A Travellerspoint blog

Ukraine

Heading to Ukraine tomorrow...!

Yes, I am staying away from the East, Mom...

overcast 79 °F

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I had always called Ukraine "The Ukraine." Not sure why...maybe I just heard it referred to that way more than once. However, I learned during my research that it is just "Ukraine"...kind of like England is "England" -- not THE England. Of course, that immediately brings to mind a certain university in my hometown of Columbus that IS a "the"...ha, ha!

Anyway, I will be in Ukraine for two weeks, with most of my time in Kiev, Lviv, and short stays in the Carpathian Mountains and an incredible fortress town called Kamyanets-Podilsky. Lately, I've added another component to my research. I joined an internet forum run by expatriates living in Ukraine. They're mostly Brits, Americans, Aussies, and other Westerners. Not only have they given some great advice, they are incredibly welcoming. I met a forum member here in Columbus for a beer, and he regaled me with hours of stories and advice. Upon arrival, another American forum member will be waiting for me at the airport to show me the ropes of riding public transport to my hotel.

So, sit back and get ready for stories and pictures from my country #77 -- Ukraine!
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Posted by world_wide_mike 17:18 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Easing my First Day in Kiev

Knowing People can make all the Difference

sunny 80 °F

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It took two tries, but I finally made it to Kiev. On my first day, my flight from Columbus to New York was cancelled. I spent two hours on the phone with four different Delta agents. Two were useless and unhelpful, one I was disconnected with, and only the fourth tried her hardest, but unsuccessfully, to find a way to route me there that day. No luck. I went home. My second set of flights went smoothly, though, and I touched down in Kiev-Borispol airport shortly after 1 pm on Friday.
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Michael was waiting for me once I breezed my way through customs. I'd contacted him on an Internet forum before I left and he'd volunteered to help me around. He is a retired American who has lived in Ukraine for six months, and married a Ukrainian woman. I hit up the ATM, and bought a SIM card for my iPhone so I'd be able to use Internet to help navigate. It was an experiment to see how useful it would be -- particularly the Maps GPS function -- which allows you to zoom in and see where you are and which direction your moving. Michael's wife had arranged a cab for the "local's rate" of 190 Hrivyna -- as opposed to the 400 my hotel would charge, and the 550 another traveler I would meet later said he paid. The exchange rate is very much in the dollar's favor, right now, at just over 20:1. That makes the above fares about $10, $20, $27.
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At the hotel, I checked in and then went up to my room and unpacked. Michael said he had free time and would wait in the lobby, then walk me around Kiev some, so I could get my bearings. Much as a nap sounded good (as usual, I could not sleep at all on the flights over), I knew I had to "power through" on the first day to avoid jet lag and reset my body clock by going to bed at a normal hour. That would turn out to be no problem, as I actually did not get to bed till well after 11 pm that night!
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Michael navigated us towards the main thoroughfare in Kiev, a busy street with the tongue-twisting name of Kreschchatyk. We decided to stop for a beer. He had to phone his wife Anna, who was at work, to hone us in to the place he wanted to stop. We were only a block away, and I was happy to actually recognize the neon sign in Cyrllic first. Katyusha is a pleasant restaurant to dine or have a couple beers in -- something we ended up doing. Anna joined us, and suggested typical Ukrainian fare that fit with what my friends (unfairly) label my "picky eater's" palate!
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After our meal, the couple took me on a walking tour of Central Kiev. We walked down Kreschchatyk, admiring the 17th-18th century architecture. We were hitting it at a perfect time, as the westering sun made the stonework glow. It was Friday evening and the streets were coming alive with strollers and entertainers. My favorite was the old man dressed up in traditional Cossack costume. He was playing a large stringed instrument and singing a folk song. In other places, there were people dancing as a crowd gathered around to watch, a young man on a guitar, and even a young lady dressed in a mermaid's costume!
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Our first stop was Maydan Nezaleznhosti -- Kiev's main square, and renamed in honor of the 2004 Orange Revolution that essentially freed the country from its post-Soviet, Communist grip. All over the square and up the neighboring streets, official and unofficial monuments are set to honor the ordinary students, workers, and people who demonstrated and said no to continuation of control by the Kremlin's cronies. There were also displays honoring the soldiers fighting against the "Russian separatists" and actual Russian troops who have grabbed land belonging to Ukraine. This is actually one of the things that tipped the scale for me to come to Ukraine. I figured if any county needs my tourist dollars, it is one fighting off Putin's aggression and Stalin- like attempts to reconstruct the USSR at the expense of nations who have finally attained independence. The fighting in Ukraine is confined to the East, along the Russian border, where Russian "humanitarian aid" composed of tanks, armored cars, and soldiers can easily cross into Ukraine to support the Russian-speaking Ukrainians who have unwisely stepped forward to be the front for Putin's land grab. It is also why Ukraine is so inexpensive for Western travellers. The economy is suffering inflation, tourists are avoiding a "war zone," and hotels have slashed prices to encourage visitors. For example, my 4-star hotel near the center (Premier Hotel Rus), is costing me $27 a night.
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The little memorials set up featured pictures of those who died in the fighting, along with implements like construction helmets, a bottle representing Molotov cocktails, and other improvised tools the rebels had available to fight the government during the Orange Revolution. It is always gets me to see the faces of those who later died in combat: grim, determined, happy, laughing...when those pictures were taken, did they have an idea of their fate? Anna told me Ukrainians want the street renamed in their honor and the memorials to become permanent and official.
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We continued our circuit stopping at the Chimera House, a truly wild-looking building adorned with dozens of concrete animal "gargoyles" -- rhinos, frogs, elephants, you name it! Humorously, the animals stare directly at the Presidential Palace, which is next door. Anna and Michael turned down the streets that showed off their town's architectural flair. It was a great way to unwind after the stress of cancelled flights and acclimating to a new place. They were great unofficial tour guides, and very helpful. After awhile, I needed a break. I could tell Anna was tiring, too, as she had been at work early that morning. The couple graciously walked me back to my hotel, where I went in, finished unpacking, and rested up for awhile.
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Later that evening, I went for another evening stroll. I ranged pretty far and wide, heading down to the Dneiper River, admiring the lights of the city from a pedestrian bridge. I walked back through the Maydan Square, had a beer in a cafe, and because I was so far from the hotel, rode the subway back and headed home for the evening. It was a great start to my two weeks in Ukraine. I was grateful to Michael and Anna for their help learning the ropes of their city. It usually takes a couple days before you really know your way around, but they shrank that process down to half a day. It had taken longer than I thought to get here and get my trip started, but I truly felt it was underway and going well, now.

Posted by world_wide_mike 22:42 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Diary From Chernobyl

