Sunday, September 25, 2016

Minsking Words

Earlier this summer I remember asking Michael more than once to "remind me why we are going to Belarus?" I am pretty sure told me about an article he read a few years ago in his beloved Economist magazine that describe the president of Belarus as "the last dictator in Europe." Add that to his avid interest in 20th century history and the collapse of the Soviet Union plus a goal of visiting as many former Soviet Republics as possible while we in this far flung part of the world, and you've got your answer. 

Minsk was a mixture of Soviet architecture hovering over what remained of the old town.
It was motivating enough for him to jump through a few hoops to get us the necessary visas while we were in Den Haag in the Netherlands - which he did of course. So now there was no going back. I was just waiting for him to tell me that he'd also arranged to have coffee with president Alexander Lukashenko! Mr. Lukashenko has been in power for the past 22 years and it is probably a safe bet to say he will be in power 22 years from now as well - democratically elected, of course.

It is a brave man who goes up against the Belorussian government.
On our team of two, Michael is the Chief Travel Planner. I am Head of Procurement as well as the Entertainment Director. In other words, I leave our itinerary and travel plans to Mr. Campbell (unless it looks like they might result in bodily harm or kidnapping - which seems likely lately) Meanwhile I make sure we have food, water, fun and at least some of the comforts of home.

So far it has worked well. Even during this stretch in Eastern Europe we are managing to hit all of our goals as Senior Nomads: Learning everyday, having fun, staying close to budget (easier in this part of the world), and still in love. So far so good.

Who wouldn't want to spend time with this funster - especially at Funny Chicken!
I do have to mention, however,  that the CTP has been a little less forthcoming about our travel plans than usual.  Details like middle of the night flights with long layovers, dodgy bus connections, registration at police headquarters, and flying over conflict zones have not been openly discussed over breakfast.

Because the Minsk airport was a long way from the city, and with several unknowns ahead of us, we accepted our host's offer to send a private driver to meet us. The value of the Belorussian Ruble has fallen dramatically over the last two years alongside it's cousin, the Russian Ruble. So, for only a few dollars we were whisked to the center of the cleanest city you have ever seen outside of Disneyland or maybe Pyongyang. Seriously - you would be hard pressed to find even a cigarette butt on the streets of this city.

These posters were everywhere - it's not easy changing your entire currency system!
Speaking of money - we arrived in Minsk just one month after the entire country was switching from their antiquated currency to a new one.  Really it was about lopping several zeros off of the paper money, so now a 50,000 note became 500 and for the first time, coins were introduced. This made for some head-scratching calculations at the check-out counter at our local grocery store. Like so many trusting tourists, we just put down our money and let the clerks choose whatever worked best. Luckily, since the dollar was so strong, it would have been hard for anyone to take advantage of us.

Our Airbnb was better than most in this part of the world and was ideally located across the street from a very upscale shopping mall with a grocery store and three decent restaurants. The apartment was nicely decorated and certainly functional - although the only cook-top was a fussy two-burner portable stove. Minsk Airbnb

Our host Olga. She was a great help in getting us our visas and registering our visit.
Fortunately, once again, eating out was cheaper than eating in so other than boiling water to make coffee we enjoyed exploring Belarus cuisine. Okay. We had lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken (twice). I know, I know - but sometimes you just have to have it.

It quickly became apparent that the Belarus government has a big presence in the daily lives of its citizens. No litter. No graffiti. No jaywalking (we did not see a single person even consider stepping into the street before the little green dictator gave the signal), and an appearance of prosperity.

The stores in Minsk were filled to the brim with goods - not so once you left the city.
As for Belorussians - we didn't find many English speakers but for the most part we we encountered friendly people going about their daily lives - just with the "freedom guard rails" pulled in about as tight as they could be while stilling calling it Democracy with a straight face. 

Besides the fact we could tick the Previous Soviet Republic box there was another reason we added Belarus to our swing through the far edges of eastern Europe.

Last November we were invited to speak to the host community at the Airbnb Open in Paris. One of the Airbnb staffers that helped up prepare for the event was a young man named Dzmitry Bazhko - Dima for short. Michael, as he does with most everyone he meets asked him where he was from. When he said Belarus, Michael just about flipped out. He'd never met anyone from the former Soviet Republic which was known until 1991 as the Socialist Soviet Republic of Belorussia - for him it was like meeting Bruce Springsteen. He and Dima quickly bonded and over the next 6 months they plotted our trip to his homeland.

