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Golden Kyiv

Flying Air Baltic from Riga to Kyiv was exceptionally pleasant, with free food and wine, even. Onboard I had to fill out an immigration card, a rare occurrence within Europe these days. Another rare occurrence is queuing for immigration. As a result of the Schengen Accord, passport control has been relegated to history books in many countries. This queue was a timely reminder of not taking this openness for granted.

Nostalgically, though, waiting for immigration was one of the peculiar charms of travelling in the old days, wasn’t it? It made for great stories afterwards: queuing for hours in cramped spaces, no air-conditioning and 2000 degree heat, screaming children, skeptical, stone-faced immigration officials, the air ripe with irritation, suspicion and sweat, someone crazed with jetlag suddenly pulling out an Uzi. OK, maybe not that last bit. Now the queue was only 20 minutes and the immigration official even smiled as he confirmed the names on my passport in no particular order - Sophiaredischanna?

Equally rare in Europe is stamping passports. Since the EU-enlargement in 2004, you really have to go to countries like, well, Ukraine, for anyone to give your passport more than a cursory glance - at least if it’s a European passport. I felt childishly pleased with my Kyiv immigration stamp.

For the 45-minute ride into town, I had pre-ordered transportation. It was expensive, but as I only had 24 hours in town, I didn’t want to waste time haggling or even fording my way through the throngs of eager transport pimps crowding the arrivals hall. Also, I get a kick out of seeing my name displayed on a poster, even though this one said Redischanna.

In Kyiv, I saw political rallies both in front of Parliament and on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). Tents with pictures of Yulia Tymoshenko were everywhere.

During the presidential election in 2004, the sitting Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, was declared the winner after a second run-off vote. The Orange Revolution, led by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, was essentially a series of protests throughout the country alleging corruption and electoral rigging, leading to the Supreme Court overturning the result. Another run-off was held and in this third attempt at electing a president, the popular Yushchenko emerged as winner.

This revolution may have been peaceful, but not without drama. During the protests, Yushchenko suffered dioxin poisoning, leaving his face pockmarked and swollen. Looking at before and after photos, his face was dramatically altered. The Orange movement blamed the opponents and their backers, mighty neighbouring Russia.

After the victory, Yushchenko appointed Tymoshenko Prime Minister. Eight months later, he sacked her. According to her website, she was on a mission to “strip oligarchs of their power”. On the day I arrived (August 2006), it became clear that Yanukovich, the pro-Russian former Prime Minister, was back in office. And many of the oligarchs were Russian.

We’ll leave Ukrainian politics at that. What is certain is that Yulia Tymoshenko is an interesting woman (although I’m curious about those Alpine braids she’s always sporting) and that we’ll hear more from her.

Wide and busy ulitsa Khreshchatyk, the main avenue, is free of motorised traffic every weekend. With everyone and their cousin out walking, traffic is even busier on the weekends, I was told. But as I tried hopping between cars, a bit like a game of Frogger, I found that hard to believe. I finally gave up and took an underpass, one of many in Kyiv.

These underpasses double as underground shopping centres, with a curious mix of high-end boutiques and hawkers selling individual cigarettes from camping tables. Both here and along Khreshchatyk, the selection of luxuries was astonishing. As was the ATM-to-humans ratio. Now consider this: the average Ukrainian income is but a fraction of that of the EU. This is one of the poorest countries in Europe. The UNDP Human Development Index even shows Ukrainian standard of living to be declining! Now couple this with capitalism on a rampage. I’m sure I’m not the only one troubled by this.

Further along, I passed the red-walled National University and in nearby Shevchenko Park, an extremely bowlegged toddler in a blue dress ran circles around me, giggling and yelping like a puppy. She was delightful, but I was looking for the fabled golden domes of Kyiv. And there, rounding a corner, I caught a first glimpse of St. Sophia.

