A Travellerspoint blog

Kiev Football Fever


View World Trip 2012 - Actual on dariusz's travel map.

Through some lucky coincidence I logged in one day to the UEFA resale web site and saw that there were 1st class tickets available for the Ukraine opening game in Kiev. The first ever Euro Cup game on Ukraine soil, the first ever game for the Ukrainian national team in a Euro Cup, and the chance to visit one of the most famous cities in the Eastern block. Without thinking too much about it I went ahead and purchased them.

Why not combine this trip to Kiev with seeing the rest of Ukraine I thought? So I started looking at costs for transportation and accommodation and I almost chocked. The costs were getting absolutely ridiculous. Most of the hostels in Kiev were asking for $100 PER PERSON for a bunk bed and the Hotels started at $600 per night. The flights internally between cities were around $300. We're not picky when it comes to accommodation so I never expected to have an issue but now I was starting to get a bit scared we may not even be able to attend the game at all. Luckily I soon found a round trip ticket to Kiev from Warsaw for a reasonable price but unfortunately connecting through Moscow which means backtracking almost a thousand kilometers. The prices meant we couldn’t afford to stay very long so we only booked the minimum 3 night stay (since everyone demanded a 3 night minimum all of a sudden) in a private room in a hostel for $100 a night. We were very lucky to even get this and in fact the room only appeared available at this price about a month or so before the game.

When we got to Ukraine it was quickly obvious that we were not in the 1st world anymore, but it was also obvious that a lot of work went into making it easy for tourists to get into town. There were special buses in service for tourists to get to the subway with English speaking representatives at the airport to help you find and pay for them. There were also English speaking reps at all the subway stations. For those of you that don’t know much about Ukraine this is a major issue for western tourists since Ukrainians use the Cyrillic alphabet and there are next to no signs in English or even in the Latin alphabet that we're used to. However, the rep system worked really well and the people were helpful and friendly so we had absolutely no issues getting into town using public transportation.

The place we booked was actually in an absolutely AMAZING location. If we leaned out of our balcony we could actually see the Olympic stadium two blocks and a 5 minute walk away. The area is a super swanky area in Kiev near the Chervonoarmiyska St. and a short walk from Khreshchatyk St. and Independence Square. The buildings and the street itself is very grandiose with giant brick buildings on either side of the street and a towering statue in the middle of the square. It is all extremely over the top and is clearly meant to impress visitors to the city and convey its power. It definitely succeeds on both counts.

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When we went out to see the city during the day the atmosphere was festive dominated mostly by the Swedes who were here to support their team and were having a great time being boisterous. The makeup of the crowd changed in the afternoon when the Ukrainians got out of work but the party only got better. The one thing that was noticeable however was that there were fewer tourists here who were just hanging out enjoying the atmosphere. It seemed all the tourists were either Swedish or foreigners of Ukrainian background and had tickets to see the game. It may have had something to do with the prices, and it’s too bad really because the Ukrainians were wonderfully friendly hosts and we were having an amazing time together celebrating the beautiful game.

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We were starting to get hungry so we started looking for some grub and were amazed at how expensive everything was. I don't know if this is normal pricing in Kiev but a dinner would be Canadian price or more and we were eating for a 3rd of that in Poland even in the middle of Warsaw. We were so annoyed that we actually ate lunch at McDonalds in protest.

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We were not looking forward to dinner but on our way back to our hostel we passed a small place on our street that seemed to be advertising reasonable prices. We decided to come back for dinner and it was the best decision we made all trip! The place is called Puzata Hata and it has some absolutely amazing Ukrainian dishes at rock bottom prices. It's a little bit similar to the Polish "Milk Bars" in that it serves delicious local food like momma makes but its far more tourist friendly in that you can actually see what you are ordering before you order it. It's setup like a cafeteria where you grab a tray and walk down the counter filling it with all matter of deliciousness with prices clearly displayed above the dishes. You then pay for each piece you picked up at the cash register at the end. For the Euro they made things even easier for tourists in that they had English speaking translators in addition to regular staff behind the counter to help with selection. They even accept credit cards! We LOVED this place so much we came back for every single meal!

