Sunday, 15 June 2008

UKRAINE (march 08)

...This is a journal and photographs from an interesting week in Ukraine with my partner in crime Doug.

Day 1)

4am start and straight to Stanstead, all goes smoothly and I’m learning how to deal with the monster snowboard bag. The green and brown plaid stands out in Rzeszow, Poland, where it’s raining and pretty grey. The airports a small tin can with just our plane on the strip. We jump on a bus to the railway station and after the fuss of exchanging some pounds for Zloty we discover that a ticket can be paid for with the gold certainty of a 1£ coin.

At the station the ticket seller looks like a left-behind communist dominatrix, all starched military tunic, severe expression and red washed hair. She declares our intended train to be fictitious and suggests going to Przensyl instead which is closer to the border and is pronounced almost exactly like Rzeszow. It’s a little confusing but with our fingers crossed the train sets off. Luckily there’s an old German backpacker on the train who’s also going across the border to Lviv and confirms it’s the right train. He wants to see the town of Przensyl, says it might be interesting then looks at his wikipedia print out and concludes ‘no nothing to see’ hmm. Quote of the day, ‘I’ve got bread’. Doug keeps repeating this mantra when we realise we haven’t had any breakfast. True he does have some bread, the end of a wholemeal roll. I win though having wisely purchased a monster banana at Stanstead, ha!

We arrive at Przensyl and go figure there’s another extremely unhelpful ticket vendor who just refuses to sell us a ticket. He writes down number 4 so we go to window four and she just pulls down the shutter. This is looking tricky! We have an inkling that perhaps we should just go to platform 4 and are pretty annoyed that the train is apparently leaving in 8hours time. We look for different options, the pasty looking guy saying he’ll drive us across the border (and not rob us) doesn’t seem like a good choice. Luckily after brushing him off the very first bus driver we ask, to our and his surprise is actually the once daily Lviv bus. He’s in a rush to go and shouts at Doug to stop faffing about and get on board. We’re super happy, the only people on this big, old and rickety bus bumping along to the border.

First sign that we’re close to the border is a line of 100s of trucks all lined up in a queue. The one that stands out is a shiny TNT delivery van stranded amongst cattle trailers, broke down caravans and containers of scrap metal. They seem to be searching one truck every 30mins, the drivers look aware they’re fucked and in for a long wait. At this point a guy jumps on the bus and begs for a lift, after a long debate with the driver he slinks to the back only to get stern lectures from both the Polish and Ukrainian authorities. More on their welcoming nature in a bit. The driver has a mystery assistant who suddenly appears and helps by lifting barriers and guiding us through short cuts. We’re the only bus and speed through until we reach the Ukrainian section.

The border police come on board, give us some suspicious looks, especially Doug who they seem confused by. We’re asked to fill out forms, which would appear easy enough but between us we fail to write down the answers they want. Cue four burly guys in bearskin hats and one lady all shouting at Doug and then me in turn, they make us write journey type as ‘Private’ and the coach registration number down in the section that says departing flight number. Once that’s done we’re taken off the bus and two guys are going through my shit. Everything looks funny to them, especially the sun block and the fact we’ve got snowboards. The one who speaks English helpfully explains that there’s no snow at all in the Ukraine, or sun for that matter. Well hooray, that just negates the reason we came anyway. It’s a pretty nerve racking experience but it quickly becomes clear they just want to have a cheeky gander at our stuff. So my helmet gets a few knocks to check it’s construction, they sniff my face cream etc. And after all that we’re waved off, it’s a big relief! After two hours we’re in Lviv, 5 hours ahead of schedule.

There’s a cool sounding restaurant in the guide book, a beacon of Ukrainian independence that is decorated with items that pre-date Russian rule of the country. After our banana and bread diet and 24 hours of travelling we’re hungry! The walk to the restaurant gives a good view of the city centre, it survived the Nazis and Stalin pretty intact and has lots of beautiful Italian designed buildings. Would be nice to have some more time to explore it. The food is so tasty, we have 4 courses, beer and vodka all accompanied by the singing of drunken businessmen and the bill comes to £10. Back at the hotel have a pepper vodka night cap, which does what it says on the tin and is unsurprisingly very peppery.

