David Rich 1500 Words
7 Ukrainian Hryvnias (uah)=$1 US
Ukraine: Brain Drain & Train
Ukraine offers spectacular sights, a photographer’s delight, hosted by the warm and helpful Ukrainian people. However, the chemistry after 2004’s Orange Revolution failed to fulfill the Ukrainian Parliament’s declaration of independence from the old Soviet Union on August 24, 1991, when the speaker proclaimed, Today we will vote for Ukrainian independence because if we don’t we’re in the shit. Unfortunately Ukraine is still mired in sticky Soviet business-as-usual, aka terminal corruption. Thus budding doctors bribe university officials to obtain an MD degree. After a severe case of frostbite a friend’s travel insurance forbade her from consulting Ukrainian doctors in Kiev and insisted she be air evacuated out. Don’t suffer a medical emergency in the Ukraine, which also means educated and competent Ukrainians, who possibly can, are leaving in droves.
On the plus side, of a kind, beer is considered a soft drink. Thus Ukrainians of all ages are found anywhere and everywhere, in almost every nook and cranny, casually imbibing, and getting softer by the hour. In response to the general demand Ukraine breweries offer umpteen brands of beer, improving the odds that anyone other than a teetotaler can find a beer to their liking; I admittedly found several. But then I can’t stand the non-soft drink of choice in all former Soviet satellites: simply vicious vodka.
Fortunately beer, beer everywhere excludes churches, of which Ukraine has more spectacular examples than Moscow, St. Pete and everywhere in Russia combined. The so-called Caves Monastery in Kiev (Kyiv) swashes with, I’d guess, 30 golden onion-domes clustered over caves chock-full of mummified monks. Hordes flock to kiss the monks on their posthumous parts, fortunately ameliorated by transparent caskets protecting the plasticized recipients and partially immunizing silly smoochers apparently unaware of the ubiquity of contagious disease, but then Ukrainian physicians may be equally unaware.
Kiev is a goldmine of onion-domed Russian Orthodoxy, from gold and blue-domed St. Andrews high on a hill in the center of Old Town to the sprawling handsomeness of St. Michael’s a mere two blocks from gargantuan St. Sophia’s in green and gold, all in town center, and fetching St. Volodymyr’s dark blue with golden stars, an aesthetic feast interspersed with eclectic art galleries and fine dining dirt cheap.
The Ukrainian currency dropped 14% against the dollar during my first week there, tempting an indefinite sojourn. But pity the poor Ukrainians whose bank accounts were frozen a week earlier in an attempt to salvage the virtually bankrupt banking system. The average Ukrainian subsists on $250 a month and is now facing a future of a lot monthly less while the tourist, with one exception, wallows in the lap of luxury for nearly nothing. The single exception is hotels, which are grossly overpriced. However, the wonderful alternative of a home-stay or apartment is available from peanuts on up, including my favorite never found in a hotel, gratis use of a clothes washer.
After gorging on the delights of Kiev and skipping nearby Chernobyl I headed for the fabled Crimea, a peninsula legendary in many more ways than one. The Crimea draws war buffs like a radioactive magnet to the site of one of the worlds’ most protracted, famous and bloody sieges, at Sevastopol, still the headquarters of the Russian naval fleet. Fashionably black-clad Russian sailors seemed to outnumber their Ukrainian counterparts at least 10 to 1. I hope it doesn’t come to a spitting match when the Russian naval fleet lease expires in 2019. The locals seemed to think it won’t. The Ukraine is too poor to forego astronomical Russian naval rents and too dependent on Russian oil to step on the big bear’s toes, though the Ukrainians radiate hatred of the Russians. That’s because the 20th Century’s preeminent butcher, Josef Stalin, isolated the Ukraine in 1932-33, starving over 10 million (not mere thousands) to death, hence memorials all over the country.
Compare the situation when Mr. Bin Laden massacred 3000. This would perhaps give the Ukrainians 3333 times the grounds to hate the Russians compared to why the Americans despise al-Qa'ida, plus starvation may arguably be a more agonizing means of death than sudden implosion. The Ukrainians, like Americans, continue to pay the price for dependency on foreign oil.
