Posts Tagged ‘st petersburg’

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