A Travellerspoint blog

Budget Travel in Ukraine

It's cheap in Ukraine... but not that cheap... some pointers...

After decades of controlled movement when travel was only for the social elite, and today when movement is controlled by visa restrictions on Ukrainian passport holders, the concept of ‘Budget Travel’ or, even more, ‘Independent Budget Travel’, is an alien concept to most Ukrainians. If you can travel, you’re rich; if you’re rich, you have money for private taxis, guides, flights, and expensive hotels where everyone speaks your language… As such, facilities for budget travel in Ukraine are sparse and the only way you’ll be able to get round is with a Russian speaking friend, a good guide book (Bradt is the best; Lonely Planet really not very good - but with some useful maps) learn some Russian yourself, or, at the very minimum, learn the Cyrillic alphabet.

Cities in Ukraine are not very cheap places (unless you know where to go) – and nor are the Carpathians in winter or Crimea in the summer. Everywhere, inflation is soaring so costs of consumer products and food are more expensive than a year or two ago: coffee and a meal in a ‘normal’, clean café is comparable in price to anywhere else in Europe (2 GBP for a latte or mokka…). Alcohol remains reasonably cheap (if it’s a local brew 0.7-1.1 GBP for half a litre of beer). Accommodation is universally expensive and (at budget level) not very good value for money.

Budget Transport:
Intercity travel is by overnight train. This saves on accommodation. The cheapest tickets (about 80uah one way Odessa to Kiev) are in ‘Platz-Kart’, carriages with beds in tiers on the sides. Trying to buy a ticket at a station is often a confusing process (even for locals… information is ridiculously hard to find and signposting also confusing). You must buy in advance . On popular routes (Kiev-Odessa in the summer) this is best done several days before. Keep your ticket with you and show to conductress. They will ask if you want bedding, and provide it for you.
Buses (AutoLuks) also go between cities. They’re more expensive than trains, but take less time (115uah Odessa to Kiev).
Local trains for short journeys are paid for on board, are very cheap, but incredibly incredibly slow… as are local buses (usually wartime museum pieces…)
Within Kiev, use the metro: 50 kopecks for as far as you want to go. Signposts are all in cyrillic and often not conveniently situated...
In other cities use minibuses (‘Marshrutka’). They are all numbered with various destinations written on signs plastered to their windows (in summer they will highlight the most popular destinations that travellers may be interested in visiting). Stop them by sticking a hand out. Sometimes you have to pay when you get on (the amount: currently 1.50 uah or 2 uah for the entire journey) so just give to the driver or pass to someone else to pass to the driver (sometimes driver’s assistant), or when you leave (give the money to the driver).
Slightly more expensive option is to write the name of the address you want to get to on a paper (in cyrillic) with the amount you’re happy to pay, flag down a car, show them the paper then hop in if they agree. (If you speak Russian, just say destination, then price, then see what the driver agrees…). Expect to pay at least 10 uah for short journeys; 40 for further in the city; outside cities or between towns can be 100uah plus…. Cheaper than a taxi, door to door, but much more expensive than a local bus.
Taxis: agree price before you get in. You don’t need to tip.

Budget accommodation:
Check accommodation pages on travellerspoint.
Youth hostels are a rarity here: 3 in Kiev, 1 in Crimea, 1 elsewhere….
Apartments are a better quality alternative to cheap hotels, but may be far from the centre, so get an exact address (and be sure you can trust the owners…).
‘Cheap’ hotels in Ukraine usually cost over 100 USD for a double/night and that will probably not include breakfast, friendly service, perhaps no hot water, and threadbare rooms with cockroaches. Quality differs massively and price is no guide. ‘Star ratings’ mean nothing in Ukraine – hotels just give themselves the number of stars they feel like.
Recommended hotel in Kiev (summer price) 466 UAH/night for a double (with breakfast) Turist, on the East bank. Get off metro at Livoberezhna, walk to the exit nearest the centre of the city; the big tower block to your right is hotel Turist. If that sounds expensive then remember that is the cheapest hotel near the city centre that you’ll find (at the moment of writing).

Budget Eating
In the country, there will be a multitude of cheap places to eat: usually just a bar beside the road with plastic tables and chairs. Main tourist centres are more expensive. Your best bet is to find one of Ukraine’s chain buffet restaurants: Jaru-Paru or Poozata Huta (obviously these are usually written in Cyrillic). These are both non-smoking and found in all major cities, somewhere near the centre. They are cafeteria-style places, serving traditional Ukrainian food, in clean surroundings. If you need a large meal and don’t have so much money, this is the place to come.

Budget Excursions:
(Excellent!) Museum of Folk Culture, Kiev. Instead of expensive taxi and guided tour, go to Metro Libidska. Go up escalator, exit metro at the furthest exit to your right (follow tunnel). Cross the street outside to the line of minibuses. Wait for bus 156 or 172 and stay on it to the end of the line – that is the outdoor museum (tickets sold until 17.00; open – supposedly – until 18.00). Takes about 30-40 minutes to get there from Libidska. Should not be missed if you’re not going to get an opportunity to see rural Ukraine! Buy a map and wander around. There are cafes and snack sheds there (not so cheap), or take a picnic. Costs 15 uah entrance; 60 uah with guide. [Note: this information is different from that published in the Bradt guide, which is now wrong].

