We’ve all heard the old saw that getting there is half the fun, though I’m not sure anyone who’s flown coach class halfway around the world lately would agree. But if you choose to visit Ukraine, there’s only one way it’s going to happen and that’s by air. For the vast majority of travelers that means flying coach, economy class, spam in a can, call it whatever you want, it’s an exercise in contortionism and a butt endurance contest at best. I’ve made the trip several times and while it doesn’t exactly get easier, I’ve compiled a few tips to make it slightly more tolerable.
First, arrive early and begin drinking in the airport lounge so you are loaded before the plane is. Once onboard, continue to imbibe as much as they will serve you, preferably until you pass out. This way you will spend most of the flight unconscious, at least until you suddenly bolt for the head and lose everything you drank earlier plus most of what you ate yesterday. Either way you won’t be stuck in your seat for ten hours listening to the squalling baby in the row behind you or smelling the various bodily odors and effluences of your seat mates. It will also make you eat less – or better still, none – of the ghastly pressed cardboard which passes for food onboard most airlines, which leads me to…
Two, don’t eat the food. Unless of course you are someone born without taste buds, or the weird fat kid in first grade who ate that white paste that was supposed to be some kind of glue but really didn’t stick to anything except the roof of your mouth. I mean, that’s what they told me it did. I never tried it, honest.
Three, aisle seat only. Never, ever, get stuck by the window or in one of the center seats on a lengthy intercontinental flight. The only exception to this rule is if you’ve followed rule number one to the letter and are totally zonked out and drooling on yourself while snoring like a drunken brontosaurus curled in a fetal position against the window. Sure, if you’re on the aisle you’ll have to get up countless times to let others use the head, and every time the attendants zip past with the drink and food carts you will have your elbow or toes smashed if you leave them dangling in the aisle. Doesn’t matter. It’s still better to be able to get up without crawling over someone else and roam around freely (as freely as possible for being stuck in a giant aluminum tube, anyway) and if the plane starts to go down in flames, you can run amok screaming, jumping, spreading panic and generally doing all the things you’re not supposed to do.
So, despite all this you’ve chosen to fly to Ukraine. This means, ninety-five times out of a hundred, you’re flying to Kyiv. There are other big cities in Ukraine with international airports, but stick with Kyiv. It’s going to be your cheapest option, as well as having the most frequent flights in and out of the country. I landed in Odessa one time, and to say the runway was a bit rough would be like saying the Himalayas are rugged. I thought we’d missed the runway completely and come down in someone’s cornfield. No such problems landing in Kyiv, though the terminals are a little like time traveling back to the sixties. You de-plane via roll-up stairway onto the tarmac, step into a shuttle bus and are driven to the terminal.
Passport control is slow and a little intimidating the first time or two. If, like me, you are someone who came of age during the Cold War and who thought traveling to the former Soviet Union was only for diplomats and James Bond, standing in that line thinking “I’m actually going behind the Iron Freaking Curtain!” is kind of a rush, even if such a barrier no longer exists. The security people play right into this, being stern and deadly serious (as indeed they are in most countries) and if the sign says “Stay behind the yellow line” for God’s sake, don’t go beyond it. I don’t know what will happen to you, but nothing good, I’m sure.
(Wooden church in Uzhgorod)
Your passport will be thoroughly scrutinized and you will be given a long, deadpan stare or two, as if you are an American spy and it really is still the Cold War. I simply throw them a goofy smile and do my best to look like a dumb American tourist, which isn’t hard since that’s pretty much what I am. They might ask why you’re coming to Ukraine. “Tourism” is the correct answer. Refrain from “witty” sarcastic remarks like “I’ve come to steal your women” or “Ukraine? Dude, I thought this was Turkey. I just want to score some good hash.”
Once through passport control you claim your luggage and emerge into a sea of people awaiting their friends, relatives, etc. and one thousand and one taxi drivers attempting to entice you into their vehicles. This is where it gets interesting.
