyn’s annoyance because she could see street maps she wanted unobtainable behind glass. Maybe it was because there was a public holiday.

There were places to change money but the place we tried turned out not to be a bank but a Bond Street type jewelry establishment. The money changing facility was a hole in the wall within there. Another touch of surrealism, part of the fun of foreign travel.

An old friend of mine who’d attended Sandhurst had told me of a military axiom: ‘time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted.’ So I reminded Jocelyn that we’d timed the journey from the hotel into Kiev so we now knew how long it would take and how early we needed to start; also which was the right station and what the layout of the place was actually like. All valuable information and all we needed now was the trip to show up tomorrow! She thought I should put my name on a sheet of paper or card like they do at airports and display it at the information point tomorrow morning. Excellent idea!

We wandered back up the wide street and found what Jocelyn wanted, a large street map.

Trouble was it was next to a big open square patrolled by characters dressed up in Panda and Disney costumes who thought it would be fun for the tourists. We’d begun to encounter people with doves who’d try to pose with us too. Neither of us needed it and the Mickey Mouses and Pandas wouldn’t leave us alone so we had to abandon the map.

I led Jocelyn away from there towards higher ground and the river. My original plan was to start from the southern end of the escarpment that runs along the Dneiper’s edge of central Kiev and work our way up it but now any point would do. There were monuments, places of interest and parkland there, apart from a good view.

We found a park near a building with a wide dome, that Google Earth tells me is the Ukrainian Parliament building. Jocelyn found the same kind of map as the one she’d been hassled away from. She wanted to study it in depth so I found a bench and sat there in the sunshine.

Very pleasant. Parks here consisted of stark bare deciduous trees and snow on the ground but it felt and looked good in the brilliant sunlight. One thing about the trees though: I was beginning to notice odd balls of small branches and twigs or foliage in the trees. Too random to be part of a tree’s growth. Nests or parasites?

Jocelyn kept working away. The edge of the park dropping off into the blue and what must be a great panorama was so near yet so far, but when I dared to chivvy her along I was told not to be impatient.

View from Kiev2968_edited-1 When we got there I felt that this was what the Congo might look like much closer to one of the poles. I’d been there and saw a similar landscape now. One of horizontals, a great plain and flat horizon and the shorelines of one of the bigger rivers on this planet, with its backwaters and islands. Across the other side was a panorama of tower block suburb poking though woodland whereas with the Congo it was just rain forest, but the geology was similar: old masses of continental shield rock. The Dnieper river ran along the edge of the higher southern and western mass on which we stood, until it was able to find a way round it to the Black Sea.

We strolled north through parkland past an open air theatre, a stadium, then across a footbridge over a main road. something odd was going on there;- ribbons, padlocks and white writing on the dark metal bridgework. Lover’s leap by any chance? Also I’d seen more of those growths on trees which often occurred in groups. I’d noticed hints of light green foliage looking like mistletoe in some of them. Wasn’t mistletoe a parasite?

mistletoe3249

Also what were those 2 ornate buildings – part stone part wood – across the bridge on a hill and that huge grey arch towards the river? Google Earth has since told me the buildings are ‘Water Museums’ and the arch is ‘The Peoples Friendship Arch’ made of titanium.

Jocelyn had needed her map to work out where the churches were. There were 3 within reach and a cathedral. Since the end of communist rule they’d been opened up and maintained properly again and while visiting them I felt I was finally really understanding why Karl Marx called religion ‘the opium of the masses.’

Saint Andrews Church2995

Before long I realised that the term ‘visual treat’ was as ineffectual in describing what we were seeing as it is with someone having a drug induced vision. Indeed it looked as though the architects and interior designers had been on LSD. Maybe it was the stunning clarity of the day producing perfect conditions for photography of these temples but it was the colours on these baroque buildings of multiple domes or half domes half spheres, towers, columns, buttresses and arches and carvings: sky blue walls and turquoise domes that made it look as though the sky was almost part of the architecture on a day like this. Yellow as bright as sunlight. Intricate gold overlay work everywhere highlighting exterior carvings and interior artwork. The interiors were Aladdin’s caves – or caverns – of artwork, embellishment and decoration. Heady stuff when combined with incense that hung like mist in one of them, numerous small candles and the those within who clearly took this seriously.

