Month: May 2015

Art, Cycling and Social Development.

This week has been an interesting week both on and off the bike.

With the arrival of some delightful spring sunshine (early May is perhaps the most beautiful time to be in Kyiv) I have been out on the real-bike almost every evening and Im still not bored of exploring Podil and the islands on the Dnipr.

Off the bike, the transformation of Kyiv continues at a dizzy pace and since Friday I have attended a public debate on the future of public transport, met with a group who are installing electric car charging points accross Ukraine, visited yet another new art galley (exploring the imagery used by people to create ‘imaginary’ nations on undivided physical territories), found a website promoting the top 10 social projects in Ukraine and, this might sound trivial but, I discovered a bike rack outside the restaurant I stopped at for lunch!

Finallly, I learned that there are plans to install a network of public rental bikes – something similar to the ‘Boris bikes’ in London or the grey velo network in Brussels.

In Kyiv, you can be 99% sure they will be blue and yellow.

Down by the Dnipr

Surprisingly, even after the killer race on Saturday I bounced out of bed on Sunday, grabbed my bike and set-off to get some morning sunshine.

This week I fitted my new seat-post and ‘tweaked’ the saddle to give what seems like a better ‘fit’. So, I wanted to test my handy work.

I found the seat-post via Google because it offered an extended ‘head’ which would push the seat slightly further back. It’s made by a company called ‘Velo Orange’ and I like it its shiny silver style more than the original black one.

Kyiv is now in full spring blossom and I managed 24.5 KM before arriving back at Podil.

I discovered some cool new places down by the river and stopped for breakfast at Milkbar in the city center where Jeff and Anna joined me for Eggs Benedict which had fish instead of ham. A weirdly tasty alternative.

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This graffitti announces that a popular online trading site has changed its name.

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18.5 (today) in 1944, Stalin ordered the mass deportation of Crimean Tartars from Crimea as a form of collective punishment. Following Russia’s recent invasion of Crimea, once again they are living under Russian occupation. This graffiti in Kyiv is a tribute to their struggle.

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The Nation Race

A few weeks ago my colleague Yana wrote an article about a new race that will take place near Kyiv, modelled on the famously hard ‘tough mudder‘ races from the UK. The pointlessly patriotically-named ‘Nation Race’ puts participants through various physical challenges during a run around a very hilly and quite muddy course which covers part of a dirt-bike race track on the outskirts of Kyiv.

After publishing the article, Yana then declared that she would enter the race and ‘give it a go’, bravely declaring that she didn’t care if it defeated her because it would be fun. This inspired me and a week later I also declared that I would run. We could run together and support each other as two totally unprepared but enthusiastic novices.

5 days before the race I attempted the first ‘run’ of this year and covered 3km without dying. On Thursday I did 5km and it almost died. Then I hobbled to work and first Yana called to tell me she was sick and couldn’t race and then Anastasia (who booked my ticket) came to confess that she had booked me on the ‘Elite’ race!

In one day I went from being part of a ‘have-a-go’ team, to being the most un-elite ‘Elite’ athlete who’s ever entered a race.

“F**k that!” I said. “I’m not doing it”.

However, over the next two days we hatched a plan which would allow me to enter the ‘standard race’ (albeit unofficially) and so I decided to give it a go. I warmed-up with a hotdog and a coffee and at 9:30 on Saturday morning I was running around a muddy obstacle course on a hill outside Kyiv. It was hard (as expected) but not impossible and amazingly I survived the full race with only one penalty (30 burpees) for not climbing a rope. About an hour later I jumped through some fire and ran through a large muddy puddle to the finish line accompanied by a girl who had travelled from Russia to participate.

My reward: a free t-shirt, a banana and an Obolon beer.

Nice touch!

I gave the banana to Anastasia and drank the celebratory beer.

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On tour in Oxford

…OK, it’s not quite the Tour de France, I’m on a ‘foreign’ cycling machine at Brookes gym in Headington, but it’s still something and especially needed after a cycle-free and food-rich week in Brussels.

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What happens if you break the immigration rules in Ukraine?

Terminal D at Boryspil Airport is a large, modern and newly constructed terminal for international flights to and from Ukraine.

Built in 2012 at a cost of UAH 1.661 billion (USD 208 million) it apparently has the capacity to process 3000 passengers an hour.

