Tuesday, 28th August/Friday, 31st August 2018 – Kyiv, Chernihiv, Ukraine
For work I found myself this week in a country I’ve never been to before (though there is family history, and not happy family history with the country). I wasn’t going to let that trouble me mind, or at least I didn’t want to let it get in my way or prejudice me in dealing with the place, especially as I’ll be going back again in two and a half weeks. I did do some research ahead of the trip of course, digging around for guidebooks (I could only fine two, one of them a Lonely Planet specimen updated at the start of 2018, and a 30 page PDF from In Your Pocket). Anyway, I knew it was one of Europe’s largest countries by area, obviously that it’s in the grip of a war with Russia (but not, thankfully, in the part we were headed for) and that the language is hard to get to grips with for those of us who are used to western scripts and alphabets.
Anyway, we flew out as a large group on Tuesday morning, getting a “stupid o’clock” start in my case with an 05:00 alarm call and a need to be in the car by 05:20 to drive to Heathrow. On arrival at the other end at one of Kiev’s two airports (in this instance Boryspil) we were rounded up – after a certain amount of milling around – and decanted into a coach to be driven to our destination, a resort hotel near to Chernihiv, around 170km north of Kyiv.
First impressions were that the roads are pretty poor out there, with very deep ruts in the Tarmac, and a fine collection of potholes. The bus driver took the approach as we trundled along the long straight road north of choosing whichever lane was less rutted and sitting in that. No one seemed to troubled and cars overtook on whichever side they liked. I wasn’t too disturbed by that though the driver’s tendency to use his mobile while driving was a little more worrying. We got there in one piece though!
Aside from that, having snagged a front seat, I was able to look out of the windows and watch the country slide by. Among the first things that was very noticeable was that this is sunflower growing country. The soil is very sandy, and for as far as the eye could see on either side of the road, there were sunflowers by the million. It came as no surprise afterwards to discover that Ukraine is the world’s largest producer of sunflower seeds (at around 25% of total production in the world), and not far behind in terms of the amount of sunflower oil they produce. They did seem to be absolutely everywhere. I think I only saw one field that wasn’t entirely given over to them, and that was a field of maize.
What else? Well, fences/walls are very much a thing. As we progressed along the road through many tiny villages, pretty much every house, no matter how ramshackle, or how well cared for, no matter how small, or how large, was walled in, often with a series of preformed cement panels, some patterned, some plain, many of them really not very attractive at all, but all solidly there, this being one of the better looking efforts. I’m not sure what this is about, and whether it’s a case of post-Communism “this belongs to me!” or something entirely different, but it intrigued me.
Here are a couple of other examples (please forgive the blurriness – it’s not easy getting a clear shot from the side window of a moving bus on a badly rutted road):
The other thing that was apparent early on was that in addition to many tiny supermarkets (супермаркет) along the way, pretty much anyone with any spare produce was selling it by the roadside, starting with a van parked up on a corner near the airport selling vast watermelons, to little old ladies on folding chairs, with buckets of plums, apples, tomatoes or any other spare fruit. I failed to get a clear picture, but there were surprising amounts of these. Also, anyone who wanted to buy would just stop on the side of the road, and – if necessary – run across 4 lanes of fast moving vehicles to get to them. Health and Safety has clearly not made it to Ukraine yet. Much the same applied with the multitude of coffee stops in tiny cafes (кафе). It was slightly alarming to us wussy westerners.
I should say there were also a lot of bus stops. On the way out I’d thought they looked somewhat neglected. Four days later as we headed back to the airport it seemed so did whoever was responsible for their upkeep, because most of them had been repainted, or were in the process of being done. The locals seem to have an optimistic if haphazard approach to catching a bus, and that is to stand wherever is suitably, not necessarily at any of the stops, and wave at any approaching bus. That included ours, with one elderly lady looking extremely cross when it became apparent that our driver was not about to stop!
We did see a lot of chickens and other fowl, including geese and ducks, pecking away at whatever they could find by the roadside. I did watch one venture slightly too close and get blown backwards in the down draft from a truck, it’s feathers demonstrating the airflow all too clearly. Presumably the prehistoric idiot won’t do that again for a while. Another near miss was between our bus and cyclist who had loaded carrier bags onto just about any horizontal part of the bike that was available, and who was wobbling her overloaded way down the road, one hand on the handlebars, the other operating her mobile phone!
Also much in evidence, though I didn’t in the end manage to get a decent shot, were storks’ nests at the top of numerous lampposts. Closer inspection revealed that they were built on man-made frames, deliberately put there. I didn’t see any of the birds, but some of the nests were massive. As it turns out, there is no surprise to the presence of these frames. Apparently “according to Ukrainian and other European folk belief the stork possesses magical powers to protect and help humans. A family with a stork’s nest on its farm will live in peace, prosperity, and good health. A village with many storks can count on a bountiful harvest. The bird is believed to be capable of predicting the weather: restless behaviour indicates the approach of bad weather, standing on one leg, cold weather, and clacking of the beak, a sunny day. In folk tales and legends, the stork always plays the role of a helper of humans.”
Interestingly, there seemed to be wells in several places we passed through, often with fancy canopies over them. Every guide book I’d looked at suggested that it was not a good idea to drink the tap water in Ukraine, but only one of them said that water from the wells would be fine, alongside the widely available option of bottled water (of which I got through prodigious quantities in my time in the country).