A Bad Night in Kyiv

[NB. All photographs in this article taken at the Crematorium in the Park of Memory (Abraham Miletsky, 1975). Kyiv, Ukraine.]

It was sometime around midnight, and we stood on the cracked plaza of the Kyiv Crematorium flashing spotlights up and down the building’s flaking, crusted flanks. It looked more grown, than built; there was nothing macabre about this temple of the dead, this literal terminus, but rather it bubbled and clawed out of the ground in a series of indecipherable gestures. The architecture of an alternate dimension.

Even with my tripod, my multiple lenses, shutter remote and a selection of torches, I had finished documenting the building in 30 minutes and then packed up my toolbox for the night. Xiao was still working an hour later – an extraordinary process to watch. She chain-smoked her way through a pack of cigarettes while setting the crematorium alight with sun-bright beams… and lashing it with a fibre optic whip that looked like some kind of sci-fi duelling weapon.

Sometimes, she had me pose in her pictures to create black silhouettes – a human form, for scale – but the rest of the time, I floated about the plaza and gazed out over the midnight cemetery. Stones and crosses rose from the falling hillside, barely discernible in the dark; beyond that the lights of the city, Kyiv’s palatial post-modernist towers, blazed as distant beacons outside the necropolis.

Across the empty spaces, dogs howled at one another. Then I heard a human voice: a shout, far off, from the other end of the cemetery.

“I think someone is coming,” I told Xiao. It was hardly surprising – Kyiv’s ‘Park of Memory’ is closed at night, off-limits to the public. For the last several hours we’d been creating vivid light displays across the bone-white monument at its heart. Security were bound to notice sooner or later.

Out of the darkness, two men in military-style uniforms marched suddenly onto the plaza. They wore camouflage fatigues and big boots, with batons dangling from their belts. One of them barked an order which neither Xiao nor myself understood; but the meaning, of course, was quite clear: it was time to leave.

 
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In my article about Kyiv’s Hidden Secrets, that’s as much as I said about that night. After the cemetery my story skipped straight to the following day, to our meet-up with Maxim and the start of a two-day expedition through the drains and ruined places of the city. But that night, leaving the cemetery, would prove to be an adventure in itself.

By the time we had packed our bags, made our apologies and started off back through the cemetery, towards the road and the centre of Kyiv beyond, the guards had lightened in mood. One of the two even gave us a cheery wave. At the foot of the hill we caught a car and by 3am we were speeding through the night lights of the city.

Xiao was staying in the cylindrical concrete tower known as Hotel Salute; but I got out in the centre, where for the past week I’d been renting an apartment. The taxi left and it wasn’t until I’d climbed the four flights of stairs, dragging my camera bag after, that I realised my keys were already inside. It took me a few more minutes of doubt, confusion and double-checking each and every pocket, before the reality of my situation finally set in. I was locked out, with nowhere to go.

It was already the second time that week I’d been locked out. I was sharing the AirBnB apartment with a friend, and our front door came with two locks – one that we each had a key for, and one that we didn’t. On the previous occasion, my friend had accidentally locked them both then gone to bed, rendering my own key useless. That time, I had banged on the door and thrown stones at his window, until almost an hour later, I’d eventually managed to wake him up.

Tonight however, I had simply gone out and left my keys behind. It was 100% my own fault, and I didn’t feel quite so justified to disturb my flatmate – and our neighbours – by causing a commotion in the corridor after 3am.

I thought about calling Xiao, as well. Our meeting place the next day was just down the hill from her hotel. Had I known her any better (or perhaps, if she had been a he) I might have called her immediately and begged to sleep on her hotel room floor. Despite some long email conversations however, we had only met in person just a few hours earlier; and I worried how it might sound, calling her now in the middle of the night with a ridiculous story, on the hope of getting invited up to her hotel room.

No, I decided, I was going to have to weather this storm alone.

 
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The Mean Streets of Kyiv

I walked out onto the street. The pavements were empty, save for the occasional stumbling drunk – and massive television screens, some the size of buildings, played colourful advertisements to no one at all. Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard, usually a six-lane roar of traffic, was deserted.

We had an exhausting tour booked for the next morning, Xiao, myself, and our Ukrainian guide: a full day of tunnels, ladders, drains and infiltration. Getting at least a few hours’ sleep before was going to be crucial. The obvious plan was to find a cheap hostel nearby, a five-euro dormitory bed. On my phone I searched a map, pulled up numbers and started calling; each line was dead though, straight through to a recorded message… and after perhaps the fourth I realised the problem was with my phone, not with theirs.

What a time to run out of credit on my pre-paid Ukrainian SIM card. I tried and failed to top it up, then I sat down on a roadside bench, cracked open the back of the phone and attempted to switch in my UK SIM. It would be expensive, I knew, but at least I’d be able to make calls. Somehow though, I fumbled and dropped the plastic square to the pavement. Falling to my hands and knees I searched the rain-streaked flagstones, but no luck; it had already disappeared, the tiny card melting, quite inexplicably, into the night.

Increasingly desperate, I heaved the bag over my shoulder and set out to visit those hostels on foot. I walked four blocks, then banged on a door – walked another six, rang three different unlabelled buzzers, then waited, but nothing. By now it was almost 5am and no hostel in central Kyiv seemed willing to host me.

I began to consider more extreme options… sleeping on a stairwell for a couple of hours. Curling up beneath a hedgerow in the park. The night was mild enough, I was plenty tired, and falling asleep outside would not have been difficult; at this stage, sat on a bench in the quiet backstreet, staying awake was the real challenge. But the canvas bag over my shoulder was loaded with a thousand pounds’ worth of camera gear, my wallet, my passport, and everything else. For the promise of perhaps a few hours’ sleep, those stakes were simply too high.

