Thursday, July 22, 2004

Trip Report - Ukraine Part 2

UKRAINE (Part 2)

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The final chapter!

Armed with some local knowledge from my roommate I proceeded into the train station in Kiev to negotiate/hassle with a taxi driver for a ride to the hotel. Of course as soon as I opened my mouth and spoke English $$ signs registered all over most of them and they demanded $20. After arguing with three or four I finally found a sane/honest driver who agreed on 30 HV ($6). The only way I could get a lower price would be to argue in Russian so I accepted and off we went to the Hotel Rus. I had selected this hotel from a list provided by the agency mainly because of price - $79/night for a 3-star hotel. Turned out to be a good choice. The hotel was located next to the Olympic Sports Stadium, close to the metro and only a few blocks from the main street (Khreschatyk). It had been renovated recently and was modern and luxurious. It was a big step up from my previous 1-star hotels. The front desk staff even spoke English! But I also hit my first travel snag – the hotel only had me booked for one night vs the four nights I had paid the agency for?

But they let me check in at 6am so I managed to nap for a few more hours and shower before venturing off to explore Kiev. It didn’t take long before I determined that I liked Odessa much more. Kiev is the capital of Ukraine, big, spread out and more difficult to explore. I also came up with these quick observations: 1) Somebody had money as I saw several Hummers in the first hour 2) There were more beggars (mostly old people) in the streets 3) There just as many alcoholics walking around at all hours with a bottle of beer in their hand and 4) Beautiful women must be prohibited in Kiev because I could count the number of pretty women I saw in four days on one hand? (Same observation I had on my trip to Moscow four years ago). To top of my assessment/opinion of Kiev I was the target of a scam within the first hour of my walk. What was the scam?
As I walked along the main street a guy passed me quickly, bent over and found/picked up a big roll of bills/money. He showed me the roll that included some US $50 bills and then exclaimed excitedly “we were so lucky to find this money and we should share it”! Well, I wasn’t born on a Russian fishing trawler but it took about 10 seconds for the light bulb to light and I realized I was being scammed. So I told him he could keep all the money and to go away! He persisted for a few minutes until I shouted angrily “ Get lost or I will call the police”! He disappeared quickly. I just love big cities. But it was my fault. I had become lackadaisical in my dress in Odessa. I was wearing jeans and running shoes instead of my European/Russian disguise – black pants, black shirt and black shoes! Nobody in Kiev wore running shoes – I was obviously a tourist!

After completing my preliminary scouting trip around the hotel area I returned to the hotel to call the local travel rep to correct the problem with the hotel. Fortunately she spoke English and promised to fix the problem immediately. It was time to explore more of the city but that required using the metro. The metro was much bigger than the one in Minsk with three lines so the interchanges were more complex. And of course all signs were in Russian/Cyrillic. At first I just memorized the number of stops to a destination but by the end of my stay I was able to recognize metro stops even though I couldn’t say the name. My first destination was the Dnipro station on the Dniper River. My friend in Moldova had told me that this was the best place to do a long run and I wanted to check it out and make sure I knew how to get there? Found the station OK and decided that the sidewalk along the river and a park would work for a run. Next stop was the Podil district – the oldest section of the city. The cobblestone Andriyivskyy path is Kiev’s most touristy area with cafes, bars, galleries and souvenir vendors lining both sides of the street. At the top of the hill is St Andrew’s Church, a restored 18th century Baroque church. Enough fun for the 1st day!

The next day I woke very early to go to the Dniper River. I wanted to finish my run and get back to the hotel before the metro got too busy – I was going to have to return on the metro all sweaty and stinky. When I exited the metro station I decided to stay on the path near the river and park but it was only 5km so I ran two loops and called it a day. It had started to rain and people were giving me strange looks – I was the only runner on the path? After a nice hot shower it was time for breakfast. I was hoping this hotel might have something I could eat? What a pleasant surprise – they had a chef to cook eggs any style I wanted along with bacon and hash browns and even toast – the first toast I had seen this trip. It was wonderful!

