a trip to kyiv

a week in Kyiv

When the Euro 2012 championships were announced as being held in Poland and the Ukraine in the summer of 2012 I knew I had to go; I had always fancied going to Eastern Europe and after going to Euro 2004 in Portugal and the World Cup in Germany in 2006 I knew what a great occasion these tournaments could be. As a 16-team tournament there were unlikely to be any duff teams or matches and after a few hours with a map and some flight and train times it was clear that the biggest problem would be the distances involved. Ideally I would have liked to have got at least one game in each country but I had to plump for one so I chose the Ukraine.

I was successfully drawn for my two matches in the UEFA draw in April 2011 – both of them in Kyiv and the first one would be the opening game for the national team in their newly-refurbished national stadium. Next step was to find some accommodation for a week in June so I looked for a Kyiv or Ukrainian tourist board website but neither the city nor national government thought that this would be useful; the city tourist board website didn’t even have a list of hotels. After buying the Lonely Planet guide it turned out that this was because there were only a handful of tourist-standard hotels in Kyiv. Hours of web searching only turned up a handful of small hotels and most of these were either full or didn’t have any way of searching for dates and rooms.

Many hours with Google Translate saw a dozen emails despatched in Ukrainian asking for availability. The few that replied had the same offer which was basically “We may have some rooms next summer but we won’t tell you the prices until we see which teams are coming and then we will charge you according to how much we think we can rip you off”. In the meantime, a couple of them said, you can pay us 100 EUR a night now as a deposit, give us your credit card details and we will make up the surcharge nearer the time and then tell you when we have charged you. Several even said that even doing that wouldn’t even guarantee a booking; in other words make sure you bring plenty of cash when you get here. There was plenty of negative publicity against the Ukraine for this in the UK press and one of their Ministers actually said that high room prices were a good thing because it meant fans would be sure of getting a good room ! I wrote to the ambassador in London to let him know my thoughts but he has never replied.

Eventually one night a hotel did turn up that had a single room at a fixed price and I could confirm a booking in advance on a credit card so I grabbed it. I looked it up on the map but Google maps didn’t cover Kyiv and the local mapping service is in Cyrillic but it said it was near a metro station so I thought that should be OK. I also booked my flight on Ukraine National Airlines from Gatwick and prepared myself by repeatedly watching the first 10 minutes of ‘Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’. I also memorised the 3 tips in the guide book – don’t drink the water, take your own toilet roll and take your own plug for the sink.

Six months later and the first England game is the following day in Donetsk so Gatwick airport is full of England fans using the few available routes to get across to the other side of the Ukraine. The police were out in force completing a passport and criminal records check on everyone holding a UK passport before we got to the gate. This took a long time especially since a couple of individuals were caught trying to sneak through when they shouldn’t have been. There was then a third passport check just in case but eventually after 1,250 miles above Holland, Germany and Poland we landed at Borispol airport in Kyiv.

UEFA had awarded the Ukraine several billion Euros for restructuring work and a good chunk of this had gone to building a brand new airport; unfortunately the airport was not open in time for Euro 2012 so it lay there proudly in the sun with not a single passenger or plane in sight. Perhaps the government were so busy pocketing their £2.5bn non-tendered contracts that they lost sight of having a functioning modern airport.

I had arranged to meet Alexandr the hotel owner at the airport so for the first and last time in my life I came out of the arrivals gate to see someone holding a sign saying ‘Mr Robin’. His car was a battered Peugeot with neither wing mirror in place and a large strip of brown parcel tape across the width of the windscreen. At least it had a seatbelt but only for the driver. We raced off down the motorway into the city at 70mph but that only lasted for a few miles until the four lanes went to two. This must be where the bribe money had run out and the road was full of potholes and large stones randomly scattered around. Some of the potholes were big enough to take a car wheel but that didn’t bother Alexandr who was helping me with my Ukrainian; it is pronounced ‘Keef’ and not ‘Kee-Yev’ and all the Russian words are the same in Ukrainian but without the ‘r’s. So the river is the Dniep’ not the Dniepr. And no I didn’t want to buy a wife, thank you.

