Monday, 24 December 2012

Ukraine - A Hidden Gem in Europe

Since leaving Moscow I have reverted back to my role as tourist. And what more unlikely place to go next than to Ukraine, right? When you think about Ukraine what do you think of... is it more like Russia? Or Europe? Is it even in Europe? What's so special about it anyway???

These are questions I asked myself upon my arrival in Kiev. I literally had no ideas or opinions about this country and didn't know a single soul who had been there. And it's never in the news. During the Kiev walking tour when the guide began talking about the Chernobyl disaster, I stupidly interrupted, asking "but isn't Chernobyl in Russia?"

This is the ridiculous level at which I underestimated this country. It is also the ridiculous level at which it impressed and exceeded my expectations. I was lucky to meet many locals and was able to learn a lot about Ukraine. Some of them also kept me well fed, legitimizing a comment made by someone on my train from Moscow to Kiev: "in Ukraine you will never go hungry."
Maidan Nezelezhnosti - the main square in Kiev
Ukraine was there before Russia
Ukraine may have lived in Russia's shadow for much of the past century, but Ukraine was actually the birthplace of Russian culture. Moscow was founded by a Ukrainian, Yuri Dolgorukiy, who is now buried in the famous Lavra Monastery in Kiev. Much of Russia's culture also originated in Ukraine. Russian's famous food is borsch soup and they also have a famous candy called korovka. But both of these originated in Ukraine.

Today Ukraine's linguistics are split between Ukrainian, mainly in the west, and Russian, mainly in the east and in the south, in the Crimean Peninsula. The vocabularies differ by about 25%. Most native Ukrainian speakers know Russian but not the other way around. Kiev, the capital city consisting of about four million people, is also the most bilingual.
Kiev claims to be the most romantic city in the world. They also love cats. 

Recent History
Unfortunately, the past century has not been kind to Ukraine. WWII is called the Great Patriotic War by ex-USSR countries and only encompasses the time of Soviet conflict with Germany. Ukraine was a major battleground and was under Nazi occupation for several years. Most of Kiev was flattened, but not just by the Nazis. The Soviets destroyed Kiev's main street, Kreschatyk, to prevent the Nazis from having it.

Stalin, probably the worst dictator in history, targeted Ukrainians in order to squash potential uprisings. He stripped them of their lands, and starved them on three different occasions during his regime. During the Stalin era, famines killed up to 10 million people, mostly Ukrainian. He also outlawed religion and blew up many churches and cathedrals in Ukraine.
St. Michael's Cathedral. Blown up during Stalin era. Rebuilt in 1989. 
At 01:23 on April 6, 1986 (I think!) the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, not far from Kiev, experienced a meltdown, causing an explosion with the force of 100 of the atom bombs which hit Nagasaki. Many brave people have died or risked their lives in the following months and years, bringing the reactor under control, then contributing to the cleanup of radioactive contamination. This tragic event serves as a reminder not to let such a grave disaster ever be repeated.

Grab Bag
Ukrainians invented the art of painting eggs. But while they paint them during Easter, they don't hide them for children to find. That only happens in North America.

Rich and lonely men come here to find a bride (what are you looking at me for?). There was even an advertisement for a bride service on my tourist map. I heard stories about men paying for messaging services to would-be brides, then coming to Ukraine only for the woman to never show up. While this is not something to boast about, it at least shows that the world thinks its women are beautiful.

Bomb shelters were built in Kiev starting in the early years of the Cold War. Today they serve as one of the deepest subways in the world.

Single women occasionally get together and participate in fun and games to determine their future husband. One such ridiculous game is to carry water in your mouth from one house to another. Along the way, men try to make you laugh and spit out the water. Then you have to mix your water into some kind of porridge. A dog then chooses which porridge to eat, and if your porridge is eaten you will be the next to marry.


Ukraine may be overlooked in North America as a travel destination but definitely not by Europeans. It has a rich history, proud people, and is tucked away in truly eastern Europe sitting by the Black Sea, making it an awesome summer destination. For tourists, it is relatively easy to enter the country and everything is cheap.

If you visit Ukraine, come in the spring, when the hazelnut trees bloom in magnificent colours and fill the city with its aroma.

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