Posted by maxxxman 12:36 Archived in Ukraine Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Moldova-Ukraine Border

Do NOT go via Tiraspol...

DO NOT CROSS FROM MOLDOVA TO UKRAINE/ODESSA VIA TRANSDNIESTRIA - the autonomous republic that now separates Moldova from Ukraine near Odessa. I have done it but STRONGLY DO NOT RECOMMEND YOU TRY.

Visa restrictions to Moldova for EU citizens were lifted in Jan 2008 - you can now visit for 30 days without applying for a visa in advance. But, because of Transdniestria, there are now NO train services from Kishinev to Odessa (there used to be many) and the crossing must be by bus (or car). An alternative, far safer route, is to travel down the south of Moldova to Ukraine, near Izmail, then up to Odessa - it takes the same amount of time (about 6-7 hours city to city). You can also cross into Moldova safely from the West of Ukraine (via near Chernivtsi).

If you are travelling from Odessa to Lvov, don't worry about being taken off the train in Transd. in the middle of the night - which used to be the case. All train routes have now been redirected to avoid Transd.

If travelling in the South, check which route your bus takes if you want to travel Moldova/South Ukraine: if it is via Tiraspol - forget it for your own safety. Because Moldova does not recognise Transd. they will not issue you with a visa for entering the country. This will cause problems if you enter Moldova via Transd. then want to leave via a different border.

Foreigners are NOT allowed to visit Transd. The information you will receive at the border will differ depending on who gives it to you and the mood they're in, but, technically, as a foreigner (if you're lucky enough to get hold of a 'visa' to transd - only available at the border - you will only get a transit permit (a slip of paper), valid for 2 hours - about the time it takes the bus to pass through).

Note: IMPORTANT: People go missing in Transdniestria (and having passed through, I can understand how and why)... You WILL have to bribe your way across. OR you WILL be turned back from the border - just refused entry because you are a foreigner, and there will be nothing you can do unless you want to look down the barrel of a gun. You may be imprisoned or have your passport and possessions taken by border control. (Please note: Moldovan and Ukrainian border guards are just as bad as their Trandniestrian counterparts at this border: other borders they are ok). There are no foreign consulates in Transd., no embassies, no one you can turn to for help because no other countries recognise this place as existing. But... it does exist and it is amazing to think that this kind of lawlessness exists, these days, on the doorstep of Europe and yet no one does anything about it.... If you're thinking of heading by car through Bulgarian borders (especially in the South) you can expect the same kind of treatment...

Currency: the Moldovan Ley is only available in Moldova. You cannot change it anywhere else. (If you're lucky one exchange counter beside the bus station you get off at in Ukraine will change them, at a not very favourable rate). It's best to get rid of them in Moldova. There are plenty of ATMs in Kishenev if you want to take Ley directly out of your home bank account.

Posted by maxxxman 15:25 Archived in Moldova Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (1)

Ukrainian Women... the TRUTH!

For those of you... and there seem to be several... interested in coming to Ukraine to find 'love'

sunny 30 °C

Talk to many Ukrainians about the short-comings of their country (corruption, incompetence, criminality, disease, drugs) compared to the general standard of living in more developed countries of the world and they (especially the ones in Odessa) will airily dismiss all your criticisms with the sage observation that 'Ahh, but WE have the most beautiful women in the world'. Forget the fact that having 'the most beautiful women in the world' doesn't make your standard of living any easier, sort out the drainage system or frequent power cuts... that is just their 'Russian soul' speaking. But are they really that beautiful? Desirable? Wonderful? You've probably seen them on the internet and have your own opinions, but here is some more information that I have learned first-hand during the last couple of years of living in the home of these 'most beautiful women'.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some women here may look great, but that doesn't mean they are beautiful 'inside' (see below...). On the 'outside' though, women here take a great deal of time making sure they look good. In Odessa, many ladies will get up at 5am to spend 2-3 hours getting ready before they leave the house. They will dress to impress - NOT so much men, but it's a perpetual competition with other women; women will eye each other up and compare where they stand. Most eat well and go to the gym, so, yes, they look 'beautiful'... but not, of course, if you prefer Asian women (for example...). Young women (mid-teenagers) race to look grown up to catch a man and, with make-up and the right clothes many easily add ten years to their real age... and with enough make-up just about any woman can make herself look more attractive. The women in other parts of Ukraine are on the whole a little less interested in appearance (that is Odessa for you: everything is superficial and flashy). But...

