Ukraine (Ukrayina) is a country in Eastern Europe. It lies at the northwest end of the Black Sea, with Russia to the east, Belarus to the north, Poland to the northwest, Slovakia and Hungary to the west, and Romania to the south west and south, with Moldova in between.
Most of the country (the central and eastern portions) was formerly a part of Tzarist Russia; after WWII, the entire country (except the Crimea) - known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic - was a part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe.
Ukrainian history is long and proud, with the early dominance of Kievan (or Kyivan) Rus as arguably the most powerful state in 10th-century Europe. While this state did not last and Ukraine becoame part of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth form the 14. th. until the 18. th. century, even modern Ukraine owes it a debt of sorts. A subsequent Ukrainian state was able to - in the face of pressure from the ascendent Muscovy - remain autonomous for more than a century, however the Russian Empire absorbed much of Ukraine in the 18th century.
Despite a brief flash of independence at the end of the czarist regime, Ukraine was reconquered by the new USSR and subject to two disastrous famines as well as brutal fighting during the Second World War. The 1986 Chernobyl accident was a further catastrophe.
With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine regained independence, however there were concerns that democracy did not really exist. These concerns came to a head with the heavily-disputed 2003 Presidential Election, where allegations of vote-rigging sparked what became known as the "Orange Revolution". This revolution resulted in the election of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko as President, and it remains to be seen if the new government will be able to deliver greater freedom.
The country is often referred to in English with the definite article, as the Ukraine. The reason for this usage appears to stems from the country previously being formally called The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during the soviet era; with prefixing the definite article being necessary usage in English for that form of the name. This English article usage carried over into the abbreviated form of the former Republic's name, which is now the country's name. While this usage is still considered acceptable English to many, media organisations especially are now avoiding it for the sake of political correctness as the definite article is a reminder of Soviet domination. Using in Ukraine is probably a more acceptable usage, especially for Ukranian ears.
Citizens of former USSR republics (except Turkmenistan), Canada, EU-- since Viktor Yushchenko rose to power in early 2005--, Japan, Liechtenstein, Mongolia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Switzerland, Norway, USA don't require visas for stays up to 90 days when entering with a valid travel passport. Note that technically this is only to travel to Ukriane as a 'visitor' - studying or working purposes, even if for less than 90 days, should still require a visa to be issued even for the aforementioned countries. For citizens of other countries formally it should take up to 10 working days to receive a Ukrainian visa (unless you pay through the nose for the 'express' services that the embassies can provide) but in seemingly arbitrary cases it may be issued on the same day at no additional cost, although don't plan on this. More information from Ukrianian embassies in your country and/or the Foreign service departments of your national governments (or their embassy websites here in Ukraine)
The cheapest way to fly into Ukraine is through Kiev Borispol. The main international hubs for these flights are London, Paris, Amsterdam via BA and Air France/KLM, and Prague via CSA Czech Airlines; also Ukraine International, which code-shares on these routes with the respective carriers and another Ukrainian carrier AeroSvit. Important to check in detail though, as flights are wont to change at short notice, and also deals on flights come and go, depending on the whim of the carrier. No low-cost carriers into Ukraine as yet (March 2006) There are several airlines which offer direct flights to cities like Odessa (MALEV, LOT, Austrian, CSA Czech Airlines), Kharkiv and L'Viv (LOT, Austrian Airlines), but they will be more expensive. Air Baltic flies to/from Riga (Latvia) and Vilnius (Lithuania).
You can get in Ukraine by train from any land-bordering neighbour. When coming from Europe you should spend some time changing rail wheels in order to adapt to different rail distance standard. Generally, in Ukraine a railway travel is much cheaper than plane, and is comparable (but probably cheaper) to bus or car travel. It will take at most a whole day to ride across the country, so unless you are in hurry take a train. It's a good practice to take long-distance trains, which are much more comfortable. Avoid cheap third-class travels if you're cautious of local experiences.
The main route into Ukraine from the West is via Poland - the only 24 hour customs post is in Lvivska Oblast at a place called Kruskavetz, which as a 'place' is essentially just the customs post - and it's not marked on most maps either.
The nearest significant town on the Polish side is Przemysl, and it's straightford to find by following route # 4 (which passes through Przemysl), also known as the E40 in European terms.
When you arrive, the road is fairly narrow (no motorway/autobahn this) with a queue of trucks and vans parked to the right of the road; a hard-core parking area with cafe/bar to the left. Don't stop behind the goods vehicles, slip up the side of them and then feed into the customs area when the guy flags you forward (for courteous Europeans, you're not jumping the queue - commercial traffic goes through a different process).
