Before entering Ukraine, I was apprehensive about what I might expect. The country was at war and the news was rampant with stories of racism and far-right controversy. A friend of mine who visited said he witnessed foreigners being hassled and shouted at in the airport, which nerved me, making me contemplate what I might do to repel such attacks.
Considering Ukraine and eastern Europe had been painted as land with few to no people of colour at all the stories didn’t surprise me. My initial instinct was to shave and deliver them a visitor that would look as white as possible to avoid unnecessary confrontation.
Off I went, sporting a clean-shaven face, one which, shocked and surprised my family. They had largely known me to have a face landscaped with the bushiest of beards, and on the morning I was due to leave for Kharkiv via Kyiv, I made an event of the unveiling of my jaw skin.
The night before, everyone was in bed, so I decided to use this time to prepare for the trip, wash and of course shave as I had an early flight the next morning. Looking at myself in the mirror, I took a deep breath, gulping several times before biting the bullet to mow my face lawn.
Getting into bed, I slapped the sides of my chops and said to my wife ‘hey, check out the new man’, she woke briefly from a deep slumber to smile below her still closed eyes, before her head abruptly fell back asleep slamming the pillow with great intent.
In the morning she awoke to shock and incomprehension – her husband had left her and, in his place, this new man stood. She looked surprised, betrayed and amused simultaneously. She allowed herself to compute the changes I had adapted before smiling and laughing at me.
In the next room, my then 8-year-old daughter slept. I quickly scooped her up in my arms, sheep still jumping the fence and all, taking her downstairs where she could assess the changes.
Still rubbing her eyes like a cartoon character awoken from sleep, she gently stepped forward in amazement. “Daddy? Is that you?” Yes, I replied. “Daddy…” she said laughing “…when will you be normal again?”
Choosing a season
In my opinion, the best season to travel is in winter, but that’s just me, I enjoy freezing cold weather. If you do happen to travel in the wintertime, be prepared to meet -20 Celcius temperatures. So be sure to pack thick gloves, sweaters, fleeces, woolly hats and thick trousers. Protect your chest area most.
In the summertime, the weather is beautiful at 35 Celcius depending on where you are. I am told Odessa is a great place to visit, but you can enjoy the summertime anywhere. Oh, and expect the most vicious mosquitoes ever. This is coming from someone who has travelled to Pakistan and Somalia.
There aren’t any known health risks in the country, but ticks can carry encephalitis, so speak to your pharmacist before travelling. Especailly if you plan to go to forested areas.
Landing in Ukraine
Having ferried from the airport in Kyiv to a plane bound for Kharkiv I walked through a brief moment of the temperatures that were due to be unleashed upon me in a Ukrainian August. Upon landing, the inland heat smacked me dead in the face as I sweated without warning or permission.
Kyiv is a very well organised airport and the staff are highly professional. Whereas, Kharkiv is a different story.
Kharkiv’s airport was like a ghost town. There were very few people, and although I landed at night, I expected there to be a larger number of arrivals. Like all airports across the world, taximen stood like American football players in formation, waiting to find a person that would accept verbal contracts to go anywhere they wanted at above average Ukrainian prices.
Kharkiv’s airport is small and it is impossible to get lost. You might find mannerisms a little different to central Ukraine. Don’t take it personally. It’s just the way things work there.
My contact and soon to be great friend Artem was waiting for me dressed in a camouflaged army uniform, smoking a cigarette next to his now famous Renault Kangoo minivan. He smiled and greeted me with a warm hug. We discussed the politics of the country, the fact my grandfather was from L’viv and our family situations before he dropped me off at my hotel.
The country is decorated with Ukrainian flags on every lamppost, car and billboard as far as the eye could see. Potholes in the roads were an obvious eye-sore, a symptom of contrasting seasonal temperatures and corruption.
The most important thing – food!
