All Quiet on this Eastern Front

A week’s journey around Kyiv and the quiet parts of Eastern Ukraine, with stops in Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, and Kharkiv. Warning: lots of pictures this time.

The Sich at Zaporizhia.

The Sich at Zaporizhia.

Returning to Ukraine for a week after two months in Moscow feels, on so many levels, a return to normal. In no small part for this reason: coffee and alcohol are actually affordable. I feel like the time I spend in vacation in Ukraine is invariable spent cafe hopping. From morning to about 5, it’s all about the coffee, and from about 3 onwards, all about the beer. This time was no exception.

Coffee, all over Kyiv. Sometimes fancy, sometimes from a snail truck.

Coffee, all over Kyiv. Sometimes fancy, sometimes from a snail truck. Seriously, that snail truck makes totally reputable coffee. What you can buy for less than $1.50 in Ukraine from a truck is almost always far better than what you’ll pay $6 or $7 for in Moscow, if you’re lucky and find a place somewhat reasonable.

This time, the affordability of everything in Ukraine rose dramatically, thanks to the fact that the currency is, while not in a complete free fall, dropping pretty regularly. The currency has lost more than 50% of its value against the dollar since we lived there last summer, rendering everything very inexpensive. Especially after the sticker shock of Moscow. Anyway, we started off in Kyiv.

Maki near some of the painted barricades. To the right, I meet a Cossack!

Maki near some of the painted barricades. To the right, I meet a Cossack!

Aside from a day wandering around the Maidan, Kyiv provided a lovely chance to meet up with friends, enjoy absolutely amazing food, and drink coffee like it was my literal job. Our first night there, we met up with Orysia for dinner at La Veranda, a restaurant recently relocated from Odessa. The fanciest food I’d had in a long while, if a touch too chemistry-inclined.

We even split a bottle of wine!

We even split a bottle of wine!

We had a fabulous lunch, too, at Milk Bar, which included some of the best ice cream I have ever had. Plus other good food. This place had a really amazing dessert counter. Plus, Maki also had a great salad. So much to rave about.Starred Photos71

We also gorged ourselves on more traditional Ukrainian foods, taking particular care to sample cherry varenyky, arguably the most glorious item in all of Ukrainian cuisine. And we even ran into Maki’s father’s childhood friend at a bar when we were just half an hour from taking off for the train station.

Orysia catches up with a friend. To the right, Maki with Roman, of New Haven.

Orysia catches up with a friend. To the right, Maki with Roman, of New Haven.

This resulted in a round of beer we most definitely did not have time for, and a rush to the station, arriving without physical copies of our tickets just 8 minutes before we were scheduled to depart. We were relieved that they let us on the train with only an electronic copy of our tickets, since we never managed to print them. And that was Kyiv. Train successfully caught, we found ourselves moving onwards on the slow, overnight train to Dnipropetrovsk, and we quickly found ourselves in conversation with fellow passengers. As we headed East, concerns about war were definitely much more on people’s minds, though our most talkative interloper went onto a tangent about traveling, and we soon found ourselves adding Norwegian fjords to our travel dream list (his pictures, which he had just taken over the last couple weeks, were stunning) and overloaded with useful tips and information about traveling in India.

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And just like that, we found ourselves in Dnipropetrovsk, where Maki had been once, many years ago, and I had never been. A new Ukrainian city!

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We arrived at the unsocial hour of 6 am, so we managed to slowly orient ourselves towards McDonald’s, where we drank copious amounts of coffee and planned our day. We rented an apartment near the center for a couple nights through AirBnB, and by 10:30 am, we had dropped our stuff, and were out to explore. One of the first things we noticed was a general atmosphere of tension. Although war still felt pretty far away, you could feel that things were much more tense in the east — and certainly war was on everyone’s minds, and the topic of countless conversations swirling around us. While many in Kyiv seem almost unaware of the political realities unfolding elsewhere in the country, this seems less true and less possible as we headed East.

Above, in Russian: "We are proud to live in Dnipropetrovsk. We are Ukrainians!" Below: less charitable sentiments, directed at Putin.