If you're in an EU registered car then make for the EU-passports, passport control section. Thence to Ukrainian passport control and then Ukrainian customs and then you're through. It used to be a nightmare, with apocryphal tales of 5-6+ hours at the border, but the Ukrainians have made great advances in effeciency and it takes about an hour to make the crossing (September 2005 - still true in Feb 2006).
Once through, just follow the main road towards L'viv/L'vov on the E40 - this is the route right across Ukraine to Kyiv (and thence on to the East). Stick to this - the main towns on the way are Lviv/Lvov, Rivne, Zhitomir.
Watch out about 15-20 km inside Ukraine, I think the village is called Mostika, as they have gone crazy about traffic calming measures here (speed bumps or sleeping policemen). They're like icebergs across the road, and very badly marked. And there are about four or five sets of them through the village. Other than that, take care on the road, which although the main East/West highway, and the main road route into the EU, still remains in a miserable condition (surface-wise). And you'll soon realise why Ukraine has such poor statistics in relation to driver and pedestrian fatalities and injuries. Drive defensively is the optimum advice re the roads, other road users and the walking, riding public.
The quickest way to get around big cities is the so-called marshrutka - the minibuses which follow routes much like the regular buses do. The fare is paid as soon as you get in. You tell the driver that you want to get off when you're approaching the destination. Each city has an inter-city bus station from which you can go pretty much anywhere in Ukraine. Fares and quality of service vary widely.
Trains in Ukraine are really cheap. For example: Simferopol to Lvuv for 8 Euros ("platzkart") on overnight train with sleeping-car. The problem is that trains are quite popular in Ukraine and you have to buy the tickets well in advance. There are always 3 kinds of ticket counters: 1 group for trains that go on the same day, 1 for trains that go within 7 days and 1 for trains that go within 45 days. Buying tickets for the same day is usually not such a big problem as long as they are still available. But tickets for trains that leave not on the same day you usually have to stand in line for a very long time. Sometimes up to 4 hours! For buying tickets you have to present your passport. Also when getting on the train you will be asked to show it. You might want to get the more expensive tickets ("SV" and "kupe"). Being a foreigner and travelling in "platzkart" (compartments without doors) is not so safe, especially if you are travelling alone. But if you keep your valuable objects somewhere inside your sleeping bag or close to your body you should not experience any problems. A first class cabin is a very good deal. The cabin has (staple)beds for two persons and you have privacy and safety because you can lock the door. The price from Lvov to Odesa was in 2004 round 25 euro p.p!
It is possible to get around in Ukraine by car, but one must be aware of certain particulars, and be prepared for pitfalls:
The signs are all in Ukrainian. Only a few signs (every 200km or so) are written in the Latin alphabet, and indicate main cities. It is recommended you have a good road map (those available are mainly in Ukrainian, but Latin alphabet maps are starting to appear), because place names aren't well posted on road signs.
You are strongly advised to respect the signs, especially speed limits. Be aware that unlike in Western countries, where limits are repeated several times, in Ukraine, an obligation or a prohibition is often indicated on a single sign, which you must not miss. The police are always there to remind you.
You should avoid conflicts with officials. Bribery is a common practice, but it is not at all advised to foreigners, and may get you into further trouble.
Speed in cities is limited to 60km/h (40mph). Speed in "nationals" is limited to 90km/h (55mph). Speed on highways is limited to 120km/h (75mph).
Fuel is no longer a problem in Ukraine, especially for those who remember travelling to Ukraine during the early 1990s, when gasoline was considered precious. Today, there are plenty service stations. There are varying types of fuel, such as diesel, unleaded 95 octane, and (more rarely) unleaded 98 octane; one finds also 80 and 76 octane. Note that if you choose to fill-up in a rural filling station, you will need to pay first, and in cash.
Fuel is much less expensive than in Western Europe (counting 4.1 hr for a litre of 95RON unleaded, which amounts to about 75 Euro cents, 5.2hr for 98). Quality of fuel equals Western European - and you'll not find leaded fuel.
The state of the roads is a huge subject:
The main roads are okay for all cars, as long as you don't go too fast. Numerous running repairs have created a patchwork road surface, and it will seriously test your suspension - even on the major dual carriageways.
Secondary roads are passable, but beware: certain zones can be full of potholes and you must treat them with extra care, or avoid them entirely. Roads between villages are often little more than dirt tracks and not metalled. Treat as inaccessible unless you're driving a 4x4.
