Kayaking Ukraine: Olympic Refugees
Our correspondents flee the London chaos to paddle through the heart of Ukraine
In 2012, Jeffrey Andreoni and Giulio D’Eramo escaped London’s Olympic crowds by fleeing the country to spend a month paddling Ukraine’s Dnieper River. As the country they came to love faces its greatest crisis of this century, we take a look back at their journey and the people they met along the way.
By Jeffrey Andreoni
Jostling our way through the restless rush hour commuters of Olympic city, we make our way from east London to Gatwick airport. Strangely enough, it’s the first day in weeks that we don’t come across anybody that look like they’re a part of a SWAT team. The city has been militarized in the build-up to the games. Finally at Gatwick, we hop onto the UIA (a hitherto unknown company) flight to Kiev, Ukraine. Two hours in, the cities begin to stretch out, the suburbs become forests and eventually the Dnieper River cuts through them like a sea.
Our couch surfing host, Valeriy, fresh from Ukraine’s first ever RHCP concert, brings us to his 10th floor apartment where he shows us pictures that will carry us well into the night.
This we do by catching a “taxi”, which in Kiev means standing by the side of the road and stopping a random car. The window goes down. You say the address and name a price and then the driver either takes off or tells you to hop in.
Valeriy is a lawyer, but organizes expeditions on the side. He shows us pictures of mountain biking and backcountry ski trips in the Carpathians where they sleep in igloos at night.
Ukraine is a place that seems more similar to the U.S. than it does to Europe. Perhaps it’s due to the Soviet planning that discouraged agriculture, thereby leaving the landscape relatively untouched. Hopefully, it will remain that way, but with eased visa restrictions and Ukraine’s recent success hosting the UEFA Cup, more tourists might be flocking in soon.
We wake up late after a late night of listening to Valeriy’s favorite music, underground American hip-hop, and take the metro to the “heroes of the Dnieper” station. There we hop onto a shaggy marshrutka (local bus) to Vyshgorod to have a chat with Neris Kayak’s sales director, Pavel, who came to pick us up with a van. We turn into a dirt road at about halfway between the mansion of the current prime minister and that of the imprisoned opposition leader and finally enter a simple, white, one floor building. This is where we meet our soon-to-be-best friend, a revisited aluminum framed version of a boat that first hit the waves some 2000 years ago, a baidarka equipped with a sail. There are 10 workers in the factory, the six women are in charge of the PVC skin, while the four men are in charge of the frame.
The boat is completely collapsible, so we can fold it up if we need to get around a dam. There are lochs, but they are only for large ships, and though we might be able to load the baidarka on a ship, there is very little traffic. As Eugene says, “You can catch a ride on a ship if you don’t mind waiting”.
“How long?” I ask.
“Maybe 6 months.”
The Dnieper used to be a major commercial route, and until the fall of the Soviet Union, was packed with traffic. Now everything goes by train or by truck, leaving the river free for adventurous foreigners like us to navigate.
With our dry bags packed, we are ready to go. Tomorrow Pavel, the sales manager will pick us up and take us and the baidarka to the drop-off point, the Kiev hydroelectric dam.
Follow Jeffrey and Giulio’s Ukrainian River Odyssey
Episode 1: Olympic Refugees
Episode 2: Setting Sail
Episode 3: Welcome to Ukrainka
Episode 4: A Day in Town
Episode 5: Hornets
Episode 6: The Yacht Club
Episode 7: The Shortcut
Episode 8: Snakes
Episode 9: The Dam
Episode 10: Take Out