Greetings From Kherson Ukraine! (26 July – 1 August 2017)
Kherson Ukraine was not a place I would ever figure of visiting before this trip. I’ve never heard of the small harbour town and it’s quite out of the way. When I was asked where else I was visiting when I was in Kiev I told the guys I was heading to Kherson next and they all asked the same thing, why? Because the BJJ Globetrotter community was asking to come visit, that’s why. I forget where I was, somewhere in Germany I think, and the new Globetrotters article came out featuring some new Matsurfing ads. I always read the articles and look at the new Matsurfing ads to see where there’s an offer I could maybe take advantage of and plan out the Odyssey to head that way. As it happens I was just working out the details for eastern Europe at the time and I needed to figure out a stop between Kiev and Chisinau Moldova. Kherson was perfect. I sent off a message to Bogdan and we quickly put it together.
I left Kiev in the afternoon on an overnight train. The majority of people, both on the train and as staff in the train station, didn’t speak any English so finding the train and my exact room and seat was a bit awkward. I had my ticket printed out at the hostel so I would have a paper copy to show them and help me out, this was very useful especially when I didn’t know how long my phone would hold out on this trip. I got to the station, showed the first staff member I saw my paper and asked “Where’s the train to Kherson?” he responded with “Ah, Kherson!” and ushered me to the track and handed me off to two other staff members, one brought me to the proper cart and gave me hand signals on how to find my room. I climbed into the train, which was boiling inside as there were no fans, and with my backpack taking up all of the narrow hallway I slowly and awkwardly made me way to find my seat was already taken.
The sleeping car I was supposed to have a bed in was full with a family of very big women that didn’t speak any English. I showed them my ticket and they keep making signs to me to go to another room. I didn’t understand what they were saying and tried showing them my ticket and pointing to the seat a few times, only to get a bunch of Ukrainian and shooing me away. I, in true Canadian fashion told them “I sorry” but I don’t understand. While standing in hall waiting for a staff member to come by and hopefully sort this situation out I stood listening to the women make fun of me and laugh away repeating and mockingly saying “I’m sorry, oh I’m sorry!” I decided to ignore them. As it happens the room next to where I was supposed to be staying had an elderly couple in it and the husband spoke English. He explained to me that the women had their mother with them and she was supposed to be in the room with him but decided they would take over the room and my spot and that I should take her bed instead. In his opinion I was better off in the car with him and his wife rather than be around the, as he put it “special people”. I agreed, not because of how they treated me while trying to figure out seating but because they were sweating away in the sweltering train and all smelling really bad, I couldn’t imagine sleeping in that room with them.
The rest of the transit to Kherson was actually quite pleasant. I sat with the elderly couple, whose names I forget and I feel really badly about that, and the husband filled me in on all sorts of history facts and the trains and Ukraine and Russia. One interesting thing he was telling me was that certain old tracks in eastern Ukraine require the train to pull into a station, have the cart taken off the frame and attached to a new frame before continuing on. Apparently the train tracks in Russia are a different dimension than the rest of Europe. I found some more information about the different train track widths but I couldn’t find any articles on switching the cars on to different frames. During the entire trip the train would stop at each station for a good half hour as we waited the the train coming in the opposite direction the pass since there was only one track. This meant the only cooling breeze to keep the heat down would stop and it would become a sweltering heat box again. Over night the loud speakers of the train stations would wake me up over and over making these stops really annoying. But it also gave time for the husband to tell me the history of the area, what soviet industry or military buildings used to be around back when he was a kid and what the stop used to be for back then instead of just picking up passengers now. It was quite the educational travel.
In the evening it was tea time and although I brought with me some snacks for the trip it was nothing like the rest of passengers, the elderly couple I was sharing the room with in particular. They pulled out all sorts of biscuits and fruits and other food and set themselves up a meal, of which they offered me a piece of every single thing they pulled out. The biscuits I could not escape, they would not have me declining trying them out, which happened to be half a dozen of each type, tea biscuit, wafer, some sort of wheat cracker, etc. There was a story for each of these as well, eating them as kids, or they were a local favourite or only made in Ukraine, it was a great experience taking this night train, meeting this couple and sitting and taking part in them sharing their food and telling their the histories. In the morning the man gave me a piece of newspaper with his name and number on it and told me if I ever needed any help to call him, I wish I had the thought to write it down in my book as I lost it and now I have this wonderful story of him and his wife without their names. What ever your name is, thank you for your help and stories and sharing your biscuits, it made the long uncomfortable train ride a great unforgettable one!
Staying With Bogdan
Bogdan was waiting for me when the train got into the station and after meeting each other we were off to catch a bus back to his place. I was his first guest, after all I did send him a message only 2 days after the Matsurfing post was out, and although they have had other guests to the club I would be the first being hosted by him. Bogdan’s English was pretty good and although he’s a bit quiet, maybe even shy, he was a great host and we talked about all sorts of things the whole time. He would ask about how I promote my trip online and how to better promote the club since it’s still relatively new, or how I was able to sort out being able to travel as I do. As Ukraine was in a heat wave when I showed up we hung out inside quite a bit, both being pale skinned people that burn easily, so we had a lot of time to chat about all sorts of topics. On the few times it was safe enough to go outside and not catch fire he showed me around the town, parks and waterfront. It was a great experience being in Kherson, even on the days we did little else but sit on our computers and talk. I was away from the city, away from all the tourists and tourist hot spots. When we did walk around town is was the real Ukraine I was seeing, with old soviet era buildings, not dressed up to sell to tourists. The people were different too. For one very few of them spoke English so I was grateful to have Bogdan around to help me, and the attitude was different too, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It was one of the few spots I’ve been to that I felt I really got to experience living there.
