Cultured Kiev and Lovely Lviv
Now in the third section of our Silk Road journey, the European segment, we have been nearly two weeks in Russia and Ukraine, both part of the old USSR till 1991. We have travelled westward from Astrakhan to Volgograd, to Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine, and then slightly north to Kiev and Lviv.
The landscape all the way has been fairly similar – beautiful green rolling steppe, partly wooded and leafy with the fresh bright emerald of spring. Fields, some of them very large as far as the eye can see, are planted in wheat, rye, potatoes, canola and various other crops. Other fields are still brown, ploughed up and waiting for the planting of more crops. Small plots of vegetables surround villages of shuttered cottages with grey asbestos roofs. The occasional onion shaped dome or tall steeple rises above the urban horizon, indicating an Orthodox church.
The beauty of the country side contrasts sharply with the ugliness of some of the man-made landscape. Until Kiev, ugly yellow water pipes have followed us above ground, over hills and valleys. In fact, they have been with us since we entered Central Asia, a mark of the former Soviet regime. Towns usually contain many large austere blocks of apartments, very dilapidated and in need of a makeover, on the outside, at least. Many towns in the east have towering heaps of slag and rubble, indicating the presence of coal mining or similar activities, and also industrial plant derelicts, closed and no longer in operation. In some cases these cover large acreages of land, now unsightly and unproductive. For all that, Ukraine is a most pleasant and attractive country, with the sun shining every day. (In fact we have hardly had a day’s rain since south China!)
Ukraine is one of those countries you know virtually nothing about until you actually visit it. One of the stories among travellers is the random and frequent nature of police stops and ‘charges’, as in Central Asia and Russia. Our experience all the way has not been too bad, but there is always the little fear that you may be stopped and accused of something trumped up, as Maurice was in Russia. Several days ago between Kiev and Lviv, Martin, driving the lead car, was stopped twice. But it was not capriciously or randomly done (though we suspect those driving big black cars are not flagged down). He exceeded the speed limit both times, recorded on radar, and both times he was let off the fine, though the second time it was by the skin of his teeth, I think.
The second time, Martin got a Ukraine road code and worked out something of their system. There are often no speed limit signs giving actual figures, like 90, but there are town or village signs. We realized that if the town/village sign is in blue, the speed is 90 and if it is in white, then the limit is 60. Now the village may be only 500 metres long and the road may be lined with barriers except for the bit where the police car sits, but you still have to obey the speed limit. So we have learnt a few things about Ukraine road signage. Martin takes it in his stride; I am the one who gets up tight!
Kiev and Lviv are most interesting cities for the visitor. They have a very European, cultured feel about them, which did surprise us – not quite sure what we expected, as we have been quite ignorant till recently about this country. Kiev, the capital, has a wonderful main street, vul Khreshchatyk, which becomes a pedestrian-only thoroughfare on Sundays. We wandered up and down in the crowds, laptops over shoulders, viewing the entertainment in the late afternoon and had dinner in a restaurant with free internet – chosen specifically for that purpose, as our hotels recently had not supplied connections. When you are away, messages to and from home become treasured communications.
Kiev has a wealth of churches with wonderful domes and steeples that managed to survive the Stalin years and World War 2. There is an area called the Caves Monasteries or Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, full of churches and museums and monks’ bodies wrapped in shrouds in narrow dark underground corridors. After being in Moslem environments for so long, interesting as they are, it is good to be in Christian surroundings, though they are very different from our non-conformist practice. It is the same Lord who is worshipped in spite of all the trimmings. In the centre of the old town stands St Sophia Cathedral built in the 10th and 11th century in a similar style to Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which we have visited several times. It’s a world that is so old and makes us feel that NZ is comparatively so young.
Lviv is the loveliest of Ukraine cities, a Unesco World Heritage site because of its well preserved mediaeval centre. Until 1939 it was part of Poland and then became incorporated in the USSR till independence in 1991. The history of Ukraine is one of division among the surrounding powers of Russia, Poland, and Austria/ Hungary; even Turkey tried to take over at one stage. Independence today is still a new experience after former nationhood centuries ago. Sorry for the very potted history!
Our touring of the old city of Lviv was aided by the services of a university professor who offered himself as a guide ($25US for 2 ½ hours) soon after we stepped out of our taxi. He had excellent English and a great knowledge of his city and its history, so it was money well spent. He took us around the Middle Ages city - into churches, back alleys, hidden-away cafes, the former Armenian district, the old Jewish quarter, till most of the Jews disappeared under the Nazis. Like most guides, he gave us more information than we could retain, but it was most interesting and worthwhile. In the afternoon we retraced our steps to several of the cafes he had pointed out and whiled away the hot afternoon with coffee and drinks.
Such is the life of a tourist! (Actually, it’s often quite hard work.) Thank you to those who have sent birthday greetings to us both.
Don’t forget the other version of our trip – www.wheelspin.travellerspoint.com