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Between the 9th and 11th centuries, Ukraine was the center of Kievan Rus, one of the most important civilizations at the time. Today, it is geographically large (it's the second largest country in Europe), but politically weak, troubled and unstable. A disastrous century of control by the Soviet Union led to millions of deaths; though the Soviets relinquished their rule in 1991, the country still struggles to get to its feet.
For travellers, Ukraine offers a lot more bright spots. Hiking is superb in the country's Western reaches, where the Carpathian Mountains make an appearance. But Ukraine's real attraction lies in its cities and villages, with varied architectural styles pointing to a nation with a long, rich past. The capital, Kiev, was once the home of Kievan Rus; it contains a wealth of history, from Mongol invasions to the more recent Chernobyl disaster. Villages display a more traditional way of life, where friendly folk live in cottages amongst rolling green hills.
Human settlement in Ukraine has been documented into distant prehistory. The late Neolithic Cucuteni-Trypillian Culture flourished from about 4500 BC to 3000 BC and were among the first ones.
In the 3rd century AD, the Goths arrived in the lands of Ukraine around 250 AD to 375 AD, which they called Oium. The Ostrogoths stayed in the area but came under the sway of the Huns from the 370s. In the 7th century, the territory of modern Ukraine was the core of the state of the Bulgars. At the end of the 7th century, most Bulgar tribes migrated in several directions and the remains of their state were absorbed by the Khazars, a semi-nomadic people from Central Asia.
In 882, Kiev was conquered from the Khazars by the Varangian noble Oleg. Situated on lucrative trade routes, Kiev among the Polanians quickly prospered as the center of the powerful Slavic state of Kievan Rus. In 1240 the Mongols sacked Kiev, and many people fled to other countries. The state of Halych-Volynia eventually became a vassal to the Mongolian Empire, but efforts to gain European support for opposition to the Mongols continued.
During the 14th century, Poland and Lithuania fought wars against the Mongol invaders, and eventually most of Ukraine passed to the rule of Poland and Lithuania. After the Union of Lublin in 1569 and the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Ukraine fell under Polish administration, becoming part of the Crown of the Polish Kingdom.
The reconstituted Ukrainian state, having recently fought a bitter war with Poland, sought a treaty of protection with Russia in 1654. After the Partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795, the extreme west of Ukraine fell under the control of the Austrians, with the rest as part of the Russian Empire. The fate of the Ukrainians was far different under the Austrian Empire where they found themselves in the pawn position of the Russian-Austrian power struggle for the Central and Southern Europe. With the start of World War I, all those supporting Russia were rounded up and massacred at Talerhof.
In March 1921, part of Ukraine west of Zbruch had been incorporated into Poland, and the east became part of the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Following the Invasion of Poland in September 1939, German and Soviet troops divided the territory of Poland. Thus, Eastern Galicia and Volhynia with their Ukrainian population became reunited with the rest of Ukraine. The unification that Ukraine achieved for the first time in its history was a decisive event in the history of the nation.
After being a communist Soviet state for dozens of years, Ukraine declared itself an independent state on August 24, 1991. The Union formally ceased to exist in December 25, 1991, and with this Ukraine's independence was officially recognised by the international community. In 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, then Prime Minister, was declared the winner of the presidential elections, which had been largely rigged, as the Supreme Court of Ukraine later ruled.The results caused a public outcry in support of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, who challenged the results and led the peaceful Orange Revolution.
Ukraine shares international borders with Belarus, Russia, Poland, Slovakia, Moldova, Hungary and Romania. The country is over 600,000 square kilometres big and has around 45 million inhabitants, although this number is declining (48 million in 2001!). The Ukraine is the largest country whose area is completely situated within Europe (unlike Russia). It is the second country in Europe by its territory after Russia. The Ukrainian landscape mainly consists of fertile plains (steppes) and plateaus, bisected by rivers such like the Dnjepr. All rivers flow south into the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov. To the southwest, the delta of the Danube River forms the border with Romania. The country's only mountains are the Carpathian Mountains in the west, of which the highest is the Hora Hoverla at 2,061 metres above sea level, and the Crimean Mountains on the Crimean peninsula, in the extreme south along the coast. Ukraine also has a number of highland regions such as the Volyn-Podillia Upland in the west and the Dnipro Upland. The Central Russian Uplands are located along the border with Russia. The Donets Ridge and the Azov Upland are near the Sea of Azov.
