Fragments from a War Diary, Part #44
Travelling in a conflict zone can often be testing. After an exhausting train trip starting early in the morning, my accommodation in Kharkiv was not ready so some colleagues entertained me after a walk through Kharkiv’s mostly quiet, leafy streets in the hot late autumn sun. Kharkiv seems a city at peace in late 2023, although parts of the city suffered terribly in the early phases of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as Russian artillery and missiles destroyed Kharkiv’s extensive manufacturing facilities and a lot of proximate residential accommodation at the same time. The city is a mere 40 kilometres from the Russian border, and the Russian Armed Forces reached the city limits, at one point threatening encirclement of this Ukraine’s second largest city. The city retains the feeling of a military garrison, with a number of hotels and apartments being occupied by soldiers or support staff. The front line in Donetsk Oblast is not far away and Kharkiv serves as a logistics centre for military operations.
While waiting to be checked in, I met and chatted with some colleagues and helped them with a variety of tasks. But really I was exhausted. All perennial travellers know this feeling: a sense of weariness that overtakes you when you have taken a long train ride, a red-eye flight or your sleep has been disturbed because you needed to get up very early to make a transport connection. In war zones, this sort of fatigue, when you can barely keep your eyes open and all you want to do is lie down horizontally and close your eyes, is pervasive. Travel is typically uncomfortable, and not without stress. You are constantly meeting new people, scrabbling to find decent food, and dealing in a range of foreign languages that may be confusing. I am always looking for time to myself, just to rest or relax or take a walk and be with my own thoughts. As I spend ever more time in Ukraine, my rolodex expands exponentially and there are increasing numbers of people to engage with about every conceivable subject. Ukraine is a huge country; I have already traversed a lot of it; and there is still a substantial amount more to see, learn and do during the time I have scheduled to be here.
After sharing polite words and a hearty meal with my new friends and colleagues, and making the best impression I could, I went back to my new accommodation, a simple studio apartment but quite adequate for my needs. The cleaner was finishing the bathroom; I brought in my luggage; she said I should pay the manager later; I turned off the lights and closed the curtains, and my head sank into the pillow. I was fast asleep in the middle of a Friday afternoon, knowing that there would be some demanding days ahead of me to come.
Then all of a sudden there was a banging at the door: not once, not twice, but repeatedly. Then there was some shouting. Then my mobile telephone started ringing repeatedly: not once, not twice, but again and again and again and again, each time from the same unknown number. Bewildered, dazed and confused, I rose to find out what was going on. I opened the door and an unknown woman unleashed a volley of Russian at me. I did not really understand what was going on, but the basic gist was approximately this: I had not paid; I had entered the hotel without paying; I was upsetting the soldiers who were staying there; they would be dealing with me if I did not pay immediately; pathetically waving my credit card, I was told that they do not accept credit cards (despite there being an advertisement for them by the front desk); I must pay cash and I must pay it immediately.
Then the telephone was handed to me and an unknown voice told me in broken English that my behaviour was unacceptable. If I did not pay or if I broke the rules of the hotel or if I drank alcohol or if I was disruptive, then I would be evicted. I realised that I had suddenly been immersed in the subplot of one of those aggressive Soviet-era dramas that I had seen so frequently on the television.
The solution was obvious: pay immediately. The promise of money however was not enough. It was obvious I had to present cash bills, in order to calm this situation down. But how? There was an air raid, and the army had scrambled the GPS. The nearest branch of Privatbank (one of the few Ukrainian banks with reliable ATM machines) was a three hour walk away, according to my mobile telephone; yet I was in the centre of the second-largest city in Kharkiv. I panicked to call any colleagues, amidst increasingly voluble demands that I pay various sums in cash by certain strict deadlines when various people would be coming to my room to see that I paid on the spot. I didn’t like the sound of any of that. Moreover getting actual physical directions in the modern age is so difficult, because everyone is reliant upon their mobile devices and nobody carries physical maps anymore or is even capable of old-fashioned orienteering. Those skills have been lost: even, it seems, in the middle of a war zone when GPS signals are being minced and mobile telephone networks routinely fail.
A colleague answered, and helpfully pointed me in roughly the right direction. However what nobody working in the hotel had noticed was that there is in fact a perfectly functional cash machine almost directly opposite the hotel’s front door. Spotting this, within five minutes I returned with the required funds and the tension was immediately defused. I was a reliable person; I paid my bills; the attention of the soldiers need not be disturbed. I was counselled not to drink alcohol(!), as this might affect my moods. I gratefully accepted this distinctive piece of advice (although I had not of course drunk a drop) and we shook hands and made friends, the money now having been transferred to the right hands.
I did not receive a receipt. The administrator of the hotel managed the closest approximation to a smile of which she was capable, and we agreed that I was welcome to stay for as long as I like. I decided to go for a walk, to enjoy the warm evening sun amidst Kharkiv’s broad leafy boulevards. I think I am going to like Kharkiv. Notwithstanding its torrid recent history, the city has a pleasant almost Parisian air to it. It is less pretentious, less pompous than Kyiv, its people somewhat less stuffy. The traffic is lighter and I notice that the streets are full of restaurants and bars. Notwithstanding the admonitions of my hotel administrator, I am going to head forth into the sunset and enjoy a glass of beer.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.