Unquiet Dreams in a Nightmare Man Made Real

sunny 79 °F

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This was supposed to be Day 3 of my trip, but with the cancelled flight, my day trip to Chernobyl would be the very next morning after I arrived. I'd arranged it ahead of time using New Logic Tours, who were recommended by my Lonely Planet guidebook. It was the single most expensive item planned on my trip other than airfare, at just under $150. It was slated to last almost all day, though, and was the only option I found to do the tour. Most agencies booked only groups, and New Logic let me join an existing group as an individual.
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The bus would leave from the Maydan Square, so I left early to make sure I got there I time. The only thing I don't like about my hotel is the 20 minute walk to the center. I did two round trips yesterday, and would likely do the same, today. I showed the guide my passport and he gave me a cautionary statement to read when I got on the bus. It was actually kind of unintentionally humorous. No drinking the water. No eating any plants from Chernobyl. There are three sets of checkpoints we have to pass through in the "Exclusion Zone" -- called that because no one is supposed to live there except for people working there. It is only in the final zone that there are levels of radiation considered "unsafe." Your time is limited there. So, in the end, they say you are exposed to less radiation than you would be flying here from America.
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We learned more about that in the documentary they played on the bus AV system as we got underway. Actually, it was a series of different video clips, beginning with a U.S. network news summary of the Chernobyl incident. The videos were fascinating, and I learned a lot that I had never known about Chernobyl and radiation. For example, There are strict rules for how many years an airline pilot can fly intercontinental routes. After five years of doing it, pilots may not donate blood. After 10 years, they cannot donate any organs. The most shocking and sobering part of the videos was how close Chernobyl was to becoming an even more severe disaster. When Reactor #4 overheated, and it's fuel was turned into magma, the super hot material began to eat away at the flooring. Had it reached the unspent fuel deposits underneath, it would have ignited a catastrophic explosion. The blast would have been 10 times as destructive as the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in WW II. The resulting radiation would have made the entire continent of Europe unlivable, it said. Imagine that! One of our wealthiest and most populous continents was almost wiped out in 1986. The effects on our world had that happened would have been staggering.
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Equally shocking was the way the Soviets handled the disaster. I think no one was surprised that they denied it at first, and went to great lengths to conceal Chernobyl's magnitude. However, the callousness in the way they sacrificed their citizens' lives to put out out the reactor fire was appalling. Yes, they had to do it quickly to avoid an even greater disaster. But rather than ask the world for help, they ordered wave after wave of helicopter pilots, soldiers, miners, and firefighters in unprotected. They did engineer robots to try to use them to do the most dangerous work. The radiation played havoc on their circuits, though and they broke down. People -- or Bio Robots, as the documentary called them -- were ordered back in to toss sand bags on the fire, shovel highly radioactive debris, and more. The film interviewed some of the heroic survivors, and to a man, almost all admitted they had no idea how deadly the radiation levels were at the site.
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Some of my fellow travellers on the tour had rented Geiger counters to measure the radiation. At each stop, the guide brought out his and showed us the readings. At each check point we got off the bus and the guards checked our passports against their list. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take pictures of the guards or the checkpoint. So, Soviet paranoia lives on in Ukraine! One of my fellow passengers was from Oklahoma City, and we hit it off really well. We shared travel stories on the ride and reflections after each stop. One of our first stops was at a formerly-secret, Soviet radio listening base. It's huge antenna array stretched on for more than 100 yards. It's task was to spy on Western radio transmissions. The base was abandoned during the Chernobyl disaster, and it is slowly crumbling and being overtaken by nature. We checked out a couple rooms, then walked through the woods to the antenna array. Each tower stretched skyward, and the patterns created by lining up identical tower after tower were cool. I snapped lots of photos, of course!
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Our first abandoned village we stopped at had the requisite creepy doll lying abandoned in the grass. By the end of the day, I suspected these were being planted there by someone for atmospheric effect. I probably saw a dozen or so abandoned dolls during our visit. The first building was an abandoned school, and it was simultaneously spooky, sobering, and fascinating to see the detritus of a village full of people who had to pack up and evacuate, never to return. Broken glass crunched underfoot and rotting floorboards creaked ominously as we explored the school. Tiny metal frames of beds sat rusting in rows in two of the rooms. Schoolbooks lay open and yellowed, and everywhere was the dust of crumbling walls.
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As we neared the reactor, we passed our final checkpoint. Simultaneously, all the Geiger counters on the bus started beeping insistently. The guide pointed out each of the six reactors as we drove into view of the facility. I was surprised to hear that, after the accident, the Soviets fired up two of the older reactors and used them to generate electricity. Two additional reactors under construction (#5 & #6) were never completed, though. Behind all six rust-streaked buildings was the gleaming, metallic structure that is being built now to enclose reactor #4. Cracks have begun to appear in the concrete and steel sarcophagus that has enclosed the reactor for decades. Once the new structure is completed in a few years, it will be slid on rails over the top of the existing structure, that was built at the cost of so many lives after the accident. This final entombment is supposed to seal off any leaking radiation forever.
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Before we visited Reactor #4, our guide said he wanted to take us fishing off Catfish Bridge. He chuckled at our quizzical looks, but we duly followed him off the bus out onto a railroad bridge in the shadow of the reactors. He pulled out a bag of bread and tore off chunks and tossed them into the water. Monstrous catfish rose lazily to the surface and sucked them down. Were these nuclear, mutated monsters? No, simply a fish with no natural predator growing to its size -- or at least that is what he assured us. Some were easily three to four feet long. I would not want to go swimming in there! I took pictures of a memorial park nearby, too, and then we boarded the bus for the reactor.
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Our guide warned us again to stay in the allotted area, and not to do anything foolish to antagonize the guards. We followed him to a monument to those who lost their lives to seal up the reactor. He pointed out the radiation levels on his Geiger counter, which were "beyond safety level." Workers rotate through the site, he explained, with those in the most deadly areas being able to work only a few minutes a day to avoid overexposure to radiation. The sealed up reactor itself looked no more dangerous or ominous than any other large industrial building. It was hard to believe that inside was a pile of deadly plutonium which would kill you if you got too close. We stayed for the allotted time, then reboarded the bus.
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Our next stop was the town of Pripyat the "company town" the Soviets built for the workers of Chernobyl. For three days after the reactor explosion, life went on as normal in town. No one was informed that most residents were receiving lethal doses of radiation. No scientist or technician hurriedly abandoned the town, or even sent his family away to safety. To me, that is the most unconscionable part of the Chernobyl disaster. How could a scientist or technician working there NOT send his family to safety? How could he come home every night, kiss his wife and his children, and act as if all were normal? Knowing your family was going to die? It boggles my mind how servile and afraid of the government you would have to be to do that. How easy would it have been to say, "Honey, you need to go visit your mother out of town -- now!"...?
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If a Hollywood set designer ever needs idea for what a post-Apocalyptic town should look like, Pripyat is where they should go. Trees and bushes randomly sprouted from concrete and even buildings as far as you could see. Patches of woods had overtaken neighborhoods so that they looked like forests instead of streets. Streetlights arched alongside the trunks of trees as if they were trying to revert to nature, too. Signs leaned drunkenly and broken windows gaped like the hollow eye sockets of skulls. And just to make sure everyone understood this wasn't make-believe, our group's Geiger counters measured their highest readings of the day. Although life and nature was attempting to reclaim Pripyat, it was a life with poison in its veins. I recalled the pamphlet's warnings about eating fruit from Chernobyl as I passed apple trees tempting us with golden apples.
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One of the most atmospheric spots is the town's amusement park. A dozen bumper cars, are frozen in place as if the ride were stopped abruptly. Their bright yellow paint is scarred with rust and buckled with dents. Their steering columns lay broken across split vinyl seats. The Ferris wheel immediately catches your eye. It sits, in perfect shape, as if waiting for some ghostly operator to return and crank the lever to make it spin once again. The cars look inviting. What better way to survey Pripyat's state then to glide high above? A tilt-a-wheel is a leering skeleton next to the Ferris wheel, though, it's rusting bones mocking its hopeful and patient neighbor.
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We explored the town's movie theater, where dust rose in clouds as we creaked along sagging, wooden floors. We climbed to the second story of the recreation center, walking across the warped and ruined basketball court to enter the town swimming pool. It's vast walls were peeling flakes of paint that were coming loose in Palm-sized sheets. The deep end of the pool, with its shells of diving platforms, was littered with garbage. Even more ruinous was the secondary school. Books lay strewn about the floors and were ankle deep in some rooms. Everything seemed to be aged with a layer of gray from the dust. A lump rose in my throat as I imagined my own 7th grade History room transformed into a ruined shell like this. What would survive? What of my things that decorate the walls and room would be crumbled and hidden in a blanket of plaster dust? Who were these teachers and their students that learned in these rooms before the disaster? Did they all die of radiation poisoning, or are some alive today, experiencing their invisible nightmare over and over again in their dreams?
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We filed back on board the bus, some silent, some talking excitingly about what they had witnessed. From there, we drove past the first checkpoint, and each of us had to go through a radiation check. It was a device that you stepped up on, placed your hands and feet in the appropriate place, and a light would tell you in Cyrillic whether you were safe. No one failed the check at this spot, or at the five times more sensitive checkpoint as we exited the Exclusion Zone. It had been a full, but fascinating, day. Everyone seemed worn out by our explorations or perhaps the magnitude of what we'd experienced. I had fully intended to spend the two hour bus ride checking out my pictures, cropping them, and maybe even beginning this blog. My eye kept drooping shut, though, and I gave up. I sat back, let the gorgeous sunshine streaming in through the window bathe my face, and surrendered to unquiet slumbers of Chernobyl.