It’s a breathtaking cathedral with 13 shining golden domes and a stunning blue, 76-metre high bell tower. At the other end of a short street, the heavenly blue St. Michael’s Cathedral was not as tall, but just as gorgeous - with bright, vivid murals and golden domes. I had walked for ages in no particular direction and by the time I got there, both compounds were closed. So unfortunately, I missed looking inside the churches - a good enough reason to return, judging from pictures in my copy of "Kiev: Architecture History."

I couldn’t decide which of the two cathedrals I liked the better. Michael, the Archangel, Prince of the Seraphim - or Sophia, Priestess of Divine Wisdom. Having pondered this for a while, it dawned on me. Sophia and Michael simply belong together. And the little street between them is the silver thread connecting their souls. How’s that from a sober, secular Scandinavian!

Early next morning I found myself sitting on a bench in the courtyard of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra - Monastery of the Caves. Golden domes abounded. When the Cathedral of the Dormition was restored after having been “razed to the ground by an explosion of terrible force” in 1941, it took nine kilos of leaf gold to gild its domes and crosses.

Entrance to the monastery is through Trinity Gate. Dating from 1106, it's decorated with images of saints and topped with a cross. One of Kyiv’s many construction cranes that was parked across the street, framed the gate and created the effect of yet another cross above Trinity Gate.

This was August, prime holiday season for travel-hungry Europeans. Lavra is the premier sight in Kyiv, and the hordes would no doubt soon rush in. But the early morning atmosphere was serene and peaceful. For now, I was the only one here, apart from five pigeons pecking on a sticky bun that had miraculously escaped the sweeper. All I heard was the belfry chime and the soft rustle of the fountains.

Like St Sophia, Caves is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I don’t know if UNESCO has rules about ATMs on the properties, but this monastery had one immediately inside the entrance. A large compound, more than 11 hectares, this is very much a living monastery. Along the Upper Lavra, monks’ dormitories line the courtyard. To enter the churches, women have to cover their heads, while men, curiously, have to uncover theirs.

The heady scent of roses emanated from a small bed; elsewhere apple trees and sunflowers vied for space. Around every corner, another golden dome gleamed in the early morning sunshine. A young man with a baby stroller was negotiating his way down a steep street paved with ancient stone slabs, leading to Lower Lavra. Further down, the river Dniepr floated lazily by.

A green sign said KABA, and I was soon enjoying strong Ukrainian coffee by the Exhibition Hall, gazing at vendors laying out embroidered table clothes, blouses, souvenir icons and books for sale. Apparently, there’s nothing wrong with doing business on holy grounds here either. I think a certain someone would have a word or two to say about this practice, though. An episode comes to mind of him entering the temple area and driving out all who were buying and selling there. Something about overturning the tables of moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves too, wasn’t it? But what do I know; this particular part of the gospels may be modernised by now - as opposed to, say, views on homosexuality. But I digress.

All of a sudden everything seemed to wake up. The courtyard was filling up with tourists and locals. I could hear guides speaking in Russian, Portuguese and Dutch. All around, monks were working. One was painting window lattices, another washed a wall. Yet another was pruning a pink azalea whilst talking on his mobile. And yet another, exhausted from taking out the rubbish, plonked his large frame on a bench with an audible sigh.

It was time to see the main attraction, the Caves - a necropolis for the saints of the ancient state of Kievan Rus. People have come to the Caves on pilgrimages for more than 1000 years.

In one of the churches above the caves, people were queuing to receive blessings or advice from two grey-haired monks in black robes and beards. They looked quite patriarchal. The young father, now carrying his sleeping child, patiently awaited his turn in the queue.

Without warning, the locks of heaven opened and I was pelted with buckets of rain. People didn’t seem to mind much; some dug out umbrellas, but most just got on with their business. Everywhere, people were making the sign of the cross and kissing relics.

