In December 2013, Rob and I spent 4 days in Kiev – 2 weeks into the Ukranian political protest.
Our backpacking trip through Europe had been planned for a while, but a few days prior to departing St Petersburg for Kiev we discovered we were about to journey to a city in political turmoil. At the time the protest was fairly peaceful so we decided to continue our visit.
Our hostel had no other inhabitants during our 4 night stay and was located about 50 metres from Maidan Square, the heart of the protest. We stepped off the train at the nearest station to walk through thousands of protest camps and ankle-deep snow. Crowds of people has dressed themselves in the Ukrainian colours of blue and yellow, and were cheering for political speakers on the protest stage. There were people driving their trucks down side streets to deliver wood for campfires or helping out by serving hot soup and bread to feed the crowds. Flags decorated every statue, car, tent, and building in sight. Standing amongst these people with such passion for the future of their country was an invigorating feeling.
On our first day we went sightseeing in Kiev, a beautiful and culturally unique city. The snowy streets featured soviet era buildings, marvellous pastel churches, quaint parks and friendly people. To get anywhere in the city we had to walk back through the protest, but we didn’t mind. The atmosphere was exciting and we enjoyed being a part of this extraordinary event.
The main purpose of our time in Kiev was to visit the soviet townships of Prypyat and Chernobyl, abandoned in 1986 due to the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion. We visited on our second day. The tour departed from just beside Maidan Square, and took us two hours through the Ukrainian countryside to arrive at the forgotten townships. We wandered through neglected buildings and empty streets, an incredible and eerie experience. On our return we could not be dropped off at our departure point as some of the streets had since been closed. We were left about a 20 minute walk from Maidan Square.
On the third day of our stay we continued sightseeing, and that was the day the riot police arrived. They donned helmets and shields but they weren’t there to fight, just intimidate. As we left our hostel in the morning to catch the metro to the war memorial monument, we witnessed people crowding around to take photos of the police blocking the streets.
That same day, multiple metro stations in the city were closed by the government in an effort to deter people from joining the protest. By the time we started back in the afternoon the stations had been shut off from the public. As we couldn’t catch a taxi due to the streets being closed off, we ended up walking 2 hours through heavy snowfall to get back to our hostel. We discovered the atmosphere of the protest had gone from peaceful to a whole lot more serious in the space of a few hours. We were glad our flight was scheduled to depart the next day.
The stations were still closed the next morning and we needed to get to the airport. But how? With the streets blocked off and the metro stations closed, our only option was walking 30 minutes with our heavy backpacks along icy streets to the nearest operating metro station.
Everything in Ukraine seemed to operate on a much more casual time schedule than the rest of the world. Once we’d made our way to the main metro station, the airport bus took a ridiculously long time to get going and we were already running late. I continued checking my watch as the departure time of our international flight got dangerously close. We eventually arrived at the airport 50 minutes before our scheduled departure time, and by that stage the transport frustrations had made us well and truly ready to move on to a country where getting anywhere wasn’t such a struggle.
Our visit to a city in the midst of a developing political protest was certainly not an everyday experience. It was uncomfortable, frustrating, and just a little scary. We had to exercise patience when transport and sites weren’t operating normally, and had to be careful which streets we walked down in case of blockades. We followed the news continually to make sure things weren’t getting out of hand, and wondered what we would do if they did. But when we look back on the experience now, we laugh about the amazing travel stories that came from our time in Kiev and enjoy telling anyone who will listen. And would we visit Kiev again once the political unrest is over? Absolutely.