Monday, July 12, 2004

Trip report - Ukraine Part 1

UKRAINE (Part 1)

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As I remember I concluded my previous report with saying goodbye to my new friends from Moldova and stepping off the train in Odessa. I had arranged for a private car and driver to meet me at the train station because I had booked an apartment in Odessa and figured I would need help to find it. It was a good plan because the apartment I had booked had problems with water and the agency had upgraded me to a bigger apartment at a different address. The driver drove me straight to the new apartment and showed me how to work some of the Russian appliances.

I had booked an apartment because hotels were very expensive in Odessa and I figured it would be a chance to live like a local? But that was before I learned how locals lived from my friends and tour guides in Belarus and Moldova! The ‘Khrushchev’ apartments built after the war were based on the central command/control principle. All the utilities were supplied and controlled by the government. For example the buildings are heated by a central hot water system that is turned on (and off) by the government on specific dates. Thus the apartments are heated in the winter but not in the summer. That also means that there is no hot water in the summer months for washing, etc. I asked how they took showers/baths? Cold showers and heat some water on a stove if they want a hot bath for about six months in the summer!. So the first question I asked the driver was “Is there hot water”? Thankfully the owner had added two important upgrades to this apartment: 1) an instant-type hot water heater and 2) a satellite TV system. I was living in luxury compared to my neighbors.

However the driver/agency forgot to inform me that the city turned off all water between midnight and 6am. I could live with that except the first morning the water in my section of the city was not turned back on until 2pm? Apparently there was a problem in that section of the city? But hey – I was experiencing/enjoying life just like the locals!
After I got settled into my new pad it was time to explore the city. My apartment was located in the old city and only ½ block from the main street that had been converted into a pedestrian mall. It was a great location because the main street was the gathering/focal point for the city. It was lined with shops and sidewalk cafes/bars and was a great place to stroll or sit and drink a beer and people watch. My first priority was to find an ATM and get some Ukrainian money – 5 Hryvnya = $1 US. I always try to use ATMs because the currency exchanges tend to rip you off with poor exchange rates and high commissions. The next priority was to shop for water and some food. I was looking forward to a regular American type breakfast (orange juice and cereal) in my apartment. Third priority was to learn the layout of the jungle/city.

Odessa does not have much of a tourist infrastructure even though there are lots of tourists. I even saw busloads of Japanese tourists – there was a cruise ship berthed in the harbor. There is no tourist office but I did find a travel agency that offered several tours of the city. I booked a city tour and a tour of the catacombs for the next day. The only city map they had was in Russian. Since I no longer had access to a front desk staff (that usually didn’t speak English anyway) I dropped into a nearby luxury 4-star hotel and used their concierge staff. They spoke excellent English and were very courteous and helpful. They even gave me an English map of the city. I asked them where I could run and they told me about a road along the Black Sea called the ‘Road to Health’ where all the locals ran and walked. I almost wished I were staying at that hotel but it was three times the price of my apartment. The rest of that day I walked/explored the old city and arrived at the following observations. 1) There seemed to be more money/wealth in Odessa than the previous two countries/cities visited. There were several BMWs and Mercedes parked on the streets and the main street had several high-priced jewelry stores. But there appeared to be a high risk of crime also because every jewelry store and upscale restaurant had an armed security guard on the premises during operating hours? 2) Most of the buildings in Odessa were old, in good condition and there were lots of interesting architecture like you see in other parts of Europe.3) No matter what time of the day you walk around the streets there is always someone (actually several people) walking around with a beer in their hand? 4) The young women (18 to 25) had the same traits as the women in Belarus and Moldova (shame on me for forgetting to report this very important observation until now). They were all slim with long slender legs, unbelievably slim/flat waists and big boobs! I can’t comment on their looks because my eyes never seemed to get above the breast line? The women in Odessa seemed to have more money for nicer clothes and dressed very well to display all their ass(ets)! Yeah, yeah – I know! I am a male chauvinist pig – and I like it!
Eating meals was also much easier because most restaurants had an English menu and at least one server who spoke English. The food wasn’t any better but I was able to enjoy some fresh seafood. The prices were much higher but still a bargain compared to the US.

The following morning I woke early to try a run along the Black Sea before the temps got too hot. My apartment was about one mile from the Black Sea and I got some strange/curious/dirty looks from some people as I ran through the city streets to get to Shevchenko Park and the ‘Road to Health’. I ignored them. However I couldn’t ignore the packs of stray dogs in the Park. I was very alarmed/leery at first but soon realized that the dogs were afraid of people and stayed out of my way. However I did watch a pack of about 20 dogs attack a pet dog that foolishly wandered into their pack. They would have killed that dog if the owner hadn’t stepped in and saved his pet. Once I got through the Park and on to the Road to Health it was much better. The road runs along the Black Sea for 6 km to the sea resort of Arkadiya. The road is lined with shade trees and is marked every 100m in case you want to do speed work. There were hundreds of locals running and walking along the Road to Health. I felt very comfortable while running on that road. That first day I continued on into the sea resort to check it out. Arkadiya is the ‘play’ area for Odessa. There are great beaches and the resort has several restaurants, bars and discos. The locals and tourists play on the beaches during the day and at the discos at night. They were still drinking and partying at 6:30 am that first morning I ran through the resort?

