Monday 23rd Nov 2009. Soldiers in swine-flu masks were the first thing that greeted Jon Russ and I on our arrival off the plane in L’viv airport in Western Ukraine. The plane passengers buttoned up their jackets against the cold and queued patiently to go through passport control in the dilapidated grand imperial mansion that served as the L’viv airport terminal. Ukraine was currently gripped by swine-flu panic. The schools and universities had been closed for 3 weeks with no sign of when they would reopen. ‘It is because of the presidential elections’ said our host Dr. Andriy Bashta in heavily accented english. ‘They are trying to distract the people from Ukraine’s real issues by panicking everyone’ he muttered as he led us through the crumbling mansion-house airport terminal to his car. Dodging the crazy traffic he took us through blocks and blocks of grim soviet style apartment skyscrapers and headed into the centre of L’viv (literally the City of Lions). To our surprise, the city centre was beautiful, a survivor of the Austro-Hungarian empire, full of grand imperial pastel buildings and gothic cathedral spires. Our hotel ‘The George’ was a grand pink imperial palace that was going through ‘repairations’. This of course meant a building site interior, hammerings in the middle of the night, no hot water and a surprising relocation of the reception desk during our stay. It was all ok though as a thoughtful note in our room declared ‘Sorry for inconveniences – we are in temporary repairations’. We talked with Andriy late into the night over Ukrainian beer and borsht about the potential for a bat monitoring project in Ukraine, learning with growing respect about the culture and its communist past. Yes, you guessed it - I was on the road again convincing Eurasia to monitor bat biodiversity through my Darwin Initative funded iBats Program.
Tuesday 24th Nov 2009. Wandering around the City of Lions is like walking backwards in time to the lost era of Tolstoy and Chekhov. Andriy had taken us up the clock tower of the city hall to admire the beauty of L’viv from above. You can vividly imagine the horse-drawn carriages of the past bumping over the cobbled streets of the broad avenues and marching imperial soldiers in their fine high leather boots and feathered hats with corseted ladies looked on with admiration. Now the once grand imperial buildings give off an air of melancholy sadness as they crumble with neglect and the modern day Ukrainians bustle onwards with their lives. The city is now a tapestry of lofty, beautiful imperial buildings, utilitarian soviet monstrosities and soulless enterprising post-communist new builds proudly boasting a MacDonald’s. The city itself is almost a metaphor for the Ukrainian people struggling to find their place in the world after the fall of communism and the revival of their language and culture. Andriy translates a logo on a t-shirt in one of the tourist shops ‘thank god I’m not Russian’ it says and he laughs. We meet some interested NGO groups today at Andriy’s office at the National Academy of Sciences. They seem interested in the bat monitoring project, but as I talk about the United Nations and the requirement of the Convention on Biological Diversity for each country to monitor biodiversity, it all seems far away from the concerns of these people and this country.
Wednesday 25th Nov 2009. We were on our third castle of the day and I stare blankly at the ornate Chinese metal vase. Our tour guide was describing in Ukrainian how it had been rescued from the scrap metal merchant and placed lovingly in the castle museum along with a seemingly random collection of other oddities. Well, at least I think that was what she said – Andriy was tired and hungry and his English translations were a getting a little patchy. Even Jon’s mask of English politeness slipped at the prospect of a further more detailed tour of the gardens. Andriy had driven us south of L’viv, with his student Igor to give us a feel of the countryside and habitats where we would be setting up our monitoring projects. We were just north of the Carpathian Mountains and the hilly landscape was covered in a patchwork of forests and the rich black soils of the agricultural land. As we bumped along the pot-holed roads, I pointed in confusion to the many seemingly abandoned fields. ‘Yes’ Andriy says, ‘after communists left no one wants to be a farmer anymore’. The air of dilapidation in L’viv is also evident in the plaster-peeling rundown village houses. The grimness is only broken by the lurid coloured splendour of the churches and their domes and spires gleaming brightly in the weak winter sunlight. The elegant splendour of the castle we were currently in demonstrated the effect that some care and restoration can have on this landscape. But even here in this fine newly refurbished castle, Ukraine’s troubled past is never far away. Pictures in the entrance way depict the genocide of 700 civilians here by a retreating and desperate Russian army. Igor, holds the castle door open for us as we leave to make our way back to L’viv. ‘After you’ he says beaming proudly, we laugh and smile at him as these are the only English words he knows.
Thursday 26th November 2009. I am lying on my back looking up at the plastic red bottom of the bunk above me while our train rattles onwards from L’viv and crosses the border into Russia. We said goodbye to Andriy and his team and headed to Bryansk to meet our colleagues from the Russian monitoring project. I see Jon’s orange socked feet dangling down from his bunk above me while he listens to yet another audio book on his iPod. To be honest we are doing quite well considering this is our 17th hour on this train, having bravely negotiated our way past our gruff ‘provodnik’, the Ukrainian guard assigned to our carriage and then barricaded ourselves into our train compartment amid a lot of giggling. This being a rather poorly-thought out trip, we of course did not have enough water or food to last the 17 hours on the train. One lady came by offering us a neon flashing children’s toy to buy, but that really wasn’t going to help. Made desperate by our dehydrated and famished state, we were forced to learn some Ukrainian to find food and interact with our fellow passengers. Fortunately we were soon rescued by a nice lady pushing a shopping trolley past our carriage stuffed full of goodies and beer. She didn’t have Harry Potter’s chocolate frogs but otherwise it strongly reminded me of a Ukrainian version of the Hogwart’s Express. I feel a sense of building excitement as we pass Chernobyl and Kiev and speed into Russia. Russia has always filled me with a sense of wonder, mystique, horror and romance. Our first encounters with the Russians were very promising – hoards of guards in swine-flu masks flooded the train at the border demanding to see our ‘pas-parts’. It all felt very Stalin-esque!
