The standard answer among travellers seems to be that it is like Russia, but without the need for a visa.
When Yegor (a friend from school who is also on a Valle scholarship – in Stockholm) and I discussed travelling this fall I was set on Russia. But due to the hassles associated with the visa, lack of time/motivation to do much pre-planning, and Yegor’s expired Russian passport (he was born in Moscow and spent the first 10 years of his life there before moving to Seattle thus multiple passports), we decided to go with Ukraine instead.
We flew in and out of Kiev, and had both L’viv and Odesa on our radar, but literally made no plans other than booking a hostel for a couple of nights in Kiev and copying some pages out of a Lonely Planet book. It worked.
Kiev is a big city (3 million people) with lots of cars. While there was plenty to see in the capital city, a tourist-friendly city it was not. I had read that Kiev was the new Prague (or perhaps the new Budapest, which was the new Prague), but I am going to have to disagree. Instead maybe more like L’viv (our second destination) is the new Prague?
Anyway, that doesn’t mean that the city was short on interesting sights (and sites) for us to wander through – one of the most interesting being Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra, a monastery complex made up of many Russian Orthodox churches and also caves lined with mummified monks.
The churches in the monastery were gorgeous, with the interiors reminding me of the Ukrainian Catholic Church (which is sort of a cross between Roman Catholic and Orthodox) I grew up attending.
And the caves? They were terrifying. I blame it all the LP guidebook for pointing out the danger associated with crowded caves filled with tourists and pilgrims carrying candles and wearing headscarves and polyester jackets.
More churches were toured – most of which were recently reconstructed after being destroyed by the Nazis and/or Soviets – but nonetheless beautiful.
And we wandered through neighborhoods that Yegor remembers walking through with his grandfather when he was young. We made our way down the cobblestoned Andriyivskyy Descent, browsing (and buying) the Ukrainian handicrafts.
One of the highlights of our time in Kiev was meeting Yegor’s (young) uncle, Igor. He was kind enough to spend a whole afternoon with us – treating us to a deliciously (large) traditional Ukrainian meal, stopping by St. Sophia’s Cathedral (behind us in the picture below), and taking us go-cart racing.
I think Yegor is now fully addicted to go-carts. And look, I’m KAT(backwards)R – I didn’t come in last! Igor was obviously a veteran, coming in first. His city driving skills (craaaazy – much thanks to Yegor for taking one for the team and sitting up front) can attest to his need for speed!
We also did a free walking tour (they had these in Germany too – love ‘em!) where in addition to seeing many of the sights of the city, we also learned about all the little ways to gain fame and fortune or have wishes come true around the city.
Here if your coin stuck to the side of the fountain, your wish would come true. One out of three – not bad…
After 2 days in Kiev we boarded an overnight train to L’viv, about 7 hours away in western Ukraine. My only previous overnight train experience occurred between Barcelona and Madrid several years ago and it was anything but pleasant (by myself in a cold and cramped train cabin with 5 strangers, in a sort of half bed where my knees touched those of the man across from me, ack!). I had been warned about Ukrainian trains from both Yegor and Igor, but I was pleasantly surprised. While I didn’t get much sleep, the train was relatively clean and comfortably, and a steal at only $20-ish a ticket.
Go to bed in Kiev. Wake up in Lviv.
Click here for more pictures from Kiev. There is also a link on the newly updated Photos page.