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When walking around the city it appears peaceful but if you pay attention to the details you will realize there is a battle going on. The first thing that most tourists wouldn't notice is that everyone will address you in Russian instead of Ukrainian. This is a little weird since it's not the same language that all the printed material is in and (at the time of our visit) it is not the official language. The only reason I noticed is that I was trying to understand people in stores and restaurants since Ukrainian is similar to Polish but I could not make out anything. It wasn't until I wore my Polska t-shirt for the Poland-Russia game and went into Puzata Hata that I realized why it was. The ladies behind the counter were all of a sudden beaming at me and describing the dishes in a language I COULD understand quite well. They were speaking Ukrainian for the first time in all our visits. The city and the country is clearly very divided and it's clear one side holds the majority of the wealth and power, however, the opposition is not exactly idle and made its presence known through their support for a certain jailed politician.

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However, it was clear that at least for this evening, everyone was united in one goal. To cheer on their U-KRA-I-NA to beat the Swedes! The atmosphere was amazing even though most people did not really believe Ukraine could win this game. They were hoping that at least they could have a respectable showing. I hate to toot my own horn, but I always thought Ukraine had a very good chance, and then this happened.

Yup! Ukraine surprised all the sports analysts and critics and beat Sweden 2-1 in a very convincing fashion! It was an absolutely magical experience to have been there cheering Ukraine on to their win in their first ever game at a Euro tournament. I still can't help to smile when I think about it. The people in the country are so amazingly friendly and genuine and you really feel for them and their struggles. I hope that if nothing else the Euro can have a bit of uniting effect because in the end a country can only be strong and successful if it is united.

Posted by dariusz 08:54 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

The Euro 2012 experience - Poland Edition


View World Trip 2012 - Actual on dariusz's travel map.

Poland is a great country to visit and probably the best value in Europe. It still has its own currency (the zloty) despite being in the European no-border free-trade zone and this in part has helped it become Europe's strongest economy and one of the few countries in the world not to experience experience a recession in the past 5 years. For backpackers this means helpful people, no major safety issues, great low prices for food and accommodation and all the conveniences of the 1st world. However, the primary reason why we came to Poland at the time that we did was the Euro Cup.

The Euro Cup is the second most attended sporting tournament in the world after the FIFA World Cup and it is as much about Football as it is about having a great party. People from all over Europe, and in fact from all over the world, converge on the host country or countries to cheer on their team or their adopted team and drinks TONS of beer. There are Brazilians cheering on the Portuguese, Mexicans cheering on the Spanish and so on. The tickets to the games are allocated using a lottery system and the drawing is done a full year before the tournament starts. There are special ticket allocations to the Football associations in the countries competing so entire planes/buses full of Swedes, Fins, Germans etc. arrive on the days just preceding the matches to attend the games create a wonderful festive atmosphere in the cities. However, don't worry if you don't have tickets to any of the games, the host cities where the stadiums are all have giant Fan Zones that in some cases can accommodate well over 100K people in addition to giant TV screens, stands, beer booths, souvenirs and even carnival style Football themed games. The best part is the Fan Zones are FREE, there are DJ's and live performances, and the party goes on way after the actual Football matches are done.

Having not been lucky enough to score one of the highly sought after opening day tickets we decided to join over 100,000 other people in the fan zone in Warsaw to watch the opening Poland vs. Greece game:

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Despite the media pouncing on a few incidents and blowing them out of proportion, the atmosphere throughout the tournament was inclusive and friendly even between fans from countries that may not have had the best history or are currently on bad terms. The large majority of people were open to EVERYONE and we didn't see any incidents of fights or hostility between various nationalities. It was wonderful to see so many people from so many places in the world partying and having a good time together.

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The most fun we had was heading our with our Dutch friends to watch the first Netherlands game. We dressed up in Orange colors but unfortunately the result wasn't great for the Dutch.