Day 2) (Scooby Doo!)

Slept like a big ol’ sleepy log and tucked into a bottomless bowl of porrige with raisins, toast and cheese and gritty coffee. Oleg our driver for the trip up to the mountains came at 8am, I was expecting a burly buzz cut sporting monster and was disappointed. Oleg is a polite, slightly frail looking and nicely bequiffed young man. After his radio died we played my ipod through the car stereo, listening to QOTSA, Bo Diddley and MGMT on the drive into the back country. 4hours across open prairie interspersed with small towns, golden church spires and the occasional traffic police. The landscape is made up of wide undulating hills, dark soil, mossy grass and thick forests. Most of the people we saw were old, wrapped up in warm, dark clothing on their way to church. The road is bumpy, snaking into the distance, the bright sun reflecting on pools of water turning it into a shimmering sliver of water or molten lead. Every so often there’s a flurry of snow but there’s nothing on the ground so with the border soldiers words well remembered the debate in the car is whether there will be any snow on mount Stog.

We get to Yasinya, the last village before Dragobrat and there’s a ‘problem’ the jeep that’ll take us up the mountain is late so Oleg leaves while we wait in a small roadside bar. Everyone inside stops as we walk in and say hi. There’s rousing Ukrainian folk on the stereo, three guys in the dark back room, a stuffed cat and two women at the bar. Think this is a bit of a first, having two random English guys just wandering in. Anyway it’s all good and we get beers and sausages. Two kids come in about 11 or 12 and after one gets a good hiding from what I assume is his dad they share a beer and smoke. Child care, Ukrainian style!

I go out to check if the driver is coming down and there’s this guy about 28 or so who starts shouting at me. This is then followed by much laughter with his mate and then more shouting and random gesticulation. I show him our booking details for the hotel and it does the trick. My huge board bag is strapped to Misha’s Lada 4x4 roof and we head off. There’s Russian dance on the stereo as we storm up the mountain. There’s no road, just a rough track broken up with boulders, snow drifts and the odd stream. We’re bouncing around and trying to admire the view without paying to much attention to the intense storm that’s blowing and deep gullies that occasionally loom at the side of the track. After getting up the hardest part Misha cranks up the music and barrels along the path people carrying bags and on their skis dash and scramble out of the way. Doug and I are laughing, he’s not, instead sporting a look of extreme psycho concentration. That’s it, after two days travel we’re there, stoked to be on Mount Stog and surrounded by tons and tons of snow.

We drop our stuff, get shouted at a bit by the hotel owner but it seems like this is perhaps a sign of friendliness. Then it’s onto the slopes where it’s snowing a blizzard and two of the three lifts are closed. The ticket seller replies ‘Niet’ to all our attempts to buy a pass so we just walk up the mountain and have a few runs. This is followed by glut wein, beer, soup & bread and we build a nice kicker in some soft powder snow, taking turns to launch grabs and 180s off of it. It’s fun and breathing in fresh mountain air with snow coming down and dark forests all around there’s a real sense of liberation. Grab a quick shower, there’s a dinner of soup and meat with tasty rice. There’s some kids on the pool table who we attempt to ask if we can play, their answer ‘maybe not’. We have the advantage of no set bed time though so ha! First though it’s vodka time under the watchful tutelage of the owner and his family who seem to find our attempts to master the drinking etiquette exceptionally funny. They bring out Salo, Ukrainian raw pig fat that they smoke and flavour with garlic and serve thinly sliced. It’s interesting, tastes a bit like bacon flavoured butter and gives the distinct impression that it’s not exactly the healthy option. We play 2 hours of pool and then hit the sack.