Quite how is anyone’s guess.

In this post I will describe what happened this morning before boarding my flight to Brussels and is a good example of how inefficient the airport actually is.

However, before I start, I need to provide some background information on Ukraine’s immigration rules which, it has to be said, are considerably more open and forgiving than British or EU rules.

If you’re in a rush and just want to know what happens if you over-stay your 90 day allowance in Ukraine, then you can skip this section and just straight to ‘The Rube Goldberg penalty machine

Background: The power of music

Following Ruslana’s success in the Eurovision song contest in 2004 Ukraine decided to remove existing visa requirements to make it easier for foreigners to attend the event in Kyiv and to visit the otherwise overlooked (and relatively poor) country.

Such was the success of the tournament that Ukraine never reintroduced the visa regime and has allowed us foreigners to visit for free for up to 90 days in any six month period. Even then, for many years and until sometime in 2011 this rule was rarely enforced. The only requirement was that you left the country after 90 days and got a stamp in your passport – then you were allowed to return without a problem.

Naturally, most foreigners played the system by making ‘border runs’ every 90 days to Moldova or Belarus where you could usually buy a stamp without actually leaving.

However, under the Yanukovich government, the rules were tightened in 2011 and border guards started enforcing the ’90 day in 180’ rule – essentially meaning that you can stay for 90 days in any six month period – thus ending the unlimited free entry available via the border runs.

All fair and well and about time too given the widespread abuse of the system.

However, this is what you have instead…

The Rube Goldberg penalty machine

The problem with the 90 day rule is that its hard to monitor. For people who travel in and out of Ukraine almost constantly, then its pretty hard to keep track of the number of days stayed because its an ever shifting variable and you first have to deduct 180 days from your date of departure and then calculate the total days in Ukraine between the two dates. It’s easier said than done and in practice (and given the relatively low fine incurred for breaking the rule) I usually estimate how many days I’ve stayed in order to comply.

It’s just a quick fine and you’re on your way, right?
Wrong.

You see, it’s not just foreign visitors who struggle with the calculations, all the border guards have to do it manually as well and for every single foreigner who comes through their border posts. So if, after a 10 minutes counting-session, they suspect you might be close to our over the 90 day limit, you have to do the ‘walk of same’ and sit outside the ‘office of judgement’ on the ‘seat of despair’.

It doesn’t matter if you have actually over-stayed or not, you just have to be close and you’ll be forced to endure this inexplicably lengthy procedure.

Today was not my lucky day, so after 5-10 minutes at the border gate I was taken to the office of judgement and took my place on the seat of despair.  After a further 10 minutes the guy cam out and explained that I had indeed overstayed and he needed my address in Ukraine and in Oxford so he could produce some form. So far, so good and as I was in clear breach of the rules I didn’t mind. Rules are rules and I don’t mind paying the official penalty for breaking them. However, from here, things went from bad to worse.

After sitting there for an additional 30 minutes I started to get nervous that I would miss my flight, so I went to enquire about the ‘form’ and I found a guy slowly typing (I mean slower than a tortoise) a whole pile of these documents while chatting to other staff and dealing with a bunch of other border guards who wandered in and out for unknown reasons.

I assume every one of the people in the pile also had a plane to catch and were also quite stressed.

I made some ‘I don’t have much time’ gestures and some 30-40 minutes since arriving at the border post, I was finally given the penalty form and was directed back out of the security section towards a bank – the only bank in the departure lounge – to pay the fine.

But, the bank was closed.

There was no further information – only a man standing outside saying its closed until 10:00am, and so, if I waited for it to open I would miss my flight.

Irritated firstly by the fact that bank was closed and secondly that the border guard who issues these fines all day had sent me to this closed bank, I asked another border guard what I was supposed to do. She looked at my ticket, looked at the document and shrugged.

Only when I asked her quite angrily how I am supposed to pay a fine at a closed bank did her brain engage long enough to mention the bank downstairs in the arrivals area.

So, I quickly ran down there, found the bank (on the left side at the back near the exit) and handed everything to the cashier who then looked at it like it was an alien from another planet.  Then, after five minutes, she pointed at two figures. One said 850 UAH and the other said 1700 UAH. Which one did I want to pay? Apparently she had no idea what she was doing, so with about 30 minutes to the departure of my plane, I decided to play it safe and pay the 1700 UAH just in case.

