Spending a scorching, summer afternoon trapped under the sweaty armpit of a burly-looking gentleman on a congested minibus may not sound like the most appealing way of exploring Ukraine’s dynamic capital, but taking one of the many marshrutkas that plod along Kyiv’s cosmopolitan streets is an experience not to be missed.
Novel approach to travel
Marshrutka means “routed taxicab”. They can be found plying their trade in towns and cities across the country. Hundreds of these private minibuses crisscross Kyiv, providing an extensive transport network to almost anywhere in the city, and the surrounding environs for around one and half Hryvnia, roughly 15 pence.
For this price, passengers are ferried across the capital, albeit in a rather incongruous manner. A marshrutka consists of around 20 seats. A typical ride on one of them is regularly filled with almost double that number. Contorted customers, cramped together in the aisle of these lethargic vehicles, find themselves face-to-face with their fellow passengers for the duration of their journey.
Marshrutkas can generally be flagged down anywhere, but there are set pick-up and drop-off points along their routes, which are displayed on the side of the minibus. Despite their predetermined paths, marshrutkas have no timetables; they simply set off when they are full, meaning very rarely will you find an empty seat.
I managed to grab a seat on my first journey on one. The 25-pence ride from Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport to the city’s Passazhyrskyi train station was an hour’s ride down Soviet-era wide boulevards and past gaudy, monolithic monuments; it certainly felt like I was back in the USSR. The ubiquitous transport, another legacy of Ukraine’s Soviet past, made for an intriguing welcome to the country. It sped bumpily down the motorway towards central Kyiv, while the tinny stereo belted out banal Eastern European pop music at an unbearable level, drowning out the conversations of my fellow passengers. Yet this ride proved to be one of the more orderly trips I would experience. The scruffy-looking driver, wearing faded jeans and a T-shirt in lieu of any kind of uniform, kindly stored my rucksack in the boot. Rather than pack the minibus like a tin of sardines, he set off as soon as the last seat was occupied.
I arrived at the daunting Passazhyrskyi station in central Kyiv to a mass of marshrutkas. I wandered through the sea of minibuses scanning the printed routes stuck to their windows, avoiding the multitude of taxi drivers who trawled the car park hunting for wide-eyed foreigners, like sharks. I found one to my destination, Kontraktova Ploscha. I peered tentatively through the tinted windows at the chaotic scene inside; it was packed to the rafters. I began to wonder whether I should succumb to the lure of one of the many taxis around me, but I was soon noticed by the portly driver, who eagerly beckoned me on board. Growling at me in Ukrainian to stop dithering, he motioned a stubby finger towards the back of the minibus with a stern face.
I was wedged between a hefty bag of watermelons and an elderly gentleman, wiping away the beads of sweat from his forehead with a frayed handkerchief. The putrid stench of perspiration that hung in the air was one I would become all too familiar with by the end of my time in Ukraine. As more people squeezed onto the bus, I became almost bent-double over the bulging sack of watermelons that was being pushed into my ribs.
With no room to manoeuvre, my oversized rucksack was unwittingly being pressed into several passengers behind me. A hand slammed down on my shoulder, as a thunderous voice boomed in my ear. A middle-aged woman with appalling bleached-blonde hair and a tawdry purple dress, swung me round and pointed angrily at my bag. Meekly attempting an “I’m sorry” in broken Ukrainian, my eyes shot to the floor as I tried to recline my body. I began to have doubts as to whether marshrutkas really were the best way to navigate Kyiv’s streets.
Undeterred, I shunned the city’s unremarkable metro system and spent my days exploring Ukraine’s captivating capital – by marshrutka. The glum faces and discomfited silence that would accompany the rare journeys I took on the metro, were in stark contrast to the lively scenes and sense of community that seemed to exist on board the marshrutkas.