My last resort, it dawned on me, was to check into a hotel. I could take a taxi to Hotel Salute, and pay the equivalent of €40 for a four-hour stay. I already had my camera gear, while the meet-up point, next morning, would be walking distance away. I was desperate to make the most of the coming tour, and so any sleep I could get would be worth the cost. If only I could find a taxi now…

No sooner had I thought it, than a beaten-up old Lada pulled to the curve beside me. The car was brown with one blue door, a twisted coat-hanger rising in place of an aerial. The window wound down, shakily, and a face peered out asking, “Taxi?”

That is absolutely 100% not a real taxi, I thought to myself. The driver was young and tall, too tall for that car, with cropped hair and an Adidas tracksuit. A religious icon hung from the rear view mirror, while the seats were upholstered in some kind of animal fur effect.

Our eyes met – and as I felt myself beginning to walk inexplicably towards the semi-derelict vehicle, I realised two things at precisely the same moment. Firstly, I was about to get screwed over; and second, that one day soon this would likely make a good story.

 
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The Wrong Side of Town

My driver had nodded enthusiastically when I told him Hotel Salute; not a note of hesitation, or anything to suggest that he didn’t know my intended destination. As the car pulled rattling into the central lane of the boulevard, I noticed the (predictable) lack of taxi meter and I braced myself for disaster.

“Skolko?” I asked – How much? – and his answer surprised me: “Dvesti griven.” It was a reasonable price, 200 hryvnia or roughly €7. The journey would have cost less by day, in a registered taxi, of course… but given the situation I could hardly complain.

Along the way, he decided to make conversation. The first round of questions I was able to understand, and – more or less – answer. What are you doing in Kyiv? Where are you from? Do you like Ukraine? What do you think of Ukrainian girls? That standard, pre-ordained taxi conversation that follows the same script the world over. After that, he wanted to show me photographs.

Popping open the glove compartment, the driver rummaged about for a photo album. Mostly, he kept one eye on the road as he did this – but once he swerved, to avoid a street cleaning truck that pulled abruptly onto the boulevard ahead. There was no light in the car, but after passing the leather bound album to me he pulled out a handheld torch, and held it above my head, pointing down, to form a wobbling pool of light in my lap.

The photos showed his family: mother, sister, uncle, and other words that I couldn’t quite remember. I turned the pages, and a house appeared… before and after shots, that showed walls perforated in bullet holes and a crumbled crater that I assumed was caused by mortar fire. “Donetsk,” he said, and tapped himself on the chest.

Kyiv is such a modern, clean, dynamic capital, that it can be easy to forget the country is still at war. Ukraine is massive, after all – but my driver, it seemed, had arrived in the capital from his home in the war-torn provinces. He was here to earn some money to send back home, and his lack of taxi driver license wouldn’t stop him.

Now lost in the images, I didn’t notice when the car missed the turn-off to Hotel Salute; by the time I looked out the window we were speeding onto Paton Bridge, the little car rattling at full speed east, and into the wrong end of the city. “Hotel Salute,” I told him again, and gestured back behind us. He nodded. “Nyet,” I said, still pointing behind.

My meaning was eventually understood – but correcting the mistake was going to be harder. I got the impression that I knew Kyiv better than he did, but the language barrier made it difficult to give him directions. And so we kept on driving, ever further east, as my driver went hunting for someone else to ask. We passed a road cleaner, eventually, who waved us back towards the western district beyond the river. We stopped again soon after, and an early-morning commuter gave similar advice.

Once we hit the bridge I was back into familiar territory… and I managed to navigate the car myself past the Motherland Monument, the Pechersk Lavra monastery complex, and back towards Salute. As we passed the monastery, more reading material appeared. The driver dropped a heavy tome in my lap, this one a history book. I turned the pages: immediately recognising an image of Yaroslav the Wise, 11th century ruler of the Kievan Rus and the builder of Kyiv Cathedral. I couldn’t read the text but I kept turning pages, looking at pictures, and occasionally nodding or humming to show my appreciation.

“Ochen interesnaya istoriya,” I managed in Russian.

It was 7am when we arrived at Hotel Salute. All this way, I’d been bracing for some kind of scam. A rigged taxi meter, perhaps; or a sales pitch for girls, weed or cocaine, like that one time in Romania when a driver (no doubt on commission) stopped outside four brothels before eventually agreeing to take me to my requested destination. Quite the contrary, my driver tonight had been a perfectly hospitable – if somewhat ill-informed – guide on this late night drive around the capital.

“Dvesti griven?” I asked again, checking the price hadn’t changed. He nodded – but then I looked in my wallet, and found nothing smaller than a 500 note. Here it comes, I thought. “Sdacha?” I asked, proffering my smallest note, and again the driver nodded. He reached into his pocket for the change and I suddenly felt rather guilty for assuming this poor man was out to con me.

The driver put the notes in my hand, and I bid him farewell. The Lada stuttered off into the dawn and five minutes later I was sat in the comfortable hotel room that would be my home for approximately the next four hours. It wasn’t much time for sleep, but I’d be glad of it all the same.

It was only then that I opened my wallet, and looked closer at the folded notes I’d just received: 50,000 Belarusian Rubles, in the old, inflated currency that was phased out in 2015. A year before, these notes were worth about €2. Now they were worth nothing at all, and my taxi ride had cost me €18.

Fine, I thought, getting ready to sleep. Whatever. He needed it more than I did.

 
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