April 23, 2006
A Russian-language map of Turkey spreads out before me. My travelling companion on the overnight train to Kharkiv is planning a car journey around the Black Sea. "Can you get from Crimea to Russia?", I ask. "I think there might be a ferry", he hopefully offers. Then he has to cross the contentious Caucasus mountain border between Russia and Georgia. "How long did you spend in Georgia?", he asks. A month I answer. "Oh", he says, "I have four days. But I have a jeep", he says optimistically.
My journey is a little shorter; just a day in Kharkiv, a major city in the Russian-speaking industrial east of Ukraine. My guidebook promises me Europe's second largest square and the former home of the Soviet Union nuclear industry. Okay, so I wasn't exactly going for the sights.
We arrive at 6:30am. First quest is breakfast. It's Orthodox Easter so I visit a couple of churches on the way in to town. By 7:30 they're packed with the faithful, clutching baskets of bread and eggs, lining up to be blessed by the soggy-brush-wielding priest. I squeeze in to one church and join the throng, quickly blend in, crossing myself in mostly the right sequence and joining the response to the head priest's chants. It seems that the service could last for hours though and there are no seats so I head out to a nearby square and start the breakfast quest in earnest.
Three hours later I'm sitting on a park bench breaking in to my survival pack of small bottle of water and box of biscuits given to me by my aged cleaning lady. I've seen Europe's second largest square, a huge statue of Lenin, four metro stations and five drunks but not a single open cafe.
Alcohol seems to be a recurring theme. It's not even eleven o'clock and seemingly every second person is carrying a large bottle of beer. I finally find a cafe and order the one thing I can recognise: omlet. The table opposite me have just ordered vodka shots.
I've walked every street in the city centre, travelled the metro, discovered that the art gallery is closed for the day, and I still have five hours until my return train. In desperation I take the metro to the end of the line and emerge at Khe-te-zey, the Kharkiv Tractor Factory. It was inspiring in the way only a Soviet tractor factory can be.
I was now well off the map so my attempts to work out the marshrutka destinations were hopeless. The bread kiosk lady said I could take the tram back towards town. At least I think that's what she said. Maybe she was trying to sell me bread. In any case I jumped on and some time later found myself in Saltovka, a huge residential suburb with almost a thousand apartment blocks. It was typical of everything about Kharkiv compared to Kyiv: somehow just a lot more run down.
Back at the train station I sat in the cafeteria for a late lunch. Not for the food, which was terrible, but for the huge mural at the end of the palatial room. It was the Soviet vision of Kharkiv, not the one of litter, drunks and decay that I'd seen, but a view of the central park in full bloom. The view was taken from an imaginary neo-classical building. A young and vibrant Soviet family climbs the steps, the inspiring statue of national poet Taras Shevchenko behind them. Young daughter rides high on father's strong shoulders, hand stretching up; son excitely runs forward to the bright Soviet future; mother is happy and carefree.
I catch my return train. I have a kupe to myself. As I watch the flat landscape of eastern Ukraine roll by the attendant offers me tea. Twenty cent charge. She brings it in a large metal and glass mug; with sugar, teaspoon and a slice of lemon. I'm struck by the thought that in England or Australia I would have got a styrofoam cup and paddle-pop stick.
It's the small things.
April 09, 2006
March 27, 2006
An Egyptian-themed restaurant has opened across the road from me, complete with shiny heiraglyphics and fairy lights. It's a strange location for a restaurant - quiet backstreet - and I'd never seen anyone go in or out. Finally I had to take a look.
Decor is wonderful. Sphinxes, felines, profile portraits and this strangely incongruous grotto. Maybe that's the River Styx. I'm guided past the empty top two rooms and downstairs. Live music tonight, promises my host.
My Cleopatra-style waitress directed me past the one page of Arabic food on to the eight pages of Georgian. There was Ukrainian there too and probably sushi. Every restaurant in Kyiv has sushi.
I noticed three other guests in the room, then two of them got up and turned out to be the band. Russian music, my waitress confided in me, as they launched in to a pan pipe rendition of James Last. It was something special.
At the end of the song the pan pipes were exchanged for a remote, to control the karaoke machine. The keyboardist made a vague attempt to look like he was playing some notes but it was pretty clear he was faking it. They both sang with gusto though.
And the food! Well, it was everything you could expect from an Egyptian-themed restaurant with Georgian menu, Polish beer and Russian band. I spent the rest of the evening trying to remove the taste with copious amounts of coke (unsuccessfully).
It's my new favourite place.
March 26, 2006
It's over now but I should say something about winter here. It's cold. Not snap-your-face-off cold but cold enough. It sat at less than -20 deg for about two weeks. It got down to -27 for a couple of days. At that temperature you can't stay outside for more than about five or ten minutes without your cheeks freezing.
It was mostly okay though. There was no wind, and as a Finnish chap I once met said, "it's a dry cold, we just wear another pair of socks".
I was also helped by my large winter coat which a young lady helped me buy in exchange for some lingerie. But that's another story.