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