Around the World in 50 days

In 2002, I travelled to Russia to research my family roots. The trip was fascinating and more successful in terms of gathering information than I had even remotely hoped it would be. I obtained a huge pile of documents from the Ulyanovsk (Simbirsk in pre-revolutionary times) city archives and representatives of the organization Memorial, a human rights group that has done some extraordinary work in bringing to light the repressions of the Stalinist era. This latter concerns me as my grandfather was a political victim of the Stalinist regimeand died in the Gulag in 1953.  

But due to the vagaries of life events, the book I had planned in my head had to take a back seat to other events. In 2008, I was able to return to my work on the project and began planning another trip to fill in the gaps. During my first trip, I hadn’t even known what questions to ask and much of the information I received was completely new to me. Now, after translating all the documents I had initially received and continuing my research in fits and starts, I was ready to continue the quest.

 The main purpose of my 2010 journey was to mimic the route (even down to the time of year—September and October) of the Ukhtomskiy family (my mother’s side), which began in Simbirsk, their home town, and continued through Siberia to the city of Krasnoyarsk in the fall of 1918. They lived in this city for a year while the Civil War raged in Russia and my grandfather, Knyaz Nikolay Aleksandrovich Ukhtomskiy, fought in the Urals with Admiral Alexander Vasilievich Kolchak’s White Guard (against the Bolshevik Red Army). In January of 1920, when it was evident that the war was lost, the family left Krasnoyarsk and departed for Harbin, the “Paris of the East,” in China, where literally hundreds of thousands of Russian refugees fled and settled.

In this journey, I would not only follow that route but would complete a circle around the globe. This was not something I had thought about doing but my travels were to begin in California (where I live) and end in Beijing so there was no point in flying all the way back across Asia and Europe—thus, I ended up with an itinerary to go around the world. The first leg of the journey was a flight to Kiev, once the capital of Rus’ and where a number of my ancient ancestors had resided and ruled, as the Ukhtomskiy family is descended from Rurik, the founder of Kievan Rus. (I realize that billions of other people are descended from Rurik as well but, hey, they aren’t writing this blog).

 I would then travel by train to Kharkov where I would meet with family members on my father’s side, then by train to St. Petersburg, where my grandfather had attended Petrograd University and the Nikolayevsk Calvary School prior to serving in World War I, and by ship from St. Petersburg to Moscow, visiting the far reaches of northern Russia where the predecessors of the Ukhtomskiys, the Beloselsky-Belozersky Князья and, later, the Ukhtomskiys had lived until sometime in the late 18th century to early 19th century.

 From Moscow, I took a Golden Ring tour—this included the ancient towns of Sergiyev Posad, Pereslavl-Zalessky, Rostov, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Vladimir, and Suzdal. Konstantin Vsevolodovich Vladimirsky Mudriy (the Wise) ruled Rostov, Vladimir, and Suzdal from 1186 till his death in 1219. He was a brother of Yaroslav II, father of Aleksandr Nevsky. Konstantin Vsevolodovich was the progenitor of the Belozersk line of princes (while Yaroslav’s descendant and last Rurik family ruler of Russia was Ivan the Terrible).  

 I would then return to Moscow and meet with a genealogist and scholar who had been so instrumental in helping and directing me, O.N. Naumov. This also turned out to be a nice break as I stayed at the Hilton Leningradskaya Hotel (formerly the Leningradskaya), one of the “seven sister” Stalinist buildings in Moscow and now a first-rate hotel.

 From Moscow, I would travel by train to Ulyanovsk (Simbirsk), and then would begin the journey to and across Siberia and the Far East:  by bus to Samara—in 1918, the headquarters of Komuch (the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly), a Democratic counterrevolutionary government; then by train to Omsk, the headquarters of Kolchak’s government; and then to Krasnoyarsk, where the family lived for a year. There, my great grandfather, Aleksandr Nikolayevich Ukhtomskiy, worked for the Red Cross and my great aunts, Nataliya and Mariya, taught school. After Krasnoyarsk, my plan was to take the train all the way to Harbin, China. This is the Trans-Manchurian line, as opposed to the Trans-Siberian. I would complete the journey by plane from Harbin to Beijing and then back to San Francisco, thus completing a round-the-globe trip in 50 days by plane, train, ship, bus, taxicab, foot, and even, in one instance as it turned out, by raft (but that was just 5 minutes to get to an outdoor museum).