...there is a 'dirty' underside to life in Odessa. Especially in Odessa and neighbouring satellites, but more or less through much of Ukraine, a kind of institutionalised, acceptable, quasi-prostitution operates (partly linked to this is the massive AIDS/HIV epidemic that exists here). Ukraine is a very corrupt country and, if you are a young woman who wants to go to university but you don't have enough money to pay for your entrance exam, it is more or less acceptable for you to use your body to get what you can't buy. The same for accommodation, assistance in jobs, passing exams, etc. Capitalism and materialism are relatively new here and everyone is under pressure to 'own', to spend, to buy... so many girls turn to prostitution of one sort or another to try and lead the lifestyle they desire. In fact, if you go to Ukrainian/Russian dating sites, there is a special category: not just 'seeking men', but 'seeking sponsor' - a category which usually means that that girl is looking for a man who will pay for her as a kept mistress. Perhaps it happens to a greater or lesser degree in other countries, but here it is not very far below the surface at all. Sex is often seen as a means to an end - the majority of people marry for convenience or money, not love; the majority have lovers - and, as it is more or less freely part of life, Ukrainian people are quite sexually liberated. Intimate displays of affection are common: a display of 'passionate love'.... So, on the one hand is sex as a kind of currency, on the other, seemingly opposite, is the fairytale ideal of 'romance'. Every girl here wants to be a princess swept off her feet.... and this slightly odd dichotomy is what lies at the heart of many young women here in Ukraine...

Linked to the 'romantic' side, almost all women here have a traditional idea of gender roles, passed down from mother to daughter. Men provide, pay for, and protect; women cook, keep house, and have children. Even among young women, this attitude is the norm. While some women work very hard, many others (compared to Western countries) have never worked. The go to university, get married, have children, look after the home and the man provides them with all they need. As such, significant age differences between men and women are not uncommon: 10-20 year differences do not cause the slightest flutter of disapproval for Ukrainians: an older man can provide better than a younger one.

It is quite common for women to get married in their late teens, have children before 21... and to then get divorced before they are 30. They want the fairytale life of a wonderful house, wonderful children, and a man who gives them all they need (diamonds, Lexus cruiser, Gucci shoes...), without them working... and when this does not happen, they may stay, out of necessity, or leave. Or the man gets tired of providing and getting little in return... so he leaves! So, be prepared for that when you visit to 'find your love'. You WILL pay for everything and, if not, the lady will regard it as an insult. Give ODD numbers of flowers (a dozen roses is for funerals here in Ukraine!). Give presents, take out to fancy restaurants... it will all impress.... but...

Most young women want to leave Ukraine (many young men do too, but they have a harder route to take... no one is rushing here to marry Ukrainian guys...) . Referring back to the point I made above (sex as currency), many young women are not averse to using their body to do that or to use their looks to lead a life beyond their means. I personally know a couple of Ukrainian women who (cleverly) keep a number of men hanging on over the internet, get one to pay for a visit to Germany for a couple of weeks, then a different one to pay for visas and flights to South Africa, then another to Canada... then one visits and they stay in a fancy hotel and have expensive meals and the girls milk these men for all they can. It is, in essence, their job (but, like mentioned above, a sort of acceptable quasi-prostitution). So... if you contact a Ukrainian (especially Odessan) girl over the net and develop a 'relationship' keep in mind the fact that you may not be the only 'love' of that young lady.

Marriage agencies: They employ women to write letters to [you] guys (at a rate of 1 dollar a letter), and 50c per reply to an email. These are rarely the women you see in your pictures - they are people who speak good enough English to write romantic letters. Many agencies publish pictures of women who are not actually on their 'books' (but purchase these pictures from local modelling agencies, or just take pictures of girls in the street and add them to their galleries without permission). If you need a translator when you come to Odessa, the agency will give the translator a pittance, compared to what you're paying (so, if you're kind, tip your translator!). Don't be gullible enough to think that the 'gifts' (of flowers, for example) that you may be tempted to send over the internet, ever reach your intended: the money is split 50:50 (at best) between the agency and the woman. If you meet women at arranged meets, the women will be offered more money to stay for the duration of the meeting. So, you see from this that the general trend is... the women here (like almost everyone else, but at least the women here can use their good looks and charm to get it) are in it for money... not 'love'. If you don't mind that, then, good for you! You can meet some interesting, kind, charming, attractive girls here, but you will need to have money set aside and you too need to think of it as business. If things go well, you will need money and time and to endure a great deal of nightmarish bureaucracy with visas in order to get your 'love' to visit you in your own country, to get married and (ultimately... the ladies dream.... to get her a passport of your nationality). If your wife gains a different passport, she will have to (officially) forfeit her Ukrainian passport... but, under Ukrainian law your 'wife' is entitled to half of everything which belongs to her husband... exactly how this works when they have forfeited their passport, I don't know!

