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Ukraine Part 1 - Lviv and Kiev

Immigrant Day, Mummified Monks, and Gold as Far as the Eye Can See

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This is Kane, from Bateman's Bay Australia. I met him in the breakfast room at the hostel in Krakow and he was a really interesting guy. Bateman's Bay is on the south coast of Australia, and Kane surfed the Pro Junior Surf circuit for 5 years! I thought he kind of looked like a surfer. He plans to return home to work for 2 months and then take off again, possibly heading for the Philippines this time! Good luck Kane, and good surf!


I didn't plan on visiting Ukraine when I left Athens, but it kept coming up while talking to other travelers on the road. I heard Lviv, near the Polish border was a great undiscovered place, and my wanderlust got the better of me. I did not know the language, the alphabet, or even have a Ukraine guidebook. Could I do it? Ukraine it was! Time to go off of the map!

Instead of taking a direct train, I took the advice of the Lviv hostel owner and took a local bus to the border and then walked across. The minivans were absolutely packed with locals carrying everything they could hold, from suitcases to strawberries. In addition they chatted and yelled the entire way in Ukrainian, while many ate paprika flavored Lay's potato chips! There was no English in sight at all, except for the paprika Lay's. Here is an intimidating shot of me walking the mile or so to the border. My rolling duffel wheel was slowly disintegrating, so I dragged it on one wheel most of the way!


I grabbed another local bus on the other side and rode in the heat. I noticed that each and every time we passed a church, the older Ukrainian lady sitting in the seat beside me quietly crossed herself and bowed her head.

The bus stopped at the train station and I had to take a tram to the hostel. I used my Iphone translator to get a tram ticket and was on my way through Lviv. I immediately noticed that things in Ukraine were grittier, and I had to watch myself. Walking through the streets with my bags I must have really stood out because everyone seemed to take notice of me. I just stayed alert and kept dragging along. The Kosmonaut Hostel was in a very old building, but the staff was very nice and helpful. There were no keys or lockers, which made me nervous at first, but I had no problems. There is some unwritten rule among hostellers, and trust is something I have been able to count on everywhere I have gone.


The Common Room/Kitchen of the Kosmonaut.


A great portrait of Lenin in the kitchen!


A very funny sign above the desk! Or was it?


In the hallways of the building. "Uh, is this wiring up to code?" "Code? Ukrainian wiring is best in world!" "Uh, OK. Maybe I'll lay off the hair dryer anyway."


As I said, it was a very old building. The toilets even had signs posted not to flush any paper at all, but instead put it in the garbage cans in the bathroom or the pipes would explode, with disastrous consequences! Here are the building mailboxes, still in use.


This is the new city square. Impressive for a city of 800,000 that most Americans have never heard of!


The Opera house. The prices are still very low to keep the culture accessible to the masses.


People walking in the park. The parks in Europe are always full of folks out socializing. I really miss this when back home. Where are the people in America? Shopping malls? We need more common areas people use like this one!


A proud Ukrainian man and his daughter near the Opera's fountain.


People sleeping on a park bench in the evening.


Fashionistas hanging out in the park.


There was a commotion in one end of the park and I went over to check it out. I was VERY surprised to find a huge crowd of people around a group of...Native Americans?? They were performing Native American dances and songs to a thrilled crowd in Lviv! Later that evening I saw them again hanging out in the square with a bunch of admiring Ukrainian groupies! I keep running into this interest in Native American cultures all over Eastern Europe. Interesting!


The next morning I had to address my failing bag. One of the uprights of my rolling duffle had snapped, so I rummaged through my tool kit and a box of parts at the hostel and came up with this solution. I used plastic wall anchors to anchor the screws through pieces of flat metal, and then duct taped the crap out of the whole thing. The Native Americans are being faithful to their native culture, and, with the Southern staple of duct tape, so am I. At least I didn't sing Freebird while I was working.