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I was starting to feel like a bad luck charm! So I picked up a Russian scarf from some Russian fans. After all the next Poland game was going to be against Russia and if I was bad luck then maybe it was going to rub off :)

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We had a great time mingling with fans from around the world and stayed and watched the Portugal vs. Germany game then stuck around for the after-party.

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While it was great fun hanging out in the Fan Zone, we did eventually get a chance to go to the National Stadium in Warsaw to watch a game. I was lucky enough to have bought tickets to the Quarter Final game from an official resale site ran by UEFA and we couldn't be more excited to get to see Poland play on home soil. It was going to be their first Euro Cup Quarter Final appearance except.... well it never happened :( Poland would have played in the game had they beaten the Czech republic in their last round robin match but they ended up losing despite being favorites on paper. So instead we were going to watch the Czech's take on one of Euro Cup favorites Portugal.

The whole Euro Cup experience was unforgettable. I will always remember the excitement that you could just feel throughout Warsaw on the day before the first Poland game. It was clear that the entire city and in fact the country was watching and hoping and wanting to see a victory. The team did not end up delivering the victory but the country sure did. The camaraderie between fans from all over the world, the "Polska" chants and white-red outfits everywhere, hanging out with our friends and the wonderful festive atmosphere everywhere we went all went into creating memories that will last a lifetime. Even if you could not care less about Football/Soccer attending the Euro or the World Cup should rank high on your list of must-do experiences.

Posted by dariusz 10:24 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Warsaw!

Poland is an amazing country. It’s beautifully landscaped with forests, fringed with picturesque mountains, and crowned with a beautiful Baltic seaside. When and meeting Europeans during our travels, many have mentioned how they enjoy vacationing in Poland because of all of it has to offer – hiking in the scenic “Polish mountains”, relaxing by the Baltic sea, unwinding by one its numerous lakes and forests, indulging on delectable Polish cuisine, and exploring its charming towns and cities.

After travelling around Asia for 4 months, coming to Warsaw was quite a relief! We flew from Vietnam to Warsaw with a stopover in Moscow. The journey was about 12 hours long. When we were received by Derek’s mom we were visibly skinnier and haggard. Fortunately for us, we were able to stay with Derek’s mom who had a flat in Warsaw. Derek’s mom nursed us back to our original fat selves through her love and excellent home cooking! Also, we were only a 20 minute transit ride away from the downtown area, and only 10 minutes from the football stadium.

Yes – we came to Warsaw primarily because of the 2012 Eurocup!
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Apart from the Eurocup games and festivities, Warsaw is a great city to visit! It’s modern with wide streets, decent public transportation, beautiful parks, great Polish restaurants, and EXCELLENT desserts! The people can by shy but friendly once you break the ice, and happily willing to correct butchered Polish when attempted! It is such a difficult language!

Scattered throughout the city are reminders and monuments to historical events and tragedies throughout the city. Many of these tributes are in Polish, therefore it was great having my very own Polish translator to translate for me. He happens to be good-looking too! We even had the opportunity to hang out with our good buddy S.A.M who was couch-surfing around Scandanavia and happened to be in Warsaw when we were! It was great enjoying Warsaw’s many beautiful sites with our international-travel buddy!
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For me, the best part about Warsaw was visiting family and seeing the places where Derek and his family had grown up in. We had such a wonderful time visiting family and friends just outside of Warsaw. The suburbs of Warsaw look like Ontario cottage country – many trees, clean lakes, the presence of forest birds and animals, and the serenity of the country side. Everyone was friendly, welcoming, generous, and so much fun to be around! It was fun sharing stories about how Polish customs couldn’t keep a straight face while looking at my passport, and the Polish name that did not match the obviously Asian face!
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And the FOOD! Oh wow – delicious. The best part is that you don’t even need to go to an expensive place to have fantastic, fresh food. The Polish take pride in using fresh ingredients, cooking from scratch, and making sure that it’s so tasty that you want to eat more and more!