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:55 Archived in Ukraine Comments (1)

One Day to Lviv

Sightseeing in a gorgeous, Eastern European town

semi-overcast 79 °F

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Rynok Plaza, Lviv's central square, in the morning
This might be my one and only day to see the sights of Lviv, Ukraine's most Westernized city. I lost day one due to the late flight. Day 3 was a Carpathian hiking tour, and Day 4 was unplanned, as yet. The thunder I heard rumbling as I dozed early that morning was accompanied by occasional flashes of lightning. Would I get rained on for the first time on this trip? As it turned out, no. The sky was overcast as I left my excellent hotel, Premier Dnister, and walked through the park towards the center of the city ("Bitterman, take me through the park...you know how I love the park!). It would steadily clear up all day, and end as another gorgeous sunny afternoon and evening.
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a fancier example of Lviv's architectural decorations on their buildings
I was expecting Lviv to be a lot like Prague or Kraków, two popular tourist destinations in Eastern Europe. So, I wasn't surprised by the cool architectural flourishes they gave their buildings. First up was a door frame held up by twin Atlas statues. I decided to photograph the best ones and would end up taking pictures of fish, Egyptian guards, leering faces -- quite the imagination and variety. I made my way towards Rynok Square, which was quiet because it was so early. I made my way around all four sides, taking pictures. I particularly liked how each corner had a Roman God or Goddess presiding over it. The pastel colors of the three to four story buildings were muted in the overcast dawn. I would see them again later in the afternoon, though, when the sun struck fire to their colors.
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The Goddess Diana guards one corner of Rynok Plaza
I decided to begin by climbing to the top of the tower attached to the city hall building. I paid the 10 Hrivna entry (50 cents) and broke a good sweat climbing the wooden staircase. Outside it was breezy, and there were only a few other tourists present. I pulled out my city map and began to line it up with the panorama below. I saw the big green expanse of Ivan Franko Park, with my 20 storey hotel looming behind it. More importantly, I picked out the sights I was planning on seeing. The rain looked to be holding off, so I mentally mapped out a route. I took a lot of pictures, of pictures course, before clomping down the 312 stairs to the 4th storey entrance.
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The Gothic style Latin Cathedral seen from the tower, high above
I walked the short distance to the Latin Cathedral, next. The Gothic influences were especially noticeable inside. The pillars soared upwards towards the frescoed ceiling. I paced around quietly, as there was a service going on and quite a few worshippers were seated in the pews. I found the side chapel honoring Pope John Paul II, and tried to take pictures. The dusky interior made it difficult, though. Thankfully, pictures were allowed here, but with the rule of no flash. I took out my mini-tripod and tried with that. The elderly attendant was freaked out by the blinking auto focus light, but I assured her there was no flash. It wasn't equal to Kiev's incredible St. Sophia, which I saw on my last day in Kiev, but haven't blogged about yet. That church's 1,000 year old mosaics and frescoes were stunning, and gave me the impression of having stepped back in time to a medieval, Byzantine cathedral. Lviv's Latin Cathedral had a nice, smoky glow, but it was no St. Sophia.
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The Dominican Church and its large dome
The day's only disappointment was that the Armenian Cathedral was closed for renovation. I peeked my head through the bars and recognized some Caucasus decorations, but wishing I could have gone inside. The Dominican Church was next,and it's massive dome dominated the small square it is located in. The words, "Soli Deo Honor et Gloria" are inscribed high and clear on the stone facade. This proclaims the Dominican order's focus on God's glory and honor. A rope was strung across the inside of the church, restricting visitors to the entrance. It was disappointing to not be able to wander around its vast interior, but it was fairly well lit -- and pictures were permitted!
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A row if armor worn by Polish knights known as winged hussars
I indulged my interest in military history with a visit to the Arsenal Museum ("Susan, you're such an Arsenal!"). The displays made it loud and clear that this museum's focus is on weapons from the past. Dozens of dimly-lit glass cases displayed weapons from Middle Ages through the late 1800s. Although it began with Medieval Europe -- and a handful of two-handed swords from the later period -- it gradually got more and more exotic. Japanese samurai armor, an Indonesian Kris, yataghans, tulwars, Islamic Persian turbaned helmets, and Zulu stabbing spears all competed for space. My favorite was downstairs and the row of about a dozen full sets of armor from Polish winged hussars. The feather on the wooden wings protruding from the backplates of the armor were looking a little worn, but the armor gleamed as if freshly polished. I'd paid the $1 add-on to the 50-cent entrance fee to be allowed to take pictures. The dark museum and glass cases precluded flash, so I did my best. I was surprised how crowded it was. Maybe sightseeing in Lviv get people in a historical mood!
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The view from Castle Hill
Next, I began the 20-30 minute climb to Castle Hill. This highly popular scenic vantage point allows a 360 degree view of Lviv and surrounding areas. I joined the throng spiraling upwards on the metal walkway and cobblestone path that circles ever higher. The wind was whipping as expected, and selfies were being snapped a mile a minute up here. Sometimes places like the suffer from being too high up. I feel this was the case here. You could pick out a few sites, but the houses and other buildings seemed to blend together too much to really make the view stand out.
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Sheltered amidst groves of trees, Lychakivske Cemetery is a wonderful place to pass the time
The highlight of the day was next. My guidebook had urged that no visit to Lviv was complete without visiting Lychakivske Cemetery. I'd noticed that one of the tram lines stopped right outside its gates. My map had all the tram stops listed, so I navigated to the closest stop for the #7 line, making sure I was on the right side of the street so I'd head in the right direction. Trams are those Soviet era electric train cars that run on rails throughout town. I asked for some help in buying tickets, and was soon headed on my way.
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Many of the graves feature moving statues, like this angel mourning
Without a doubt, this was the coolest, most fascinating and moving cemetery I have ever visited. They say it is Europe's oldest, and the range of styles in tombstones, mausoleums, and the graves definitely seems to range through the centuries. There were Roman-looking ones with the family depicted in togas. There were statues depicting angels, Mary, mythological figures, and the people themselves. Tears welled up in my eyes numerous times when I saw statues carved of family members throwing themselves upon the tombstone in grief, their heartache coming to life in stone. In America, grief is often such a formal, stylized affair. Our tombstones list names, dates, and the fact they will be missed. Here in Lychakivske, wives, sons, and other friends or family members pour out their heart before passers by for eternity. I openly sobbed when I got to a special section of the cemetery for soldiers who have given their lives fighting Russian, neo-Soviet aggression. The graves are merely mounds of Earth. They are festooned with flowers and floral wreaths that almost completely hide the ground, though. Framed pictures look back at you from each grave. Some are innocently and naively smiling. Others look grim or worried. Still others show steely determination -- not at all cowed by the fate they knew awaited them. I left Lychakivske sad, but in a way, uplifted. This is one of the ways we are who we are. We're humans. We mourn when we lose somebody dear to us. And the way Ukrainians mourned in this cemetery struck a note inside me.
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These flower-heaped graves honor those who have died recently fighting Russian aggression
I used my newfound familiarity with the trams to ride #7 to the closest stop near my hotel. My feet had taken a pounding every day in Ukraine, so far. I needed a rest, and I needed to plan the rest of my afternoon. First item of business was to change rooms. My air conditioner -- essentially a dehumidifier with pretensions -- could not keep up. The Premier Hotel Dnister moved me to a new room with more modern AC. I love this hotel -- 4-star for less than $30 a night. Good location, awesome views overlooking the town. Heck, I'd come here just to hang out and relax! Reception even tried to telephone the next item on my list: Lvivske Brewery Museum and Brewery Tours. I'd read somewhere they were closed while remodeling, and sadly, this proved true. So, I spent about an hour trying to nail down an excursion for my final day in Lviv. I was unsuccessful, so decided I'd head down to the main square. I'd seen some excursion agencies there in my morning explorations. I was unsuccessful in booking anything, but I did find a place called the Beer Theater. Finally, theater up I can get into...! Seriously, it is a microbrewery and restaurant right on the main square. I chatted with the bartender/salesman, and picked out a rich and tasty dark beer to sample a pint. I will have to make it back for dinner here before I leave!
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Lviv's slight fading, but beautiful architecture
My dinner for this evening was a little bit of failure paired with some spontaneity. I intended to check out an expat-owned (and hangout) Tex-Mex place. I managed to get completely turned around navigating my way there. I whipped out the cellphone with Apple Maps and was stilled uncharacteristicly wrong-footed. Honestly, I have a good sense of direction. I love maps, and am skilled at using them. Downtown Lviv threw a few Kryptonite weapons at me, though. Diagonal streets are my nemesis. Streets that change their name every couple blocks are also a challenge. My newest weakness in navigation is oddly shaped squares. Lviv has all three in spades and stripped me of my navigational superpowers. Every instinct was wrong, left was right in my guesses, and I was reduced to a novice traveller, a sidekick at best. Oh, and the restaurant I was looking for..? Closed for Monday when I finally got there!!!
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More architectural decorations in Lviv
So, how did I end my day in Lviv? On my way back to my hotel, grumbling and stewing with that comic book dark cloud hovering over me, I saw a little Mom & Pop Doner Kebab place. I love Middle Eastern food, I was fed up with walking around town, and most of all, hungry. I've already tried Ukrainian food a few times, so I took the expedient option and ended my day in a delicious way. I would need every bit of fuel for tomorrow's hike in the Carpathian Mountains...