I arrived back at my apartment at 8am only to discover that I had no water? And I had booked the Catacomb tour for 10am. Fortunately I realized that this was not an uncommon occurrence because the apartment had several large jugs of water spread about the place. I used one of the jugs to wash myself in the sink. Not as good as a hot shower – but hey – I wanted to live like a local? The next surprise came when I started to pour the milk on to my cereal –‘Snow Flakes’ – the Russian version of ‘Frosted Flakes’. It wasn’t milk! It was thick and yucky! Not as thick as yogurt but close. I threw that in the sink and walked across to a store to buy ‘milk’. Of course everything is labeled in Russian/Cyrillic so I can’t read a damn thing. This time I decide to buy a plastic bag of white stuff that looks like milk and is very liquidy? Take it home and it is the same shit!
Now I am frustrated so I go back to the store and stop a young person (hoping he can speak English) and ask “milk”. He can’t speak English but he takes me over to the dairy cooler and points to a bottle and says “monoko” – “milk”. I trust him – pay for it and rush back to the apartment. Halleluiah – it’s milk – monoko – whatever – and it tastes wonderful on my Snow Flakes! It’s great living like a local!

After a great American breakfast I was ready to tour the catacombs. When Catherine the Great founded Odessa in 1794 she granted the citizens free land and the right to mine the limestone under their land to build their homes. The city and surrounding region is built on a solid outcrop of limestone. The residents would mine/cut the limestone down to 12 ft for a basement and use the blocks to build their house. Then they would continue to mine down two or three more levels and outwards from their property to get more limestone blocks for their house. It was free building material. Every building was built with limestone blocks mined from the ground below it. The result is a labyrinth of catacombs stretching over 2,000 km under the city and surrounding area. Most of the entries and exits have been closed because there are only maps for less than half the catacombs and people (mostly children) were getting lost in them – never to be found again. The city has left only two openings to the catacombs on the outskirts of the city. This section of the catacombs were used by the resistance fighters in WWII. They lived in the catacombs for four years. The tour takes you through a section of the catacomb where the resistance fighters had set up a camp. It is very cold and very dark in those catacombs. I couldn’t live or stay down there longer than a few hours. But it was an interesting tour and story.

In the afternoon I decided to take a tram to Arkadiya to check out the beaches and cafes. The beaches are sandy and nice and they are packed – from sunrise to sunset. I never did find the ‘nude’ beaches but based on some of the bodies I saw with little clothing (and should have been clothed – in a tent) it was just as well. I had an early seafood dinner at one of the cafes and decided that I couldn’t stick around till midnight when the action really started. Hard to party till 4am and run 10 miles at 6am?

So a new day and another pleasant run along the Road to Health followed by a hot shower and a hearty breakfast of Snow Flakes and I was ready for the city tour. I had already explored much of the old city but was eager to learn the history of the city. As previously noted Odessa is a relatively young city in Europe only being founded in 1794 and built in the early 1800s. Catherine the Great wanted a seaport on the Black Sea and therefore opened the development of the city to all nations and nationalities in Europe. There is an interesting mix of architecture and buildings and almost all of the original buildings survived WWII. Romania had asked Hitler to give them Odessa as a present for joining his alliance and therefore Odessa was spared from bombing except for the train station and seaport that have been rebuilt since the war. The landmark of the city is the 192 steps of the Potemkin Stairs that descend from the old city to the seaport. There is supposed to be an old murder/mystery movie shot in Odessa and around the Potemkin Stairs – I’ll have to rent it? There are several interesting building to see including the city opera that was unfortunately under restoration.
After the tour I explored the old city on my own and enjoyed some time in the city’s central park. The local artists set up booths in the park every day and sell arts and craft such as matryoshka dolls. It is a great place for watching the local scenery (read –beautiful women with long slender legs, big boobs, etc).

I was running out of things to see and do in Odessa and I still had one more day to go? On that last morning I did a long 13-mile run along the Road to health because I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to run in Kiev. I had to check out of my apartment by noon so I took my bags down to the train station and checked them into the baggage storage. Then I went back to the central park with a good book, bought a few beers and sat down and spent the afternoon in the park reading – and watching – you are right - slim waists, slender legs and big boobs. It’s so great to be a male chauvinist pig!
After a nice final seafood dinner on the main street it was time to head back to the train station to catch the overnight train to Kiev. The train left at 8pm. I found my train and 1st class cabin easily but discovered that I had a roommate – a businessman going to Kiev. Didn’t matter – after drinking beer all afternoon in the park and then a bottle of wine with dinner – I immediately paid the conductor $2 for the sheets and blanket – made my bed and passed out!

The following morning the conductor woke us early for our 5am arrival into Kiev. My roommate didn’t speak much English but I was able to ask him how much to pay a taxi for a ride into the city center. I thanked him and stepped off the train to begin the next part of my adventure in Ukraine.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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