Ukraine is divided into 24 provinces (oblasts) and one autonomous republic (avtonomna respublika), Crimea. The oblasts are further subdivided into hundreds of districts. The cities of Kiev and Sevastopol also have a special legal status. For travelling purposes, it is more useful to group the oblasts into three larger regions.
Western Ukraine comprises 9 oblasts (Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Khmelnytskyi, Lviv, Rivne, Ternopil, Vinnytsia, Volyn and Zakarpattia) which were historically under the control of mostly non-Russian European countries, this region of Ukraine is the least 'russified' and has managed to preserve a lot of the traditional architecture, food, language and religion.
Central Ukraine is comprised of the following oblasts: Cherkasy, Chernihiv, Kiev (both the oblast and city), Kirovohrad, Poltava, Sumy and Zhytomyr. As the centre of the Russian expansion to Ukraine this part of Ukraine was constantly fought over by Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Eastern Ukraine is comprised of the autonomous Crimea (including Sevastopol) and the following oblasts: Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson, Luhansk, Mykolaiv, Odessa and Zaporizhia. This part of Ukraine is most strongly influenced by Russian culture as it was under Russian rule for a large part of modern history. It also contains the largest Russian minority in the country.
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Crimea is a region in the south of Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula is connected to the rest of the Ukraine by a narrow piece of land. It feels more like being on an island and with many beaches to choose from it is a favorite spot for many Ukrainian tourists as well. Apart from the beaches, there are mountains and cultural sites to explore. Cities include Simferopol and Sevastopol, but the real gem probably is Yalta, a beautiful city with Russian Czar's palaces and other great monuments. Livadia Palace is famous as the place where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt planned the division of Europe at the end of World War II in 1945 at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Crimea gets very busy in the summer months.
The Carphantians are a mountain range in the extreme west of the country, on the border with Romania. It is the only real mountainous area of the country and is a welcome relief to the flatter areas in the central and east of the country. Popular for skiing in the winter (although services are not to the same level as elsewhere in Europe) and hiking in the summer, the Carphantians are rugged and covered with forests. In fact, the Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians are placed on the Unesco World Heritage List since 2007 because they are an outstanding example of undisturbed forests in Ukraine all the way to the border with Slovakia. They also contain an invaluable reservoir of beech and many species associated with, and dependent on, these forest habitats. More inhabited areas of Carpathia unfortunately suffer from attempted overdevelopment (stalled hotel projects litter the hillsides).
This region is extremely rich in unique sightseeing places, including the town of Khotyn. Local sightseeing places deserve a special attention. First of all, it’s the stone fortress itself which became the strongest fortification of Eastern Europe. It became famous for the fact that the last battle in Khotyn finished with Turkish defeat which was the beginning of Ottoman Empire disintegration. You can see this fortress in such movies as “Taras Bulba”, “Ballade about the gallant knight Ivanhoe”, “The Three Musketeers”, “Black arrow”, “Old Fortress”, “Arrows of Robin Hood” and many others which were shot within its centuries-old walls. There are also many legends about the fortress, created over the hundreds of years of its existence. Some popular legends involve the origins of the large dark spot on the side of the wall of the fortress. One legend says that the spot was created by the tears of the Khotyn rebels against the Ottoman Turks that were killed inside fortress. Another legend has it that the spot was created from the tears of a girl named Oksana, whom the Turks buried alive in the walls of the fort.
Besides, this region is very rich in different sightseeing places. For example, 20 kilometres from Khotyn Fortress there is Kamenets-Podolskaya one which is also included to the list of 7 Wonders of Ukraine. The city of Kamenets-Podolsky according to historical and cultural monuments and landmarks (there are 152 of them) is second to Kiev and Lviv. And national historic – cultural nature reserve “Kamanets-Podolsky” has been designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Site.
On the 26th of April 1986, a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Station exploded during a test to see how much power was needed to keep the reactor operating during a blackout. It is still not clear how many people have died exactly, but even up until now, people are facing the consequences. It is now possible to visit the site, but only on a tour as it is very important you stay within certain boundaries. Over 100,000 people lived in this area, and only several hundreds have gone back during recent years, albeit not to the city itself.
There are many public holidays in Ukraine (secular, religious and Soviet), most of which, as a visitor, you will only notice as celebrated by general drinking and merriment. The most widely celebrated are New Year (1st January), Orthodox Christmas (7th January), Women's Day (8th March), Easter (according to the Orthodox Calendar - this date shifts), 1st May and Victory Day (9th May).