Dima help was crucial. He helped get our visas by listing his parents as our hosts. Then he recruited his sister Marina to pick us up in Minsk and drive us an hour and a half away to meet his parents on their farm in the village where they grew up. She took us on a side trip through an ancient village and then stopped at the daily farmer's market closest to her parents.

I picked up these beauties and a bag of chantrelles for about $2.00 at the farmers market.
Dima's father works the farm and builds tractors from scratch. His mother is an amazing cook and fed us from the moment we arrived until she handed us a bag of leftovers to take home.

The food never stopped coming at Dima's parents table. Note Dima's dads amazing woodwork.
We had the chance to flip through albums featuring dear Dima from birth on, and assured his parents he was doing well in America. We also visited the family pig (not long for this world I'm afraid) and the smokehouse next to his sty. Along with their spacious home, Dima's dad also built an amazing bath house with a sauna and a soon to be completed cold pool. Outback was a great kitchen garden.

I know Dima must be cringing to know we poured over his baby albums.

A great time at the daily market in the village with Dima's sister Marina.
This trip to the countryside was a rude awakening from the sleek, seemingly prosperous westernized city of of Minsk where Dima gave us a long list of must see sights and destinations - we did our best to do it all!

One way to see the sights on the list was to take our usual free walking tour. Those of you who read our blog know that we try to take one of these tours in every city we visit. In major European cities there are multiple companies offering tours all day, every day. In Minsk however, the one and only free walking tour required you to sign-up well in advance on their website. No doubt so Big Brother could keep track of who, what and where. 

Michael contacted the organizer of the tour the week before we arrived. After a few e-mails back and forth, Alina, the organizer, fell in love with our story and asked if she could invite a newspaper reporter to join us on the walking tour. Of course! We arrived on the appointed evening for a 7:00 pm start. Alina greeted us and introduced us to a young woman reporter and a photographer from the largest online news site in Belarus, Since the reporter only spoke Russian, Alina served as our translator.

Over the next two hours we learned about the history and highlights of Minsk including a look at the building where a young Lee Harvey Oswald, President Kennedy's assassin, lived and studied in the early sixties. So yet another conspiracy theory suggests he might have been groomed by the KGB before being sent to live in Dallas with all of his expenses paid to carry out a certain act of terror. Worth Googling.

In between stops, the reporter asked us questions which Alina translated including our answers.  Afterwards we went to a bar for dinner with our fellow tour members plus the reporter and Alina to finish the interview. The story came out a few days later and the reporter, Maiya Kohno, must have done a fabulous job because it was so popular that it generated an unheard of number of comments - over 1,000 983 thumbs up and 86 thumbs down. It is very odd to have press coverage about yourself and not be sure what it says. The Google translate app is a good tool - and can give you a laugh, but still, it would probably be a good idea to get real translations of our recent coverage. Here is a link to the story with some odd photos. If anyone reading speaks Russian, we'd welcome your comments as well! Minsk press coverage.

We came to really like Stanaslov, our driver from the airport so we used his services to take us to a few of the sights a little further outside Minks. And the grocery store. He didn't speak more than a few words of English, but once again, Michael's new favorite app  ---  iTranslate Voice solved the problem. Watching Stan and Michael make a statement and then pass his iPhone back and forth was almost like sitting in on a session at the United Nations.

So many sights - so little time!
He took us both to see two very moving memorials to the thousands of Jews killed here. Then he took Michael to visit Pavel Sheremet's grave which is just the kind of thing Michael would do. Who was Pavel Sheremet you might ask? Turns out that Sheremet was a Belorussian journalists whose political perspectives got him in trouble in his home country and unfortunately in Moscow as well. A few weeks before our visit, as Pavel was about to drive to work in central Kiev a bomb that had been planted under his car exploded and he died instantly in broad daylight. He met the same fate as his close friend and Russian dissident Boris Nemstov who was gunned-down while walking home in Moscow in February 2015 for his political views - not uncommon in these parts of the world. Side note - Michael also visited Nemstov's ad-hoc memorial on the bridge when we were in Moscow last summer. 
The Monument to Fallen Jewish People. was a haunting sculpture of victims going down into the pit where many of the were executed inside the city limits of Minsk.