Practically, you could easily save alot of money by coming to Odessa without the aid of an internet marriage agency. It is a pleasant city, used to foreigners (unlike other cities in Ukraine). Most young women here speak passable English and they will be happy to meet you in the street, a bar, club, cafe, or sitting next to you in the park or at the beach, but it will be up to you to make the first move. It is exceptional for a woman to directly show her interest in a man - as a man, you must be prepared to take control of the situation (part of their 'romantic' view). Shrinking violets gain nothing here. If a woman starts talking to you in a bar or cafe, she may do so simply for you to pay for her drinks.... you may or may not receive anything in return - except the grace of her conversation. Alternatively she could easily be a prostitute trying to make money for an hour ('real' prostitution is rife in Odessa).

At the age of 21-24 (just after university), if they're not already married, many young women will be looking for marriage and to start a family. Getting married much later than that is unusual and undesirable for women. If you meet a nice girl, do not be pushy, accept some quite different world views to your own, some strange superstitions (do not whistle inside! do not sit on the corner of a table! do not put an empty bottle on the table you're sitting at!) and, as mentioned above, be prepared to pay for everything... and be aware that you will only receive something 'more' if the woman thinks she can gain something more from you. I have been advised on several occasions that 'the more you give, the more you receive'. . . well. . . I haven't always found that to be the case so. . . beware and make up your own mind if you think there should be a balance of giving and receiving.

Personally, while I have met some wonderful, very beautiful ladies here (NEVER through marriage agencies by the way... but then I live here...), in my experience, no matter how close you may become, at some point there is a very significant difference between Ukrainian mentality and expectations and Western ones... not to mention, no matter how good the lady's English may be, it will never be as good as yours (or your Russian will never be as good as her's), and if verbal communication is important to you, this will always present problems sooner or later.

[Note: I don't want to 'tar' all Ukrainian women with the same brush. As in all countries there are exceptions. My observations are based on my own experiences and talking to a great deal of local men and women and also expats here. The facts stated above are facts; the observations are shared by many of those I have talked to. In terms of ladies, there are variations between cities and areas of Ukraine. Many Odessa girls regard themselves as God's gift to mankind and simply deserve all gifts, diamonds, and money which you offer them. Girls from Western Ukraine and other cities are less 'up themselves'. Those in the West have a far more European outlook on life, fashion etc. . . but can be just as physically attractive.]

Good luck.

Related blogs: Ukraine... Honestly; 'Budget Travel in Ukraine', 'Ukraine: Highlights and Lowlights'.

Posted by maxxxman 14:45 Archived in Ukraine Tagged women Comments (3)

Ukraine: Highlights and Lowlights

What to see (and not see) while you're here

What to see and do... but avoid Ukraine between November and March... the weather is not great; the countryside drab (unless you go to the expensive Carpathians in winter) and the cities bleak... come in summer when everything is more upbeat!

Kiev - central Kiev is unlike other cities (the outskirts are grotty building sites) and the bustling centre of all things in Ukraine. St Sophia Cathedral is a must (most of the other churches are reconstructions; this is original), Cost 20 Uah; The Lavra caves (do not wear shorts; women must cover their head and not wear trousers - you can hire coverings and skirts there, but expect to queue to do so) - allow a day to spend time in the parks, see the caves, and the best museums: museum of miniature and National Treasures tickets for these total 40 UAH). The caves are free, but all other things require tickets.
Andreyvskiy Spusk - enjoy the bric-a-brac and souvenirs and the Museum of One Street.
The only church you can really take photos in in Kiev is St Vladimir's on Shevchenka - but it's a good church for photos (free entry; 10 Uah for photos). Go onto the metro, just to spend time going down one of the longest escalators you're likely to ever go on. If it's sunny get the metro to Hydropark stop, get off and find a river bank to lie on. Do NOT miss the Museum of Folk art and architecture if you don't have time to see rural Ukraine (see my blog on 'Budget Travel in Ukraine' to see how to get there yourself).
You can easily spend 4 days in Kiev...

ODESSA. the 'Pearl of the Black Sea' is, well, not exactly that (yet...) even though most advertising hoardings urge people 'I love my city Odessa!' and it has been eulogised in a great many songs and in Ukrainian and Soviet mentality.... BUT only 213 years old or so, built by order of Catherine the Great, Odessa has a couple of problems. Built out of sandstone, the buildings are literally becoming dust and the council is quickly trying to renovate at least their facades... but at the same time it is demolising irreplaceable architecture and replacing it with concrete and glass monoliths in an attempt to be 'modern'. The centre is pleasant enough, and the beaches add an extra diversion... but...

