All you need to know for a successful stay in Ukraine...
Ukraine is bordered by Belarus, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia and Slovakia. Buses stop for about an hour at borders; westbound trains for more than two, because Ukrainian wheels don’t fit European tracks and thus have to be switched! You should expect close inspection of your documents and belongings at border crossings. EU and American travellers need a visa to enter Belarus, Moldova and Russia and can’t be obtained at the border, so make sure you contact their embassies in Kyiv (see Directory/Business).
Like an aggressive case of athlete’s foot, communism refuses to go away. While Ukraine’s youth embraces capitalism and nationalism, many elderly and disillusioned citizens cling to socialism. In June 2009, this political divide made international news as hooligans linked to a Ukrainian nationalist organisation savagely vandalised Kyiv’s sole statue of Vladimir Lenin.
Most people, Ukrainians included, think of the Bolshevik Revolution as a Russian revolution - this is inaccurate. Many top revolutionaries (Leon Trotsky, Gregory Zinoviev, V. Volodarsky) were, in fact, from Ukraine. Also, many prominent Soviet leaders had Ukrainian roots.
Two monumental atrocities occurred under Stalin’s rule, and memory of the carnage continues to stoke Ukrainian nationalism. The first tragedy is known as Holodomor (starvation), a famine which took place in 1932-33. It is estimated that as many as 2.6 - 10 million Ukrainians perished. There is evidence showing that the famine was, in part, orchestrated by the Soviet leadership in an attempt to squash Ukrainian nationalism. Whether this act should be classified as genocide is currently being debated around the world. The second tragedy is known as the Great Purge (1936–1938). Stalin was obsessed with the complete annihilation of political rivals including fellow party members, military commanders, dissidents, artists and anyone else worth being suspicious of. It is estimated that he ordered the execution of as many as 500,000 Soviet people and had millions more sent to gulags (penal labour/death camps). Ukraine’s share of the victims was disproportionately high.
Ukraine is not what you would call a disabled-friendly country. High curb drops and steep steps are the rule. The central train station does have lifts for the platforms, but the public transport system lacks even a hint of accessibility. The wheelchair symbol used in this guide means that the establishment in question specifically caters to disabled guests.
Ukrainian beer (pyvo) is quite tasty and extremely cheap to boot. Tipsiness may set in early, though, as its alcohol content is higher than Western brands. Those preferring foreign brands can find their favourites at finer shops and establishments. Ukraine also produces a wide selection of vodka, which flows freely at many parties and gatherings. Beware if offered homemade vodka (samohon). While good samohon can be better than some bootleg labels in shops, the overall odds are against you and your stomach. Whether it’s Ukrainian vodka or moonshine, be ready to offer a toast at some point. A modest ’cheers’ (bud’mo) will do for a foreigner.
Ukraine supplies its residents and visitors alike with electrical current of 220 volts AC, 50Hz. All sockets require two round pins, but not always of the same size. Many thinner Russian sockets are being replaced by their European cousins. Those with Russian sockets can buy a cheap adapter for their European appliances. Adapters for more foreign electrical societies are not easy to find, so bring your own.
Ukrainians consider the floor on the ground to be the first floor and so one.
The country’s official language is Ukrainian, but in practise the situation is much more complex. In the 2001 census more than 85% of ethnic Ukrainians declared Ukrainian as their mother tongue. This is certainly an encouraging sign, but the average foreigner on the streets of Ukraine won’t be hearing the Ukrainian language anywhere near that often. Since independence in 1991, it has become much more popular and widespread. Still, Russian is heavily used in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and only in western regions is Ukrainian truly predominant.
The national currency is the hryvnia (hr), which replaced the transitional karbovanets on September 2, 1996. Don’t be confused if your amount is given in roubles. You haven’t been transported to Russia or taken back in time to the USSR - some people just have trouble letting go of the past! Paper bills carry denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 200 hryvnias. Another word to the wise: two versions exist of the 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 hryvnia bills, and both are accepted everywhere. There are 100 kopecks in a hryvnia, with 1, 2, 5, 10, 25 and 50 kopeck coins. If you’re lucky, you may become the proud owner of the recently-issued and still rare 1Hr coin. You’ll have no problem finding currency exchange points, but rates are better from central street kiosks. If it’s traveller’s check you need to cash, look for a respectable-looking bank. ATMs have become plentiful in Ukraine, and many hotels and restaurants now take Visa and MasterCard - American Express is not very popular. There have been scattered reports of credit card fraud in upscale restaurants, though, so you may want to think twice before charging it.
Carry your license and registration at all times to fully enjoy the Ukrainian driving experience. The official speed limits are 60 km/h in cities, 90 on secondary roads and 130 on highways. A zero tolerance drink driving policy applies in Ukraine.
They say that Ukrainians can spot a foreigner from a kilometre away. This fact alone will not automatically make you the target of crime. Ukraine is, in fact, a rather safe place. As in most cities, flashing large amounts of cash can cause trouble. Wallets are known to disappear in public transport crowds, so guard your pockets at all times. Being very drunk and/or loud on the street is always a good way to attract unwanted attention, especially from the police. By the way, it’s a good idea for foreigners to carry at least a copy of their passport and visa with them at all times.
From December 16, 2012 smoking is prohibited in all public places. The new law sets a total ban on smoking in restaurants, bars, clubs and cafes (except open terraces), cultural, medical, educational and sport institutions (including playgrounds and stadiums), public transport (including stops), underpasses (subways), and inside apartment buildings (including stairs and lifts). All other premises and buildings (including hotels, hostels, airports, railway terminals) should have designated smoking areas equipped with exhaust ventilation. The law also sets fines from 51–10,000Hr for anyone breaking the law.
Public restrooms are a sore, dirty and not very aromatic subject anywhere around Ukraine. The best ones can be found at the central train station and in underground shopping centres. The other end of the spectrum rears its ugly head at parks, beaches and some high-traffic McDonald’s locations. Many public toilets charge up to 2Hr or so.
While no general rule exists yet, most restaurant-goers leave around 10% of their bill. But your waitstaff will expect more from you as a foreigner! Some places include a service charge of five to 10 per cent, so read the fine print or ask.
Drinking water straight from the tap in Ukraine is neither tasty nor healthy and should be avoided. Instead use one of the city’s many public wells, or go one step better and spend a few hryvnias on bottled water from a shop.