Road works have been ongoing, but the quality of the roads is far shy of Western Europe...
Be careful when driving in towns or villages. Sometimes pets prefer to walk on the road, and they are a hazard for all drivers. You're likely to see plenty of animals hit by cars, so be prepared...
Bicycle traffic is not very common, but you will sometimes see an aged man transporting a sack of grass on an old road-bike or a cycling enthusiast in bright clothes riding a semi-professional racing bike. Those are even more likely to be met on well-maintained roads where the pavement is smooth.
Also, don't be surprised to see plenty of horse drawn carts - even on the dual carriageways.
Hitchhiking in the Ukraine is average. Drivers usually request money when they stop - it's a bit cheaper than public transportation (also cheap). But still it's possible to go by hitchhiking - usually cargo trucks will take you for free - but it's still worth to try stop personal cars as well. Good people are everywhere; you may be picked up in a Lada or a Lexus. (More usually the former.)
The usual hitchhiking gesture (also used to hail taxis and marshrutkas) is to face oncoming traffic and point at the road with a straight right arm held away from the body. Sometimes, for visibility, you may add a downward waving motion of the open right hand.
Ukrainian is the official language. Near the neighboring countries, Russian, Romanian, Polish, and Hungarian are spoken. Russian is a close relative of Ukrainian and is most often the language of choice in the south and east of Ukraine. It is safe to assume that in large cities everyone would understand Russian (the post-Soviet heritage), however, beware that in central and especially western parts people may be reluctant to help you if you speak Russian. On the other hand, in eastern parts and especially Crimea, Russian is commonplace. Young people speak a little English, because it's common as a foreign language in school.
If you are traveling to the Ukraine learn either basic Ukrainian or basic Russian before hand (i.e. know your phrase book well). Virtually nobody in any official position (Train Stations, Police, Bus drivers, Information Desks, etc.) will be able to speak any language other than Russian or Ukrainian. If you already know another Slavic language you will be able to communicate sufficiently.
It is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet; this will save you a lot of time and difficulty.
To do shopping you would most certainly need local currency (hryvnias). Dollar, euro and Russian ruble exchange points are very common in cities, and exchange rate is usually quite fair (e.g. if you exchange from dollars to hryvnyas and back you'll lose only about 0.5%). However, sometimes and in some banks there are problems with cache deposits (or that is the official version), so do not exchange too much dollars unless you're travelling to scarcely-habitated locations. When doing person-to-person payments you might be able to pay in dollars or euros, for those are widely recognized as solid currency, and you might in fact get better rates than in official exchange poins. However, be careful with that, because it's not strictly legal to make payments with foreign currency.
If you want to buy any kind of artwork (paintings, easter eggs) in Kiev, the place to visit is Andriivsky Uzviz (Андріівський узвіз in Ukrainian, Андреевский спуск in Russian).
Food in Ukraine can sometimes cause stomach problems. Cheese, sausage, meat, milk and other fresh products that will spoil unless refrigerated are the most dangerous products in this respect. The traditional Ukrainian preventive measure is to drink vodka. Be also aware of products that have expired. Although the date printed on the product is misleading: It's usually the production date and somewhere else is stated how long after production the product is good.
Hotels might be a traumatic experience for a westerner anywhere outside Kiev. The cheaper the hotel, the larger the chance of some quite unfortunate surprises, especially for those not familiar with the Soviet-style level of service which still remains in many places. There are many mid- range (E 25-45) options outside Kiev. For instance in Ivano Frankivsk (near the Carpathians) we have paid 35 euro for a suite (bedroom and sitting room)in Hotel Nadia. Many hotels have the choice between renovated rooms/suites ("western style") and not renovated rooms (easteuropean style). The last choice is more than 50% cheaper and gives you a spacious oldfashioned 2 room suite, basic but clean! An other option is to rent an apartment on internet before you leave your country.Many choice in Kiev and Odesa. Tip read Kiev in your pocket on internet!
What many people from ex-soviet countries do is to go at the railway station and there try to find people who are willing to rent a room. Prices are usually much cheaper and if there are enough people offering the room you can make great deals (in Yalta people are almost fighting to be able to talk to you). These deals are usually not legal and they will take you to a corner before negotiating. Make sure they have warm water, and don't be affraid to say it's not what you expected when seeing the room. If they smell you're a foreigner prices will triple or quadruple.
Many people will tell you that you can take a copy of your visa with you. Sadly I've experience and seen some people experience trouble over this. It's always better to carry your passport with you. A photocopy can be refused as proof of identity. A phonecall to a local that can help you will often prove very effective to help you.
