View from the Great Bell Tower Pechersk-Lavra

A nudge further east: Kyiv in December

People in Ukraine were surprised that I hadn’t yet visited Kyiv. It’s true that Western Ukraine has drawn me ever since I set foot there, one reason being that it’s where my father’s family and descendants are from.

But I was asked to travel to London to pick up a dog, and I decided I’d make the journey more interesting and go from Devon to London via Kyiv.

Illogical? Not exactly; I had a hunch that going further east would help me understand the west. You get a different perspective on something by seeing what it isn’t. I’d also been assured that members of my late father’s former in-laws, who lived in the city, would be happy to meet me.

The taxi from the airport made me homesick for the local bus from L’viv airport that weaves past the trams and ancient Ladas. Ruslana, sitting next to me on the plane, had warned me about Kyiv’s dangers, which I tried to take with a pinch of salt, but her story about an ex-neighbour found dead in the forest had set me on edge.

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Ivano-Frankivsk from the town hall viewing platform

Track changes, eastward bound: London to Western Ukraine by train

When I booked the eight trains spanning four days of travel from London to the formerly Polish ancestral village of my father (now lying within western Ukraine), I hadn’t realised that I’d be following the same route, more or less, that my father had driven us as a family in the late 1960s.

A wartime Polish exile, unable to visit his real homeland when it became part of the USSR, he would drive us to Poland as a second-best option. Back then it involved what my nervous mother referred to as ‘going behind the Iron Curtain’ that divided the West from the communist East. I remember hours standing next to the car at checkpoints as unsmiling DDR border guards pulled out the back seat and slid mirrors beneath the chassis. Long days were spent driving along the transit corridor through the forests of East Germany and Poland, where small crowds would gather whenever we stopped, and I had the job of handing out sweets and oranges to the wide-eyed children.

Some fifty years later I decided to travel east again, although this time it was possible to keep going into Ukraine, to the town closest to my dad’s village – the town of Ivano-Frankivsk, closed off by the Soviets until the early 1990s.

The lack of direct flights to western Ukraine gave a good excuse to do it by train.  Ryanair’s forthcoming route to Lviv will win for speed and price, but a couple of hours strapped into a budget aircraft will hardly convey the same sense of travelling through central Europe to the east.  And a train trip encourages some wonderfully atmospheric stopovers. Just don’t expect it to be restful.

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