I wrote about roads yesterday. What I saw today in the tram may well be an indication that Ukrainian roads will never get fixed. Anyway, here is what I found from the conversations with my friends and following my own observations.
“Bargain hunting” in public transportation
As I was taking my tram ride to the office today I noticed that the lady that sells tickets in the tram collects money from people but doesn’t give the tickets to everyone. Some passengers don’t get the tickets but still stay on the tram. I started to dig into this and I found that the tickets controller will typically let you pay less than the nominal fare. Since they don’t give you the tickets, the partial fare is unaccounted for and hence pocketed by the ticket controller.
There are officers whose job is to go from tram to tram and make sure all passengers have tickets. Somehow ticket controllers always know when (at what stop) the officer may enter the tram. When you pay the partial fare they will ask you how far you are going and if they think the tram may be inspected they will tell you about it.
I am not sure how exactly accounting works at the city services but I am sure part of the ticket sales goes towards city budget and black sales like these directly affect the city income.
Local supermarkets and grocery stores
As much as inefficient and corrupt the government is, as much efficient and streamlined private businesses are. The look at local stores proves my point. All supermarkets built recently are designed and operate by western standards with the only exception, the price you see is the price you pay at checkout and the plastic bags are not free.
Overall the products selection is amazing and the prices are very competitive. Very often you can find similar products made in Ukraine or Russia at a fraction of the price you would see for a western brand. Everything imported from China and other Asian countries is also pretty inexpensive. I was buying an internal fax modem for a PC yesterday at the local store and prices ranged from $10 to $15.
The picture changes when you try to buy something imported from the West. My favorite White Castle Brown Ale was $2 a bottle while you can get a quality Ukrainian beer for just under 50 cents. Here is a table with prices on other more popular products, converted to American currency.
- Milk — $2 / gallon
- Chicken — $1-1.5 / lb
- Beef/pork — 2.5-3 / lb
- Fish — $2 / lb
- Eggs — $0.5-1 / dozen
- Bread — $0.5-$1.2
Prices on fruits and vegetables vary with the season. Right now fresh tomatoes are $0.7 / lb and cucumbers are $0.2 / lb. Many supermarkets issue membership cards that give you a small discount on all or some merchandise. The discount is around 1-3% and is not worth the hassle if you just came for a few weeks.
Internet access and phone calls to the US
I am writing this blog at my friend’s office. They get internet via DSL line. Unlimited access is from $20 and up depending on the connection speed. Everyone can have dial-up at home by calling 7777777 in Kharkiv. The access charge is the usual per minute tariff UkrTelecom charges all residents (around $0.01 per minute).
Compared to my last visit 3 years ago the phone service has improved a lot. Almost all of the equipment is upgraded and the quality of line is very good. I connected at 40 kbps last night and was able to Skype out to a number in the US. This is an excellent option for your calls back to the US on the cheap. The price for a call like this will be $0.01/minute to the local telco, $0.021/minute what Skype charges, plus a small initiation fee ($0.039 right now) from Skype. The usual rate for a call from Ukraine to the US using a land-line phone is $0.39 / minute during day time and $0.29 / minute after 6pm and on the weekend.
I was able to do a teleconferencing call using the DSL line in my office with no significant distortion to the video quality. The situation is dramatically different in smaller cities/towns. The equipment and lines can be more than 50 years old and you get a lot of interference with your call. Modem connections are slow and often break.
This is it for today. Tomorrow will be entertainment and restaurants. Till next time!