From Baltic to the Black Sea Pre Trip #2

Pre-Trip Bulletin #2
6 August 1999

Hey People,

I’m still alive! Busy slaving away to pay for my rent, bills and travels. Past month or so: Have been working from eight to nine or ten, followed by a few hours of dinner, bath and of course, an hour of obligatory trip planning. And I have also been reading two most interesting books about Ukraine and the Black Sea:

1) Borderlands by Anna Reid – a region-by-region journey through the past and present of Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe (surprised? Not Germany, not France, but Ukraine). Anna succeeded in turning the history of Ukraine into an entertaining tapestry of heroism, betrayals, cowardice, glory and shame, and it’s spiced with personal encounters and thoughts as well.

2) Black Sea – The Birthplace of Civilization & Barbarism by Neal Ascherson – an excellent travelogue cum history of the Black Sea region. From the ancient Greeks, Scythians and Sarmatian tribes, to the Karaims (a Jewish Turkish tribe), Cossacks and Russians – the coast of the Black Sea has played host to numerous nations and tribes. Neal’s book turned long lost tribes alive and examined today’s hopes for freedom and prosperity as well as dreams turned nightmares in places like Transdnestria and Abkhazia, where the local inhabitants fought to preserve their separateness after the fall of USSR only to discover they inherited a land of burnt houses and abandoned fields, and worse of all, they actually missed their chased away neighbours, their strange languages and food.

And of course, I am also reading Lonely Planet Russia, Belarus & Ukraine and Lonely Planet Baltic and Scandinavian Europe. Will order LP Romania and Moldova from tomorrow. For those of you who 1) live in London, and 2) have not seen me before, if you see a Chinese reading one of these books on Bakerloo or District lines, it’s me!

Yes, I promised to tell about my Ukrainian visa. To get an Ukrainian visa, I need to have a letter of invitation. A Russian company on the net, HOFA, also known as the Host Families Association of St Petersburg, Russia, provides homestay (B&B) services and visa sponsorship. For US$30 per night and US$30 per invitation letter, they will help anyone to get an Ukrainian (or Russian, Belarusian, etc) visa. I emailed my credit card details and they get a company in Kiev (or spelled Kyiv nowadays), capital of Ukraine, to fax an Ukrainian language letter of invitation to me.

Don’t choke – the company’s name is The American-Ukrainian Cultural Dialogue Foundation, and I’m supposed to go to Ukraine for a seminar on American-Ukrainian diaspora relations. Oh gosh, what am I supposed to tell the Ukrainian Embassy when I apply for the visa? What’s a ethnic Chinese Singaporean applying for an Ukrainian visa to attend a seminar on American-Ukrainian diaspora ? No clue.

Anyway, went to the Ukrainian Embassy at Notting Hill (the movie), London, applied for the visa. The staff gave me a strange look, asked why I listed half of the provinces of Ukraine on the application form’s “places to visit”, when my letter of invitation says I will be going to only Kyiv and L’viv (famous ancient city of Lvov, now spelled L’viv after independence – you see half the place names of ex-USSR changed their names after the collapse). Well, it’s my fault I never learned to read Ukrainian in college and didn’t realise the letter was a little restrictive. Now I have to find a way out.

Oh, you see, my friends at the AUCDF (trying to sound as though I’ve known the American-Ukrainian Cultural Dialogue Foundation since I was ten) have invited me to visit their homes and dachas in beautiful Odessa (sorry, it should be Odesa, RE: name change) and Kharkov (sorry, it’s Kharkiv now), as well as sunbathing on the coasts of Crimea (Krim – but Autonomous Republic of Crimea to local separatist Russians) after the seminar. Yes, I must visit your beautiful country as well, not just the seminar and blah blah blah…Thank goodness I got the visa. It’s certainly easier than to convince the bank to put GBP 50m or 100m in some dodgy deals. More likely the embassy staff had enough of such bullsXXX and just want me to stop…

Take care and for those of you in Asia, keep spending to stimulate the recovering economy further; those in US, tell your boss and stock broker you own a gun; and those in UK, enjoy while the summer lasts!

Wee Cheng