Try not to publicize the fact that you're a foreigner - by clothing or otherwise. With the exception of Kiev, Odesa and a few other large cities, foreign tourists are quite rare. You may get robbed.
Opposite, if being arrested by police or other law enforcement - do your best to inform them that you're Westerner (if you are). None of the policemen speaks foreign languages freely. Ask intellectual-looking people around for translation help.
Don't drink alcohol in a company of unknown people (which may be suggested more freely than in the West). You don't know how much are they going to drink (and convince you to drink with them), and what conflicts may arise after that. Also, many Ukrainians (especially peasants, military and students) can sometimes consume such a dose of vodka that would be poisonous for a beer-accustomed Westerner.
Your Financial Security
Ukraine (as well as the whole post-Soviet region) is a predominantly cash economy. The network of bank offices and ATMs is growing fast and has become sufficient in the large cities. So you can cash your credit cards of travel checks easily. But avoid using your card for payments: retailers are not trained and controlled enough to ensure your card privacy. Instead, it is widely acceptable to pay significant amounts of cash. Locals (especially businesspeople) sometimes carry and pay cash amounts unusually large as for the West. Don't suspect criminal activity in every such case.
Also, it is strongly recommended to avoid individual (street) currency exchangers as they are predominantly thiefs. Use special exchange booths and banks; watch the rate tricks like 5.059/5.62 buy/sell instead of 5.59/5.62.
The dollar is generally accepted as a form of currency, particularly in tourist area. The Euro, while exchangeable, is generally not used as a form of currency. When it is used you'll be paying with it as though it was a dollar, which is not particularly favorable. If you want to bring spare cash, bring dollars.
The area around U.S. embassy in Kyiv is known for the provocateur groups targeting African-Americans, and there have been reports of such attacks on Andryevski, the main tourist street that runs from Mykailovska down into Podil. Anecdotal experience is that there is underlying racism in Ukraine, indeed much of the FSU. Blacks are commonly referred to as Mafpa/Makaka - monkey in Ukrainian/Russian; 'ethnically different' groups receive much closer and frequent attention from the Militia. Always have your passport (or a photocopy of the main pages if you're concerned about losing it or if you're staying in a hotel that is holding it) as foreigners are treated more favorably than others. This is not to say that it is unsafe or threatening, but it is better to be forewarned of the realities.
Ukraine is a country of stray/wild/homeless dogs - easily recognizable by their dirty look and cold temper. They just live on the streets and yards (mostly in the suburbs) and are not dangerous. Mostly you can step over the animal lying on the paveway without any hostile reaction. However, don't show excessive tender or panic towards these dogs: it may awake their well-oppresed instincts. Avoid lactating bitches and domestic dogs.
While there's a lot of swimming and diving attractions throughout Ukraine, local water rescue is tremendously underfunded. It is unlikely that you would be noticed while drowning, especially on the river. Use only officially established beaches, and try to avoid being too drunk when swimming.
Ukraine has some of the worst statistics for road related deaths and injuries in the world - so act accordingly. Take care when crossing the roads; walk and drive defensively - be aware that traffic overtakes on both the inside and outside. Sometimes you even need to take care when using the pavements, as in rush-hours the black, slab-sided Audis/BMWs/Mercedes sometimes opt to avoid the traffic by using the pavement; pedestrians or not.
Also be warned that pavements suffer in the same way as the roads in terms of collapsing infrastructure. Take care when walking, especially in the dark and away from the downtown areas of the main cities (a torch is a useful possession) as the streets are poorly lit, and the surface often dangerously pot-holed. Don't step on man-hole covers, as these can 'tip' dropping your leg into the hole with all the potential injuries!
There is radiation contamination in the northeast from the accident at Chornobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. However the effect is negligible unless you permanently live in Chornobyl area itself. There are even tours to the town of Prypyat' which is the closest to the station. The town is famous for the haunting scenery of blocks of apartment buildings abandoned in 1986, now standing out amid the vegetation which spawned from years of neglect.
Ukraine is by no means a conservative country with respect to clothing or behaviour. It is very similar to the way you would behave in a western country.
Moreover, you should not judge locals from your own conservative point of view. Ukrainian women are very attractive. Unlike the West, many of them wear risque clothes. Normally this does not mean that the woman is a prostitute or “easy”. So straightforward proposal would be an effective way to insult her.
Enquire the locations of your country's embassy/consulates before you leave. Generally only Ukraine's neighbours have representatives anywhere besides Kiev.