My bed’s about 6inches too short and hard as hell but I fall asleep ok only to be woken by a very sudden and loud bang. The wind is so strong outside that it forces the window open! For a second I thought that the whole thing might have blown into the room and taken out Doug. Luckily that’s not case.

Day 3)

Wake up and it’s still snowing so after trying to use a Tbar up a steep slope into strong winds and failing then getting stuck on it when it breaks down we build another big jump and cane it all morning : ) After that Doug gets up on this huge pile of snow and is about to do a massive jump down into a steep slope when a huge lump of snow and ice starts slipping off the roof directly above him. There’s some people watching and everyone turns around. Doug looks up and dives to the side, it just misses him. This deserves a beer so we head to the small ski lodge and eat sausage and mash, Ukrainian style. A beginner snowboarder who’d been trying the jump too, from Donetsk in the East of the Ukraine comes with us. She’s cool and tells us about the language and cultural divide in the country between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. We brave the Tbars and feeling knackered and with the wind making snow move up the mountain I fall on my head, not fun.
Dinner tonight is Ukrainian sausage rolls in cold gravy, followed by about ten games of ping pong and off to bed to watch the only English channel, cartoons! Pink panther, Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry it’s retarding our brains… The heating is permanently on in the room so it’s starting to really pong. The toilet is especially hot so when you walk in the air’s a warm soup of all the recent smells we’ve concocted. PS the toilet paper is seriously not cool, like sand paper, if I spoke Ukrainian I’d demand to know why.
Words we learnt:
Pirvo – Beer
Kleb – Bread
Dobredien – good day
Da – Yes
Niet – no
Dakyuyu - thanks
Slightly limited especially as I’d bought a language book a month before coming but sadly it remained unopened. Still the universal use of random sounds and gestures and well timed nodding is getting us through ok.

Day 4)

Wake up and every inch of my body is in pain. Worst of all I can’t move my head without using my hands because my neck muscles are so sore. (This continues for the next three days). Luckily though I’d persuaded Doug to swap beds so was feeling rested after 9 hours sleep. Stumble downstairs to a breakfast of three fried eggs, a gherkin, bacon fat and a slice of fried ham. It had snowed during the night which was gratefully received as it meant more fresh powder. Rather than tackling the Tbars we decide to climb up a hill behind the hotel, an expanse of virgin powder. It’s nice and steep too so boarding down you got an amazing feeling of lightness and flight. We repeated the trek up through a foot of snow 4 times and then went and had beer and shaslik. The wonderful world of the Shaslik is an oversized lamb kebab, big juicy pieces of lamb meat flavoured with garlic and spices, umm ummm. They cook them out on a bbq pit in the snow, made to order. After some more skiing went on a beer cruise, well of the three places serving, one is outside at the bottom of the slope, bit chilly but they play 80s hair metal. 2nd is in circular hut that looks vaguely Viking and has a charcoal pit in the middle and chunks of Salo hanging from the roof to cure. Very real! Made even more authentic by the pair of drunkards hanging out there and the freezing temperatures! The owner suggested a shaslik and it would have been rude to refuse, it was even tastier than the one earlier and came with special garlic ketchup. Dinner back at the hotel is fried potato, sausage and garlic, simple but surprisingly good.
There’s a really cool old guy at the hotel who’s the caretaker and from Romania. He calls us ‘London’ and ‘Hong Kong’ which occasionally comes out as ‘Congo’ and ‘King Kong’. Sometimes for variety he favours ‘Fisher’ and ‘Kasparov’ after he caught us partaking in a cheeky bit of chess. He’s never been skiing and has a strange habit of sucking sugar from a cafe style sugar dispenser. Which is a nice sight when you look around and he’s suckling from the sugar teat right next to you. This evening is the first without clouds, amazing views down over the lower Carpathians and up to the peaks of Mount Stog. So I run to the nearby hill with my camera to catch the sun dipping behind the mountainous skyline. Two skiers come by, doug says hi and they stop. They’re freestyle skiers who lead guided trips. Tanya speaks English and we have a nice chat about why we’re there, where the best skiing is in the area. They say we should visit the Caucasus mountains in Georgia where the peaks are over 5000m high, crazy! Maybe that’s next years trip! Tanyas friend is sporting a rasta hat ‘made in the Caucasus mountains’. They ski off and it starts getting seriously chilly so we run back to the hotel and had a hot shower, felt great and much less stiff. After dinner watch some cartoons and drink more damn fizzy water. There’s a total lack of still water here and since the guide book says you shouldn’t drink tap water because of lead piping. Warm, day old fizzy(ish water) is not nice, it’s official!