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Driving on any road in Kyiv seemed to follow the same rules – (1) you can overtake any vehicle in front of you on either side and you never have to bother indicating, (2) it is perfectly OK to drop behind a vehicle in order to attack him from the other side and (3) any form of public transport is an inconvenience to the other road users and is to be attacked at speed. As we got nearer to the city everything got dirtier and shabbier and my arms ached from holding on to the door handle. It was only when we crossed the river that there there was anything green and the evening sun was reflecting off the golden onion domes of the churches on the hillside. This only lasted a few minutes though and we started climbing out of the city dodging buses and potholes. On one stretch the tram lines had actually come out of the tarmac and were sticking out of the ground and traffic swerved around them. At one junction a trolleybus had lost contact with the overhead wires after falling down a hole so the driver stopped and climbed on to the top of his bus and pushed the high voltage connectors back with a broomstick.

We had been going 30 minutes now and the roads and surroundings got even shabbier and on both sides of the road were endless rows of Soviet-era public housing in long blocks. After half a dozen of these estates Alexandr turned off the main road and 4 blocks in we finally pulled up outside the ‘Hotel Nyvky Ecotel’. It turned out that the hotel was actually the entire block of flats and Alexandr and his wife and brother had bought the whole block and were converting it into a hotel. At the moment though only the first couple of floors had been fitted out and the rest were still in the original state. Even at 9pm on a very hot Sunday night the whole place was full of plasterers, electricians and carpenters all banging and crashing away. This went on most nights until at least 2am.

There was no lift and only one staircase at each end of the block. What had once been a flat had been divided into two single rooms with a shared bathroom so more like a hostel than a hotel. Fortunately both Alexandr’s wife and daughter spoke very good English so at least I could check in properly and have my passport copied and faxed to the police.

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I spent a bad night trying to sleep in a very hot room and so much noise everywhere up to 4am with people coming and going. This is a city where the winter temperature can sink to -20c or worse so the only window in the room was limited to opening about an inch which wasn’t much use when it was over 30c outside. Next door to me were a couple of Swedish lads who came back about 3am with a couple of local girls. In the morning I went to the reception and asked for a better room and got moved to one on the floor above. The main problem with this conversation was that she wasn’t at all accepting that a hotel shared with people who brought prostitutes back while a taxi waited outside for them was a problem. “What is the problem with this ?” she kept asking me, concluding : “This is not a problem”.

After a breakfast of chicken pancakes and chocolate biscuits I was ready to get out and about to see if Kyiv could be more attractive close up than it had looked the night before. There are only 3 metro lines in Kyiv going out to the edges of the city so from my hotel on the estate it would be a good 30 minutes walk to the nearest station at Nivky so i jumped on a bus at the end of the road. There are a vast number of minibuses patrolling up and down the roads and all are owned by their drivers so they are quite happy to jump in front of another or cross lanes to pick up a fare. You jump on and pay the driver when you get off and the fare is a tiny amount – perhaps about 7p for a few miles. Standard bus driver practice is to drive as fast as possible while avoiding the potholes and chatting on your mobile in one hand while smoking a cigarette with the other. The minibuses will pick up and drop people pretty much anywheres so there is no notion of a set route which was fun since a bus setting off in one direction could quite happily do a u-turn in the middle of a dual carriageway and go off in the opposite direction.

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Once you get to the metro the next problem is finding the entrance since there was only one small door 2 levels under a maze of subways full of tiny kiosks and shops which are hidden away down there to avoid the winter weather. You have to buy a plastic token from an invisible hand behind a tiny window. A token will take you anywhere on the subway for a flat fare which is about 12p. There was no English language signage at any station I went to or a pocket map in any language – something else the Euro 2012 money had bypassed – so you have to find your way around by counting the stations.

Outside the metro stations and in the subways are old ladies in headscarves – babushkas – selling the produce from their allotments like bags of walnuts, mushrooms or cherries or household items like rolls of carrier bags or wooden clothes pegs. The kiosks seem to sell just about anything like a single battery, half a packet of tissues, individual cigarettes or a couple of biscuits in a plastic bag.

