“Clashes outside Ukraine Parliament” (Reuters, 31 August 2015), “Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Terror” (Daily Beast, 1 September 2015), “What the war in Ukraine looks like” (Washington Post, 17 August 2015). These are just a few headlines you see when you search on Google News for Ukraine. If you have to believe the media, then you would think that Ukraine is a very unsafe country where a bomb could explode at any moment. You surely don’t want to travel there, right? Well, that’s exactly what I did last summer. As stubborn as I am I went to Ukraine. The goal was volunteer work in the city of Lviv, but at the same time I was curious to find out what it’s really like in Ukraine. For months I wanted to answer one question: is Ukraine safe for travelers?
The Ukrainian conflict
Before I answer that question, I’d like to shed some light on the situation in Ukraine. Yes, this country is still in war. And it is a bloody war that has been going on since March 2014 and has cost the lives of 6.000 civilians and soldiers. Hundreds of soldiers are still missing and at least a million people fled their homes to safer areas around Kiev or to go to Belarus and even to Russia (source: VN report February 2015). A horrible situation that cannot be ignored. But what do you see when you’re actually in Ukraine? Nothing. Well, almost nothing. You will see some amputees begging on the street for money. You will see military tents of the volunteer battalions showing the war through pictures. You will see collecting jars in cafés where you can donate to the army. And you will see soldiers on leave walking down the streets in uniforms. But that’s it. Life continues as it has always done. People go to work, take a stroll through the park, drink coffee in a cafe and enjoy their sunny weekends.
In Kiev you will see more fragments of the war and its prehistory, which is not that weird because Kiev is the political centre and a lot of protests took place on its central Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti). The most well-known are the Maidan protests between November 2013 and March 2014, also known as Euromaidan. This protest started out as a pro-European one, but after some time it focused more on the Ukrainian government. More than 100 people were killed during the protests. The Ukrainians often refer to these deaths with the term the ‘Heavenly Hundred’. After the protests in Kiev rebellion started in other parts of Ukraine. In March 2014 the Crimea declared itself independent and applied to join Russia. A month later the provinces Donetsk and Luhansk followed by their declaration of a people’s republic. A decision with huge consequences for Ukraine. One and a half year later this country is in – what looks like – a dead end war with the eastern Ukrainian separatists.
Ukraine’s Heavenly Hundred
Is Ukraine safe to travel?
In short my answer: Yes, a great part of Ukraine is safe to travel. I mainly traveled in the western parts of the country and I never felt unsafe. Maybe the military presence on the streets had something to do with this, but there are also some other reasons.
1. Ukraine is huge
Did you ever look at Ukraine on the map? It’s huge! Ukraine is almost twice as big as Germany and sixteen times as big as the Netherlands. The closest I have come to the war zone is the capital Kiev and that’s still a long way from the conflict area. For instance, you could compare the distance between Kiev and Donetsk with the distance between Amsterdam and Berlin. So you won’t even get close to the war zone. Moreover, Ukraine has 24 provinces. Only two of those are in war, the remaining 22 provinces (together they make up 91,2% of Ukraine) are calm. No granites, no tanks and no bombs. In the most parts of Ukraine ordinary life goes on.
2. Ukrainian people are super friendly
I actually expected the Ukrainian people to be a bit rigid and self-orientated. And in some cases this was true, but I also met a lot of friendly Ukrainian people. For instance, when I was carrying my suitcase along the streets of Chernivtsi I got all of the sudden help from a local, which was pretty nice because Chernivtsi has a lot of steep hills. It also helped that I spoke a bit of Russian, because in Ukraine hardly anyone speaks English.
3. The public transport is perfect
During my trip through Ukraine I spent a lot of days and nights in trains and busses. This turned out to be the perfect way of exploring such a big country. I especially liked the night train, because it’s a cheap way of traveling and saves you a night at a hotel. I always booked the cheapest class where you end up in a sort of open dormitory. Ear plugs are your best friend here, because you will sleep together with 30 people and there’s always someone that snores. As for your suitcase, it will just stand in the hallway, because there’s pretty much no option to put it somewhere. You might think that this is very dangerous, but it’s actually okay. It’s kind of hard to steal somebody’s luggage in a crowded train. Just put a lock on it and it will be fine.
4. Don’t do stupid things
Don’t do things you normally don’t do. For instance, don’t go out into the streets alone after 10 / 11 pm. Although you will probably be fine, there is always a chance you will meet the wrong crowd (like in any big city). And when you arrive late at night in a new city, I advise you to take a taxi to your hotel or hostel. Don’t go wandering, because you don’t where you are and train stations are always a bit further away from the city center. The taxi fares are a bit higher at night, but at least you’ll arrive safely.
Would you visit Ukraine?
A note: this post describes my experiences in Ukraine in August 2015. Although the situation back then was safe in most parts of the country, this could always change. If you decide to travel to Ukraine, always make sure to check the latest travel warnings on the website of your Ministry of Foreign Affairs.