Posts Tagged ‘sochi’

Kyiv (Kiev)

August 13, 2010

A Gallery of Kiev photos is at the RIGHT >>>>

The Bell Tower, St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev is a big city, but here, as it is in the rest of the country, the question is: do the Ukrainians have a common culture they all wish to share?

As we prepared to leave Ukraine, our travels ended far up the Dnieper (“Knee-per”) River in Kiev (Kyiv). The Dnieper, one of the longest in Europe, neatly divides the Ukraine in half – and does so in significant ways. East of the Dnieper Russian influence, including the Russian language is strong. West of the river and Ukrainian is the most popular language and culture. The people, all Ukrainian citizens since 1991, identify differently culturally.

Kiev is the capital of the Ukraine. Government buildings abound, mostly from the Soviet era when this was a Soviet Republic. But we had no time to explore the insides of these buildings nor do little more than drive by and snap bad out of focus pictures of the.

The important question here, we thought, is how do you create a country when the people do not wish to assimilate and create a common country? And what does that auger for the future? When we were visiting a refrain we heard was about the rampant corruption inside the government. A formerhead of the government had built himself a house (so the story goes) in San Francisco using government funds and then had fed the country. In other words, instead oa attempting to build a nation, and being committed to it, government officials (at least some of them) seem more interested in building their wealth and then after looting what they could, fleeing to Amerca. This is a paradigm that we also observed in Russian, particularly in Moscow.

Kiev has a great public transportation system above, and below ground

Kiev is a city of two-tio-three million, easily the largest in the Ukraine. ]The ship arrived its final stop in Kiev after noon, giving passengers a half day, hardly enough for a decent look at Ukraine’s largest city … with only drive through Kiev and short stops at the St. Sophia Cathedral and the Monastery of the Caves, there was little time to explore the largest city in Ukraine, a city of three million which is less than 50 miles from Chernobyl, site of the worse nuclear power plant accident in history.

We walked through the catacombs in sweltering heat (after paying a coupe of Grivnas, the Ukrainian currency, for candles. And we drifted some sidewalks markets. In the evening we set out on our own. Hiking Kiev is harrowing because drivers pay little attention to stoplights, especially those giving pedestrians the right to walk. Nonetheless, we took the funicular to the top of the hill from the docks (walking past the ubiquitous packed McDonald’s) and the checked out several hotels on the square adjacent to St. Sophia. Hyatt has built a monstrosity on the square drawing disdain from the tour guides who say that to build this architectural horror Hyatt destroyed centuries old buildings and then, as a sop to local outrage, left a single small portion of the façade of one building facing the square.

Inside the Hyatt we thought the design was gorgeous and that, had it been built in Los Angeles, instead on top of the bones of ancient buildings, it would be great. We walked across the square and visited the Intercontinental, a far more architecturally homogenous building to its surroundings. We had expected, on a Saturday night, to find the St Sophia area alive, but it was not. The youth were on the docks in a stretch of bars and clubs along the river each side of where we had docked. Otherwise, the area we visited was dead, empty and lifeless. Only during the day when tourists and tourist buses swarm the area, we suppose, does it come alive. Or maybe we were just there on the wrong night. We retreated soon enough to the ship.

St Sophia is patterned on St Sophia in Istanbul, or so it is said, although it is smaller. It is a spectacular building and it dates to the 11th century, but they do not allow pictures. It is common here to charge a small amount of take pictures, an amount so small that it hardly matters (25-cents or so), but it seemed to be an irritant. To get a permit one had to stand in line wasting valuable time. We didn’t get it – why does not the tour company pay the tiny fee, or negotiate non-payment in return from bringing tourists who will spend money at the adjacent sidewalk shops and at the church gift stores?

But then we have a question — do the Ukrainians want tourism?

Why is there so little in English in the museums? If they want English-speaking tourists to return, from a practical standpoint they will need to make some effort to help them understand what they are seeing. Commonly a “tour guide” from the museum would shadow our tour guide, saying nothing, but receiving some stipend. Lighting was commonly poor (burned out lights, ill-conceived and ill-placed lights) and air conditioning non-existent (by the way, what will that do to the valuable museum artifacts over time? The bottom line is they are poorly prepared for tourist and appear to be making little effort to accommodate and welcome tourists. Fair enough if they are not interested, but this is not a particularly prosperous area, and tourism is found money: tourists do not send children to your schools, drives lots of cars and wear out your roads, and they are gone by midnight.