Ukraine typically has hot and dry summers and cold winters with snowfall. Temperatures average from 25 °C to 30 °C during the day from June to September but can get significantly higher on some days. Winters can be really cold, with temperatures sometimes reaching -30 °C. That said, the Crimea Peninsula is very mild compared to much of the country, with mostly temperatures above zero even in winter. The best times to visit are spring/early summer (May/June) and autumn (late September - October) when temperatures are fine and it is neither really cold or hot. You also avoid the summer season crowds. Precipitation is possible year round, but is more likely during summer. Winters have severe snowfall sometimes.
Boryspil International Airport (KBP) near the capital Kiev is the base of Ukraine International Airlines, the national courier. Amongst the international connections are Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Dubai, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Kuwait, Lisbon, London, Manchester, Madrid, Milan, Paris, Rome, Tbilisi, Vienna, and Zürich. Aerosvit Airlines is an even bigger airline with many more destinations such as Shanghai, Beijing, Almaty, Bangkok, Toronto, Delhi and New York. Several dozens of other airlines serve Kiev as well, mainly from European cities and former Sovjetunion Republics.
There are train connections to most neighbouring countries and direct links include those from Warsaw and Moscow to Kiev. Given current tensions between Moldova, Ukraine and Transdniestria, there have been no trains services between Odessa and Chisinau in Moldova since 2006.
Border crossings are easier than they used to be but in case you are going to Russia or Belarus be sure to have a visa and expect some more hassle compared to other borders. Also Transdniestria, the eastern part of Moldova can prove to be a difficult border to cross. All other ones, including the main route from Poland are relatively easy. Be sure to have the right documentation and insurance (green card) for the car.
Buses from Chisinau in Moldova are frequent, but be sure they do not pass through Transdniestria (Tiraspol). The crossing is possible, but very risky and should be avoided. It is better to travel to Chernivtsi (North of Moldova) or through Southern Moldova towards Izmail, crossing the border at Palanca.
The only options for international boat travel are from the port city of Odessa (or nearby Ilichovsk) to destinations like Istanbul and Derince in Turkey, Constanta in Romania, and Varna in Bulgaria. The ferry to Istanbul takes about 36 hours. A fast catamaran to Varna takes about 8 hours (to Constanta 6 hours). Tickets are available through Ukrferry company or in offices inside Odessa seaport. Boats to and from Georgia (Poti and Batumi) are not always reliable and frequent.
The Fergün Shipping Company travels between Yalta and Sinop in Turkey.
Ukraine's first budget airline - http://wizzair.com/default.asp?slid=clear&language=EN|WIZZ Air]] - has only just started to operate. It has cheap routes between Kiev-Odessa, Kiev-Lvov and Kiev-Sebastopol, Kiev-Kharkov and Kiev-Zaporozhye. It is a faster alternative to trains, but a little more expensive (unless you book 2-3 months in advance). Ukraine International Airlines and Aerosvit Airlines have many internal flights as well, to even more destinations.
Trains to most places are overnight. The commonest tickets are 'Coupe' (a four bed cabin) or 'Platz-Kart' a carriage full of beds in two tiers. Bedding is provided. Trains are very slow and old, but the tickets are good value.
Local trains, and trains which travel during the day, are generally incredibly slow.
Poezda offers train timetables in CIS countries including Ukraine, in English. Ukrainian Railways offers the same, but in Ukrainian only.
Driving in Ukraine is generally dangerous due to the low standard of local driving and, in most places, poor roads. The roads in Western Ukraine are in better condition than elsewhere. The main road between Odessa and Kiev has two lanes running in each direction. Most drivers do not follow road rules.
Renting a car is an option if you want, with both major international (Hertz for example) and local agencies renting cars at their offices in major towns and airports. Costs are comparatively high (due to the risk of theft and accident).
Within cities and between towns you can flag down a car, give the name of your destination and offer a price. The driver will accept, decline, or haggle. This is common practice in Ukraine but do not enter a car in which two men are sitting. Pay when you reach your destination.
Intercity buses - major company is Autoluks - provide good, reliable service, but take longer than you would expect to travel the distance required. They make frequent stops for smokers, toilets, and snacks. All buses are non-smoking. Local buses are very slow. Minibuses ('marshrutka') are faster and cheaper. They will service routes within cities and to local satellite towns and villages. Get on by standing at the roadside and flagging them down. You may have to pay on entering or on leaving the bus. The price is usually very cheap and the same rate whatever the distance travelled (1.5 or 2 uah within a city; up to 10uah for distances of 50-70 kilometres). They have their destinations displayed in their windows.
