Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Back in the USSR!

With my travels lately - both work and play - taking me over to New York a few times and Boston, as well as a weekend in Paris, and a few others it seemed only fair to make sure that the other side of the Iron Curtain received an equal measure of love.

Before I go into it though, I do have to point this out about Boston. It is considered the home of where America founded itself as a free nation. It's where they stood up against the English and said: 'we're our own people'. So it's good to see that the place they made the decision to express their national identity - Boston's Old Court - is now a steakhouse...

There actually is a Starbucks next door too.

There’s not a huge amount to say about Berlin accept how awesome it is. Still one of my favourite cities in Europe, last time I went there it was 3 degrees and with a girl, so in summer with 6 blokes, it's a little different experience this time around. And that’s what is so good about Berlin, it has such variety that the landmarks and tourist sights play second fiddle to the experiences and changing nature of the city. Every time you’re there somthing different is happening, and you’ll never do the same thing twice.

But Berlin is Eastern Bloc lite. On this little trip we were venturing in to the last Soviet bastian outside of Moscow, and what was essentially the poster boy for Communist States – the Ukraine.

Donners and I continued our tour through Eastern Europe, but this time decided that rather than go for the southern states of the old Bloc, we'd head to those that are still in semi-revolution! We should have realised the difficulty in travelling when we needed a visa to simply enter the coutry and had to keep our ‘papers’ on us at all times.

Flying in to Warsaw (Poland) we mucked about for a few hours before boarding a night train down to Krakow and then crossing the border at around 2am. Now, we thought by getting an overnight train we’d effectively be able to sleep over the crossing – not in the Soveit Bloc my friend. After being woken for three separate passport checks by loud banging on the door, we quickly realised that the conductor of the train had alerted the border guards, customs guards, shin guards and dental guards that we were the only foreigners on the train, and weren't they happy to triple check why we were going in to their country.

Evertually we were left to rest, but given the alphabet is in Cyrillic, we had no fucking idea where we were when the train stopped. Now travelling through areas that use the Arabic lettering that we use in English you can kind of recognise a place by the word. This is very difficult when you know where you are going is spelt Lviv, but in Ukrainian it is 0yUvLI.

After we were thrown off the train and shouted out for staying too long, we wandered aimlessly looking for a sign that we were in Lviv. Half an hour later we took a guess and made our way donw the dustry road in to town. This is when we discovered that no-one, and I really do mean no-one, speaks English in the Ukraine. We were lucky enough to stumble across a bloke at the hostel who was studying law (because he wants to life his country out of corruption – swear to God), who helped us out. He also took us shooting and informed us that he was the third best arm wrestler in his weight division. Random, but true.

A night and day spent in Lviv and we got back on board the night train down to Odessa, the Black Sea port which houses the Russian Baltic Fleet. Now Odessa was made famous by the Potemkin Steps. You may not know your Russian Revolution history, but the Potemkin Steps was a movie made just after the Bolsheviks over threw the Tsar, which showed Russian sailors of the Battleship Potemkin mutinying after Tsarist soldiers massacre hundreds of people on the steps leading to the port – the Potemkin Steps.

Thank you, steps

Odessa – like the study sessions – was great. Beach, sun, clean; even the train ride down was good. We opted for the first class cabin and were pretty proud of our new found Ukrainian language skills:

Added to this, the owner of our hostel was a Polish girl who had only recently opened it and was pretty frustrated that there were not really any people that came to Odessa to take advantage, she showed us the sites, night life and beach life that makes the seaside city so good. It only took a day for us to abandon our plans to go to Crimea and spend a few extra in Odessa, before the bus ride through the middle of Ukraine to its capital Kiev.

And wasn’t that a mission! A bunch of Ukranian blokes standing around a few mini vans shouting put the names of places. So siddling up to what we thought was certain kidnapping and death, we were bundled in and the four-hour drive north to the capital commenced.

After being dropped of at Kiev bus station (a car park) in the middle of the night, we should have realised what the city had in store for us when the cab driver tried to charge us $100USD each, despite the cost being only about £4. An interesting conversation occurred, but in the end Donners and I managed to give him £8. He wasn’t happy, either were we, but the adventure continued.

How? Well.....I’ll wrap up quick because i’m sure you’re bored of reading by about now, but after walking through the park and having a drunk following me making stabbing motions, I decided to go and stand next to some police officers. The guy laughed. I didn’t feel too safe in the city. And the I realised why. Heading back to the hostel a cop – acting on someone dropping money – accused us of stealing it, took our wallets, emptied them, and walked off. Wow – welcome to the USSR!!!