Posted by world_wide_mike 23:13 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

To the Mountaintop and Back

A day hike in the Carpathians

sunny 79 °F

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Jelly donut, or not? When you read how far I hiked, you decide
All my friends know I'm a big history buff, and expect that when I go somewhere I will visit castles, ancient ruins, temples, churches -- you name it. I also am a huge fan of scenery, though, and like to get out and experience nature in person. So, I wanted to do some hiking in the Carpathian Mountains while I was in Ukraine. I found a company (www.inlviv.info) that booked one day hiking excursions from Lviv. They normally charge 400 Hrivna ($20) as part of a group, but they were apologetic they had no one else going during my four days in Lviv. I asked what the solo price would be. Only 700 Hrivna ($35) for a whole day, guided hike? Sign me up!

I met my guide Oleh in front of the train station where we'd be taking the 7am departure for Skole, about 2 hours away. From there, we'd hike to the top of Mt. Parashka. I had brought along my Keen hiking sandals because it rains a lot during the summer in the Carpathians. We had nothing to worry about with that today, though. It was perfect weather for a hike: high 70s, and clear, blue skies with no clouds. We set off at a fairly quick pace, and I trailed behind Oleh about 10-20 feet. That would be the standard for the day -- single file up the path, with Oleh ahead and setting the pace.
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Carpathian Mountain scenery
The first hour and a half of the hike is through forested slopes. The path alternated between rocky, muddy, and a mix of dirt and grass. The hiking sandals were comfortable. They breathed well, and their solid rubber toecap saved me time and again from stubbing my toes on the rocks. The trail went mostly up, sometimes very steeply, other times on a more moderate slope. There were very few level sections. And since we were just hiking through woods, there really wasn't anything to stop and take pictures of in the beginning. It was pretty much an hour and half rapid slog uphill through the trees. Oleh doesn't do rest breaks, or he must have felt I was doing well enough, and did not need one.
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Views like this are typical of the hike to the top of Mt. Parashka
On the steeper sections, I slowed down, plodding ahead one step at a time. I was huffing and puffing at those times. I could even hear my heart drumming in my ears. We began to break through into the beginnings of mountain meadows, and the trail teased me with a few snippets of nice views. When I stopped to take my first picture, Oleh promised we'd come to a good photo spot in 10 minutes. We could make a lunch stop there. I looked at my watch. It was about 10:30 and we had been hiking solidly for 2 hours. I considered asking Oleh how long to the top, but didn't want it to seem like I was tired ("Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"). The viewpoint arrived and it was nice. Forested slopes with cleared patches stretched away into the distance on both sides. We were ascending a wide ridge, and I could see deep drop offs and scenic views to either side.

The tour agency had reminded me to pack a lunch. The previous evening I had picked up some packaged peanuts and chips, also tossing two of my Power Bars in my backpack. As it turned out, Oleh's wife had packed him enough food for both of us! He handed me a sandwich, and urged me to eat the zucchini and apples he had, too. I guzzled about 2/3's of my first of two liters of water I'd brought. I was beginning to think I should have packed a third liter. This was tough going, and despite the shade and cooler temperatures, I was sweating freely.
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Gorgeous mountain meadows and the only sign of habitation we saw on the hike
We started the second part of the hike after taking about 20-25 minutes for lunch. We were now ascending and descending various hills on our way to Mt. Parashka. About half of it was through mountain meadows, but the path ducked back under the trees from time to time. We began to see local villagers in the meadows, picking what Oleh called blackberries. These were different than our blackberries, though. They were individual balls a tad smaller than a pea, but dark black in color. Later, I tried searching the Internet to find what they're called in English, but was unsuccessful. Oleh would pick a few and pop them in his mouth as he walked. I was tempted to try them, but did not want to risk stomach troubles eating unwashed fruit. The view kept getting nicer as we climbed the ridge line. Far off in the distance to the north, we could see a river gleaming, and the sun flashing off windows or the metal in villages in the valleys.

We continued hiking up and up. Out of the shade of the trees more and more, I felt myself becoming soaked with sweat. I tried not to drink from my water. I remembered the scene in "Lawrence of Arabia" when Lawrence surprises Omar Sharif, telling him that he will drink only when he does. Oleh wasn't drinking as we hiked, so I would do as he did. As the hours wore on, I began to wonder if I'm getting too old for hiking like this. Then I remembered the two people in their 70s that I met on the Inca Trail -- a much more challenging hike than this! I told myself that I was just getting fat and whinny. A big jelly donut. Suck it up and soldier on, I told myself! I did idly wonder how much ground we were covering because we were still going at a good pace. On the steepest sections, I plodded along, taking short steps and watching my footing.
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Up, up, and up the trail goes...
Finally, I saw a peak ahead with a cross on it. I assumed that was Mt. Parashka. Yikes, the last ascent looked steep! Sure enough, we crept closer and closer to the mountaintop. On that last section, my mind went back to the Inca Trail. I thought, "I made that trek, so I can do this!" I could hear my Inca Trail guide Casiano, calling out, "You can do it! Super hikers!" And I did. Two hours after our last rest stop, I stumbled up beside Oleh, dropping my backpack and camera bag. The wind cooled the sweat on my back, refreshing me. I guzzled some precious water and looked around. A 360 degree view rewarded us as the other peaks fell away below. The sunshine flashed bright green from the grassy slopes beneath us, while the deeper green of the trees made a speckled pattern on them. In the distance, the mountain peaks blurred to a blue color. Somewhere below us, an eagle or hawk cried into the wind. I sat down on a flat stone and soaked it all in.
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Oleh relaxes by the base of the cross atop Mt. Parashka
What is it about mountains that make us want to climb them? Is enjoying a spectacular view unique to us humans? Or do other animals, when presented with a panorama, also pause and chirp/squeak/growl the equivalent of "Wow!"...? Oleh reminded me how lucky we were with the weather. Many times, he said, the people he guides are rewarded only with clouds for a view. As I looked into the distance in all directions, I sighed. My friends and I often joke how unlucky I can be, at times. However, I have learned that when it comes to the things that truly count -- family, friends, the opportunities I have been given in my life -- God has been very, very kind to me. I sent another silent prayer Heavenward, and enjoyed the amazing view.
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Looking down from the top of the mountain
After about 20 minutes, we shouldered our backpacks and began the long descent. Halfway back, we stopped for "second lunch," when Oleh brought out even more food. He pushed hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and another sandwich on me. When he brought out the sweets, I rebelled. I was full, and was hoping to lose weight on this hike -- not gain it! He told me his wife would be mad if he brought any food back. In Ukraine, when you host, you are expected to put on a huge spread of food -- more than everyone can possibly eat. He laughed and said it is even worse in the countryside. They put out tables of food that are even more massive. Either way, our lunch made me determined to work off Oleh's feast. I idly wondered just how far our hike was today, but figured I'd have plenty of time to ask later.

It is a truism of hiking: climbing is the worst part...except for going downhill. Even Oleh mentioned hiking down on rocky paths can be harder on the body than going up. I looked at it this way, though. Ascending is harder on your thighs and lungs, descending hurts you knees and spine more. By the time we finished, I was worn out, sweaty, sore, and ready for a long hot shower. Oleh had the next best thing lined up, though. We hiked another 15 minutes to the village's favorite swimming hole! It was a river shallows beneath a bridge. There were several dozen people in the water or sunning on the rocks when we arrived. Oleh said most were actually people from out of town who come for a cheap getaway. We saw tents in a field, and Oleh said a room at the local guest house costs only 75 Hrivna ($3). Even to a Ukrainian, that is cheap!
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Skole's swimming holes is a shallow section of river rapids
The only problem was no one had warned me to pack my swimming trunks. Luckily, I'd worn my lightest pair of zip off trousers. So, I zipped the legs off, took off my shirt, and I was ready for the water! The river bed was all rocks, and both of us slipped and stumbled on our way out into the stream. The water was cool at first, but I got used to it quickly. It was a wonderful feeling, letting the rushing water scrub away the sweat and grime of the hike. After a few minutes, I clambered onto a large, flat and dry rock in the stream, and stretched out in the sunshine. Coming down off the mountain, I had felt like one ball of stench draped in sweat-drenched clothes. Here on the rock, the sun's rays drying my clean skin, I felt human again. I complimented Oleh on a truly great end to a hike. After awhile, I sat up and watched the Ukrainians play in the water. The kids got a thrill riding the rapids while clutching onto an inner tube. They'd get to the end then rush back to ride it again, over and over.

