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Why Ukraine should be on your travel radar

“Why on Earth should I visit Ukraine?” According to Elizabeth Knight, who lived there as Peace Corps Volunteer from 2003 to 2005 (as did this author), “[You should go] because it’s a culture that can’t be replicated in a place that’s actually rather visitor receptive.” Yet Americans aren’t exactly arriving in droves. Search for “Ukraine” on the Internet and you’re more likely to come across marriage agency websites than information about the country’s wealth of culture, history, and natural beauty.

From my own experiences living there, as well as visiting several times, I can attest that Ukraine is indeed a special place to see. Not only does it have ancient castles, gold-domed churches, and historic places like Yalta, but it’s home to some of the world’s richest hospitality and vibrant cultural traditions. This is a place where three-day village weddings still exist and where national dress can be seen on people, as opposed to hanging in closets. That’s why going there now, before it gets “discovered,” promises to be a rewarding experience. Plus, it’s easier than you think.

Why go?

For starters, there’s no longer a visa required for U.S. citizens wishing to visit for fewer than 90 days. The visa regulation was dropped in 2005 when Ukraine hosted Eurovision (the spectacular pan-Europe song contest, which puts American Idol to shame), partially in the hope that it would drive up tourism and partially to bolster its post-Orange Revolution reputation. So if you’re itching to see an authentic part of the former USSR but don’t want the hassle of dealing with the Russian or Belarussian embassies, Ukraine is the way to go.

Direct flights from New York and Toronto are available on Ukraine’s national carrier, Aerosvit. I’ve flown with them a few times, and each time has been more enjoyable (not to mention shorter) than flying via Frankfurt with United or Northwest. If you don’t want all-you-can drink vodka offered as your complimentary beverage, Delta started direct flights to Kyiv from New York in the summer of 2006. Expect to pay between $500 and $1,300 round-trip, depending on the time of year. (Summer is the most expensive.)

In terms of value for your money, Ukraine is a steal. While familiar Western hotel chains (a new Radisson SAS opened in Kyiv last year) tend to be pricey (expect to pay $400 per night or even more). You can snag a top-quality, centrally located apartment for a fraction of the price. A good place to start your search is online; I’ve used apartment.com.ua in the past and have always had good results. Expect to pay around $100 per night for a two-bedroom apartment.

Restaurants can be expensive, but only if you eat at the kinds of places frequented by the BMW-driving oligarchs or at the always-packed TGI Fridays. Eat like the locals do, at little cafes and from street vendors, and no meal will set you back more than fifteen dollars (a fraction of that outside Kyiv). It’ll also be much tastier. Make sure to sample varenyky (similar to ravioli but stuffed with potatoes or cheese), borshch (the national Ukrainian dish), and of course salo (smoked pig fat). Salo is to Ukrainians what chocolate is to the Swiss, although the latter is arguably better for you. It’s actually quite good washed down with an ice cold shot of Ukrainian honey-pepper vodka. Plus, for the truly adventurous, you can even find chocolate-covered salo, something I’ve never tried but seen featured on the menu at Kyiv’s Tsarkoye Selo for about $2.50.

Historically speaking, Ukraine’s about as old as countries come. The Greeks made it as far north as the Crimean peninsula, leaving behind one of the lesser-known ruin sites, Chersonesos. Home to the original Kyiv Rus, a state which splintered to become Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, many claim that orthodoxy was born on Kyiv’s hills. Turkish and Polish invaders built beautiful castles in the western part of the country as they attempted to expand their respective territories. And more recently, Europe’s map was carved up by Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the close of World War II in Yalta. With regards to the war, there are actually quite a few interesting sites. The partisan catacombs under Odessa are amazing, and those interested in Jewish history won’t want to miss solemn Babi Yar, which pays tribute to the 35,000 executed there.

Ukraine is also arguably more authentic than the rest of the EU. Sure, in Kyiv you’ll find McDonald’s and the requisite expatriate Irish bars, but you’ll also find babushki (old women, typically grandmothers) selling apples to make ends meet in the metro (although recent laws have cracked down on this). Venture out of the capital, and it gets even more real. The Carpathian Mountains, home to the Hutsul people, are markedly devoid of anything that hints of Western commercialism. Travelers will find serene, isolated hiking trails in the summer, and cheap, ungroomed skiing in the winter. You’ll also find a nascent green tourism industry, bent on exposing the area’s remarkable ecology to the outside world. Homestays, including scrumptious home-cooked meals, are often part of the packages, and these tours make it easier for non-Ukrainian or Russian-speaking visitors to get the most out of their vacation.

Tips to consider

If you do decide to head to Ukraine, you’ll want to be prepared. So in addition to getting a good guidebook (the pickings are admittedly slim; but I think Lonely Planet’s newest version is actually pretty good) you’ll want to consider the following:

  • Get a decent Ukrainian or Russian phrase book, and take the time to familiarize yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet. I promise, it’s not as scary as it looks. In fact, it’s almost entirely phonetic (unlike English). Most directional signs are only posted in Ukrainian, so knowing how to sound out words will come in handy.
  • Practice being patient. Independent travel in Ukraine isn’t easy like in the West. The trains are old, slow, and creaky, and buses are jam-packed and uncomfortable. The experience of buying train tickets is also less than ideal. You can wait for an hour in the “Foreign Ticket” line (the only line where someone might speak English) at the Kyiv train station, only to reach the window and have the attendant go on “technical break.” So think about booking a package tour in Ukraine that includes transportation and accommodations. East West Tours offers land-only “Kyiv to L’viv” tours starting at $650 per person, while the slightly more high-end travel company Mir Corporation offers a “Ukraine Unveiled: From the Carpathians to the Crimea” land-only tour for $4,495 for four to 16 travelers, with single supplements costing $895.
  • Keep your wits about you. As in many European cities, petty theft is common, especially on the metro.
  • Know how to pay. Credit cards are accepted in most up-market shops and restaurants in Kyiv and other big cities. However, the rest of the country works on a cash economy. Travelers cheques are nearly impossible to cash, and if you do find a bank willing to do it, be prepared to pay high commission fees. A better bet is to bring some hard currency with you, and withdraw the rest from ATMs. To be safe, only use ATMs located at official banks. Never change money on the black market.
  • Visit during the summer to take advantage of the glorious warm weather, as well as the country’s many outdoor concerts and festivals. Winter is a less ideal time to go due to cold, damp, and gray weather, unless of course you’re interested in skiing in the Carpathians. Then it’s perfect. Just dress warmly.

Most importantly, bring your sense of adventure. You might see opulent cathedrals but also village outhouses. No doubt, Ukraine is a country going through a transition and you might encounter the occasional bump. But those contemplating a visit to Ukraine should also remember that for every bump there awaits a beautiful castle, hot bowl of borshch, or simple toast: “Budmo!”

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