Day 5)

Another dodgy night sleep in possibly the world’s worst bed complete with inch thick blood stained mattress. Wait Doug’s is worse ha! And boy am I happy that I persuaded him to swap after the first night. Breakfast today is three fried eggs and half a gherkin. The food at the hotel’s been tasty but everything is lathered in oil and sour cream. This plus all the pig fat (and beer) is undoubtedly the cause of the mini pot-belly I’m cultivating. Skiing the day before was pretty cool but we’re both tired. Walking up mountains in the snow is tiring, it’s official. So after a few runs we just get on down to some serious relaxing and Ukrainian beer drinking. Entertainment is provided by a half crazed dog running up and down the T-bar track, jumping on peoples’ snowboards, causing a massive nuisance and several people to fall on their butts. Genius.

THERE’s A MASSIVE JOLT! I’m writing on the train to Kiev (Day 6) and it just started with a huge strain, like an elastic band suddenly loosened. The train looks ancient, made in a time when good looks took a back seat in the construction of this steel clad behemoth. It’s monster carriages stretch on for what seems like a mile, each equipped with two attendants and a surplus of lacy curtains and dimly illuminating light fixtures.

Back to the day, sorry this one is probably the least exciting. It’s capped with more beers (the hotel has a whole two choices woo!) and 11 games of pool, of which I lose about 9. So with that we
schlump up to bed and look forward to waking up more rested than today.

Day 6)

It’s out last day on Mount Stog and it starts in the customary misty fashion but soon clears up and it’s the first really bright and sunny day. There are amazing views over the Carpathians; it’s covered in blankets of dark forest disturbed by snow capped peaks and the odd wooden house. We take our last trip up the tormenting t-bar and walk to the very peak of the mountain for one last run down. It’s ten minutes of glorious riding all the way down to the hotel through virgin powder. It’s an amazing feeling of freedom, floating down the mountain, with the effort and sore legs of the last five days receding into the past.

We pack up and finally get out of seriously pongy room, after catching a final episode of Scooby Doo. What the hell is going on in the world?.. all we’ve had over the last week is shabba shabba doo and Scooby snacks! Heading down the mountain sadly isn’t as wild as the upwards journey with the snow and wind lashing down and Misha our crazed driver wrestling with his Lada. At the base of the mountain it’s into a normal car, ‘Mashinyu’, and on to Ivano-Frankish. The driver’s got shades and we race along stopping at his house to pick up a plastic bag and he glares at his kid, who runs away. It’s a weekday so everyone’s out and about on apparently random business such as:

1) Chasing a chicken
2) Selling apples from a bucket by the road
3) Smashing rocks
4) Walking around aimlessly sporting a huge fur hat. (If a fur hat is really really wide is it really that much warmer?)
5) Hanging out with a bunch of leather clad, shade sporting men by a Mercedes by the river. Hmm looks dodgy.