As a final treat, Oleh and I walked to the village convenience store and each bought a beer. We sat on a bench in the shade and savored them. Finally, we made the short hike back to the train station. As we were getting ready to board the train, I asked Oleh what the distance was that we hiked. Not counting to the river and back, he said we hiked about 24 kilometers. My eyes widened as I did the quick math: 15 miles! No wonder I had felt like a flabby, jelly donut on the way back! A 15-mile hike on flat ground would be tiring...not to mention climbing to a mountaintop almost 1,300 meters high! Well, I had wanted to hike in the Carpathian Mountains, and Oleh certainly granted my wish!

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:21 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

On the Sixth Day, Rest was Decreed

Taking it easy on my last day in Lviv

sunny 83 °F

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Rural Ukraine is known for its wooden churches
I awoke tired and sore from yesterday's Carpathian Mountain hike. I slept in later than I have so far on this trip, before finally getting up and dragging myself down to the breakfast buffet before it closed. My money (and time) saving tactic on overseas trips is to pig out at the breakfast buffet that is usually included in hotel prices. I then skip lunch, grabbing a pop and eating one of my Cliff Bars, at most. I knew I couldn't stay in the hotel all day, even though my aching legs would have enjoyed that. I had to walk over to my travel agency and pick up the tickets they'd arranged and purchased for me. At $2 a ticket, it was worth not making the trip to the bus station and standing in line, and the chance of miscommunication. They'd been super helpful and responsive to my control freak emails, and it was nice to meet the people behind the emails. Of course, I showed them my www.worldwidemike.com website...I figure someone working in a travel agency would enjoy it.
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Lviv's over-the-top Opera House
Next, I took the advice of my EF Tours mentor and friend, Tim Dove, and visited the Lviv Opera House. It wasn't open for tours, but the exterior is stunning. Very Romanesque, and overblown in its proliferation of statues carved into the exterior. One carving was a noble lady who was the classic idea of Marie Antoinette. Her supercilious expression seemed to say, "Of course the money spent on this building is worth it! It allows the common people to see ME whenever they wish!" In front of the Opera House was a gushing fountain that flung its mist my way when the breeze was strong. Even cooler, pun intended, were the three mimes in front of the fountain dressed and made up like bronze statues. Yes, I said the seeming oxymoron "cool mimes"! One was a much younger and more attractive version of the Marie Antoinette carving. Her smile and eye contact with all the men in the crowd was anything but supercilious! I couldn't resist including her in a picture so I could send it to Tim later!
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Detail showing the elaborate carvings on the facade of the Opera House
After the Opera House, I made my way to the ring road which encircles the Old Town part of Lviv. That is the best place to catch the trams. I was heading to an Open Air museum that exhibited village architecture from all over Ukraine. As is usual in these types of museums, they physically uproot and save buildings destined to be destroyed or are abandoned and not being kept up. They move them to the museum and place them in a natural setting. The park-like area that is the museum is sprawling. I'd read in the guidebook it involved a LOT of walking. I sighed and decided to do it. Honestly, I felt better once I started walking. The soreness seemed to evaporate in the bright sunshine. Plus, the museum is built in a wooded area, so the shade not only made walking cooler, it made the setting more natural and "village like."
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Another of the Open Air museum's recovered wooden churches
My favorite parts of the open air museum were the wooden churches. Many areas of rural Ukraine have built their churches out of wood, rather than stone, for centuries. These buildings have similar layouts to the classic Orthodox Church, down to the famous onion-shape domes, but made out of wood. They usually feature a trinity of domes, and are made of blackened wood, giving them a dramatic outline. There was even an Orthodox monk as caretaker of one of them. All of them had their interiors decorated and set up for services -- right down to the "No Photography" signs at a couple!
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The interior of one of the wooden churches (that allowed photography, of course!
I purposely worked my way slowly around the park's circular path. At one place, they had a kitchen set up preparing authentic traditional food. A man dressed as a Cossack offered visitors a chance to try their hand at archery. At less than 50 cents, I figured what the heck? I paid the man 10 Hrivnas. He carefully corrected my stance, my grip, and let me have my shots. My first one dove underneath the target -- a man-sized, hanging sack. I adjusted my aim. Thwack! The next one and most of the others hit the target. He offered another go, but I was satisfied that somewhere, deep inside me, lurked a Legolas, so I declined.
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Surburia -- or rather country living -- 1800s Ukraine style
Some parts of the park appear to be still under construction. I think the far backside of the park, featuring the Carpathian Hutsul culture, was not really ready to be viewed. You could not go in any of the buildings, and the logs were still numbered for putting the pieces back together. Although there were a number of people visiting the museum today, the vast expanse of the museum swallowed them up. It was rare that someone else was visiting the same building as I was. I almost never had to wait to get the pesky tourists out of my camera shot. Before I knew it, I had spent more than two hours there.
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I had purposely planned a light day of sightseeing following the Carpathian hike. I continued on that pace by heading to Rynok Square and planting myself in a cafe. Beer in hand, I watched the crowds pass while I worked on updating my blog. I even broke down and had a pizza at one of the restaurants on the square. I know, I know. Touristy. But coming from a guy whose idea of a vacation almost never includes an all-inclusive, beach resort, I thought I'd earned a little relaxation and pampering. The pizza was Italian style, and very spicy. And of course -- like nearly all sit-down restaurants and cafes in Ukraine, included free wifi. Why is it that the further back from officially becoming "First World" that a country is, the more likely it is to have free (and faster) wifi? Germany's wifi is horrible, Italy's is borderline poor. But hey, Ukraine and Armenia has smoking wifi! Perhaps, the more a country progresses on the Capitalism continuum, the more likely someone decides the people will accept paying for wifi. I know I vote with my feet, so their moneymaking strategy is penny-wise, pound foolish.
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1800s windmill at the open air museum in Lviv
It was a much-needed, relaxing sixth day in Ukraine. My four days in Lviv seemed to fly by. I am a fan of this city. If anyone reading my blog feels they want to go to Europe, but can't afford it, I highly recommend Lviv (and Ukraine). Your dollar will go far. You can kick back into the vibe of a Prague-like city. Yes, you have the pesky Cyrillic alphabet to deal with. Only a minority speak English. However, if you're up for a little adventure and reaching out to people of another culture, I say go for it. You make the effort to greet them in Ukrainian, say "thank you" in their language, and they're willing to help. You can go hard-core like I usually do, packing your schedule with sights. Or you can do what I did today and relax, immerse yourself into the vibe of centuries old city, amidst beautiful architecture, and enjoy yourself.
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Posted by world_wide_mike 11:03 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Couple Days in Kolomyya

