In August, I spent a night in Ukraine en route from Romania to Moldova. One night hardly does justice to such a remarkable country. So, I returned to Ukraine for an 8-day tour which started in Lviv and continued to Kyiv and then to Kharkiv near the Russian border.
I traveled with a group organized by Nomad Mania. Our guide was Orest Zub, a Ukrainian whose goal is to educate travelers about what’s happening in his country. Here’s a short video summarizing our trip.
This tour was designed to allow us to understand the current events in Ukraine and to witness the spirit of the Ukrainian people. As always, there’s no substitute for going someplace to find out what’s really going on. This is one of the reasons why I travel.
For security reasons, commercial air travel in Ukraine has been suspended. So our group traveled by train and bus. Crossing Ukraine from west to east, I didn’t know what to expect. Would I see a country crippled by war with little or no infrastructure? Nope. The intercity trains were clean, comfortable and punctual. Our tour buses drove on smooth paved roads.
Most of Ukraine appeared relatively undamaged. Lviv, in the west, is far from the war and shows no evidence of bombings or conflict. Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital and largest city, is also mostly untouched. Even Kharkiv, which was occupied by Russia from February to May 2022, is intact. All these cities are full of beautiful buildings with stunning architecture.
It’s not just Ukraine’s cities that appear undamaged. The Ukrainian people are unbroken. Everywhere I went, people were in the streets, going about their daily business, getting things done and often having fun. Shops and markets were open. Ukrainians were pleased to see foreign visitors. Our group was warmly welcomed everywhere we went.
What surprised me most about Ukraine was the singing. There may be a war going on but the Ukrainians are keeping their spirits up with music and song. The end of the following video was filmed in Kryivka, a colorful war-themed restaurant hidden in a bunker in the center of Lviv.
Of course, there are many signs that Ukraine is at war. Russian missiles could fall from the sky at any time. I was never far from a bomb shelter. Important monuments are covered with protective padding. Statues of saints are dressed with flak vests. Recruitment posters, political cartoons and patriotic slogans are plastered and painted on walls. The artist Banksy has left his mark in public places near the front lines.
Another reminder that a war is going on: In Kyiv, captured Russian tanks are parked in the main square.
Our group included an informative tour of the Unbroken National Rehabilitation Center. Land mines and bombings have caused many Ukrainians to lose arms, legs and eyes. Unbroken’s new facilities are impressive. This center provides full physical and emotional recovery to injured civilians and soldiers. An entire floor is devoted to prosthetics. Two floors of the center are underground so as to be bomb-proof. I was impressed by the design, efficiency, professionalism and positive energy of this hospital.
Ukraine’s medical services have become top rated by necessity. The NY Times reports that Ukrainians who took refuge in other parts of Europe last year are returning to Ukraine by the thousands in order to get medical care which they feel is superior to what’s available in the EU.
In most wars, white crosses are painted on the roofs of health care facilities to warn enemy planes not to bomb hospitals. Sadly, Russia has begun targeting Ukraine’s hospitals, as well as its churches, schools, community centers, apartment buildings and post offices. While visiting Unbroken, I watched as men hid the white crosses on the roof with black paint so that Russia won’t find — and bomb — this hospital.
Not everyone survives a land mine or a missile. In every town, there are cemeteries and memorials to both soldiers and civilians. The worst of Russia’s atrocities were committed in Bucha. The bodies have now been exhumed from mass graves, identified and given proper burials.
Although a visit to a war zone isn’t your usual tourist adventure, if you want to see what’s really happening on the ground, you have to take some risks. Our group traveled to within 40 kilometers of the current front line. In the following interview, Orest explains how he balanced information with risk. This video also shows what a farming village looks like after Russians have occupied the area.
As the Ukrainian army continues to push the Russian army towards the east, albeit slowly, a few farming families are starting to move back into the area to plant crops and restart their lives. Our group helped distribute boxes of household products and other necessities.
One of my favorite stops in these farming villages was a visit to a camouflage factory. Volunteers work round-the-clock to provide soldiers with camouflage appropriate for the season. In the photo above, I’m wearing the latest fall fashion. We had a chance to chat with the workers and to hear what they have to say about the war.
In the spring of 2022, Kharkiv was the scene of some of the fiercest battles. Although the city was retaken by Ukraine in May 2022, Russia continues to shell the city and the surrounding countryside. The week before I was in Kharkiv, a missile struck the street 50 meters from my hotel shattering the windows on the front of the building. A week after I left Kharkiv, Russia bombed a post office in Kharkiv, killing six people.
The photos above were taken in Kharkiv and in the towns around Kyiv.
So what have I learned from visiting this war-torn country?
- Ukraine is being rebuilt as fast as Russia destroys it. The street in front of my hotel was repaved and the hotel’s windows were replaced before I left Kharkiv. The Ukrainians have courage and energy.
- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unified the people of Ukraine and made them more determined than ever to preserve their homes, their land and their culture. The Ukrainian people are going to survive because they’re working as a team.
- The world is full of breaking news stories every day. Although Ukraine is no longer the top news story on page one, let’s not forget Ukraine. Ukrainians are hopeful that they’ll continue to receive support they need from the rest of the world.
- Western Ukraine is as safe as anywhere else in the world. If you’d like to support Ukraine, why not go to Lviv and add your tourist dollars to their economy. I recommend the George Hotel in Lviv. Located on the city’s main promenade, it’s a classic old-world hotel with a history dating back to 1793. Notable guests who’ve stayed there include Honore de Balzac, Franz von Liszt, Maurice Ravel, Jean-Paul Sartre … and me.