Pretty entertaining really. We make it to the town and grab some tasty lunch in a grand old hotel. I have Georgian chicken with garlic and olives and gherkins. Doug has a chicken Kiev for desert, this attracts some confused looks from the waiter. We get to the station, walk to carriage 12 of the huge train and get into our 1950s time capsule (Coupe). The old couple next door are playing rousing Ukrainian folk classics, Oompahh Oompahh, and the toilet looks like a medieval torture dungeon. The Sun is just about finished setting and we’re racing past steppe plain and occasional villages and factories. Looking out the window there’s a stark line of fire outside as someone clears their field. It’s all pretty post-apocalyptic, very nice. A lady comes by offering chai. We’ve grown to love tea with lemon and no milk after about 30 cups, having been served two mugs every breakfast and dinner for the last 6 days. I’ve learnt that drinking beer at the same time as tea is a little confusing.

Ok I’m signing off to have vodka and watch super bad. But why oh why is the carriage so crazily hot! Every enclosed space in this country has it’s own over-worked radiator and it’s pretty fucking annoying. On to Day 7..

Wait actually after writing this some more interesting stuff happened. In the 4 and a half volt half light of our ‘coupe’ we played Black Jack and drank first one bottle of vodka, then beer and then a 2nd 250ml bottle of vodka all while slowly realising that Black Jack involves zero skill. Feeling a bit misty eyed and fed up of crashing through the heavy steel doors that separate the carriages I sent Doug on the foolish mission to get a 3rd bottle! 10 mins go by, then 20 and finally after about 30mins I’m lying there getting a little worried so start heading up the carriage. Doug comes running down from the other direction and says ‘some Ukrainian gangsters kidnapped me and they want to meet you and drink vodka’. That sounded like just about the worst plan ever so wisely we lock the door tight. Basically these 3 or 4 shady characters realised he was English and started pouring Doug and themselves vodka shots. Doug related the one particularly dodgy character, sporting an ear to mouth scar was getting rowdy and the leader of the gang suggested they all come to our berth. Doug wisely said he’d err fetch me and left his vodka and two pork cutlets. What an honourable sacrifice!

Day 7)

The rest of the journey passed without problems and we woke up on Day 7 drawing into Kiev’s grand central station at 6.45am. Super busy with people rushing around through the chandelier filled halls, we tried to get a normal taxi but no-one would take us and eventually we willingly got hussled by a guy in a huge yellow van. Got to the 18 story Hotel Rus and they did a huge favour and let us check in. It was a huge relief to us, still pretty tipsy and more than a bit confused after being up on a mountain for 6 days and carrying snowboards.

The hotel Rus isn’t old but has a nice soviet style with tiny rooms and dark suited mobsters hanging out in the lobby as ‘security’. The rooms view is incredible though, overlooking the Olympic stadium which has room for 100,000 and the sun just rising over a dusty Kiev. Looks like it’ll be a beautiful day. We grab two hours sleep and during that time manage to develop a horrific hangover, perhaps this is what gives us the genius idea to visit the classiest hotel in town to eat breakfast on the guide books recommendation. Curses! Without asking how much it’ll be I get stuck into a plate of fruit, juices, yoghurt and a plate piled high with pickled herring and salmon. It doesn’t go down well, immediately start feeling queasy and the room is gently swaying from side to side. After a week of the filling but reliably stodgy food at La Romany and a complete lack of fruit and vegetables except beetroot and gherkins it’s a bit of a shock. The bill makes me feel even worse, what I thought is a copy of the receipt is actually the second receipt. It’s a cool 180 grivna each, £18, and the waitress doesn’t bother to bring back the 40 change or Doug’s omelette either. All good though it was a classy place with some interesting guests. A gentleman behind us was casually mentioning that he’d single handedly sorted out the Slovakian financial system. The Premiere hotel, a place where deals are made, pleasantries exchanged and old times reminisced.

We set off on the 2km walk to the Caves Monastry, everything I’ve read says it’s the one tourist draw, a UN heritage site no less, that we have to visit. On the way, almost everyone we pass is carrying a flower or bouquet of some description and all the underpasses (which are like mini cities filled with shops and restaurants) are stuffed with flower sellers. It’s puzzling but pretty cool, turns out it’s a national holiday – International Women’s Day, a carry over from the USSR days. The Caves Monastry is a huge complex. Buildings from 1100 – 2000 and a multitude of museums exhibiting everything from monks washroom items to glittering Sythian gold. The real treat however is the actual caves. Narrow underground passageways and subterranean churches all tens of metres below the surface.

