Kyiv, Ukraine: a Misunderstood Destination

Independence monument in Kyiv's historic 'maidan', the scene of its 2014 revolution
Independence monument in Kyiv’s historic ‘maidan’, the scene of its 2014 revolution. NR Venkatesh photos.

If our visit to Kyiv is anything to go by, Ukraine is a ‘diamond in the rough’

By NR Venkatesh

Most people know little about Ukraine. Some may find it hard to even place it mentally on a world map.

Elegantly attired Flea-market vendor in Kyiv, Ukraine
Elegantly attired Flea-market vendor in Kyiv, Ukraine.

For those with an interest in geopolitics, the mention of Ukraine likely conjures up negative images: Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014; the violent Ukrainian revolution in February 2014 after which, the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia; the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014 over eastern Ukraine, periodic anti-corruption protests on the streets of Kyiv, the capital; and scuffles breaking out inside the country’s parliament.

Easter Egg with traditional motif.
Easter Egg with the traditional motif.

Not exactly cheery images to attract tourists!

Rewards of the Lesser Known

The rewards of visiting lesser known, nay maligned or even shunned, destinations are many-fold, including affordability and less tourist traffic.

Especially, if the concerns about visiting these destinations are misplaced or not justified, as was the case with both Ukraine and Romania that I visited recently on a 10-day trip with Mann Rai, my friend from Mumbai, India.

Kyiv has two airports, Borispyil and Zhulianey. The former is larger and busier because it serves flights mainly from Europe, but it is situated quite far away from the city.

The latter is small and less busy because it serves international flights and it is closer to the city. To avoid being ripped off by taxi drivers, I arranged a local car service to pick me up.

Memorable trips do not simply happen. They need to be planned carefully. It includes staying at the right place, being clear about your interests and using your time wisely. Given the tongue-twisting challenges of the Ukrainian language, I was aware that I would not be able to wing it through the streets of Kyiv with a smattering of commonly-used phrases.

Moreover, Russian jostles with Ukrainian as the ‘lingua franca’ on the streets of Kyiv. And English is not widely spoken.

Massive billboard in Kyiv's historic 'maidan'
A massive billboard in Kyiv’s historic ‘maidan’ expresses a popular point of view.

To the lay tourist, Kyiv is a city of cathedrals, evocative statues and monuments, impressive squares, wide promenades and massive Soviet-era buildings. I advised Yev of our desire to see, smell, touch, feel and sample the authentic Kyiv that most tourists may not experience, and he put together an itinerary for three days that far exceeded our expectations.

A waterfront promenade in Kyiv, Ukraine.
A waterfront promenade in Kyiv, Ukraine.

City of Cathedrals

It would be an understatement to say that Kyiv is a city of Orthodox cathedrals, all of them iconic literally and figuratively. Ukrainians appear to be deeply religious. We explored the 1,000-year old Kiev-Pechersk Lavra – Caves Monastery, hiring an English-speaking guide for 1,500 hryvnias (pronounced gryvnas), equivalent to 60 USD (expensive), for a tour that lasted two hours. We also participated in a jam-packed Sunday service (pre-Easter weekend) at St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, one of the city’s major landmarks.

Enjoying the world-famous 'Chicken a la Kiev' in Kyiv, Ukraine
Enjoying the world-famous ‘Chicken a la Kiev’ in Kyiv, Ukraine

Ethnic cuisine

Kyiv is a great place to savor great ethnic cuisine, totally affordable. Thanks to our tour guide, we enjoyed some memorable culinary experiences. Having dinner at 99 Lari, the Little Georgian Cafe, where we not only enjoyed ethnic cuisine but also sampled their fiery vodka brewed in-house.

I purchased a 500 ML bottle for 500 hrvynas (20 USD) to bring home. We enjoyed a traditional Ukrainian ‘Kievskiy’ breakfast (five USD) at the highly rated ‘Under Wonder’.

It is a choice of Ukrainian-style cottage cheese pancakes, apple pancakes and crepes served with honey and sour cream. Having lunch at Katyusha,  a restaurant that retains its authentic Soviet cuisine and ambiance, transporting you back in time several decades, truly making for a one-of-a-kind unforgettable experience.

Enjoying a memorable dinner at Musafir, a Tartar restaurant that relocated to Kyiv from Crimea after its annexation by Russia. The Tartars are a Turkic people, Muslims, who have fought the Christian rulers of Russia and Ukraine for centuries.

And having two meals at ‘Yaroslava’, the ‘proletariat’ restaurant in Kyiv, where locals flock to savor traditional dishes at affordable prices. We had the world famous ‘Chicken-a-la Kiev’ at Yaroslava.

Impressive Monuments 

Mann, Yevhenii and your truly outside Volodymyr Cathedral, Kyiv, Ukraine
Mann, Yevhenii and your truly outside Volodymyr Cathedral, Kyiv, Ukraine

Ukraine boasts a number of impressive monuments and sights built in the USSR-era. We strolled along the expansive vistas of Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main thoroughfare. We visited the famous Maidan Nezalezhnost, the epicenter of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution.

