|I was slightly worried on the train from Chisinau to Kiev. The reason? In the East of Moldova is a small semi-independent state called Transdniestr formed after a civil war in the region in the early nineties when part of the country decided they like to carry on the tradition of Russian communism and disagreed with the Romanian looking Moldovan government. No country recognises this place as independent, yet it has its own border guards, currency, laws ect. As no country recognises it there are no embassies so it is impossible to get a visa! Naturally most of the trains from Chisinau to Kiev go through Transdniestr and then you have to haggle with them in Russian as to how much your "visa" will cost in the early hours of the morning. I had a vision of been chucked off the train at the border of a country that does not really exist in the middle of the night with nobody in the area able to speak English.
I was therefore very relieved when after the Moldovan border guards the Ukrainian border guards came aboard and just asked me the usual questions about if I had any guns or drugs. Then however they wanted to know where I had been and where I was going, however this time there was no-one around to translate. (On the plus side though she was very good looking and wearing a nice little uniform.) After she had made some flapping motions to ask me where I had flown from I ended up getting my lonely planet book and pointing to the various countries I had been too, which took some time. I thought it best not to try and explain I was going around the world however as otherwise I would probably still be at the border now!
When I arrived in Kiev I realised that although I had learned a few Russian words, I had not learned the Crilic alphabet. Naturally the printout of the metro stations I had to go to and the address of the hostel was all in the latin alphabet, so it took a considerable amount of guesswork to figure out which metros to get. Also none of the cashpoints at the station accepted my bank card and I spent about half an hour just trying to find the metro station itself! Kiev did not get off to a very good start.
After I found the hostel eventually things got better. I was due to stay in Kiev for four days and spent every day wandering round Kiev in the daytime and drinking with the people from the hostel in the evening. There was no common room in the hostel and there were only about 10 people staying there anyway so most nights were quite quiet. I did meet an Irish guy called James who I had last seen in Brasov in Romania however; he just happened to be staying at the same hostel as me in Kiev. We did end up in an underground jazz club one night (there were no signs for it - just a door in a wall in a courtyard) and that was really good. On the same night we also went to a dodgy local club that bizarrely had various pieces of fruit hanging from strings around the club and some women that were almost certainly prostitutes getting it on with older men. It was all quite entertaining. In the same club I noticed they had a food menu and being slighty drunk and very hungry (I could not find any kebab places in Kiev) I ordered some steak and chips at 2am and it was one of the best meals I have eaten for ages and it was only a fiver! You would never get that in a club in England or Ireland.
The sights of Kiev seem to primarily consist of churches and monasteries. There is a massive monastery on the hill overlooking the river, old town and communist nightmare that is Eastern Kiev (a skyline of solid concrete). It was really impressive and there were some man made caves where the monks' coffins had been placed into the wall. It was slightly errie down there as I was the only tourist in this dark, narrow passage and everyone else was praying locals with candles who were kissing the lids of the coffins and icons on the wall. There was somehing very intense about the caves and I was glad to get back to the surface again.
In Kiev there is possibly the most impressive church I have ever seen. From the outside it has the stereotypical Russian ornate gold and blue appearance and inside are loads of frescos from the 11th century. The entire church is covered in these amazing frescos and it really feels like you have just walked back 900 years when you enter. At another church on my last day it was wedding central with four wedding parties all hanging round the same church at the same time. After spending 10 minutes trying not to get into the background of any of the wedding photos I gave up and decided to buy some souveniers.
Kiev overall struck me as a cross between London and Eastern Europe. The metro system was constantly crowded with people and even though the metro came every two minutes it was so full I never once got a seat. Everyone on it had that busy intensity that I had last seen in London and overhead plasma screens showed MTV alongside communist architecture. When you spoke to people on an individual basis though most people were very friendly. There were also plasma screens on the trains themselves and although the lights went out for a couple of seconds when approaching a stop the screens remained on. There are also large underground shopping centres in Kiev, in some places there seems to be more going on below ground then above it. Then there was the obvious sex tourism. I bought a tourist map of the city and it was covered in adds for marriage agencies, strip clubs, escort agencies, ect. It was quite different to any of the cities I had been to so far.
The main reason I had booked to stay in Kiev for so long was because I was origianlly planning on going to Belarus. After the encounter with the border guards of Moldova and Ukraine I realised that although those people had been friendly and patient, I could quite easily have been unlucky and got someone who was not and just thrown me off the train. The border guards for Belarus are not known for their friendliness, my Russian is rubbish, the visas are expensive and difficiult to get and by all accounts there is nothing of real interest in Minsk anyway. It seemed logical therfore to go to Lviv in the west of the Ukraine instead and then from there go to Warsaw and then to Vilinus in Lithuania. So that is where I am off to next! Unfortunately though the hostels have now closed for the year in Lviv so I shall have to stay in some cheap hotel somewhere and find a bar where I can annoy the locals...