Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Falling Over

If Vylkove is the end of the world, then by going to Moldova you've truly fallen over the edge. The greater rurality hits you as soon as you cross the border and donkeys with their carts begin to vie with cars for road space, the number of stray dogs increases, time turns to treacle and grannies line the roads sitting on benches observing passing traffic with the studiousness of trained scholars. Moldova tapers towards its southern end until it hits a lazy, northward bend in the Danube where its measly 480m of river bank hosts the country's only "international port". This quirk of political geography must annoy Bulgarian truck drivers no end as they queue for hours at customs to get from Ukraine into Moldova, trundle along for 3km, unable even to reach any speed of note, before having to queue for hours at customs to get from Moldova into Romania. I bet being a border guard down there is one of the best-paid jobs in the country.

Traffic is not particularly heavy on Moldova's roads.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Stepping To The Edge

The city of Odessa was founded by Catherine the Great to be a southern Saint Petersburg. I haven't been to the latter, but I certainly wasn't impressed with the former. My impression wasn't aided by arriving to grey skies and morning drizzle after six gorgeous days in Crimea. The grid of wide, tree-lined avenues seemed too impersonal, the grandeur too contrived. It may be the most cosmopolitan city in the country thanks to its port, but that just makes it a bland European city, lacking the wacky edginess of other, post-Communist Ukrainian cities. Instead it had the seediness that comes with being a port, namely in the proliferation of suspect "internet clubs" that aren't internet clubs at all but are just a front for gambling (apparently all casinos were closed down last year after the mafia behind the industry didn't pay a sufficiently large bribe to the government, and so they've migrated to the online world where the authorities are powerless). The only sight of note is the Potemkin Steps, made famous by this scene from Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin, one of the most influential in cinema history. Once again reality gives it quite a beating with an ugly port at the bottom which is home to a great carbuncle of a hotel that blots any semblance of a view. Not that Eisenstein would have minded that much since the actual event never actually occurred, and at least the purveyors of Soviet memorabilia and people offering photo opportunities with large birds of prey have a place to make a living (no kidding about the last one - I saw three separate people with birds ranging from golden eagles to snowy owls loitering around the steps hawking their pets to tourists for a photo op. Very odd indeed.).
Up close and in reality the Potemkin Steps are pretty disappointing, especially as they've built a main road right at the bottom.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


God was in a hurry when he made Ukraine. He just slapped on a bunch of chernozem, rolling fields and a few forests; but at the end of the day realised that he had forgotten to put in the cliffs, karst mountains, vineyards, and Mediterranean climate and so quickly put them in a rhomboid piece of land and stuck it to the southern end of the country with a piece of plasticine and voila, Crimea was born. OK, geologists may be able to explain it better than me, but Crimea is different to Ukraine in almost every way imaginable: its vegetation is dry and scrubby, not verdant and rich; its mountains are sheer and craggy, not old and rounded; and its history is Greek and Turkic, not Slavic (although, thanks to our old friend Stalin, the entire historical Tatar population was deported following World War II to be replaced by Russians). The whole Ukrainian-Russian dynamic is most marked here as the province (actually an autonomous republic) is effectively Russian, with Russian flags and billboards proclaiming faith in the (Russian) motherland all very prominent. Ukrainian symbols are relegated to official buildings and signposts.
Before the Russians and Ukrainians started vying for Crimea it used to belong to the Crimean Tartars. This is the mosque of the Khan's Palace in Bahcisaray. Few now remain as they were all forcibly removed by Stalin and current authorities are loathe to let them back.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Divided Yet United

