Twenty Dollars Less On the Moldovan-Ukrainian Border
11 September 1999
After a relaxing day in Moldova, land of good food and wines, I took an overnight train to Kiev, capital of Ukraine. I was fortunate to share the compartment with two English-speaking scientists returning home from a conference in Chisinau – one was a Russian and the other an Ukrainian. We had a wonderful time, sharing jokes, food, wines, and of course the latter accompanied by rhetorical toasting (I was told by my friend in Crimea, Russians never drink without a reason. Invent one if you don’t have any!).
At 4am, I was suddenly woken up by the Ukrainian border control (no idea why the Moldovans did not check – they were probably too drunk – but one can’t blame them for that. After all, they live in this wonderland of good wines), who obviously were interested in the only non-CIS citizen on this train. I was “invited” to have an interview in a separate compartment, and my new Russian friend, Alexei, came along to interpret. They looked at my passport, especially at the numerous colourful visas and border stamps, had a pretty long conversation in Russian.
Well, the bottom line was standard. They wanted some money. The excuse was, although I held a valid double-entry Ukrainian visa, my entire visa, in their opinion, was invalidated when the border official at Odessa Airport (where I first departed from Ukrainian soil for Moldova a few days ago) stamped it on a corner of my visa. They said it should be stamped on the next page. According to regulations, or so they claimed, I was to be put on the next train back to Chisinau, Moldova, and have to apply another visa from there.
Of course, there is another alternative…US$20 would do the trick. OK, that wasn’t a problem. Luckily they did not start from US$100. What reasonable nice chaps – they should be given awards for Most Friendly ex-Soviet Border Guards of the Year. I agreed, but insisted that they find the customs officer to issue me a currency declaration form, for I did not want to get into trouble when I finally leave Ukraine without such a form. It didn’t take long for them to locate that guy for me – he was probably having a nice nap somewhere. It’s a fair exchange and I got the declaration form. Ah, one more thing is wrong – the receipt I got from the compulsory purchase of Ukrainian Health Insurance when first entering Ukraine was not an insurance receipt – I was conned on my first entry a week ago. So I need to get another one. This time, it was only UAH 12, or US$2.50, which I gladly paid up. Alas, ESUWA! Ex-Soviet Union Wins Again!
I reached Kyiv, or Kiev in Russian – politically incorrect in new Ukraine, at 12:40pm. Located a hotel (Hotel Express) with the help of a F² (friend’s friend – I have a long contact list in this city). At US$60, it was above my normal shoestring budget, but quite good value for money – central location and comfortable room. And I spend 1 hour – way too long – catching up on BBC News on the TV! Yes, Damn the Indonesian Military for the atrocities in East Timor! Jakarta Chinatown 1998, Aceh 1999, East Timor 1999. Bloody Nazis!
First impressions of Kyiv – beautiful streets, amazing golden domes and cupolas, lots of youthful beautiful people, so much greenery. I think, I will enjoy myself.
By the way, the locals told me that Chicken a la Kiev is not Kievan. Like Singaporean fried noodles aren’t Singaporean, and Hong Kong Noodles are not from HK.