What Happened When I Used My Phone on the Mean Streets of Kiev
Located in downtown Kiev, built almost a century ago, Besarabsky Market has a position at one end of Khreshchatyk street – perhaps the main street of Kiev, and one of the most expensive shopping streets in Europe. However, the impression within Bersarabsy – an airy, high-vaulted space with the filtered dusty light one would expect in a century-old and non-gentrified city market – remains somewhat working-class. Surrounded by seasonal fruit, vegetables, cheeses, meats, and brik-a-brak, Bersarabsky is great starter-spot for absorbing the colourful innards of downtown Kiev.
It’s all pretty typical Eastern European stuff – scarfed Babushka’s, old men with handsome hats, the occasional drunkard, plenty of character filled faces, and a slightly lost-in-time feeling. There’s also an inordinate amount of effortlessly-chic younger ladies and gents filing in-and-out. And, I’m certainly not one for click-bait, but what happened next, surprised me.
Moving through the stalls, towards the back of Besarabsky, I came across an architecturally faux-industrial and minimalist space. Bar stools surrounded an open prep-area, as chefs and bartenders sorted out the patrons. I sat down, without even thinking, drawn in by juxtaposition. Quickly, I was handed a menu – by a friendly, and yet somewhat aloof staff member.
The menu was short – and the Cyrillic easy to phonetically interpret – I made out Udon, Dim Sum, Fajita, Mojito, Basil Lemonade, Coffee, and Beer. The simple menu (on recycled paper) contained no reverence for Ukraine, or Kiev. This was a clearly a zero-fracks-given statement of confidence, and encouraged me to dine on a combination of Chinese and Mexican, with a Cuban cocktail, all during a regular Kiev week-day. But, apart from the decidedly unique surrounding market, I could have been in Berlin, Brooklyn, or Melbourne.
About an hour or so later, I started to wonder exactly where the hell I was. Paid-up, I began to walk back outside. Sliding past the rows of Babushka’s, between the procession of attractive punters filing in, and onto sun-dappled Lada and Mercedes filled streets – and then it hit me – Kiev is truly unlike any other city I have ever visited.
Running a quick search on the major media websites for the word “Kiev”, you’ll find stories littered with words like “bloodshed” and “violence”. Of course, completing the bread and circuses theme, a few stories about Kiev Dynamo, the local football club, and recipes for Chicken Kiev will also appear (side note – unfortunately, I’ve not yet made any female friends in Ukraine, so my future “I know this chick in Kiev” joke is currently in limbo – do try the shrimp, I’ll be here all week). The on-the-ground experience of Kiev is, well, not entirely what you might expect.
Forward facing independent journalists and bloggers have been recently extolling the virtues of Kiev, and Ukraine. But, thanks to a few “problems” that Ukraine is currently dealing with, the nation certainly doesn’t lack a mainstream-media profile. This has given Ukraine a reasonably serious image problem. To put it mildly.
My impressions formed over the last few weeks in Kiev – this city makes for one of the best short-vacation destinations of any city I’ve ever visited. There’s is a huge amount of history here – from ancient churches to Soviet-era modernism. The people are some of the nicest you will ever meet – on the buses and subways (metro) I’ve never seen such uniformity in giving up seats for the elderly. Not me, just sayin’.
A couple of things about Kiev have genuinely surprised me. I’m no stranger to post-Soviet nations (having spent time in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania. Moldova, and Transnistria), I’ve completed many “Untours” in nations that have an “image problem” (cough, Iran, cough), and I’ve spent a lot of time in cities suffering from economic distress, low wages, and extreme income disparity (and incredible brutalist architecture – Belgrade and Skopje come to mind). Kiev is firmly located in all of those categories.
However, I’m genuinely astounded at the level of ostentatious wealth, in what is a reasonably “poor” country. For example, I would need to compare Kiev to cities like Dubai, or Singapore, to see a greater number of luxury cars. Interestingly (for lovers of discount food and booze – and Sov-mod architecture), there’s another more every-day element of Kiev that has genuinely surprised me – the supermarkets here are quite remarkable.
The closest supermarket to my apartment, is open 24 hours. Inside, you will typically find chef’s cooking up a huge pan of Paella, German-styled Sauerkraut and Bratwurst, or putting together salads and vegan-wraps. Other chefs are stretching Pizza dough and pulling their creations out of the oven – just grab one of the several hundred varieties of beer on offer, and take a seat – your meal will be ready shortly. Surrounded by skilled butchers, cured meats from all over Europe, live Seafood, a variety of fruit, vegetables (still displaying the dirt and grit that indicates the very “farm fresh” nature of the produce) and the alcohol section, Gordon Bennett, I’ve rarely seen such a range anywhere on Earth – from Italian aperitifs to American craft beers. I could go on, but the point is, damn, this is an amazing supermarket. Sure, Kiev, Ukraine, why not – but I wasn’t expecting it.
