Saturday, August 7, 2010

Off to Kiev and Belarus

Sylvia in our train compartment
Joan on the funicular.
The funicular heads up the steep hill
The monument marking the ravine where the Jews were slaughtered at Babi Yar.
Sunday afternoon Joan and Sylvia and I clambered aboard our overnight train to Kiev. Because there are three of us, I also bought the 4th seat in the kupe, so we would have a compartment to ourselves. And a good thing it was, because we immediately spread our stuff everywhere, making me wonder how Sylvia and I were going to be able to share a kupe with strangers on our return trip from Minsk (though we did just fine). And what a blessing—it was air conditioned. There definitely is something to be said for traveling 2nd class in this heat….
We arrived about 8:00am, checked our baggage at the train station, and set out to explore Kiev before returning to the station in the evening for our overnight train to Minsk, the capitol of Belarus. The first stop was the Belarus Embassy so I could pick up my visa I had applied for several weeks earlier when I was in Kiev with Serdar. Getting a visa to Belarus is not an easy process for an American. It costs $120, takes a week or more to process, requires a letter of invitation, and you need to account for your whereabouts the whole time you are in Belarus (our hotel had to file a registration for us at the local police station). So I was a bit concerned until I had my visa in hand, but it was net problema (no problem)—they were very friendly at the embassy and the person I dealt with spoke English. Actually, despite the warnings that Americans weren’t liked in Belarus, almost all the people we met were friendly and helpful, more so than in Ukraine, I think.
It turned out to be a very hot day in Kiev, which made it difficult to want to stroll around the city much. But with the help of the Metro (the amazing, very deep, Soviet built subway system, complete with mosaic and chandelier decorated stations), we managed to visit a few sites. At the top of our list was a journey to Baba Yar, site of the execution of more than 100,000 people by the Nazis during the war, and in particular, the site of the single largest massacre of the Holocaust, when in 24 hours, 34,000 Jews were marched to a ravine and shot, believing until the very last minute that they were going to be deported. I had been to Baba Yar before and knew that there were three monuments there—a small one near the Metro stop dedicated to the children killed, a very large Soviet built monument that did not even mention the Jews that were killed, though in recent years additional explanation of the monument has been added; and a third monument in the form of a menorah, which is near the actual ravine where the Jews were killed and buried. This monument is in a more remote part of what is now a large park, and we had quite a bit of difficulty finding it. No one seemed to know where it was, or even what it was. Finally, we asked a Jewish looking gentleman, who instantly knew what we were talking about but had to call his friend for directions. After more walking in the heat, we made it to the memorial and stood on the edge of the ravine, gazing into a now tree filled valley, and thought of what had happened there--the men, women, and children whose lives had so cruelly ended at that spot. It was the beginning of many such memorials we would be at on this trip, and the edge of a deepening spiral of our comprehension of what had happened in this part of the world.
We went back to the center and found a restaurant a fellow PCV had told me about that has “nut burgers,” a vegetarian rarity here in Ukraine. And it wasn’t too bad—it at least gave Sylvia an alternative to the salad and potatoes she had pretty much been forced to eat when we dined out. Afterwards, despite the heat and a beer (that was a mistake), we wanted to see the ancient Byzantine church of St. Sophia, Kiev’s oldest existing church. We made it to the bell tower at the entrance and entered the lovely, peaceful grounds surrounding the church, but unfortunately the church itself was closed. After wandering around a bit, we left and followed the winding street of “Andrew’s Descent,” past writer Bulgakov’s house/museum (I just finished his Master and Margarite, now one of my all time favorite books) down to the ancient area of Podil, and took the funicular back up to the park along the Dnipro River, walked the park a bit, then took the Metro back to the railway station to catch our overnight train to Minsk. However, in our hurry down the steps to the train platform, we had a mishap. Joan missed the last step and came crashing down on her knee and twisted her ankle. Passer bys came to the rescue and helped us gather the strewn luggage and get Joan back on her feet, but it was a hobble to the train, and her injuries would plague Joan for the rest of the trip, making it difficult for her to participate in the way she would like. Luckily, her knee didn’t seem too bad after the swelling went down. We got an ace bandage for her ankle, and she was able to limp around on it the rest of the week, though enduring some pain to do it.
The train was very hot when we finally got on. I managed to get a little bit of ice from the conductor for Joan’s swelling knee and ankle, and we fanned ourselves until the train started up, which kicked in the blessed air conditioning. It was a pretty luxurious train by Ukrainian standards and we had our compartment to ourselves, so it was as nice trip as it could be, given Joan’s condition and being awakened by the border crossing guards (four!—two from Ukraine and two from Belarus) at three in the morning.
We arrived in Minsk, the capitol of Belarus, at 8am. The plan was for us to be picked up by a shuttle to go to Navagrudak where we would spend the week, but the arrangements got mixed up, and we quickly found that my cell phone wasn’t going to work in Belarus, despite assurances that it would. So we missed the shuttle, but eventually we were able to make our way to the bus station and on a bus to Navagrudak, and once there, a taxi to our hotel.
So now we are in Navagrudak, where Sylvia’s father was born and lived and her mother too after she was married. And here our real journey began.

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