For generations, the former USSR was off-limits to many travellers and that is surely part of the reason why such cities as Moscow and St Petersburg have such an appeal today. Twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, there remains a sort of intrigue about what life is like in a once-forbidden place, and those cities' onion-domed and monolithic Soviet attractions have an added allure.
In recent years, tourism to each of these cities has boomed. But, as a result, the price of hotels and other costs for visitors have also gone through the roof. At the same time, the process of obtaining a tourist visa to Russia harks back to the communist era: it requires an advance letter of invitation, registration with the police and a lengthy waiting period before approval. On the other hand, Ukraine, one of Russia's neighbours, has cast off such bulky protocols and streamlined the process so that tourists from dozens of countries, including EU members, the US, Canada, Australia and others are entitled to free, no-visa entry for up to 90 days. For GCC citizens the process is also relatively easily done: the only requirements being that the application form be filled out at a Ukrainian embassy and that flight and hotel reservations are presented. The cost for a three-month tourist visa is only US$45 (Dh165).
In short, Ukraine really wants people to come there and is trying to make it easy and affordable for tourists to do so. While prices in Russia for hotels, taxis, dining and entertainment have continued to climb at an exponential rate in recent years, in Ukraine they're still relatively cheap, and have actually fallen since Ukraine's currency dramatically lost its value in relationship to the US dollar (and dollar-pegged GCC currencies) since the Orange Revolution in 2004.
Since the autumn, another draw for people travelling from Abu Dhabi is that both Ukraine International Airlines (www.uia.com) and Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) have announced direct routes to Kiev, with flights now having increased to five times per week. Of course none of this would matter if Ukraine was not a worthwhile destination offering the rich past to appeal to history buffs, abundant nightlife and tempting cuisine that it does. Kiev, for example, was the epicentre of the first Slavic state when it was founded in the 5th century AD and in 879 it became the capital of the first unified Russian kingdom. It is also an important site for the Eastern Orthodox Church, with one of the world's largest monastery complexes, the Pechersk Lavra, occupying a ridge of the Dnipro River. Architecturally, Kiev holds its own with any other city in Eastern Europe with a variety of impressive structures in traditional Slavic, Ukrainian baroque and Soviet styles. Ukrainian food is thankfully hearty for the country's often cold climate - and if you're looking for a party, Kiev can deliver pretty much any time night or day.
In my search for the lowest air ticket, however, I noticed an odd parity in that both UIA, the Ukrainian carrier (www.flyuia.com) and Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) offered 9:15am flights from Abu Dhabi on the same Friday that I intended to depart. Oddly, however, the Etihad fare cost $663 (Dh2,455), including taxes and a ticket on UIA cost only $531 (Dh1,950), including taxes. With a little research, I found out that UIA and Etihad are code-share partners and Etihad uses UIA's planes on this route. In other words, no matter which carrier I booked my ticket with I would be flying on the same plane, but if I picked UIA I'd have an extra $135 (Dh500) or so in my bank account. The choice was easy.
As pleasingly, when I arrived that Friday in Kiev's Borispol Airport I received an arrival stamp without having to pay any kind of visa fee and then went looking for a taxi to the city centre. Having travelled to other former USSR states, I was well aware of what to expect next. The first driver who greeted me in the airport offered me a lift for 50 euros ($68; Dh250). I knew that the city centre was about a half an hour away, I also knew that the price was inflated by a ridiculous percentage. In the end, I secured a lift for ($20; Dh74), which I later found out is the price that Ukrainians generally try to negotiate.
From there I headed to a place that another journalist and consummate budget traveller had recommended - the St Petersburg Hotel (www.s-peter.com.ua) on Boulevard Taras Shevchenka. While most of the budget accommodation in Kiev consists of refurbished Soviet-built hotels that were run by a state that favoured necessity over comfort, the St Petersburg dates back to the Tsarist times of 1901, when extravagance and neo-classically designed buildings with ornate facades and high ceilings were en vogue.
The hotel also offers free Wi-fi in the lobby and a central location for as little as $21 (Dh71) for a shared room or $28 (Dh102) for a standard double room all to yourself. The furnishings inside reminded me off the bedsit that I lived in back in Brooklyn, where the desk, chairs, nightstand, and TV were a best-of collection from throughout the ages with deco, mod and 1980s styles. The comfortable room with a window facing the snowy rooftops outside seemed a perfect writer's abode.
They say the way to a man's heart, however, is through his stomach, and it was not until I sampled the solyanka soup at the hotel's dark, basement restaurant with fake pink flowers stapled to the wall at regular intervals that I truly fell in love with the hotel and Kiev. The bowl held a steaming mix of red broth, tangy pickles, salty olives, lemon wedges, fresh chopped dill and smoky sturgeon - things that, much like the furnishings of my room, I would never think of mixing together and that yet melded perfectly. And best of all, it only cost $2.50 (Dh9).
While for me Ukraine and Russia had once shared similar appeal, Kiev was quickly proving a charm all its own at a price that can't be beat. And I had barely begun to explore. email@example.com