Kyiv, Ukraine

Kyiv wasn’t on the itinerary for the #TrainToTurkey because there are unfortunately no trains across the Black Sea. Or ferries either, for that matter. Thankfully economics were in our favour and we were able to make a literal flying visit.

There are direct flights from London to almost all capital cities in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, except it seems to Turkey’s second-largest city and national capital, Ankara. To get home Owen and I would either need to back-track to Istanbul on the train or take an indirect flight. Most of the indirect flights were via Istanbul too, which makes sense since it’s such a large aviation hub, but all of these flights were expensive and with lengthy layovers. There was a cheaper option though: flying via Kyiv. A longer route and a smaller plane but the same ultimate destination.

Even more fortunately, it worked out cheaper yet for us to leave Ankara in the very early morning and then take a late-night flight from Kyiv to London. Just £90 quid each would get us home, which was cheaper than most of the trains we’d taken over the past week. The catch, of course, was that we’d be flying over the recently Russian-annexed Crimea region, flying not far from where Malaysia Flight 17 was blown from the sky and landing in a country which is not only one the most corrupt in Europe, but which is fighting an armed conflict on home soil. But the FCO said it would be fine, so no biggie.

Our flight was the first out of Esenboga Airport that morning and we had opted to sleep in the ibis Ankara Airport, as close as we could, to not miss it. Unfortunately, the hotel isn’t within walking distance so a taxi at 4:30 am was our only option. Ankara airport isn’t particularly big and at this time of the morning, it was completely empty, although the duty-free and coffee shops were all open for business. Of all the flights in all my years this particular flight had hands down the strangest collection of passengers - there were a few rugged, well-travelled Americans, Ukrainian nationals heading back home from holidays and a few business people in the mix too. We were almost certainly the only Brits, which I always love because it’s a sure tell sign that some real travelling is going on. We boarded via bus and Owen was rewarded with a fantastic window seat, no photos of the take-off I’m afraid.

It was a very strange feeling having travelled a very long way by train to then be taking a flight and an even stranger feeling going from a city where we were completely unfamiliar to one which we were not only unfamiliar with but for which we hadn’t even researched. The only research I had done was to confirm that my Three mobile SIM supported roaming - because not having connectivity would’ve been kind of a big deal (as we’d discovered in Ankara).

The flight was short and we landed with apprehension and excitement - we were in Ukraine! We filtered through to security and it quickly became clear that this place was no Disneyland, at least two people were sent back from the border check for not having completed their landing card correctly. The agent took a good look through my passport, took interest in my Russian visa but after a swift stamp handed it back with a perfectly rehearsed “Welcome to Ukraine”.

Easy - we’re in! Unfortunately, my mobile data wasn’t working and despite Three saying they operate their Data Passport in Ukraine, it seems that it doesn’t really work. Thankfully, a few Ukrainian Hryvnia’s got us up and running with a tourist SIM - drama over. Since we were still on a train holiday, we did the natural thing and headed for the train. One of the strangest trains we’d been on for sure, I don’t really know how to describe it other than it was a brand new, short, wide, industrial but perfectly fine little train. It took us directly to the Pasazhyrskyi Railway Station in the city, after passing several other stations, bridges and over the enormous Dnieper river. The scenery, architecture and surroundings were a world away from anything we’d seen yet, high rise soviet era tenement blocks, ragged old cars, trucks and of course, vintage, packed railway trains ferrying blue-collar workers out of the city. It was all very bizarre, even more so when viewed from a brand new airport train.

The train station was enormous, it had a strange 50s vibe and was full of people going about their business, as you’d expect in a train station. It wasn’t like any other train station I’d been to before, it was overwhelming and intimidating and where I’d usually hang around and take pictures I wanted to do nothing but get out on to the street. Passing through the big wooden doors of the main hall we were presented with the city, it was raining, not a lot but enough to be gloomy and annoying. The atmosphere was live, everything was moving and happening, busses, cars, taxi touts and plenty of soldiers geared up and presumably heading west.

We took shelter in McDonald’s just across the street but there was no escaping the madness, it was just as busy inside. We’ve been spoilt in recent years, with the advent of the multi-lingual self-serve ordering system it doesn’t matter what language you speak or what country you are in, you get exactly what you want with no confusion. That doesn’t yet exist in Ukraine, the menu was just as familiar as you’d see in London, but of course, everything is in Cyrillic and completely illegible to me and Owen. We queued up and got our pointing fingers ready. The girl who took our order spoke zero English (which is naturally understandable) and despite my pro-level pointing ran away to find a manager, who also spoke no English but seemingly understood my pointing better. A short while later and after a few minutes of embarrassment we ended up with two breakfast meals and a large coke.

Owen and I headed to the upstairs of this enormous McDonalds and found ourselves a table. We sat there for about 15 minutes laughing about why on earth we thought it was a fun idea to come to Kyiv and how much of a fool I had made of myself in front of the McDonalds staff. It was about the point where we started to relax that the man behind us got up after having finished his breakfast and strapped to his belt was a handgun. We don’t have many guns in the UK and the guns we do have are only ever seen in public in the hands of the police. Seeing a handgun strapped to someone’s jeans isn’t just a bit weird, it’s completely alien. Our thoughts then turned to whether this man was making some kind of point or perhaps making his presence known to the obvious tourists in the room - I have no idea, but we got the hell out of there after sneaking a quick snap.

