Why did I choose Kharkiv and not Odessa or Lviv?
In October 2020, I spent 19 days in Ukraine. I was on my way back to Canada and decided to make a stop in Ukraine as the country was open for travelers (No PCR test or quarantine required). I spent most of my time in Kyiv but I decided to visit another city during one of the weekends. If there wasn’t there a global pandemic then, I would have toured all of Ukraine in these 19 days. However, I had to limit my mobility and that’s why I made only one visit to another city other than Kyiv. From what I heard and read, Odessa and Lviv are more interesting cities to visit than Kharkiv but the reason why I chose Kharkiv was simply because it is closer to Kyiv so I didn’t want to spend long hours on train so that I could minimize the possibility of contracting the virus. I know that my strategy doesn’t necessarily sound logical to everybody who is reading this but isn’t it true that there’s nothing logical about this virus too? 🙂
The train ride from Kyiv to Kharkiv
I booked my return ticket from Ukrainian railway site here https://booking.uz.gov.ua/en/. It is not the easiest train booking website I’ve ever dealt with but I am quite familiar with train sites in former USSR countries. The 1st class return ticket of this 4.5 hours train ride from Kyiv to Kharkiv costed me around 55 USD and ticket included 1 bottle of water. Ukrainian high speed trains have 2 classes; 1st class with 2-2 seat configuration and 2nd class with 3-3 seat configuration. It was the time of pandemic so I wanted to minimize the risk, hence, I chose 1st class for both legs.
I arrived at Kyiv train station around 6.20 am. The train departed from the platform at 6.45 am. The train was almost fully booked and many people weren’t wearing any mask including my seat neighbor. I can’t deny that I was a bit stressed during the trip as not many people cared about physical distance or wearing a mask so I tried not to think about it and to focus on daydreaming about how I am going to spend the next 24 hours in the city of Kharkiv.
There was nothing special about the train, it looked relatively new but I also felt that it was bland and it lacked character. There is a small cafeteria onboard so I went there to check it out and to get myself a cup of coffee and a sandwich. It was overpriced and didn’t taste good.
Arrival in Kharkiv and my first impressions
After an uneventful 4.5 hours train ride, I finally arrived in Kharkiv. I was so tired especially that I woke up at 5 am that morning but the sunny weather was like a warm welcome for me and it made me feel excited about seeing the city for the first time.
First thing that impressed me was the Stalinist empire style railway station at Kharkiv. The high ceiling of the the station is incredible especially with all the beautiful details. Soviets truly cared about building magnificent train and metro stations and I saw that in various places I visited around the former Soviet Union.
I went outside the station to the square and then turned around to see the entire station from outside. My first impression was “well, that looks so Soviet to me” so I had a large smile on my face and I instantly fell in love with the place.
And right outside the station there is a bustling square that was full of people from different ages; old people, teenagers, kids, etc… and the common thing was; no one was wearing a mask, no social distancing, and no one cared about Covid 🙂
I booked an apartment through Airbnb; it was about 35 minutes walk from the railway station but I decided to walk it as it’s a great way to see the city. Besides, the weather was amazing so I took that opportunity and I am glad I did so.
During the walk to my Airbnb apartment, I saw some landmarks of the city. The city looks so Soviet and also, it’s very close to the Russian border (about 40 KMs away) so I guess everybody speaks only Russian there. The city looked way more Russian than Kyiv and it actually reminded me of Yekaterinburg, a Russian city in the Urals which I visited during my Trans-Siberian train trip in 2018.
During the walk, I made a few stops to admire some of the fascinating buildings in Kharkiv. It’s a truly Soviet looking city and everyone knows that I love to see Soviet stuff 🙂
After a cheerful and eventful 40 minutes walk, I arrived in my Airbnb apartment where I was able to have a self check-in which was really convenient. The apartment itself was just fine for 1 night, nothing special about it at all and was nice and clean and had everything I needed. It was in a perfect location too. I rented it for about 35 USD per night.
