Why Not Ukraine?

Posted by on Aug 22, 2013 in Featured, Ukraine | 1 comment

Why Ukraine? We were often posed this common question before embarking on the third and final leg of our trip around the world. During our first few days in Kiev, even local Ukrainians asked us the same thing. Tourism in Ukraine isn’t huge, especially among Americans. Historically, this is probably due to the language barrier and the country itself not being set up for mass tourism. But after recently co-hosting UEFA’s Euro 2012 (huge soccer tournament) with Poland, Ukraine drastically improved its infrastructure. Now, it is a truly navigable, not to mention, affordable country. The west needs to take advantage before it becomes the next new destination in Europe.

Independence Square

Independence Square

My initial interest in Ukraine was two-fold: 1. It was the closest thing to Russia and 2. After volunteering in Asia and Africa, we had originally planned for Ukraine to be our European volunteer location. 

Before our trip began, Russia was one of the top three countries that I was most interested in visiting (behind New Zealand and India). After doing some research, we discovered that Russia would be challenging due to the difficulty in obtaining a visa. It was the hardest and most time-consuming visa process of the roughly forty countries we researched. Add in our country’s current relationship and what that might mean to future travel restrictions and we decided to just let the interest fade. 

Fast-forward a few months and include our desire to volunteer on a third continent and Ukraine came into the picture. However, after weeks of corresponding through a couple of NGOs and volunteer agencies, we ultimately decided to forego officially volunteering in Europe. As we’ve learned through our first five projects, it’s never easy feeling confident about how we or our money will be used. We did not feel comfortable with our Ukraine volunteer options so we ultimately decided to split up those funds among organizations that we know and trust. Although volunteering was out of the picture, Ukraine had piqued our interests. Coupled with its proximity to Russia and its past affiliations with the USSR, Ukraine became my #1 choice in discovering new parts of Europe. I even lucked out and found Oksana, a helpful local that works for a Ukrainian travel company, Active Ukraine, to help us plan our itinerary.  

Andriyivsky Uzviz

Andriyivsky Uzviz

Our entry into Ukraine brought us to Kiev, the country’s capital and most Russian-like destination on our two-week tour. Although we opted out of Russia, it definitely felt like we could have been there at times. Kiev was under Russian rule during the 18th and 19th centuries and became the capital of independent Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Impressively domed churches and other striking architecture is found around almost every corner. Parts of the city resembled pictures I had seen of St. Petersburg and Moscow. And to this day, 90% of Kievans speak Russian. 

St. Sophia's Cathedral

St. Sophia’s Cathedral

One thing that I looked forward to before going and enjoyed it even more when we arrived was the lack of English spoken. To me, part of the excitement of travel is getting outside of my comfort zone. As Americans, we are extremely fortunate to have our native language be used commonly or as a second language in many parts of the world (English was always close by even in Asia and Africa). In Kiev however, there were very few English speakers, next to no helpful signage and a completely different Cyrillic alphabet. It made for more challenging, but more rewarding travel. We had to use hand gestures, numbers, and the occasional “da” or “niet” to get by. The key was to find a young person as they typically did know enough English to help. 

As a major city that changed hands multiple times and was basically destroyed during WWII, Kiev is seemingly modern with an old city feel. Others had described it to us as another old communist-like city. It certainly felt that way driving in from the airport as blocky and basic apartment buildings lined the highway and beyond the Dnieper River. But as we made our way closer to the old city center, our perception immediately changed. It’s many squares, restaurants and cafes, and several outdoor art galleries made some areas feel like Western Europe. Others had a distinct Eastern European feel and the architecture to go along with it. Although rather large and spread out, wide sidewalks and underground crosswalks make Kiev an easy walking city. 

St. Andrew's Church from Andriyivsky Uzviz

St. Andrew’s Church from Andriyivsky Uzviz

Kiev is known for its city parks. Although not as meticulously maintained as other parks we have experienced, there are more than enough to get lost in. In addition to these green areas, we strolled down Andriyivsky Uzviz (a popular cobblestone street filled with street vendors, restaurants and shops) and were enamored by the domed architecture of St. Sophia’s, St. Michael’s and St. Andrew’s churches. We also partook in the widespread street-side beer and ice cream scene. I have never seen beer (or ice cream) so readily available before. No matter what time of day, it was impossible not to spot one of the two being consumed by a local. 

Kat w ice cream on Kreshchatyk St

Kat w ice cream on Kreshchatyk St

Although Ukraine was never really a thought when we first laid out our trip, I’m glad we added it to the itinerary. Kat and I were pleasantly surprised and enjoyed Kiev overall. The city brought European culture with a Russian twist. To some, it may never compare to the ambience and character of other European cities, but if you’re looking for a different experience, I highly suggest Kiev. There’s more to see and learn outside of the typical Western Europe hot spots.  I cannot wait to explore more of this country. And now whenever I’m asked the question, “why Ukraine?”, my response is “why not?

One Comment

  1. Informative commentary! Stay safe and enjoy your birthday! I wonder when and if you’ll get my card. Love, Gram

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