The Panorama’s large circular building on the highest hill above Sevastopol houses an enormous 360 degree trompe l'oeil of the Crimean War that centered on that very spot for 349 days, featuring actors ranging from British nurse Florence Nightingale to the suicidal charge into the valley of certain death by the befuddled British Light Brigade, fantasized as bravery by Lord Alfred Tennyson. The British navy was headquartered in Balaklava, a nifty cove with deep hidden submarine caves a few miles from the center of Sevastopol, later used by the Soviets as a nuclear submarine factory. During the bitter winter of 1854 British sailors insisted on dying in legions from the icy cold, publicized in the London Times whereupon English women began a frenzy of knitting full-cover wooly hats and sending them by the shipload to Balaclava, hence the name of a popular skiing accessory.
My Crimean coastal favorite is Yalta, strewn with palaces over topography similar to the Amalfi Coast south of Naples, lovely parks sometimes with swans aswimming and the world’s cutest miniature castle perched high above the Black Sea on a rocky promenade, aka the Swallow’s Nest. History buffs cherish the Romanoff’s Livadia Palace where bloody Stalin, deathly-ill FDR and a chipper cigar-smoking Churchill crippled post-war Europe, but don’t miss the combination Scottish and Moorish Palace at Alyska built by Count Vorontsov’s serfs from 1828-42, both palaces overshadowed by attendant gardens, the latter with swans aswimming.
The most excellent Ukrainian day trip begins in Bakhchysaray, an hour north of Sevastopol. A mere 3 kilometers (2 miles) east of town, easily reached by marshrutka often populated by those under the influence of copious soft drink, sits the Khan’s Palace, spared during Catherine the Great’s vendetta against all things Islamic because she found it romantic. The romance lies primarily in a poem penned by Pushkin, who was moved to reverently place a red and a yellow rose on the Fountain of Tears, built to provide a focus for the Sultan’s grief after the world’s most beautiful harem slave abducted from Poland spurned his majesty and died of self-induced starvation. Ah, romance.
Another mile or two (2 or 3 kilometers) up the road sits Uspensky Monastery, Ukraine’s oldest and cutest church in a cave embedded on the face of a sheer cliff embellished by outside frescoes, a darling onion-domed chapel and colorful mosaics. The spring below spouts holy water, an unbeatable combination prettified by free admission. A similar distance up the same road sits the ramparts of Chufut-Kale, a cave city 200 meters high (650 feet) Swiss-cheesed into a long plateau, providing refuge through the ages for Christians, Tatars, Jews and sundry other folks persecuted for their superstitions. These three sites make for a fascinating day, plus soft drinks are on offer everywhere outside the Monastery.
This plethora of Ukrainian sights is best reached by delightful transportation called train, ranging from electric to diesel, all comfy, inexpensive and highly entertaining. Local Ukrainian trains are traveling bazaars, populated by accordionists, saxophonists, purveyors of aromatic herbs, snack food crap and my favorite, the flashlight guy who entered the car bedecked with every known derivation of torch, flashlight, headlamp and small electrical appliance in a rainbow of electric colors. For me Ukrainian trains convened instant friends like static electricity, from those who insisted on pointing out the proper exit, next bus or train, the intricacies of their turbulent life histories in addition to the political and economic status of the country to Dushia, a 14-year-old fluent in English slated for high school exchange in the US who gave me the low-down on Sevastopol’s Russian fleet. Plus I bought a fantastic pair of gloves from a vendor on the Sevastapol train, a necessity in the Ukrainian winter, for $.50.
But I missed much of Ukraine’s irresistible countryside from Uman’s Sofivivka Park (another love story, this one modeled in a Taj Mahal mode) to its Venice at Vylkovo and reputedly incredible Kamyanets-Podilsky, an ancient town perched high on a granite precipice surrounded on three sides by the Smotrych River Canyon. So I’ll be back, next time in late spring or early autumn, instead of the dead cold of winter, to finish seeing Ukraine by train, assuming the brain drain and soft drink hasn’t permanently crippled the country.
When you go to Ukraine by train: Fly to Kiev, Odessa or Lviv from almost anywhere in Europe for $350 roundtrip via Air Baltic or check www.whichbudget.com for the latest no-frills choice. Home-stays and apartments range from $12 a night and up. Thirteen hours in a sleeper from the Crimea’s transportation hub of Simferopol to Odessa, or Kiev to Simferopol, cost about $13 for 13 hours. Local electric trains are less than a dollar while fast marshrutkas from Simferopol to Yalta require $3.