Tag Archives: Ukraine

The Russian Empire – a bite of Evil?

In the Western public opinion, Russia is mostly associated with the Soviet threat, Tzar extravaganza, crazy Russians, vodka, ballet and dancing bears. The core of the former Russian (and later, Soviet) Empire is comprised of Russia itself, along with Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Covering roughly half of Europe, these countries are separated by many issues but are unified by centuries of common history, Eastern Orthodoxy and the use of Cyrillic script.

  • Why go there?
    Westerners tend to approach these parts with caution. Mr. Putin’s escapades only heighten the tension – at times, re-creating the myth of the Crazy Russians seems to be his life’s quest. But at the same time, the myths fuel the interest for the shattered Evil Empire. Just think of actually visiting the missile base that was set to blast away your hometown just 25 years ago!
  • What’s it best for?
    To be dwarfed. By churches, subway stations, Soviet monuments and art, and just about everything else you see. If you like it big – this is the place for you.
  • When is the best time to go?
    Its a land of extremes – the summers are Hot and the winters are Cold. September’s Indian Summer, known locally as Babye Leto (Old Ladies’ Summer), often offers pleasant weather and fewer crowds.
  • How to get around?
    All the major cities are well connected by night trains, which offer the traveller plenty of opportunity to rub shoulders (quite literally) with the locals. Try to book in advance, especially in the summer months.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    Language barrier. All signs are in Cyrillic script and hardly anyone speaks English. Find a local to guide you, learn basic Russian and be prepared to use a lot of mimics and gestures.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Go to Kiev. It’s called the Mother of Russian Cities for a good reason. Kiev offers all Moscow or St. Petersburg have to offer at a much lower price tag. Plus its conveniently located, being only one train night away from the other capitals – Moscow, Minsk and Kishinev, as well as the Black Sea.


Filed under Europe, Europe by region, Travel

Going to The Doctor

One of the nicest things about getting a round-the-world ticket is that it gives you the chance to get to places you’d normally not be visiting. Granted, I visit Israel quite often, my family living there and all, but it was not a part of our original travel plan. However, the bizarro world of Round-The-World tickets came into play once again. Here’s how it worked (take a deep breath and try to stay with me): first we (well, I) wanted to drop by Novosibirsk, where I was born and raised. Since Novosibirsk is not really a world-class hub, getting in and out was a bit tricky. So we swapped it for Ukraine, enjoying excellent fruit, sunny beaches and Chernobyl.

Nothing amusing about the amusement park in Chernobyl

From Ukraine the next stop was supposed to be India, but there were no direct flights available. Given the choice of flying via Helsinki or Amman, we’ve opted for a Amman,  so we could do a side-trip to Petra, as long as we’re at it. Added bonus of flying with Royal Jordanian – one of the channels of the in-flight entertainment system was reading sutras from the Koran. Quite meditative and relaxing, even though I didn’t understand a word.

Amman is where things get complicated. According to the rules of round-the-world tickets, you’re allowed 2 stops on the continent where you’ve started, ours being Europe. However, the airlines count the Middle East as a part of Europe, so Amman was supposed to be our second and final stop in “Europe”. But a stop of less than 24 hours doesn’t count as a stop, and since we’ve had a few more miles in our ticket allowance, we were able to catch a connecting flight from Amman to Tel Aviv. To make things more complicated – flying back to Amman would violate the rules since it would add an extra stop. Fortunately, we weren’t planning to fly anyway as we’ve crossed the land border between Israel and Jordan from Eilat. Apparently, a land “segment” is not counted as a stopover, so we were all set. To summarize it all – we were able to drop by in Jordan as and Israel without paying more than the airport taxes. Nice!