After checking-in, I needed to take a nap as I was exhausted. Later, I went out to have lunch and to explore the city. I don’t remember details of the lunch I had there so it can tell that it wasn’t a taste to remember.
Exploring the city
Kharkiv is the 2nd largest city in Ukraine but there’s something interesting about it, which is, all landmarks and attractions are on a walking distance from the city center where I was staying.
I wanted to visit Maxim Gorky Park so on my way to the park, I had the chance to view many landmarks which were built during the Soviet and imperial eras such as Kharkiv national opera and ballet theater and marriage registration office.
The spectacular Maxim Gorky Park
Maxim Gorky Park is a huge park in Kharkiv that consists of over 130 hectares of land. I spent about 2 hours in the park wondering around its attractions. It was a relatively warm October day in a weekend so literally the whole city was outside enjoying the last warm days before the long winter hits. I noticed that no one was wearing any mask. I noticed seeing people from different generations including pensioners above 65 years old yet not a single person was wearing a mask and without any sort of social distancing. They just wanted to enjoy and live without being obsessed with the news about Covid and without any hysteria which we often see in Western countries. I sympathized with their decision to go out and enjoy what they have without thinking too much of the consequences but I was still a bit worried that one of them might catch the virus. In the end, I decided to enjoy the moment without thinking too much about any damn virus.
The huge and beautiful Ferris wheel in the middle of the park caught my attention. I traveled to many former Soviet Union cities and I noticed that they all have Ferris wheels. People in these former Soviet Union countries are obsessed with Ferris wheels; from Minsk to Baku and from Kyiv to Bishkek through Almaty and Kharkiv, they all had magnificent Ferris wheels. They were obsessed with this kind of entertainment at their parks and I personally admire that.
After passing the Ferris wheel, I found some park rides which were identical to the ones I enjoyed riding during my childhood in Kuwait such as bumper cars, carousel, and another ride called “European cars”. However, there’s something that gave me goosebumps when I saw which was the train that circles the park; It reminded me of my childhood as we had exactly the same train in Kuwait Entertainment city. Kuwait is a small country so we had no real trains there (we still don’t) so I guess the train that circles the park was the first train ride I’ve ever had in my life. I had a deep connection with this park and I felt so good to be there.
A bit later, it was the time to start my first adventure in Kharkiv; I decided to ride the 1387 meters long colorful and beautiful Soviet built cable car. This zip car or cable has small colorful cabins which can carry 2 adults only in each cabin. Before riding it, I didn’t know that it’s an adventure because I just thought it’s going to be another cable car ride. It’s true that it’s a bit ancient but that’s not going to be a problem at all, I was wrong.
I stood in the queue, bought a ticket for about a 1 USD only. It was my turn to literally jump into the cabin. Well, yes, your read it right, I had to jump inside the cabin while it was actually moving. There is a guy working there who shouted something in Russian to me “I think he says Davayete” which means “Let’s” so I jumped inside it and I am lucky I didn’t fall! The cabin started to shake left and right and I truly didn’t know what to do so I just kept silent and tried to understand what’s going on. 5 minutes into the ride I realized that I should have closed the door of the cabin as it was opened and I had to close it manually.
It was a nice 20-25 minutes ride and I truly enjoyed it despite my concerns about safety. At the end, I had to get out of there and similar to entering the cabin, I also had to jump out of it when the cabin reached the platform but I had to do that while it’s actually moving. It’s true that it’s moving slowly but it was still moving!! As a result, I jumped out but it was a rough landing so I fell down on my knee and ripped my jeans. Luckily, I had an extra jeans in my backpack which I brought from Kyiv so I didn’t have to walk around with a ripped jeans.
It was still a memorable ride, despite all the turbulence I went through. I highly recommend the zip car or cable car (whatever they call it) if you are visiting Kharkiv, it’s one of the landmarks of the city.
