When did you first come to Kyiv/Ukraine and what first brought you here?
I came in 1992 with a film crew, and we started in a dacha on the outskirts of Kyiv in a forest. It was wonderful. It used to be the private property of one of the presidents of the USSR. It had full heating and full-size English snooker rooms. It even had a Lenin statue in the grounds. I was here to do a film for the Discovery channel about Ukraine. I had various experts with me – telecoms, aviation etc, because they wanted to look at the business side, as well as tourism. So we went from Kyiv to Lviv covering all the hunting lodges on the way. Then we went to Odesa and Crimea, where we stayed in Gorbachev’s ex-dacha. We went to the Massandra winery, because at that point they were in the Guinness Book of Records as having the biggest wine library in the world.
What were your first impressions of the country, given that you came just after independence?
I came here two or three times during that period. Kyiv was great, but getting out into the countryside was a bit remote. They hadn’t seen many foreigners at all, especially those that spoke a funny language. I thought the scenery was magnificent, and some of these hunting lodges around the lakes were incredible. I loved it. The drive was fantastic, but the roads were in a bad condition, and if anything I think they’ve got worse over time. Crimea was great too, a real sense of history. I went down to Sevastopil, to the fleet, and they made me an honourary Russian Major on board the aircraft carrier ‘Moscow’. They took the whole crew on a helicopter around the base and we got to film it all, including the nuclear submarines. A year before we’d have probably got shot for being there. We had a private lunch with the Admiral and the Captain. I think they were trying to see who could get each other drunk the quickest.
The Admiral at one point asked me if it was alright if the Captain gave me a kiss. I obliged – ‘when in Rome’. Afterwards we flew back to Kyiv, but Boryspil was closed at that time of night, so we landed at some other airport, where there were thousands of Aeroflot planes all over the runway. The bus we went in around Ukraine was like a railway carriage on wheels, but they loaded it up with strawberry vodka every morning, so it wasn’t too bad.
And the people?
A lot of foreigners I think get the wrong idea. The accent is quite hard, and it can sometimes sound like they’re shouting, either at others or at you. They’re not, and I’ve always found Ukrainians to be tremendously hospitable.
You’re in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most travelled man. How did it happen?
I didn’t do it on purpose. I was working for a company that specialised in the international transfer of technology and they licensed people to manufacture goods, rather than import them. So my job took me to many third world or developing nations. I was like a little Sputnik. I was crossing the Atlantic two or three times a week. Once I crossed it three times in a day, to get a contract signed. Concorde allowed for that. It meant that I could be in New York by morning and Nairobi by evening, having gone via London. That plane had the wow factor. I flew on its first return voyage in 1976, and it continued to amaze me, every flight I made. It made my life much easier. My first commercial flight across the Atlantic took me 18 hours in the late 50s, but Concorde cut it down to less than 3 hours in the 80s.
When did you start flying transatlantic?
I started flying transatlantic in 1958 and I’m still doing it today. In 1983 somebody noticed I’d done 150 flights on Concorde and British Airways notified an executive travel magazine who came to do some photos. Then Guinness came, spoke to the airline and said they’d like to put me in as the most travelled passenger. So I’ve been the world’s most travelled passenger officially since 1983.
Do you not get bored?
No, I actually like airports. I know my way around most, and I have a sequence. I always check in early, and these days I usually get to go to the lounge. I do miss Concorde though. It last flew in 2003. What other plane could fly supersonic for 4 hours whilst serving Dom Perignon to 100 people?
With all these thousands of miles of travelling, have you had any scary moments?
Well, I was once on a flight with an attempted hijacking. It was London to Hamburg, about 25-30 years ago. We landed, and they said we were waiting for a gate, but I could see the gate from miles away. Suddenly we were surrounded by tanks and troops. They came on board and took two guys off with guns. I was meant to be meeting my wife that night, and when I turned up late and told her what happened, she didn’t believe me – until she read it in the paper the next morning. We never found out who it was or what they were after. I’ve also had a crash landing, when we had to land without the wheels. Immediately after that flight I got on another flight to New York. It was circling for about an hour. I asked them what the problem was and they said it was a minor electrical fault. When I challenged them, they admitted they suspected a bomb on board. Fortunately it turned out to be a false alarm. One time I missed my flight to Singapore and my regular seat was taken by another chap. Behind him was a lady in a wheelchair, who produced a knife in the air and stabbed him in the head. It missed his brain by about 2mm, but he was still in a very bad way.
Have you joined the mile high club?
I’ve joined the 12-mile high club. Concorde used to be fitted with accordion doors, and all the film stars used to go in there. You could see what was going on because the doors were shaking back and forth. They used to call it the supersonic bang. The Concorde days were brilliant. It was like an executive lunch club. You’d get on, have lunch, have a chat and get off. I spoke to David Frost, Johnny Cash, Cassius Clay – the stars of the day. And either side of it, you’d often have to sit in a London traffic jam and a New York traffic jam, both in the morning of the same day.
You mentioned that you first came to Ukraine in 1992. When did you settle here?
I came back in 2005, after I met a delightful young lady. I wanted to come back earlier, but I was too busy unfortunately. I worked with Virgin and also some African airlines. I was asked to come back to write for a magazine, but my wife was the main reason. I live in Komsomolsk, a beautiful little town on the Dnipro known for its iron ore. It’s 4.5 hours south of here by car, and the drive through the forests and the cornfields is spectacular.
It’s interesting that as the world’s most travelled man, you’ve chosen Ukraine as your home.
I have a few favourite places. Top of my list is Kenya. It’s on the equator, yet it has snow-covered mountains. It’s got huge lakes, vast plains, the Masai Mara and the sea. It’s got good food, and it’s just a great place. Next on the list is the Seychelles, because with so many islands, you could never be on a crowded beach, and they’re the best beaches on earth. After those two, it’s Ukraine, for the scenery (both feminine and actual), the food, the culture and folklore. I think it’s brilliant.
You’re now the ambassador for Ukraine International Airlines, isn’t that right?
Yes. When I flew with them, I was really impressed. I think the attitude of those who work on the flight starts at the top, and I’ve met the senior leaders and I like them. I also like the fact a lot of staff have been with the company a while, so it gives a good continuity. My idea now is to have a Fear of Flying school here. There are lots of people who are scared of flying, and that could help them. I also want to do route checks.
What are your favourite things to do when you’re in Kyiv?
I love the restaurants here, and I have particular favourites of course. These days I’m involved with the Euro 2012 build-up. But apart from that, I’m just a big fan of the city. I think it’s a far better tourist destination than Moscow, and I think the river’s beautiful too, perhaps even better than Prague. The churches too are stunning. Also if you get down to the heart of Ukrainian hospitality, the vodka has to be the best.