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Being a Tourist During Political Unrest: Notes from Kiev, Ukraine

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Even in the best of times, traveling can be tricky. But throw in a full-scale, riot-police infused demonstration, and things get exponentially harder. Ashlea Wheeler of A Globe Well Travelled brings us her story from Kiev:

In December 2013, my partner and I spent four days as tourists in Kiev, Ukraine. Our trip had been planned for a while, but a few days prior we discovered we were about to journey to a city in political turmoil. At the time the protest was fairly peaceful, so we decided to continue our visit. The idea that being a tourist would be cumbersome wasn’t on our radar.

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From the moment we stepped off the train, calm protesters were everywhere. We walked through ankle-deep snow and throngs of protester camps to get to our hostel, 50 meters from Maidan Square, the heart of the demonstration. There were more Ukrainian flags than you can imagine, all hanging from statues, cars, tents, and buildings. Standing among these people with such passion for the future of their country was an invigorating feeling.

Each time we left the hostel, we’d walk through the protest and into the city full of soviet era buildings, marvelous pastel churches, quaint parks and friendly people. At first, it was actually a little exciting to feel part of this extraordinary event. Our goal in Kiev was to visit the soviet townships of Pripyat and Chernobyl, abandoned in 1986 due to the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion.

The tour departed just beside the square, taking us two hours through the Ukrainian countryside to get to the forgotten townships, where we wandered through neglected buildings and empty streets. It was an incredible and eerie experience. On our return, though, we couldn’t go back to our departure point as some of the streets had since been closed. We were dropped off about a 20 minute walk from Maidan Square.

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On our third day, the riot police arrived. The atmosphere went from “friendly protest” to “intense protest” in the space of a few hours. Multiple metro stations in the city were closed by the government in an effort to deter people from joining the protest. We had caught the metro to the war memorial in the morning, and by the time we started back in the afternoon the stations had been shut off from the public. We ended up walking two hours through heavy snowfall to get back to our hostel. The protest crowds felt much more serious now.

Come the next morning, metro stations were still closed, but we needed to get to the airport. With the streets blocked, our only option was to trek for half an hour to the nearest operating station on icy streets and with our heavy backpacks.

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When we finally arrived at the airport minutes before our flight to Warsaw was departing. Frankly, we were ready to move on to a country where getting from point A to point B  (regardless of what those points were) wasn’t stressful, or such a struggle.

That said, our visit to a city in the midst of a developing political protest was certainly not an everyday experience. It was uncomfortable, frustrating, and even a little scary. We had to exercise patience, follow the news continually to make sure things weren’t getting out of hand, and wonder what we would do if they did. But when we look back on the experience now, these memories are some of the strongest from all our travels.

Would we visit Kiev again once the political unrest is over? Absolutely.

Follow Ashlea Wheeler at her website,  A Globe Well Travelled or via Instagram  @globetravelled

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