Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Touring Kiev

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890704.08

Day 5

We didn’t sleep much last night, in fact, we barely slept at all. Some of us were getting pissed out of their minds while the rest of us were yapping about life and sex (in general).

The Moscow area has completed my geography essay and a good chunk of my history essay. No Problem.

Presently, we are still on the train heading for Kiev. It’s a good ride, but a little bumpy.

We knew that we were getting into Kiev, but we weren’t sure exactly when. We were all back out in the hall, the coolest place in the car (the rooms were getting warmer with every passing moment), looking out the windows at the passing scenery. Then someone spotted a rather large metal object through a break in the trees. When the trees cleared again just before we went over a bridge, we all saw it. The statue was huge, over two hundred feet tall. If it weren’t for the fact that it was a dull silver, I think we would have mistaken it for the Statue of Liberty. But in lieu of a book, it held a shield and instead of a torch, it wielded a sword. There wasn’t a crown of any sort. Almost instantly, a dozen of us whipped back to our cabins, grabbed our cameras and whipped back into the halls to take a picture. But by then the trees had returned and the Statue was lost behind the foliage.

Soon, we found ourselves in Kiev. I already liked it better than Moscow, there were more trees. The fun began when the train stopped, mainly moving everything out of the cabins. This was just about as bad as when we first boarded, except that the platform outside was level with the car’s floor. Once outside, we grouped everything together and a whole troop of porters arrived to pick it all up and haul it over to our new bus. While we were waiting, Toni happened to spot a rather large group of soldiers and began to wilt. This should be explained..

While we were in Moscow, we saw several military vehicles pass us everyday. And in those vehicles were, of course, soldiers in full uniform. Every time one passed us, Toni became highly excited. She loved men in uniform. So obviously, we all went on soldier watch so we could point them out. So when Toni spotted all those young men in uniforms, in close proximity too I might add, she got a little hyper. Not nearly as bad as me during the night, but yes, a little ecstatic.

We boarded our bus which then took us to our new hotel, which was about five minutes away. This was our first real hotel, not some defunct cruise ship. It was kind of downtown, maybe a bit to the … oh let’s call it the north. Kiev was the only city that I didn’t know which way was north, without having known the orientation before I left Canada. The other cities we visited all had large bodies of water from which I could get a bearing. Kiev however, was a mystery to me. I had my suspicions, and I was usually right (and no compass either).

We arrived at our hotel and found out it was two to a room again. So Jason and I once again turned in our passports, grabbed our keys and hauled our crap to the eleventh floor. This is when we learned just how slow Soviet elevators are. If it weren’t for our luggage, I would have used the stairs. Due to the weight of the luggage, we waited the ten minutes. When we were going on day excursions though, we always used the stairs.

We were told to go to the restaurant for breakfast when we had stowed our gear in our rooms (which for Jason and I simply meant throwing the stuff in the door and leaving). When we finally found the restaurant, we nearly went into shock. Eggs, real eggs. They were served in a steel dish, fried sunny side up, two of them. They didn’t last for more than a minute at anyone’s table. If there was anything else I don’t remember. The fact that eggs showed up was enough to make me forget everything else.

KB then informed us that our tour would begin in about an hour. Jason and I went back up to our room to sort all our stuff out and take a shower, which we both needed. Our room was substantially larger than the one we had on the boat. It even had desks with drawers! But we weren’t going to be staying there that long.

Our room had quite a good view of the square that lay next to our hotel and the department store that was right in front of us. At the north end of the square stood buildings that bore signs that read 1941 and 1945. From other various windows around our floor, we could also see the train station that we had arrived at, numerous churches, etc, etc, etc.

The time for our tour came and we raced down the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. It turned out that several others were doing the same thing. We raced through the lobby and outside, where we were almost instantly nailed by locals who wanted to trade with us. We didn’t look too much like tourists, but we didn’t look enough like the Soviets (of course, being in a Soviet Hotel designated for foreigners was a bit of a giveaway).

Back on the bus, we took our seats near the back, as we always did. Then we moved out. Like I said before, Kiev has a lot of trees. For such a large city, you’d almost think you wouldn’t be able to see any. If Kiev hadn’t been in the Soviet Union, I’d move there without a second thought.

Kiev itself was a bit of a catch22. Although it was the best city that we saw in my opinion, it was so old that it was also filled full of things to remember. I kept kicking myself for not bringing my notepad to scribble a few of these things down on. Mr. Phillips brought a tape recorder to record everything our guides said. Now that was a good idea!

Our first stop was at the Kiev Summer Palace. We didn’t go in, but we got a lot of good pictures from it. We also took a quick stroll through the adjoining park, which had no less than a thousand different species of trees. If you’re already bored, it’s because you weren’t there! Before we boarded the bus again, a few of us got a drink from a vendor who sold beer and mineral water by the glass or by the bottle. A glass of mineral water was all I needed, even if it was a bit expensive.