After this adventure, I went out for dinner in a nice Asian restaurant in the evening and I noticed that the city was full of life during night time. There were so many people outside and a large percentage of them were students as Kharkiv has a huge university. I didn’t want to go out to crowded places and to mix with a huge number of people so I decided to go home after dinner.
The disappointing pancake breakfast
Next morning, I had about 3 to 4 hours to spend in the city before heading back to Kyiv. I wanted to have breakfast and I found a very nice cafe with great reviews called KOFEiN so I went there hoping to get some Russian/Ukrainian/Belarusian style pancakes (They are usually thin and very tasty). I saw pancake in the menu and I got excited and ordered it. However, when the waitress brought it, I was disappointed as these were the thick American style pancakes and that’s not exactly what I wanted to eat. Anyhow, it was still tasty but wish if they had the original Russian style thin pancakes which I truly adore.
After the pancakes experience, I wanted to check out one more place before leaving the city. On my way there, I stopped at the national academic opera and ballet theater. I noticed seeing similar looking buildings to this one in many former Soviet cities I visited such as Almaty, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk and many others. I can tell that Soviets had a huge interest in ballet and opera, that’s why best ballet shows in the world come from these countries.
Derzhprom (or Gozprom)
This magnificent building is Europe’s first skyscraper complex and the most spacious single structure in the world when completed in 1920s, surpassed only by New York’s skyscrapers in 1930s. One fun fact about this building: “7 of the 12 original elevators still function without being replaced since 1928”. I spent about half an hour admiring this amazing Soviet built structure which was a showcase project designed when Kharkiv was the capital of Ukrainian SSR before moving the capital to Kiev later in the 1930s.
Back to the railway station
After taking some photos of this magnificent structure and a short walk around freedom square, it was the time to head to the train station to catch my train back to Kyiv. I ordered an uber to the station and arrived about 30 minutes before departure. I realized that I lost my sanitizer so I said to myself I will just buy it from one of the mini-markets surrounding the station (They call them Produkti Продукты in Russian) and once again, I was wrong.
I entered the first market and asked with my limited Russian if they have a sanitizer”у вас есть антисептик?” and the answer was No “Нет”. The same story in the second shop “у вас есть антисептик?” and the answer was a definite and even loud No “Нет” and then the same story in the third shop so I asked from where I can buy it? “Где я могу это купить?” and the friendly female seller answered me “аптека” which means pharmacy. Imagine, we are in a middle of a pandemic yet no one was selling a sanitizer and I had to go to the pharmacy to get one. The lovely people of Kharkiv are so strong that they don’t care about Covid and they won’t let it spoil their life 🙂
I got the sanitizer and walked back to the station and saw that my train to Kyiv was on time and it would leave after 20 minutes from platform number 1.
It was time to take one last photo of the charming station in Kharkiv before going inside and taking the train back to Kyiv,
The train ride back to Kyiv was abuot 4.5 hours and uneventful. This time I didn’t have someone sitting next to me so I felt relatively comfortable and I witnessed that more people were wearing masks than the trip I had from Kyiv to Kharkiv the day before. The only thing I remember from the train trip is that I had a meal called “Lunch box” which I bought from the cafeteria on board the train and the food was both disgusting and overpriced for Ukraine. I guess next time I should pack my own food.
I was starving when I arrived in Kyiv so before heading back to the apartment, I stopped at McDonald’s and had a delicious Big Mac there. By the way, McDonald’s in Ukraine and Russia tastes 100 times better than in Canada, it was a very tasty meal.
I spent a cool 24 hours in Kharkiv and I am glad I had the opportunity to visit this “off the map” destination. I was told that Lviv and Odessa are more interesting cities than Kharkiv and this might be true but I am still glad I had the chance to visit Kharkiv as such an opportunity may not happen again. I had good emotions in the city and was glad to see a city that is full of life in the time of Covid (I hope that not many people will attack me for saying that). It felt good to be there and I generally had a good time, despite ripping my jeans 🙂
That’s all I can say about my adventure in Kharkiv for now. Stay tuned for a new blog in the next coming few weeks.