I entered Ukraine from the west, on the train from Krakow to Lviv, and then headed east on the overnight train to Kiev, taking in the Chernobyl site and finally heading south to Chernivtsi before crossing into Romania.
I took the day train to Lviv in the West of Ukraine. This city was once in Poland until Stalin moved the whole of Poland a little to the West and claimed this place for himself, as if Russia was not quite big enough already. If you visit the old cemetery in Lviv you can see an abrupt change from those who died before 1945, who have Polish names, written in the latin script, and those who died after this, and have Russian/Ukrainian names written in Cyrillic. The day train to Lviv stops at the border, and there is a special walled off section of the station that you have to transfer to in order to continue into Ukraine. This was the first point in my trip where my travels felt more like an adventure rather than a simple sightseeing tour. The people getting onto the train (almost all Ukrainian) looked markedly different from the Poles in the way that they dressed and acted. Ukrainians, and the women in particular, take exceptional care in how they dress, as is often the case in poorer countries. A Ukrainian woman can't pop to the shop without doing her makeup and putting on her finest dress and high-heels. As I stepped off the train in Lviv I got the unmistakable feeling of being in a poor economy, which I hadn’t felt anywhere else on my trip so far. The buses are dilapidated, many people hawk different goods by the side of the road and taxi drivers compete to drag you to their old bangers. A few overly keen taxi drivers aside, at no point in Ukraine did I feel in any way menaced or hassled by the locals, as you might in North Africa for instance, although many people told me that I would, and that I should not go there. Although Ukraine is no doubt a poor country by European standards everything seems to function reasonably well, and the infrastructure compares favourably to, say, Romania. It's possible to buy transport tickets online and present your phone to the driver without an issue. Everyone here is incredibly friendly and welcoming, Ukraine has been the highlight of the trip so far.
Lviv, the city itself, at least towards the centre, feels like many of the other tourist destinations of central Europe. It's definitely more Poland than Russia (unlike Kiev, of which more later). One thing that you will hear again and again from tourists here is how amazed they are with the prices. Poland and Romania even seem incredibly expensive compared with Ukraine. The place I was staying at was 3-4 euros a night, and a train the length of the country, with a bed, cost a little over 10 euros. I was able to live here for around 15 euro a day without having to make any effort not to spend money. Sometimes backpackers amazement at the low cost borders on the rude, as this is of course a sign of Ukraine’s economic problems; the receptionist at the hostel told us that he earns only 100 euros a month.
Most importantly, and perhaps surprisingly, the food here is also pretty good, the cottage cheese and cow's tongue pancakes are a treat, really!
The hostel that I was staying at was staffed by a troupe of young guys who had little interest in the monotonous task of cleaning and administering the hostel, and were more intent on partying with the guests and showing them around their beautiful city, which me and a few other people at the hostel took full advantage of. They gave us free sightseeing tours of the city, and we would repay them with a beer of a shot of flavoured vodka (incidentally try the horseradish flavour, it's a treat). Lviv loves its themed bars, and our guide took us to one called Pravda, which sold politically motivated beers, such as Putin Hullio (Putin dick-head) and Frau Ribentrop, with Mrs Merkel made to look like the Nazi foreign minister who signed the deal with the Russians to partition eastern Europe, no doubt a reference to Frau Merkel's softly-softly approach to Russia.
By this time the mercury was edging north of 35, with high humidity to boot, coupled with the many late nights I didn't take my sightseeing too seriously, but I did manage to fit in a trip to the old cemetery on the hill, and a number of splendid old churches and cathedrals, of which Lviv has an embarrassingly large number.
The last night was topped off with the mandatory trip to “Masoch Bar”. A themed bar in honour of the author Masoch, from whom we get the term masochism. I was expecting some funky getup and a normal bar, but instead in order to enter I was ordered to take off my top and receive 5 lashes from the waitress, after each one I was ordered to say "thank you my mistress", otherwise she would have to do it again. And this was all free with my beer! what a city indeed.
I took the night train to Kiev. After a few beers, and of course my 5 lashes, I slept very well. These night trains are pretty popular in Ukraine by the look of it; this one was completely full. Each carriage holds four people with two bunks either side of the carriage, they do feel rather cramped, but they are an absolute bargain at around 10 euros or even less, so that includes your accommodation and the transport. On the down side you see nothing of the country that you are travelling through, so I have no idea what Ukraine looks like outside of the main cities.
Kiev is a brash and imposing affair. I felt like I had left behind central Europe and arrived in the Soviet Union. It's not an ugly city like, say, Bucharest or Tirana, but it's a grand imposing one, made to make you feel like an ant. Maiden square, the famous location of the revolution of 2014, is now a buzzing place, particularly at night, where there are fountain and light shows and live music, and much revelry by the locals. Devoid of big-hitting obviously famous sites Kiev is a fascinating city to explore. If you want to experience the Soviet Union you should take the metro, which is like wandering into a weird soviet inspired hallucination. To add to creepiness these are some of the deepest metro stations in the world. The world war II memorial, and the accompanying museum, are also interesting both for the Soviet kitsch that you see there, but also because it is a great museum in its own right. The museum sits beneath the enormous statue of the woman holding the sword, celebrating liberation (from the Germans, but not the Russians in this case). The top of the sword was cut short on orders from Russia, as the statue exceeded the height of the Kremlin, which was clearly unacceptable.