One day Bogdan and friends of his and I took the train out of town to an area that apparently used to be a desert is is now a huge forest. After walking for half an hour or more we came to these lakes that the locals believe have magically properties. the train ride itself was an interesting adventure. It’s an hour or so to get out to this field and throughout the train ride women laden with baskets full of fruits and vegetables and random trinkets they were selling would be walking up and down the train cars. At some point we saw one woman walk by arms full with bushels of vegetables then come back 15 minutes later now with jars of honey she had recently acquired. We could only guessed she traded the vegetables for the honey she was now trying to sell. It was an interesting market culture to see and made the long boring train ride a lot more entertaining. It was a grey day when we got to lakes, with the sun poking out from behind rain clouds all day, but it was nice enough to go have a refreshing swim in the salt lakes and cover ourselves in the mud. The lakes are said to have healing powers and truth be known I had a planters wart starting on my foot that miraculously vanished after this swim!
Another day Bogdan brought me over to ‘granny’s house’ for supper. Supper was, as I was told, going to be Varenyky, Ukrainian dumplings (he Ukrainian version of pirogi) homemade by Granny herself. Supper actually ended up being three courses of so much food I had to bring some back to Bogdan’s because I couldn’t eat it all. A salad to get things started then fried ground chicken patties and sliced potatoes which in itself was meal, then finally the Verenyky which was piled high on a plate for me. After all this Bogdan asked if I wanted pancakes, pancakes?! It ends up there are many typos of pancakes and in Ukraine they make them as a dessert. I had to pass on them I was so full, which meant he brought a bunch home with us. I like to eat as much as the next Panda but trust me, you will never have an appetite big enough to take on a Ukrainian grandmother’s cooking, she will tap you out every time. It was great meeting Bogdan, thank you for taking me in and showing me around and having Granny feed me, until we meet again my friend!
I should also note that all the photos I used of the club training and of us at the lakes were taken by Bodgan who’s let me use them for this article, thanks for the awesome pics dude!
As I said Kherson is a small town so I have limited pictures but here’s some of us walking around through the park and seeing the monuments.
Bogdan took shots of his friend and I covered in the miracle mud at the lakes. locals would come put the mud on their joints and other areas that were bugging them convinced it would fix them, they would even fill up jar with the water and bring it home to use.
As always you and can over to see my Flickr Account where I have more photos from this and all my other visits.
The club Bogdan trains at, Skif BJJ, is one of the most devoted clubs I have met, not because they train all the time or are huge competitors, quite the opposite in fact. It’s because despite being in such a secluded place without anyone to teach them they decided to start a BJJ club and learn mainly as those back in Canada first started, by watching videos and drilling what they see. The power of YouTube is what created this club and the power of the BJJ Community have helped them continue, but it’s their devotion as all white belts to come together and start training and learning the slow and hard way and work together to keep the gym going. One night they asked that I teach them some things, as this was one of my first classes I taught I was still a bit at a lost for putting together a full set of techniques to show them so I was more just winging it and showing how I do certain things that they were asking about, like and Q & A session. We had a great time training together, the club isn’t big enough to have separate classes from kids and adults so everyone trains together in the same class which means one minute I’ll be manhandled by a huge guy and then next I’ll be a climbing toy to one of the kids as he tries to get on my back and attack me with an RNC.
The club trains out of an old community center that they have a room in the top floor of, it’s an old building and when I was there there were a lot of renovations being done but the club had to fix up the room they use themselves. Although I have been in more dive clubs than Skif BJJ they are far from the mural painted flashy gyms you see in the big cities boasting their affiliations or black belt professors, they are a humble club with a humble beginning. They are a group not about flash but technique and although I’m sure they will one day have their gym complete with all new mats and equipment they don’t show up to take selfies and look good, they show up to train Jiu-Jitsu. Added to the fact they accept all visitors and are eager to learn from everyone they are a great place to visit for no nonsense, no ego training. Thank you guys for letting me come train with you, I look forward to watching the club evolve.
Igor and Bogdan
After class one day I managed to make an interview with Bogdan and Igor, talking about how the club got started, how long they’ve been training together and how they keep it going. Igor does everything he can to make ends meet and keep the club open, and it’s the dedication of the rest of the club helping out that makes this club so special and able to run without any senior belts around. Bogdan is new to the sport, only a few months of training and already hooked on Jiu-Jitsu. As he says in the interview, he was a shy person until he got into BJJ and now he’s offering strangers like me to come stay at his place to train with the club. It’s amazing what Jiu-Jitsu has done to these guys in Kherson and a prime example of the interesting people I meet on this amazing odyssey. Thank you both for having me over into your house, gym and Jiu-Jitsu family.
You can view the interview on Panda’s Odyssey YouTube Channel. While you’re there show some love and please like, comment, share and subscribe, thanks!
After an awesome time seeing ‘true’ Ukraine in Kherson away from the big city of Kiev it was time to take a bus off to Moldova where I would be visiting the city of Chisinau.
Until next time,
see you on the mats!
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