 My arrival in Kiev was blissfully different than on my previous trip to Ukraine in 2001, when I had landed in Kharkov. Back then, the Soviet mindset was still in force and visas were necessary for US citizens to enter Ukraine. This Soviet mindset was also combined with an unfortunate tendency of extorting foreigners who looked like they may have lots foreign currency. Luckily, the “fine” I had to pay then for bringing gifts to family members was only $20 but the headache and annoyance of the situation was the worst part of it. Plus, call me unreasonable, but I resent being harassed and extorted. Maybe it’s just me.

 US citizens are no longer required to have visas to enter Ukraine and, though the passport control lines and checks were fairly confusing the process was fairly painless (there was a table with immigration forms that look like they needed to be filled out but someone who may or may not have been an official wandered over and said they are not necessary. I had already started writing so I filled one out anyway. They were not necessary). There were also two lines for foreigners—one had a sign stating “Visa” and the other “non-Visa.” I wondered if this meant that some foreigners were to get visas upon arrival. Then I heard the same official say that it didn’t matter in what line you stood. That solved that problem. Once I reached the passport desk, the passport official was not particularly friendly-looking but after eyeing me with some suspicion and ignoring the form I had filled out, he quickly stamped my passport and waved me on. 

 Customs looked chaotic, mostly because there were lots of green uniformed officials standing around but not saying anything. I, along with a crowd of other confused travelers, hesitated. On the plane, the flight attendant had made an announcement that if you have nothing to declare, you should go to the “green” line. Of course, everyone went to the green line (who in their right mind is going to go to the red line?).  The door leading out was so close…so close…Suddenly a large-sized official directed the group next to me to send their things through the X-ray machine. Technically, I believe we all had nothing to declare but they were getting called on it. This same official asked the group on the other side of me if they were all together. They were. He waved them out the door. Hm. Arbitrary decision-making. What are my chances? I caught his eye and said with some sadness that I was all by myself. He paused and then said with a kind of heavy handed flirtatious air, “Alone? And why is that?” “Sometimes things just turn out that way,” I said bravely. “Do you have any gifts, souvenirs?” he asked sternly. No, I said (this was true). How much cash? About $1000. (Sort of true). Okay, he said, go ahead. I sailed through. Although being stopped and searched would not have been a big deal, I am fully aware that if this fellow had been having a bad day, things would have gone much differently. Welcome to Ukraine.

 As happens during my entire trip, I have incredible luck with weather. It is quite pleasant in Kiev. Though fall is clearly on the way, the sky is bright and the leaves on the trees are starting to turn. The minute I walk out of the airport I feel what I can only describe as the Slavic air. There’s no mistaking it and no describing it. I consider Ukraine as well as Russia to be my Slavic homeland. Their political differences don’t concern me personally as I am neither a diplomat nor a politician. Historically, Kiev and the country east of it are directly tied to the beginnings of Rus’. Plus, my father was born here.

On the ride from the airport to the Rus’ Hotel, where I am staying, I feast my eyes on the lovely birch groves, miles and miles of them. Once in the city, I am unpleasantly reminded of something I noticed last time I was in Russia—a lot of the women dress like prostitutes. It is, of course, possible that some of them are prostitutes but I can’t believe there are so many. The distinction of dressing for success and dressing for customers seems to have been lost somewhere… lots of very very short skirts and high heels, see-through or lace blouses, extensive make up. It is a bit jarring at first.