Service vs. amenities? The eternal question for a traveler

sunny 90 °F

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A painting from the museum of Hutsul couture and art in Kolomyya, Ukraine
The whole point of adding Kolomyya to my itinerary was hiking in the Carpathian Mountains. When I was planning my trip, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do the hike from Lviv. Even after it was confirmed, I kept Kolomyya in my plans. It was closer to the heart of the mountains, and the owners of On the Corner B&B, where I would stay, sounded like great people. I read through most of their eight pages of glowing review on Trip Advisor. I even adjusted my schedule to include this top when they were booked up on my first choice of days. So, was it worth it? Read this blog, and you be the judge!
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Kolomyya also has attractive, Ukrainian architecture
The nearly five hour bus ride (no AC) was not pleasant. I don't know why people insist on closing up all windows on these types of rides, making it an airless oven, but they do. It was that way in Armenia, Georgian, and other non-modern public transit I've taken. The owner of the B&B picked me up at the bus station. We then drove the five minutes or so out of the small town center into a residential neighborhood to the house. It is the home of his aunt and uncle, and On the Corner B&B was originally started by Slavik's cousin, their son. First impressions were mixed. The power was out -- and would be every afternoon -- there was no air conditioning or fan, and there was only one other group of guests, a Ukrainian family with four kids. No other travelers were present, though a Danish couple checked out that afternoon.
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Pretty churches are a guarantee in any Ukraining town
In my travel experiences I have occasionally run into the guest house, hostel, or B&B that has crap for amenities, but Lonely Planet and others rave about the owners and "vibe" of the place. Slavik certainly lived up to his rave reviews. He immediately gave me a map of town and made suggestions on what I could do for the rest of the afternoon. He promised to take care of my bus questions for my next destination, and said he would take me on tomorrow's promised hike himself. So, I duly unpacked in the spacious closet, decided against lining up my toiletries on the tiny shelf in the tiny (but clean and Western style) bathroom, and got ready to head off to explore Kolomyya.
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An example of Hutsul craftsmanship -- a decorated axe in the Museum I'd Hutsul Culture and Art
Admittedly, there are only two real sights here besides the Carpathians. I enjoyed the first, the Museum of Hutsul Culture and Art. It stretches across two floors of a house likely built in the 1700s, from its look. The Hutsul are the Ukrainian people who inhabit the mountains of this area. They are known for their traditional woodworking, embroidery, metalwork, and other crafts. These were all on display in the museum in fairly well-lit display cases. You could even take pictures as long as you didn't use a flash (though the sign telling you that was halfway through the exhibits). The lower floor had a several paragraph Englis explanation of the exhibits at the entrance to each room. The individual labels were all in Cyrillic, though. Once you got upstairs, the English commentary disappeared, but it really wasn't necessary. It is a small museum, so I was finished in around a half hour.
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Yes, the museum is partially housed in a 30' tall Easter egg,
Next, I meandered the streets looking for the next museum, but Slavik's photocopied map wasn't the best, and I had some trouble. You wouldn't think a 30 foot tall, brightly painted Easter egg would be hard to find, but I had to do some looking up and down streets. No biggie, as it was a good primer to Kolomyya's layout. I eventually found the museum of Easter egg painting -- yes, I'm serious. Hollowing out hen eggs and painting them is an artistic tradition here in Hutsul land. They really were cool looking. It was amazing the detail and colors they would put into their artwork. Nothing was in English, which made my transit through the museum even quicker than the Hutsul Culture one. I declined buying any as souvenirs because I was worried they would be fragile as, well, eggs!
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Easter eggs!
What to do next? I wandered the town, which seems fairly wealthy and nice, checking out the local flea market, the main pedestrian street, and some colorful churches. I found a cafe that was praised in my guidebook for its selection of beers, and it became my second home in Kolomyya. I would later discover the wifi in my B&B was useless (when the power was on). Rather than sit in an airless room, or hang out in the equally stuffy common areas, the Djem Cafe would be where I spent my time in Kolomyya when not sightseeing or sleeping. The prices were incredible. My first afternoon I had two beers and an appetizer for less than $3! The chairs were comfy, the wifi was decent, and it was awesomely placed on the main drag where I could watch the world go by. I even returned that evening after dinner, staying later than I should have. It was a bit of a challenge to find my way home on the B&B's mostly unlit residential streets. I had taken the precaution of "dropping a pin" on the Apple maps app on my iPhone, so that helped. Even more helpful was the flashlight on my phone as I made my way down the dark, windy streets. All turned out well, and I found the B&B, making it home safely.
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One of the Hutsul homes we passed on our way to Shepherd's Valley
The next morning Slavik and I set off on our hike after a quick stop at the bus station to buy tomorrow morning's ticket. It took us about an hour of driving from Kolomyya's plains to Hutsul hill country. He explained what we were seeing, including the Wedding Arch, which is an artistic weaving of colorful ribbons at the gateway to a home to announce a wedding. It is kept in place for nine months, when it is assumed another celebration to announce a child will take place. The traditional Hutsul homes are essentially log cabins -- think American frontier interlocked logs. This has been supplemented by other styles and building materials as the centuries have progressed. One I found very interesting was a polished tin. Many roofs and walls reflect the sun brightly with this material. If it is used on walls, it is usually decorated with religious themes or geometric art.
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The forest or beech trees we hiked through to reach the valley
Tiny shrines line the road, especially next to the entrance of wealthier homes. Slavik explained that Hutsul villages are strung out along roads and tend to be long, thin affairs. People attend the church on Sunday, but build the shrines to visit and pray at every day. I saw Slavik and other Ukrainians cross themselves and pay reverence as they passed churches. He also explained that he and many others in this area are actually a Greek Catholic form of Christianity. It is the third most common form in Ukraine, he said. Ahead of it are Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox.
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The valley, with the family's summer hit in the distance
After parking the van, we began our hike up to Shepherd's Valley. This is a tiny hamlet which the villagers take their cows to for summer grazing. Residents of Kolomyya and beyond make the half hour hike to the mountain meadow to sample and buy the cheese that the Hutsul families make there. We saw many families, including grandparents and infants making the hike as we climbed and later descended. So, this was obviously no Mt. Parashka forced march. Slavik made frequent rest breaks. He admitted this was only the second time he has done the hike this year. He usually contracts his father to do them, but he had another group scheduled today. Plus, he apologized, he is still undergoing monthly chemo treatments for Lymphoma cancer. He was happy to get back on the trail again, he said, as he was an avid hiker before the illness.
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A vat of milk simmers on the fire, making cheese inside the hut
We found the Hutsul summer cottage atop the hill, and it was fairly busy with two other groups of visitors. We waited our turn to be shown into the uncomfortably hot room where the milk was being boiled to make cheese. We saw the rings of cheese being smoked for flavor and preservation, then quickly retreated to the cooler and breezier outside where the family had benches and a table set up. They brought us out two varieties of cheese to try. Slavik had told me to buy bread, so I unpacked it and we began sampling. The cheese was definitely very fresh and had a cow's milk smell and taste. It wasn't bad, but not something I'd want to make a staple of my diet. It was like you could taste the smell of the cow in the cheese, if that makes sense!
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The chapel the shepherds of the valley constructed for their daily worship
After eating, we hiked up a small rise to where the families had constructed a chapel. It was newly-built and its bright, embossed tin sides gleamed in the sun that was just beginning to break out. After I explored the tiny chapel, Slavik apologized that we had to leave. His doctor limits the time he can spend in the sun while he is undergoing treatment. We hiked back down through the Beechwood forest, Slavik filling up his water bottle at a mountain stream. My two liters of water were more than sufficient for this short hike. From there, Slavik drove me on a tour of the countryside. We visited a village's local swimming hole (no dip this time!), and he pulled over every time I asked to take pictures of homes, chapels, and scenic views.
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One of the UNESCO World Heritage churches -- check out the tin surface
Next, we visited two UNESCO churches in the area. The first was a wooden one for the 1600s, and the second was a tin-sided and domed one from a century later. Neither were open to go in, but they were quiet and deserted, and we had them to ourselves. I had seen quite a few wooden ones in Lviv, but the tin one was cool to walk around. I couldn't resist touching the metal. Considering the lack of rust (no B-52s song here...), the metal must be coated or some sort of alloy. The stamped designs on the side were interesting, and gave them a much different look than either the dark wooden churches or the Byzantine-style cathedrals of Kiev.
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Detail on the tin surface of the church
We pulled back into the B&B around 2:30 pm. Of course, the power was out. Slavik insisted I eat some soup his aunt and mom had just prepared. After that, I showered and stretched out on the bed. I contemplated a nap, but the airless rooms and the Ukrainian couple's shrieking kids convinced me otherwise. There was nothing for it but to get up, pack up my iPad, and head to my favorite cafe. So, we get down to where you get to make your decision. Was On the Corner B&B overrated? The price I paid was identical to the four-star hotels I enjoyed in Kiev and Lviv. No AC, no ventilation, power outages, and nothing in the house or surroundings to do are all negatives. Would I have been better served staying in a hotel in town and just contracting Slavik for tours? Or does Slavik's service and willingness to do anything and everything to make visitor's stay enjoyable make up for it?

I'll let you decide...