I wanted to take a city tour but there is no tourist infrastructure in Kiev and no tourist office. The hotel offered to arrange a private tour for $30/hr but it was raining hard and I didn’t want to spend/waste that much money for a tour in the rain. So I ended up spending the afternoon in my room watching the Tour de France in Russian. Euro Sports didn’t spend much time covering Lance? The following morning it was still raining so I decided to go to the track in the Olympic Stadium next door and run laps in the rain – at 7am! I don’t know if I was allowed on the track but the guard just looked at me and shook his head. It was raining too hard for him to come outside to tell me to stop? Needless to say I was the only one on the track as I ran 3 miles and then retreated back to the hotel looking like a wet puppy. But I was ready for the next marathon. And then I became concerned/worried if there really was one? I had never communicated directly with the race director in Rovno because he didn’t speak English and didn’t have email. My friend Dmitry would telephone him and then pass the information to me via email. What happens if I get to Rovno and the race has been cancelled or postponed? Oh well, there is no other plan except to show up in Rovno on Sat and hope that there is a marathon on Sun?

After another wonderful breakfast I decided rain or not I am going to play tourist and explore the city. The front desk gave me an English map of the city that included a suggested ‘one-day walking tour’ so I set off. Most of the touristy sites are within a one-square mile radius of the city center so it was actually quite easy to tour the city on my own. Kiev, like Minsk and Chisinau had been almost totally destroyed during WWII. Only a few monuments and churches survived. However many of the palaces, churches and monasteries have been restored or rebuilt since Independence in 1991. The oldest structure in the city is the ‘Golden Gate’ a wooden and stone gate that has marked the entrance to the city since 1037! There are several church and monastery complexes that are magnificent and very colorful.

My last day in Kiev (Fri) fortunately was sunny so I decided to revisit some of the sites from the previous day to take more/better pictures in the sun. I figured that I probably would not get a marathon T-shirt from the race so I should buy a souvenir T-shirt from Kiev. Had to go back to the Podil district to find the T-shirt. Then I decided to visit Kiev’s oldest and holiest religious site, the Kyiv-Pechery Monastery that sits on a hill overlooking the Dniper River and dates back to the 12th century. It provides some spectacular views of Kiev from the Bell Tower.

As I finished my final tour of the city I figured that maybe I should buy a sandwich for the train ride tomorrow? I knew there would not be any food available on the 8-hour train ride from Kiev to Rovno and I would miss both breakfast and lunch. Good idea but sandwiches do not exist in Kiev – and I looked everywhere?
So on Sat morning I was catching a train at 6:30 am with only a power bar to eat for breakfast. All that was available was a 2nd class cabin (4 persons/beds). The beds were still made up so I just stretched out on my bed and slept for half the trip. When I stepped off the train 8 hours later in Rovno there were three smiling/happy faces to greet me.

The race director Yuri had brought along a friend Alex and an English teacher from the high school, Tanya, to translate for us. They welcomed me to their city and escorted me to my hotel. The Hotel Mir (means ‘Peace’ in Russian) was a one-star hotel but the best hotel in the city (and only $18/night). It was right out of an old Soviet/Russian movie – you walked past a security guard to get to the elevator and when you got off on your floor there was a matron at a desk to monitor the floor. Picture the movie “From Russia With Love”. Remember the Russian bad girl/matron with the knives in the shoes? That was my floor matron! Fortunately Tanya helped me check in because nobody in that hotel spoke English!

After my hosts got me checked in we sat down and discussed the agenda for the race. I had lots of questions and wanted to see the course. Tanya and Yuri agreed to pick me up at the hotel at 6 pm to go to the stadium and the course that were close to the hotel. Then Tanya insisted on helping me shop at the supermarket for water and some snack food. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was an expert shopper in the Ukraine – heck I could even buy ‘monoko/milk’! After I got my supplies back to the hotel I told Tanya that I could survive on my own and would see her at 6 pm. A hasty decision! I realized that I was hungry and needed something to eat. But the restaurant in the hotel only had Russian menus and nobody spoke English. I couldn’t order a meal. So I walked around the hotel and luckily found a pizza joint. By now I could read/understand pizza menus in Russian and was able to order a pizza and coke ($2). After that delicious snack I explored the downtown area. The main street was about ½ mile long with a post office, telecom office and about a dozen shops. That was it! Across the street was the central park with a statue of Taras Shevchenko, an 18th century Ukrainian Poet who is credited with re-inventing the Ukrainian language. The city had torn down a statue of Lenin after Independence and replaced it with Shevchenko who is now a national hero.
At 6pm my hosts met me at the hotel and escorted me to the stadium. Yuri gave me a race number and explained that after the race he was going to give me a book about the city of Rivne (Tanya explained that the city is called Rovno in Russian but Rivne in Ukrainian) and a ceramic statue of the club symbol. His running club was called ‘The Flame’ and the symbol is a runner with an Olympic torch. I thanked him and asked how much for the entry fee. He said that there was no entry fee but that I could make a donation if I wanted. I donated 100HV ($20). I could tell by the way that his eyes and smile lit up that I had probably covered most of his race budget. I asked about water on the course. Yuri showed me some bottles of tea and local water. He also had some bottled sparkling water. I explained that I was concerned about intestinal problems from local water so I would buy some bottled still water and place it at the water station for my own use. Tanya, my dear, sweet translator/angel said that she would come to the race and hand me my water and watch my belongings.

