Saturday, September 8, 2007

To Kiev!

The Ukranian woman on the train woke me up about an hour before our arrival in Kiev so I could get ready, but then she apologized as she realized I didn't really have any such need, so we just looked out the window while we waited. One of the Russian women sneezed, and I said "bud'te zdorov'e" (the Russian equivalent to "bless you" - literally "be healthy") and the Ukranian woman asked if that implied that we also said something in English when someone sneezed, and what it meant (since, in Russian, the meaning is clear), so I clumsily tried to explain that, as far as I knew, way back when they thought your soul was trying to escape or something, so it meant something to the effect that "may God grant you that everything is fine" (this was the best I could muster in Russian). She also asked about what kind of trees we had as we watched the forests through the window. I said we had all kinds, but near me it was mainly oak and pine, but that it depends on the region, e.g. in California there are the giant sequoias. As we approached the city, she asked if we had such ogromnie (giant) cities; I said I didn't really know, but that they were probably smaller, but taller, and she was saying something to the effect that it's unhealthy to be living up that high, that there are these vibrations and so forth. Shrug.

We arrived at the station and said our farewells, with the Russians joking that they were looking forward to my book (we'll see). The train had arrived at about 8 or 9 AM, and I took a taxi to the hotel for 60 hrvina ($12). Upon checking in, I was presented with a glass of champagne and a "congratulations." Well alright, cool. (I later learned they were celebrating their 35th anniversary that week). The hotel was nice enough, but still it was so far away. I showered and walked to the city, crossing a long bridge across the Dnepr (yes, the same Dnepr as in Smolensk), with a giant statue of a woman with a sword and shield ("the lady motherland") in the distance, as well as monasteries dotting the hills.

I was hungry as I walked uphill towards the statue (a World War II monument) and its surrounding memorials to WWII and, to my surprise, Afghanistan. Oh, right, I'd forgotten about that (as had, evidentally, the Russians). I ate at a little cafe, which was dirt cheap. Yet another benefit of learning Russian was that I could function here (thanks to the Soviet Union basically making Russian the de facto language during that time). I went into a museum about the war in Afghanistan as well as, evidentally, some other communist interferences and such. It is interesting to note the sympathy felt toward the tragic destruction wrought on the Soviet Union from WWII, which was, let's say, a righteous defense against the Nazis, and then see the other side, i.e. the war of aggression into Afghanistan which also resulted in pointless calamity. I realized that, although we consider recent history more peaceful than earlier, when Europe was seemingly always fighting, it really isn't much better, with it still being a constant series of hellish wars. The war(s) of 1812, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Iraq again (off the top of my head), to say nothing of all the genocides that have happened and are still happening. We really live in a hellish world, it's just that the US itself has been largely insulated from it. I was reminded of a news report I'd seen while watching TV in Murmansk, with these child miners working at soldiers' gunpoint for nothing, as the soldiers would steal everything. These people could barely fit in the caves and were covered with scrapes and worked like hell for nothing. What kind of life is that?

Things remained cheerful as I made my way further to the WWII monuments/museum (though strangely, there were a lot of wedding parties, just like at a statue of a grenadier in Murmansk. Shrug. There were also a lot of schoolchildren in suits). I went here too, seeing more relics of destruction, including a wrecked plane, whose engine was mostly intact and exposed. I marveled at all the complex machinery built and destroyed for war, and at how much money, research, materials, etc, that goes into making things all these instruments of death and destruction, designed solely to kill other people.

I continued walking around the hills, seeing over the wall into a nearby monastery, which I entered later in the day - the "Kiev/caves monastery", and there were indeed a series of underground caves which one navigated with candles, with tombs of, well I don't know whom, but some weren't fully covered and I'd see some shrunken, rotting fingers here and there. There were some altars and other things too here and there in the caves. The whole place was huge. There was a depressing line of beggars along the street outside the monastery as I continued my walk towards the center of the city.

There was another park with a giant arch with two soldiers in the middle, evidently representing Russia and Ukraine. There were some theme park-like attractions as well, and it offered a terrific view across the Dnepr (as did most of these things on these hills). I continued to another monastery, which was somehow related to Stalin's famines and repressions of the 1930s, which were meant to punish Ukranian peasants for their insubordination. I continued on to Khreschatik, the main boulevard of Kiev, which was like Times Square as a colossal block party. I was even angrier that my hotel could have been right here were it not for my stupid credit card company. I walked along, then took the subway (50 kopeeks! i.e. 10 cents) and then a bus (75 kopeeks) - that's right, kopeeks are actually somewhat useful! (A kopeek is 1/100th of a ruble in Russia, or 1/100th of a hrivna in Ukraine. But in Russia, because of inflation, nothing is less than a few rubles and everything costs an even multiple of a ruble, so kopeeks are completely useless. The exception is supermarkets, which will have things cost something like 21 rubles, 20 kopeeks, and so are extremely irritating). The total - 1.25 hrvina - 25 cents. I'd had quite a day, arriving that morning on the train and exploring a huge swath of the city of the course of almost 12 hours walking up and down hills.

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