Ukraine – A check in the Bucket List

My bucket list changes every few weeks or at times even more often. Each time I read a new good travel blog, the list is reconsidered and often updated. One of the few features that had not changed in a while was my interest in the disaster site of Chernobyl. While the radioactivity offered adventure, the deep stories and it being off most typical tourist maps added to the mystique. Once the research started, the city of Kyiv itself seemed quite interesting. Then a visa on arrival, affordable price, and direct flight from Delhi shot it to the top of the to-do list.

There were surprises and shocks on the way – it is a less explored land after all. On the positive side, hotels were far cheaper than expected and for the price, quite amazing. Meanwhile, visa on arrival is a pain on the backside. The typical wait can easily go up to 2-3 hours and there is not even drinking water in the waiting area. I even heard of stories where it took people 9 hours to get through. It is not that you are waiting in a long line, there are few people – most countries have visa-free entry. They take your passport in a room and then you just stand outside and wait – forever. The Airline was efficient but the Ukraine Airlines planes will take you down memory lane several decades – a true soviet era experience.

Outside of the visa process, it is a very comfortable country to be up and about. Kyiv is a lovely city with amazing food and vibrant bars. There are some amazing churches to see and some great views of the Dnieper River and the Motherland statue that towers over it. There is a good hop-on-hop-off to give a feel of the city and then several tour options for the ultimate Chernobyl trip. As much as I hate group tours, the only way to go to Chernobyl is to be part of a group as it is still a highly restricted zone. There is also a budding art scene in the city with the communist-style buildings finding space for some massive pieces of art. It is quite a walkable city in general and while there is quite a gradient there is enough to see to keep you going. The metro is relatively easy to navigate and quite amazing in itself. Kyiv boasts of one of the deepest metro stations in the world that takes over 4 minutes of just standing on a very fast-moving escalator to get in and out of.

We took a hotel in the center of the city, the iconic Hotel Ukraine. It is well located with a view of the Independence monument and next to the Maidan metro station. The rooms were not too fancy and a little old but clean and comfortable. Breakfast was great and the place was central enough that we could be at the main commercial center of the city with a 5-minute walk. The hotel has a nice bar in the lobby that completely changed colors after 9-pm, a different environment, and even decor.

It was quite late by the time we got in because of the delays at immigration, but being early July, it was still daylight and there was a Croatia – Russia World Cup Soccer game to make sure bars were full. We had no option but to be vocal Croatia supporters – cheering for Russia wasn’t an option. We had a rough plan for the remaining three days chalked out before we got in and fortunately this was an evening to chill anyway.

We had booked a tour to Chernobyl the first full day and then had 2 more days to explore Kyiv and its wonderful churches. Historically this was the city of churches with some that are fascinating examples of Russian art and architecture. In the Soviet era, a lot of churches were destroyed or used as storage or marketplaces. Since the downfall of the USSR, some of these churches have been restored and a few others reconstructed as replicas of the original ones.

For most of our trip, we chose to walk or use the metro system. For a day we had taken the Hop-on Hop-off tour and it turned out to be a good orientation to Kyiv. It was quite convenient and though Kyiv is not a small city this gave us a good flavor of its vibrant culture. There is a lot of art to be seen and the local food is fabulous and very cheap. While beer has fast overtaken other liquors in the drinking scenes, cider still keeps its special place. Away from the central tourist-oriented eating joins, the quieter places serve the locals and offer much better food. Though sitting right on the Khreschatyk Street and digging into a steak with beer and a sheesha can still hold its charms.

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