Odessa is becoming a popular place for tourists from the US and Europe - FAR more than 2 years ago. Odessa IS an attractive city (in the summer) and the current mayor is doing a lot to make the centre, 'old' city more attractive in order to attract UNESCO world heritage status. Much of the centre, however, is being demolished, probably to make way for concrete and glass monstrosities...) The Opera House is definitely worth a look (performances usually 2-3 times a week. Best place to sit is near the back, at the front of one of the galleries: thsi provides the best view of the hall, which is spectacular... the performance probably won't be, but you can spend the interval wandering around teh various corridors looking at the gilt and statuettes... currently you CANNOT enter the Opera Theatre without a ticket for a performance. Tickets available at the 'kacca' inside the main door). City Gardens is a great place to relax, and while away a few hours in a pavement cafe in the centre. Odessa Cathedral looks good from the outside (not inside), and you can see a crowd of men playing chess and a littel art and souvenir market in the grounds nearby; the train station is a grand affair and there are a couple of nice, renovated churches near there. If you're into clubbing, there are a multitude of places to go (Arkadia beach in the summer - kicks off about 11pm until 6am and Yo in the city centre in the winter months). In the summer, popular beaches stretch all along the coast and the best thing to do is go to Park Shevchenko and, from there walk along what is called 'The Health Road', a shady road, mostly closed to cars, which wends from Odessa to Arkadia - a distance of several kilometres - expect a good 1.5 hour walk all the way). From the road you can walk down to various beaches. The ones further from the centre are less busy and often cleaner (although rubbish throughout Ukraine is a significant problem...). The sea here is cleaner than it used to be, but beware of jellyfish and some strange biting sea lice things which will attach to you and start to suck blood (I have yet to find out what these things are...).
Odessa is not a great place to be in Winter. In autumn it retains a certain charm, similar to Paris in some areas. Spring passes quickly and is often wet and blustery.
You can spend little more than 3 days in Odessa (and that's including 2 days at the beach!)

VYLKOVO TOURS: You may be tempted to go on a trip to Vilkovo, the 'Ukrainian Venice', on the Danube Delta south of Odessa. If you do, do NOT get your hopes up. The tour will probably be in Russian. You will be marched through some back alleys in a little village where there are a couple of dirty streams backed onto by ramshackle houses and be told that this is the 'Ukrainian Venice'... which ironically says a lot about Ukraine... Your tour may include a trip on the Danube and a meal in a restaurant with 'time to explore'. You will get a meal, sitting at a table with many others, you will get time to sit by the river - with everyone else on your tour... but you cannot leave the grounds of the restaurant... and you will have 3-4 hours to sit in the grounds of that restaurant. It is an opportunity to see rural life in Ukraine, but it is NOT Venice...

If you want to get out of Odessa, you're better off going to Bilgorad Dnistrovsky, a quiet, laid-back town about 70km south (buses go there regularly from a street immediately to the West of the train station), centred on a big, old castle (ask for 'Zamok'). On the way you'll pass through a number of wonderful seaside village (Karolina Bugaz, Zatoka and others) which are great places to chill out on long beaches of white sand... but the accommodation is generally booked solid in the high season, and exorbitantly priced. Go there in June or September when the weather is still good but prices not stupidly inflated.

Uman: Lying mid-way between Kiev and Odessa, Uman is a historical park constructed by a rich Duke over 200 years ago to immortalise the beauty of his young bride. Their marriage ended in infidelity and tragedy, the old Duke dying within a few days of a 'broken heart'. His bride lived out the rest of her years alone adding to the park the Duke had built for her. It's a large, landscaped area including scuptures, lakes, rivers, fountains and waterfalls. It is a popular place with all Ukrainians at the weekend and on public holidays but still large enough to relax in and spectacular with autumn colours. Almost all buses travelling between Odessa and Kiev stop there. Uman's main bus station is about 100 metres from the northern entrance to the park. There is a hotel next to the entrance which, if you want to explore the park without crowds of other visitors, is worth staying in to enter the park early the next morning.

KAMYANETS-PODILSKY: 'the museum city', central Ukraine... has an impressive castle, but the 'city' itself is undergoing major restoration work at this time and looks like a building site.

HOTYN CASTLE: not far from Kamyanets-Podilksy is a bus ride (take bus from Kamyanets to Chernivtsi) and a walk away (there ARE signs to it!): a very impressive 16th century castle. A great place to visit in summer, take a picnic....

LVOV (L'viv): a small Prague without a river. The pleasure is to walk through the winding streets peering at a host of different churches. Climb the steps of the tower in the Town Hall in the central square to get a good look at the buildings below. The Apteka museum in one corner of the square is fascinating. Don't miss the Armenian Cathedral. The train station is a good 30 minutes walk from the centre of the town.

Carpathian Mountains... are probably not as impressive as you'd expect if you read (or hear Ukrainians eulogising) about them. There is a huge amount of litter there (Ukrainians have a tradition of leaving something of their's at a place which means they will return there.... unfortunately what most of them choose to leave, tying it to trees etc. is a plastic bottle or sweet wrapper, condom or empty crisp packet). They are restful in the summer, with a slow pace of life, but there are many more beautiful places in the world. Skiing in the winter there is exorbitant over the Xmas-New Year period... it's cheaper to go to France (let alone Bulgaria or Romania...) where you'll get much better skiing, conditions, and service. Recently there has not been very good snow.

Pochayev monastry. Out of the way; difficult to get to, but an impressive cave monastry all on its own, isolated on a hill in the middle of nowhere... missable if you've been to teh lavra caves in Kiev, but interesting all the same.