Tel Aviv – the world capital of chill

And then we were in Tel Aviv. This is where The Doctor comes in. Not the doctor as in a physiologist, but The Doctor. Every time I’m in Israel I have a sort of “mandatory program” and “free exercise”, just like the Olympic gymnasts. There are some things I do every time I’m around, like seeing friends and family and going to the Western Wall, and there’s the other stuff, like going to the Dead Sea, which I do occasionally. Visiting The Doctor is definitely part of the “mandatory program”. You see, The Doctor is Dr. Saadya, the best falafel place in Tel Aviv and a spot I cannot praise enough. Back in the old days, I spent a very enjoyable half a year working there. Now, going for a falafel at Dr. Saadya not only provides me with an excellent meal, be it breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack (yes, I can eat falafel on every occasion, at least, if its The Doctor’s). It also reminds me of the time spent doing one the most enjoyable jobs I’ve had. I mean, who else knows a falafel joint that plays The Smiths, or The Sex Pistols on a regular basis? And the falafel is really, really good. So working there provided me with an instant reward of seeing hungry, anxious  people coming in and thanks to me (and, of course, The Doctor) becoming well fed and happy people. Sometimes going to see a doctor is a good thing. Provided its the right doctor, that is. So if you’re in Tel Aviv – go see The Doctor, at number 45 King George street. Tell Avi or Yehuda, whichever Doctor is on duty, that Michael says hi. And do yourself a favour – have a falafel. Instant satisfaction guaranteed.

The Doctor’s hands are working the falafel magic

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Filed under Europe, Round-the-world trip, Travel

At Lyudmila Mikhailovna’s place in Ukraine – just another small European country

An hour on the tube. 2 hours at the airport. 3 hours flight. An hour of formalities. An hour on the bus. 3 hours waiting for the train. 14 hours on the train. 3 hours on the trolleybus. Finally, we’re in Yalta. As we disembark, we are mobbed by a dozen women. “Very cheap, very nice, come with me!” they shout. I wait until the first assault has subsided and address the calmest of them, the one standing in the back. After a brief negotiation of the terms, Lyudmila Mikhailovna (that’s her name) takes us to her place. She kindly pays the bus fare of 1 hryvna (0.10 Euro).

At the highest level of the highest tower lives Lyudmila Mikhailovna

She lives on the highest spot in Yalta and the apartment is on the highest floor. We rent a room for a week. Our residence is Lyudmila Mikhailovna’s living room, where a sleeping couch is already unfolded. She shares the 3-room apartment with her daughter and grandson. In the best of Russian traditions, the husbands are nowhere to be found. Lyudmila Mikhailovna’s late husband’s picture is on the cabinet next to our sleeping couch. He used to be an officer in the Soviet Navy. Apparently he has won the ultimate prize of last stationing before retirement in Crimea, where the sea is warm, where there’s no snow and where the fruit is cheap. We never hear of the father of her grandson.

Lyudmila Mikhailovna likes going to the beach

Lyudmila Mikhailovna knocks on our door. She apologises a thousand times, but she would like to have our passports. Not that she doesn’t trust us, but she’s had an unpleasant experience before. Rich guys, from Russia. Stayed for weeks. Big cars, big wallets, shameless enough to run away from an old women without paying rent. How can one be difficult about handing over a passport after a story like this, and who cares whether its true? Renting the living room must be a welcome supplement to the household income. Lyudmila Mikhailovna’s pension is probably the main cash flow, since we never see her daughter go to work. While the room is rented, Lyudmila Mikhailovna sleeps on the closed balcony, next to the stored potatoes and onions. She doesn’t seem to mind though, as the balcony is the coolest place in the warm summer nights of Yalta.

The city market is Lyudmila Mikhailovna hunting ground

Every now and then we run into Lyudmila Mikhailovna in the city, on the way to or from the market. Yalta is a small place. Once we return to the apartment to find her worried. It is unusual – she is never worried about anything except earthquakes. Have we seen her earlier with or without a handbag? We don’t know. She refuses to go into details. Not important, she says. She’s been stupid, she says. Too embarrassing to speak of, she says. We let it be. In the evening Lyudmila Mikhailovna comes to us to confess. She went to the market with her false teeth in the handbag and forgot the handbag at one of the market stalls. “I’m such a silly old duck”, complains Lyudmila Mikhailovna. She’s still good humoured enough to see the funny side of it though. “Devil knows why I had to put those teeth in the handbag”, as she puts it so subtly.

We part as best of friends, and Lyudmila Mikhailovna makes us promise to come again. That’s one promise I will be happy to keep some day, hopefully soon enough.


Filed under Round-the-world trip, Small European things, Travel