Ukraine in the Membrane: Observations from Three Weeks in Oleg’s Country
I spent three weeks in Ukraine, much of which was just hanging out in Kiev but here are some of my observations.
- Ukraine has been involved in armed conflict with Russia since 2014. The former dictatorial president agreed to sign an EU trade agreement but backed out at the last minute and instead began trade negotiations with Putin. People marched in Kiev to protest this decision and the initially peaceful protest turned violent when police and protestors clashed and the revolution lasted three months. The Ukrainian president fled to Russia in the middle of the night and the revolution ended. The Russian government took advantage of the instability of the new government and invaded the Crimean peninsula. I strongly recommend Winter on Fire, a documentary currently on Netflix that lays out the entire recent revolution in much more detail.
- In the photo above the building on the right is under restoration because it served as revolution headquarters and the president’s police forces attempted to burn it down. This site reminded me of just how recent the revolution had occurred. A woman who works in the hostel said that the revolution only took place in a small area within Kiev and that the only tourists for the past few years have been journalist and they only recently began to see travelers again.
- Ukraine is involved in a war with Russia but Ukraine is a very large country about the size of Texas. The conflict areas in the east that are very far from Kiev and Lviv, which are the two cities I visited.
- The only sign that I observed that the country is involved in any sort of conflict, aside from Putin toilet paper, is the vastly depreciated currency. Prior to the 2014 Revolution, 1 US dollar equaled 8 Ukrainian hryvnia. Currently 1 US dollar equals 26 hryvnia. The exchange rate that heavily favors foreign currency played a large role in my remaining in the country for so long. I could eat three meals a day at a restaurant for a total of $6. I could also go out for $.60 beers at the local pub. I could ride the subway in Kiev for literally pennies and see the entire widely spread city. Hopefully the currency and economy will improve because as beneficial as it was for me , it blows for the people in Ukraine.
- I took a bus from Krakow to Lviv and immediately noticed I had left the EU upon crossing the border into Ukraine. The road got narrower, was much less well kept, and the bus had to drive much slower. EU investments in infrastructure become very apparent upon leaving the EU. Additionally, I noticed the difference in industry. Poland is not a super wealthy country but it is in the EU and many companies have offices in Wroclaw and Krakow for the EU benefit and lower operational costs. This does not happen in places like Ukraine. I did not see nearly as many signs on buildings as I had in other places.
- Most people speak English very well and have no problem helping out foreigners at the grocery store produce scale who do not speak either Ukrainian or Russian, which are the only two languages the produce scale knows. Lviv, which is only about a four hour bus ride from the Polish border, uses much more English than Kiev. For example, the Ukrainian version of McDonald’s in Kiev does not have English on their menus but the franchise in Lviv had an English description for every single item.
- They really love sushi in Ukraine. There’s a sushi restaurant on every block and one chain has buy one get one free sushi every day from 3pm – 6pm. I ate a lot of avocado maki while in Kiev.
- I asked my new Ukrainian friends if they knew who Lilia Podkapayeva was and her other Ukrainian friend said to ignore me because I was probably speaking Spanish. Upon convincing them I was speaking English, they informed me that they did not know who Lilia was but had heard of Oleg Vernaiev.
- It is pretty common to see people living in hostels in Ukraine, which gives backpackers a strange feeling of being an uninvited but paying guest in someone’s room. I stayed in Lviv for about three days, left and went to Kiev for about two and a half weeks, went back to Lviv and stayed in the same room in the same hostel and all the same people who had been there two and a half weeks ago were all still there
- Lviv is like a mini-Vienna with European style buildings and a coffee culture that results in multiple coffee shops on every corner. Lviv is also super small and there isn’t a ton to see or do but I scored some sweet Soviet gymnastics pins at a flea market for a total of about $.20.
- EU citizens, Americans, Canadians, and citizens of many other countries can visit Ukraine visa free for up to 90 days but Australians need a pre-arranged and pre-paid visa. Allegedly, the country only donated life jackets (yes, like for boats) following the Revolution and therefore Ukraine makes it difficult for Aussies to visit.
- Kiev has an enormous outdoor gym that has four out of six men’s gymnastics events and a ton of weightlifting equipment made out of tank pieces. To increase the desired weight one simply tosses additional pieces of tank onto the weight machine.
- I did not visit Chernobyl despite staying a few hours from the site of the nuclear disaster for roughly two weeks. You have to go through a tour company and it is rather expensive for a one day activity and also expensive compared to everything else in Ukraine. The costs are justified as it is a dangerous place to visit and requires government clearance but I could not justify spending so much on a one day excursion. People in the hostel stated that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity but I had been to a few places with once in a lifetime opportunities more than one time. I may return to Ukraine someday because I have somehow found herself in Bulgaria three times so anything is possible and I will visit Chernobyl then. I did visit the Chernobyl Museum and the visit plus the audioguide cost 1/50th the price of the Chernobyl tour.
I really enjoyed her time in Ukraine and highly suggests a visit if you are ever in the area.