So you’re thinking of taking a trip to Ukraine? Hopefully you’re aware that Ukraine is a developing nation in Eastern Europe, so we won’t have to go into what all that entails.
Ukraine is actually a fascinating and quite lovely travel destination, and if you’re well-prepared you’re in for a fun and life-changing experience.
Here are our top 8 ways to prepare for your trip to Ukraine.
1. Start drinking alcohol regularly- but not too much.
As soon as I arrived to my first post-airport destination, there was an intimidating, chaotic blur of greetings, unintelligible conversations, followed by a meal- predicated with lots of alcohol.
As is customary in Russian culture, each meal at a gathering or big to-do has to start with three shots of vodka. Then you’ll probably have some fruity wine to drink during the meal.
The shots of vodka are the biggest shocker- especially since it’s the pass-out-wastey drug of choice of white girls over here. But the vodka made in Russia (and probably the rest of Europe) is superior to any Smirnoff or Grey Goose. Even homemade vodka gives you a clearer, cleaner buzz with no overwhelming head rush or stomach sickness. Though it still tastes like rubbing alcohol and burns like hell.
I wasn’t much of a drinker before I went, and I handled myself well for that- but it’s always good to be prepared, especially if you’ll be in a… celebratory atmosphere when you go. Wastey-faced during your entire trip actually doesn’t make for a good trip at all. Trust me.
2. Get your Hep C shot.
Hepatitis C is a form of the hepatitis virus passed through contaminated food and presents itself as a nasty stomach bug.
Although I swear I got the vaccine before going to China, my doctor insisted I didn’t at a recent check-up, which might explain the sudden, violent stomach sickness I got on my way home from Ukraine.
Let me recap: one minute I’m sleeping on a bench in the Istanbul airport, the next I’m running from bathroom to bathroom en route to my departure gate, clenching my sphincter with everything I had while simultaneously throwing up every last ounce of food I’d consumed in the past 24 hours.
I could barely stand without puking, and still had 2 major airports to go. I can’t believe they even let me on the plane, but I guess it goes to show how much you can get away with outside of the first world. (More on this story later.)
You never know when uncontrollable nausea and shitting-the-pants situations might arise when you’re traveling, so it’s good to always be prepared.
3. Learn some Russian. Or don’t.
Without an interpreter or guide, I imagine it might be pretty rough going, but I also know that Russian is one of the hardest languages to learn, and the Russians I met certainly didn’t talk any slower with non-native speakers around.
Your other option is to learn some Ukranian, which is just as, if not more, widely spoken than Russian, but probably a lot harder to find learning resources for.
The Russian alphabet is also pretty tricky- because it looks so similar to the latin alphabet, but maybe in a weird font and not spelling any real words. Up to you.
4. Bring appropriate clothing.
I’m sure the winters are cold- very cold. This is why we took our trip in the late summer. We had plenty of warnings over the heat, alledgedly humid heat, but it actually turned out to be lovely. Whether this is due to climate change or unreliable memories, I’m not complaining.
That said- make sure to actually check the forecast for the area around where you’re going. I didn’t when packing for China and it was a huge mistake.
Unless you’re planning on some nightlife, don’t bring any dainty shoes or dressy heels. Even if you don’t plan on doing a lot of walking, the roads and sidewalks are rough. Once you get out of the city center the infrastructure begins to break down a bit and it’s all overgrowth and pothole hell. You don’t have to look ugly, but plan for mud and dirt.
5. Bring some fiber. Or immodium.
I think we take the standardization of toilets in the US for granted, because in a lot of places you can’t ever be sure of what awaits you when you find some place to go. In Ukraine there were western toilets and squat toilets alike in public places, a few western toilets in residences if you were lucky- but mostly outhouses. When trying to get adjusted to some nasty places to have to go, the added disadvantage of an abnormal #2 situation is more than an inconvenience. Do whatever you can to help yourself get in and out as quickly as possible.
I know I mentioned sudden diarrhea in my first point- but despite getting violently ill during international air travel, that little situation was almost a blessing in disguise.
Depending on how your body reacts, you might get the runs or you might just stop pooping. I’m in the latter camp and it’s easy to see how that might be a little annoying, but give it a week and you’ll be begging your insides for a little movement.
And bring travel tissues. For god sakes, bring travel tissue.
6. Know some Ukrainians.
Our visit to Ukraine was a family affair. Nikita’s family, not mine. There were only 3 English speakers I could talk to, but that didn’t make the visit any less enjoyable.
Like any destination, knowing a local unlocks a perspective that transforms even the strangest, most seemingly boring locale into a fascinating experience.
If you can, look for a host family or explore options on Couch Surfing to find receptive hosts who are willing to show you around. Outside of the major cities, Ukraine doesn’t cater to tourists, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.
7. Be open-minded.
The current political situation in Ukraine is tense, complicated and misrepresented by media with competing interests.
As it stands now, political instability began with protests in the capital, Kiev. Motives and factions behind the protests are still disputed, but pro-Russian sentiment “swept the country” and has led to fighting in the far eastern part of the country along the Russian border.
On the outside, it would seem as if the country is polarized by Ukrainians and Russian sympathizers. Factions committing the violence today claim to be “Pro-Russian,” but Ukraine is home to both Ukrainians and ethnic Russians. Both live side-by-side in every city, and most people speak both languages fluently (they sound exactly the same to me). The two cultures bear many similarities, but there are some prejudices. The current conflict is an extreme manifestation, and we spent time with both Ukrainian and Russian family members during our stay.
You can read more about this situation in another post.
(Fyi, family members live far from where the violence is today and are safe.)
8. Go in the summer.
Cold, Siberian tundra comes to mind whenever I think of any former USSR territory. Obviously this is a stupid, culturally insensitive bias, but I know I’m not alone. Gulag paranoia and those fur caps we always see on Russian generals in the movies are what Hollywood has force fed the United States about Russia. Vladimir Putin stirred this up a bit since he’s been on the scene. But this is just a microcosm of an enormous and culturally diverse region.
Despite that, it does get quite cold in the fall and winter months. BUT summer in Ukraine is fabulous and highly recommended.
Ukraine is an extremely fertile region and was known as “the bread basket of the USSR.” Lack of infrastructure and persistent political corruption keep the country in poverty when it would otherwise flourish.
Farming is usually a casual hobby, with most homeowners growing grapes, vegetables and a variety of fruit. All with minimal effort.
At the end of summer and early fall, this bounty is harvested and sold in markets, roadside stands and plucked out of the family garden. Many varieties of plums, raspberries, tomatoes, melons, cabbages are common, with more diversity the more you look.
Sunflowers are also an unofficial cultural symbol, with fields of sunflowers reaching impressive heights by the end of summer. Sunflower seeds are a popular Ukrainian and Russian snack.
Not to be missed.
Overall, Ukraine hasn’t enjoyed a lot of popularity as a vacation travel destination, and it certainly doesn’t at the moment. But under the right circumstances, an open mind and a little preparation, you’re in for a real treat and will most likely be very pleasantly surprised by your stay.