Sunday 29th November 2009. Holy mother of god, I am not sure my liver can take any more Russian hospitality. I roll off my bed in my hotel room to try and find some water and paracetamol in a vain attempt to ward off the hangover. We were greeted off the Ukrainian train late Thursday night in Bryansk by our host Igor and his student Sasha, with warm Russian hugs and pink roses. Russia is living up to all expectations. Our host Igor in beautiful and heavily accented English, quotes the famous Russian poet Tiutchev ‘It is impossible to understand Russia, you just have to believe in Russia’. It is true, it would take a lifetime and more to understand this place. We tour Bryansk with Igor the next day, taking in the harsh soviet buildings and the fur-coated populous and use the opportunity to learn more about his culture and these proud Russian people. ‘Communism was a lie, just a slogan - we have many poor people that have nothing’ Igor tells us as we look down on the city from the top of a monument to those who died in World War II. We ask Igor about the future of Russia and movements towards democracy and change, he shrugs ‘Many people just think about now – not the future’. ‘Russians are still sleeping’ Igor continues as we move down into the city to visit a church, one of the many recently renovated or newly constructed after Perestroika. Igor explains that his NGO is trying to wake people in his region into local action and change, creating more awareness of human rights, health and environmental degradation. Our biodiversity monitoring project is just one of the many projects Igor and his friends want to start. The next day we give a talk about bat conservation and the monitoring program at a local school in Bryansk (imaginatively called School No 56) and are warmly welcomed by Igor’s colleague Oleg who is the headmaster and one-time communist party official. Igor quotes another Russian writer Gogol ‘Russia has two big problems: bad roads and stupid men’. Russian men don’t seem that bad to me I think as Oleg gives me more pink roses and we toast variously to ‘Russia’, ‘UK’, ‘bats’, ‘democracy’, ‘friendship’, ‘future’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘Beetles’, ‘beautiful woman that run monitoring program’ with the impressive collection of alcohol on the heavily food-ladened dinner table.
Sunday 30th November 2009. The next morning the hangover is shocking and the sleepless night didn’t help. My only consolation is that Jon looks about fifty times worse. We are bundled into Igor’s car with Igor’s wife Tatyana crazily driving through the fog and forests to a rural school, with Jon slowly turning green sandwiched between Oleg and Igor in the back seat. We are in a really bad way by the time we get to the school and are greeted by the enthusiastic and extraordinarily welcoming headmistress Natalya. We are led upstairs to the main hall to an overwhelming reception from the school children dressed in traditional clothes and led in traditional Russian songs with a teacher playing an accordion-like thing. We are trying not to puke as we were taken down to meet the Ecology club who are having a lesson about bats and making bat origami. More presentations and speeches and the children give us a little bat picture they made out of bread. I mumble something about how amazing they are and desperately try to pull myself together. The rest now becomes a blur – more toasts follow in Natalya’s office – Jon perks up after the second shot of cognac. Natalya then invites us to her house in the village where she and her friends have a feast prepared for us. ‘First, we go Russian sauna’ she bounces up and down in excitement pointing to the wooden banya (sauna house) specially built in her garden. We had spent the last 4 days desperately explaining to the Russians that British people don’t do naked group saunas, but there was really no saying no to Natalya. I guess I should be thankful for the separate ‘man’ and ‘woman’ sauna session, but getting completely naked, rubbed in ground coffee beans and thrashed by birch sticks by three naked strangers is traumatic for me owing to my cultural innate reserve of all such things. Jon doesn’t care – more toasts have been flowing and I am beginning to suspect that his red cheeks aren’t just from the after effects of the sauna’s steam. Everyone is in fine form. Natalya, horrified at my unmarried, childless state promises to have me married to a handsome Russian man when we return in May. Lots of kisses goodbye and a hundred ‘spa-si-bas’ (thank yous) later, we head back to the city to meet Oleg’s friends for dinner. We are introduced to a lovely Armenian family and talk to their son about London as he practises his English. Another huge banquet and more toasts - heart-felt ones from us about the extraordinary reception we have had in Russia and the warm-heartedness and kindness of the Russian people. However, I think I am going to die right here – maybe if I slip under the table and have a heart attack - then I won’t have to eat or drink anything for a while?
Tuesday 1st December 2009. Jon and I are heading to Mockva airport on our way to London. ‘What do you think of Russia’ Sasha says to us as we chat on the Mockva airport train. Good question. As ‘an impossibly complicated country’ doesn’t translate brilliantly and Jon’s ‘I don’t think I have ever felt that ill in my life’ comment wasn’t very polite, I mutter something non-committal. We have spent our last day with Igor and Sasha being enthusiastically shown around the stately grandeur of Mockva’s Kremlin and Red Square (bizarrely complete with Lenin’s pale embalmed body) and making plans for the project next year. It was rather a subdued affair, as Jon and I were definitely feeling the after effects of Russian hospitality, with no sleep after a night’s travel on the train from Bryansk to Mockva, and completely exhausted after wandering around in a daze to find another hotel as the one we had originally booked in was ‘moving’. Amid moving boxes and rubbish, the Californian hotel owner was apologetic but said the Russian authorities only told him yesterday that his lease was up. ‘Russians’ he says and looks at once bemused, amused and perplexed. I guess that is what I feel about Russians too and I turn away from Sasha and watch the Russian countryside speed past the train as it rattles towards the airport and my only slightly less crazy home.