With a bit of a google in McDonald’s, we had established that the best way to get to the places we wanted to see was to jump on the metro, which happened to be just across the road. Easy, we thought. The station building had an entrance and an exit and the entrance was completely backed up with hundreds of people slowly entering. We queued up and after a lot of shuffling and pushing managed to get into the building. We then discovered that we’d followed the wrong queue for if we wanted a ticket. This presented a problem as we were now in a nether-zone where we couldn’t get out (since we’d need to pass the barriers and had no ticket) and wouldn’t be able to get out of the entrance we’d just squeezed though on account of it being a one-way door full of people. So we stood back and had a bit of a think, perhaps it would calm down a bit. Well, it didn’t, the door was the only way out. We rolled up our sleeves and prepared to do the impossible, this topped the embarrassment of McDonald’s but we managed it in the end.

With the Metro off of the cards we decided that we’d just walk, how far can it be anyway? I have to admit, after walking 20mins or so and seemingly ending up nowhere further than where we were I was getting a bit peed off and Owen certainly was too. After trudging through the pouring rain (in shorts!) we pulled into a restaurant/cafe to have a breather. The best thing we did, it all cheered up from here on! The coffee shop was cool, we have a drink, used their loo and best of all, remembered that Uber is a thing. No more walking for us!!

We took an Uber to the city centre which wasn’t all that much further away and engaged tourist mode. Independence Square wasn’t quite what I had expected, despite seeing it on TV frequently during the 2014 revolution. It’s big, well, massive, but because the buildings are so absolutely huge it doesn’t feel nearly as big as it is. That said, it is pretty impressive and has a strange, sombre feel to it, probably as a result of those who were killed. It’s an absolutely iconic part of the world though, so I’m glad we were able to visit. We set off from the square heading north and up towards St. Michael’s Square and Monastery.

We were getting a bit more comfortable with the city now, the madness of the station behind us and after a wander round found of all things, a funicular railway. We were a bit surprised to see such a thing but having failed in our attempt to ride the metro thought that this would be a reasonable consolation. The funicular was opened to the public in 1905 and takes passengers between the top of the hill, Uppertown and the district of Podil on the banks of the river below. There are two funicular cars, left (Λ) and right (П) which counterweight each other and are driven by an electric motor at the top station, there is a passing loop in the middle of the track which allows the cars to use the same track in the station buildings. A ticket on the funicular costs 25 pence or 8 hryvnias and the ticket booth exchanges cash for a small plastic town which is used in the entrance turnstile.

At the bottom of the hill in Podil, we went in search of a bar so we could dry off and have a quick break and after quite a lot of walking, we found a place called Punkraft. We had seen little in the way of craft beer during the trip so far and I was particularly keen to have some been that wasn’t just macro-brewed lager - this was the place. We walked down an uninviting staircase to a basement bar which wasn’t open but the bartender (who thankfully spoke English) was happy to serve us anyway. The best bar of the trip by a long shot, we played on the vintage pinball machine and had plenty of delicious Ukranian local craft and laughed about the man with the gun in McDonald’s.

We left Podil and headed back up the funicular to another little bar, but it wasn’t nearly as good so didn’t hang around for long. We walked back to the square feeling a bit more comfortable in the city and grabbed a burger for lunch. Walking around the city we explored the Golden Gate a restored version of a medieval city gate which had a church on top. With a renewed confidence in Kyiv we thought it was worth a second attempt at the Metro system. We boarded at Zoloti Vorota (Золотi ворота) and paid for some tickets with no intention to actually go anywhere. The metro stations in Kyiv are incredibly deep, this particular station is 96 meters below the surface and the deepest in the world, Arsenalna a little further towards the river is 105 meters down. For context, the deepest London station is just 58 meters down. As a result of the depth, the escalators are steep and very long, it’s almost a journey in itself.

We rode the metro train to Lukianivska just one stop, but a fantastic experience. The trains go FAST and they have a wonderful vintage vibe about them, whilst being perfectly serviceable. They are somewhat similar to those I remember in Moscow, certainly the station architecture below the surface is similar if not completely comparable.

Metro ride over we visited a local craft shop and Owen bought some Russian dolls to bring home, this took far longer than it needed to, there were hundreds of different options. Just after that, we realised that we should probably think about getting back - that’s when it all went wrong. We had just two hours until check-in closed and the airport isn’t exactly around the corner - whoops. We dialled up an Uber and hoped for the best, a little Dacia Logan turned up with Boris (Борис) at the wheel.

This was the slowest journey in history. We hit traffic for almost all of the 38 miles from the centre to the airport while Owen and I sat in the back sweating about the impact of missing our flight. It did reach the point where I waved our boarding passes insistently at the Uber driver for him to get a shift on. In fact, it got so close to us missing the flight that I was researching where we were going to stay that night if we did miss it. The one good part of the ride was that we were able to see the Motherland Monument from the car, the traffic was so slow we probably could have got out and walked up to it. Thankfully we arrived in the nick of time and ran like madmen through security and to the gate, with just enough time to pick up some incredibly cheap Ukranian vodka!!

We arrived back at Gatwick exhausted, smelly, tired but full of stories. A flying visit to Kyiv, complete and the longest train journey of our lives in the bag. What an incredible week!