Posted by maxxxman 14:16 Archived in Ukraine Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Ukraine.... honestly....

Some observations and what to expect.... (Odessa orientated)

sunny 29 °C

This information is in 2 parts: a few paragraphs of general overview, Ukrainian psyche and what to expect, followed by the Tips and Tricks...

I arrived here 2 years ago. I didn't really know what to expect. Sure, I researched, looked at pictures, found out what I could, but none of it compared to what I found, so, believing that fore-warned it fore-armed here is some REAL information about what to expect... (keeping in mind that I am based in Odessa...)

This year (as in other parts of the world) prices in Ukraine have soared. A cup of coffee in a mid-range cafe in central Odessa costs the same as in any English city; Kiev is more expensive. Ukraine, even more than other countries in East and West Europe has been hit very badly by the economic crisis. Ukraine-specific problems involve a drastic downturn in demand for its steel, national and private companies clawing back money from consumers which was demanded by Ukraine's gas supplier (Russia) earlier this year, many years of inefficient and inept government, a rash of public borrowing which has now been hit by interest rates, unemployment etc. As an example of the situation: Odessa Prison (home for 5000 inmates, in custody for a range of offences, including serious crimes) was forced to have an amnesty and let prisoners go because the state could not afford to feed them. Exchange rates have changed dramatically: The street exchange rate UAH (Gryvna) to EURo is 11:1 (this time last year it was about 6.5:1). Correspondingly, the cost of goods has risen and availability of some goods (due to import problems) has declined. This makes Ukraine a) a cheap place to visit but b) unemployment and the impact of the crisis upon crime-levels and costs of services for tourists (the costs could easily rise for tourists) has yet to be established.

In Ukrainian cities you will encounter poverty alongside exceptional wealth. Old women rooting through rubbish among stray dogs (and there are LOTS of stray dogs and cats in this country) next to a Lexus Range Rover with chrome and all options, its owner wearing designer clothes and diamonds, is a common sight. Ukrainians are obsessed with money. If they have wealth, they flaunt it and, having wealth renders you more or less above the law. Known murderers walk freely around Odessa because they are very rich men who simply pay off the police. If people don't have wealth, they flaunt what little they have. As unpleasant as it may be the reasons for this are understandable (until 20 years ago Ukraine never had a free, materialist, capitalist economy; there was no opportunity for all...), but there is a less pleasant underside: many people will do whatever they can to gain money (marriage agencies being one option for most women - see seperate blog on 'ukrainian women... the truth!'), and much of the wealth you see comes from (or originally came from) criminal activity. Furthermore, again, because of the lack of tradition of, or system for, the sharing of wealth, no one pays tax on their true salary, there is no monitoring of unemployment levels, there is virtually no state support for the disabled, pensioners, unemployed etc... so the rich guard their wealth and flaunt it, and the poor do what they can... which frequently involves turning to drink (don't be surprised to see people - men and women - walking to work at 08.30 swigging a bottle of beer) or drugs (Odessa region has a huge drug problem and, associated with this, is ranked number 8 in the world for HIV and AIDS infections) and criminal activity. With the political situation as it is (a mess), the legal system utterly corrupt, and everyone out for themselves, in the forseeable future the situation will not change radically. The amazing thing is that, despite all these obstacles and hurdles, things still somehow 'work'... more or less: people go about their work, the streets get cleaned, people party hard and most, somehow, have enough to eat and a place to live.

Ukraine is NOT Europe, human rights, santitation issues, social security, corruption, a total absence of any kind of state regulation... it all means that it will be a long time before Ukraine can reach the level required to join the EU. Indeed, many Ukrainians don't want to be part of Europe. Although it is changing as, gradually, more people here travel, a certain propaganda-inspired prejudice against Europe exists (especially among the older, Communist-era citizens). News reports often talk about the number of paedophiles in Europe, the fact that Ukrainian education is infinitely better than in the rest of the world, the fact that (for example) more English people are criminals than anywhere else in the world... etc. Locals despise what they have learned to see as European 'coldness' in their attitude towards life and money, lauding instead the Ukrainian 'Russian soul'.... Try to reason with them that their 'Russian soul' has not got most of them very far in terms of standards of living, infrastructure etc. and they'll say that they prefer to be 'free' than worry about these things.... That said, Ukraine is a divided country. The West - a beautiful area with far older cultural heritage and which speaks Ukrainian - is far closer to European standards (and 'mind') than the central, South or East. In fact, this division extends to language (Odessa region and the East) speak Russian and resent the recent requirements for all cinema to be shown in Ukrainian and all children to learn Ukrainian at school. These areas are closer to Russia... perhaps in the future, Ukraine will split into two countries, but for now, it muddles by.

