Simon Calder: the man who pays his way

Crimea and punishment

"I love you." Considering I had met this middle-aged man with the exaggerated smile and bag full of religious literature only five minutes earlier, I was quite relieved when he added, "God loves you, too", then walked away to accost some other unfortunate passenger. We were literally sitting targets, waiting for check-in to open at the scruffy warehouse that passes for Kiev's main airport, Borispil. He may possibly have been so enamoured of me because I had just given him a selection of small-denomination notes to go away. Say what you like about the former Soviet Union, but proselytizing missionaries were rarely a problem. Yet to remind yourself of how wonderfully easy travel in much of the rest of the world has become, or to get an insight into the bad old days of the USSR, Ukraine is a good country to start.

"I love you." Considering I had met this middle-aged man with the exaggerated smile and bag full of religious literature only five minutes earlier, I was quite relieved when he added, "God loves you, too", then walked away to accost some other unfortunate passenger. We were literally sitting targets, waiting for check-in to open at the scruffy warehouse that passes for Kiev's main airport, Borispil. He may possibly have been so enamoured of me because I had just given him a selection of small-denomination notes to go away. Say what you like about the former Soviet Union, but proselytizing missionaries were rarely a problem. Yet to remind yourself of how wonderfully easy travel in much of the rest of the world has become, or to get an insight into the bad old days of the USSR, Ukraine is a good country to start.

The rules for procuring a Ukrainian visa must have been devised by descendants of Kafka with the help of redundant East German border officials. The procedure demands immersion in a fluster of bureaucracy. You must fill out an immensely complicated form and submit it within the precious few hours each day (UK and Ukrainian bank holidays excepted) when the embassy's visa section is open. The twist is that cash, personal cheques or plastic are not accepted as payment: you need to procure postal orders in the correct combination.

ONCE THE precious visa is applied to your passport, your problems are only just beginning. The next bout of bureaucracy starts on the plane. The immigration card for Ukraine is the only one I have ever seen that is commercially sponsored. Three Kiev enterprises pay to advertise on it: the Premier Palace Hotel, the New Bombay restaurant and O'Brien's Irish Pub. Judging by the excitement shown in the "Rules of filling in the immigration card", whoever proofread the card had perhaps spent too long at the latter venue:

"Attention! The card is to fill by the passport owner. The card also is to fill for every person than put down in the passport. Fill in the card with darkblue and black ink. Please, don't fill in the card with red and green ink. Please, fill in the card with printing letters and if there are some words in one point, do please, do the blank."

Just in case that is not entirely clear, the customs hall contains an example of how to complete the document, made out in the name of an imaginary US citizen: Mr Happy Traveller.

* At Kiev's airport hotel, duties are strictly divided between the three women who appear to be permanently stationed at the reception desk of the Hotel Borispil. The first looks you up and down to decide whether you deserve to be assigned a room. The second takes your cash. The third demands to know, as soon as you check in, not only what time you will be taking breakfast next morning, but exactly what you wish to eat. After midnight, when the London flight arrives, it is difficult to make a sensible choice from five set menus; I chose "omelette with meat products", to be served at 6.30am precisely. Still, at a very reasonable £12 a night rather than 10 times as much in airport hotels in the West, I was grateful for any breakfast at all. And there is at least one nod to the new world order: televisions in public areas playing the Ukrainian answer to MTV at deafening volume, 24 hours a day.

* Like a £120-a-night airport hotel, the Hotel Borispil has the ability to accept incoming calls. Sometimes. I trotted down to the desk to warn the woman whose job description appeared to include answering the phone to callers asking for room 217. I explained in broken Russian that I hoped might sound like shattered Ukrainian that I was "expecting a call from London". The response was neither blank incomprehension nor cheerful understanding: "We are on a technology break. Go upstairs."

* Kiev is a mandatory stop en route to Simferopol, capital of the Crimea. The warning notice at check-in for the onward flight was evidently written by the same person who created the immigration cards: "It is forbidden to take any things for transportations from strangers as with you as in your baggage. If you stick to this regulation you will never be involved in troubles." So that is how to avoid problems in life.