The popular narrative when Ukraine is being discussed in Western media is about an east/west divide between the Russophile east and the Europhile west. As generalisations go it's pretty accurate: there is indeed a split between an ethnically Russian, industrial (with the smokestacks to prove it), richer, urban east and the Ukrainian, agrarian, poorer, rural west. (Interestingly though, the west of Ukrainian is the only part that isn't undergoing a demographic meltdown as low birth rates and high death rates in the east are leading to Ukraine having a significant population decline - in the top 5 in the world according to the UN.) This was highlighted in recent years by the so-called Orange Revolution and the subsequent political crises and falling outs with Russia, followed by the return to power of the pro-Russian faction last year. Although the political factions may seem very different at first glance, all Ukrainians I have spoken to, regardless of background, are united in their mistrust and disgust for them and mainly regard them as varying shades of shit. The problem is corruption that permeates through all levels of bureaucracy, from the humblest pen-pusher right to the very top. Everybody is in it to line their own pockets irrespective of the knock-on effects. I've heard from people that in order to secure a civil service job it is not uncommon to slip a small envelope worth five times the annual salary, with the expectation to recoup the capital investment through kickbacks. The people with the power to do something about this sad state of affairs i.e. the politicians, are also the ones who profit most. One example is Yulia Tymoshenko, one-time leader of the Orange Revolution and ex-Prime Minister, who tries to portray herself as an ordinary woman of the people, living in a simple house in Dnipropetrovsk, despite, in fact, being one of the richest women in the country thanks to some dodgy energy deals in the 90s. They would rather remain big fish in a small pond, and jealously guard their interests, rather than letting the country open up and flourish. It's a crying shame as I doubt that I have yet seen a country that is so underperforming to its true potential: an abundance of natural resources and an educated and cheap workforce right next to the biggest single market in the world. The country should be raking it in.
The giant statue of Lenin in Kharkiv's central square still dominates. He is perhaps one of the figures both Ukrainians and Russians feel a similar affection towards.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


The most famous town in Ukraine isn't the capital Kiev (or Kyiv according to the Ukrainian government), nor the town of Donetsk (whose football team Shakhtar won the UEFA Cup last year), or even Yalta where Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met to bash out a new world order towards the end of World War II. No, the most famous town in Ukraine has a (permanent) population of 0 and is unfortunately synonymous with the worst nuclear accident in history - namely Chernobyl. As odd tourist destinations go they surely don't get much odder than visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
So, this radiation thing, it's not dangerous, right? (Classic souvenir photo outside reactor no. 4).

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tourism The Ukrainian Way

In my last post I forgot to mention one other new thing that has come with entering Ukraine: a new alphabet. Ukrainian is written in Cyrillic like Russian, and although I can read it it's slow going for me; so I am voraciously reading every sign in an effort to improve my skills. Particularly tricky are the "false friends": letters that look the same in both Latin and Cyrillic but are pronounced differently e.g. P=R and H=N (Cyrillic first, then Latin). So for example to find an internet cafe you need to look out for a sign saying IHTEPHET.

Local fast food joint: Mister Snack.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Borders And Borderlands

Apart from the crossing from Finland to Estonia border crossings have so far led to only very subtle changes. Not so coming to Ukraine. First of all there actually was a border crossing, as they have all but disappeared from within the Schengen Area. Not only is this the frontier of Schengen, but also of "Fortress Europe", and the Slovak border guards were pretty thorough, going so far as to check the level of petrol in the tank (I was given a ride by a Ukrainian anaesthesiologist who works in Slovakia - just as eastern Europeans from the EU go west in search of better-paid jobs, so too do Ukrainians, who fill the void left behind by the departed Poles, Slovaks and Czechs). The checks in the other direction, heading into Schengen, are far more stringent, and waits of several hours are the norm. (As a slight aside, I've met a few non-EU nationals on this trip and all have commented on the difficulty of getting a simple tourist visa to visit. The process can take months and may require multiple days at embassies, extensive financial statements and interviews. All this for a simple week or two's holiday in Poland or Spain. And it's not just people from poorer countries, I've also heard of Japanese travellers - who are not known for their lack of means - being refused entry because of the unbending rules.)
Crossing borders isn't always as easy as in the Biesczady mountains where the border between Ukraine and Poland is pretty porous (here my bag is in Poland whilst I'm taking the photo from Ukraine).