The only Ukrainian guidebook I was able to scare up was a Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet is not my favorite, but it was all I had to go on. It turned out to be very wrong on a number of counts, starting with the Lviv city walking tour. It had many wrong turns, and all the streets were listed in English, although the Cyrillic alphabet was the only thing to be seen in Lviv! So I decided to try living a day like an immigrant in the U.S. who does not speak the language and who does even know the alphabet. It was quite disorienting and a big challenge, to say the least. I really have a renewed respect for those people. I think it is something all students should have to try. This is what I was able to learn on my "immigrant day." This small church, St. John the Baptist, is the oldest in Lviv.


Hopelessly lost, I saw these children in the street playing with their puppy.


A cool church.


Skaters in the park. I fantasized about being Tony Hawk and walking up to them in Ukraine. What would they do?


Gunpowder Tower, now a restaurant, but once a part of the city's defenses.


The Greek Catholic St. Michael's Church. The sanctuary is baroque. After the Czech Republic, I was surprised at how many people in Ukraine seemed to be involved in the church.


A great cross in front of the church.


I believe this is the bell tower of the Dormition Church, which is Ukrainian Orthodox. It would be interesting to see how that differs from other denominations. Again, the varied architecture is astounding.


I looked and looked, but have absolutely no idea who this man is. He looks very important, tough. Perhaps he is hailing a cab. "A cab! I need a cab! No, I am so important that I need THREE cabs! THREE I tell you! And perhaps an iron."


This is a cool-looking sign to give you an idea of what I was dealing with all around town.


The Bernardine Church and Monastery courtyard. It was very quiet and peaceful in here.


A man doing a very thorough job of sweeping up the courtyard.


There was a book sale going on right outside. I thought the statue was appropriate.


A man pondering "Cyrillic for Beginners."


The Town Hall, on the Old Town Square.


A large crowd had gathered at the Town Hall, but when I got there, all I saw was this strange metal thing and people staring at it while taking pictures. What in the world was it? A sports trophy? One of the crown jewels? One of the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey? This must be how our Super Bowl trophy looks to about 90% of the world....


Some boys hanging out on the corner admiring the metal object as well. All were absolutely spellbound!


The Old Town Square in Lviv, on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Houses could be built around the square with three windows tax free. Houses with four windows only belonged to the extremely wealthy.


The black domes of Boyim Chapel (1617), the burial chapel of Hungarian merchant Georgi Boyim and his family. It made me think, what could we do today to be remembered 400 years from now? How many millions have lived in this area and have been completely forgotten over time?


A beautiful girl in the square.


A window painter on the square looks up at an unexpected visitor.


Very beautiful lion balcony with flower boxes above. It is the little details like this that I love about Europe. They are real, not just plastered on the sides of McMansions.


The courtyard of the Armenian Cathedral, built in 1363! Just imagine - this church was here basking in sunny afternoons for 129 years before Columbus ever came to America!


At the end of a quiet alley in Lviv. I have never seen a ladder quite like this one.


This is the copper-domed Transfiguration Church, built in the late 1600's. It was the first church in the city to revert to Greek Catholicism after Ukrainian Independence in 1991. It is easy to forget how such an old place as the Ukraine can be such a young one at the same time.


The incredible interior of Transfiguration Church.


A man in the window across from the church.


All over town I saw men in parks playing chess out in the sun. Often crowds gathered around to watch and offer advice. These guys look like they don't need much help, though.


Back at the Kosmonaut. My bed is center bottom.


One of the interesting people I met in Lviv was Bill, from Canada. He stayed at the Kosmonaut for a while before finding an apartment in Lviv for the summer. He still comes over to hang out at the hostel sometimes, though. He is due to start school in Berlin in September. Bill was a freelance editor before deciding to come to Europe. He said that he decided on Lviv because it gives him the right combination of history, adventure, and great people. He also knows Cyrillic, and told me that it is a snap to sound out the words if you know the alphabet! Great to meet you Bill, and good luck in Europe!


A lady hanging laundry in the courtyard of the hostel building. When it started raining later in the day she ran back out and reeled it all back in.


