120 Taxi Rides In An Alleged Warzone
What is every day life like in a city that has just seen riots and chaos worse than Germany in the last days of the Weimar Republic? Here is the account of a man who swapped going by Metro for going by Taxi in the post-revolutionary Kiev of 2014.
Part 1: The Journey Begins
Why are you going to a warzone?” — this was the one that stood out. From all of the responses I got when telling people I was about to live and work in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city, comparing Kiev to a ‘warzone’ was the most ludicrous one. What was it with people’s hilarious fear of a city that back then made the news with protestors wearing pots and pans as makeshift helmets? I never got it.
What I did get was an abundance of other responses all of a similar type. Ranging from worrying to outright disbelief they all expressed their skepticism about someone going to “this region” of the world and “at this time” on top of it. Down on the ground, however, things looked different.
When I entered the country after a 20 hour bus ride that would take me all the way through Germany and Poland things at the border went down smoothly. No filling out forms, no asking questions and no one showing any interest in going through mine or anybody else’s luggage. After 3 hours of waiting and with an unimpressive stamp in the lower right corner of the last page of my passport I was finally let in the country. Fast forward another 600 kilometers by train and I am standing on gorgeous Maidan Square in the heart of Kiev.
As picturesque as it may look, Kiev’s central square naturally was in a different shape when the protests were in full force back in the winter of 2013/14. The posters next to the three officials in the image give you a vivid impression of the time when tires and bulk garbage were lit up. Speaking of which, lighting up trash and tires was by no means an act of vandalism: the thick wads of smoke than would ensue would simply block Police’s sight on the protestors’ camp. With the fires burning thick walls of smoke visible from miles apart would now successfully keep the one side of Maidan from seeing what the other side was doing.
It’s All Clear
Now, if you ask me what the aftermath of the protests in the Kiev of today looks like then the only honest answer would be: there is no aftermath. With Maidan square and all surrounding buildings refurbished the heart of Kiev is as lively as it ever was. If anything then you could say officals and locals alike have developed an interest in keeping things more low-key these days. Quite understandable when things have been anything but low-key for such a long time in the past year. The Kiev of today is not the calm before the storm, it is the tranquility after the storm.
Just to set up a striking contrast here, this is what the same square looked like several weeks before I started my Ukrainian Taxi adventure.
Maidan Squarew, Kiev in Early 2014. Photo: Ilya Varlamov
This being said, there is one question that comes to mind: What do you get when you have a city cleared of even the more experienced tourists, travelers and visitors, but where every day life now is nothing but smooth sailing? That’s right, you get an adventure traveler’s paradise waiting to be explored.
Rough on the edges
When I just mentioned ‘smooth sailing’ then by no means does that imply everything is roses. Because it isn’t. Ukraine still is a country that in many things has nothing in common with any Western country you might know. There are some rough edges to this part of the world that can make you trip, fall and land flat on your face if you don’t watch your step.
Naturally, this comes with a massive upside: the plethora of ‘artists’, ‘aspiring musicians’ and the other types of what is universally know as hipsters in Kiev are nowhere to be seen. The skinny jeans wearing crowd might have polluted cities like Berlin and Budapest for the last two decades now, now year-old pictures of burning buildings, however, still have them shun Kiev like the plague.
One of the fields that lets you experience some of that roughness is transportation. By that I do not mean ill-maintained country roads that will turn your cross-country trip into a bumpy adventure. In fact, Ukraine’s highways are in pretty good shape, making potholes and the likes an exception. What I do not mean, either, is some Siberian-like roadrage like you can see it in so many YouTube videos where people have a horse sitting on the passenger seat. Whenever you you come across such a video you should know that this is Russia, not Ukraine.
What I do mean, however, is the every day roadrage you will encounter once you make taxis your prefered means of transportation. Albeit not as spectacular as carrying a hoofed passenger or having a tank crossing your way taking at least two taxi rides every day in Kiev is enough to put your nerves to an endurance test.
Why would someone do that? What is the incentive to get around the city by taxi and avoid taking advantage of Kiev’s well-maintained system of public transport? Good point, I say.
The Kiev Metro
And indeed, using public transport in Kiev is the one option if you are looking for a cheap and easy way to get around. This being said, going by public transport in Kiev comes with a price. Mind you that this is no monetary price as tickets for bus and subway are ridiculously cheap.
Take, for instance, the single ticket for the subway that will only set you back 2 Ukrainian Gryvna: when was the last time you spent 8 cents on a subway ticket?
Compare these 8 cents to the 2.40€ you would pay in Berlin or the 3.20€ you would pay for a ride on London’s Tube and you get a good idea about the local price level.