Yuri and Tanya then walked me over to a park near the stadium and showed me the course. It was a figure 8 loop. Because of the strange distance of the loop (about 2.38km)
the race would begin with two laps around a lake followed by 16 more laps of the whole loop. One water table/station would be placed in the path in the middle of the two circular loops. I was ready. Yuri would meet me at the hotel at 6am to escort me to the start line.
To thank Yuri and Tanya I invited them to join me for a pasta dinner (and I needed Tanya to order it)! It costs less than $10 for three pasta dinners.

Sunday was M-day! This trip was really going to happen/conclude as planned! Yuri picked me up at 6am and we walked over to the stadium. I met some of the other runners - a few even spoke English and were eager to practice their language skills with me. There were 12 runners in the marathon and another 12 runners in the Half. The race started at 7am. I had decided beforehand to stop every 2nd loop for water and gel. But this time I would carry the gel with me so that I could eat/swallow it on the run and only have to stop for water. This would save some time. By the time I finished the 2nd lap Tanya was standing at the water table with a cup of water (what an angel). It took about 20 to 30 seconds to stop, drink some water and return the cup to her. I was only allotted one cup. I later asked Yuri why only one cup? Why not have lots of cups and just throw them away like most races? He was shocked. He considered that to be an unnecessary waste and expense! Because of the strange distance of the loop it was impossible to determine my pace - all I could tell was that I was averaging about 12 minutes per loop. At one point I couldn’t remember how many loops I had run. Fortunately they had a volunteer shouting out the number of loops left for each runner.

It got a bit warm/toasty by the end of the race but I finished comfortably in 3:38:50 – good enough for 1st place in my age group and 5th place overall. More importantly I had accomplished my goal of 3 marathons and 3 countries in 3 weeks! After the race Yuri pulled me aside for interviews and photos with the local press. They were writing an article for both the Rivne and Kiev papers. Tanya said that she would translate the article and send me a copy. Yuri then presented me with the book and ceramic statue.
Yuri had invited Tanya and I to a party/dinner at his place after the race. The party was to start at 3 pm so I had lots of time to go back to the hotel for a hot shower and rest. After my shower I decided that I had better eat something because Yuri warned me that there would be lots of vodka at the party. Right – you guessed it! I had to go back to the pizza joint because it was the only place in town where I could order a meal.

At 3 pm Tanya met me at the hotel and we walked over to Yuri’s apartment. He had invited some runners, friends and local musicians. He had prepared a special, traditional Ukrainian meal – a type of meat pie. It was like a meat dumpling with minced pork. It was very good. The specialty was preceded with bread, meat and vegetables. I skipped the raw veggies but enjoyed the mashed potatoes, meat and bread. I think I forgot to mention how delicious the bread is in those countries. They have dark bread that is to die for – I ate it with every meal. I also needed it to wash down the vodka – it was very strong.
I had brought what was left of the bottle of Crown Royal and all the locals drank whiskey while I drank vodka for the many toasts! Everyone was very interested/curious about life in America and asked many questions about salaries, pensions, health care, etc. I answered their questions and then asked them the same questions. Some of the answers were surprising.

When I commented about the Hummers in Kiev they stated that there is a very small minority of super rich but the majority of the people are very poor. Tanya has been teaching for 20 years and makes $60/month. One runner, a retired electrician used to make about $60/month and his pension is now $40/month. He claimed that he lived quite comfortably on that amount. He had to be very careful with his budget – couldn’t buy much expensive food like meat but he was happy. They have ‘free’ health care but it is not as good as it used to be. A doctor makes about $100/month! But nobody that I talked to wanted to go back to the ‘good old days’. They felt sorry for the old people and thought that they had been better off in the old days and that was the reason most of the beggars are old people. But they preferred to continue down the road of freedom and opportunity!

