During my initial trip to Ukraine, one of the first things I noticed that seemed at least somewhat familiar in Kyiv was the typical crosswalk sign. It didn’t say, “WALK” like they do in the United States. Instead it was a picture of a little green person walking – easy enough to follow.
In those first few days there, I was happy to latch onto anything that I could understand. I was crossing those streets like a super-pro-Kyiv-jock to be sure. Yet there was one question that started to arise as I walked around a little bit more, never losing sight of whatever landmark I chose before heading out: Why were there no crosswalks at so many busy intersections?
When I looked around at these intersections, I saw stairs going underground. I knew this was for the Metro, an underground railway system that wasn’t unlike the subways you see in different parts of the world. I had read online that this is not the best or safest way to get around for foreigners who are alone, which made sense to me since I couldn’t read anything or talk to anyone anyway. I’d just walk around and stay close to home base while I was there that first time.
Yet, why was no one crossing these streets? There were a lot of people around. It didn’t make sense to me at all. Finally, I noticed some sort of youth sports team – it was a whole group of kids with matching parkas – walk down these stairs. I assumed they were getting on the Metro, but about a minute later, they popped up on the other side of the intersection. Mystery solved! The crosswalks were underground. I could finally cross the street in Kyiv.
When I walked down the stairs, I was amazed at what I saw. Yes, there was a Metro stop nearby, but there were also a ton of these little fruit stands – and by the way, where did the fruit come from in January? – along with little flower shops and bodegas like you’d see on the streets of New York. What there wasn’t was any sort of walkway or indication of how to get to the other side of the street. I thought I was going in the right direction, but these tunnels had a lot of twists and turns, and it was anything but a straight shot.
Before I knew it, I was somehow in the middle of a pretty modern mall. OK – what was going on here? Was there some entire underworld in Kyiv that I didn’t know about? If so, how come no one told me about it? I also realized at this point that I was completely and totally lost. I walked around for quite some time, trying to look like I had a clue what I was doing. I looked for any sign that would take me out of this strange subterranean world that was teeming with activity.
Finally I saw it – a worn down, dingy sign with the picture of a guy going up stairs on it. I had found my way out. I walked up the stairs, popped my head out like some sort of prairie dog, and realized that I had absolutely no idea where I was. Nothing looked familiar, my landmark skyscraper was nowhere in sight and I was ready to go back to my hotel room.
I headed back down into the maze of tunnels and tried to retrace my steps. I walked past the coffee place. I remembered seeing the place that sold babushkas. I remembered the drug store type-thing and finally, I saw some familiar fruit stands. I walked up the nearest stairs to the outside and… nope. Still no clue where I was.
Finally, after deciding to pop my head out of every staircase that led to the surface, I saw my skyscraper. I walked outside towards it, only to come to an intersection that required me going underground again to cross it. Not this time – I kept walking along until I could cross above the surface until I somehow found my way back. It took me almost 3 hours to get back to my room, and I bet I was never more than a few blocks away.
Later, I read a lot of different explanations as to why these tunnels exist. One talked about how they were there to beat the cold, which made sense. Another stated that they became popular during World War II, as Kyiv took a pounding during that time. Regardless, if you’re ever in Kyiv, it is an interesting piece of the city. Just bring a bag of popcorn so you can find your way home.