On our last day in Minsk,  Stanaslov took us back to the airport and when we got in the car he proudly showed us he had TUT online story queued-up on the iPad mounted to the dashboard of his taxi. Meeting Olga our host, Dima's family and everyday people like Stanaslov is what makes this whole crazy adventure worthwhile.

We boarded our third, and hopefully our last Ukraine Airlines flight in Minsk. This time, we were going to spend most of our flight time over the Donbass Region of Eastern Ukraine on our way to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. I asked Michael if we were traveling the same route that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 took two years earlier when it was shot from the sky...but I'm not sure he heard my question.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Monday, September 5, 2016

Ukraine Part 2: Deception Perfected

The picture perfect Socialist Utopia - Chernobyl

Just the word Chernobyl sends a shiver down the spine of anyone aware of the catastrophic explosion in 1986 of one of four nuclear reactors near Kiev, Ukraine. The blast sent a toxic mushroom cloud high in the sky raining nuclear havoc as far away as Sweden. It was the stuff of science fiction. Surely people would die excruciating deaths from radiation exposure and mutant species would crawl from the contaminated cooling ponds.

Thousands of deaths did occur and health problems continue to plague generations to come. I am not sure about seven-eyed toads, but I don’t doubt they exist. And now the Senior Nomads were off on a jolly tour to visit ground zero - the epicenter of one of the biggest disasters in modern history.

We'd signed-up online before we’d even reached Ukraine for a day trip with one of just two local companies that have permission from the government to take tourists to the site. Here’s the link to their website: Chernobyl Tours where they offer an “An eye-opening experience of a post-apocalyptic world.” Now who wouldn’t want to see that? 

Good to know.
 On the appointed day we arrived at 8:00 am and boarded a bus with 40 other curious passengers for the three hour drive north towards the border with Belarus. We were accompanied by two young female tour guides who spoke English with made-for-the-movies Russian accents. Pretty soon you couldn’t help talking that way, too. "You vant to wisit Chherrnobyl?"

The next ten hours was nothing short of a cram course on what happened on April 26, 1986 when reactor number #4 exploded. We had a map, background materials and watched a grainy film on the bus called “Chernobyl Uncensored - a Documentary” that can be found on You Tube. We also signed some rather ominous release forms. 

Here’s the recap: 

On Saturday, April 26, 1986, a disaster occurred at Reactor No. 4, which is widely regarded as the worst accident in the history of nuclear power in the world. As a result, Reactor No. 4 was completely destroyed and is now being enclosed in a concrete and lead sarcophagus to prevent further escape of radioactivity. Large areas of Europe were affected by the accident. The radioactive cloud spread as far away as Scandinavia. 

Here's a site full of information: Knowledge Glue

Our first stop was the 30 km Exclusion Zone. We stopped at a heavily patrolled crossing point where we submitted our passports and passed through security and our names were checked against a list submitted in advance by the tour company. At this point we were also given personal geiger counters so we could track our exposure to a broad range of ionizing alpha and beta particles as well as gamma rays that may be emitting harmful levels of radiation. Right.

He looks happy now - but he was wheezing for a week after the tour.
The whole process was repeated again when we arrived at the 10 km Exclusion Zone where everyone got off the bus for a second security check and this time the bus and our bags were searched as well.  

Meanwhile, while we waited at the this second checkpoint I Googled “Is it safe to visit Chernobyl?” A little late, I know. I got mixed results - but basically, if you followed instructions and didn’t go digging around in the dirt you’d be okay. 

Finally we were getting close to the two cities that were evacuated 40 years ago and never occupied again. We would not, however tour and of the 200 villages that were also evacuated because they were hastily plowed under - each one covered with a sea of cement and mounds of earth. Also off-limits were forests where thousands of trees were also buried - the new growth is contaminated.

Our guide showing a before and after shot of the supermarket.
 Before getting up-close to the reactor itself we passed through the town of Chernobyl. We stopped at the outskirts and took a chilling look inside a nursery school where a forlorn stuffed rabbit still lay on a cot and a tiny pink shoe practically made you weep. We saw cottages that had been completely overtaken by twisted vines and drove slowly along the desolate main streets lined with derelict buildings and empty shops. A few major buildings were in use as dormitories and offices for the limited crew of government employees, scientists, and support staff that work in six-week shifts at the plant. They are the brave few managing the efforts to contain the damage and seal the reactor once and for all.