After dinner the musicians played Ukrainian/Russian music for the party. One musician, a professional singer, had written a song to commemorate my visit to Rivne that she sang to me (in Russian). The words/story according to Tanya’s translation were about “John, the American runner who traveled all the way to our city of Rivne to visit us and run our marathon when he could have gone anywhere in the world”. I was overwhelmed with the kindness, warmth and friendship of these people. They are poorer than church mice but all have BIG hearts of pure gold!

After the party Yuri and Tanya insisted on escorting me to the train station. They stayed with me until the train arrived and made sure I got on the right car and only then did they wish me goodbye. I was very thankful that chance or timing had selected Rivne as my marathon in Ukraine instead of Kiev or Odessa – I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that wonderful experience!

My 2nd class cabin was full but I didn’t care. After a marathon and lots of vodka I just made up my bed and passed out again. The conductor woke me at 4am for our 5am arrival into Kiev. I heard some voices speaking English? Turned out there was a church group of 12 people in my coach from NY State. They had been operating a church camp in Lutsk for two weeks for Ukrainian children. They had been isolated but had the same observation/comment as me: “The Ukrainian people are poor but so very warm and friendly”.

As soon as I arrived in Kiev I headed back to the Hotel Rus. I had wisely negotiated/booked a room for half price for 8 hours. That allowed me to leave my larger bag in the hotel luggage room while I was in Rivne and now I had a place to sleep for a few more hours, shower and have another great breakfast before leaving for the airport. But I was at the airport by 12pm to catch my 2:15 flight to London. I was ready to head home! What a mess at the Kiev airport! First you have to line up and go through security to get into the international terminal. Then you have to line up to go through customs. The customs officer asked all the usual questions about money. I answered that I was leaving Ukraine with only 20 HV and $800 US. He tried to ask more questions but we had a communications problem so he got frustrated and told me to go. I had to go through another security check at that point and another customs officer pulled me aside and into a private room. I didn’t like the looks/feel of this situation? He spoke English and demanded to know how much money I was taking out of the country. 20 HV and $800 US. He inspected both of my bags and had a special interest in my handbag that contained a travel pouch with my address book and other documents. Since I had nothing to hide I let him inspect his little heart out. But I did get the feeling that he was looking for a ‘bribe’ to let me pass. Screw him – I had nothing to hide and I was not going to offer him a bribe! He finally gave up and told me I was free to go. I still had to pass through Passport Control but that went OK. However I felt relieved when I passed that final hurdle and went straight to the Business Class Lounge for BA for a nice English beer and to read my first English newspaper in three weeks. I felt even better when the wheels lifted off the runway and I was on my way to London Heathrow.

Four hours later I was in the London Tube heading to my mate’s place in the Vauxhall district. His house is a few blocks from the Thames River and the MI6 building. After a quick beer we headed out to a pub near Victoria Station to meet up with another running mate – and a surprise. A new English ale has just been introduced and those crazy guys had called the brewery to find out which pubs were serving ‘Maddog’ ale. They had taken me to a pub serving ‘Maddog’ ale. It was quite good – maybe that is why we poured it down like water? At 9 pm we had to head off to another pub to meet up with two more mates – the same two that had just stayed with me in Colorado. We drank at that pub until they kicked us out! But I blamed the hangover the next morning on that damn ‘Maddog’ ale and called it a wee Maddog hangover. To get the poison out of my body I coaxed Tad into taking me on a 5-mile run through London. His route took us down to the MI 6 building and along the Thames past the ‘Big Eye’, then across the Thames and around Big Ben, the Parliament Buildings, and Westminster Abbey and finally back across the Thames to MI 6 and home. Nice historic/scenic route but I am not used to dodging cars, buses and people?

One last wish/requirement before I leave England – I must have a good feed of fish and chips. Unfortunately that is not so easy anymore. Most of the ‘chippys’ have closed down and it is hard to find a good ‘chippy’ these days. But Tad came through and I got my fill of fish and chips. Time to go home, rest up and train for the next adventure?

Stay tuned!

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