A visit to Lychakivske Cemetery is a must while in Lviv. Lonely Planet calls it "the Pere Lachaise of Eastern Europe, "with the same sort of overgrown grounds and Gothic aura as the famous Parisian necropolis." It contains numerous graves of Ukrainian heroes, and, because Lviv was at one time in Polish territory, it also contains graves of some 2000 Poles who died fighting Ukrainians and Bolsheviks from 1918 to 1920. It must be a difficult thing being buried on foreign soil. It was fascinating walking around looking at the flowers and pictures left as mementos in the gloom.


Near the cemetery was the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life, an open air museum, much like other places in Europe, displaying a wide variety of historic houses from all over the country. It was very difficult to get to, accessible up an unmarked lane practically going through people's backyards! I had to ask for directions at least a dozen times. I had thought ahead to get the lady at the front desk of the hostel to write the name down for me in the native language. I felt like someone wearing a helmet with a note pinned to his shirt - "If found, please call this telephone number." The kind Ukrainians just looked at my note, glanced knowingly at each other, and pointed up the hill through the woods. I finally found the park and saw this great traditional Ukrainian house with moss growing on the roof.


Here is the inside of a old-time Ukrainian schoolhouse. Not a laptop to be seen here kids, so stop complaining.


I also loved this very cool wooden church. Notice the fence has a roof built over it so that it can double as a hay drying rack.


A traditional living room/kitchen set up. Looks cozy.


None of the pathways at the museum were marked, and about halfway around the main loop trail various tiny paths led off, seemingly aimlessly, into the woods. Despite my best efforts and asking about 6 different employees, all ways led back to the same point. How frustrating! People complain if a place is "too touristy," but is having a single sign, or even an arrow, being "too touristy?" I retreated, adjusting my helmet, and trying not to drool.

Down the street from the hostel was a fantastic Ukrainian cafeteria. This place was great because you could see the food and point to what you wanted. I got this huge spread - my only meal of the day - for $4.50 U.S.! It was solid and basic - potatoes, chicken, meat soup, some Cole slaw-type salad and some fruit crepe thingies. As my grandmother used to say, it will stick to your ribs.


My last night in Lviv I went out with my new friends from the hostel to a place nicknamed the Cavern Club. It was basically a Ukrainian speakeasy, hidden from the street without even a sign! You have to go up to the unmarked door, give the password (something to the effect of "Ukraine Forever!") - in Ukrainian and NOT Russian, and they will let you in. You descend below street level into this underground bunker done up with awesome Cold War propaganda! A band even came around playing violin, accordion, and a drum, while everyone sang songs to glorious Mother Ukraine! Fantastic! Thanks everyone for such a great, confusing, and very memorable time in Lviv!


OK, I'll fess up. I didn't go Ukraine just for the love of adventure. I had a lead on something. Something big. I heard wind of the possibility of actually being able to take a tour of - could it actually be possible? - Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant, the one that blew up and melted down in 1986, resulting in the world's worst nuclear accident. Wow! What better place to go on vacation! I made the necessary calls, submitted the extensive information, and booked my train to Kiev. Maybe I was going to be able to go, and maybe I wasn't, but I was going to try. I got to the Lviv train station for the night train to Kiev. That is Lviv spelled on the building.


Here is my nice sleeper. They even brought me hot tea and little cookies! The tablecloth made it feel just like home.


Sunset from the sleeping car.


I was hesitant about taking night trains in Eastern Europe, because all reports pointed to them being notorious hot spots and dangerous. I locked everything up and prepared for the worst. I had no reason to worry though. About two hours later Vasily got on, and we quickly became friends. Meet the good man Vasily!


Vasily has 2 boys, age 23 and 24, and was taking the night train to Kiev to "look around" for the day. Vasily was formerly in the Ukrainian military, but badly injured his left soldier in a vehicle accident and is now on pension. He enjoys fishing in the summer and ice fishing in the winter. He seemed like the kind of guy who would get along with my Father-in-Law, also ex-military who loves to fish. Great to meet you Vasily, and good luck! I hope you will be able to read this!