We also visited the outdoor World War II memorial by the Great Patriotic War Museum, seeing the towering Rodina Mat (Motherland Monument) up close.

We visited the world’s deepest metro underground station – the ‘Arsenalna’ Station on the Kyiv Metro – at 346 feet deep and also rode the 112-year old Kiev Funicular.

Flea markets

Spending a Sunday morning at the local flea market is a must for me on every trip abroad. We visited the one-off ‘Pochaina’ station in Kyiv to join the residents and hunt for hidden treasures and bargains. I was interested in Soviet-era trinkets.

I purchased a beautiful wristwatch for my son in mint condition and another for my dad, requiring repair but belonging to a Russian commander. I also managed to snap memorable pictures of some of the vendors.

We also visited a second-hand market off Lesnaya station, a short train ride out of Kyiv, where we met a Ukrainian lady vendor who blew us away with her amazing rendering of an old Bollywood hit (Jimmy, Jimmy) from the 1980s. Indian films were quite popular in the USSR, including in Ukraine.

Symbol of Ukraine’s toughness

We visited the ‘Hydropark’ outdoor gymnasium (ingeniously built with scrap metal) where even on a cold day, we saw men and women pumping iron. I even spotted two men taking a swim, stark naked’, in the icy-cold lake nearby.

Worshippers receiving blessings at Volodymyr's Cathedral in Kyiv.
Worshippers receiving blessings at Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kyiv.

Deep Fault Lines

RELATED  Rolling Across the South in an 18-Wheeler

Ukraine faces several challenges today including some deep fault lines. Out of a population of 45 million, almost 8% of whom are Russians, there is a philosophical divide between those favoring closer ties with the West and NATO and those with Russia.

Ukraine achieved independence from the USSR in 1991 and it staged its latest revolution in 2014. However, sections of society appear disgruntled with their elected leaders.

It would be hard to miss the biggest banner in the ‘maidan’, which reads ‘Freedom is our Religion’.

Its economy has been devastated after its confrontation with Russia since 2014.  Tourism from Russia and the rest of the world has plunged sharply and this has had terrible economic consequences with a domino effect across sectors.

Despite their steep economic hardship, which is quite apparent, we never once felt threatened or unsafe as we explored Kyiv on foot. Which probably says something remarkable about the Ukrainians and their values and character.

They are a strong and resilient people who have overcome tremendous suffering over the centuries and they seem to take adversity in their stride.

If our visit to Kyiv is anything to go by, Ukraine is a ‘diamond in the rough’, waiting to be discovered.

You can be assured of a memorable time in this amazing country with its beautiful peoples so long as you avoid the trouble zones east of the country along its Russian border and take sensible precautions.

And steer clear from politics and protests, both of which could prove deadly.

Ukraine has a lot to offer by way of history; culture; architecture; food; interesting peoples; one-of-a-kind experiences; affordability; and religion (Orthodox Christianity). The country deserves better!

*****

Tips for Visiting Kyiv, Ukraine

RELATED  Turkey: Visiting Side and Kas
'Musafir', the famous Tartar restaurant in Kyiv, Ukraine
‘Musafir’, the famous Tartar restaurant in Kyiv, Ukraine

I had arranged for airport transfers with ‘Your Driver Company’ in Kyiv (http://yourdriver.com.ua/), a totally professional, reliable and reasonably-priced company, run by Eugene and his team (Telephone 38 098 047 23-99), whom I would highly recommend.

One-way transfers to our accommodations from the two airports cost USD 20 and 10, respectively. Incidentally, one can easily purchase a local SIM card at Borispyil airport and the process takes less than five minutes.

Not wanting to explore Kyiv ignorantly staring at monuments and sights without a clue about their significance, I decided to hire a local guide. And I lucked out because our Airbnb host, Yevhenii (Yev) Larionov (phone +380 636059473), a resourceful young entrepreneur, offered to be our guide provided he could zip off for a few hours at a time to attend to his Airbnb properties, as necessary.

Yev co-hosts several properties with his partners Vladyslava (a model) and Jan (a chef). We spent four comfortable nights at their safe, clean, bright, spacious, centrally located and reasonably-priced (USD 25/night) apartment, where Yev himself lives (https://www.airbnb.ca/users/show/101539928).

I would highly recommend both the accommodation and Yev as a tour guide.

St. Lavras Church in Kyiv, Ukraine
St. Lavras Church in Kyiv, Ukraine
NR Venkatesh

NR Venkatesh was a top film journalist in Bollywood, India and a travel and creative writer in the Middle East, his wife Nirmala has worked with leading English dailies in the Middle East. And son Arjun, who both writes and takes pictures, is also the spark behind the family’s collective efforts at sharing their travel experiences with the world. Incidentally, Venkatesh is a Certified Public Accountant from the US, Nirmala an international banking professional and Arjun, a software engineer based in San Francisco.