If I ever go off the grid, this is a little clue as to where I could be found: 22nd floor, Tourist Hotel Complex, Kiev, Ukraine.
I have an odd attraction to Soviet architecture. This may have partially been what it was that kept me tied to China’s new cities for so long. I didn’t just spend two and a half years traveling to China’s ghost cities just because it was a good story but because there was something about these places that I enjoyed — the larger-than-life-ness, perhaps.
Within the parameters of Soviet architecture my favorite type of building is the hotel. The Soviets built hotels like they built everything else: to impress. There is space in these places, they are often huge and have all kinds of common areas and places to be outside the room. They are places to hang out in, to communicate, and to be entertained.
The Tourist Hotel Complex is an old Soviet hotel, albeit one that is very stripped down to the essentials. There are no gargantuan crystal chandeliers or kitsch. It sits right on the north side of the Dnieper River, kind of removed from the core of the city but not remote. There is a metro stop at its foot. Every room is spacious, with a desk, tables, and chairs, and giant windows that give an incredible view of the city beyond.
It’s the windows that get me. I can sit in this room, typing, basking in the sunlight, with a warm breeze coming in.
It is amazing how many hotel rooms don’t have any windows, how many hotels that are just made for sleeping. Soviet hotels were made for living.
I stayed my first two nights in Kyiv in a four dollar per night hostel. Cheap, but I’m not sure if it was necessarily a good value.
The hostel was mostly full of young Ukrainian workers. They seemed to be living there. I believe I was the only foreign traveler. These types of hostels are normal in the big cities of the world. They are usually the cheapest places to stay, and they are packed with locals who can’t afford to be anywhere else. In China, I’ve seen young workers deck out their bunks to function as full fledge rooms — some of the occupants have been there for years.
Ukraine seems to have an interesting communal culture, of which I haven’t yet experienced anything similar. In close quarters people just don’t seem to care if they are doing something that could bother someone else. At one, two AM multiple people were listening to music on their laptops in the dorm room. They would call out to each other and talk loudly — without any regard that they are waking up the other people in the room.
At first, I thought that the girl in the bunk below me was just a prick, playing American rap music and talking to some fat guy through the night. I became annoyed, then I realized later on that as more people poured into the room they all were acting like that — and nobody seemed to care. I suppose that was normal.
I’m not sure how this works, but I don’t have to, as cultural contrasts are usually inexplicable.
The next night I was prepared. I came back half drunk at midnight. I fit right in.
Strangers laugh together here. It seems like a small thing but it’s actually relatively rare. In the week that I’ve been in Ukraine, numerous times I’ve noticed people who clearly didn’t know each other make jests or jokes about something and laugh. These people talk to each other in elevators. That’s not common.
That said, the culture here seems incredibly open. Definitely different than Russia, to which the culture here can easily be compared against.
“We are different than the other countries around us,” a Ukrainian friend told me. “Russians, Polish, they sometimes don’t like other people. In Ukraine, we don’t care about anything like that. We don’t care if you’re black or Chinese or Jewish, it’s all the same to us.”
He wasn’t giving me a Bob Marley line, he was really saying something.
Ukraine is an easy place to talk with people. You step into a convenience store and see this big babushka behind the counter scowling at you. But if you say hello and ask her to help you pick out the best kind of beer or something her face lightens up. You ask her name, you tell her yours, then every other time you walk into her shop she greets you with a smile.
Kyiv proved to be surprisingly affordable. I’m eating full meals for $2, getting lattes for 80 cents, and beer for 70 cents to a dollar for a 500 ml draft. My room at the Tourist Hotel Complex was $16 per night, and, as previously stated, dorm beds come as cheap as they get.