That little general rant out of the way, some things to note - TIPS AND TRICKS!:

Most shops in most towns and of course major cities are open from 09.00/10.00 until usually 21.00 or 22.00. 'Produkty' type shops - local grocery stores - may be open 24 hours (they are located on every city block). There are many public holidays in Ukraine: most supermarkets and consumer shops remain open; public transport continues to work, but more specialist providers will probably be closed (law firms, travel agencies, translation services...). Beaches and every beauty spot in the land are swamped with holiday-makers during the first big holiday of the year: May First... and also Women's Day (March 8). Don't be surprised to see lots and LOTS of drunk merry-makers in the streets on Public holidays.

Ukrainian currency (UAH: 'hyrvna'; pronounced 'Grivna', but you'll also hear people talking in 'Roubles') is only available in Ukraine. It is (artificially) tagged to the US dollar.... 2009 has seen significant changes in exchange rates (favouring EUR and USD). Change all your UAH before you leave the country, but keep in mind that although foreigners can buy UAH they are not legally allowed to change their UAH into any other currency. In the past Ukraine was a dual currency nation (even though it was illegal to use US dollars, everyone did and everyone was paid in USD), and, given the economic situation it may return that way in the future.... it has done so yet though. So if you want to pay for anything, it must be done in UAH. It's best to get them from an ATM using your cash card.

Alcohol and cigarettes are very cheap (almost everyone drinks [heavily, compared to Western standards.... it is difficult to convey the huge role drinking alcohol has in Ukrainian culture] and basically everyone smokes). Non-smoking areas in restaurants are a rarity - and will probably be one table surrounded by smokers. Only the Ukrainian chain restaurants of Jaru-Paru and Puzata Huta are ALL non-smoking, which is great if you want a non-smoking refuge. Trains and buses are non-smoking and most people adhere to this rule (one of the few rules they do adhere to).

VISA issues: you will be given an entry card (or will pick up an entry card) at your point of entry. Complete this and keep it with you passport. Part of it will need to be returned when you leave the country. Don't lose it. Currently EU citizens (and some others) do not need a pre-confirmed visa for stays of up to 60 days (no work entitlement) but plans are afoot to change this back to the old days when no foreigners were allowed to enter without a pre-arranged visa... obviously this plan makes no logical sense regarding the economy and future of the country but... that's Ukrainian mentality.

Public service - do NOT expect service with a smile. Expect grumpy, surly, unhelpful inattention, including many restaurants (where clientele are more international, this is changing). In Ukraine the customer is almost never right. And check your bills before paying in restaurants. If there is a problem ask to speak to the 'administrator'. Tips are occasionally included, if not it is a non-mandatory 10% (but not for taxi drivers, unless they carry your bags).

If travelling independently, learn the Cyrillic alphabet: street signs, destinations on buses and trains are all in cyrillic... basically everywhere. Signposting is also very bad. Many major landmarks are not signposted (try to find Potemkin steps in Odessa and, well, you won't find a single signpost to it). Tourist information services (if they exist) will probably not provide you with much information, so get yourself a good map and guidebook: 'Brandt Ukraine', new edition, is currently the best available (although it too is limited and contains some out of date information - things change quickly in Ukraine). A new website, operated through Odessa city council offers very good information about the city and surroundings, including accommodation, history and sites. As yet it is only in German and Russian, but English will go online some time soon. See www.odessatourism.in.ua

Do not drink the tap water. Some people I know do not even clean their teeth with it. Bottled water is freely available, often with gas (if you want without gas, specific 'Bez-Gaz'.

Water and electricity cuts are common. Bring a torch (especially in the dark days of winter).

Do NOT visit a Ukrainian doctor. I have no idea how they manage it, but they are the most inept professionals in a country with more than its fair share of ineptitude. I have heard too many horror stories, and have first-hand experience... You will be mis-diagnosed and/or mistreated, perhaps with medicines which have been banned in the West as potentially fatal (but, happy pharmaceutical companies continue to produce these drugs and sell them to countries where they are not regulated...). Most local people have a strange, animistic/witch-doctory notion of health and illness which the doctors also share.... BEWARE. Although a 'reciprocal health agreement' exists between the UK and Ukraine, as far as doctors here know, there is no such thing and you'll have to pay for everything, and won't be able to claim anything back from anyone (including - I guess - health insurance... no one will give you a receipt because all money you give is unofficial. Private hospitals may be an exeception but I've never visited one). The best thing to do is check out a good medical site online, find out what the treatment is and go to one of the multiple Aptekas (chemists'; drugstores; farmacias...) to buy what you want. You can buy anything you want at any of them. But don't necessarily listen to the advice you're given.

Summers are hot (last summer in the sunshine it frequently reached 48 degrees celsius in Odessa); winters are cold and snowy - especially everywhere except the south coast. Be prepared. When it rains, Ukrainians have not quite got their head around building gutters or good drainage. Downpipes empty onto pavements and streets become flooded. Again: be prepared.

Ukraine is, nowadays, a relatively safe place to visit (you won't have to worry about terrorist attacks; car bombings and anarchy belonged to the 1990s) but....

Odessa ha salways been a criminal city and it remains a centre for organised crime (smuggling etc.) but it will not directly effect you as a tourist.