Alas, there is a catch. Not only does the metro close for the day at midnight, rendering it useless for most nightlife activities, the Kiev Metro also comes with a rush hour
that is, in one word, insane. No need to go Far East, in the hours of 06.00 to 8.00 and 16.00 to 19.00 the local Metro is crowded in a way that will make the notorious Tokyo Subway seem an innocent endeavour.
And things will be like that every-single-day.
The first time I became the live-version of the proverial jardin in a tin can I took it like a good sportsman. “This is a foreign country, after all”. The second time I was involuntarily slow-dancing with Igor, Andrej and Aleksander in a sweaty subway car I was getting less thrilled by the idea. The third time I literally jumped out at the next stop, looking for a way to end it all.
Part 2: Enter Taxi Driver Madness
Once I got up the seemingly neverending escalators I went straight to the curb, pulled out my cell phone and did what would become my bread and butter for the upcoming months: I called myself a nice Ukrainian taxi. Now, mind you that the taxi business in Ukraine is a bit different from that in the West. And by ‘a bit different’ I mean ‘incomparable’.
Ordering A Taxi In Kiev: The Hard Way
Take, for instance, the ordering process. This one comes in an easy way – and a hard way. The hard way would be to call the dispatchers at number 211 which is well-known for offering the cheapeast fares. Why is that the hard way? Because unless your are fluent in Russian or Ukrainian you have a 50% chance for the dispatcher to just hang up on you once they notice you don’t speak the language. Time is money and Ukrainian businesses have neither to waste.
And even if you took that first obstacle there is another 50% chance not to get a taxi. Business-wise Ukrainians are real oppurtunists, meaning that if no driver is interested in going your route – they might just be too far off or there is too little money to be made – then you won’t get a taxi, period. Prepare for a silly “we’re sorry” text message that will be sent even if you have already waited a long time for your promised ride. To put it into friendly terms calling yourself a taxi in Ukraine is the ultimate numbers game.
Ordering A Taxi In Kiev: The Easy Way
The easy way is not only easier and more convenient, it also involves what I call the Mother of all taxi apps: To this day I’m a stern believer that world-famous taxi app Uber actually was a Ukrainian invention. Long before Uber made it big in the years of 2010 and onwards the Ukrainian-made Taxi app Uklon has been the way go to for ordering Taxis in the country. Available for free in Apple’s iTunes Store as well as in Google Play Uklon makes use of your phones GPS and Google Maps. That way it conveniently lets you pick your departure and& destination without having to decypher a single word of Russian or Ukrainian.
The Uklon app also comes with a work-around to drivers not taking your call: once you make use of the “add to order” function and offer a modest tip that can be as low as 5-10 Gryvna (0.10€ – 0.25€) everything changes. Psychologically the small tip does the job and taxi drivers not taking your call will be a thing of the past.
So, what about the price for a 15 min taxi ride in downtown Kiev? No more than 40 Gryvna. That is a mere 1.85 in US Dollars or 1.65 in Euros. Super-low fares like these tell you that money-wise going by taxi can be the Kievian version of buying a subway ticket.
Not only is taking a taxi in Kiev priced below a subway ticket in the West, it also opens the door to a special type of adventure travelimg that I named playing Taxi Driver Lottery. Because unlike Uber the Ukrainian equivalent of Uklon – or any other offline taxi service for that matter – is served by freelance drivers who do not have to register to any service, but only have to come up with their car and a smartphone. In short, the variety of cars and drivers you will encounter is almost unmeasurable. Whenever you order a taxi the actual car & driver that will show can be virtually anything. From the most average father-of-two who just seeks to make a living to the youngster who tries to make an extra buck with his brother-in-law’s BMW X5 (no joke). Anything goes.
What all taxi drivers have in common is that each and every taxi driver will be a character. Not only because you will be driving with a Ukrainian man who more often than not is the hard-as-nails type of guy, but also because ditching the metro for taxis will have you meet at least two fresh faces every day. As unique as they may appear in your first week you will develop a feeling for certain categories the drivers belong to.
For Westeners, going by Taxi is the Kievan version of buying a subway ticket
Why categories? Because what you will do sooner or later is to sort the drivers in categories regarding to their unusualness, introvertedness, introvertedness and ultimately: their jazziness.
Want to get an idea what this would look like in real life? Nothing easier than that. After taking at least two Taxi rides each day for a period of more than two months I can almost scientifically prove that all Taxi drivers can be put in one of the following four categories.
1. The Worldly Conversationalist
Your only chance to find out whether your driver is a Worldly Conversationalist is by initiating a conversation with him (Ukrainian men hardly ever do smalltalk). Preferably not in Russian or Ukrainian, but in English. If you strike a chord here then the Worldly Conversationalist will be a pleasant alternative to the vast ocean of Average Joes. Talking to him is highly interesting as he speaks surprisingly good English (Ukrainian hardly ever speak English) and has some good cultural insights to share.
