It's difficult to recommend somewhere people will have trouble finding, but then such is the nature of so much in Kiev. Often, the most interesting places lie behind unmarked doors in snow-covered alleys, or, such as in the monastery complex of Pechersk Lavra, are underground catacombs that aren't signposted in English. And so one of the most surprising spots I discovered in the city was in a quiet, mostly residential neighbourhood near the Lybidska metro station off of Boulevard Druzbhy Narodiv. If you're taking a taxi, ask to go to the shady-looking Hotel Druzbhy. Fifty metres to the east, there is a club called Mambo's. But you should be looking beyond to the dreary building complex just east of that. Go around back and climb the first set of stairs to a grey metal door.
You'd never know it from the outside, but this is the entrance to Tea Club (00 380 451 42 83). It's a sort of all-purpose gathering spot for Ukrainian intellectuals run by, among others, a former journalist who left newspapers to study mediation and martial arts near the Shao Lin Temple in China. There are more than 200 different types of rare loose tea leaves in little glass jars lining the walls and a series of low-lit rooms are decorated with Eastern decor. Take off your shoes upon entering and change into wicker slippers and one of the hosts will arrange for you to have tea in a traditional Chinese ceremony that is increasingly being lost to the ages in China.
Beneath a stairway, I sat for about an hour-and-a-half on the floor with Taras, the former journalist, in front of a small, hollow cast-iron tray with a drainage well while he prepared tiny cup after tiny cup of a wild-growing, aged black tea, each time pouring a bit of the hot water on a thimble-sized statue of Buddha for his blessings. The experience was wonderful, the atmosphere - where in another room people were listening to world music and using Wi-Fi, and elsewhere couples were reclining beside one another in little enclosures made from folding screens - was totally out of character with the decidedly untrendy area, and the level of expertise about tea and Chinese culture was hard to believe. And at $12 (Dh44) such a special and personalised thing hardly seemed overpriced. But that's Kiev for you, where you never know what's hiding around the corner.
After a couple days in the capital, however, I was sick of shivering while walking through gusts of snowflakes on the ice-laden streets and hoped that if I headed south I might thaw out. That night I taxied to the central railway station to catch the 10:59pm train to Odessa. I had asked a Ukrainian speaker to buy my tickets online on the government-operated railways' website (www.uz.gov.ua) because the site is entirely written in Cyrillic characters and it would be impossible to navigate if you didn't have a working understanding of Ukrainian or Russian. Another, perhaps easier, but more expensive option is to use such online brokers as Real Russia (www.realrussia.co.uk), which allow English-speaking users to find out time and fare information and to buy tickets for train travel throughout the former Soviet Union. But the prices in that case do go up. My one-way ticket in a second-class - also known as kupe - sleeper compartment cost only $14 (Dh53). If I had ordered my ticket with Real Russia I would have paid $61 (Dh226). By doing so, however, I could have picked it up in advance at the company's office in Moscow for free or in its London office for $15 (Dh55) extra. To have the ticket delivered to Abu Dhabi by mail in three business days it would cost $16 (Dh60). This may seem a somewhat roundabout process just to buy a train ticket, but the protocol at the stations in Ukraine are notoriously difficult for foreigners - so much so that brokers like Real Russia exist. The gruff ticket agents almost never speak English and train schedules and other information are written in Cyrillic. I found that having a friend buy the ticket online for me and then accompany me to the station to make certain that I got on the right train was not only incredibly helpful but far cheaper and more sensible than the brokerage option.
Once aboard, the ride was entertaining and cost-efficient as well because the little compartment with four fold-out bunks was also my hotel for the night during the 10-hour journey. My three companions - an elderly mother and her 20-something daughter and a burly man with one eye - didn't speak any English either. But they were most amused by my presence and helped guide me with hand gestures through the rituals of train travel in Ukraine.
The train was a time-worn Soviet model with fake wood panelling and Oriental carpets on the floor. Each train car has an attendant who collects tickets, provides pillows, pillowcases, bedspreads and thick wool blankets, and organises tea service in the morning. It is uncommon for passengers to sleep in their regular clothes and everyone but me had brought some form of nightwear and asked the other passengers to leave the room while they changed. At pretty much any hour of day or night the enclosed connection areas between cars will be full of smokers sucking down a nicotine fix.
Although heated, the trains get very cold at night during the winter. The bathroom had no water and was locked during departure and 15 minutes before arrival. In all, however, the experience was more comfortable than other inexpensive train rides I've taken in places like India and I actually slept pretty well. Once at the station in Odessa, I prepared myself for another experience that is common for travellers in many parts of the former USSR but that I had never done before - book an apartment from a local upon arrival. On the train station's steps there were a half-dozen frumpy, bundled-up old women with paper signs pinned to their chests. These ladies are informally known as the babushka mafia and they provide out-of-towners with on-the-spot arrangements for accommodation that are often much cheaper and even nicer than the budget hotels.
When I approached one of the women, she began speaking to me in Ukrainian for paragraphs at a time as I tried to convey that I had no idea of what she was saying. Finally, I held my outstretched pinkie and thumb to my ear and said "Englishki". Luckily, she understood that she would need to phone someone who I could communicate with. With the English speaker on the other end of the line I negotiated for a one-bedroom flat with heat and hot water that was near the train station for $20 (Dh73) per night. I also made it clear that I wanted to see it first. I followed the woman up three flights of stairs as she clutched the rail and wheezed louder as we rose. The flat was simple but clean and had the basic amenities promised. It even offered a few extra touches such as a teapot and a box of tea bags. When I looked at mid-range hotels in the same area they cost more than $50 (Dh184) per night. And it was quite a bit more interesting for a few days to feel like I was really sojourning in Ukraine with my own apartment, a funny little landlady and even a hot cup of tea.