Ukraine: As Close To Sneaky Russia As You Need
We made it to Ukraine. After our rental car debacle in Poland, the only way to get from Warsaw to Kiev in time to make our flight home/see any of Ukraine at all was to take a direct flight. The flight itself was only an hour long, which had originally led us to believe that there must be a train or bus or something that could get us between the cities in a reasonable amount of time, but that was before we learned about the Eastern European transit system: apparently, the train or bus equivalent to the hour-long plane ride takes 17 hours.
The upside of flying to Ukraine was that it gave us more time in Kiev before we fly back to America tomorrow. The downside was that it meant our first impression of the town was the Kiev airport. In a shockingly huge town of 3.5 million people, Kiev's airport is about the most shockingly gangster airport I've ever been to, and I've flown into Zimbabwe. The airport is tiny - I guess nobody ever leaves Ukraine - and everywhere there are mobs of people, mobs of Ukranian guys trying to get money out of these people, and tons and tons of signs for "girls for hire" and "escort/wedding services." Ukraine truly is the mail order bride capital of the world.
Having immediately gotten the impression that Ukraine is the kind of place where you watch your bags, we decided not to talk to anybody unless they clearly worked at the airport. I approached the Information Desk lady, who, since she spoke no English, beckoned for the help of a nearby bearded guy, who introduced himself as Sergei. Assuming he was another airport employee, we took Sergei's recommendation that we should head to Old Town Kiev and rent an apartment for the night, since it was cheaper than getting a hotel.
"OK," I said. "Thanks. So now how do we get a taxi to Old Town?"
"I am taxi," Sergei replied. "I take you."
Our guidebook had told us that "In Kiev, every car is a potential taxi. If you don't believe us, just raise your hand on any street corner." This was proving truer than we'd expected. But Mark had sworn not to get into any taxi that didn't have a meter, and surely we would be safe with Sergei, who clearly worked at the airport. Right?
"Hey, your cab has a meter, right?" asked Mark.
"Of course," replied Sergei. I give you good price."
We got into Sergie's car, and ordinary 95 Toyota Camry that clearly had no meter. "I take you to Old Town. On the way, I call for your apartment."
Mark and I looked at each other, shrugged, and got into the back seat. As long as we were doing Kiev, we might as well do Kiev.
The apartment Sergei found for us required us waiting behind a building near a dumpster for 20 minutes waiting for the "housekeeper" to show up. When he did (a short, gregarious fellow named Alex), he showed us to the entrance.
If you're going to do Kiev, do Kiev 100%.
Below is our apartment. That porch in the back right is where the rats were running around. We decided that we just wouldn't open that door.
Now I know what it feels like to be a lower middle class Russian family.
We stole a couple shot glasses from the apartment for souvenirs and headed out to take part in the Ukranian national pastime: drinking beers outside. Everywhere are these little outdoor shops where you can buy beer and then just drink it wherever you like - on the sidewalk, in parks, walking around, wherever. The whole town is like one gigantic beer garden.
Our method for buying beer, since language was even more of an obstacle than anywhere else (Ukranian uses the Russian character set, so we couldn't even try to sound out words), was simply to point randomly at the wall of beers in the shop, and whichever one the cashier lady held up, we'd buy. Not that we could tell the difference anyway - after all, we're just stupid meathead Americans, in Europe.
Kiev turned out to be a pretty classy city, after all - once you get out of the airport and your gangster-ass Ukrainian apartment. The club we found was maybe the nicest we'd been to yet, aside from my having to bribe the Lost & Found guy twenty American dollars to get my camera back at the end of the night. Perhaps best of all, ending the trip in Ukraine gave me the taste of Russia we'd been going for with this whole trip in the first place - after all, until 1991, Ukraine was Russia. The language is basically the same, the architecture is similar, and Ukraine has the same tendency to try to connive you out of your cab and apartment money, and make you buy a mail order bride. Sneaky fuckin' Ukranians.
Perhaps we didn't need to actually enter Russia after all, to get the taste we were looking for. In Mother Russia, Russia enters you.
Wait, I don't like how that sounded.