Well, I got in to the hostel in Kiev at 7:30 in the morning in the cold, pouring rain. It took a while to wake up the attendant from the door outside, but he finally let me in, dripping wet. Even though check-in was not until 1 pm he still let me store my bags and take a much needed shower. I then took off to see Kiev, which turned out to be a little more touristy (read: I could navigate the city without getting hopelessly lost every two seconds), but there was still very little English to go on. Here is the World War II memorial. Kiev suffered terribly during the war, with 80% of its residents homeless when the city was finally retaken by the Red Army in November 1943.


This is a view over the modern-day city of Kiev, with the Dnipro river running through it.


Another monument on the city bluffs, with beautiful gold domes in the background. This is where I was heading.


I ended up at the Lavra, a monastery popular with pilgrims who believe it to be the holiest ground in the entire country. The Lavra holds two sets of caves and several subterranean churches dug into the hills under the monastery, containing numerous glass caskets of mummified monks who died at this reclusive retreat. Their bodies were naturally preserved without embalming by the caves' cool temperature and dry atmosphere. Lonely Planet says that "the mummies survive even today, confirmation for believers that these were true holy men." This is the entrance to the lower caves.


Gold domes on sale this weekend at Target! Doors open Friday at 8 am! Financing available!


A holy man making his way up the hill.


Gold domes overlooking the courtyard.


The entrance to one of the caves is in the Church of the Raising of the Cross. Cameras were not allowed into the caves. When you go down you buy a candle, light it, and descend narrow, twisting steps down while squeezing past people coming back up. They definitely are not for the claustrophobic. People in a religious frenzy down there go to a glass casket on one side, bow, kiss it, and then go to the other side to did the same. With all the crying and lit candles flying back and forth, I was amazed that no one caught on fire. The Moravian Lovefeast candle guys at church would have had massive heart attacks! Mummified monks wearing their best vestments were on display under glass, some with their black, mummified hands poking out! Wow - talk about creepy! I also went to the Farther Caves, which were even smaller and more claustrophobic if that is possible. Later back outside in the fresh air a group of (this time) live monks ran down the hill chanting, actually carrying one of the glass caskets! Hundreds of pilgrims appeared out of nowhere and crowded around while the monks performed some mystical ceremony far beyond me. Here is a good shot of one of the monks in his black, flowing robe.


Here is a shot of the glass casket through the crowd.


The seven-domed Church of the Nativity of the Virgin (1696).


Walking uphill from the Lower Lavra I really did a double take when this guy passed me. I'll call him Tremendously Tall Man! He must have been at least 7'6". Notice that the lady he is holding hands with is actually on a raised sidewalk! The guy has to be the Ukrainian Yao Ming!


The entrance to the Upper Lavra through Trinity Gate Church, from the early 12th century.


The Great Bell Tower, 174 steps to the top. I chose to trust Lonely Planet on this one.


Trinity Gate Church from behind.


Dormition Cathedral, actually just rebuilt in 2000 after being destroyed during WW II. Astounding.


Another fantastic church in the Upper Lavra. It was hard to keep up with them all!


I exited the Lavra, my head spinning with gold. Wow! And then to top it all off there was an actual funeral letting out of one of the many chapels there. I stood on the sidewalk and watched weeping Ukrainian carry rose stems with the flowers cut off as what appeared to be Boy Scouts carried the casket outside. I could only wonder what this story told. I quietly paid my respects and moved on.

Later walking back to the Metro I saw this interesting tree gate.


The subways in Kiev were amazingly deep. I think they were built to be nuclear bomb shelters. You go down this really long escalator for like 2 full minutes, get off, and then go down another one for another 3 minutes. It felt like I was going coal mining.


Walking around a typical street in Kiev.


Guess who's coming to town? Alice Cooper!! Welcome to my nightmare, Kiev!!


I asked the hostel owner's Ukrainian wife if she knew of any good places to eat cheaply nearby. She said, "Yes, just down the street you will see a big spoon. They have good local food very cheap." "Really? That's great! What is the name of it?" She looked at me quizzically and replied, "It is called 'Big Spoon,' only in Ukrainian!" So here, ladies and gentlemen, is the famous Big Spoon!


Inside Kiev Lodging Hostel. Which one is my bed? Hint: always look for the red pillow!