The main street in the city centre – Independence Square – was closed off to make a ‘Fan Park’ so I wandered around there for a few hours watching all the colours and sights. I had got tickets in the UEFA lottery for 2 games in Kyiv and the first one was the big one – Kyiv vs. Sweden so the host nation in action. The Olympic Stadium is right in the city centre so I went down there at 7pm to watch the England-France game on the big screens. The build-up to the match was amazing with hundreds of dancing local schoolkids and choirs. Thousands had come in national dress (embroidered smock tops called vyshyvanky) for the game and many were whole families such was the importance of this home match for them. Before the kick-off there were 70,000 people singing the national anthem and you would have thought the whole stadium was going to take off. Ukraine went a goal down but came back to win 2-1 with 2 goals from national hero Shevchenko so it was completely crazy afterwards with everyone singing and waving their flags as they walked back to the city.

The next fun task was to find a taxi to go back to the hotel once I got back to Nivky on the metro; the guidebook said “In Kyiv any car is a possible taxi so just put your hand out and see if it is a taxi and whether they will go your way”. This is exactly what I did and the first couple of cars weren’t interested but I did find one who found his way to the hotel on the estate and charged me about £4.

I got the metro to Arsenalna and walked down to the War memorial and the eternal flame and the national famine memorial. At the same site were the Museum of the Great Patriotic War and the amazing metal statue on the top. This was put up after the war to celebrate the defeat of the fascists and celebrate Soviet brotherhood. It is facing Moscow so her backside is what the locals get to see and their nickname for her is ‘Tin Tits’. Her lift was out of order so I couldn’t get to the top but the view from the hills and down the river was great and the fresh air was bonus after the heat and fumes in the centre.

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The rest of my week in Kyiv followed the same pattern – battle the bus service to get to the metro, get lost on the metro to find the right station on the right line and try to find something fresh to eat. The same breakfast of chicken pancakes and chocolate biscuits was getting boring by day 4 so a chance to try some of the local snacks at the street stalls was too good to miss. Bags of mini pork dumplings and sausage twists and herb dough balls and garlic rolls were all very welcome. Very hot in the daytime too so the ice cream vans on every corner were a big hit.

Another day meant another trip to Arselna again which is so deep it has 4 sets of escalators to get up from the platforms and I walked down through the park to reach the large complex of medieval monasteries and golden-domed cathedrals at Pechersky Lavra. I didn’t fancy going underground to kiss the hands of an 200-year embalmed saint but I did sit and chat with some of the pilgrims who had come from Russia and didn’t know there was a football tournament on or what all the fuss was about. The grounds were a great place to get some peace and quiet though.

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Since the winters are so long and dangerously cold the bulk of the shopping and leisure activities are underground. I went to Place Lva Tolstoho for the Metrograd underground shopping centre and bought some souvenirs. The shops in here were mainly cleaner versions of the ones in the metro and sold more upmarket items like light bulbs, bits for vacuum cleaners, spares for electric razors and so on.

On Friday I walked down to the old town area called Podil where the merchants houses and courtyards and cobbled streets are all being renovated or rebuilt. A long walk up the Andiivsky uzviz (Andrew’s Descent) took me to St Andrew’s Church which had a fabulous view over the old port on the river to one side and then down to the eastern bank with hundreds of new apartment blocks. This was the place to go for all the Russian dolls and ex-army souvenirs and fur hats.

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The second game I went to was Sweden vs. England back at the Olympic Stadium and I walked back up to the city centre to see all the fans; there was a large contingent of riot police keeping an eye on them but there was no hint of trouble mainly because all of them were too drunk or more interested in meeting the local girls. The Ukraine vs France game was shown on the big screens but they kick-off was held up due a monster thunderstorm and then the same happened in Kyiv so I ran down to the stadium to get undercover. This time I was at the other end of the stadium and sat with a mix of Germans, Russians, Italians and locals who were all rooting for England. The man next to me had come on an overnight train from Budapest to see England play and was then going straight home again overnight so a round trip of about 40 hours.

The game was excellent and England won 3-2 with some fine goals and that meant I was a happy man amongst the 65,000 people flooding the city centre in the pouring rain. It must have been a lucky omen because I even managed to find a taxi driver at Beresteiska who knew where the hotel was and his car had a seatbelt for the passenger side.

I was up at 5am the next day to share a cab with some other England fans who were also going for the early flight from Borispol. When we get to the airport it was full of hundreds of England fans who had probably just slept there after the match and you could smell the beer from outside the doors. Safe to say there wasn’t a single person awake on the flight and we were safely back at Gatwick by 12