After another five minutes of shuffling paper she stuffed a pin code number pad under the window of her kiosk (which required lost of pushing and stuffing to get to me and back to her) and then asked me for my passport. At this point I almost lost my cool and barked back at her that my passport was, of course, with the border guards (as must be the case for all other people and there was a steady line of them) who come to this bank every day to pay this kind of fine.

Unsurprisingly, the passport was suddenly unnecessary and she slowly continued to produce bits of paper (at least five) for me to sign.

With these in hand, I rushed back to the passport control, through security again (removing and replacing my belt, emptying pockets etc etc) and handed them the paper.

‘What’, I asked, ‘is the difference between the two numbers 850 and 1,700 UAH? ‘Oh’, said they guy, ‘we only need 850. 1,700 is the fee if you don’t pay for 10 days’.

‘So’, I replied as calmly as possible, ‘you just sent me to a closed bank and the only other bank is run by a woman who has no idea what she’s doing’. Yes, he replied ’she is very stupid. Do you have a time?, we must go back to the bank and change everything.’

‘No’, I replied, ‘I’m not missing my flight to recover 850 UAH’. (approximately £25)

Then I rushed through the border, ran the length of the terminal building and arrived at the gate as they were closing. It was more than one hour after I arrived at the border and I very, very nearly missed my flight.

Now, I know some of you are probably reading this thinking: If you break the rules, then its tough shit for you. And, to some extent you’re right. However, as I explained, it’s not easy to count the total number of days and overstaying is an administrative offence – not a criminal one. It is entirely possible to over-stay by mistake or because of unexpected circumstances. And anyway, I’m not complaining about the fine or the need to pay it.

What is ridiculous and what I am complaining about is the complete cluelessness of everyone involved in the process of processing the fine. Issuing fines that need to be paid at the bank when the bank is closed, not knowing that the only bank is closed, working in a bank that spends all day processing fines and being completely clueless about the cost of the fine etc etc.

All of this is unnecessary and leaves an incredibly bad impression of the country you are leaving, even for people like me who love Ukraine.

Is it really so hard to employ someone who can count, type and process a credit card payment in one place? Especially at an airport where departure times are absolute.

Should I fall foul of this rule again, and I sincerely hope I don’t, I will use this process as a litmus test for the pace of reform in Ukraine. Fining someone 25 EUR and issuing a penalty notice shouldn’t take more than an hour and everyone involved in the process should not be completely clueless about what needs to be done.

Ukraine. Please sort it out.

Thanks
Mr Irritated

Footnote: Having calmed down after a some in-flight food and a snooze, I think it is fair to acknowledge that our own visa requirements and immigration controls are far stricter for Ukrainians and as a result the level of bureaucracy they endure to visit Europe is significantly higher than any annoying border fine – however badly it is administered. Ukrainians are regularly turned away from EU borders, occasionally even when they have all the correct paper work and visas etc. Also, despite this and ever since the ‘EuroMaidan’ revolution, Ukrainians still split their passport checks into two categories: ‘International’ and ‘Ukraine & EU’. You see, their bureaucracy might be unnecessary and annoying but they still treat us as equals even if we treat them as second-class Europeans.

ITS Ukraine

It’s Friday lunchtime, it’s a beautifully sunny day here in Kyiv and nobody is working because it’s May Day.

Unsurprisingly I’m sitting on the cycling machine and in front of me is a swimming pool full of Ukrainians who have decided to spend their afternoon jiggling and dancing at some kind of water aerobics class.

It’s been a crazy but fun week as we finalised preperations for the launch of the Ukrainian Association of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS Ukraine). See www.its-ukraine.org.

We had hoped to launch ITS Ukraine this week, but delayed slightly so we could get all the admin in place and finish a few procedural things. Still, we are basically ready to roll and I look forward to getting stuck in to ITS Ukraine when I get back to Kyiv on 13th May after a week in Brussels and the UK.

At 14:30 today I also have a meeting with Fryday’s here in Kyiv who may support our new ‘open mic’ evening that Kyiv.Cool are organising. More on that soon, but if you’re curious about life in Kyiv then head to www.Kyiv.Cool.

OK, I’m done and off for a sauna.

Happy May Day and here’s hoping everything stays peaceful in Odessa today and in the weeks ahead.

Ian

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