Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I have made it to Luhansk safely and soundly with no problems. This year’s logistics were made incredibly difficult due to the grounding of much of the domestic air fleet in Ukraine, so some alternative plans had to be found…

This year, I flew though Amsterdam on Northwest Airlines. Northwest is partnered with Air France and Royal Dutch Airlines, but luckily the association with Air France has not adversely affected it. For some reason, I was not able to check in all the way through to Kiev, but would have to do so once again in Amsterdam, which was a bit of a concern. I think it had something to do with the odd security arrangements in the Amsterdam airport; when we got out of the plane, we were just “dumped” in an unsecured terminal.

It took about a half hour to secure a boarding pass at the transfer desk, but the departure terminal was not ridiculously far away, so I made it with about twenty minutes to spare. Security was pretty simple- it seems that each gate has its own checkpoint, so it went pretty quickly.

We flew to Kiev in a Boeing 737, which was like flying in an old friend after the cramped and crowded 757 I took from Boston. On that flight there were three of us in our row, and none of us was particularly petite, so we were packed in like sardines. The flight to Kiev on the other hand was pretty spacious- I shared a row for three with a Ukrainian physicist teaching at UC Sacramento. She was a little nervous about flying, but was good conversation.

The baggage did show up in Kiev, but I believe mine was the last off the plane, so I was getting pretty nervous. I couldn’t find a luggage cart, so I was forced to deal with my two suitcases, carry on, and backpack on my own. Luckily the driver from the Hotel Lybid spotted me pretty quickly and helped me navigate past the land sharks that are Kiev taxi drivers.

Getting to the hotel took quite a long lime. Kiev is a massive and spread out city. My driver spoke passable English and pointed out the sites along the way, including the square where the Orange Revolution took place, the Parliament building, and Prime Minister’s office. There were also several old churches and a monastery. On top of the hill that Kiev surrounds is the “Iron Lady” a huge statue to memorialize the suffering of Ukrainians under the Nazis.

The Hotel Lybid was a built in Soviet times, but renovated recently and seems to cater to the growing tourist and international business industries. The “standard” room was quite small, but comfortable. The beds were very narrow, but comfortable. The TV even had the BBC world service so I could catch up on some news. The best part of the room was the view. My room was on the 15th floor overlooking a square with a beautiful monument to WWII veterans and the local circus building.

I tried to do a little exploring around the hotel, but unlike Luhansk, where the streets are on a grid pattern, Kiev’s streets go every which way. After an unsuccessful attempt to find an international phone card, I simply gave up and went back to the hotel for dinner. I did get a free pair of jeans for stopping by a cell phone kiosk. The worker told me it was a gift from the people of Kiev. I hope they will fit my son, because there is no way I will ever be able to stuff myself into them.

Coming bask to the hotel, I found Mike with my train ticket to Luhansk. Mike is Olena’s (my Luhansk contact) brother. After explaining the train schedule, he made arrangements to have his wife Tatiana show me around the city the next day. After dinner and a well needed shower, I slept like the dead.

I woke up at 8am. Tatiana was to meet me at 11:30, so I walked around the square, had a good breakfast, and secured rooms for my return trip. Tatiana found me and we took a whirlwind tour of the city. We stopped by St. Michael’s (?) church which is about 900 years old. The icon and fresco work were breathtaking. I was allowed to take some pictures, but had to pay 3hr to do so.

From there, we walked to the Golden Gate which is a reconstruction of the ruins of the old city walls. I was struck by the shear mass of the thing. Much of the exterior masonry work is modern, although the internal work is from the 11th century. There are several levels which if you are willing to walk up the steps to the top offer a fantastic view.

Tatiana and I then went on a search for an international phone center so I could call home. We found one near Independence Square and also found some phone cards for future use. Since we still had a few hours, we went to a 12th century monastery.

The monastery is a massive complex, built on the side of the hill. Once inside the gates, the interior is dominated by a church and bell tower. The church was just as beautiful as St. Michael’s, but no pictures were allowed. Of special interest to me was a book museum with looked at the history of printing in the monastery and Kiev, covering everything from illuminated manuscripts to the most modern children’s popup book.

After a quick meal at a Ukrainian cafeteria, Tatiana and I went back to the Lybid to meet Mike, collect my stored luggage, and get to the train station. Mike organized a taxi, so we hauled all my stuff into the van and took off. The driver informed us that it can take up to an hour to get to the train station, even though it is only a 5-10 minute walk. That made me nervous as we had forty minutes to get there, find the track and get my luggage on board.

Luckily the traffic gods were with us and we got there in about 10 minutes, but the scene that unfolded before is at the station defies description (but I’ll try anyway). The building is huge, and was completely surrounded by taxi cabs, cars, and busses, about 10 deep, just dropping people off anywhere and everywhere. Somehow the driver managed to get us up close, so we literally jumped out and grabbed the luggage so the next car could get through. Once inside the station, the chaos continued, but everything was so well laid out and marked, that it was a breeze to get to the train, which we did with 10 minutes to spare.

Mike and Tatiana helped get me situated in my compartment, which I would share with some woman who spoke no English. After saying my goodbyes, I settled in at a window in the corridor, and watched the scenery go by. I have never been on a long distance train ride before do I was not really sure of what goes on. After about an hour a woman came by with beer, so I bought a warm liter of Stella. Once it was too dark to see anything, I settled into my bunk and read Peter Kropotkin’s Conquest of Bread, part of AK Press’s Working Classics Series (a review will be forthcoming).I dozed off around 10pm, but woke up at 1 and could not fall back to sleep. Part of the problem was that we could not figure out how to turn off the light over the bunks.

After tossing fitfully until 6am, I did manage to fall back to sleep for a few hours. The rest of the ride into Luhansk was uneventful and Olena and Irina found me right away. Before going to the hotel, we stopped by the travel agency to get a plane ticket from Doneskt to Kiev for the return trip.

A lot has changed in the last year. The theater building that has been under construction for years is just about done, as are the University’s new business center and two new office blocks on Defense Street. Sadly, the University Café where I took my meals for the last two years is closed for the summer, so I will be eating at the hotel, which apparently has always had a dining room. The food is very good there and the portions are huge, far more than I can hope to eat. I did happen to bump into the Galina, who used to run the café, but now works down the street. It was nice to see her, when I was sick my first year, she worked very hard to get the right food into me.

I hope to have a better update later on the city as a whole, pretty soon, so stay tuned.

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