Above, in Russian: “We are proud to live in Dnipropetrovsk. We are Ukrainians!” Below: “United Ukraine” (in Ukrainian), followed by less charitable sentiments, directed at Putin.

Though we could feel general tension in the air, Dnipro proved quite pleasant for the day.

Messi/Maki, and also, a piano.

Messi/Maki, and also, a piano.

The Dnipro river front in the city is quite impressive. The Dnipro is HUGE.

The mighty Dnipro.

The mighty Dnipro.

We spent some of the time wandering along the river, and also had plenty of time to take in some of the city’s finer aesthetically-challenged Soviet relics, including both some of what my friend Kimberly might call an “Unidentified Built Object” (a Soviet-era built-thing of unknown purpose, generally exceedingly hideous), as well as a Soviet-era amusement park. Maki shot both pictures and hoops.

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Also in Dnipropetrovsk was another Soviet relic: a Shevchenko statue that would bring tears to any Ukrainian grandmother’s eyes. We documented it thoroughly.

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As the night progressed, we started to wander our way back towards the center, where we found a ridiculously pleasant cafe, Papa Karla. They had all sorts of children’s books and old knick-knacks as their decor (and it was even cuter inside). The perfect way to while away the evening.

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The next morning, we made the decision, perhaps misguided, to make a full-day excursion to Zaporizhia, just two hours from Dnipro by bus. We went, in part, under the suggestion of our fellow train traveler, who thought seeing the Cossack fort and museum there would be a worthy one-day excursion from Dnipropetrovsk. And thus began one of the most unfortunate comedies of error in all my travels.

Cossack things, pointing towards the museum, a mere 3 km from the nearest public transit stop.

Cossack things, pointing towards the museum, a mere 3 km from the nearest public transit stop.

We arrived in Zaporizhia without any major hitches, and climbed aboard a bus to head towards the island that sits in the center of the city. We knew that the island, which is rather large, was the site of a Cossack museum and fort. And other than that, we didn’t know much. Perhaps our first sign of trouble should have been just how long the bus traveled before getting into the island, which Wikipedia states is in the center of the city. Because the city is, really, represents the pinnacle of 1920s Soviet urban planning. Which is to say, rather than organized as a series of circles with a proper center, the city is really just one long line. There is no real coherent center. That the island is in the center is merely a geographic observation, as more of the city continues on either side. But it is not the center in any figurative sense. At any rate, we missed our stop, ended up way the hell on the other side of the river, before we got off, and made what was probably an hour-long attempt to get food and cash, before returning to the island. This time, we got off at the right “stop” — the veritable middle of nowhere, and still 3 km from our goal. So we started walking, hoping to pull over a car, but to no avail. About a kilometer in, we followed a sign towards a Cossack restaurant, figuring there might be people and lunch there, and a chance to catch an actual taxi. We never found the restaurant, but we did find a beach along the Dnipro.

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We enjoyed beer and sandwiches along the river, while we regained our sanity and asked for help in getting the the museum. The friendly guy at the food stand where we ate called a cab, and soon enough, we were deposited near the museum of Cossackdom there, already late into the afternoon.

Actually in front of the fort. Read on for more explanation.

Actually in front of the fort. Read on for more explanation.

Now, before I go any further, if I have any single piece of advice for visiting Zaporizhia, it is this: don’t. This Soviet-era museum, perhaps, was the perfect illustration of how this city has failed as a tourist location. When you approach from the main road, the first thing you come to — and what is accessible directly by car — is not, in fact, the entrance to the museum. Rather, you approach the administrative side. For reasons that are perhaps aesthetic in nature, but generally just absolutely bonkers, the museum’s entrance is literally as far from the road as it could possibly be. And we arrived just a few minutes before the ticket counter closed. There are two sites there, a museum and a fort, so we asked about the fort, and found out, to our disappointment, it was also closing momentarily. Realizing it was either the fort or the museum (and seeing the absolutely underwhelming entrance to the museum), we collected our energy and rushed off for the fort, arriving after the ticket office had closed, but early enough that they decided just to shuffle us through to give us a peek. The highlight: easily the views over the might Dnipro Hydro-Electric Station (DniproHES), one of the glories of the first Five Year Plan and opened in 1932.