The living room at the hostel...


and the nicely appointed kitchen.


At the hostel I met Taylor from Chicago. He has been at Warsaw University since February and was traveling with friends from school after the term ended until mid-July. Taylor works as a paramedic at an Emergency Room in Chicago. He loves medicine, but says that full-blown medical school might be too much of a commitment. He may become a Physician's Assistant instead. Taylor loves to travel, but is now focused on getting through school. Have fun in Europe this summer Taylor! It was great meeting you and your friends!


An outdoor cafe in Kiev. You get the feeling that they really try to enjoy the good weather while they can.


A protest going on in the open right down the street. This is the kind of thing you would never see during Soviet rule just a few years ago.


Independence Square in downtown Kiev, the heart of the city. This square was ground zero for Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004, when the historically passive Ukrainian population successfully protested the disputed election results (and their candidate's mysterious disfiguring dioxin poisoning) in their trademark orange color and learned that they really did have the power to change things in their young country. Go Ukraine!


A fountain in the square.


A close-up of the whimsical House of Chimeras, now used as a presidential administration office.




The looming Weeping Widow House.


One of the signs I was trying to follow around the streets. "Which way is the...oh never mind."


A skateboarder in the park. It seemed to be popular here.


An interesting outdoor amphitheater.


I unexpectedly found a bridge covered with hundreds of locks and tied ribbons. Mystified, I asked a nearby Dutch TV crew about them. They told me that it is a tradition for a couple in love to come here, fasten a lock to the bridge as a symbol of their undying love, and then throw the keys off the side!


No, this isn't St. Louis. This is the Friendship of Nations Monument, celebrating the 1654 'unification' of Russia and Ukraine. Word has it that Ukraine accepted the monument grudgingly, at best. It has now been joined by statues of Cossacks and other Ukrainian heroes at its base.


The Kiev waterfront.


The National Philharmonic.


Any idea what movie this billboard is advertising?


The stunning St. Michael's Monastery. Boy, what I would give to have the gold dome concession in this town.


Another shot of St. Michael's.


St. Sophia's Cathedral. At what point exactly does the gold just run out?


I didn't expect to find Mark Twain singing Ukrainian folk songs at St. Sophia's, but there he was....


And you thought New York City parking restrictions were tough....


A lady selling flowers on the street. What have these eyes seen?


Near the Botanical Gardens stands St. Volodymyr's Cathedral, one of Kiev's most beautiful. It was built to celebrate 900 years of Orthodox Christianity in the city.


St. Volodymyr's interior. I did not expect Kiev to be such an amazingly beautiful city. There seemed to be a breathtaking sight at nearly every turn.


Prayer candles.


One more of St. Volodymyr's Cathedral.


A lady, apparently bored with all the churches, naps outside.


Conjoined twins outside Kiev University.


There were very fancy sports cars being driven all over the city. Porsches, Hummers, and high-end Mustangs to name a few. Mob money? Hummm.... No, that couldn't be it. But where were they coming from? And then I saw this sign. FINALLY!! Bentley Ukraine!!


The last Lenin statue left in Kiev, a rather subdued affair. It looks like Ukraine is doing just fine without you, thank you very much Sir!


Chernobyl seemed exciting from a distance, but when the email finally came confirming it for the next day it was actually a bit frightening. What the hell was I doing?

Next: Ukraine Part 2 – A Visit to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Posted by sfoshee 14:49 Archived in Ukraine Tagged backpacking

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This is amazing! I will never be able to go to these places, and your words and good eye with the camera are so rich that I can almost smell the places you describe. Thank you so much for my vicarious wanderings this summer with you!

by Caroline Ridlehuber

I'm so glad you're taking pictures of the people you meet. One of my favorites is the window painter, partly because his clothes and hat match so well with the colors of the window and wall. Your pictures remind me that, although there are cultural differences, people are the same all over the world. It's like the familiarity you experienced when you looked at the pictures of people at Auschwitz. I see the people you are meeting in your travels and recognize the little boy chasing pigeons or the two friends on the park bench or Mark Twain singing Ukrainian folk songs...

by Anna Echols

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