Founded by two monks in the 11th century the bodies of these and subsequent monks are placed along the corridors and in small rooms where the cold dry air has mummified them. As the holiest spot in the whole of Ukraine it’s visited by thousands of pilgrims and monks who wander down the corridors carrying candles, chanting and bending down in the darkness to kiss the monks coffins and exposed hands. The monks really smelt, a bit like pee pee, and with their brown tunics and long beards it was some serious medieval shit! If anyone who appeared unfaithful, aka us, ventured into some of the extreme holy areas where people were singing or in silent reflection the monks would quickly block their paths. Intriguingly they blocked our paths to some seriously spooky dark corridors, who knows where they stretched too! The overall effect was moving, there was a tension, the strong feeling that you didn’t belong and were witnessing long held traditions and beliefs that are greater than the interests of a curious tourist. Still, despite the hangover and occasional feeling of nausea it was an amazing and thought provoking experience.
Emerging into daylight we hit up an overpriced Georgian, aviation themed restaurant. All the staff wear air stewardess outfits, nice! I had chips and kebab, we got out of there and walked around Podril, a funky studenty area of the town. A guy comes up to us asking for money, grinning and says simply ‘I’m a Russian hippy and need money to go to Chicago,’ sadly for him we disappointed. Next we went on a furnicular train which the guide book said was fun. Interestingly enough it really wasn’t fun, everyone looked pretty glum as it slowly eked it’s way down the hill. Still at the top there had been some ridiculously stunning views over the city, shrouded in a blue haze with the river and port stretching out on the left and the old town scattered with parks on the right. We walk up St Andrews Lane, a famous and rugged cobble flecked road that’s famous for it’s street market and ancient houses. It’s dilapidated but charming and there are small stalls selling anything from tourist trinkets to nazi and Stalinist memorabilia. Doug got woolly slippers and I got woolly socks with dancing peasants on. People were cool and I got the all important fridge magnet for Nas too.

Striking how different the city is to the countryside, we’d just spent 6 days in, Kiev is a chaotic and thriving metropolis, no chicken chasing to be seen, but lots of dodgy jeans and severe haircuts. Generally people seem smiley and there’s a bizarre mix of skodas, including most of the police cars, and thousands of shiny new Mercedes, all sporting tinted windows and sunglass wearing drivers. Funnily enough I didn’t see a single one stopped by the ubiquitous, farm boy looking traffic cops, but they do seem to stop all the other modern cars and the handshake bribe system is in full, blatant effect. We go back to the hotel for a power nap and then feeling hungry head off for some food. The ever-trusty guidebook fails us, uh oh, and both restaurants in the area that sound good have vanished. Things are looking desperate, for the first time we’re squabbling with Doug wanting to go to a swish trendy looking place and me favouring a cheap canteen. It does look a bit grim though and fortunately we find a traditional Russian restaurant, smart but not too pricey and the food is simple and delicious. Pancakes with salmon and dill smothered in sour cream followed by broth with meat and dumpling herbs ummmm! Feeling satisfied we head off for a big nightclub a girl at the hotel reception had recommended.

