Ukraine is in the news a lot these days. Actually, more than a lot, it is a non-stop bombardment. Unfortunately, Ukraine has become tied up with the political mess going on in America. It has played a central role in the recent impeachment of the United States President, Donald Trump.
If you listen to the majority of the news about Ukraine, you will think that taking a trip there would be risking your life. “The country is so corrupt”, “spies would be watching you as soon as you step off the plane”, and “watch out for those assassins”, the media says. But what is it really like in Ukraine?
I travelled to Ukraine in October of last year for business. I was hired to write a book. Before this, I knew practically nothing about Ukraine.
When most people think of Ukraine, they think of the capital, Kiev. However, there is another major city there that most foreign travelers never see and that is Kharkiv, which is where I was headed. Sitting near the Russian border, in the East, it is the second largest city in the Eastern European country, and used to be its capital in the early 1900s.
Preparing for my trip, I realized that Kharkiv was not far from the war going on in the country. Ukraine has been in a complicated and protracted war for the past five years involving separatist forces and Russia. I was traveling there to write a book and, as any good researcher would do, I studied up on the city of Kharkiv.
Would I be safe? Would the people dislike me because I am an American? It took me three flights and almost 30 hours to get there from Tampa. After a connection in the capital Kiev, I landed in Kharkiv. I stepped off the plane to find a modern, shiny new airport.
It was nighttime when I arrived and I was tired after my lengthy trip halfway across the world. I walked out into the busy airport corridor and found my two business associates that would help me with my trip. We exchanged pleasantries as they escorted me outside.
Cold air immediately enveloped me as I walked out into the October night, snowflakes slowly falling from the sky.
Coming from Tampa, Florida where it was hot, this was quite a shock to my system. Cars and people scurried by in front of the modern, well-lit airport. I was soon in a car heading to my hotel not far from the airport to get some much-needed sleep. As it was night and my hotel was reached mainly by backstreets, I did not see much of the country or city yet.
The next day, my business friends and I caught the equivalent of a “Ukrainian Uber” and I found myself in downtown Kharkiv. To my surprise, it was the opposite of what I had been led to believe from listening to the many news reports in America. It was a bustling, vibrant city. There were crowds of people walking through the streets, going about their daily lives, as well as students walking around the numerous Universities we passed by.
I walked down the cobblestone streets of the city and saw beautiful golden-domed churches wherever I looked. There were elderly ladies sweeping the sidewalks, and there was little trash or graffiti.
I tried to learn a little bit of Ukrainian before my trip. From what I gathered it seemed people were speaking both Ukrainian and Russian everywhere I went, which would make sense since the city is so close to the Russian border.
There were Ukrainian flags hanging everywhere; in front of restaurants, schools, government buildings, on poles lining the streets. Almost everywhere I looked, I saw the flag. The colors of the flag, blue and yellow, were seen painted on buildings all over as well.
The atmosphere was peaceful even though there was a war going on not far away. The truth is, the war is confined to only a small part of the country. You couldn’t get there even if you wanted to, as there are roadblocks preventing anyone from venturing there unless you have a good reason, such as you are in the Ukrainian Military and are going there to fight.
In contrast, I found hip cafes and restaurants similar to what you would find in NYC or Tokyo. There were international establishments as well as local places, serving all types of cuisine from Ukraine and around the world. The décor was almost always unique, with an innovative and artistic flare. I also noticed many places liked to use vibrant, multi-colored lights. The city was brimming with life and vitality. It is a large cultural hub of Ukraine.
The old Soviet buildings were much more elaborate than I ever imagined. They were extremely large, concrete buildings left over from the Soviet era that were converted to stores, apartment buildings, and schools. It gave the city a very unique atmosphere. I wondered to myself why more travelers hadn’t caught on to Kharkiv yet?
The truth is most Americans would have a hard time finding Ukraine on a map.
To me, I had found a hidden treasure, not only was the place beautiful, but it was cheap! You could get a beer for 0.40 cents. Hotels ranged the gamut from the basic essential room costing around $15 (or even less) a night to super luxurious that would run several hundred dollars per night. Kharkiv is also home to an amazing amusement park, Gorky Central Park. Entrance is free and the rides cost only $1 or $2 US. Locals call it the Ukrainian Disney World.
There are a lot of things for tourists to do in Kharkiv. You can catch a soccer (football) game at beautiful Metalist Stadium. You can visit Freedom Square, one of the largest city-center squares in Europe. Annunciation Cathedral is one of the oldest temples in the city, built in the Byzantine style. This candy-striped cathedral is an architectural marvel to see. Stare in awe at the beautiful golden domes of the Holy Virgin Monastery just steps from Constitution Square.
Of locals and unexpected impressions
Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe and yet, people know so little about it. There are so many conflicting stories being pumped out by the media, it is hard to know what to believe.
In my case, who would have thought I would find someone there that was considered the best Heavyweight MMA fighter in the world at one time? A lot of serious fight fans think he is the best MMA fighter ever, yet most probably never heard his name.
The whole reason I went to Ukraine was to write a book about this man, Igor Vovchanchyn. Igor was featured prominently in the documentary, “The Smashing Machine” that famous movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will be making a film about. He will be playing MMA legend, Mark Kerr. Igor Vovchanchyn fought Mark Kerr twice to see who the best MMA fighter in the world was at the time. Their rivalry is legendary. However, few people outside of Ukraine and Russia still know about Igor, just another secret gem this mysterious country was hiding.
Igor Vovchanchyn was unique among fighters, often fighting with little to no rules, and facing opponents almost twice his size. He was average in height, standing just 5’9”. His opponents often towered over him and outweighed him by substantial margins. Yet, he has one of the longest winning streaks in the history of MMA. His nickname was “Ice Cold”, given to him for his stoic appearance inside the ring and the fact that he knocked out most of his opponents in stunning fashion.
However, when I met the legendary champion, the “Ice Cold” demeanor quickly melted away and I found him to be a very friendly and warm person. Perhaps fitting for a son of Kharkiv, he had turned himself into an entrepreneur and opened a successful restaurant-nightclub in the city called “Freedom.” As I mentioned before, the city boasts some amazing restaurants and cafes. Igor Vovchanchyn’s reminded me of a hip place in NYC, even sporting a pool for its patrons to enjoy.
As for the people of Ukraine, I found them to be very interested in sharing their culture with me. They were proud of their heritage and also wanted to know more about America. I spoke with business owners and normal people working ordinary jobs.
They all were friendly and inquisitive. They shared that they were proud of their country and proud to be Ukrainian. They were eager to have me try their food and beer, especially the “borscht”, a red type of Ukrainian soup made with beetroots. I have to say it was very good and I really enjoyed the beer.
They were interested in various things about America such as what kind of food we liked to eat and how our houses were built.
Curious and innovative would be good words to describe them. There appeared to be small businesses like gyms, bars, cafes, and restaurants springing up all over the city. The entrepreneurial spirit seemed to be alive and thriving.
Kharkiv is also known as the city of students, having numerous universities and higher educational institutions which are a magnet for foreign students from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. An affordable tuition while still getting a world-class education in medicine, engineering, and technology lure many foreigners to study in Kharkiv.
Kharkiv is truly a magical place. Few outsiders know about it and even fewer travel there.
I know it opened my eyes to a part of the world I knew little about before my trip. It appears to be an upcoming and thriving city with a bright future. I have a feeling this gem of Ukraine will not remain hidden for long.
Featured image taken from Pinterest.