etro, same as last time I visited, was adorned with a red silk cape, gracefully draped over his well-worn black leather vest. Slowly, methodically, he was removing a golden toothbrush holder atop the marble sink, taking it over to the bidet, filling it with toilet water, and feeding the lush indoor potted plants. We were inside one of several luxurious marble-clad bathrooms of the “Mezhyhiria” mansion, a ridiculous architectural testament to money over style – not so long ago occupied by the generally despised, and now exiled, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Beneath his bangs, and filled with restrained pride, Petro quietly looked up at me and smiled – almost as if he was seeking my approval. It felt like I had witnessed a secret ritual, something reserved for the eyes of the most trusted visitors allowed deep inside his two-billion-dollar domicile. Then, Petro quietly left the bathroom. I flushed the toilet just to check it wasn’t a prop, trying to bring some grounding reality to this increasingly surreal situation, and followed him out into the lounge.
Architecturally, the cavernous Mezhyhiria mansion defies categorisation, but meets all the requirements of “Dictator Chic”– perhaps “Finnish Log-Cabin Palace with Grecian Overtones” will need to suffice. As I walked back into the lounge area, not far from the stuffed Lion, Darmon was playing an Ozzie Osborne song on the former-President’s almost priceless limited-edition grand piano. I noticed his fingers being reflected in the glistening white backboard, which featured a small sketch signed by John Lennon. A caged tropical bird chirped along. Above us, next to the private indoor-wooden-church, a truck-sized crystal chandelier dispersed the wintry light, and Petro disappeared into the luxurious Billiards room off to the side. Through the windows, I caught a glimpse of the snow outside, and a raspy voice quietly whispered in my ear, “Nate…. Nate…. the elites are manufacturing your reality”.
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Viktor Yanukovych, president of the nation between 2010 and 2014, is the son of a nurse and a mechanic, raised in the Eastern part of Ukraine. For most of his working life, Yanukovych toiled away as a simple public servant. And, despite his modest Eastern European government salary, comparable to the tips of a New York city waitress, Yanukovych eventually found himself as one of two residents at “Mezhyhiria”, a multi-billion dollar tax-payer funded private estate on the outskirts of Kyiv.
The other resident was Yanukovych’s girlfriend, as according to local reports his wife had “really let herself go”. Not surprisingly, the general historical consensus will be to remember Yanukovych as an authoritative and intrinsically narcissistic wanker, tirelessly dedicated to a life filled with utterly horrific levels of corruption, all at the expense of the Ukrainian citizens.
When locals stormed the Mezhyhiria compound in the winter of 2014, during the heady days of a violent and deadly revolution, they discovered a lavish compound far beyond their wildest imaginations. The private residence spans three-hundred-and-fifty acres, including an 18-hole golf course. With regards to the onsite zoo, former president Yanukovych later claimed in a BBC interview that the Ostriches “just happened to be there”. The private garage held a fleet of cars from around the globe, the artificial lake exhibited a full-size replica Spanish Galleon. Inside the main mansion, there’s ten pin bowling, a tennis court, boxing gym, and gymnasium, and outside, the beautifully manicured gardens were tended to by a staff of hundreds.
All the usual dictatorial trappings were present – armed guards, electric fences, secret tunnels, security cameras, nuclear fallout shelters, private militia, medical clinic, extensive orchards, an expansive indoor hydroponic farm filled with fruits, vegetables, and medicinal marijuana. However, the enormous scale of excess is perhaps best contextualised by a recovered document showing a purchase order of 42 million US dollars – for light-fittings.
These days, and this might sound strange, but after the bloody revolution resulted in Yanukovych fleeing to Russia, and locals stormed the “Pushcha-Vodytsia Recreational Complex at Mezhyhiria Tract”, an affable man named “Petro” became the sole keeper of the keys to the main Mezhyhiria mansion. Very few people know the story of how Petro got into his position. We know he’s originally from the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv and takes the preservation of Mezhyhiria very seriously. So far, Petro has been inside the Mezhyhiria mansion for more than 1000 days.
Currently, the Tourism Board of Ukraine field questions about how to tour inside the Mezhyhiria mansion with “sorry, we don’t have Petro’s phone number”. Petro decides who, and when, people get to see inside the former president’s abode. Fortunately, I know a guy who knows a girl who knows Petro, and our small Ukraine Pop-Up Tour group was invited inside for a full tour.
Touring a “house” of such spectacular luxuriance is likely to surface all kinds of personal thoughts about the scruples of such excessive riches, and just what would it really feel like if you were so unfathomably wealthy, that you also had your own room dedicated solely for the grilling and consumption of Korean BBQ’d meats. It’s a mind-bending experience, and to be honest, a little overwhelming at times. I looked back and thought about my own life, and found calmness as I remembered the many happy years that completely coincided with my “poorest” financial times. Indeed, realising this connection helped spur me to turn my life upside down, pack my bag, quit my job, throw away my career, leave my family and friends, and begin the life of a recalcitrant semi-homeless itinerant™.
The thing is, most people believe that whatever amount of money they have, it’s not quite enough. It seems to be human nature, and it explains why so many people toil away in a job they hate for so many years. Paychecks are like crack cocaine, and being human in the modern world, stuck on the hedonic treadmill, is unavoidably habit forming. Like all junkies, many of us carry on our lives with little regard to rationality.
Incrementally, as time passes, we repeatedly and irrationally brush aside the messages of our own intuition, and continue evermore to ignore the briefness of our life on this planet. We obey the imaginations and machinations of other people with zombie-like deportment, and we all hope that the pay-off is worth it – an assumption that more money will, hopefully, lead to more happiness.
In any case, at some point in time, many of us begin to recognise that niggling feeling that we’re no longer carrying on with present life in the way our past selves once imagined we would. We may wonder, is life really just a greedy and inane zero-sum paper chase? Does a connection between increased money and increased happiness really exist? Can we actually “win” life by earning more? Is our salary just a bribe we are given to forget our dreams? And, was Viktor Yanukovych happier when he was just a simple mechanic?
Maybe a study by the University of Michigan would be relevant. The research concluded that every person earning more than five-hundred-thousand dollars a year (AKA “fuck you money”), was “very satisfied” with life. It was the culminating act in a survey that showed increasing wealth does lead to increasing happiness. Poorer, less satisfied. Richer, more satisfied. Which, if you still believe that generalised polls and surveys are “facts”, could be kind of distressing.
Personally, I’ve found that although long-term-travel isn’t conducive to financial success, it does offer several other benefits. Perhaps the most unheralded benefit of my own long-term travel – it’s been 1,704 days (almost five years) since I could understand what most humans are talking about. I’m generally in non-English speaking countries, and so, I never hear the fairly monotonous conversations about politics, celebrities, shopping, or sporting events. After a lifetime of hearing the same conversations on repeat, this is actually a refreshing change. And, there is little point in watching TV as a traveller, when the broadcasts are almost entirely in a language I don’t understand – so I don’t remember the last time I watched “the news”. It’s great. The downside is, long term travel can lead to a relatively isolationist lifestyle.
So in many ways, being a long-term traveller is strangely similar to being a hermit – minus the long beard, semi-nudity, and throwing shit at anyone that dares enter my cave.
Maybe that’s what it’s like to be rich.
PS, limited seats are available for our third Kyiv and Chernobyl tour – and this time, we’re including Transnistria (a country that may or may not exist) and the nation of Moldova (it definitely exists). TICKETS ARE ON SALE NOW. All the info is right here – I hope you can join us for an incredible Eastern European journey through three nations…