In any case, in its current 2011 offerings, subject to change, Viking is dropping one port in Ukraine next year (Kremenchuk), and initially had planned to drop the entire country and not return in 2011 at all — probably because of acidic comment cards from their guests.

Moreover, we bet Viking is concerned about lots of things regarding these Black Sea cruises. The on board Viking officers and crew are a world apart from the passengers, and their rest of the crew, including entertainment. The entertainment director said they only spoke Russian (note: Russian, not Ukrainian). The food, while marginally more edible that it was on the St Petersburg-Moscow run, invited contemplation before consumption. I did survive this trip without becoming sick (others were not so lucky), unlike when we took their St Petersburg-Moscow trip in 2009.

Additional signs of trouble in paradise: A Viking official from California reportedly was traveling quietly with us. And last year Viking threw off all of its Russian wait staff off the St Petersburg-Moscow run and replaced them with Philipinos.

Bottom line: If you are curious about this part of the world and want to come, expect a different experience (which, by the way, we thought was well worth it). The majority of the rooms are small (90 square feet) and dreary. The bathrooms have a vaguely bad order. The stairs are steep (watch out) with a pitch unknown in the west. And on the Lomonosov there are no elevators but there are four decks. Consider the trip aerobic exercise.

Who was on board?
A large church group was here who are doing work with orphanages in the Ukraine. The more we chatted with our fellow passengers, the more we learned that many – first reluctant to discuss it – had ancestral ties here, often Jewish but not always. The pogroms against the Jews were horrendous and the stories which some fellow passengers shared about their families were heartbreaking. The final tour on the trip was an optional tour in Kiev to a site where thousands of Jews were murdered during World War II, not the only such tour on this trip.

The other passengers were probably just curious about this area like we were. I especially wanted to see the Black Sea and to visit this area before the 2014 Sochi Olympics (we did the same in visiting Beijing in 2004 before the 2008 Olympics fundamentally reshaped Beijing). I also wanted to see Yalta where the February 1945 Big Three conference took place between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin that shaped the world.


Having promised each time we go overseas to fly business class, we again wound up in the lap of poverty in the back of the plane. And it got worse – this was an American carrier, not some real airline line Finnair or Iceland Airlines. But then a surprise – this was not a bad flight into Istanbul from New York. The flight crew was civil; the food, although not good, was at least not noodles with hot waster poured over it in a paper cup (United Airlines on a return trip from Hong Kong). The return to New York was even better. This time we managed to get exit row seat and while they were located in a high traffic area of the restrooms, they were roomy and the nearby flight attendant downright likeable. The food was earnest.

Monastery of the Caves, Kiev

Tourists at St Sophia

Kiev (Kyiv) is a city of many bridge where fast small boats run the Dnieper River


August 6, 2010

Odessa /

Odessa is a charming 19th century city that was largely untouched by World War II. Established and built by Catherine the Great after she grabbed the land at the end of the 18th century, it is a feast of 19th century masterpieces, including its crown jewel – the Opera House – built in the 1880s.

We flew on Turkish Airlines from Istanbul, a brief snap of a trip directly northeast across the Black Sea. In the hour flight Turkish Airlines managed to serve us an entire meal, including chocolate mousse, plus drinks. On a flight last week in the United States on Southwest Airlines, the flight crew declared there was insufficient time to serve anything (on a longer flight) and then set about congratulating the crew for flying us into New York fully ten hours late.

There’s a reason why we chose non-American flagged airlines.

The Odessa airport is 1950s functional. Think Greyhound bus terminal in the United States, the kind torn down ten or fifteen years ago. But it was fast, and it was efficient. We were through customs quickly, and a clerk lurked whom actually demanded and then checks out luggage check tickets to insure no on stole our luggage. We liked the Ukrainians immediately.

We were shipping out on a Viking River cruise ship named the Lomonosov which was docked just across a busy street from the famous Potemkin Steps (once two-hundred steps, but now a mere 192 after the adjacent road was widened and heightened (good-bye eight steps). Here the famous “Battleship Potemkin”(1926) movie was shot, and here also was the beginning of the 1905 Russian uprising. Supposedly Russian troops fired on and killed a number of unarmed innocent citizens here, but these days it is said that didn’t happen.

