Travel Journal

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Travel Journal

This past summer, I had the incredible opportunity to travel around Ukraine for five weeks in July and August. I’m a Russian Area Studies major at Washington and Lee University and thought this would be a great way to practice Russian and learn more about Ukraine. I originally planned to spend three weeks visiting Kyiv, Lviv, and Odesa, but three weeks turned into five weeks, I traveled around western Ukraine and even visited Moldova for a few days, and by the end of my visit I’d completely fallen in love with the country.

Now, as I’m back at college for my senior year, I find myself constantly thinking about my experiences in Ukraine. To give a break to my roommates and classmates who hear me say, “When I was in Ukraine…” more times a day than I’d care to admit, I decided to write down some reflections. Here are my biggest takeaways from this summer:

Ukraine is a really cool country

I mean this in many ways: the people, the culture, the architecture, the nightlife, the abundance of things to do—I found myself thinking about how cool everything was as soon as I arrived in Ukraine. On the plane ride over, I  listened to a Freakonomics podcast discussing a study done on differences between “tight” and “loose” cultures – tight cultures being those with many strong social norms and a low tolerance of deviant behavior, and loose
cultures defined by weak social norms and a high tolerance of deviant behavior – and was surprised to learn that Ukraine had the “loosest” culture of all 33 countries studied. Walking around Kyiv, I quickly began to understand why: Ukrainian street style is very hip and modern, especially among the younger generation, who wear lots of crop tops, trendy brands, chunky sneakers, and fanny packs slung across their chest. It seemed like almost everyone had tattoos, many people had piercings, and some even had brightly colored dyed hair. There was very much a “do your own thing” vibe which, combined with the traditional clothing I saw more of around Independence Day, made for a very cool expression of the trendy modernity and folk culture that gives Ukraine its diverse charm.

This unique blend of old and new is present in most aspects of Ukrainian society, with modern and historic buildings often situated right next to each other, or even blended together, like futuristic or “experimental” bars located within a Baroque-style building dating back centuries. This characteristic “Ukrainian Baroque” architecture dominates in big cities like Kyiv, with picturesque cathedrals like St. Sofia’s impossible to miss and a stunning exhibition of Ukraine’s incredible history. Whether you’re a history buff, a travel enthusiast, or just looking for a fun vacation, you can’t go wrong with Ukraine.

Eastern European hospitality

One of my favorite parts of traveling around Ukraine was the incredible hospitality that I was met with. I go to college in a small town in Virginia, so I’m used to southern hospitality, but I wasn’t expecting to be treated with such kindness by strangers in another country.

While I was in Odesa, a few days before I was supposed to fly back home to Tampa, my Russian tutor invited me to visit her in Chisinau. I was already bemoaning my coming departure, and this was the final push I needed to extend my stay by two more weeks. I booked a last-minute bus to Chisinau and spent five days in Moldova. My tutor gave me the full tour experience: we went to upscale restaurants and tiny shops, wine cellars, parks, museums, theaters—the whole nine yards.

On the bus ride back to Odesa, I had a hilarious, surreal experience that epitomized hospitality. I boarded the bus at 6am, bleary-eyed and dreading the five-hour ride. I sat next to an older woman—a real babushka. We struck up a conversation, and when I told her this was my first time traveling alone, the babushka’s protective instincts kicked in: she gave me her number, address, and tips for staying safe. After a few hours, I mentioned that I regretted not eating breakfast or bringing more than a bag of chips with me. My interim babushka immediately whipped out a pork cutlet and a tomato. Dumfounded, I tried to refuse. First, I couldn’t take this poor woman’s food! Second, I had no idea where the cutlet came from, and I hadn’t washed my hands in a while...

But my new babushka insisted, and I didn’t want to offend her, so I cast off my sanitary anxieties and ate the cutlet. It was very good. Neither of us had bread, so we shared my chips with our cutlets. I tried to convince her I was full and didn’t need the tomato, but my babushka was not to be fooled. “Eat it like an apple!” she directed. I ate the tomato whole, juice spraying everywhere. The people around me joked that I was getting the true Eastern European experience.

When we reached Odesa, my new babushka covered me in kisses, and we wished each other the best. I was overwhelmed by her kindness, and I was repeatedly met with such love and generosity during the rest of my trip while I stayed with two Ukrainian families. First, one of the other US-Ukraine Foundation interns invited me to stay with her family in western Ukraine. I spent five days with their family, who graciously took me to Zakarpattia to visit their extended family, who welcomed me into their house with open arms and lots of food. Then, Oksana (USUF’s Project Director) kindly opened her home to me for the last week that I was in Ukraine. Oksana, her daughters, and their friends went out of their way to make me feel at home, giving me personal tours of Kyiv, showing me their favorite restaurants and coffee shops, and taking me to their church. The kindness extended to me by so many people that I met during the five weeks in Ukraine and Moldova made my trip unforgettable.