Maybe, this is a one-off down-town supermarket, a “premium” offering, aimed at the same people driving the luxury European cars that are so visible on the surrounding Kiev streets. Maybe. It’s part of a chain, I’ll have to check out some other locations. Notably, the several “low-cost” mid-century Soviet-modernist architecture (yes, several) supermarkets I’ve attended, are also well stocked. Really, they’re incredible.
I utilise the supermarket story not to show-off my severe lack of knowledge of Ukrainian supermarkets, but as a demonstration – Ukraine has a reputation of meat, potatoes, and Vodka being the three most important food-groups (right at the top of the Ukrainian food pyramid). And, these days, of war-torn-ness. So, the supermarkets make as-good-as-any example to show you Ukraine really isn’t how it’s portrayed.
As I’ve mentioned, Ukraine does have some problems. Low wages – incredibly low wages for a European capital city – are just the start. But, my experience so far is that Ukraine is full of optimism. People are friendly, including the authorities, who have a (understatement ahead) very tarnished reputation. I’ve been approached by only one authority figure so far – as I was using my phone to take photos inside the worlds deepest metro/subway station.
The uniformed lady approached me, and said something in Ukrainian. She looked at my phone. But, when she realised I was a tourist, she just laughed, flashed a flirty smile, and walked away – leaving me in peace to snap a few more photos. Phillipa has also been interacting with the locals – waiting in line to withdraw money, a couple of exotic dancers struck up a conversation, and handed her a couple of two-for-one-specials. We’re yet to take advantage of the offer.
click to see an interactive map showing the location of this article
Earlier this year, I visited Nice, France. Nobody warned me to “be careful”. Over the last few years I’ve visited Istanbul more times than I could count, and only recently the comments have started to move away from “oh, I love Istanbul”. Near the beginning of this journey, I spent a few days in Belgium, and in London, and I received no warnings.
Before I visited Belgrade, I was told by two friends how dangerous it was – many people wondered about War-time safety, even though the NATO bombing in Belgrade had finished many years before. Every time I go to Iran, people ask me “isn’t it dangerous there?”, and they don’t really listen to my answer.
Sure, Ukraine’s recent history has been horrendous. In 2014, the revolution that occurred moments from where I am right now is fairly described as a bloody-massacre. In the East of Ukraine, a long way from Kiev, the fighting continues. However, in many ways, Kiev appears to be on the same page as every other large and contemporary city of Europe – albeit, with a Ukrainian twist.
Here in Kiev, I’ve been doing more street-wandering than I’ve done in many years. I’ve spent several weeks (so far) moving all over the city, taking photos of anything and everything, all with my phone.
And, nothing happened.
UPDATE, 2018: I now spend several months a year in Kiev. I’ve now run multiple tours through Ukraine and Chernobyl. For more info on the Ukraine Pop-Up Tour <— click.
PS, yes, after four years using nothing but my Fuji X-Pro 1 camera – I decided to challenge myself with a few weeks of mobile-phone-photography. It was great, but nothing will replace my Fuji.
28 thoughts on “What Happened When I Used My Phone on the Mean Streets of Kiev”
Another brilliant blog post Nate – thanks for sharing. Am looking forward to hearing about your ventures into phonography (which phone, apps etc)
Hey Andy – I *plan* on going to this in a future post – hopefully, very soon. Cheers for the compliments!
Great post, Nate. All of my favorite bloggers seem to be migrating en masse to Ukraine. I can’t wait to traverse the country next year, though I wish it could be sooner! I must admit, Kiev over New Years or Orthodox Christmas sounds mighty enticing.
Am sure your untour will be a rousing success. I’ll be sure to wave from the other side of the Post-Soviet world of influence. :)
Cheers Nick, BTW, you’re going to LOVE Kiev. That’s my prediction. :)
Love this post — I commented on your FB post as well, but I’ll be heading to Kiev on the 15th for a few days… This makes me look forward to it even more!
Hey Adam – enjoy – and let’s grab a beer/Vodka :)
awesome as usual Nate. And btw: Leica, Fuji. Mobile… doesn’t seem to make a difference w/ your images…. they’re always astounding.
Cheers my man.
Ive read that Ukraine went though the same ‘privatisations’ as russia, so theres an oligarch class, and presumably next rung of rather wealthy business-elite, hence the flashy stuff. But perhaps not as many as Russia, and not as many as they were expecting, with a whole suburb built for millionaires that’s largely unsold – you’d beter check it out ! Its all psuedo-traditional row-townhouses called Vozdvyzhenka in the middle of town almost (I found it via instagram) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2423723/Kievs-millionaires-ghost-town-left-Ukrainian-economy-crashed.html
Wouldnt be surprised if the hipster-ish stuff is Kievians trying to be western where russians would try not to be.
Hey Rohan – it seems to me the whole world is trying to be “western” (everywhere I’ve ever visited, anyway). That having been said – Russia – I’ve never visited, and it’s absolutely number one on my to-do list. Oh, and thanks for the link to Vozdvyzhenka – as it turns out, it’s practically next door to the photo on this page of Phillipa inside the market. I had no idea it was so close, and I’ll check it out (btw, you probably won’t be surprised to learn the dailymail seems to “exaggerating” – on google maps it seems like two small streets, definitely not a “suburb”)
i have been to moscow- definitely has a major hipster side to it. even more so than many cities here in germany.
oh Kiev, lovely, was lucky to live there for some months just before the Euro cup, loved the place! thanks for bringing back memories.