Inside yet another church, I noticed people buying candles and donning black robes. Was this the mysterious caves, at last? I latched on to a tour group - by accident, of course - and, as fate would have it, a Russian-speaking one. My Russian is limited, to say the least, so I just followed the others, did what they did and thus bought two candles. At first I wasn’t sure why we were buying two but I soon got it. Descending the narrow stairway to the caves, one candle was extinguished by a rush of air. Repeatedly, I had to light one with the other.

The narrow, white-washed catacombs had an atmosphere of serenity. Along the walls were mummified monks dressed in green and gold robes, in glass caskets. Mostly just the robes were visible, but occasionally, a mummified hand stuck out, darkened by the years. I, being morbidly curious, leaned over every casket, looking for body parts.

Others had more reverent errands. Teenagers, loud and playful on the outside, now humbly kissed the relics. One woman got on her knees before a monk, kissed the casket and muttered a prayer. As the tunnels are rather narrow, about 1 ½ metres wide, the rest of us waited patiently while she went through her ritual. No one seemed to mind, and to my surprise, I didn’t either. It takes some winding down, some peace and quiet, to appreciate the atmosphere here with these dead monks - men who devoted their lives to something they believed in. That’s not a contemporary concept, and all the more deserving of respect, perhaps. It was very touching.

Andriyivski uzviz means St. Andrew’s Descent, indicating how this twist-and-turn cobblestone street should be negotiated. There’s even a funicular so you don’t have to do St. Andrew’s Ascent. My advice is to wear trainers, but Ukrainian girls wouldn’t give two red cents for that piece of good sense. It looked rather strange to watch them wobble down the cobblestones in 7-inch heels. On the other hand, I didn’t see any of them falling, not even stumbling.

The Descent has often been equated with Montmartre in Paris. It was certainly a charming street, old and picturesque, filled with galleries, cafés and museums, including the house of famous Ukrainian author, Mikhail Bulgakov, well-known for The Master and Margarita. Also, the Descent has its own museum, the quaintly named Museum of One Street. There’s also the stunning St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

Most visible, however, are the artists and street vendors, selling matroshkas, wooden artefacts, Che Guevara T-shirts and much more. Halfway down, I stopped at the cosy Chumatskiy Dvir and had a delicious grilled forest-mushroom sandwich. A café cat stretched languidly on a chair, not caring one bit about my attempts to get her attention.

Scandinavian languages are frequently heard on the streets of Kyiv. Of course, you hear what you’re listening for, but even so. I wondered what they were doing here. I know they weren’t all goofing around like I was. A few were here to engage in that fierce capitalism, I shouldn’t be surprised. Oddly, I didn’t hear a single American. They’re usually somewhat, um, audible and in this shopper’s paradise, I would have expected their presence felt. I did meet and had breakfast with Mark and his parents, though. They own a newspaper in South Carolina and were here to do business with a Ukrainian paper - nice folks and soft-spoken.

I had heard claims of various scams, attempted robberies and assorted horror stories, discouraging people from visiting Ukraine. But I never felt unsafe and wasn’t even particularly vigilant, walking down a dark alley or two. I even forgot my wallet in a restaurant and a teenage boy came running after me to give it back.

In short, nothing bad happened, except having to crowd like a tinned sardine in the airport bus, stuck under the smelly armpit of a tall man with a huge, annoying lipoma on his elbow, just screaming for a quick rendezvous with a scalpel. Also, practically in my face, was a pimply teenager with thin strands of hair left uncut, hanging down his back. Lucky for the both of them, I had no scissors on me.

So that was 24 hours in Kyiv. And 24 hours well spent. Kyiv has much more to offer, of course, including:
- the Children’s Railway, where children work as train drivers and conductors
- the House with Chimeras, for a look at interesting architecture and freaky sculptures
- Vladimirskaya Gorka, a park with old pavilions, believed to be a spiritual place with magic at work; a source of inspiration for artists of every kind
- Babiy Yar, a ravine where thousands of people were executed during World War II
- and of course, more gorgeous cathedrals and churches, too numerous to mention.