We get there and it’s a crazy scene, hundreds of young Kievians all dolled up and nearly all wearing cheap leather jackets and sporting harsh 1990s style German hair cuts. They’re all waiting to get into the club but first have to face the dreaded ‘Face Patrol’. This is the interesting concept that if you’re ugly, not wearing the right clothes or committing the deadly sin of looking too happy you wont get in. The decision is final! Wierdly the Face Control envoy here is really fat and has thinning purple hair and shock of all shocks he declines to let us in leaving two cool cats from London feeling pretty embarrassed. We learn from a jaded US expat in the bar downstairs that we’d committed some terrible sins, we smiled too much and our shoes were distinctly lacking in shine. Uh oh! His words of advice, ‘if you want to get in you better look like someone’s just killed your puppy’. It’s time to find pastures new and we attempt to pay the bar tender but he just ignores our efforts. The club doesn’t trust them with money so if they want to get change it’s a trek to the cashier and back. That would explain their reluctance. At this point we don’t have any idea where to go so perhaps foolishly we follow the US guys advice and head to the River Palace. He says we wont believe our eyes, hmm. I later realise that he’s been here for three years and after gorging himself on prostitutes and strip clubs he’s basically stuck in a bit of a rut.

Anyway we rock up at the River Palace, two unsuspecting English chaps. It’s a neon covered old boat, with three floors. A friendly guide explains that we have to lock up our cameras. The basement is a bar, then there’s a nightclub on the ground floor and finally at the top a casino. We head downstairs and this guy in a bright yellow suit who looks like a washed up children’s tv presenter is doing a totally undecipherable stand up routine. It’s pretty enjoyable with everyone clapping at the end of each long-winded monologue. The clientele is seriously random but it’s only when we venture to the nightclub that it becomes blatantly obvious we’re basically on a floating brothel. While getting a beer Doug’s approached by a girl who says she’s from Nicaragua but blatantly isn’t. I overhear her saying ‘you can sleep with me tonight if you want’. He replies, ‘er sorry but no I have a girlfriend I love.’ She asks what he does and he rather amusingly asks what she does. Cue some awkward silence. Feeling sheepish we get beers and prime seats at the edge of the abyss, alongside the dance floor to watch the action unfold. It feels like Sodom and Gomorra incarnate to two polite chaps like ourselves but it’s riveting in a dark way. Most of the girls are stunning but the blank expressions, whiff of money and ridiculousness of the whole floating experience is depressing. Watching the action there’s a set pattern followed for every transaction, the punter has to pretend to chat up the girl, buying drinks and coming up with amusing banter. Then money comes up and the couple leave. We drink more and more beers and I’m finding the guys more interesting, it’s quite a mix. The Ukrainians know the moves and look relaxed, having a good time dancing with the girls. The expats look a bit lost, keeping to the borders of the space and looking around furtively. As soon as they’ve done the deal, they scuttle off. What really gets me is the way the women’s expressions change so quickly from flirty smiles when looking at the guy to cold, hard stares when they’re not looking back. There’s one porky & bespectacled suit who looks jolly happy dancing to the euro pop and is pushing his pot belly into his catch. He repeatedly tries to kiss her but keeps getting nose as she twists away with a grimace. Ironically today is ‘International Women’s Day’. We’ve had a lot of beer, kind of a theme for this holiday, and the night is getting tiresome. I’m feeling agitated it’s all getting a bit grim.

The Taxi home is a relief. It’s the 2nd night of complete drunkenness in a row and after 5 hours sleep we stumble down to breakfast. It’s not as fancy as yesterdays but is free. Each floor on the hotel looks almost exactly the same, so I take a series of pictures from exactly the same spot by the lifts. Sweating and hung over it’s nerve wracking, you have to use your card to operate the lift and it keeps not registering so I’m turning up on random floors. Each one with video cameras and some suspicious security staff. I’m wondering if they’re wondering what I’m up to and about to go ballistic. Job done and we’re in a taxi raching through the city’s soviet style suburbs interspersed with bleak forests. It’s the end of an interesting and physical 7 days in Ukraine. A beautiful, very divided country with such a wealth of tradition and potential for pictures and stories it’s hard to believe the guidebook is so slim! People shout when they’re not angry, then laugh the next minute. We’re told by the border guards there’s no snow in Ukraine then spend 5 days in the one corner that has a ridiculous amount of the stuff. Without fail, everyone laughs incredulously when we say we’ve come to go snowboarding. But we found powder a plenty.

8th March 08