Archive for April, 2010

Our new found friendship with Ukraine

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Till a week back, Ukraine was nothing more than another country on the world map for me. Now, after driving approx 1600 kms through the breadth of the country, seeing the sights and meeting the people, I feel glad that we had the opportunity to see this lovely country. We entered Ukraine from the western border with Poland and exited from the eastern border with Russia. This gave us a chance to visit different cities in various parts of the country. Lviv in the west, Kiev in the centre and Kharkiv in the east. This blog is not so much about describing the cities but more about our overall experience of this lovely country and its people.

In all honesty, before we reached Ukraine I was a bit reluctant about driving here or dealing with Ukrainians in general, because both Pooja and I don’t speak Russian and we had heard some not so nice stories about the traffic cops on the highways. But we soon realised that a little effort goes a long way. People here are very nice and willing to help. Let me give you an example. While driving from Kiev to Kharkiv, we wanted to stop for lunch. We found this little café on the highway in the middle of nowhere. We went inside and soon realised that nobody there spoke a word of English. The menu was in Russian and we couldn’t even order a glass of water. It was a deadlock and we thought that maybe we should just go and try some other place. But then, a brilliant idea occurred to Pooja and she got a Russian to English translation book from our car. As soon the staff saw her book, they all started smiling and realized that we were not going anywhere. We now had their full attention. Using the book, we tried our best to order the things we wanted and they started a marathon between our table and the kitchen to bring out everything they had just to show us more options. To cut a long story short, we ordered everything we needed including things that were not on the menu! A translation book and a smile is all that’s needed here. That’s our experience.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the traffic cops. They are omnipresent. If you are driving on the highway, chances are you will be stopped. Whether you have done something wrong or not, that does not matter. We were stopped 3 times out of which 2 times we were “fined”, if you know what I mean. Why were we stopped? I am still trying to figure that out. I think it will be safe to say that on average, after every 30-40 kms, we found police lurking in a corner or behind the trees. But there is something very interesting that goes on in this side of the world. The motorists look out for each other. While driving on the highway, if the oncoming vehicles flash their headlights at you, it means that soon you will be crossing a spot on the highway where the cops are waiting to catch someone. So you have been cautioned by fellow motorists to be more careful or maybe to just pray that you don’t get stopped! I can confirm that every single time we saw flashing headlights; we encountered cop cars in the near distance.

Dymtro. Our Ukrainian friend. I cannot begin to say how lucky we were to have met Dima ( as we call him) who not only invited us to stay in his home, but also shared his deep knowledge of Ukrainian history and culture with us. We stayed in his apartment in Kharkiv for one night. He told us a lot of interesting things about Ukrainian families, their values, their history and things that a tourist guide could never tell you. He recalled his own experiences of the soviet times when he was an 8 year old kid. (He is 29 now). He told us that during the soviet era, everything was rationed and his family had to queue up for hours just to buy a pack of butter. “When we got word from someone that butter is available, my grandmother would take me and run to the shop. We would then stand in a queue that would start on the 1st floor and go out till the main road. After standing there for a few hours, my mother would take our place in the queue and we then got a chance to rest. This way we took turns for 6-7 hours just to buy some butter”, he said. He also told us that machinery, arms, tanks, airplanes etc. were available in abundance but basic things like clothes, paper, pencil etc. were scarce. He said that his father had to make trips to Moscow to buy clothes for the family. He had a map of Moscow on which different locations to buy different things were clearly marked. Well, that was the past. Dymtro is just one of the millions of people who had a similar fate during the soviet times. He is a young Ukrainian professional who is well-educated, very enterprising and is proud of his country. He is also very fond of animals and owns a cat. People are very fond of animals here and you will find well-fed dogs and cats all around.

He also gave us an insight into how the Ukrainians want their country to join the European Union and their dissatisfaction with the government for not doing enough to make this possible. “Ukrainians are very hard working people and ours is one of the few countries in Europe that is still not in EU”, he said.

After spending a few days with him, meeting his friends, talking to other people in different parts of the country, we realised that, even though the country does not have a lot of money, the people are working hard to progress further, are friendly and hospitable and are very proud of their culture and heritage.

A few unusual things I noticed.

• Some Ukrainians don’t speak the Ukrainian language. In fact, in some parts of the country, people prefer to speak only Russian.
• Tour guides don’t like to be photographed or videoed.
• On menu cards in restaurants and hotels, every page (front and back) is stamped and signed (by someone, but why?)
• Cops will take “fine” in many currencies including hryvnas, dollars, euros and pounds.

By the way, did I mention that we are in Russia now? We crossed Ukrainian-Russian border last night and drove to Volgograd this morning. The best part is that today my mom and dad have joined us in Volgograd. They live in Russia and have flown down to travel with us till the Russia-Kazakhstan border. We are in great spirits and are enjoying the pampering:)

Off to eat some home made food!