Posted by world_wide_mike 22:03 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Dream Castle

Long way here, but it was worth it!

sunny 91 °F

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Kamiya nets-Podilsky, in all its glory
It took two, stifling, sweaty bus rides to get here, but as I stood on a hill overlooking the castle at Kamyanets-Podilsky, I knew it was worth it. The town is located in Central Ukraine, but far from any big cities or connection points. I had decided to approach it in a two-stop method. I would travel from Lviv to Kolomyya, and spend two nights there sightseeing. Then, I would go the other half of the way to Kamyanets-Podilsky. Both bus rides were about five hours long and uncomfortable (no AC on 90-degree days). Though I like Ukraine, it's public transit system is stuck in the Soviet mode. Dowdy, slow leave at inconvenient times and buses are rattle traps. It's roads are mired in the Third World, with potholes, gravel-covered washouts, and poorly-patched asphalt comprising about half of their surfaces between cities. This means buses take much, much longer to reach their destination and a ride that feels, at times, like a bumpy amusement park attraction.
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You entethe Hetman Hotel under the stern gaze of these gents!
I arrived at my hotel in Kamyanets-Podilsky seriously looking forward to seeing it. Their website and guidebook description sold me right away. It is called The Hetman, which is the term for a Cossack leader. Who were the Cossacks? It is kind of hard to describe, but they were essentially the motorcycle gangs of Central Asia in Renaissance and later times. The tribes were warlike and had a reputation for ferocity. They would be hired out as enforcers by various rulers, or on a whim, rise up in rebellion. Cossack tribal identity was only partly ethnic, communities could abandon their farming under duress and become a new Cossack band. The Hetman Hotel's stairwell is lined with portraits of various Cossack hetmen, all glaring at you fiercely as you pass by carrying your bags (no elevator). The hotel is otherwise very modern, and richly decorated. Since it cost only the equivalent of $2 more, I'd upgraded to a Junior Suite. It was lavish, and my nicest room in Ukraine.
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K-P's main square
After unpacking and cooling off, I geared up and walked across the main square to the tourist information center. They spoke only halting English, and had maps only in Ukrainian. I snagged one, though, and asked one of the guys working there to show me the best places to take photos. He proceeded to mark a half dozen spots all around town on the map. From there, it was no question where I was heading next. The whole reason for coming here was the castle. I walked through the cobblestone streets towards what is misnamed the Turkish Bridge. The Turks did fill in the bridge's arches, but it was built by the Poles who built the bridge and heavily fortified this town when they controlled it. There was little chance of getting lost, it seemed everyone in town was rightly headed that way, or coming from there. This included wedding parties. I saw more than a dozen different wedding parties during my stay in Kamyanets-Podilsky. It must be THE place to get your wedding photographs for this area of Ukraine.
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The deep,river gorge surrounding the castle
I took a few photos from the ruins of the bastion that guarded the near end of the bridge. Picture an almost 360 loop in a deep river gorge, forming basically an island. The bridge is the connection point to that fortified loop. The gorge becomes a natural fortress, and people throughout history have recognized it's unassailable position. There is a story that when the first Turkish sultan to invade the area saw the fortress he asked his advisors, "Who has built such a fortress?" The advisors answered, "Allah." The sultan shook his head, saying "Then let Allah take it," and riding away. It was the Polish kingdom that built what we see today, although there is evidence of fortification as early as Roman times. The Poles built a steep wall was atop the rocky hill that encircles the gorge. They fortified it with than a dozen towers, as well as at gates and other strategic points. Later, as cannons made stone less of a barrier, they added a new, star-shaped angled fortress to protect it's most vulnerable point. The Turks did take the castle, though, in 1673, giving it back to the Poles through a treaty a couple decades later, though.
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Entering the castle
My own assault on the fortress was straightforward. I walked along the busy bridge, taking pictures all along the way. It was afternoon, so the sunlight was streaming from behind the castle towards me. Backlit -- not the best situation for taking photos. I would have to keep an eye out for a good vantage point from the western side. Meanwhile, I could explore the castle! I paid my 20 Hrivnas (less than $1), and later in one of the shops, picked up an English language guide pamphlet. It wasn't really necessary, though. I climbed towers, walked along walls and the wooden galleries built to defend them, clambered down into dungeons, and essentially poked my head into every spot where we were allowed. None of the signs were in English, though, which limited my ability to enjoy the museum inside one of the barracks buildings.
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On the battlements of the castle
I was in my element though, immersing myself in the castle's historic pulse. I wasn't the only one. A large group of reenactors was present that day. They were eating a suitably medieval lunch of roast meat when I arrived. Halfway through my visit, they started an impromptu archery contest. The best dressed of all the reenactors was the Turkish archer. His elaborately decorated outfit, period mustache, and peaked headdress all radiated Eastern Europe. He dutifully posed for my picture, but did not join the younger reenactors in the contest. After I was satisfied that I had left no patch of stonework unexplored, I left to see if there was a spot I could catch the gorgeous afternoon sunlight that was painting the castle's towers and walls.
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Reenactor at the castle
I found a staircase from the bridge heading down, and followed it. Soon, I was deep inside the gorge, pacing through a small village in the shadow of the castle. Chickens darted across the path in front of me and curious dogs barked. I could see I was heading in the right direction, though, which was encouraging. Gradually, more and more if the sunlit side of the castle was being exposed. When I came to a fork in the path, I also stumbled upon a wooden church. It was locked up, but beautiful in the afternoon sun. I followed one branch of the path and hit paydirt. While visiting the castle, I had noticed a large hill across the gorge with a huge metallic cross on it. I could see dirt paths worn in the grass, and knew there had to be a way to get there. Sure enough, this was the way! Soon, I was standing beside the cross in the best possible vantage point. Wow! The early evening (by now) sun stoked a warm fire from the centuries-old stones. The brickwork glowed red, while the stones shone a rich yellow. Plus, I had the hillside to myself. I could drink in the amazing view with no distractions. The view from the hill reminded me startlingly of my all-time favorite castle: Krak des Chevaliers, the Crusader castle I visited a decade ago in Syria. The hours of sitting uncomfortable in a ratty bus melted away up there on the hill. I knew I would do it again in a heartbeat to visit a wonder like Kamyanets-Podilsky.

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After a much-needed shower, I rewarded myself with pizza that night. I'd been having Ukrainian food regularly, so indulged myself. The hotel room was luxury, too, and I relaxed in there that evening, looking at my photos and catching my friends and family up on my travels. Kamyanets-Podilsky has other sights, being a historic town, and I would visit them to tomorrow.
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What used to be a minaret converted to a church spire
I was up early, eating breakfast at 8 am. I read through my guidebook again to refresh myself on the town's sights. I marked up the map the tourist information office had given me and set out. I was reminded quickly that it was a Sunday morning. Church bells gonged regularly. The streets were almost deserted. I paced along the cobblestone streets and alleyways, which sometimes became dirt paths. I found old medieval gateways, the walls and towers that defended the town, and the churches whose domes poked up above the tile-roofed buildings of Kamyanets-Podilsky. My favorite was the Armenian church, which is currently being restored. It's faded grandeur reminded me of a Roman ruin, with elaborately carved stones lying on the ground. I recognized the Katchka -- the intricately carved stone cross -- from my own visit to Armenia a few years back.
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The park overlooking the gorge and Old Town
I took a break around lunchtime to cool off. The heat would soar into the 90s again, today. On my second sojourn, I dipped down into the river gorge, walking along a pathway tracing the river's bubbling course. At one point, I was startled by a persistent, cicada-like whirring. I looked up to see a zip liner pass, smiling, far overhead. I looped back around to the road that wound along the hillside on the edge of town looking down into the gorge. I noticed a park across the gorge in the "new town" section, which looked nice. So, I followed the tall bridge that straddles the gorge and joined the families and wedding parties taking pictures among its fountains and staircases set up to admire the view of the Old Town. Recrossing the bridge, I ducked into the souvenir market, each stall painted to look like a tiny, half-sized house. I had passed through earlier, and was eyeing a certain shirt as a souvenir. At $11, I decided to help the local economy, and bought it. In all honesty, I had pretty much exhausted the town's sights. I vaguely considered the ride through the gorge on a repainted and converted, Soviet BRDM armored vehicle. I'm not an armor nut, so I passed.
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Despite the slow winding down of my visit, I did enjoy my time in Kamyanets-Podilsky. Two days was plenty enough to see the sights. If I'd planned a third day, it probably would have involved way too much time in cafes! I was dreading the denouement of the trip, though. The only train to Kiev left at 12:45 am. So, at midnight, I would have to pack up and leave my lovely Junior Suite. I would be subjected to a night train to the capital -- one with no sleeper compartments. I am envisioning more Soviet style transport with over-indulged, screaming Ukrainian kids. I have my music on my iPad, though, and my ear buds to shut them out. I also brought along plenty of work and reading material if I can't sleep. We have already answered the question, though, on whether the discomfort of travel to and from Kamyanets-Podilsky was worth it. When I stood on that hill, admiring the castle glowing in the sun (as it will forever remain in my memory), I knew that the thrill of touching History will always trump any temporary discomfort.