A baby shoe I found sitting in a dusty corner of the nursery.
The smaller city of Prypiat was the city closest to the blast  - less than a mile away, and it has become the poster child for the disaster. It was a modern day marvel of Soviet propaganda. People fortunate to live there worked at the Nuclear plant or nearby and they had access to more goods and services than almost any other city other than Moscow. The message to the world  world was it safe place to live and work. 

All 49,000 citizens were put on 1,300 buses twenty-four hours after the accident with little or no information other than rumors. The official word was the evacuation was an precautionary measure and they should only take the clothes, food, personal effects and money they’d need for three days (all of which was very contaminated). They were allowed to return once, six months later and under heavy escort to retrieve only what they could carry. Most of the contents of  homes and buildings in the city had already been destroyed or buried by the government. The villagers were not even that lucky - they were never allowed to return. The population was re-housed in cinder block towers near Kiev or far-away villages and faced an inhospitable welcome.

There were  eerie scenes like this in every building.
The community center basket ball court
The government opened the holiday amusement park a day early to distract residents from the blast. Hundreds of people spent a pleasant day outdoors with their children getting saturated in radiation.


Since then the buildings have been left to the elements - too toxic to knock down. Most of them have been looted and hardly a window remains unbroken, and trees grow up through floors, But many of them still have heartbreaking artifacts left behind including piles of mail at the post office and classroom materials at the schools. We spent two hours wandering the cracked streets and touring eery abandoned buildings. I had to laugh at the complete lack of any safety instructions or cautionary signage as we tramped up crumbling stairs, walked over inch thick shards of glass from hundreds of broken windows, and pushed dangling wires aside to get into empty rooms. It truly felt like the set from an horror film. In fact, 

I found this trailer from a movie shot in 2012. Watch it if you dare:

If you are interested there are many documentary films and lengthy reports on the cover-up and tragic aftermath of this event. The long term health issue alone make your blood curl - no horror film needed: The Russian publication, Chernobyl, concludes that 985,000 premature cancer deaths occurred worldwide between 1986 and 2004 as a result of radioactive contamination from Chernobyl. 

 And that brings me back to our personal Geiger counters that emitted nerve-grating beeps of various intensity all day. Think of 40 car alarms going off at the same time. Oddly, when we were at the actual reactor site the readings were less intense than when we were inside buildings or near “hot spots” where radioactive material had been buried. At the end of the day our exposure was equivalent to a few full body X-rays and a 13 hour flight. Who knew you were exposed to radiation on an airplane? Possibly the most disturbing part of our tour was at the very end when our tour guides admonished us not to post photos of the buildings we walked through on social media, because really, we shouldn’t have been inside. Beep. Beep. Beep!

Thank you for visiting Chernobyl. Have a nice day!

The trip to Chernobyl will be one of the most memorable of our entire journey. We learned so much about the incredibly oppressive, secretive Soviet government that put the safety of a large part of the world, let alone it’s citizens, well behind the need to deny the cause or effects of the disaster. 

Safely back in Kiev, over the next few days we stood on the very square where the Orange Revolution took place in 2004. Then, 9 years later, the same square was filled again for the Euromaidan when over 1 million Ukrainians occupied the square twenty-four hours for months on end braving sniper fire and brutal beatings, burning buildings and freezing weather and there were many deaths along the way to finally wrestling real independence from the grip of a still-corrupted government.  

One of many memorials in Kiev dedicated to those who died fighting for independence.
Eventually President Yankovich realized he could no longer fight against the will of the people and fled to Russia in the middle of the night. Freedom was declared and a nation was reborn a second time. Shortly thereafter, the citizens stormed the gates of the grounds of Mezhyhirya, his private residence that I wrote about in my last post Ukraine1: Corruption Perfected. 

Michael and a vendor at the market sharing pictures of home.
 In our nearly four years of travel I would say two weeks spent in the fascinating country of Ukraine will be a highlight. You could just feel the patriotic pride of the people we met. From our tour guides who were bursting to share their history, to the restaurant servers who were insistent that we choose Ukrainian offerings, to our  wheel pounding taxi driver, and the many strangers we struck up conversations with - every one had a story to tell to us. And they were all so pleased that we two Americans were unafraid to visit their country.  Just ask Igor (also see previous blog). This fledgling democracy still has what seem to insurmountable challenges, and obviously Russia is doing more than sabre rattling on the eastern border - but don’t count them out. Pray for them instead.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads

Friday, September 2, 2016

Ukraine Part 1: Corruption Perfected

The Ukraine was colorful, flavorful, soulful and definitely worth a visit

Michael’s recurring nightmare has him standing at an ATM in a city where we don’t speak the language, inserting his card, following the instructions, entering his pin number and … not have any cash come out.