Another rare species. My most profound memory of a Worldly Conversationalist is that of a young driver who had just become a father. What he told me during our conversation was that the whole country looks up to Poland and would’nt mind reenacting the econimic success story of post-socialist Poland. Poland might not have a exemplary image for Western European countries, but for Ukrainians it is a landmark, my Worldly Conversationalist told me. The Worldly Conversationalist is a rare gem, he makes up for 3% of all drivers. If at all.
2. The Average Joe
The Average Joe is average in everything. He is not too young and not too old, but of a totally average age. And so is his car. Not too run-down and not too fresh, his private-car-turned-taxi-cab, too, is the absolute average in everything. The only resemblence of jazziness in the average Joe is his reluctance to let you eat or drink in his car. Or a mild cursing if someone cut him in traffic or he missed an exit. Personally, I have the vague suspicion he acts out against drinking and eating in order to keep things – average.
Surprisingly, the vast majority of Kiev taxi drivers can be put into the average Joe category. On a positive note his lack of craziness allows you to be the negligent passenger typing away on his smartphone or talking on the phone. There is not much to worry about as the average Joe will get the job done.
3. The Soldier
If the Average Joe had a more stern and professional elderly brother he would be a Soldier. Once you are inside a Soldier’s car he does not see you as a passenger to be brought from A to B. He sees you as his mission. If you see a massive 2013 model SUV or any other bulky Porsche Cayenne-like vehicle pulling up then your chances to be riding with a Soldier have just skyrocketed. Soldiers like it fast & professional, they do not waste time with slow cars. Just like the Average Joe the Soldier will get the job done – only in about 1/10 of the time. Most of Soldier-cars feature a top speed of more than 200 kilometers per hour and you can rest assured the soldier will put the heavy engine to good use.
I personally remember one night with a Soldier who did the 40 minute drive into the suburbs in no more than 11 minutes with his BMW X3 (I just my watch’s timer to measure). How did he do it? You guessed it, the average driving speed during our short but intense encounter was at about 200 kilometers per hour. If you ask me then there any crash at that speed would have meant the end of both of us, airbag or no airbag. But as a time-saving professional the Soldier took no hostages. And I would have complained had I managed to lift my head to the site that was pressed back into the the seat from the heavy throttle.
4. Mr Outgoing
This one starts off as a the Worldly Conversationalist-type but then takes an entirely different turn. While the Worldly Conversationalist remains all calm, showing polite interest in you, the foreign traveler, Mr Outgoing gets more and more energized the longer you talk to him. As the born smalltalker his English is above average. And once he realized you speak English his eyes will light up as you have just become his once-in-a-month chance to practise his language skills, talk to a foreigner and ultimately – let off some steam.
I remember a Mr Outgoing who wasn’t even Ukrainian. Instead, he was a tall man from Georgia (the Republic, not the US state) who had the physique of an oak tree. With a very friendly and open, yet also extremely talkative personality my Mr Outgoing came to live once he heard me pick up a phone call in English. From that time on the 20 minute drive we shared became his stage. In his surprisingly good English he would not stop lecturing me about this favorite topic which happened to be the conflict in the East of Ukraine:
„Yeah yeah yeah, we [the Georgians], we understand everything. We know exactly. It is like (…) our own in repeated, you understand me? The Russians (…) the Russians they always do the same thing, years after years. For 200 years now with their neighbours! You understand? The Russian just want (…) how do you say?”
At this point he was struggling for a certain word and get even more excited as the word simply refused to come to his mind. Then it struck him like lightning. Everything just bursted out of him:
“(…) The Russians, they always want everybody just to give BLOWJOB to them!“
The word blowjob also was the climax of his hilarious rant. Within a second he took both hands off the steering wheel in order to gesticulate what the fiesty Russians had been doing for over twohundred years now.
“Yeah, believe me, is true!”, he said, with an annoyed face that almost portrayed the 200 years of sustained injustice. All this was taking place within 3-5 seconds. And once he made no effort go get his hands back on the wheel after the first seconds had passed I had to stop laughing and tell him to watch the road again. “Believe, is true. Really!”, he emphasized as he went back to driving the car through the night.
Slamming The Door
I wished I got 10 cent every time I’m being asked if Kiev is a safe place to travel. Because that’s just what it is. While Ukraine can be a bit rough around the edges and will provide you with a good deal of culture shock Kiev is as safe for travelers as any other European capital. After all, the worst thing that could happen to you would either be a barkeeper withholding your change – or a tall Georgian man taking his hands off the steering wheel while he is telling you his favorite joke.