Well, that description becomes even more apparent as I write about my weekend in Kiev.
Living in Vancouver has tons of perks and I love my home city through and through. But it is so darn far from everything! Getting to anywhere in Europe requires a 10-hour flight, plus likely a connecting. It’s not that much easier getting to Asia over the Pacific. If a plane flew across Canada end to end it would take 9.5 hours, just to cross my own country! Plus, the only other country we border is the US. So to be in Minsk, in Europe, surrounded by 5 countries, with TRAINS feels like the centre of the world. Naturally, I’m going to squeeze every second out of it that I can.
I should mention that I am only able to do this by the luck of my passport. The more I have worked in MSF, the more I have witnessed firsthand the difficulties that come with crossing borders, simply because of the nationality on your passport. I am very lucky to be able to access 154 countries worldwide either without a visa, or with a visa upon arrival. Of the countries bordering Belarus, I can enter Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia (all Schengen countries) without a visa, and Ukraine without a visa. I am actually embarrassed to say that before my previous mission in Tajikistan, I had never actually heard the term “Schengen” and had to look it up. This huge moment of ignorance shows how insulated one can become. Even in Russia, a country that I do need a visa, I have received in the past by simply following the meticulous visa instructions. I have never had a visa rejected (knock on wood), and acknowledge the great privilege I have by simply being born where I was born. It’s a striking contrast to some of the incredibly unjust issues of immigration going on in the world today (The Rohingya crisis comes to mind, among many others). As a friend of mine once openly said, “If I had your passport, I would go everywhere just because I was able to. You don’t know what a privilege that is, to have the freedom to move”.
So Kiev was the first destination. I was graciously invited to visit a friend of mine’s sister, Yuliya, and her husband, Alex. We have never met, but I was invited to stay at their apartment the night and they would show me around Kiev. Yuliya was worried about her English and how we would talk all weekend, but her brother had assured her that this would not be a problem for me so off I went on the night train on Friday night. It brought back memories of the Trans Mongolian railway that I had done in 2014 – same language, sleeper carriages. I was definitely a bit of a novelty when I crossed the border and was asked routine questions in Russian when I shrugged my shoulders and apologized that I didn’t speak Russian. I don’t think they were expecting that!
I arrived at 8:45am and Yuliya met me at the train station. We went back to her apartment where I met her husband and their lovely little cat. They prepared a wonderful lunch of roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, smoked fish, and salad. After a quick shower, we were off around noon. And I mean off. 12km of walking around the city later, we were back around 8pm. We walked and ate our way through Kiev.
- St. Sophia’s Cathedral
- The Funicular
- St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery
- Andriyivsky Street to St. Andrews Church
- Strolling around Podil area
- Khreshchatyk Street
- Kiev Maidan, the famous Independence Square
- Kiev Pechersk Lavra, which took about 4 hours around the huge complex
- Mariyinsky Park and Palace
- The government buildings and Presidents House
- The War Memorial Statue “Motherland” and the museum
All along the way we sampled Ukrainian food, beer, snacks, and street life. In total we calculated we walked likely more than 25km over the 2 days. It was amazing and such a joy to see the city without having to consult the guidebook, get lost, not really understand what I was looking at, and get to speak to a local about the city. The city is brimming with history and character, and it really makes me want to check out the rest of the country.
I also noticed that the events happening in 2014 surrounding the political unrest were present in the city. Memorials to those that died in protests were throughout the city, and the War Memorial museum feature display was about the war in the East of Ukraine. The city seemed to make a statement that these events would not go unnoticed and be forgotten, that they were a part of the fabric and the makeup of the landscape. I vaguely remembered this happening and asking my friend in Vancouver if his family was ok, but I took the opportunity to read up on what happened and become more informed.
It was a great weekend and I enjoyed getting to see another city and small slice of the country!