Well, it finally happened in Lviv, Ukraine on our first night. And there was no English translation option on the screen so we had no idea why the transaction did not go through. We were certain there were enough funds in the account. So we tried again. Same result.

We found a woman nearby who spoke English and she did her best to help us. With her looking over our shoulders we tried again for a third time. She wasn’t sure why we were having trouble, but sort of shrugged in the end and said “It’s Ukraine. Anything can happen when it comes to money.” At that point, we had potentially made three withdrawals with no cash to show for it and worried our bank was busy withdrawing funds from our account.

Not sure what I am trying to explain here - maybe that the ATM ate our money!
We found another ATM and we were able to withdraw 5,000 Ukrainian Hryvnia ($187 USD ) and more importantly, when we checked our account the attempted withdrawals at the first bank did not result in any transactions. Дякувати Богу (“Thank God” in Ukrainian using the Cyrillic alphabet). 

But I should probably back-up and explain why Michael, as our Chief Travel Planner (and a person endlessly fascinated with post-Soviet-era Europe) had us going to the potentially dangerous country of Ukraine in the first place. Two reasons: It added another interesting country to our list, and it was one of the 15 Republics that made up the USSR until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. And, wouldn’t it be exciting if we could visit them all? Sure, why not?

On the lookout for signs of Soviet occupation
The original plan was to just dip across the border from Poland and explore the old city of Lviv which until 1944 was actually in Poland. But in doing research, Mr. Campbell  became convinced that the capital city of Kiev was also safe to visit since the fighting between Ukrainian rebels and Russian troops was in the distant Eastern part of Ukraine 400 miles away  from Kiev.

Fortunately, I didn't see this map or the warning below until after we left Ukraine.
He did his homework and here what he found on the U.S. State Department website:

The situation in Ukraine is unpredictable and could change quickly. U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine should avoid large crowds and be prepared to remain indoors should protests or demonstrations escalate.

 No problem.

One way to avoid crowds in Kiev was to show up to a football match at the wrong stadium
But what really convinced him to add Kiev regardless of risk was discovering there were day-tours to the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant which sounded like a must-see destination for the Senior Nomads. I'm not sure I would have come to the same conclusion - but I am glad we did it. More on that later. 

So, living life on the edge, Michael booked our travel from Lviv to Kiev on Ukraine Air -  which could also seem a little risky to some (me), but the travel planner was comfortable enough that we ended up taking three flights on UA in the weeks to come.

Our stay in Liv was interesting. It seemed like a city just waking up after a long, troubled sleep. There is a lot of beautiful architecture behind the grime and neglect that followed WWII and a long Soviet occupation, but we saw great progress being made to renovate historic buildings and spruce-up public spaces. Most of the stunning Orthodox churches in the city had also been restored to their original golden glory and new restaurants and retail stores had opened around the main square where we were staying.

We've been in dozens of Orthodox churches and they never cease to amaze us.

Our Airbnb experience was a classic example of “trust the pictures” in the listing. This wasn’t the first time in EasternEurope that we found the entrance to an apartment building and it's dark, fuggy stairway off-putting. But this time when we reached our apartment on the fifth floor the extended family living next door had spilled their furnishings onto the landing and parked their grizzled granny into a chair at the top of the stairs. It was almost too much.