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Having seen what we had come to see, we headed back into town, this way in a different direction, where we were promised a bus actually ran. After 15 minutes of no buses, we flagged a taxi and returned to a square that had looked mildly pleasant from our initial bus ride from the bus station that morning. We had a pleasant enough time at dinner, and finished just as the sun was setting over the street. Which I might remind you, felt like the longest street ever. We were still several miles from the bus station, in the opposite direction.

Seriously, Prospekt Lenina goes on FOREVER.

Seriously, Prospekt Lenina goes on FOREVER.

As we started making our way back towards the bus station, we also glimpsed this highly memorable graffiti. Hello, Taras!

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But anyway, we lingered over dinner perhaps a little longer than we meant, and had failed to take note of the time of the last bus that ran just the route between Zaporizhia and Dnipro. Unfortunately, this turned out to about 20 minutes before we arrived back at the station. Luckily, there was a long-distance bus that would be passing through in just two hours, so we waited patiently for the bus to come, hoping that there would be seats available. We would only be able to determine that a few minutes before the bus would arrive. Unfortunately, there were no seats. Feeling increasingly desperate — the next bus was the next morning and would get us back to Dnipro too late to catch our train to Kharkiv — we followed the crowd of other people, figuring that if they weren’t despairing, there was still hope! And indeed, for just 80 hryvnia (then a little under $7), we were both permitted to board the bus, where we found a comfy (…) spot in the stairwell. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t jilted about for two hours, obviously rendering it impossible to sleep. But the good part is: we made it back Dnipropetrovsk, and we were back in our apartment just before 1 am, with enough time to catch a few hours of sleep before our early train to Kharkiv. There, we were greeted by Evgenii, a journalist acquaintance of Maki’s, who put us up for a night, and made sure we were well connected and saw quite a bit on this round in Kharkiv.

Kharkiv. A city that has only improved with further acquaintance.

Kharkiv. A city that has only improved with further acquaintance.

Ah, Kharkiv. This was my fourth time in the city, I believe, and I must say, I’ve liked the city more each time. Things aren’t especially nice in the city — it’s a bit run down and clearly needs a little loving care and a lot of money put into it — but it does have a rather lovely atmosphere. On the first day, we started out by having a lovely lunch prepared by Evgeny’s wife, and the four of us chatted about all sorts of topics, mostly concerning all that had happened in the past few months. Evgeny put Maki in touch with a few people to set up some meetings and interviews, and we had a coffee date later that afternoon with our friend Yulia, a Kharkiv native who was in town working on dissertation research and exam preparation. We met at the recently-opened (that is, since we were last in Kharkiv) Lviv master chocolate café, a brand that is taking Ukraine by storm. Distinctly western Ukrainian (and absolutely Ukrainian speaking!), it seems to have really taken off in Kharkiv, in Ukraine’s east. A small (and delicious!!) reminder of forces that do unite the country.

Good cakes, good coffee. And all in Ukrainian!

Good cakes, good coffee. And all in Ukrainian!

Anyway, we spent two days rambling around Kharkiv.

Various art in the city.

Various art in the city.

Maki had several meetings, and we spent one morning being shown around back alleys for some of Kharkiv’s lesser known landmarks: old 19th century houses, examples of 1920s architectural movements that never took, and other interesting things you would never see without a guide. It was pretty cool.

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And all too soon, it was time to return to Moscow, in order to catch our flight to India. After a lovely dinner with another of Maki’s friends and his crew, we headed back to the station and climbed abroad the overnight train to Moscow. This time, among our fellow passengers were people who hailed from the outskirts of Donetsk, “where they’re shooting people,” they clarified, heading to relatives in Moscow. They had come to Kharkiv by bus from further east, fleeing violence. A sobering reminder of just how dire the situation has been and continues to be for countless people.

Breakfast on the train. Almost back.

Breakfast on the train. Almost back.

And with that, we found ourselves disembarking in Moscow, with several hours to get from the train station to our apartment and back to a different train station, in order to make it to the airport and then on for other adventures, this time on our long-anticipated honeymoon in India. To say the least, it had been an enlightening week in Ukraine.

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