Thursday, January 19, 2006
The Ukraine (is cold)
Last weekend I tagged along with my Russian friend Mishka to the Ukraine, where he was going to meet some old friends. We visited two border towns, Uzhgorod and Mukacheve, for those of you who are up on your Ukrainian geography.
The Ukrainian border is a 90 minute bus ride from Presov, and then it takes about an hour to get through customs. Uzhgorod is the first major city across the border. When you cross into the Ukraine, you see a very large statute, which used to symbolize your entry into the Soviet Union. It's pretty intimidating now, I can't imagine what it was like 20 years ago:
The Ukraine is very big, very beautiful, and at least last weekend, very cold. Here is some info about The Ukraine
Ukrainian politics are particularly interesting these days, as far as I understand them, due to the aftermath of the Orange Revolution of 2004 where the people challenged the election of the typical old communist guy (I know, I don't really know what I'm talking about) and instead elected Viktor Yushchenko, who as you may remember supposedly had his face burned off by Putin's agents (supposedly Putin's agents, not supposedly had his face burned off. His face is definitely burned off , that seems to be established).
Since the revolution, some people have been happy with the new government, but many are not. I heard that the President's approval ratings are currently around 30% (remind you of anyone?), and his former Prime Minister, the frankly fairly photogenic Yulia Tymoshenko, has a good chance of beating him in this year's election. Everywhere I went, the billboards were covered with Tymoshenko's ads:
I was actually thinking of putting my hair in a bun like that.
Enough politics, what about the food and animals?
When we arrived at the bus station in Uzhgorod, I was quickly hustled into a van headed for the yearly wine festival in Mukacheve, a town a few kilometers south of Uzhgorod. Here is a handy map to keep things straight.
When we got to Mukacheve the partying was in full swing. Here's some pics:
Here we met up with our tour guides/translators, the very nice folks here:
We waited in great anticipation for some kind of prize giveway, which did not disappoint. I will let the pictures speak for themselves:
Some dude actually won that pig, and a few minutes later someone won a goat. If I would have won the goat I would have gone crazy like the people who win the Publisher's Clearing House or get their ride pimped, but this guy took it pretty well. I should have got a picture.
Our next stop was to visit a cultural club of sorts, where local Rusyns meet. As the article notes, Rusyns are a distinct ethnic group with their own language who live mainly in Western Ukraine and Northeast Slovakia (I think this is right, I got this info from Mishka, who doesn't speak that much English). Mishka wanted to check this out because he is a scholar of sorts of Rusyn history.
Mishka had clearly been here before, because he was greeted warmly, and we were all invited inside:
There I met these very nice Rusyn folks, who all started calling me Mikhail (like Gorbachev):
The very nice ladies insisted, quite strongly, that we eat various things off of this table (click on the picture to zoom in), and drink vodka in celebration:
It has been my experience over here in Eastern Europe that when you're a guest, you're given alcohol. The thing is that most Americans, myself very much included, are not used to drinking the large amount of hard alcohol that is common here. It got to the point where I was basically trying to figure out how to pour some of the vodka into my pocket, because I just didn't think I could go on. But as soon as it began, it was over, and we exchanged our goodbyes and headed back into the cold. Those ladies were awesome, as you can clearly see from the pictures.
After this, our hosts wanted us to see Mukacheve castle, which is on the outskirts of town. Here's some photos:
It was a very nice castle, with the usual torture chamber and gift shop. The coolest part of the castle, in my opinion, is this statute, which I like to call "The Finger King":
Seriously, how awesome is this?
I couldn't help myself, and had to ask for a volunteer. I assume it is good luck:
So after all this forced vodka drinking and castle looking, we were up for some food. A Slovak member of the group ordered the Ukraninan burger, and seemed to quite enjoy it:
I myself was happy with a package of bacon flavored Fan Nuts™ and a nice Ukranian beer.
You may have noticed that Ukranian is writen in the cyrilic alphabet, like Russian. The funny thing about cyrilic, and I guess any small alphabet, is that it really isn't that hard to learn, and by the end of the weekend and with the guides' help I was able to start sounding things out. It makes me want to go back and watch "Rocky 4" again.
On the way back across the border, we had to pass E.U. customs. This took about three hours because they had to make sure that no one had more than the allowable two bottles of Ukrainian liquor/ carton of Kazakh cigarettes stuffed down the front of their pants. But soon we were home, and it was a great trip.
One last thing, if you will allow. I have always had a perhaps unhealthy interest in truly awful restrooms. This may have stemmed from watching "Trainspotting", or from visiting the splendor that is the Trenton train station men's room (next to the Roy Rogers), who knows, but I am fascinated. Other people seem to share this interest, if these sites are to be believed.
So anyway, I was just about to hop on the bus when I decided to stop into the Uzhgorod bus station "restroom" to "do some business" (#1)(I'm not crazy!). Thank god I did, because otherwise I wouldn't have gotten a shot of this gem, one-handed of course:
Hope all is well, and remember to wash your hands!