One can visit a cafeteria-type place called a “Bar Mleczny” which literally translates to “Milk Bar”. Here, one can find the menu (all in Polish) posted on a wall, a very unpleasant-looking woman behind a cash register, and 2 small windows. Here is a step-by-step description on how to order food here. DO NOT DIGRESS FROM THESE INSTRUCTIONS or else someone WILL yell at you:

1. Know what you want to order: If possible, have a translator present. Or ask someone in line to describe what everything is. But by all means DO NOT ask the woman behind the counter what anything is or else she WILL yell at you.

2. Order from and pay the unpleasant woman who will be standing behind the cash register: she will give you a receipt and expect you to figure out, without any help from her, that you should go to the small window next. If you ask anything idiotic, she will let you know that you are being an idiot.

3. Go to the small window, hand in your receipt, and wait: do not remind the people behind the window that you still have other items outstanding. They WILL yell at you.

4. Take your meal from the people behind the small window: the food is cheap but delicious. Savour all of it, and do not waste any of it. You might want to have more, but you will have to risk going through steps 1 through 3 again.

5. Once finished your food, take your dirty dishes and tray to the second window and place the tray there: do NOT take any pictures of this process. You WILL get yelled at, guaranteed!

I actually had the best roasted duck and apples EVER in the small town that Derek grew up in. The cost of this fabulous meal -- $4! Seriously! I made Derek tell the owner that I would never eat another duck ever again because it is not possible for me to have duck THIS AMAZING ever again!
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Although we spent almost 1 month in Warsaw, it was not enough time to see absolutely everything. But the most significant thing about Warsaw is its history. Until you visit the war museum and Warsaw Uprising museum, you will not appreciate how much Warsaw has progressed since its destruction by the Nazis in the 1940s, then its occupation by the Russians immediately afterwards. It was not only the Jewish people of Poland that were targeted by their occupiers -- it was ALL Polish people. One would not be able to comprehend how this beautiful and upcoming city was literally flattened and then rebuilt to its former likeness by finding old blueprints of the city, by old paintings, old pictures, and the sheer drive and dedication by the people of Warsaw.

Warsaw is an inspirational city to the rest of the world because it is a living example of the positive outcomes that could arise even after a city is devastated by war, oppression, occupation, and other acts against humanity. It is a testament to the power of people working together towards a common goal that benefits the greater good. And once you realize all of this, Warsaw will seem like an even more beautiful place than it already seems…
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Posted by krisses 17:54 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Around Saigon – The Mekong Delta


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Having so little time in Vietnam before having to move on to Poland in time for the Euro Cup opening game, and encouraged by how great the tour to Cu Chi was, we decided to book a day trip to the Mekong Delta.

The Mekong Delta is an area of Vietnam that is as much water as it is land. It is a land mass criss-crossed by hundreds of rivers on their way to the South China Sea. The people in this area get around and trade with each other almost exclusively on boats. The trip to this area is a must to experience scenery straight out of Hollywood movies, except here, it’s all a real way of life.

We boarded a fisherman boat and set off on the wavy river:

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When we finally docked on a bit of dry land our tour guide took us to a bee hive demonstration. Not sure whether they think we don’t have bee’s in the west, but regardless, it was fun to see Kristine squirm at the sight of the hundreds of little honey workers.

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The best part however came when someone brought out a giant python and invited the tourists to hold him. Kristine wanted nothing to do with the snake but I convinced her to give it a try. She was fine at first, but soon after the snake started coiling and tightening around her body. You can see the expression of terror on her face:

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The next part of the trip was really the highlight and the reason for coming. We took a tiny little boat through a beautiful canal lined with amazing vegetation. It’s a little disneyesque since clearly the boats are just there to carry tourists around but the scenery and experience is wonderful. In the end they are the same boats and the same type of rivers that people further into the Mekong Delta use for their everyday life.

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Next we took a larger boat down a river to a little riverside lodge where we had lunch. The highlight of the lunch was the traditional Vietnamese musical performance while we ate. The instrument one of the band members was using was a single string guitar like thing which he handled with unbelievable skill. I cannot say the same thing for myself. I absolutely could not get a single sound in tune out of the thing.