The real reason that I came to Kiev was, what else, but to visit the site of Chernobyl. Reactor four of the nuclear powerstation at Chernobyl went critical after a test of the facilities was ordered by Moskow. They wanted to know what would happen if one of the cores went out of control, which they duly found out, to devastating effect. The soviets botched the job of evacuating the surrounding people and tried to cover up their mistake, many people died very shortly after the explosion, and many soldiers and firefighters, who were ordered to fight the blaze in without any protective gear, soon also died. The soviets tried to cover up their mistake and didn't inform the west of what was going on; the West soon found out however, as the nuclear fallout drifted over Belarus and then towards Scandinavia and Western Europe. The abnormal level of radiation was even observed as far away as New York. To this day no one is really sure how many people were actually killed in the disaster.
The power plant is comprised of four reactors, with a fifth one being planned when the explosion happened. The whole complex is named after the old city of Chernobyl, but the Soviets built another city much closer to the site for the engineers and their families by the name of Pripyat, all of which can be seen in a day tour from Kiev. I'm assured that it is quite safe, and as yet I have not developed any crippling illnesses or superpowers. We drove through the old town of Chernobyl, through a military checkpoint. In order to pass you need to apply for permission to visit with a reason. Tourism is "not allowed" and instead we were designated as special visitors with a scientific interest in the sight, and were made to sign a form to promise that we would not eat any mushrooms or berries we found within the exclusion zone, nor attempt to swim in any lakes, eat any of the fish, and that we could not sue the authorities for any accidents, deaths, extra eyeballs grown or any un-had children as a result of our visit to Chernobyl, the spirit of the Soviet Union lives on in this place!
The exclusion zone covers a 10 km radius around the plant, from here you see Chernobyl, then a series of villages with abandoned houses, the creepiest of which being an abandoned nursery, in which the children were forced to leave everything, including dolls and books, which all lay broken and discarded around the building. I can't help but get the feeling that the curators of Chernobyl have lain out these artifacts for our benefit, but I can't be sure. From Chernobyl you pass the four reactors, including infamous reactor 4, which has now been housed in a metal coffin to keep all the nasty gamma rays locked up inside. From there the tour continues to the highlight, which is the abandoned city of Pripyat. This is creepy and fascinating in equal measures. As well as being interesting for the fact that it is abandoned, and now totally overgrown, it is also historically interesting in that it is a snapshot of soviet life exactly as it was in 1986. The forest has now completely reclaimed the city. Trees push their way through concrete, and the central square resembles a small clearing in a wood, rather than the imposing open space it once was, a reminder of how quickly nature will reclaim our land if we turn our backs for too long. Behind the trees along the road are more tower blocks, smashed to pieces but otherwise left as they were, and at the end of the road: a supermarket, complete with abandoned shopping trolleys, and Russian signs pointing out the bread, the tea and the milk. The end of the tour is the derelict fairground of Chernobyl, this sight is so sinister and creepy that I find it difficult to believe that it is real. The whole experience is, almost literally, utterly unbelievable, and part of me still thinks that the whole setup is one elaborate prank. Another highlight of the trip and a series of dream-like images that will stay with me for some time.
Nothing can beat the weirdness of Chernobyl, but the Pinchuk art gallery gives this a good go. A series of arty-farty modern expositions takes up 5 floors of this guy's apartment. There is a fair bit of bollocks, but it is free bollocks, as the founder opened up his collection to the public simply to promote independent art. In the evening I take in a classical concert, I wanted to see a ballet, but it was holiday season for the dancers, so I went to a smaller show in the Kiev Philharmonic, which set me back almost three whole euros! Worth it for the interior of the building in itself, but the music was of very high quality (I assume).
I take another night train, this time to the small town of Chernivtsi. This is a place that has changed hands more often than a five pound note, having German, Romanian, Russian, Polish and Ukrainian heritage. Now it lies in the region of Bucovina (which is mostly in Romania) but in the modern borders of Ukraine. The usual backpacker route is to go to Odessa, but this seems to be a beach resort, so I decide to try out something different. Chernivtsi is a very small town with not a huge amount to do. The streets in the centre are achingly pretty though, and it has one of the oldest, and grandest, universities in the region. Well worth spending an afternoon here. There are a trickle of international tourists, but most of the visitors are from other parts of Ukraine, apart from the obligatory drunken Polish students, of which every city in Ukraine must have at least a handful.
On the second day I hire a bike, the place to hire them is extremely well hidden, and involves going into an un-signposted block of flats to the third floor where, implausibly, there is a flat full of bikes which can be hired for the day. I take the bike into the countryside, and I'm suddenly hit by how poor and rural this country actually is. It's possible to hop from major city to city without getting a feel for how people here actually live. The roads are awful and the towns that I pass through are nothing places with a single shop surrounded by farmland. The people seem to be living a very simple subsistence life with very little at all. I think, rather unkindly, of the opening scenes of Borat which gives the flavour of what I'm talking about. Still the people seemed quite interested to see me cycling through their backwater villages. I'm really glad I saw this side of the country before I left, as this was my last day in Ukraine.