Many people that have never been to Ukraine have preconceived notions of what it is like there. I too had some from what I had watched on the news or heard from others. Typical questions are “Is Ukraine safe? Is it cheap? Are Ukrainians friendly? What should I expect?” After speaking with Ukrainians that I met online, I found that their perception was much different than those found in the west. For the most part, they said that Ukraine was safe, but the economy has made it very hard to make enough money to live. Many are only partially employed and have been forced to relocate or move back with their parents or grandparents to survive.
In the fall of 2016, I decided to visit this country and find out for myself. In my preparations, I heard “are you sure you want to go there” and “be careful” many times from friends and family. Here is what I found.
Is Ukraine safe?
There is an ongoing conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists that began in 2014 in the territory of Crimea when pro-Russian and Russian forces took over the region. There were a lot of violent protests in the capital city of Kiev at this time making tourism to Ukraine unsafe.
The conflict in Crimea was followed by pro-Russian demonstrations in the Donbass area of east Ukraine. These protests resulted in armed conflict in which the Russian military crossed the border helping the separatists defeat the Ukrainian forces.
As of my trip in the fall of 2016, there was still a lot of tension in these occupied areas. Some of the Ukrainians I spoke to warned me not to travel to these regions as they were not safe for foreigners. I took their advice and visited the capital city of Kiev and the second largest city Kharkiv in east Ukraine.
In all the countries I have visited I have never wanted to stick out and look like a foreigner. To me, it makes you more of a target to being sold something you don’t need, overcharged or robbed. For this reason, I never wear jewellery, dress very simple and try not to carry bags. Normally these adjustments are enough, but being of Indian descent can sometimes clearly reveal that I’m not a local. In Ukraine, this was the case, so I felt the need to be more careful.
After a day in Kiev, I felt quite safe. It was like any other big city. There were areas that you shouldn’t walk through at night, and you should always keep your money, cell phone, and other valuables in a safe place. While there I did feel a lower kind of energy. Maybe it was due to the ongoing conflict or due to the weak economy or a combination of the two.
After Kiev, I travelled by train to Kharkiv in east Ukraine. I was more concerned about going there as it was closer to the areas of conflict. I was pleasantly surprised after arriving that it was mostly a city of universities and students. Out of a population of 1.2 million people, 400,000 are international students, many from India, which made it easy for me to blend in. I have to say that I felt safer Kharkiv than in any other place in Ukraine.
Is Ukraine cheap?
Out of all the developed countries I’ve visited, Ukraine is by far the cheapest. The cost of food, drink and accommodations made for a very comfortable stay. I was able to eat out every day and not break the bank. If you were to decide to do groceries and eat in, you could easily live on $5/day. I was able to rent a renovated furnished apartment near the centre for $500/month, cell phone service with data was $5/month, and the Ukrainian beer was $1 for a 2-litre bottle! Transportation was also relatively economical, but I learned quickly to negotiate the fare with taxis before the trip as they would all over charge given the opportunity.
Are Ukrainians friendly?
Upon first walking the streets of Kiev, I noticed one thing. No one smiled. A local friend explained that the reason was partly due to the culture and the worry that most have due to the financial climate in the country. He said if a Ukrainian that you don’t know smiles at you, they must be wanting to sell or steal something from you. This perception was just from one person, and I did not believe it to be entirely accurate for everyone. Ukrainians did smile, however, every time I walked with my dog, Willie, but he’s something special and can make just about anyone smile. In a short amount of time, he made it possible meet a lot of locals, get past the outer shell and feel their warmth and friendliness inside. Maybe we should all travel with a dog?
Things to bring to Ukraine
Whenever visiting a new country, it’s good to know beforehand what you should bring. Some things can be difficult or impossible to find during your stay. Ukraine does offer most of what we have in the west to make you comfortable, but there are a few things that you may want to consider.
1) Power converter
If you are from the west, you should take a 220/240V to 110/120V power converter. Many electronics come with power adapters that are 220/240V compatible, but what if you travel with items that are made only for 110/120V input? They are cheap, portable and can be 240v to 120v power converter.
2) Italian coffee
If you enjoy coffee, there is an abundance of coffee kiosks, coffee trucks, vending machines and cafes to get your coffee. If you are particular about your coffee and want to make it at home, then bring your own as the imported coffees from countries like Italy are five times more expensive than the local brands.
3) American made chocolate & candy
These are much harder to find and make a great gift.
4) Victoria Secret
If you plan to give a gift to a woman, then this would be on top on the list if you know her size. Victoria Secret underwear sells in Ukraine for five times the cost in the USA.
5) Water filter
The tap water is not drinkable in Ukraine. You can either buy bottled or travel with a good portable water filter. I would suggest the Katadyn Vario Water Filter as it’s portable and can filter up to 2000 liters. It can come in handy if stores are closed, or you are somewhere far from civilization.
6) Spices & hot sauce
If you intend to cook and require spices like curry or need hot sauce with your meals, then you should bring these items. In all the stores I visited I never saw these items for sale.
After six weeks in Ukraine, I would say that my experience has changed my perception for the better. The country is safe, economical and the people are friendly. I can recommend it as a destination and would visit again to explore more of the country’s hidden beauty.