Now that I’m only working one job with strict hours, I decided to use our break to travel. My cousin lives in Ukraine (no, we don’t have a family connection to the region, we independently found interesting opportunities), and I’d been meaning to visit for a while. I was surprised that ticket prices didn’t go down after the UIH 752 crash, but they still weren’t too expensive, and it seemed like a time the airline and the country could use some customers, so I booked a visit. I thought it might be a little crazy to go to Ukraine in February (cold, right?), but my cousin assured me that with the right gear it would be fine. Lucky for me, I had just bought a proper winter coat. Buying my tickets was ridiculously difficult (no longer a fan of CapitalOne), but I did manage to procure them eventually. I have nothing but good things to say about the individual customer service agents from Ukrainian Airlines, though their website could use some work.

The flight times weren’t ideal, but they were manageable. I had to get up pretty early Saturday morning, but I did manage to snooze on the plane. There was some unplanned drama on the flight when a gentleman smoked in the lavatory, but I was quite impressed with the flight attendants’ handling of it…I don’t think people who weren’t nearby even noticed. My family were pretty much ready to start the day once I got to their house, so the timing was good in that regard. Since they live there and have stuff to do, we spent time together on the weekend and I explored on my own while they were busy with work and school. They introduced me to Ukrainian food at Ostannya Barykada and Khutorets ne Dnipri, some of their favorite Ukrainian restaurants. They were very different, but I enjoyed both. Turns out borscht can be delicious!  We also went to their favorite modern Georgian restaurant, Chichiko, which was fantastic. It was interesting to see how the different food trends in Tbilisi and Kyiv have influenced the menu. Everything was undeniably Georgian food, but there were things on the menu that are not common or popular in Tbilisi–loads of turkey and lamb dishes. The tonis puri was served with an excellent Kakhetian sunflower oil and green onion dipping sauce (I’m working on duplicating it but haven’t been fully successful yet), and we loved the “khachapuri diavola” with adjika baked in.

Most of my top must-sees were museums, and I found that, unlike in many countries where all museums close on Monday, different museums in Kyiv were closed different days. On the one hand this was an advantage, because there was some museum for me to see everyday, but on the other hand it required paying attention to the schedules and planning accordingly. I wasn’t sure how I felt about going on a tour to Chernobyl, so my cousin suggested I go to the museum first and decide after that (Chernobyl tours do need to be booked a few days in advance due to security procedures). I followed his advice and went on Monday (I would recommend this strategy for others who are not sure, too). The Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum was really impressively put together, mostly with historical artifacts, but with some artistic touches mixed in. I got the audioguide and found it interesting and helpful. From there I grabbed some lunch and walked up Andriyivskyy Uzviz to the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, which was also well worth the visit. It was a good-sized museum; complete but not so big as to be exhausting.  I was impressed by the attention to details in the design (curtains with traditional embroidery in the textiles room, actually comfortable chairs in front of the video exhibits, kids’ activities in most rooms).

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Cabbage Dessert from 100 Years Back in Future

I decided that after an emotional day of museum viewing, I deserved to try some of Ukraine’s famous coffee and pastries. I opened GoogleMaps and was headed to the closest highly-rated coffeeshop when I noticed I was walking past 100 Years Back in Future, which had been recommended to me on Twitter. My mind was made up. I decided to go for it and order the weirdest thing on the dessert menu, a cabbage-based dessert, with my coffee. My tweeps have excellent taste, because the cabbage-based dessert was delicious. The weather was pretty nice and I had some free time, but as it was late afternoon most museums and tourist sites were starting to close, I decided to get to know the city better by walking home. It was a little far (certainly further than would be a reasonable daily commute), but it gave me a great view of the city and helped me figure out the layout.