 The last time I was in the city of Kiev was in 1982. This was the Brezhnev era of the Soviet Union, a period generally described as one of “stagnation.” A friend and I joined a student tour (the company was called “Sputnik”) for two weeks in the Soviet Union. The most memorable phrase I would bring back with me, stated (in English) by waiters and guides, and ( in Russian) by elderly “key” ladies guarding the hotel floors and grannies in charge of museum exhibits was “No, that is impossible.”  Want something besides fried mystery meat for lunch?  A tour to a place not on the itinerary? Access to a particularly interesting part of an exhibit? Нет (Nyet), that is impossible. Don’t even ask. Don’t even think about asking. A map of the city? Are you mad? Or, perhaps, a spy?

 And now… well, now it seems that everything is possible. Thirty different choices for breakfast at the buffet? No problem. A guided tour set to your specifications? Of course. We’ll even send a driver in a fancy new SUV to pick you up. A map of the city? Here, take two. It’s free. Go spend your money. Exchange currency? 24 hours a day. Your passport? Nope, don’t want to see it, don’t need to see it. In this sense, Ukraine is definitely on the right track. I like this attitude. I like it a lot.

 But some things, like in Russia, are not so good. The one thing I notice immediately and that stays with me throughout my trip, whether I’m in a big city or a small town, is the constant unending blaring traffic noise and commensurate polluted air. I no longer live in the city of San Francisco (l live in a semi-rural suburb) and the reason (apart from the fact that I can’t afford to live there) is that poor air quality and noise pollution are things that bother me a lot. But standing on the busiest corner of San Francisco, the air quality is positively clean compared with what I smelled and experienced everywhere I traveled. And it will probably only get worse because despite the fact that it seems that every single solitary person living in Ukraine and Russia owns a fume-spewing loud automobile and is driving it every moment of the day down one city street or other, this is obviously not the case. But soon they will (all own a car) and then what?

 Yes, Kiev has definitely changed. I am told by some that it, like Moscow, has been ruined by all the new construction, thrown up haphazardly to line the pockets of officials and businessmen. This may be true but it is still a beautiful city (minus the traffic).  Its pre-Revolutionary architecture is outstanding. Much of Kiev was destroyed in World War II so parts of it were rebuilt after that.  I still prefer the newer post-Soviet construction to anything built in the Khrushchev or Brezhnev era, much less most Stalinist architecture.

 In many places, the city has retained a real old world look. It also has quite a number of churches, most of which have been restored and are functioning. I found this to be true throughout Russia as well. However one may feel about religion, it is a fact that the atmosphere in a city (or country) where people are able to freely attend church or a mosque or synagogue without fear of persecution or harassment differs markedly from places where this is not so. Freedom to worship as one chooses is very closely tied to freedom of speech. For many people who grew up in the post-Soviet era and who attend church now (and I did see a substantial number of younger people attending during my travels), the idea that churches were closed and that one could actually go to jail or at the very least be harassed by authorities if one showed any interest in religion is probably hard to comprehend.

 When I visited the Soviet Union in 1982, the streets were empty of cars and, a lot of the time, even empty of people. This is no longer the case (to a great degree things have gone overboard in the opposite direction). On the surface, this is the big difference but a more important difference is that the cities feel alive. There are currents of energy that were missing back then. This was something I would not be able to explain unless I had visited in both time periods. I knew there was something odd about the country in 1982; there was a feeling of pressure that lifted once we departed for Western Europe but I thought it was the idea that both my friend and I had been raised in families who had left the Soviet Union for political reasons and that we, unlike the rest of our student tour group,  had been sternly and unceasingly taught from childhood that the Soviet Union was not only a repressive and oppressive state but a place to be feared—not just in the political sense or in the “nuclear war and mutually assured destruction” sense— but in a very personal way. Our parents had both been cut off from their families, members of whom still lived in the Soviet Union. In my case, I didn’t even know where they were at that time.

 But the odd feeling was more than this sense of wariness and fear and I didn’t fully understand it until I went back to Ukraine and Russia in the post-Soviet era. Before, there was a kind of lifelessness in the air.  For better or worse, and I certainly know that the post-Soviet world has seen the emergence of problems that, for obvious reasons, didn’t exist in Soviet times, these countries are now vibrant and “alive.” Whether they will be able to positively make use of that energy is, of course, another question.

