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First impressions of Kiev

Tags: — Allan @ 4:22 pm

Last week, I visited Kiev – which is the capital of Ukraine – for a couple of days. Before I forget why it was special, I would like to share some of my initial impressions of this fascinating place.

UkraineImmigration at the airport was effective and painless, although the officials were as stern and humourless as those types always seem. The airport is also not very large (at least compared to Heathrow The Monster) and I was outside quickly.

Here, I was met by a driver holding a sign, and as I nodded to him he walked off, leaving me to follow him into the car park. The walk was short and I got in after him, asking him if he had been waiting long.

“No English”, he said and smiled. This turned out to be quite common – most Ukrainians know Ukrainian and Russian, and not much else. Not too far from most English, who know both English and American.

I tried German and French too, but he just smiled and turned up the stereo – I figured Danish was too far a shot, and just stayed mum. In the stereo was a CD with English-language pop music, which I have to assume made no sense to him – but he hummed along to “D, i, s, c, o” anyway. It was funnily reassuring.

The country is large (at least seen with Danish eyes), and the population density is only a third of what it is in the UK. Leaving the airport, my impression was one of ample space.

It was also striking how the modern and the antiquated lives side by side. The main road was modern, and with many more electronic displays than I am used to: dynamic, full-colour road signs, displays showing the air and road temperature, and other modern gadgetry.

Most of the cars were ones you would see in any country in western Europe, although with a higher proportion of American cars like Chevrolets than what I am used to. At the same time, the road was also host to old, rusty Ladas and other brands from the Soviet era I didn’t recognize but clearly were past their glory days, if they ever had such a thing.

The lorries have undergone less of a transformation; the majority of the ones I saw were old, slow and just looked Soviet style. I am probably just biased, but there is nothing about the way they look that is attractive – it’s pure function, and not very much of that either.

The name of Kiev and other cities is not simple, by the way. Kiev is how the Russians translate the Cyrillic Ки́ев – although the Ukrainians call it Київ in Cyrillic and transliterate the name to Kyiv or even Kyyiv. The road signs were all in Ukrainian using the Cyrillic alphabet, and in a few places transliterated to the Roman alphabet. And Kyiv is definitely the default as far as the signs are concerned.

Me being conservative, I will continue to refer to the city as Kiev for now – it just looks more familiar to me – no offense is intended against anyone :)

There are a lot of blocks of flats that also are clearly from Soviet times. As my guide said at one point, “The Soviet Union was made from concrete” – and it shows in the design of many of the older buildings that grey was their favourite colour.

The Dnieper river that is such a central feature in Kiev – it separates the city into twoThe Dnieper parts – was beautiful, dark and frozen. Approaching the city, I could see housing estates, Orthodox cathedrals with golden domes, heavy industry with smokey chimneys belching out black smoke, and beautiful parkland with nice big houses. Not a simple place to understand, Kiev.

Next to the roads, there are American-style billboards full of adverts, advertising mainly Western goods. Grundfos, Coca-cola, Rolex, Opel, a magazine called The Capitalist. Clearly Kiev is a market, and a place where companies are keen to gain a foothold.

The speed limits seem to be advisory only, and most people drive without a seat belt – I dread to think what the mortality rate from accidents is like. “We will probably start using seat belts soon”, says my guide. “Most other countries seem to like them a lot”. At least the cars all have them, and I put mine on as we hurtled down a 70km/h road doing 150, hoping for the best.

The fine for speeding is also less harsh than I am used to from the UK: the fine for doing 150 in a 70 zone is apparently $2. Jeremy Clarkson would have a great time here.

The city itself is quite congested, and the center is almost impassable at rush hour. My impression was that the airport smells better than the city center – almost certainly because of all the cars. According to my guide, this has all happened in the last 10 years… 10 years ago, there was virtually no cars on the road at all. Such are the mixed joys of capitalism.

The hotel I stayed at, Hotel Dnipro, was nice, old-fashioned and very smoky. I think this is the only hotel I have ever stayed at where they didn’t ask me if I wanted a smoking or a non-smoking room – because there are no rooms where you don’t smoke. Coming from somewhere that is now almost completely smoke-free, this is a bit of a shock – smokers everywhere, you can move to Ukraine and smoke your lungs out! :)

Saint SophiaThe cathedrals I mentioned earlier are beautiful if very dark on the inside. There are no white-washed walls here: it’s all ornate paintings and lots of gold leaf. The cathedrals are now used as such again: during the Soviet Union, they were used for other purposes such as a University bookshop and even “as a place for distributing anti-religious propaganda”, as my guide put it. Sounds like a good idea to me :)

On my last morning in Kiev, I drove past Parliament and the Mayor’s office, where several demonstrations were in progress. The demonstrations seemed well organized: most of the demonstrators had printed flags with logos and slogans, so it was easy to tell the different demonstrations apart.

Many of the demonstrators looked like pensioners, but it turns out that it wasn’t pension reform or the price of pensioners’ bus tickets that were the subject of the demonstrations – rather, the demonstrators were mostly paid to be there. And since other people are at work during the day, pensioners make a little on the side by standing in the cold, waving flags for someone else’s causes.

Whether that is democracy in action or insanity, I’ll let you judge. It certainly fits in well with this chaotic, fiercely capitalist, aggressive, lovely place. If I get the chance, I will definitely go back!