Ferry services exist from Odessa to Crimea (Sebastopol and Yalta) during the summer months. Check UKR Ferry for more information about schedules and prices.
Boat cruises exist in Kiev going up and down the Dnepr.
A few years ago, most travellers needed a visa. People from the following countries no longer require tourist visas: All countries within the European Union, United States, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Vatican City, Monaco, Iceland, Norway, San Marino, Mongolia, Serbia, Montenegro and the countries of the Commonwealth of
Independent States (except Turkmenistan). Note that this only applies to tourist visas which last a maximum of 90 days.
On arrival at the border you will find (or be given) an immigration form which you must complete before going through immigration control. You must keep the part of the form which is returned to you and surrender is at the border when you leave Ukraine.
See also: Money Matters
The Ukrainian Hryvnia (UAH), often pronounced 'Grivna' is nominally pegged to the US dollar. There are 100 Kopeks to one Hryvnia. You will also hear people referring to 'Roubles' - but they mean UAH.
Approximate exchange rates (Oktober 2010): USD1 = UAH8.00; EUR1 = UAH10.50
Ukrainian cities are not as cheap as they used to be. Accommodation is relatively expensive for what you get. electronic goods are generally more expensive than in other countries. Alcohol and cigarettes are very cheap. ATMs are available in most towns and all cities. Exchange rates in the exchange booths (present everywhere, usually inside other shops) change every day. Technically foreigners cannot change UAH into other currencies. But your UAH are worthless outside Ukraine (except Moldova and some border towns in Russian and Belarussia where they can be exchanged).
If you buy things in a supermarket, keep the receipt with you as a man at the exit will probably check it.
There are language schools for learning Russian in the major cities. Local Ukrainian universities are popular with foreign students from China and the Arab states, but the level of tuition is often not very high and 'buying' qualifications is common practice.
Language depends on which area of the country you are in: east and south speak Russian; west speaks Ukrainian; parts of Crimea speak Tartar, villages in the southwest speak Romanian and Bulgarian and in the Carpathians also dialects of Romanian, Hungarian and Polish. Villages and small towns between usually speak 'Surchik' a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. Ukrainian and Russian are similar languages and someone speaking Ukrainian will largely be understood by someone who speaks Russian and vice versa. To attempt any kind of individual travel in Ukraine will require you to learn the Cyrillic alphabet in order to read signs, destinations etc.
Food in Ukraine is generally very good value for money - compared to prices in most Western countries. A three course meal with wine for two at a good restaurant in a city will come in at 10-15 GBP each. Street vendors sell 'sharma' (Turkish influenced Kebab) and various 'Pirizhok' and 'Bulichki' (rolls, sweet, savory, filled sometimes fried). Traditional cuisine is quite fatty and contains quite a lot of meat - consider, for example, the traditional delicacy, 'salo', which is unadulterated pig fat, usually eaten with thin slices of dark bread and garlic. There are many types of soup - Borsht is the traditional beetroot-based soup, often made with meat. Cakes are also popular (and tasty). Seafood is available at coastal towns, but keep in mind that the Black Sea is quite polluted. Summer sees a huge variety of fresh, cheap vegetables and fruit sold at street-side stalls.
The Ukrainian kitchen was formed to the middle of the 18th century. Related polish and Belorussian kitchens influenced very much on national receipts of the Ukrainian kitchen. The influence of Old Russian kitchen is not seen because after the Tatar – Mongolian invasion the connection between the Ukrainian and the Russian people was lost.
The Ukrainian food is popular among Slavic kitchens. Many dishes of the Ukrainian kitchen such as curds or fruit dumpling and borsch are considered international now. Typical Ukrainian dishes are curd or fruit dumpling, borsch, pampushki, different kinds of pancakes, zrazy, stuffed cabbage rolls, boiled rice with raisins and honey.
In general accommodation in Ukraine is not good value for money. Hotel star-ratings are self-awarded and offer no guarantee of quality. Youth Hostels and good, budget hotels are a rarity. Up-market hotels exist near all major tourist sites and cities and the quality of these is generally similar to that found in Western Europe, but for the price you pay, you may well expect more than you actually get. Keep in mind that customer service is generally not of a high standard in Ukraine.
