Last November I was sent on a business trip to the Ukraine.
The company I work for has offices there and I have been working closely with a team there for the last year plus.
The goal was to get to the city of Kharkov in eastern Ukraine where our offices are located. Flights were purchased with Ukranian International Airlines and everything was ready until just a week before the trip when the airline announced my Kiev-Kharkov-Kiev flights were cancelled. Apperantely, the Ukraine is co-hosting the Euro 2012 football championships and as a result the local authorities are frantically trying to get everything in shape, including the small and outdated airport in Kharkov which they decided to totally close for refirbishement. This was unconveniantly planned around my flight dates and not announced until tickets were already bought.
Alternatives were investigated and a night train was decided upon over a bus ride of some 8 hours.
The date of the voyage had arrived and I was half dreading, half anticipating the flight with Ukranian International; My brother had told me stories of other east european airlines such as the Polish LOT wich inherit all their planes from run down decomissioned soviet military aircraft.
It turned out however that that UIA is a quite modern airline, most of thier vessles being Boing 737s. The service was much better than most western airlines and they were not stingy about food and beverages.
So the flight was good and the view was spectacular, flying over the french coast and then following the Alps east into the other side of Europe.
Upon exiting the aircraft I was greeted by my first taste of the frosty local weather, a gust of icey wind hitting my face. The passengers had to exit the plane and get on a bus which stood forever in the cold, only to drive us literally 50 meters to the terminal. I had heard bad stories about the Ukranian customs but I had no trouble sneaking in my 3 kilos or so worth of Spanish coldcuts. A pretty girl on towering heels was holding a sign with my name on it when I got out, she was to escort me to the train station by bus. She provided me with tickets and watched over me at the Kiev central train station until it was time to continue on my journey.The Kiev central station is a mix of tzarish and soviet architecture. Rows of seedy looking fellows, down and out drunks and weary travellers occupied the rows of seats or stood leaning on the walls. But my guide took me to the nicest spot in the old part of the station. A self service cafe with wooden tables and chairs sprawled out under an ornate cieling with huge shandaliers. This part of the station was more upscale and people were working on their laptops or talking business while downing a last glass of local liquor before their trip. Here at the cafe I had my first taste of local food and it was good; fried fish and rice with vegetables accompanied by fresh rye bread. I was already looking forward to more.
When it was time to board, we walked along the endless line of coaches. My guide assured me that I was getting the best train the fleet had to offer. It looked like something from the late 80’s at best.
I was showen to my cabin where I met it’s other 3 inhabitants. My guide left and I was left to fend for myslef. Luckily one of my fellow passengers spoke some English, the son of a nuclear power plant architect. He showd me my bunkbed and handed me the sheets and bedroll for it. We spoke for a while in the hall outside the cabin, and later retreated into the small room for the long night.
Between loud snoring, the train stopping at several towns only to then jerk back into motion again, and the extreme heat inside the small space, I didn’t manage to get much sleep, but some is better than none.
In the morning I was greeted at Kharkov station by one of my work buddies and we took a taxi to the apartment I was to stay in for the rest of my visit. My first impression once out of the station, was that this part of the world still very much belonged to the Soviet Union. I suppose that to people who had lived through soviet times, the situation today is a far cry from what it was. But for a foreighner, all the soviet architecture, badly kept roads and ancient russian cars, is really something that speaks of a different era.
The apartment building where I was staying was also a crumbling hulk of hundreds of small flats.
The stairwell looked like the inside of an outdated submarine. The contrast between the inside of the apartment and the exterior, was served as an analogy to the state of the country as a whole.
The interior was a sleek job of rennovation and over the top kitch taste, all new and clean. Like a pocket of progress in this giant delapidated concrete block. In the Ukraine there is a hard mixture of the old and the new; while fancy european luxury cars overtake antique Ladas on roads that look like black swiss cheese.I later found out that the apartment I was to spend the week in, was one of those places that are usually rented by the day or hour. Nontheless it was comfy and probably better than a hotel at the same price. It was located on Gagarin avenue, commemorating the first man to ever venture outside earth’s boundries.
The local company offices was akin to any thing you might expect in a western country. Located in a modern if odd looking building on the outskirts of central Kharkov. I was treated very well by my co-workers who managed to pack an amazing amount of activity into my already tight schedule.