 I spent my time in Kiev looking at the ancient monuments, some truly old and others, like the Golden Gates, which have been rebuilt. The Golden Gates date back at least to 1037 though some claim they were even older. At that time there were three of them in the walls surrounding the city of Kiev. In 1982, one set was reconstructed, though there is no guarantee that they look like the original gates since there are no drawings of the original gates in existence. In 1997, a statue to Yaroslav I (the Wise) who ruled Kievan Rus from 980 to 1025 was erected at the west side of the Gate. I have a fondness for sculptures of ancient rulers, poets, and interesting historical figures. Lenin doesn’t count as an interesting historical figure in my view. Which is a good thing because then all I would have in my photo album are photos of statues of Lenin. To be interesting in my view, the figures in the sculptures have to be dressed exotically, have lots of facial hair, or be astride a horse.

Golden Gates

Golden Gate with statue of Yaroslav

 I first had a walking tour of the city with a personal guide —a bit of an expense but I have a limited amount of time and am on a mission. Every day of my trip I have an agenda —things I must see and do. The guide, Oksana Drach, is great (a walking encyclopedia of Kievan history) and from the Golden Gates, she leads me to St. Sophia’s Cathedral. The Cathedral is in a walled complex. It was built in the 11th century but fell into disrepair and was rebuilt in later years. There are beautiful frescoes inside the church. They possibly depict Yaroslav’s (the Wise) sons and daughters (he was also Yaroslav the Fruitful). Oksana tells me that Yaroslav was considered “the father-in-law” of Europe because he married his daughters off to rulers of France, Norway, and Sweden. I visit a lot of churches during my trip and the ones that make the greatest impression on me are those that have survived since those very ancient times. Granted, the newer churches and many that have been completely renovated sparkle with gold leaf and ornate decorations but it is these ancient frescoes that draw me in—a testament of a nation’s history.

St. Sophia Cathedral


Bandura player

 From St. Sophia’s we head across the square past Bogdan Khmelnitsky’s (a national hero who led an uprising against the Poles in the 17th century) statue and proceed to Andreyevsky Spusk [Descent] known also as Kiev’s Montmartre. It is also a part of old Kiev and was mentioned in the ancient chronicles. The street is steep and cobblestoned, with a variety of architecture represented. At the top is the spectacular St. Andrews Church. The street is now used by street vendors to sell their wares which puts a different spin on its historic value. The world economic crisis has hit Ukraine pretty hard. Later in my travels, my relatives tell me that things were really looking up a few years after my last visit (in 2001) but, when the crisis hit, all the progress they’d made seemed to go away. Another unfortunate spin on “one step forward, two steps back.”

Statue of Bogdan Khmelnitsky


St. Andrews Church

 The vendors on the street generally look grim. Summer, the big tourist season, is over (though for those wanting to visit Ukraine, I would highly recommend early to mid September). There are all kinds of things on sale, from kitschy souvenirs to paintings to really beautiful embroidered linens. I resolve to return the next day to buy a couple of things though I have sternly warned myself about the perils of shopping when trying to travel light. For every item I buy, I have to discard something. This would work in theory but most of the stuff I end up buying is still heavier than the clothing items I discard.

 There is a Mikhail Bulgakov museum on the street and one can have tea in a room that is made to resemble the one in the house in Bulgakov’s novel, The White Guard (Белая гвардия)—incidentally, the film based on this book is titled Dni Turbinov (Дни Турбинов) and is quite good.  The tea room is cozy and I see the appeal. Bulgakov set the novel in Kiev, where he attended and graduated from the University in 1916. Bulgakov’s most famous novel, of course, is The Master and Margarita.


