Fragments from a War Diary, Part #153
The problem with modern technology is that it makes idiots of us all. My friend and travelling companion and I today wanted to visit the city of Kamianets-Podilskyi, once the capital of Ukraine during the brief period of Ukrainian independence at the end of World War One. This city is actually in a different Oblast from Chernivtsi, where we are currently based, and it ought to be about an hour’s drive away. We asked of our hotel receptionist, whether she could arrange a car and driver for a day’s excursion to this neighbouring town. She made half a ’phone call and then told us “no, it’s not possible” and that was that. So we decided to order a Bolt taxi, the online San Francisco application so popular in Ukraine that pairs up anyone who wants to work as a taxi driver that day with prospective customers. Within two minutes of placing our order for a taxi to Kamianets-Podilskyi, a ramshackle smashed up car with a thoroughly unsavoury driver appeared.
Off we went down the bumpy broken highway, typical of Ukrainian provincial roads, amidst overcast skies and increasingly driving rain, past bombed out buildings and military checkpoints and defunct light industry and through decrepit villages. The road became increasingly rough. It was at this point that I informed my friend that I suffer from claustrophobia and motion sickness in small cars, so I was becoming increasingly unwell. After an hour and three quarters’ drive with my feeling increasingly bloated, the driver decided to stop at a main motorway intersection in Kamianets-Podilskyi, next to a blown out factory and amidst some Soviet-era blocks. It did not occur to him that this was not our desired destination and in fact the reason two foreigners wanted to take a taxi to Kamianets-Podilskyi was to view the historic fortress and the Old Town from where Ukraine had briefly been governed. We weren’t interested in those Stalinist concrete blocks at all. So there was a commotion as we had to ask him to take us to the fortress complex. He had just been following what the Bolt application on his telephone had been telling him and he had probably never been to Kamianets-Podilskyi before in his life.
The town with this unpronounceable name is small by Ukrainian standards, with a pre-war population of approximately 100,000, and jammed in a remote corner of southwest Ukraine it seems an unlikely place for the early twentieth century Ukrainian Peoples Republic to host a capital city until you realise that jammed between the territory ceded to Romania, the Second Polish Republic and the Soviet Union in the course of the chaos that emerged from World War One, this was the last place the advancing Red Army would reach heading west in the Russian Civil War before reaching territory accorded to other nations in the Versailles Peace of 1919. That is why the Ukrainian People’s Republic established her capital here, and not, as far as I can tell, for any other reason. The large and historic fortress was at one point the easternmost point in Polish territories and later the westernmost point in the Russian Empire; it is located on a large hill surrounded on all sides by deep ravines and for this reason was no doubt and important and impressive military vantage point during the era of warfare and imperialism when fortresses were important.
Now the fortress and the accompanying Old Town are frayed and decaying, although it would appear that at some stage recently there was an attempt to rejuvenate Kamianets-Podilskyi into a modern tourist attraction with various more or less smart hotels, restaurants, pubs and bars being constructed and some work having been done to repair some historical churches. However all these structures now lie essentially abandoned and unused, because no tourists are coming to Kamianets-Podilskyi in the middle of a war. Apart of course from the two of us, and one Ukrainian family we saw. Aside from that we had the fortress and Old Town pretty much to ourselves. It is a beautiful and dramatic spot, unfortunately spoiled by the fact that a main roadway artery runs straight through the cobbled Old Town. The city surely needs a bypass. The roads in this region are shocking.
Having strolled around the fortress and taken in the impressive views, and observed the abandoned and empty hotels and restaurants, we then asked the Bolt application to arrange a taxi to bring us back to Chernivtsi. This proved problematic. The first taxi we ordered tried to treble the price once he realised that I had a foreign name associated with the App. Presumably he thought we were suckers. So we cancelled that one and ordered another. A polite young man in a somewhat better car than this morning’s banger arrived and we all drove off. But I had made a critical mistake. The name of our hotel in Chernivtsi turns out also to be the name of a solitary farm building in a decrepit and isolated village some 12 kilometres north of Chernivtsi with almost no mobile telephone coverage. Our driver duly drove us off to this desolated and isolated spot. By reason of the bumpy and chaotic roads, my motion sickness and claustrophobia returned and in fact they got worse and worse as we were driving down increasingly appalling, bumpy, potholed roads in the driving rain. I got out to vomit, as the driver informed us that we had reached our destination. This was obviously not the place that anyone in their right minds would want a taxi to take them, but the driver had followed his GPS with no questions asked and he had delivered us to this absurd destination.
We then fumbled with Google Translate into Ukrainian, trying to explain that really we did not want to go to this place at all and instead we were trying to get to a hotel in central Chernivtsi. He seemed confused by this: what was our problem? He had brought us to the deserted derelict farmhouse but a dirt track, as requested, and his mission was accomplished. We would have to order another taxi into central Chernivtsi, he told us: as though it was possible to obtain a taxi from so remote and ludicrous a location. Things were looking grim. The Bolt application, that he insisted we use to order another taxi, informed us that it does not arrange collections from this silly place. In the end we overcame the linguistic and cultural barriers and he drove us to our desired destination in the dark, on the potholed roads, in the driving rain, and in the Chernivtsi evening traffic jam.
I have never been so relieved to get out of a car in all my life. Give me a quiet walk in the park in downtown Sloviansk amidst the monstrous roaring of the air defence missiles any day. My friend and I agreed that every day lived is worth living, and we put down our experiences to that. As to the touristic interest of Kamianets-Podilskyi? Let’s just say that it’s an acquired taste.