I was taken to have some traditional Ukranian food, with Borsch soup, lard and Kiev cotlet. I was taken to a local brewery/restaurant where beer is served with no additives and must be drank within 20 minutes of serving. Between an assortment of other bars clubs and restaurants, I also participated in a visit to a Russian bath: togeather with several friends, you rent a bath house comprised of a dressing room, bedroom, diningroom, indor cold pool and russian coal heated sauna. The idea is to eat and drink as much as possible while alternating between the hot sauna and cold pool. Another peculiar activity in the sauna is the branch beating portion; while inside the sauna, you are beaten on the back with an Oak branch which is dipped in water and then heated on the steaming rocks. The process feels somewhat like torture but I must say it felt ver exhilirating and rejuvinating.The longer my stay, the more obvious it became that there is a wide rift existing between rich and poor, corrupt and honest. It’s not hard to see the misuse of power in the Ukrain. New buildings are being placed randomly inside and around the crumbling city, it is a senseless effort becuase millions are spent in making these new ugly constructions in places they really make no impact on the overall situation. Contractors are pocketing immense sums of money to make useless pieces of ugly architecture instead of fixing the broken sidewalks and old buildings. But not all is so grim. There is a good number of old historic buildings in good shape. And the center is quite decent in some areas.
There are also plenty of fancy cafes discos and restaurants, designed in good taste. One moment you are in a street with pot holes the size of a bathtub, the other you are in an elegant bar with stylish music and finely dressed customers, including barmen that will shake up your preferred mixed drink.
The underlying tone of this whole experience was that there is a new generation fighting to break through the crust of old world customs and rulership left over from the previous era. Kharkov is the university capital of the Ukraine and attracts many foreign companies looking to create a second base in a town full of fresh graduates. There are many IT companies in the area that offers lower salaries and enjoy cheaper rent than in the capital of Kiev, thus making it a prime target for foreign development. But as young local professionals and foreign investors struggle to improve the situation, it is clear that there continues to be a ruling class in the city and the country in general, that is content in taking all they can get. Like in few other countries, if you lose your house to a ukranian bank, you will still owe the entire mortgage.
My week there was coming to an end, and as before I was scheduled for the night train. This time a real soviet era machine with generally the same layout as the last one, but much much older, and with a toilet you flush by pouring a bucket of water down it.
This time we were only tow passengers in the cabin until midnight came, at some god forsaken station in rural Ukraine, an elderly couple climed aboard and sliding open the cabin door proceeded to fumble for the light. After having no sucess I helped by turning on my bed light until they could find thier way though I could not help when the wide eyed lady asked me something in her thick Russian.
This train had a final destination several hours west of Kiev, meanin I had to get up sometime before dawn and make ready to climb off the creaking rig. Getting dressed in the jolting darkness I then climbed off my bunk to find that there was no waiting line yet to the dirty bathroom. After washing up I was all ready to go and even had time to return the bedsheets to the stuardess and order a cup of tea in preparation for the cold awaiting outside.
Pulling into Kiev it was clear that this was a larger more prosperous and corporate city. Towering business building with luminescent advertisements towered in the darkness. I eventually found my way from the train station to the bus that would take me to the airport. I have no doubt that the bus takes the best route, using the newly paved roads leading to Borispol. However even than there are remnants of poverty and abandon along the way. It was especially eerie to see a pack of feral dogs guarding a spot beside a newly paved road, beneath a row of huge office buildings, at five in the morning. This was another thing I had noticed; the large amount of stray dogs in this country. Animals that live on the fringe of humanity, holding on to life by the scraps of food and pockets of warmth they can find in the frigid environment. In Kharkov, during one night, our taxi was attacked by a pack of these canine freelancers when we drove by the abandoned dwelling they were inhabiting. I had read about feral dogs in India, and seen some in Gambia, but never expected to see such a quantity of self sufficient independent animals, living within the human concrete kingdom. Later I heard thousands o these dogs were exterminated in preparation for the Euro 2012 championship, as an attempt to make the streets more presentable.
During the ride, the bus driver pulled off to the side of the half finished freeway for a few seconds, only to continue on his way once more. I didnt understand what this was all about until a police control point stopped the car in front of us. Everyone kept telling me how dangerous and corrupt the police here were, if you had any trouble the last place you wanted to go was to the police station, that was just a way to find yet more problems. Our driver was wise, and let other cars act as bait for the police he knew were lying in wait up ahead.
Omnious forests of thin trees lined the road on both sides, my only real view of the countryside. At last pulling in to the airport, I could see a new terminal under construction but still far from completion. Another hint of how badly planned and rushed the preparations for Euro 2012 were. My last hours were spent in the terminal waiting to board the aircraft. I did have a great and interesting time both as a travel experience and professional one (which I am not sharing here). But the time had come to leave and I was glad to be going home, perhaps more so than the usual.
Even Lenin was wishing me bon voyage, until next time Ukraine…