I boarded a train at the Kievsky Voksal in the southwest corner of Moscow at 11:23pm on Sunday night. The station was a bit deserted except for the usual massive number of heavily armed Russian police. The train pulled out of the station and I immediately fell asleep. I was woken by Russian border security at 4am. One of my proudest moments of using the Russian language was my simple but important back-and-forth with these guys. I went back to sleep.
I woke up at 7am and the sun was shining in Ukraine. I looked out the window and saw green. I felt like Dorothy waking up in Oz – all of a sudden there was color! After going through Ukrainian immigration at the Kiev train station, and dropping my things off at my hostel, I started exploring Kiev.
Kiev is a beautiful city – simultaneously more European but less cosmopolitan feeling than Moscow. There is the usual massive Soviet monuments littering the city, beautiful gold-domed churches, but Kiev’s tree-lined boulevards made me think of Hausmann and not Stalin.
Ukrainian food was also a revelation compared to Russia. It is basically the same far but cooked with more pride, more flare and more flavor. It was also cheaper. My first meal in Kiev consisted of a great dark Ukrainian beer, borscht, a medley of vegetables in a butter sauce, buttery bread, and “kotlet kuryana z sirom” literally chicken cutlet with cheese but known to us as chicken Kiev. All of this cost me 34 hrivna or $4.25US. I loved every bite of it. I had meals at this restaurant many times and was always very happy.
Kiev is a great city but three days was enough. I had been thinking about extending my time in Ukraine and taking a ferry from Odessa on the 11th, but again I felt itchy to get going. I bought a ticket for another overnight train from Kiev to Sofia. It was more train travel than I had hoped but the train trip was made a lot nicer with the company of a lovely Russian woman named Zoya who lives in Sofia, a beautiful Iranian girl going to medical school in Ukraine and a Swedish traveller who was heading to the same hostel as me. The countryside was also a new site – gone were birch trees and industrial wastelands – now there were huge plains checkered with green grass and yellow flowers, horses pulling families in carts and shepherds tending to their flocks.
I had crossed in to the EU and it felt like I was in a new world.