You can't judge an Airbnb by the building - it's what's behind the door that counts. Just keep saying that to yourself.
Once we got past that awkward moment and stepped into our apartment we found a modern, newly renovated oasis. The flat is owned by two brothers - one lives in Chicago and was our main contact, the other lived nearby and met us. He spoke no English but we were able to understand the basics using Google Translate. If we needed anything we contacted the brother in America via Skype or email who then relayed our needs back to his brother in Lviv. Here's the listing: Lviv airbnb

The market was amazing - too bad I couldn't cook in our apartment.
If you skipped the supermarket you could have a great time stocking-up at markets like this.
We knew before we arrived that there was very little in the kitchen as far as dishes and cookware were concerned because we had asked. But we were not prepared for just how little. There were three plates, three bowls, three cups, and an equal number of knives, forks and spoons and an electric kettle. That’s it. Now, after 113 kitchens, I’ve become adept at making do - but this was beyond a mere creative challenge. We offered to purchase the basics and be reimbursed - and we could have done that, but in the end as our host explained, and we found to be true, eating out here was cheaper than eating in. So other than breakfast, I took a break from cooking for a few days and enjoyed it very much.
Rubbery little dried fish were offered as a snack at the bar.  No thanks!
Things got better when the grilled pork arrived with lots of dill covered potatoes and brown bread

The only other issue was noise. The apartment had large windows facing the main square and the trendy new "craft" brewery just below our window was serving beer and pumping music until 2:00 a.m. and the after-party went well beyond that. Many mostly happy, singing, drunken college-aged Ukrainians kept us awake. And for our Saturday night entertainment, there was a brawl between a dozen or so patrons - most of whom were too drunk to actually land a punch but had a good time trying. We were happy to move on to Kiev.

If you can eat it in the Ukraine - you can probably pickle it.
Michael had high expectations for this next week and we had several excursions planned. There would be two walking tours - one in the old city and one centered on the Soviet occupation and the revolutions in 1991 and 2014. There would be an all day trip to Chernobyl and an afternoon touring the home and grounds of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych.

But first we met Igor a self-proclaimed ambassador of Kiev. We had arrived too early to check into our Airbnb so the driver our host sent to collect us from the airport, dropped us at a typical state-run Ukranian restaurant that served an inexpensive breakfast buffet. The driver kept our bags and would meet up with us later at the apartment. We worked our way through a line of unusual offerings including whole pickles, jellied eggs, and pizza, and then collapsed in a booth.

A nice young women doing her best to translate the breakfast offerings.
There were about a dozen or so other patrons in the large dining area that was divided into various themed alcoves, we were in the Pagoda section as opposed to the Egyptian section (you’d have to experience a Soviet restaurant to understand). In the booth across the way sat a slightly disheveled, but dapper gentleman in a light blue blazer jangling with military medals. He had salt and pepper gray hair and an impressive mustache. He also had a small electric candle with a purple flame, a glass of water and a collection of sugar packets on the table in front of him. Occasionally he would open a sugar packet and pour the contents into his mouth with a satisfying smack of the lips. He’d also got up several times with his candle to make a few laps of the restaurant. On his way back from these excursions he’d bring a fresh supply of sugar packets. Once, he stopped to formerly introduce himself and presented me with a scrunched-up piece of yellow and blue ribbon (the Ukrainian national colors) as a welcoming gift. His name was Igor (unpronounceable last name). During his booming introduction we plucked out “Welcome my county”, “love America”, “Happy you come” and “sit?”

Igor looked a little like this fellow - perhaps a long lost relative.
We responded politely but declined to have him join us. 

After watching for a while we realized Igor must be a permanent fixture in the restaurant because the staff seemed to benignly ignore him as he pilfered sugar and introduced himself to other guests. But here’s the best bit, when he wandered off it was to set his candle down on a table where the diners had just left and eat their leftovers. We left most of a large, very dry cinnamon roll on our tray and sure enough before we got to the door, Igor had settled himself happily in Michael’s still warm seat! We saw him again about an hour later in his knickers taking a shower complete with singing and soap in a nearby fountain. This was going to be an interesting city!

From there we settled into our very nice Airbnb - although once again the building entrance, and this time a small, green cage-like elevator made getting to the front door challenging. But also once again, the place was lovely and had a great view of the city skyline. Kiev airbnb

We said a little prayer every time the cage door clanged shut.
  Both of the Kiev walking tours were really interesting. There was no end to the history that stretched back millennia - but just the events of the past 15 years will be enough to keep history buffs delirious for another hundred years. We were here to focus on that more recent history.