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Lastly we took a boat back to our bus and departed the Mekong with many pleasant memories. We really wish we could spend more time in the area and get closer to the local people but with only 3 days in South Vietnam it was impossible. We will definitely have to come back one day!

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Posted by dariusz 07:03 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Saigon City and the Cu Chi Tunnels


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In the minds of the western world the word “Saigon” conjures up images of debilitating heat and humidity intermingled with chaotic street life complete with exotic scents and scenery. The good news (or bad if you’re squeamish) is that it’s all really still there, authentic as ever just made much more accessible to the average traveller. Vietnam in general is a really a wonderful country to visit for a backpacker, extremely well organized, relatively clean and amazing value for just about everything. Saigon itself is often put in the shadow of the capital of Hanoi but we found it to be more interesting and entertaining as well as much cheaper for tours.

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I keep using the word Saigon, but if you look at a current map of Vietnam, you will find no such city. The city is now officially called “Ho Chi Minh” city after the communist leader and national hero whose image you see sprinkled throughout the city in painting, posters and statues.

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However, the locals still stubbornly call the city Saigon and are defiantly pro-American and pro-capitalist. You can see this the second you land in the airport where the official change counter is called “Saigon Money Change”. Then when you drive to your hotel you see multitudes of store fronts with names such as “Saigon Café” or “American Style Clothes/Furniture/etc.”. Lastly when you talk to the locals you learn that the divisions between South and North are still very much alive and people here are in a majority still anti-communist.

The history of Saigon is fascinating as it is here, or rather in the surrounding country side, that the Vietnam War outcome was decided. Most interesting from that perspective is the Cu Chi area outside of Saigon where the VietCong (North Vietnamese Army, “Cong” is the Vietnamese word for communist) had a stronghold and from where they kept pestering and making life difficult for the South Vietnamese and the Americans. We decided to see the amazing Cu Ci Tunnels used by the VietCong for their operations so we booked a WHOLE DAY tour for $10 each INCLUDING LUNCH. How that is possible I really have no idea and to top it off the tour was EXCELLENT.

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The tunnels were an amazing underground system that allowed the VietCong to appear inside American bases, start a fire or attack a garrison, and then disappear as if vanishing into thin air. People used to live, cook and work INSIDE the tunnels, and there was an entire command system and military structure within them. Once the Americans finally figured out what was happening they did everything they could to either destroy the tunnels or draw the VietCong out of them but to no avail. The Americans were physically too big and the tunnels far too complicated, claustrophobic and booby trapped to be able to fight within them while destroying them from the air was an exercise of frustration since the VietCong just kept rebuilding any parts that were hit. Here I am demonstrating why most American soldiers were not able to go down the tunnels. This is one of the original tunnel openings actually used in the war:

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Since most tourists would never be able to go through a real tunnel either because of their size or because of claustrophobia a 4 times larger reconstruction was made. This is me and Kristine within the tourist tunnel. Yikes.

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The reconstruction has 5 exits spaced out approximately evenly from the entrance so tourists can decide how far they want to go. We only made it to the first exit and decided it was enough. The tunnel was hot and humid and at times you felt like you were going to suffocate or get stuck in its walls. The tourists were coming out from the first exit drenched in their sweat. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live, work and fight within the original much smaller tunnels used in the war.

The next stop was a very interesting booby trap demonstration:

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Ouch that must have hurt!

We then got to sit on a victoriously destroyed US tank:

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Shoot an AK47 with real live bullets:

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And lastly watch a wildly informative Communist propaganda video (with Granpa Minh watching us) made shortly after the war explaining how the heroic men and women of Cu Chi fought the “American Devils” and won. The tour guide, who fought in the South Vietnamese army as many Saigon people did, turned the video off after a few minutes saying “OK, I think that’s enough”.

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PS. "Stairway" in our hotel
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Posted by dariusz 07:25 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

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