Alcohol is a huge part of Ukrainian culture and very cheap. Local drinks include vast quantities of vodka. Local beers and generally regarded as 'soft drinks' - Yantar, Slavutich, Chernigivskaya - are Pilsner style lagers, although there are also some 'dark' varieties. Imported beers from Germany and the Czech Republic are also common. Ukraine also produces its own wine in Crimea - Masandra is the 'best' brand, although an acquired taste - and 'Champagne' in Odessa - produced around Franzusky Boulevard is generally reasonable quality. Moldovan wine (generally good quality) is freely available, and excellent (but relatively expensive) Georgian wines - especially Tsinandali and Naperulia - can also be found.
In the summer try 'Kvas', a refreshing non-alcoholic drink, slightly similar to Coke, but made from bread, and Kompot (a kind of fruit-based drink).
Do not drink tap water. Bottled water (local and international brands) is freely available.
See also: Travel Health
Aptekas/pharmacies give all medicine over the counter. Dentists are relatively reliable. Doctors are generally incompetent and should be avoided. Hospitals are terrible places. There is usually a severe flu outbreak during the winter months.
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Ukraine. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Ukraine. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis, typhoid as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. It is also recommended to have a vaccination against tick borne encephalitis when you go hiking and/or camping for several days or more in the period of March to November.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also: Travel Safety
Take care when crossing roads, driving, and when being in the poorer areas of cities. There is a lot of opportunistic crime - theft etc., but not so much violent crime fortunately. Avoid dealing with the police as they are often unhelpful and will want bribes. Avoid doctors and hospitals - both are bad for your health actually.
Internet develops quickly in Ukraine, and therefore, today it is no problem to get access to the world wide web - both wired and wireless. There are more access points in big cities, nevertheless there are also some in small settlements. The majority of Ukrainian hostels and hotels of different level have Wi-Fi points, which allow visitors to use high-speed Internet. Most Ukrainian restaurants and many cafes are equipped with internet access points, there are also Wi-Fi zones in terminals of the international airports. You may also access Internet from your cell phone, if your device supports GPRS or one of the 3G standards. All cellular carriers in Ukraine offer access to the mobile internet.
Moreover, it's usually no problem to find Internet-cafe in Ukrainian cities. "Ukrtelecom" company offers Internet access as well. Its offices are easy to find in any town of Ukraine. The cost of one hour of Internet access usually doesn't exceed €1-2.
See also: International Telephone Calls
Local phones work well in Kiev, but not in Odessa - most people use phonecards. If you are here for any length of time it is worth investing in a local sim-card for your mobile. No major international mobile operators exist in Ukraine (yet) so if you have Vodaphone or T-mobile (etc) your phone may not work here.
Ukraine Poshta is the national postal service of Ukraine (website is rather slow and not always working). Unfortunately, the postal service in Ukraine is unreliable or at least inefficient and slow. Most packages get stolen or searched for things that can be sold. Post offices exist in all cities and towns and postcards can be sent quite safely, but the service may be slow. Like many other businesses, post offices are open from around 9:00am to 6:00pm with a lunchbreak between 1:00pm and 2:00pm, though opening times may vary. Smaller ones in rural towns keep shorter hours, while the largest ones in Kiev are usually open very late, during weekends or even 24 hours! If you want to send a letter or postcard and buy stamps, just queue up at the line where you see envelops and cards. Be prepared to wait a while, also regarding the time it takes to send a postcard to Europe (a week) or the USA (two weeks), let alone places further afield. Always send letters by airmail (avia in Ukrainian). For faster (but more expensive) sendings of parcels, try companies like TNT, DHL, UPS or FedEx.
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Ask NinjaSmurf a question about Ukraine
My partner and I travelled through the Ukraine for almost 2 weeks. We spent 5 1/2 days in Kiev, 3 days in Lviv and 2 days in Odessa, travelling by train between each of these cities. I would be happy to provide travel advice on the Ukraine, particularly on places I have travelled and the gastronomic aspect of this travel.
Ask lunatasha a question about Ukraine
I used to live in Ukraine all my life. I travelled a lot about Ukraine, about its history and nature.
Ask Sevastopol a question about Ukraine
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Ask Parasolka a question about Ukraine
I'm a Ukrainian living in Ukraine and I love travelling. My country is the most beautiful in the world for me and I would like as many people to discover it as possible!
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