The next day, I decided to go to Rodina Mat and Lavra Pechersk Monastery since they are near one another and the books said they were open on Tuesdays. The weather was gorgeous (actually warmer than Tbilisi that day!) and I enjoyed walking around in the sunshine and seeing the memorial. There were signs to “the museum” which seemed to be in a different place than I had thought, but I followed them anyway and wound up in the “Museum Making of Ukrainian Nation”, which is not the museum I was looking for. The ticket was also much more expensive than I had read, but I paid up and went in. It was in fact a different museum, and the reason it hadn’t come up in my research was that it had just opened last fall. This is a museum designed for people who don’t like museums (so I’m not the target audience). It had plenty of selfie opportunities, and scenes from Ukrainian history up to the present. The audioguide was generally good, but there were some exhibits that had neither audio nor text descriptions. It was a good overview of Ukrainian history, though the exhibits didn’t provide much information on their own. You could get some great Instagram shots, though.

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Cossacks in “Museum Making of Ukrainian Nation”

Then I found my way to my intended museum, the  “Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War”, which was cheap and heart-wrenching and interesting. I remember in history classes in school drawing maps of WW2 battles, and drawing a big marsh between Germany and Moscow. This museum hammered home the fact that there was NOT nothing there; there were good-sized cities and many people living in this area. Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine played a major role in WW2. There was also an exhibit on the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, so the museum wasn’t limited to WW2 alone. I was in definite need of sustenance after an emotional morning, so I made my way to the Kyiv Food Market, a conglomeration of the best restaurants from a variety of styles and cuisines. I tried three different places, enjoying my green borsht (that’s sorrel instead of beet–also good!), mors, matcha latte and a cinnamon roll. It was a good type of place to eat alone, with the shared tables and simplified service, but it would also be great with a group to share nibbles and try lots of different things. I then wandered back towards the Lavra complex, passing through the Holodomor Memorial (museum under construction) and entered the Lavra complex itself. Most of the museums there were closed on Tuesdays, but the one I was most interested in, the Museum of Historical Treasures, was open and well-worth the visit. So much historical bling that is still absolutely stunning! I found Lavra as a whole a strange place. A door with a sign that said “bookstore” demanded to see my ticket, and all but one of the churches I tried to visit were closed (the open one was nice). The caves that I got to at 3 had closed at 2, and the caves that I got to at 4:01 had closed at 4. But there were loads of shopping opportunities! The grounds were full of stores, restaurants, and kiosks (my tea and donut were really cheap). One door looked like the entry to a church, but was actually a hallway filled with vendors yelling “Girl! I’ll pray for you if you buy something! Curse you for not buying!”. I had thought about going back to Lavra the next day to see more of the museums and churches and maybe go into the caves but I found the whole place had a creepy vibe, so I decided I had seen it and didn’t need to go back.

Wednesday morning I went to Mezhyhirya, Former President Yanukovich’s former home, now billed as the “Museum of Corruption” (a national park) a little outside of Kyiv.  However, when I was there, most things were closed. The house is inaccessible (rumored to be because everything was stolen), there were a number of cafes and souvenir shops that were closed, and even an art gallery that said open but was locked. It was a nice, scenic place to walk around, though, but nothing more at the time I was there. Just when I was getting cold and hungry from walking around a few hours and had decided to head back to Kyiv, a guy started bringing out racks of bicycles available to rent, but I was ready to go so I didn’t rent one. Mezhyhirya is a particularly controversial place. The driver told me he would never go there because everything had been stolen from the Ukrainian people, but he seemed OK with driving me there. However, as a national park, it is the Ukrainian people’s again, but it seems they don’t know quite what to do with it. Turning it into a national park brings up a whiff of the forced collectivization under the Soviets, but it was ill-gotten gains in the first place. It’s unclear if the national park is meant to be a warning to other corrupt officials, a way of educating the public, or a form of retribution. There’s a lot of potential here, but when I was there, none of it was realized. In the afternoon I went to the famous Ukrainian fast food chain Puzata Hata for lunch, and strolled down Kreschatyk to do some shopping. I kind of wanted to buy a vyshyvanka, but the prettiest ones are also the most expensive, so I decided to save my money this time and plan ahead for my next visit to Ukraine. I bought lots of nice little non-souvenir souvenirs at Vsi Svoi, including a hoodie, a trivet, some soap, an English notebook, and other interesting everyday items. Vsi Svoi is a department store (two actually, one for clothes and accessories, one for homegoods) of all Ukrainian-made objects. Not necessarily souvenirs or folkarts, just regular stuff made in Ukraine. They have a great variety and prices are reasonable. If you aren’t sure what type of clothes you’ll need when visiting Ukraine, I’d recommend packing minimally and making a stop at Vsi Svoi early in your trip to get stuff that is definitely seasonally, culturally, and fashionably appropriate. I went next door to a cool coffeeshop filled with ex-pats for my afternoon coffee and a raspberry-chocolate croissant.