Driving is best avoided. Car rental is expensive and driving across the borders requires all your paperwork to be in order and will involve lots of police attention (see below). Be very careful when crossing roads. Look both ways on one-way streets. Over 15,000 people were killed on roads in Ukraine last year. In England it was just over 500 and a major investigation was launched... Most people here buy their driving licences without a test so most do not know the basics of driving and treat it something like a real-life computer game. One week, earlier this year, I saw a car crash every day.

There are basically NO facilities for disabled travellers. Ramps exist in some places, but they are built at ridiculously acute angles - no one can get a pram up them, let alone a wheelchair.

Mosquitoes can be a problem in summer. They don't carry major diseases, but can be a nuisance, so buy something to kill them or keep them away - mosquito tablets, sprays etc. are available in most supermarkets locally.

Expect prejudice and extra police attention if you are not caucasian in appearance (see below). They are more likely to stop and search you.

Avoid deals with the police. They are mostly incompetent and will simply use it as an excuse to extort money from you. Be polite, and, even if you do speak Russian, pretend you don't (unless it becomes absolutely necessary). Always keep your passport (or, better, a xerox of the ID page and your Ukrainian entry visa) with you. Police can randomly check you in the street at any time. Many people here are, rightly, afraid of the police who are a law unto themselves. If you are the victim of a crime here, do not expect the police to go out of their way to help you. The prevailing attitude is that, if you let a crime happen to you, then that's your problem. If you want them to 'solve' a crime, you will probably have to pay them to do it. Use common sense when walking around at night, do not display valuables, do not talk loudly in your native (foreign) language, be wary of basic and common scams for money. For insurance purposes, you will need a form completed by the local police to make a claim. It will take a long time and you'll need the patience of Job and probably money for bribes to get it done.

Avoid manhole covers - some are loose... if you fall down one, you'll end up in a Ukrainian hospital which will probably finish you off...

Stray dogs here (and they are not culled... but should be) are wild. You probably wouldn't want to anyway, but don't try to pet them and be especially careful in winter and in parks when (and where) dogs can pack and become more aggressive. Several people I know have been bitten by dogs here and I've seen a child and mother attacked by dogs in the centre of Odessa. Obviously the police and no other authorities did anything to help them or solve the problem. No one I know has been infected, but, obviously, there is always the risk of rabies.

Most digital camera accessories etc. are available, but, as with most consumer goods, the prices are not cheap compared to what you can get on the High Street (or especially over the internet) in other countries.

Budget Hotels are generally expensive (for what you get... and 99% of the time you won't get breakfast included). Youth Hostels really exist only in Kiev (at this time)... a business opportunity waiting to be tapped... if you can get your head around Ukrainian red tape...

Hotels: if you are not issued with a key at reception, you will be given a card or slip of paper. Take this to the floor on which your room is situated. There will be a desk on that floor with a woman sitting at it. Give her the piece of paper and she will give you your room key. Unless you are prepared to pay relatively expensive European prices, in most places the quality of accommodation you will get will not be good value. Recommended 'cheap' hotels: Turist (Kiev), Hotel Kiev (Chernivtsi). Other places I have stayed at have not been particularly delightful.

If you are travelling on a budget from Odessa airport to the centre, go to the bus stop to the right of the main doors (right side of the carpark) and wait for minibus 117 which goes to the centre of the city. It costs 2 uah; taxi drivers will demand 70-100. The journey can take 20-90 minutes depending on traffic... Odessa has a major traffic problem on some days and at rush hours. Odessa airport is a tiny, soviet affair full of unneccessary rigmarole and often extensive queues.

In Odessa, useful tram number 5 goes from the main bus station to near the central train station and then on to Arkadia beach (and vice versa).

DO NOT CROSS FROM MOLDOVA TO UKRAINE/ODESSA VIA TRANSDNIESTRIA - the autonumous republic that now separates Moldova from Ukraine near Odessa. I have done it but STRONGLY DO NOT RECOMMEND YOU TRY. Visa restrictions to Moldova for EU citizens were lifted earlier this year but, because of Transdniestria, there are now NO train services (there used to be many) and the crossing must be by bus (or car). An alternative, far safer route, is to travel down the south of Moldova to Ukraine, near Izmail, then up to Odessa - it takes the same amount of time (about 6-7 hours city to city). Check which route your bus takes if you want to travel Moldova/South Ukraine: if it is via Tiraspol - forget it for your own safety. People go missing in Transdniestria (and having passed through, I can understand how and why)... There are no foreign consulates in Transd., no embassies, no one you can turn to for help because no other countries recognise it as existing. But... it does exist and it is amazing to think that that kind of lawless place exists, these days, on the doorstep of Europe and yet no one does anything about it....

Some of my related blogs (coming soon or available now...): Ukraine... Highlights and Lowlights; Ukrainian Women... The Truth!; Budget Travel in Ukraine...

Posted by maxxxman 11:24 Archived in Ukraine Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

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