Travelling in Eastern Europe Summer of 2008

From Odessa to Minsk


Tuesday morning, we left Odessa and drove all the way up to Kyiv with only a stop at Ukraine’s beautiful Botanic Garden outside Uman. The highway passed outside of villages and towns, so we mostly saw fields on the way up to the capital. (That Ukraine’s domestic agricultural policies have an impact on the world’s grain markets becomes obvious when driving through the country.)


Kyiv was nice as always. We stayed at Hotel Bratislava a couple of metro stops outside the centre, and to save a bit of money, we decided to stay in a unrenovated room. The receptionist was reluctant to even give us the key, but we insisted. And no, it had not been renovated since the 1960s or the 1970s. The beds squeaked a lot at the slightest movement, and the bathroom left a lot to wish for. But it was quite cool to stay in true Soviet style for once. These rooms will for sure be renovated in a year or two.


Our first day, we mostly walked around the city, looked at the main sites and visited the Chernobyl museum (sad and dark). The second day, we went to the famous monastery caves at Saint Anthony’s Monastery. Jonas and I agreed that some of the monastery’s grandeur was probably lost to us because we are not religious. While the monastery was beautifully situated on a hillside above the Dnepr river, there was an immense commerce inside the monastery’s walls with icons, candles, scarves, and entrance fees. In the end, we only went down in the actual caves. I don’t know what I expected, but not really what I found down there. Inside the small rooms down the caves, there were glass coffins with mummified bodies wrapped in embroidered velvet drapes. The caves were full of people, all holding candles and many of them kissing the lids of each coffin that they passed. I just thought the whole experience immensely bizarre and somewhat tasteless and undignified.


The last thing that we saw in Kyiv was the Babyn Yar ravine (or park today), were approximately 100,000 Jews, Roma and others were killed during WWII. Of them, 35,000 people had been gathered there when the Nazis first occupied Kyiv in 1941, and in killed in 48 hours. The horrors that took place are simply beyond understanding!


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Independence Square in Kyiv


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Kyiv’s last statue of Lenin


In the afternoon, we continued our journey and drove up to Chernihiv, a few kilometre from the Belarusian boarder. I have to say that in spite of a population of 300,000 people, Chernihiv was an immensely sleepy town and I had the impression that very little goes on there, and the thought of being young there almost pained me. But perhaps it had something that we missed during our short stay there. We did however end up in the most central hotel in town (Hotel Ukraina), located in a building that seemed to have been an administrational building that had been turned into a hotel, with long corridors and concrete staircases. Our room was a small apartment with golden wall paper and golden curtains. But it was really comfortable as everything was brand new (except for the taste of the decorator, which seemed to have been stuck in the old communist style).


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Jonas in Chernihiv


Friday morning, we headed towards the Belarusian boarder and Minsk. We had feared the boarder quite a lot and foresaw a lot of hassle, especially on the Belarusian side. But everything went smooth and I was even surprised to see that the boarder guards on each side were too lazy to even bother to check our trunk.


The road from the boarder to Minsk was really pretty and in some ways, it reminded me a bit of the Swedish country side. The houses had changed from stone cottages to wooden houses in the last kilometres of Ukraine, and in Belarus, almost all houses were made out of wood. The difference was only that in Belarus, all houses were really well taken care of and painted in nice colours. So were the roads. And the bus stops. And the street signs, and so on. Everything was very well maintained and many times even new.


We stopped for lunch and a coffee at one of the few roadside cafes that we passed (traffic was not exactly heavy in Belarus), and ended up watching part of the opening of the Olympics. I have to say that it felt a bit surreal, sitting there at a café in the middle of no-where in Belarus on 08/08/08, watching the opening of the Olympics from Beijing. But I guess that is the charm of travelling: that you experience things that you are not used to and do not do in your everyday life!


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