Kiev with two good friends
in Kiev, Ukraine on 29th April, 2011

My friend Richard met Alexandria over the Internet back in February. They both spoke Russian and seem to hit it off. Rich had been to Kiev twice and this was his third trip out there. I was planning a trip to Ukraine at some point but didn't know exactly when. Richard suggested I join him on this third trip of his.

We went during a four-day weekend flying out on the Friday. The plane seem to have a mixture of Ukrainians and western men on their own. I had a couple of occasions where I was mistaken for being able to speak in Russian during the flight.

We landed at Zhulyany airport outside Kiev. As our plane parked, I could see a soldier standing outside our aircraft guarding it. There were tractors which, normally used in farming, were driving around on the tarmac. We got off the plane and were ferried into a tent on the side of the runway. There our bags were driven up to with a tractor and dumped into a pile. There were people pushing one another to get their bags and to see if their's had been dumped down yet. Some people were grabbing their bags right off the tractor which itself had to make six trips just to get everyone's bag into the tent.

People crowded all around pushing themselves into a single door which led to a room where there was another crowd pushing themselves into another door. This then led to the passport control barriers. We stood in these crowds for two hours until we finally got to the border guard. I could occasionally see soldiers looking at us with cigarettes in their mouths; watching as if it were a normal, everyday sight. One passenger asked "What is going on? Why is this taking so long?" To which a woman in the crowd replied: "It is because this is Ukraine."

There were two faint signs on each of the two border control booths, one said it was for Ukrainians and the other was for foreigners. Some Foreigners used the local's booth while some Ukrainians traveling on British passports used the foreigner's booth. One Ukrainian woman with a British passport was arguing with the guard not to use the Ukrainian booth for a couple of minutes.

When I got to the border guard's booth I realised why this had all taken two hours: He had to hand-type in each and every detail of our passports in to a computer and he couldn't type to save his life. The system he used looked like it was running on MS-DOS. We said nothing to one another, he stamped my passport and I was through.

We came out of the airport and saw Alexandria. We caught a cab into town which cost us a grand total of £3. £1 each is probably a record for a airport taxi ride. Even in India it was more expensive than that.

We'd rented a ~100m2 flat next to the British Embassy in a lovely part of Kiev. It was very central to everywhere we wanted to see over the weekend. It was next to a government building which meant there were groups of soldiers walking around protecting the building all the time. I was never at ease walking past these men as I could feel them staring at me and breathing down my neck but at £50 a night between myself and Richard it wasn't bad at all.

We were on our way to a sushi restaurant when we stopped for some local cash. The ratio of Ukrainian money to the pound was about 13:1 which was close to 18:1 ratio that Estonia used to have. This means that when I took out £100 I ended up with proper stack of bank notes.

The sushi restaurant had a good number of people eating there. I was looking around at everyone at a lot. Even this early on I could tell there were a lot of pretty women in Kiev. To be honest, there are probably more pretty than ugly women in the centre of town. The menu was in Russian which gave me a chance to catch up on my language skills and ability to sound out Cyrillic. The only catch was that they named each of the dishes in their Japanese name but spelt them out using Cyrillic. The food itself was really well done, I was impressed.

Afterword we went to the "Buddha Bar". I'd been advised to avoid the place by a British ex-pat who'd lived in Kiev for a year. Inside, there was a bar and a restaurant. We had our coats hung up and we went upstairs to the bar.

There were 4-chair sofa sets scattered around which could be rented for £40 per person. There was also a giant Buddha standing over two stories tall. The atmosphere was dark with red lights and very sleek. The music suited the mood of the place. At the bar stood a lot of beautiful women. They would openly speak in English to any man who approached them. They were basically hookers who worked in the bar.

I saw one table where three Arab men sat with cigars, drinks, an iPad and some mobile phones. They were going through Escort adverts on the iPad and ringing girls up. They did this openly. The iPad was about 10x brighter than any light in the bar so you could see their screen from the other side of the building if you wanted to.

We ordered some cocktails. Every bar, restaurant, shop and kiosk in Kiev had service in Ukrainian and Russian but none I came across had any service in English. So within a day, I knew all the words I needed to to buy what I wanted. Ordering cocktails was funny as it's just "Muzhna (insert English phrase for cocktail) pazhalsta" and that's it, Russian lesson is over. The cocktails came in pints and I failed to have one I didn't like.

I brought along my camera equipment and snapped some shots of Alexandria and Richard. One shot of Alex (with a black background which you can see below) is one of the better portraits I've managed to get in such a dark environment.

At one point, a hooker, for lack of a better phrase, queued in front of me. Richard, Alexandria and I were in a bit of a circle looking at one another and this hooker was basically waiting for me to talk to her. I absolutely refuse to pay for girls as I'm 28-years-old, not 60 and women should still come for free (minus the price of cocktails). She was there for about ten minutes till an Englishman came along and kept her busy.

The streets of Kiev were quiet and safe at night. The only downside to walking around is that Kiev is very hilly.

The next day we set out walking around Kiev. We walked through a lot of lovely parks, past many beautiful buildings and Kiev's football stadium down to a large war memorial park. The weather was absolutely perfect for taking photos and there were a large number of interesting scenes and subjects to photograph. Being the easter weekend, we also stopped off in a Church to offer prayers.

I was surprised to see there is still a Lenin statue in Kiev. In most former occupied states of the Soviet Union the heads had been cut off and the bodies pulled down. If was surprised to see the statue, I wasn't surprised to see the three police officers guarding it.

At one stage we were walking down a street taking photos of the buildings which caught our eye. We pasted one and Alex told me it was the headquarters for Ukraine's equivalent of America's FBI. I took a photo of the entrance. On each of the corners of the buildings there were large round boxes covered in mirrors. The mirrors were in fact one-way glass and inside were soldiers which guarded the building. To liken the SBU to the FBI doesn't do justice to the scope of their work. They are more akin to a mixture of the CIA and the Secret Service.

Moments after I took a photo of the front of the building I could see a soldier marching towards me with a night stick in his hand. He came right at me with a look of anger in his eyes. He shouted at me in Russian to delete the photo. I pointed the back of my camera towards him, turned it on, loaded the photo and deleted it. He then backed down but he walked along side me as we were both heading in the direction of his booth. He looked at me like I tried to steal his wallet.

I was shaken for the next hour or so but fifteen minutes after the incident I returned to the building for another look. There I could see the same soldier shouting at a group of old women who photographed the front of the building as well.

Most restaurants had menus which were in Russian and I was getting used to reading them each day. One evening though, Alex wanted to take us to a nice Italian restaurant she knew of. The menus there were only in Ukrainian. Even Richard said he needed help going through them. The one saving grace was that most of the dishes were named as they were in Italian but with Cyrillic letters so it was possible to know what ~30% of the menu was describing.

After the meal we took a cable car up the hill and made our way to Freedom square. There we saw the Eurovision song contest tryouts for Ukraine. We walked up on structure where we could look out over the whole square with this concert going on. It was really beautiful and interesting to see.

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