Food is incredibly cheap in Ukraine, but sometimes unaffordable to Ukrainians. At present, the exchange rate usually hovers around 35UAH to a pound. To put this in perspective, dining at the nationally recognised sushi restaurant of Sushi-ya cost me approximately £5. In the UK, to eat sushi you need to quadruple that amount.
Breakfast (where I stayed) at the Iris Art hotel comprised of a mixed variety of foods including oatmeal with apple, fruits or chicken, yoghurt granola, a traditional English breakfast, traditional Ukrainian rye bread and of course – coffee.
For lunch and dinner, they offer pescatarian friendly options, although vegans should beware this country will not be a friendly place unless you’re in the capital.
Here they serve pretty much everything you can think of for a health-conscious person, including, strawberry/mango yoghurt granola and oatmeal made with buckwheat, oats or chia seeds. Not only this, but you can tuck into poached eggs on sourdough bread, custard and cream doughnuts and more. My favourite traditional rye bread is also on the menu.
If visiting the countryside, expect to be invited into homes that are self-sustaining. Locals have a knack for cooking, baking and cultivating. Many of the foods you encounter will be traditional Ukrainian dishes like borscht (beetroot soup) and vareniki, which are dumplings filled with different ingredients including potatoes, chicken, beef, cottage cheese and vegetables.
One man I visited prepared a glorious feast, including cream cakes, coleslaw (which I mistook for cake), chai and a huge assortment of canapés. He later loaded me with honey he farmed to take back to the UK.
Finding a hotel will be of little concern. The majority of establishments are well-kept operating within the boundaries of European Union standards. The only difficulty I can imagine a person to go through is the limited choices in food options at mealtimes. Otherwise, there should be no difficulties in finding a satisfactory place to stay. Airbnb hosts generally replicate the western aesthetic using the Ukrainian home model. Which means, you will often find a breakfast dining area complete with table, cooking area etc in very closed spaces.
In Kharkiv, the best hotel I have stayed at is the Iris Art Hotel. Otherwise, staying close to Cafe 16/54 in Constitution square is a good location. The metro connects easily with major lines and you can walk straight to Freedom square passing Shevchenko park, the Opera house (on top of it there is a nice Mexican restaurant run by American immigrants) including many other monuments and points of interest.
Kyiv is a little more complicated. Every district is pleasant but options for food and entertainment, including sight-seeing can be scattered. If I were to pick for everyone, finding a place on Kreschatyk street is best as it is surrounded by restaurants, shopping districts and if you’re working chances are it will be around there. Meeting people is easy, as it is a spot everyone knows.
Getting around and finding things
Getting around is simple due to left-over metro systems updated since Soviet times in most major cities combined with ride-hailing companies, tram systems and buses. Ukraine is equipped with more than enough. I prefer to walk everywhere in order to find new and undiscovered places which generally offer better and cheaper foods fit for locals.
If you enjoy sight-seeing, walking is a better way to get around, and as previously stated you will usually find undiscovered places only locals know about including milk bars and traditional Ukrainian restaurants.
Churches, monuments and boutique museums can be found in or near the central business districts and memorials are usually located nearby residential quarters. Not only that but convenience stores serving freshly cut vegetables and delicatessens are best outside of cities/town centres. Even better in residential areas.
Of course, you can use Google and Google maps to find places of interest, but you will find much of the best and quirky places are often unlisted.
At the end of the day, Ukraine is a fascinating place, changing many times between Soviet and independent rule. The language, the people are all shaped by values and history retained from the Soviet era including an embrace of multicultural communities and togetherness. I had no reason to shave my beard off, and my fears were bought from a bite of media bait.
Racism, although existent anywhere is only noticeable in Ukraine if media outlets use a magnifying glass. Generally, people in Ukraine who hear my stories of Islamophobia are often shocked, questioning why this discrimination happens. Much of this because Ukraine has always been a place of community. And it aspires to be a member of the European Union, sharing many of the EU’s values.
Ukraine is my secret place. I go there when I need to, when I want to and usually to feel better and happier. There is something about it that helps me form clarity and makes me feel at home and at peace.