Then we set back out in our tour of Kiev. We stopped a couple of times in the upper city to look at cathedrals and such. Almost all the students looked a little on the downtrodden side (I think Toni and Lisa P were on the verge of falling asleep on their feet a couple times). Some of us (pretty well all of those who were in cabin number five) took a quick romp down a road to the lower city to see what was there and to take a picture, courtesy of Lisa V. Then we went back for the bus.

We then had a brief bus tour that more or less forced us to stay on the bus so we would get back to the hotel in time for lunch. That was when we found the Mother of the Ukraine, the 300 foot tall stainless steel statue that we had seen earlier from the train. We toured the lower city for a while but then headed back to the hotel for further nourishment. Along the way we saw a funicular railway that ran between the upper and lower cities. We also spotted the subway that as in most large Soviet cities. Lunch followed the same pattern as it always did. Soup, beef and ice cream. But we didn’t tired of it, the cooks always did a good job at varying what we ate.

That afternoon will always remain a mystery to me. To this day I have no idea what happened. It’s a five hour blank in my memory. As far as I know, our group either toured the city or we had free time, in which we all got some sleep. Somehow, I think the latter is what did happen. I know this much from the chaperone’s looks. You know, the ones that say “I told you so!”

My memory picks up again around dinner. Yes, fish was there again. What can I say? It was expected by now. The vegetables were a bit unusual though. I don’t know if they can them over there or not, but Greg managed to find a perfect description for them … monkey’s balls.

After our rather uneventful dinner, we had a very interesting question period with some Soviet students. When we were first told about the meeting, we thought that our Soviet counterparts would be our age. Little did we realize that they were graduating university students! Our table consisted of Jason, Helen and Mina Suh, Mr. Phillips, myself and 24 year old Igor Shevtsov. This was an awesome opportunity. We asked every question that came to mind. We didn’t have to worry about some Soviet official hanging over our heads making sure we didn’t ask anything that would considered taboo. But there were a few things that we did forget about, such as Chernobyl.

We learned that despite all the promises of Communism, there were still some serious problems with the Soviet Union. For example, poverty was still quite a problem, and will probably get worse as Gorby’s reforms take effect. And despite the promise for jobs for everyone, unemployment was a little on the high side. Some people don’t even have homes.

We talked for almost two hours before the talks were ended with Toni and Pete making a presentation of a Canadian flag to the professor who had arranged for the talks. But instead of leaving, Jason and I brought Igor up to our room. Igor had told us that he had brought things to trade with us and we gladly accepted him on the offer. Our room quickly became a central trading room. It didn’t take us long to get going.

Helen and Mina traded for a couple of stacking dolls (if my memory serves me correctly), Mr. Phillips got a hold of a Raketa (the Soviet version of Timex) watch, I got my military watch not to mention an acid rain proof hat. Radar picked up the jacket that matched the hat. And just to show how much wear one of their watches can take, I had mine working for over three years, three dunkings and six drops from about six feet (accidental) before it gave out.

Jason on the other had, went crazy. I had a funny feeling that most of the stuff he brought he wanted to trade away. And he did so too. In under an hour, Jason had pretty well put everything of his up for grabs. But Igor only brought so much. Igor then suggested that we go to his apartment to continue with e trading. I was a bit apprehensive on that though. We were in a country that we honestly did not know a lot about. We were about to go to an apartment somewhere in the third largest city in the Soviet Union with a guy we barely knew. I didn’t voice this directly, but I did tell them that I wasn’t going.

That didn’t stop Jason, he was intent on trading everything he owned. So they left me to stare out the window as they vanished into the heart of Kiev. My excuse was fairly simple … I wanted to get some sleep as I was quite tired. I had made it up for an excuse, but about a half hour after they left, I was snoozing away.

The next thing I knew, I was being smacked on the head with a paper roll. I awoke to look right a Jason, whose arms were full of junk. I was on the verge of screaming at him, but before I could even open my mouth he was blabbing away.

They had gone to Igor’s place, where Jason met Igor’s sister and her kids. According to Jason, they had quite a time there. Jason had lived up to my prediction and traded away virtually everything he brought that was of some significant value. However, he also traded away his Walkman (which are as good as gold over there), an event that would later cause some problems.

To celebrate the historic event (yeah, right), Igor brought out to large bottles of Russian Champagne. While Igor and Jason shared a bottle, Igor’s sister drank the other by herself. Jason put as “she drank it as if it was water!” Even though Jason only got half, he was still a bit wasted. Call it a hunch, but Russian liquor is a bit stronger than most North Americans are used to.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

It turns out that Kiev is actually older, much older, than I had originally thought, about 1500 years old, which is rather impressive for a city that has a lot of technology and (the rest is illegible).Tonight, we had a meeting with the Kiev University students. I met with one student, Igor, who had just graduated from university. It was amazing just how much I learned from him. After a rather lengthy chat, we went back to our room where some intensive trading was done.

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