The 2014 Euromaidan protests took place on this square just around the corner from our Airbnb.
The Ukrainian people are fiercely proud of their hard won independence
Earlier I mentioned making cash withdrawals. Well, let’s just say nobody in the Ukraine could withdraw cash like the former president (currently living in exile in Russia) Viktor Yanukovych - only he used the country’s treasury as his personal ATM. The man so epitomized corruption that his former residence is now called The National Museum of Corruption. We just had to see it. Here's an eye-opening New York Times story about what was left behind when Yanuovych fled: Link

It's hard to fathom just how much money Yanukovych stole from his country.
With the billions in cash that he extorted from every conceivable source he built himself a lavish mansion on 134 gated acres that included a zoo, a lake, a helicopter pad, a golf course, and  indoor and outdoor tennis courts. And the man doesn’t even golf or play tennis! All this for himself and his mistress. Poor Mrs. Y was left to pout in a castle on the coast - one of several more official residences spread throughout the Ukraine and Crimea. 

There wasn't a single inch of the house or the grounds that wasn't absolutely perfect.
The first thing we learned was in order to get to the complex you drove about ten miles out of the city on a stretch of sleek modern highway. Until two years ago, that road was off limits to the public - it was for Yanukovych’s official (and personal) use only. Once we arrived at the high walls buzzing with security cameras and our driver, who was also our guide parked the car, we spent the afternoon touring the grounds and various buildings. We were then able to take a special tour inside the house with six other curious tourists. Unfortunately the tour was in Ukrainian and we could tell we were missing the juiciest bits of the story, but a fellow tourist helped translate as best she could.

The boxing ring. Who has a boxing ring? A man who has everything, that's who.
 The tour started in the sports pavilion in the private bowling alley. From there we passed through the observatory to take a look at the indoor tennis courts, and a full-size boxing ring. In the next wing we toured a fully equipped surgical operating room and a dental suite (I’m not kidding), two different types of saunas, several opulent massage rooms, a cryonics pod* and a gilt-mirrored work out room filled with every piece of exercise equipment ever invented.  

*Note: in case you aren’t familiar with cryonics and want to add a pod to your own rec-room here’s some information:

Michael checking out a shower covered in intricate mosaics.
From there we headed to the seven story house through an elaborate, mosaic-lined underground passageway leading from the sports complex to the lower level of the housing the billiards room and a private movie theater. Another passage led to the enormous kitchen, also a stand-alone building. No doubt another tunnel led to the the garage displaying his multi-million dollar collection of over 100 rare cars and motorcycles.

We wore booties to protect the floors and preserve this shrine to corruption.
The main entry staircases with inlaid marble trimmed in gold.
As for the interior of house, I could write another 1,000 words but truly words can’t describe it. The Merriam-Webster definition of the word “incredible” seems to sum it up -- “too extraordinary and improbable to be believed.” The exterior and interiors of the house are wood - unusual in itself. The floors are either elaborately inlaid marble or wood. Most every inch of the walls are carved, the chandeliers (one of which cost over $1,000,000.00) are cascades of crystal. The private chapel was filled with priceless Orthodox icons, the bath fixtures are solid gold and every stick of luxurious furniture was hand-crafted. It was a modern day Versailles. The grounds were no less elaborate.

Our view towards Kiev from the master bedroom balcony
Here are Michael’s notes as background:  Ukraine gained their independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like many of the other former republics, the governments that followed were full of imperfections so revolutions and turmoil was the order of the day. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 set the stage for the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 when then President Yanukovych fled to Russia in the middle of the night. While he was president, it is said, he built this house/palace using public funds. Like most autocrats in this part of the world, he did not allow Ukrainian citizens anywhere near the property and it was shrouded in secrecy and rumor. However, the moment he fled the country the people stormed the gates to see just how their president had spent their money. Miraculously the house wasn’t ransacked too badly and guards were able to take control. Almost everything is exactly as it was after Yankovych fled - minus the valuables that could be carted away at the beginning. He tried to burn most of his most damning personal records or sink them in the pond but most of them have been recovered and are being painstakingly documented. 

Yanukovych had his food tasted and was scared to ride in his helicopter for fear it would be shot down.
Remember, this is the man that Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manaforth worked for and was paid many millions of dollars to keep in office. Need we say any more about that?

Perhaps our reaction to Yanukovych’s world of insatiable greed was so profound because we’d spent the day before touring Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear accident in history where thousands of Ukrainians suffered (and still suffer) from the Soviet government’s incompetence, and the appalling cover-up and disinformation campaign that followed.

I will write a “glowing report” on that adventure next time! 

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael

The Senior Nomads