I know you are not that much into main stream tourist sites but then not much is main stream in a place like Kiev. So if you got time, I suggest you visit Kiev Pechersk Lavra (monastery) with all its caves and mummified bodies buried there. The part I loved about it (but not sure that still exists, better ask) is the special exhibition they had around the entrance area with mini mini carvings that monks had been doing. They are some absolutely stunning pieces like entire painting on a grain of rice that you will only see with the magnifying glasses provided at the exhibition. A truly wow moment in a very old style type of museum. Enjoy :-)
Hey Thomas, my pleasure. I’m really enjoying Kiev as well… what a city. As for “mainstream” tourist sites, when they’re worthy, I will check them out – I’d actually read about the miniatures, and I’m planning on visiting soon. Phillipa and I rushed past Pechersk Lavra the other day, I was quite astounded at the size of the whole complex…
It’s still there! We were just there before Christmas. We were the only visitors at the time and the ladies were so lovely with my small children (3 & 5 years old). Kiev is a great destination! And so lovely around Christmas time.
Fantastic post and once again amazing photos. Ukraine was never on my must see list but now I want to learn more! Thanks again for expanding my outlook and for the inspiration.
You’re welcome, Jessica.
It is so refreshing reading accounts from people who have taken the time to get to know Kiev, like yourself. The impressions in my current part of Europe are so piss poor that I find it stressful trying to explain to people how cool and unique the city actually is. They also instantly think that walking on the streets of Kiev is a very dangerous task and one can’t do it without being beaten up, robbed, bribed by police, or being attacked by military tanks. I have never once felt endangered in the city of Kiev (even at 2am) whereas I won’t even leave my flat at night here in Frankfurt these days.
I also have found a weird sense of optimism there that is difficult to explain, but I think you get it very well even if we can’t put it into words easily. I really have my fingers crossed for this city. It is one of my favorite cities in the world and it is only a matter of time before others discover its greatness too.
As for your phonography skills-brilliant! But your chick-in-kiev jokes need some work ;)
Keep exploring- loving the FB updates!
If only people knew the reality of Eastern Europe/The Balkans…. there would be sooo many more tourists (and expats) in these parts.
I’ll work on my jokes. And, currently deciding where to meet Kami tonight, by checking out your Kiev/Beer post :)
so cool you guys get to meet (and very jealous over here). i hope all the places on my list are still open. after publishing it, one had closed lol. ohhh ukraine. :) have a fun night!
This sounds pretty much exactly like Moscow – and it was one of the reasons I stuck around for so long.
I was planning a trip to Kiev just before everything really got heated. Guess I should have gone earlier, as now my military-aged Russian husband doesn’t have much of a chance entering the country!
Hi Polly – yes, Moscow is very, very, very, high on my to-do list. If you read this reply – I had no idea that Russians are restricted from entering Ukraine. Is that common now?
Its very beautiful, i liked a lot the huge buildings, streets, really it needs a visit. Thanks for sharing.
The markets in Kiev are really worth visiting — that astounding architecture! It’s very refreshing to read something about the Ukrainian capital which is not depressing. Btw speaking of the people, some of my old coworkers who used to conduct soft-skill training to their clients went to Kiev for a training session. They said the people were rude. So it’s a bit of a surprise — a nice one, though — to read about your experience with some friendly locals.
Hey Bama – so far, I’ve encountered no rudeness. Other people have also told me the same thing – how nice the people are in Ukraine.
One example – just last night, I asked some local Ukrainians, “excuse me, where did you buy that pizza from”. Rather than giving me the details of the pizza shop, they insisted that they would give me their entire pizza. Really – I declined, told them that wasn’t necessary, this went back and forth a few times, but they absolutely wouldn’t take no – and gave me the entire pizza (it was delicious). I offered to buy them a drink, give them a cigarette, anything, and they just wouldn’t accept anything in return – it was pure generosity. Not many countries I’ve visited where that sort of thing happens…
Great to see Kiev getting the recognition it deserves! Nice people, pretty girls, extremely cheap, good beer, easy to navigate and lots to see and do – what’s not to like apart from its harsh winter perhaps!!
It’s a great place, Mark. And, being a fan of harsh winters, I’m planning on coming back here for winter ;)
I haven’t heard of many Australians that enjoy a harsh winter :-). If you are looking for an interesting day trip from Kiev, consider the Mid-Dnipro Museum of Folk Architecture & Life in Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky. It sounds terrible I know, but in fact it was pretty interesting and had quite a bit of Soviet-era retro stuff. It was easy to get to if you’re interested in that sort of thing?
Interesting post on Kiev. I never thought I’d add a supermarket to my bucket list but you may have just convinced me. :)