Saturday, 14 June 2014

Welcome to Kiev

Where did you go on your holidays this year people ask me? Spain, South of France, and Florida they may ask.
The Cyrillic reads 'Heroes never die'!

For one I hate the word holiday and like to think of myself as having little adventures here and there.

So when I answer by saying 'Oh I have just got back from Ukraine', it raises an eyebrow.

Then when I mention that I visited Chernobyl their faces are marked with horror!

Why? That is the question I am asked.
My answer is more complicated.
Many reasons why I suppose.

Curiosity, danger, intrigue but most of all because I only know one person who has ever been.

One person and I only know two people who have been to Kiev and that was for the Euro Championships in 2012.

Therefore when my mate Nick asked me in December if I wanted to travel with him to Ukraine sometime this year and see Chernobyl I jumped at the chance.
January and 2014 came and with that we booked some BA flights and found a cheap hostel. We contacted a Chernobyl trip company as you can only go through a registered trip (although I did later hear rumours about a trip where you had to walk 40 kms to illegally get inside and then camp out). We are all booked and ready to go.

We started looking at things to do and see in Kiev and were looking forward to a trip that was months and months away.

Then suddenly Ukraine imploded. Maiden (Independence square) erupted. Protests, riots and running battles erupted onto the streets.

Fires, tear gas and brutal shootings took place.

The world watched on as Ukraine resembled a war zone.

Protestors wanted the Ukraine to join with the EU but the now former president Victor Yanukovych wanted to align more towards Moscow.

Battles erupted and soon they spread from Kiev. Crimea ended up becoming part of Russia after a flawed and maybe not too free election. Still to this day battles in the Eastern cities of Donetsk, Kharviv and Odessa. Many people have sadly lost their lives.

Here is a little piece about Kiev and how we found it in June after months of unrest.
We arrived in June. Still the country is in a state of almost civil war.

A shrine containing home made mortars
The day we arrived was completely coincidentally also the day that the new President the chocolate billionaire Petro Prosenko was being inaugurated.

As we taxied in from Borispol airport towards the terminal I looked through the portholes of the plane.

My eyes scanned the ageing Russianesque rusting planes parked up and then I noticed a few planes with markings that I had not seen before.

I saw a plane marked 'Government of Canada', in both English and French. There was an Estonian government planes and a few others from former soviet countries. Then I saw a rare sight. Flanked by men in black suits and dark glasses was Air Force One.

Barricades at Maidan Square
The presidential jet of the United States of America. Vice President Joe Biden had attended the inauguration that was going on as we landed. Therefore as we cleared customs where the silly border guard stamped over an Arabic stamp I had we didn’t get to see any of the celebrations. We later found out that there wasn’t any so we didn’t miss a thing.

And so Nick and I exited the lada taxi where the windows didn’t open leaving you a sweaty mess and stepped out to drop our bags off at the hostel and explore Kiev.

Now we should have found Kiev easy to navigate but instead we were hopelessly lost and stumbled upon an Irish bar to peruse the map.

We asked the barmaid where we were and she had no idea on the map. We had two maps in fact and she couldn’t point out. We knew the area we were in but her finger hovered from one corner to the next and ten she gave up.

Each person we asked over the next four days also had no clue as to where they or we were.

The second reason why we got lost was that when we got the map from the hostel we asked where the hostel was on the map. The girl at reception marked an ex on the map. Sadly the hostel was off the map and therefore as we were walking down the streets we were not actually on the streets we thought we were on.
Finally the map was in English while the street signs were in Cyrillic!

Maidan square has become a tent city

Eventually we rolled off the subway and ascended the stairs into a war torn and flag embellished tent city that was Maiden square.

What was once the jewel in Kiev's crown was now what resembled a refugee camp.

Old military green and camo tents lined the streets. Tires where bundled up high and with bricks, wire and any old rubbish made up huge barricades where fighting and massive fires had taken place.

Burnt out cars and abandoned water cannon and riot vehicles lay graffitied and in one case when I open the door lived in.

Abandoned military vehicles are dotted around
People who desperately needed a wash sat around on benches smoking in rag tag military clothing, some had guns, others knives and many had wooden clubs. None where military but where die hard revolutionaries who had been here since the staring and were dammed if they were budging.

Shrines littered the place. Candles, pictures, portraits, banners and even hearts made of bricks lined up on the floor were dotted all over the square.

Faces on paper taped to canvas looked blankly back at me when I stared at them. A small almost empty collection box was usually underneath.
I put a few Hyuvnias in some before I ran out of change.

Some of the military clad people (most looked mean and hard but where in sandals which defeated their image) seemed to have nothing to do apart from smoke, drink and ten sit staring. Some would suddenly shout out something inspirational or revolutionary and pump their fist in the air. Some others would join in and then they sat sullen again.

A large stage had been set up and a woman played the violin. It sounded haunting through the speakers and the sound travelled all over the square.

Nick and I explored all of the square and the tent city.

We saw the discarded riot shields, the dented helmets, the improvised mortars and even a canteen hat had been set up among the tents by some entrepreneur.

As we explored the sun dropped and the tent city became livelier. Long gone where the people like us walking around looking at it. The tent inhabitants all clad in khaki and green emerged and got hammered on the street. Many of the bars were not open, some had been torched or had barricades blocking the entrances.

This barricade has been made from ripping up the block paving

So many enterprising people had bought kegs and set up bars on the street selling very cheap and sometimes odd tasting beer.

One such bar had a man shouting outside and another a man beat boxing. Military wannabes wandered up and down and many gave us strange stares. In general the atmosphere was peaceful.

As we walked back we heard all the sounds of life from the tent city; laughter, arguments, babies crying, conversation and also a few rather shrill screams.

The next time we turned up at Maiden Square the atmosphere was almost one of a carnival.
A band was playing on the stage, there was an accordion player and the Russian orthodox priest with beards and mustaches that can only be described as epic were out in force.

The sun shone and you could almost forget that all the brick paving had been ripped up to make barricades or thrown at the police.

In the sunshine you can see the statues where flags have been draped and memorials better. The sunlight seemed to make them stand out and have more meaning, a deeper more ethereal meaning as they fluttered silently in the breeze. Some up high others at waist height.

Me in front of what was once a fountain
Somehow the sunshine allows you to walk through the camps more freely. It felt relaxed and at ease. As if summer had massaged the shoulders of the tense soldiers and had given a brief rest bite to those who had been here enduring hardship for months.

It is a hard thought to imagine this place in the bitter cold and snow where these dirty and half saved freedom fighters who refuse to go home had to endure. My heart goes out to them when I think of the sub-zero temperatures where they must have burned anything for warmth.

The Ukrainian sun beats down onto your shoulders and you look at the tents and think how hard it must have been and how many of them succumbed to the cold. Maybe right outside the Macdonalds that stand on the square.

I left Maiden Square for the last time as I descended into the metro Ii looked over my shoulder one last time. I saw a city that is changing. One of old and new. Where die hard revolutionaries rub shoulders with bankers and suit wearing high flyers. A place of intrigue and mystery and a place where there was a definite under current of edginess.

As if at any moment especially at night something could happen.

In all this I saw that Kiev was a truly remarkable and beautiful city.

Candles and shrines are everywhere

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