Kiev & and brief stop in Sofia, Bulgaria
The Ukraine is a land of extremes. Kiev is extremely pretty but its citizens litter an extreme amount which in turns leads to the extreme efforts the cleaning crews put in every night. The women are extremely good looking but they dress extremely provocatively. Their economy is developing extremely quickly but their customer service is extremely bad. No one speaks English. The language barrier was about as difficult, if not worse, than South Korea.
If you go to Kiev and plan to deal with anyone whatsoever, pack a stressball. My experience with the airlines and consulates trying to get myself to Russia was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had on this trip so far. Russian tourist visa require an invitation letter usually secured from a hotel or travel agency. In order for them to process it, I had to change my flight. I asked the agent at the airport to do it. He told me go to the office downtown. I called the office downtown which was closed for the weekend. I called the customer service number. They were closed for the weekend too. I asked a lady at the call center if she would help me call the call center in Moscow (her job) and she flat out refused. I finally paid a Russian guy to use his phone and called and changed my flight (it was 815am and the flight left at 820am). The agent told me everything was fine, just show up at the airport and pay a small change fee.
With the flight sorted I headed to the consulate to get the visa taken care of. I waited for two hour, then got yelled at in Russian for using a copy machine, and finally someone came out to look at my documentation. He said it was fine and told me to hang on for a second. Two hours later they called me in. The lady looked at my paperwork and told me she would issue me a visa for today and tomorrow. The hotel had put the check in – check out dates on the invitation letter instead of the arrival and departure dates from Russia. Who goes to Russia for one day?
I headed to a travel agency nearby to see if I could use their phone to call the hotel and get them to fax over a new letter. I offered them $15 to make a two minute phone call. They told me they issued visas and they wouldn’t help with this one but I could buy a new one from them for $472. I smiled, cussed at them in Spanish so they wouldn’t understand (I probably could have done it in English considering I had to play charades with them the entire time), and left. I ended up calling the hotel in Moscow in hopes to get it fixed, but they were of no help whatsoever.
I sat down at a café and wrote down all the costs of going through with this trip versus paying for a new one from London in the future. London won out so I decided to cancel my flight tomorrow. I headed to the address I had for the airline office downtown. It was nowhere to be found. I walked around for two hours looking for it. I stopped in several travel agencies to ask for directions, all either didn’t understand me or just didn’t care. I eventually saw a Delta office and went in. Someone actually spoke English! I showed them my Gold Medallion card and told them the situation. I asked if they could either change it since Delta and Aeroflot are partners and if not could she call them for me. She said “No, it’s your problem.” I was too stunned to mutter anything in Spanish this time and just walked out.
My homebase for figuring all this Ukraine to Russia nonsense out
I finally made my way back to the call center and got a hold of the Aeroflot office. I told them to please cancel my reservation. She said I had to come into the office. I explained I had spent two hour looking for it and wasn’t coming back down that direction, could we please do it over the phone. She said I had to come in. I asked how they cancelled reservations if people live in a city without an Aeroflot office. She said they do it over the phone. I told her we were going to cancel it over the phone. She said fine, but if I wanted a refund I had to come down to the office tomorrow morning. Fine.
The next morning I finally found the office after an hour of searching. I went in and sat down with an agent who actually spoke decent English. I explained the situation and gave him my conformation number. He pulled up the reservation, said everything looked good, then all of a sudden disappeared for twenty minutes. When he came back he explained that the Moscow call center had logged the call at 8:33 and since the flight left at 8:20 he couldn’t give me a refund. I told him the Moscow call had started at 8:15 and maybe she hadn’t logged the info in until after we were done. I also mentioned that I had specifically asked both her and an agent from his office if there were any problems and both said no. “I still can’t give you a refund.” I tried playing the Gold Medallion card. Nope. I was at the end of my fuse and blew up on the guy. I feel kind of bad about it since he took the brunt of it for all this crummy service I’d been getting. I told him his customer service was pathetic, their whole operation was a joke, and I was going to write a letter to his supervisor (which I did). He did care at all. I didn’t both translating my distaste into Spanish this time and stormed out.
Aside from that whole terrible experience I really enjoyed Kiev. The main boulevard was closed off to pedestrian traffic for the weekend and the street was flooded with street performers, games, and people. It seemed like everyone had a beer in their hand. The food was great as well. A fellow LBS admit, Timur, and I went out for a traditional Ukrainian dinner. We spent most of the time talking about our backgrounds, travels, and moving our significant other to London in the coming months. The food was good, but most of the dishes are heavy on the meats and potatoes and aren’t for those dieting. Desert was basically cherry pie filling in ravioli, it was one of my favorites of the meal.
vul Khreshchatyk, the main street of Kiev
Concert literally a block away from my hostel on vul Khreshchatyk
Bessarabsky Market by night
Between airline and visa battles I had some time to tour the city as well. There are several of the Orthodox churches and I toured the main three, St Sophia, St Michael’s, and St Andrew’s. The walk to St Andrew’s was up a hill lined with little shops you would see in the market in Charleston. The architecture of the buildings was very impressive as well. Most were painted bright pastel colors. St Michael’s was the most impressive of the three churches. The complex had a large open square out front and the domed spires were plated in gold.
Main statue in maydan Nezalezhnosti, where 1,000,000 protestors rallied for the Orange Revolution in 2004
View of Podil along the Dnipro River from the amusement park atop Volodymyrsky uzviz
Close up of a cathedral on the Dnipro River
Meandering the markets up to the cathedrals
The brightly colored building lining the markets
St Andrew's Church
The entrance to St Sophia Cathedral
View of St Michael's Monastery from the square
Wooden roof Orthodox Church
I had to figure out another place to go to fill the void created by not going to Russia. I decided to go to Romania a little early. Finding and buying a train ticket was an experience in itself but I won’t bore you with another tale of Ukrainian customer service. I managed to secure a train but it went though Bulgaria (ridiculously out of the way). I didn’t really spend much time there, but the Bulgarian countryside was very nice. Most of the countryside was agricultural and people looked more at home with their horses than cars. One interesting thing I did learn about the trains is that the former USSR built it tracks wider than all the rest of Europe. This was done to keep hostile trains out of the country but it means that you have to stop for three hours in Moldova to jack the cars up while they change out the wheels. I got scolded sternly for taking these pictures by an immigration officer.
Russian spare tires
Jacking the train up and putting in the new wheels
Finally, after 28 hours I arrived in Bucharest, Romania