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:08 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Into Every Life

The rain finally falls in Ukraine

rain 76 °F

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St. Michael's Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine
It is only appropriate that I am looking out my 13th floor window, watching a beautiful, golden-orange sunset, as I write about the last two days of my Ukrainian adventure. I had a day and a half to wrap up the sights I wanted to see in Kiev. I'd arrived back in the capital around 9 am after an uncomfortable night train from Kamyanets-Podilsky. The hotel let me check in early for a fee, and I caught a few hours of sleep to make up for what I didn't get on the train. After showering, I sat down with my guidebook and maps and made a checklist for the day.
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St. Volodymer's Cathedral and its golden interior
There were a number of churches on the list, but also a museum and a quaint, riverside section of Kiev I had not visited, yet. My first stop was St. Volodymer's Cathedral in the University district. I loved it's yellow facade and starry, blue domes, but the trees all around it frustrated getting a good picture of its exterior. The inside was very atmospheric, and the golden glow of the mosaics was equally photogenic. Although the church is less than 200 years old, the mosaics give it a very Byzantine feel -- like Kiev's St. Sophia (which had my favorite interior). Volodymer was the Rus ruler who arbitrarily decided his kingdom would become Christian. As saintly Dark Age European rulers tended to do, he forced his subjects to convert at the point of a sword.
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St. Michael's domes gleaming in the afternoon sunlight
From there, I walked to an even newer church -- the one with my favorite exterior in Kiev. St. Michael's Monastery has those shiny, golden domes you think of when you envision Orthodox churches. It was built in 2001 to replace one the Soviets decided to tear down when they ruled Ukraine. Determinedly atheistic states can make policy decisions like that, trying to un-convert the populace at the point of the bulldozer. I actually visited St. Michael's a second time the next day, because the sun was shining and I wanted pictures of those domes against blue sky rather than the gray, overcast afternoon I was having today. The interior was brightly colored with frescoes, but couldn't hold a votive candle to St. Sophia's medieval masterpieces.
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Scythian armor hangs in the National Museum of Ukrainian History
The next hour-plus of the fading afternoon was spent at the sprawling National Museum of Ukrainian History. Monday is free entrance day, I was happy to discover. Even more thrilling were the comprehensive English language labels on the four floors of exhibits. Some of the more modern items were labeled only in Ukrainian, but the old stuff -- my favorite Ancient and Medieval history -- was covered. The museum even allowed photography, which these days is a rare bonus. I particularly liked the artifacts from the Scythians, Greeks, Avars, Sarmatians, and Rus. There was some really cool stuff in there, like a set of Scythian scale armor made from horn. Equally inspiring were the Viking swords and helmets -- the "Rus" were nothing more than Swedish Vikings plying Eastern Europe's rivers like the Danes and Norwegians did the North Sea. That is partly why you see so many blonde haired and blue eyed Russians and Ukrainians. The museum is so huge, and it's exhibits go on and on, that even me -- a History teacher -- was crying "Uncle!" near the end. A common feature of Ukrainian museums are the elderly (usually female) attendants in every single room. I think it is a carryover from the 100% employment of the Soviet days. When I tried to take a shortcut and skip a room that didn't look interesting, I was scolded. Chastened, I made a show at checking out the fascinating collection of 19th century, hand-held fans.
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Andrew's Descent begins to wind it's way down to the neighborhood of Podil
I eventually escaped their clutches and took a walk down the winding, cobblestones of Andrew's Descent, as the sloping way to the riverside is called. This took me to Podil, an artsy, eclectic neighborhood of gorgeous buildings and interesting churches. Souvenir sellers and painters set up stalls along the way, and there are lots of restaurants and cafes. I spotted my first brewpub in Ukraine, and checked out its posted menu, vowing to return for dinner. I stopped to take pictures of the architecture and some interesting murals on the buildings.
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Surrealistic mural in Podil
The first stop was the walled and gated grounds of the Florivsky Monastery. I noticed there were lots of cats sunning themselves or prowling the 15th century grounds. "What's with all the cats?" I wondered. The white churches and bell towers with their green domes were simple, and blended well with the well-manicured flower gardens and trees inside the complex. When I watched one, stern nun chew out an old lady, who had obviously broken some rule, I remembered it was a convent -- home to nuns -- not monks. As I ducked inside the church to avoid the nun's eye, it dawned on me. Despite being in a holy place, it was all I could do to restrain myself from laughing. Single ladies, many of them older...now I knew why all the cats! It was a convent of crazy cat ladies!
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Orthodox service going on in St. Nicholas Neberzhny
At this point, the churches began to blur together. I visited the Church of Mytola Prytysk, as well as St. Nicholas Neberzhny. The coolest part of coming in early evening was that all of them were having some sort of service. I love the sound of the Orthodox call and response music. The priest will chant verses in an almost Gregorian sound, and then the choir of ladies will sing a response. It is very beautiful. The male and female parts play to the strengths of their voices and blend together in a lovely religious duet. As I'd checked off all my sights, it was time to close out the evening with a delicious dinner in the brewpub. I was not disappointed with either the food or the beer.

"Into every life, a little rain must fall," we say. I had been exceedingly lucky so far on my trip. Yesterday, it had been sprinkling as my train pulled into Kiev. It stopped by the time I awoke from my nap, though. This morning, I looked out the window as I was waiting for the elevator and noticed people far below carrying umbrellas. I dashed back and grabbed my rain jacket. It was only sprinkling as I walked to the subway. I was headed to what is billed as Ukraine's most holy site: the Kyevo Percherska-Lavro Complex. My guidebook described it as a "feast for the eyes" with its gold domed churches on a hill above the river. Even cooler, I thought, were the caves -- a catacomb beneath the churches where the monks are buried, their clothed corpses inside their coffin on display in glass and wood cases. Sounds amazing, right? Well, the Lavro area would be my only real, major disappointment of the trip.

As I emerged from the subway, I noticed the rain had picked up. I should have changed into my hiking sandals when I grabbed my rain jacket, I thought as I tried to thread a course that avoided the growing puddles. My pants were soon soaked, and my shoes and socks would follow shortly. At the entrance, the helpful cashier directed me to the caves. I wanted to hit them first before the accumulating crowd made them into a claustrophobic nightmare. At the entrance, I bought my candle and shuffled in behind the line of pilgrims visiting the caves. There are two sets of caves, one of which is open to the public and the other only to legitimate, Orthodox pilgrims. The Nearer Caves, which I visited, were probably the biggest letdown I've ever experienced at a historic sight. Picture a roughly finished stone basement, with whitewashed walls, and those were the "caves." Yes, there were coffins here and there, often with a painting of the monk above it. Yes, some pilgrims left candles in offering, prayed there, or kissed the glass. It obviously meant a lot more to them than to me. I made the circuit in perhaps five minutes. It never felt like a cave to me, and I didn't feel the History there. As sacrilegious as it sounds, it felt like a tourist trap in the basement of a church. As a Historian, I understand this is a deeply religious site for Orthodox Christians. But I would caution visitors who do not have the religious connection to reconsider a visit there -- or at least research other's opinions.
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The Dormition Cathedral at Kyevo Pechersk-Lavro complex
As I emerged, the rain turned into a downpour. I also discovered that I had arrived on the day I'd a huge, religious event at the complex. A half dozen TV cameras were set up in the square in front of the Dormition Cathedral. I could hear there was a service going on inside, and the square outside was packed with people who arrived too late to fit inside. Even more, there was a line stretching back to the entrance of people waiting to get into the square or cathedral. There were a handful of small lecterns set up, each staffed by a monk or priest, who appeared to be hearing confessions from the visitors. It was a mob scene -- an orderly, respectful one -- but a mass of people nonetheless.
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Part of the Gold treasure found in a Scythian burial mound
I retreated to the Historical Treasures Museum, which had an awesome collection of precious artifacts from the people who have lived in the area of Ukraine. The highlight was the hoard of gold jewelry found in burial mounds left by the Scythians, a steppe people from the time of the Ancient Greeks. I was the only visitor -- everyone else was attending the service. I took my time and wandered through the museum's two floors. There were several paragraphs in English posted at the entrance to each room, plus some of the items in the cases were labelled in English, as well. The museum is set up very well, and it was cool to see treasures from people I'd read about in history books. Often, a mannequin was clothed in recreated dress of the people, with the golden treasures on their headdress, belt, or whatever. The thrill of seeing these artifacts temporarily made me forget how big of a washout my visit to the complex would be. I left shortly afterwards, and made my way back to the subway and my hotel, completely drenched.

I changed clothes, had lunch, and ventured back out a few hours later when the rain stopped and the sun broke out. It was nice to walk Kiev's main drag, again -- Kreshchatyk Street -- do some last-minute shopping, and take some more photos. The sunshine felt like Ukraine was smiling at me, again. We'd had our little spat, but now she wanted to make up. Like a beautiful lady, Ukraine at its best is hard to resist. I strolled Kiev's streets one final time, remembering all the good times we had on this trip together. Then I headed back, to write my final account, and pack my bags to return home.

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:00 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

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