My favourite was St. Andrews church which was the one with the turquoise domes. Not just because turquoise is my favourite colour. It wasn’t actually that big a church but it had that soaring quality: white columned towers over light blue walls that seemed to capture sunlight, those sumptuous turquoise domes picked out by gold intricacies and crosses above, reminding me of the headgear of royalty, especially the central dome and semi sphere. That and its site on a hill overlooking the Dneiper is what did it.

It was the Grand Prince of Kiev Vsevolod 1st , in fact, who constructed a small church on this site. The Russian empress Elizabeth Petrovna continued the work into its current structure.

The high double doors at the entrance gave no clue as to whether it was open. I gave an experimental push and they opened up to reveal one of those interiors I’ve just described. We were wary of taking photographs but no one seemed to mind and I took several without making it too obvious, so as not to disturb anyone.

Those churches reminded me of a book I read in adolescence: Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Doors of Perception: Heaven and Hell. They seemed to be an attempt to create in reality the celestial city of religious and drug induced visions, or at least a few of its buildings. In Huxley’s book the more one’s life lacked colour – spiritually or literally – the more one could need religion or some escape from reality like drugs such as mescalin, which he took. Both could be a route to that ‘city’. The lot of the masses in this part of the world has not been a good one throughout history and the drabness of existence could still be represented by those tower blocks of flats around much of Kiev, so what I’ve just described could have been – and still can be – much in demand here. To me it seemed to tie in with Karl Marx’s comment on religion.

Other attractions and incidents included:

Jocelyn precipitating an avalanche of very colourful Easter eggs on a downhill gradient in a market near St. Andrews. Luckily the people there were good natured and we didn’t have to buy anything.

An open air art gallery.

A decent cup of coffee at an establishment I mistook for a bar.

Golden Gate3020

The Golden Gate of Kiev. A building occupying a small park that looked like a cross between a fort with its timber and a castle with its brickwork. In a sense that’s what it was for it was the surviving gateway – one of 3 – of historic Kiev.

An interruption of my photography by an old man bearing down on me angry that I happened to be in his way. He may have been old but he was still big and had the face of an ogre.

Relaxing in the Botanical Gardens by the main road west out of Kiev. More a park with winding paths around a deep gully.

Another striking thing we found was that one of the bigger older buildings was painted a blood red colour. All of it! Next door was a smaller one – but still big enough – similarly done up in bright orange. A friend has said he couldn’t imagine anything like that happening here in the UK. Clearly one of our inhibitions was lacking in Kiev. Jolly good luck to them. They’d done a job on their churches that was out of this world.

Finally Jocelyn and I tried to find a restaurant in a small part of central Kiev but we were tired, didn’t like the place when we finally found it and chose somewhere else where among other things I had a much needed beer.

Heading back to the hotel down the ring road I realised one of the locals ahead of us had had much more and warned Jocelyn.

“Let’s slow down so we can keep our distance. You see that garage area up ahead? Plenty of room for manoeuvre so we can pass him there. Now what’s he doing? Oh he’s turned off. No he’s not he’s stopped. Oh f**k it he’s come back again!”

Luckily for us his weaving about finally led him yet again some distance down a slope towards some flats before he stopped and opened his flies. Our opportunity to get past.

“Keep your voice down.”

That was after we’d cleared up a mystery. The elongated blockhouse at the bus stop near the airport was a subway entrance, one of two on opposite sides of the ring road not far from the intersection. We would be able to cut a corner off tomorrow when we set off for tomorrow’s adventure.

© D. Angus 05 13

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