* Load factors on Ukrainian domestic flights appear as dismal as on many international departures. They ferried us out to the aircraft on a 12-seater minibus with several empty spaces. Great, I thought, I will be able to sleep off the breakfast by stretching out across three seats. But when you see the aircraft that is supposed to be carrying you 500 miles to Simferopol, you understand why so many fellow travellers have opted for the rival 18-hour train ride.

My flight ticket was issued by Ukraine International, a classy airline with a modern fleet. It had sub-contracted the flight to Aero Svit, which itself runs a smart operation, with nice new Boeings taking travellers as far as New York. Yet the Simferopol job was clearly not glamorous enough for Aero Svit, which had, in turn, decided to farm it out to someone else.

These days there is a trend towards snappy, single-syllable names for airlines such as Zip, Song and the late lamented Go. But our minibus pulled up beside an antiquated plane belonging to an airline of which I had previously been unaware: Kyiv Aircraft Repair Plant 410. Yes, that is the official name, though on the fuselage it is contracted to the snappier ARP 410 Airlines.

* The antiquated AN-24 is powered by a pair of turbo-props, but I saw at least one jet: a spurt of flame that shot out just before the propeller started turning. Nonetheless the raucous engines clawed their way into a sky as leaden as a T-35 tank.

The ride was about as comfortable as bouncing around in the back of a Soviet armoured vehicle. The aircraft cabin looks and feels like a British Rail train circa 1960, with inflight catering to match. But the repairers must have been paying attention, because the elderly Antonov 24 landed safely. And if it hadn't, the safety card made escape sound simple: "Exit according to the rule: first leg then head."

* the taxi trade at Simferopol airport is lively. The offers of unofficial cabs begin as soon as the engines splutter to a shutdown and the aircraft door opens. In Ukraine, it is normal for the crew to be first off the plane, having had quite enough of the beastly aircraft. Once the passengers start filing down the steps after them, the driver of the transfer bus begins soliciting customers for his business sideline.

If you accept his approach, you will be insulated from the next stage: a scrum that develops as you approach what, in other airports, would be a baggage reclaim hall but in Simferopol is a trolley in a car-park with some suitcases on it. A platoon of dodgy drivers besieges the passengers, assuring them that there is no public transport available into town, and that a $10 cab is the only way out. Yet just around the corner, a fleet of Czech-built trolleybuses stands ready.

These are heavy-duty brutes. They need to be. They will take you into town for 5p – or, for under £1, begin a spectacular 100-mile electric-powered romp across the mountains and along the coast to Yalta, where Chekhov planted The Cherry Orchard and Tolstoy found peace before the (Crimean) war. Lenin (left) would be proud of the number 52 trolley-bus from Simferopol airport to Yalta. It scales the half-mile high pass, swoops down to the coast, then swerves upwards and along the Corniche high above the coast of the Black Sea (or, this stormy week, the Grey Murk). But if you hop off at the pass, you will be able to get a taste of home. Someone has opened an English pub, called the Liverpool. If you are tempted to break your journey here, remember the rule for leaving the trolleybus: "Exit according to the rule: first leg then head."

* When you come to leave Ukraine, the first hurdle you face is the customs hall, which interestingly precedes check-in. The staff here are intensely interested in your wallet. They want to know if you plan to destabilise the national economy by removing large quantities of the local currency. You are allowed to take some through without filling in a comprehensive customs declaration – but barely enough to buy a cup of coffee in the departure lounge. The export limit is a princely 10 hravnia, which works out at £1.25. It was not a huge surprise to find my religious friend on duty at the checkpoint ready to assist in absorbing excess cash in return for affection.

* A figure that, for decades, has favoured the few at the expense of the many has finally been toppled. Citizens are celebrating the imminent demise of their oppressor and looking forward to peace. Concorde is to take a one-way flight to oblivion, and the people of Richmond and Windsor, Roissy and Long Island are rejoicing.

Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, rejects the suggestion that his company could buy the supersonic jet: "I would advise British Airways to hang on to them because at the rate their traffic is in decline they'll be able to carry all their passengers in seven Concordes."

Another travel industry figure – Lyn Hughes, editor of Wanderlust magazine – expressed only qualified regret. Her office and home are both in Windsor, below the usual Concorde flight path: "It won't be the same without our windows rattling. And I'll nostalgically look back on the days when I used to work at a stables at weekends. At 11.05am every Saturday at least one horse would bolt while I was taking clients out for a 'gentle' hack."

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