On a lead-coloured January morning this year, precisely six weeks before America and Russia went to war over Ukraine, I arrived in its capital Kiev to spend five weeks in that country. The Ukrainian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur had narrowly but helpfully, two days prior to the departure date, issued me my visa.
It was the dead of winter in Ukraine. Perhaps not the ideal season but I had timed my visit there for the Orthodox Christmas Day and Eve which sadly I would now miss by just a couple of days according to the Julian Calendar. Anyhow, as I luckily found out, the carolling mood and yuletide spirit would still go on till the end of month past Epiphany.
Kiev is a sizeable metropolis. With 3 million people, it ranks amongst Europe’s ten largest cities.
Although it is hard to tell from the city’s mainly 19th century façades and 20th century soviet structures, Kiev is a pretty ancient place that is anchored to a long lost past.
According to a twelfth-century Russian chronicle, Kiev was founded by three brothers – Kiy, Shchek and Khoriv who built on the site a settlement each on three separate hills. A town soon flourished around those hills and was named after the eldest.
Putting aside nationalistic legends and slavonic myths, the real history of Kiev according to archeology goes back nearly two thousand years, maybe even longer. Records tell us that it was settled in the 6th or 7th century by the Polyanians, an East Slavic tribe who roamed the northern grasslands and woods of the Dnieper basin.
Called the ”Mother City of Rus”, Kiev is where it all started – the site where Russia was born eleven centuries ago .
My friend Tatiana warned me about Kiev’s airport touts so I rehearse my basic Russian and haul my luggage up the airport marshrutka (taxi bus) number 322. I pay the 100 Hrivna fare to the driver, a good-natured and pleasant man about sixty and he issues me an old-fashioned printed ticket. We wait for about 30 minutes for more passengers then depart on the one-hour long journey from Boryspil on the left bank to the city centre on the right crossing one of the bridges over the Dnieper.
Along the way, tall, bare and twiggy roadside trees intersperse with housing and commercial blocks alternate and dominate the view in various shades of grey.
We are disgorged finally at a stop that looks like a back entrance to a large station. Golden domes of a new cathedral glisten in the frosty sunlight, snowflakes fall sharply on naked faces and commuters wrapped up in overcoats and hats stand waiting, stamping their boots in the cold.
I was exhilarated and shivering. Like the feeling after downing a glass of fine frosted vodka – instant, intense and head swirlingly unforgettable.