The first word of English they hear you speak, that taxi ride just doubled if not tripled in price. They figure you are a rich American and so fair game. For me, this is when I zip the lip, play mute and let my wife do all the negotiating, although honestly I think they can tell just by looking at me. Let’s face it, Americans dress differently than most other travelers. We’ve perfected the casual sloppy look to an art form that few others seem interested in emulating. When I stop and look around in most public places in Ukraine, even in hot weather I am often the only man wearing shorts, and I make no apologies for this. For me, comfort trumps all other considerations when traveling, and unless snowflakes are swirling I am most comfortable in shorts.
(Fields and forest near Letichiv)
Borispol airport is a long way from Kyiv city center, a good thirty-five to forty-five minute drive depending on time of day and traffic. Expect to spend somewhere between two and three hundred hryvnas – twenty-five to forty dollars at the present exchange rate of about eight hryvnas to one dollar – for a taxi ride to the city. Don’t necessarily take the first offer. Ask around and don’t be afraid to haggle for a better price. You might talk them down a bit, or they might just laugh at you and say something insulting about your mother, but don’t let it bother you. You won’t understand it, anyway.
The other option for getting away from the airport without paying exorbitant taxi rates is to take a bus. We usually ride one of these from the airport to the train station in central Kyiv at a cost of about three dollars apiece. From the train station it’s a short ride on the Metro to Independence Square and downtown Kyiv. The city is honeycombed with Metro lines and stations, making almost anywhere in the city easily accessible once you get your bearings and learn how to connect from one line to another. It is also the deepest subway I’ve ever been on, operating at a maximum depth of 105 meters – that’s about 320 feet – below the surface.
Boarding the subway at the train station can be a dramatically different experience depending on time of day. Sometimes it’s not too crowded. But if you hit it at rush hour, be prepared for a crush of bodies not for the faint of heart. It is a teeming, swarming anthill of people from the moment you enter the doors, push through the turnstiles, descend the longest escalator in the universe and come out on the platform, and if you are passive about it you will be swept along like a piece of flotsam on a human tsunami. Put your elbows out and shove your way to where you want to go because everyone else certainly does.
On the streets, every city of any size that I’ve visited in Ukraine is well served with cheap and plentiful public transportation. But it’s not something I would recommend trying for anyone who doesn’t speak and/or read the language unless you are an extremely adventurous soul who wants to end up on the wrong side of town. We generally ride what my wife refers to as a “taxi bus,” a van with twenty to thirty seats in it. There are a plethora of these available, privately owned and operated and utilizing an arcane numbering system which makes no sense to me but seems to offer no problems to the locals. These taxi buses usually cost two hryvnas, or 25 cents American. An even cheaper alternative are the electric trolley buses and trains which operate less frequently but cost only one to one and a half hryvnas. These are often, but not always, ancient and dilapidated Soviet-era relics that look like they wouldn’t go two blocks, but like a Ukrainian Energizer bunny, they just keep going and going.
The other option, of course, is good old foot power, and every Ukrainian city is pedestrian friendly, though it would behoove you to use caution when crossing streets as not all Ukrainian drivers seem to believe in pedestrian right-of-way. Many of the best views and most interesting sights are only accessible on foot and as in most of Europe, the real essence of their cities is found pounding the pavement, strolling the park paths, or traversing the big public squares and plazas. Since I love to walk, this is my preferred method of exploring the cities of Ukraine. There’s nothing quite like getting out there and mingling on the sidewalks, studying the faces of the people going about their everyday lives and making myself a camera-toting nuisance wherever I go.
(Lake in Crimea)
Private automobile ownership remains low in Ukraine, which I think is a good thing given the way most of them drive and the generally shoddy condition of the roadways. Purchase and maintenance of a car is simply unaffordable for the average person. So among the general populace, the most common form of transportation within the country’s borders is by bus or, more often, train. Inside any railway station there is almost always a queue for tickets, and on weekends or holidays the most popular routes often sell out. If you intend on riding the rails to get around Ukraine, plan ahead and buy your tickets early or you may end up going nowhere, at least not on the train. And when you do go to buy them, bring cash. We’ve bought a lot of train tickets during our travels around the country and I’ve yet to see a single transaction done with anything but cash.
In fact this is a rule to follow wherever you go and whatever you do in Ukraine. Theirs is still a cash economy. There are some businesses, especially in the bigger cities, such as the fancier hotels, restaurants and shops that cater primarily to westerners, that will accept credit cards, but they are the exception and not the rule.
To be continued….