The culinary scene alone is worth a visit

I clearly didn’t do my research on Ukraine’s culinary scene before flying to Kyiv because I was blown away by how good the food was. It seems like every type of cuisine, from Italian to Chinese to Mediterranean to traditional Ukrainian, can be found in the big cities. There are shawarma food carts and fast food-style halal restaurants scattered throughout Ukraine (spoiler: the shawarma is amazing). I saw an advertisement for a new authentic Mexican restaurant opening soon in Kyiv, with a cheeky comparison of the “real stuff” to “American Mexican food” on the banner. The only meal I didn’t love was the hamburger I got at a restaurant that I think was trying to imitate Hooters, but I didn’t blame them; no one does burgers like America. I discovered in Ukraine how much I love Georgian cuisine (khachapuri is unbelievable), and I still dream about Crimean Tatar food. I ate at different Crimean Tatar restaurants around Ukraine (in Kyiv, I went to Musafir several times), and each one was decorated beautifully and featured a diverse menu of delicious food in an authentic representation of Crimean Tatar culture. Of course, the traditional Ukrainian dishes – borscht, vareniky, potato pancakes – are a necessity if you want the authentic Ukraine experience as well a new favorite meal.

It's very easy to get around

I expected to have to speak Russian everywhere I went, but I noticed that most people in the service industry – waiters, Airbnb hosts, hotel clerks – spoke English, menus were always available in English, and signs were sometimes in English. I realized that Ukraine would be a great tourist destination even for someone who doesn’t speak Russian or Ukrainian as the service industry is already oriented toward English speakers. And, when all else fails, Google Translate makes for a dependable travel companion.

You can walk almost everywhere in the big cities, and one of my favorite parts about Kyiv was the underground crosswalks. When I didn’t feel like walking, I
took the (very easy to use) metro or used Uber. To get across the country, I rode on an overnight train twice. The first time, I booked all four beds in a second-class coupe, so I had the room to myself and could lock the door (this was my first time traveling alone and I wanted to be extra safe!). The second time, I booked a bed in a luxe compartment, which ended up being pretty comfortable. Though not the nicest (these are, after all, old trains in a post-Soviet country), I found the train to be a low-stress, relaxing (and kind of fun!) option that provides both a cheap bed for a night and the full Eastern European experience.

A note on safety

For the first three weeks in Ukraine, I was with three other friends from my Russian class. A few days before we were supposed to leave, I just couldn’t accept that my trip was coming to an end, so I changed my flight to leave two weeks later. When my friends left, I found myself in a completely new situation and, as a 20-year-old woman traveling alone for the first time, was very worried about personal safety. My most recent travel experience was in Morocco, where I did not feel particularly safe: I was constantly cat-called, there seemed to be no sense of personal space, and I was regularly warned to always hold my purse close to me unless I wanted to be pickpocketed.

Ukraine could not have felt more different; everyone kept their distance, men did not catcall or grab at me, and I never felt like I was going to be pickpocketed. In general, everyone was courteous and respectful. I’d heard that chivalry is still a big part of Ukrainian culture, and I noticed this when men would invariably offer up their seat on the metro as soon as an older lady or a pregnant woman got on. When boarding or getting off a train or plane, a man nearby would usually offer to help with my luggage, then move on without doing anything creepy. I was pleasantly surprised by my experience traveling alone.

Ukraine is a hidden gem!

Traveling around Ukraine this summer
was an incredible
experience that profoundly impacted my understanding of myself and the world. I rode a train for the first time, went to a traditional banya, learned a lot of history, picked up some Ukrainian phrases, visited monasteries, went to the ballet, floated in a salty lake, survived a Ukrainian water park, made a lot of friends, translated for tourists I met, and learned to appreciate the minimalist lifestyle while I lived out of a suitcase for five weeks. Because this was such a formative experience for me, I can’t stop talking it about it and I can’t recommend it enough to others looking to discover more about themselves and the world. Whether you want to see mountains, lakes, the Black Sea, bustling cities or the rural countryside, Ukraine offers a unique experience to travellers of all types. With a cool blend of old and new, east and west, traditional and unconventional, there is an endless number of sights to see and things to do in Ukraine. I can’t wait to get back, and I hope more people get to discover the beauty of the country.