Bulgakov and me

Andreyevsky Spusk

I have lunch at a place that Oksana describes as a kind of “fast food” place. It is nothing like McDonald’s though. It is cafeteria style but there is a wide variety of choices and it is packed with mostly very young people. There are items like mushroom salads, soups, piroshki, varenniky, hot entrees. I am reminded again of my 1982 trip when there appeared to be no restaurants available for locals in most places (or they were not advertised so only known to locals) and even we ended up not getting dinner one night in Kiev because we arrived” too late.” One very strange member of our tour group, who was not a student (there were a few of them), and claimed to be a well-known pianist, had a temper tantrum. I still remember his wailing, “But we didn’t get any dinner!” I was kind of hoping he would be arrested by the KGB for complaining so much, he was so annoying.

 Later in the afternoon, I visit Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, the Kiev Monastery of the Caves. This is also a very interesting experience because in 1982, in Soviet times, this was of course a tourist site only and the religious aspect was played down as part of “Russia’s ignorant and ‘opium of the people'” past. The on-going irony in Soviet times was the futile attempt to separate history from religion. Many of the really interesting and wonderful historical sites of Russia are deeply tied to the Russian Orthodox religion and describing them without the context of religious faith that drove people to build the cathedrals and live according to the teachings of their faith is really futile. Many of these sites were destroyed, a desecration not only on religious but historical grounds (which seems to be a hallmark of groups with extremely narrow and limited vision—a good recent example is the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddha Statues in 2001).  Thankfully, in Russia and Ukraine, many sites were left alone or turned into tourist attractions.

Cathedral of the Dormition

Cathedral of the Dormition (other side)

 At any rate, though there is a touristy aspect to the compound, it is now a functioning monastery. Women must cover their heads (men, on the other hand, must remove their hats) when entering churches and, when entering the caves of the monastery, women have to rent “skirts” if they are wearing pants. This is now standard in many Orthodox churches and all monasteries in Russia and Ukraine. Thankfully, skirts are provided (you just put them on over your pants). The admonition that men and women aren’t supposed to wear each other’s clothing (according to the Bible) is actually new to me. I had always thought that women weren’t supposed to wear pants to church (I was raised Orthodox and had attended church fairly regularly when I was young) because they outline the body (for the same reason that skirts are supposed to be long, at least covering the knee). I don’t really see the logic of forbidding wearing each other’s clothing since, technically, a monk’s or priest’s cassock looks like a skirt…but I supposed I am treading dangerously close to showing my ignorance of religious dogma and will stop there.

 My guide here is young and very attractively though conservatively dressed. She includes a lot of information in her explanations that clearly indicate her deep religious faith. I find this refreshing since there is nothing worse than being lectured on religious themes by people who have absolutely no experience with actually going to church (as in Soviet times). One of the Cathedrals in the complex that was recently constructed is the Cathedral of the Dormition. The original Cathedral had been occupied by the Nazis in 1942 and had been blown up after a visit of a Nazi official. Either the Partisans or the Red Army had mined it in order to assassinate the official but they had miscalculated the time and missed him by 2 hours. There is a small museum next to the Cathedral with very interesting photos showing the German occupation. The Nazis had stolen many of the historical and religious artifacts and none of these items were ever recovered.

I visit the Caves on my own. The Caves are a very distinct memory of my 1982 visit since I had never seen anything like this before and I found them fascinating. Those buried in the caves, which are part of huge underground catacombs, include the Bogatyr (a hero of Russian folk legend) Ilya Muromets (11th century) and Prince Yuriy Dolgorukiy (12th century), the founder of Moscow, and many saints. The remains are mummified. The catacombs include living quarters and chapels. The section I see this time is small and I don’t linger as it is crowded with people and feels claustrophobic.

Giant Egg made of Easter eggs

Church of the Savior at Berestove outside of Lavra

When I get back to the hotel in the late afternoon, I literally pass out (still suffering from jet lag) and am awoken later at 9:30 that evening by explosions that sound like they are right outside the hotel. This is a bit disconcerting to say the least and I wonder if I have inadvertently stumbled into the next Ukrainian revolution. I look outside groggily and see immense exploding fireworks right in the parking lot. Interesting. Not a revolution then but what? Aha, a wedding. Weddings are big here. I see an average of two weddings a day in Ukraine and Russia. On the average, the population in all three countries I visit, Ukraine, Russia, and China, seems to be very young. This, of course, may mean that I am just getting old but it really seems to me that in the urban centers where I spend my time the majority of the population is under 35 years old.