It is the passengers who quite literally make a marshrutka journey. Rarely are there conductors on board; the idea of a ticket is a novel one. Instead, you simply pass your money and state your destination to the person in front, who subsequently passes it on to the next person, much like a variation of the children’s game, Chinese Whispers – until the money reaches the driver, who duly passes back the correct change. With a deadly combination of heaving marshrutkas and a system open to abuse and error, I expected to be greeted by scenes of confusion and incessant bickering. But in a country where travelling is often a chore, I found that, curiously, this bizarre system seemed to work. Money was passed to and fro nonchalantly. On the rare occasion an error was made, the situation was quickly resolved.
A fellow passenger, or often the drivers, who all seemed to possess incredible memories, would yell out when a passenger had reached their destination; a useful gesture when I often found myself crushed in a corner between one of the deafening speakers and a fellow passenger’s sweaty armpit.
Although the uninspiring metro ferries almost two million Kyivites daily, and is the preferred method of travel for most foreign visitors, this Soviet-built institution was designed to transport the city’s commuters to and from their places of work, rather than shuttling sightseers to the capital’s tourist attractions. Therefore, it isn’t always the most convenient method of getting around the sprawling metropolis.
A visit to Kyiv would not be complete without a ride on the metro, though. Its infamous escalators, which drive deep underground to bypass the imposing Dnipro River, are an experience in themselves. The soulless network of trains is even more crowded than its four-wheel counterparts above the surface. The 45 stations are poorly signposted in any language, and invariably cover far less of Kyiv than the marshrutkas do. Indeed, to visit the outer reaches of Kyiv, the marshrutka reaches parts of the city other forms of transports do not, something typified by my journey to the tiny village of Pyrogov, home to Kyiv’s very Soviet-sounding Museum of Folk Architecture and Everyday Life in Ukraine. Having taken the metro to the last stop, Lybidska, I got on marshrutka number 24 to the end of the line.
Stepping inside and wading my way through the crowd to an area with a modicum of space, there was little to suggest this trip would become one of the most interesting events of my stay in Ukraine. The balding driver removed his sunglasses and craned his neck towards the disorganised myriad of people behind him. Glancing in my direction, he incoherently mumbled in Ukrainian, something that was met with a blank stare. Repeated in a more abrupt manner, he forcefully gestured me to sit on the seat beside him that was littered with coins and notes of all denominations; I had inadvertently become his cashier!
As the vehicle trundled along the pot-holed road out of Kyiv towards Pyrogov, hordes of passengers descended upon me; the 30-minute ride becoming more chaotic. I was kept busy, not able to appreciate the rolling landscape that was unfolding around me. I had more pressing matters at hand! An ever-increasing number of passengers crowded in. Crumpled Hyrvnia notes came at me from all angles. I fished around for change in the sea of notes and coins that adorned my diminutive seat.
I was under the watchful eye of the gloomy driver, who ensured I made no mistakes, while he barked out orders in Ukrainian. I became confused by the abundance of coins and notes that were piling up around me, much to the merriment of my fellow passengers. They found the introduction of an English tourist vastly out of his comfort zone and unaccustomed to the ways of the marshrutka – a humorous addition to a journey they had probably taken a thousand times before.
I grew in confidence as the journey progressed, down pot-holed roads that were thrown up as we headed towards Pyrogov. By the end, I was passing back notes and coins left, right and centre with some degree of efficiency. The marshrutka pulled into the sleepy village of Pyrogov. I passed the wad of notes that sat in my lap to the driver with satisfaction; my job was done.
In some ways I was disappointed to see this 30-minute voyage reach its conclusion. I had gained a fascinating insight into Ukrainian culture. My impromptu role as cashier had added an extra dimension to this otherwise mundane journey.
Crowded, smelly and uncompromising, a ride on a marshrutka may well be an analogy of travel in Ukraine, but a trip on one of these bustling minibuses is a must for anyone visiting this fascinating country. Kyiv’s insipid metro offers a conventional means to circumnavigate the city, but for a more novel approach for getting from A to B, and the chance to see life in the raw, the capital’s network of marshrutkas reigns supreme.