The next morning I decided to finish my souvenir shopping and went to Ocean Plaza mall, the second-largest in the city, for the Roshen store (one of my favorite chocolate bars is Roshen’s milk chocolate with sesame seeds, and it’s been scarce in Tbilisi lately) and to see what there was to see. I picked up a few postcards and souvenirs at the UA Made store (not as cool as Vsi Svoi, but still fun). In the afternoon I took myself on a little tour of the metro using this really helpful blog post as a guide. The Kyiv metro is really beautiful, but not as complicated as the Moscow metro. Given my familiarity with the Tbilisi metro, it was a breeze to navigate because all the signs were the same style, and the tokens looked like the ones Tbilisi used to use. It was a fun and cheap afternoon activity.  I had noticed a Ukrainian Museum of Revolution 1917-1921 in my research, and I’m interested in that time time period, but Google suggested it might or might not be open. I decided to check it out with no expectations. When I got nearby, I realized that the address was of the VERY closed-looking building I had walked past before, and indeed it was closed, though the Museum of Pedagogy in the same building seemed open. I went back to Kreschatyk to pick up a few more souvenirs, and went back to hang out with the family.

On Valentine’s Day, I went for my tour of Chernobyl with SoloEast.  I chose them by looking up all the tour companies recommended in my travel books and by the Chernobyl Museum, and seeing who had availability and the lowest price on the day I wanted. This strategy worked out fine. I took the metro to the meeting place outside McDonald’s on Maidan (and grabbed a hashbrown, too!) and met with my group. I was the only solo traveler in the group, and folks weren’t very friendly, but our guides were good. The most important thing for a trip to Chernobyl is that the guides know what they’re doing and where they’re going, both for safety and to avoid bureaucratic delays, and the folks at SoloEast definitely did that. The tour was really interesting, and though there was a lot of information provided and I had been to the Chernobyl Museum (and we did a big commemoration for the 25th anniversary when I was in grad school), I still wanted to know more and more. The church in Chernobyl town is one of the prettiest Orthodox churches I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot).  The “Russian woodpecker” was an incredible structure, and it’s hard to believe how well-concealed it was. Seeing the endangered Chernobyl wild horses just standing at the side of the road was something I don’t think I’ll forget for a long time. The reactor itself was not particularly interesting, and I personally didn’t get a kick out of trying to find radiation hot spots with a geiger counter, but that was the highlight for some people. Lunch on the tour was the only meal that lived up to the stereotypes of Slavic food as boring, flavorless, and stodgy (and to be fair, no one was marketing it as a food tour). Chernobyl was good practice for the “Don’t touch your face!” “Don’t touch anything!” times that are upon us now. I’m glad I chose to do the tour.

The scale of Covid-19 was growing over the course of my trip, and people were posting all sorts of alarming things on Facebook (rumor mill, I know) about being denied entry into Georgia, so I was getting a little nervous about my return. There were definitely health precautions in place that I had never seen in Tbilisi before, but at that time it was still fairly calm. There were apparently body temperature scanners, though I didn’t notice them; we had to fill out a health card, and there were doctors in the terminal keeping watch. Unsurprisingly, the precautions have been strengthened since then–if you’re planning a trip to Georgia, here is the MFA’s post with the updated airport health procedures as of March 12. (I recommend checking for updates if you’re on your way to Tbilisi anytime soon). Nonetheless, I still got a warm greeting and a second bottle of welcome wine!

If you, like me, have been saying to yourself “I should go to Ukraine sometime”, you really should! I loved it