 I retrace my steps the next day since I like this area so much but this time I walk all the way from my hotel. I do this in every city I visit. Subways are great if you have a set destination but if you are wandering, there is not much point in taking the subway as you miss everything. At major streets, often the only way to cross is to go under the street. I think that I am entering a subway station at one point but it is a huge underground shopping mall. It has a variety of shops, mostly clothing, and some high end, but it is mostly empty just as the restaurants and cafes I pass. This again seems to be an indication of the economic hardships people are having. These place were probably all built and opened in the last 10 years, when there was some optimism about the future – an optimism now undermined by a crisis that began in the US and has spread all over the world.

Cossack monument

St. Volodymyr Cathedral

My penchant for walking garners several huge rewards during my travels. This time, I stumble upon St. Volodymyr Cathedral. It is Sunday and there are crowds of people attending church.  I move on and am asked for directions. This is the first of many times that I am asked for directions in my travels in Ukraine and Russia (not in China since I don’t quite blend in there). I suppose it is because I am walking alone and with an apparent sense of purpose. One time I am actually able to direct an elderly gentleman since he is looking for the street where my hotel is located. But, in general, my statement that I am a tourist is met with surprise and occasional suspicion—”you’re not from here but you look like you’re from here…hmm. “It is ironic also since I am usually lost. I get lost in Moscow trying to find the Kremlin. Which is not a small place.

 I fulfill my promise to buy a couple of items from the merchants on Andreyevsky Spusk. The style of selling is much different than the one I encounter later in China, where vendors at souvenir stands, spotting me walking by, call “hello, hello” to me to come to their stand or “Khorosho (good)” if they think I am Russian. Here, the vendors are much more low-key. If I actually stop and linger for a significant amount of time, the vendor will approach me. One guy, from whom I buy whimsical refrigerator magnets in the shape of bread with caviar on it, is very sullen, as if he is resentful that he has to do this for a living.  I can’t discount the fact that he may not be pleased at mys speaking Russian to him. On at least two occasions, when I was  asking for directions, women whom I addressed in Russian responded in Ukrainian. I am positive that they speak Russian but they seem to be making the point that if I am in their country, I should be speaking their language. Which I would be happy to do, but the only thing I can say off the bat (without my phrase book)  is “I don’t understand Ukrainian very well” which isn’t helpful. Other vendors are more enthusiastic about encouraging me to purchase once they see I am interested. I am told by one woman that they happily take dollars and Euros if I don’t have enough Ukrainian hryvnias. Luckily they don’t take credit cards.

Ukrainian hryvnias with Volodymyr the Great and Yaroslav the Wise pictured

On my way back later, I walked through a lovely park. There are kids driving around on rented toy cars. They zip along the pedestrian path with no regard for anyone else. No one pays attention. A situation ripe for lawyers in the U.S. There are also tiny ponies for rent.  I always feel sorry for these types of ponies though they don’t seem unhappy. One pony is taken behind a bush by its owner to do its business.  This strikes me as very funny for some reason.

Street Sculpture near Golden Gates

“Big Spoon” Restaurant near Teatralnaya Metro Station


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7 Responses to Around the World in 50 days

  1. Helen Strachan says:

    Most interesting and now I’m eagerly waiting to receive the narration of the rest of your trip.

  2. Thanks Nina. Lovely tale.

  3. Randy Cook says:

    Nina! What a marvelous conception for a voyage! Jules Verne’s character took 30 days longer, and he seemed to be in a bigger hurry than you are. Keep posting!

  4. says:

    Какой-же удивитедльный блог!

  5. Alexander Hidchenko says:

    Very impressive…I would have loved to tag along…

  6. Сергей Курьянов says:

    Очень любопытно прочитать этот рассказ человеку, жившему в Советском Союзе и ныне живущему на Украине. Действительно впечатляет! Очень много того, что житель современной Украины просто не заметит…

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