Kiev – Fine, Famine, Churches and Chernobyl

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Hi All, Pooja here. We had a wonderful time in Lviv and drove a distance of 530 kms to Kiev yesterday. We took the E40 to Kiev. Certain patches were good but there was also a lot of patch work (different colours and levels of tarmac), which was tricky to drive on as our car was very heavy due to luggage.

One Beady Eyed Dog – At the metro station, I came across a dog ( looked like one of our desi Delhi dogs) with the most beautiful eyes. I saw a lot of dogs in Lviv but this was the first one I saw in Kiev. After, stroking the dog for a few minutes, I felt much better and carried on to the platform. Along the journey, I’ve had a chance to speak to local people and find out their views on animals, the place that they have in the community, the importance that they are given and some of the resources available to help abandoned animals. Prague and Krakow are very dog friendly. The parks in both these cities are full of pets and their owners. People seem to enjoy their company and dogs seem to be a part of the family. I didn’t see a single stray in these two cities. However, I saw a few in Kiev, who didn’t seem very healthy. Ukraine being a developing country probably faces the same problems as India; lack of regular funds to tackle animal welfare issues. In my mind awareness towards animal welfare, is created by dialogue (what can we do to make a difference) and by motivating people to help their local charity by volunteering, donating or by doing something which makes the job of the people who are actually involved in caring for all the sick, injured and abandoned animals a little easier.

No amount of praying, taking holy dips in sarovars and rivers, keeping fasts will make me a better person if I can’t value life in all its forms. After all, god exists in everything including animals….and in all animals, not just cows because they are holy but dogs, cats, rabbits, monkeys and others as well.

Apologies, if the last bit was a little heavy. Tushar seems to sulk when I say to him that in moments of sadness (when I need comforting the most) …it’s a dog that I want to hug:)…most dog owners might agree.

Fine – Yes, it happened again. We were fined 200 Hr ( about £18) by the traffic police for not having some sticker on our windscreen. The normal procedure when one is stopped is to show all your documents (Passport, Licence, Vehicle Registration Document etc). What was interesting is that before the officer asked for my passport, he assumed I was Russian (I still cant figure out how?).

Famine – We took a guided tour of Kiev today and our first stop was outside St Michael’s Cathedral. There is a memorial outside the cathedral for the victims of the 1932-33 famine, which was orchestrated by the Soviets. Around 8-10 million Ukrainians died due to the famine. Ukraine was the bread basket of the Soviet Union. Our guide told us that Stalin decided that he would take away all the grain from Ukraine and then sell it to other parts of the union and export some of it was well. The exports would help the Soviets to further their cause of Industrialisation and their policy of Collectivism. The man made famine is termed as Genocide on the memorial.

Churches – We saw a few cathedrals and churches as well. St Michaels’s cathedral is absolutely beautiful. Inside I saw a beautiful painting of St Catherine, who is the protector of all women who want to be educated and learn more (saint of women’s lib!) During the tour we also saw the statue of the motherland, which is made of stainless steel and stands 102 m high. The area around the statue depicts scenes from WW2 i.e how the Ukrainians fought the Nazi’s. Ukraine was occupied by the Nazi’s for 2 years and 2 months during which 8 million people died.

Chernobyl – I first heard of Chernobyl in middle school. I remember listening to one of my teachers at Carmel speaking about what had happened there. On 26 April 1986, the nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded releasing 100 times the radiation of that released by the atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The effects were devastating for the flora and fauna. Other than the loss of life in 1986, the terrible consequences for the people affected by the radiation can still be seen today in forms of breast cancer, lung cancer, deformities and other diseases. Chernobyl is 130 km from Kiev and we had planned to visit the site of the nuclear reactor ( tours last mostly for one hour only as there is still radiation at the site). However, we found out that to visit the site, one needs to sort out the necessary permits, which can take up to 3 days. As we had only had one day to spare, we visited the Chernobyl museum instead, which is in Kiev. The accident happened on 26 April 24 years ago… A coincidence that we were at the museum today, the 26 April, the day when the disaster happened. We realised this only when we saw the TV camera crews at the museum. I’ve been listening to the news tonight and found out that the nuclear reactor is still leaking radiation.

We have been drinking mineral water!

Lost Sunglasses – Poor Tushar:( We came out of the metro station where he started searching for his sunglasses and within a few minutes realised that he had managed to loose them! He lost a pair of Ray bans worth over £100 but right opposite the station was a street vendor with cheap and cheerful shades. Tushar is now the proud owner of a pair, which cost him £7. Family members, please chip in to fund Tushar’s next birthday gift:)

Driving to Kharkiv tomorrow.


P.S. New pictures available at