We had low hopes for the Lomonosov, named for a Russian poet. The rooms, at 90-square feet, are smaller than a gulag cell. The ship was built for the recreation of Communist party officials in the 1970s and, we rightly anticipated, would have a cold war feel. Still, we wanted to get to the Black Sea before the heavy crush of westerners find the place (as they will when the Olympics arrive in Sochi in 2014) so it was either sail on this ship (where they would speak English and serve food that might be edible) or book ourselves across the Black Sea on ferries. Our search for cruise ships sailing from Istanbul turned up nothing, but it develops we did not search deeply enough. There are, we were assured, a number of western ships putting around the Black Sea. That just means we’ll probably be back.

Viking has been chopping back on amenities at a rapid pace. So, while a couple of years ago, all of the land tours were included, they have now begun selling the best tours while motoring around everyone on a single tour. There’s little choice but to pay them the extra money unless – as some of our co-passengers were – you are exceptionally adventurous and willing.

A surprise was how many were on board from the United States who have ties to the Ukraine, Odessa and Kiev. There’s a reason why Brighton Beach in New York City is known as “Little Odessa”. Once having a large Jewish settlement, Odessa was the site of not one but two pogroms in the 20th century that largely wiped out the entire Jewish community in Odessa.

My efforts to find the train station failed. On my own in the sweltering weather I set out using the Opera House but took the wrong street. I intended to walk until I found a McDonald’s, but, of course, I never found it. Parched and fearing my energy was lagging too low, I turned back and returned to the ship.

I was determined to climb up and down the Potemkin Steps, and it was surprisingly easy. I cruised up them two-at-a-time that was good for my morale. The following morning it did not seem as great an idea as it had at the time. I also rode up and down on the tram that runs along side the steps for the less venturesome. The lines for the tram, which carries no more than 15 and in reality quite a few less is that it best carries only about 10 people. A man, straight out of central casting, drives the tram – and when I greeted him saying hello, he simply stared at me. He would do well in Moscow where a few times I got the same reaction. The tram moves slowly, but those attempting to get on the tram do not. Expect pushing and shoving, and line cutting, especially by large older women with large shopping bags. I was amused.

The Lomonosov set out on the Black Sea about 9:30pm and ran for a time along the coast where lights could be seen. By midnight the ship was alone on the Black Sea and, except for an occasional ship, in the distance, we were alone. The sea was so smooth that it was unclear we were moving (but we were).

The ship has two dreary dining rooms, and the service – slow – is equally bad in either. After I got sick – and remained sick for weeks – on the St Petersburg-Moscow trip with these guys last November, I decided to eat carefully and study the food before I eat it. I advise you to do the same.

But the crew is nice and our tour guide, a woman, age 30, from Sevastopol, is downright lovable. Sevastopol was a closed military cit until 1996. It was a Soviet military base, and he father was a naval engineer. He grandfather also was in the Soviet navy. When the Cold War ended in 1990, her father immediately lost his job and she said they became very poor. Finding food was a problem and she wore the same jeans for 5 years – from age 10 to 15. Because she gained very little weight during that time she said it worked out, more or less.

I asked her if she preferred Soviet or current times. She dithered, finally saying there was much that was better under the Soviets. Sevastopol was sparkling clean and fresh, and is now dirty. Still there were many things from each era she likes – she would like to take the best from each of these eras. This is an attitude we found in Russia as well. The people are conflicted, and with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 they have suffered.
I commonly ask my fellow travelers if they have visited the place where we are before. We have a fair number of travelers who are “place collectors” regaling you with all of the places they have been in an attempted one-up-mans-ship game. I find the game tedious since usually they know nothing about the people or the places they have visited – they are merely coloring in the map and, generally being people on toward the end of their lives, seem to be making their lives travel, having few if any meaningful relationships in their real lives.

But there are also some really interesting people. A banker from Canada is very smart and we have chatted about what the economy likely will look like in the next 5 to 10 years. His view confirms mine – invest in large caps and think in terms of 2015 or 2020 and you will make a fortune. The 21st century economically will be stupendous since we’ve become a world economy instead of a North American centered economy. Once we learn how to run this new world economy, and smooth things, out, we’re all going to get a lot richer, especially the Americans.

One other passenger, when we asked him if he had been to Istanbul, replied that he had been on his way here but had been diverted a few years ago to Rhodes instead. Why? We asked. “Someone blew up a mosque in Istanbul.” They did what?