Travelling has been a longtime passion of mine. Being a photographer, I find seeing unfamiliar places, meeting new people and getting to know different cultures exceptionally inspiring. By the age of 32, I had already been to the majority of exotic places: the Emirates, Ethiopia, Turkey, India, Laos, Thailand, Japan, Egypt, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia and Cuba. So, when a friend of mine who was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Ukraine invited me to visit him for a couple of weeks, I thought: “Why not?!” I did not know what to expect from Ukraine since I knew little about it. I usually studied up for weeks on the country that I desired to leave to, but I did not have enough time to indulge into this practice – the prices of the plane tickets shot up after a week or so. I knew that it would be an intriguing experience due to the spontaneous nature of my travel.
Ukraine turned out to be completely different from any place I had visited so far. A post Soviet Union country, it is still struggling to build a developed society. But being a photographer, I was far more interested in nature, people and sites, than in politics. Ukraine appeared to be an attractive, even gorgeous country. Being slightly smaller than Texas, it is extremely diverse and is full of natural wonders that take your breath away. Kyiv, the capital city, appeared unexpectedly well-groomed, green and wealthy. Lots of bridges across the Dnipro River, a great number of outstanding parks, a couple of botanical gardens, and many, many flowers everywhere you go. A lot friendlier than you would think. Next we went to Western Ukraine with its own peculiar culture and atmosphere.
The Carpathian Mountains are precious and authentic, with small distant villages and little country houses that seem like modern progress will never reach them. An amazingly romantic place! I had been there in late May, but my friend says these mountains are beautiful all year round – a great hiking spot for spring, a tent camp landscape for summer and autumn, with tiny, fast mountain rivers that amazed me with their pureness and a couple of perfect skiing resorts that do not yield to the Austrian or Canadian ones even a tiny bit. The people of Western Ukraine amazed me as well, especially the elderly – amiable, positive and active. The West was basically the first place to which my friend took me, and it made me fall in love with Ukraine completely. From the Carpathians, we traveled to Lviv – a wonderful medieval city that is somewhat similar to Prague, yet it is special in its atmosphere: 800 year old castles, wooden churches, Gothic catholic temples and palaces, flowers at every corner and on every window seal, original block pavement streets of the Old City (Stare Misto), and lots of people in authentic national clothes – vishivanki (embroidered white shirts). Lviv is a magical city and it fueled me with inspiration to see the rest of the country.
Next my friend took me to Zaporizhzhya – an eastern city with an impossible to pronounce name and two thousand years of history. The city is built on two banks of the Dnipro River, and has an island in the middle – Khortitsa – the biggest river island in the world. The place is exceptionally spiritual – no wonder that so many centuries ago the wild tribes of skiffs and sarmates, and later the cossaks (famous Ukrainian soldiers of 1400-1600’s, that had long mustaches, long forelocks and wore wide red trousers), built their fortifications on the Khortitsa Island. The city itself seemed to me to be still Soviet-like in its spirit and atmosphere, so it was interesting for me to take photos of their famous dam with the huge Lenin statue pointing at it, and the factories that were once the pride of the USSR and, amazingly, still successfully function for export purposes nowadays.
Our next stop was Crimea – a big heart-shaped peninsula that is washed by two seas – the Black Sea and the Azov Sea (the shallowest in the world, by the way). Crimea has indescribable mountains, fantastic crystal caves and scenic deep lakes. It is a picturesque place – so green, so virginal, so unlike anything I have seen before. The pictures I took at Crimea are the ones I consider to be the best in the series in my photo collection. We also attended a wine festival in Koktebel, where they make local wine, visited Askania Nova – a marvelous biosphere reserve sanctuary established in the nineteenth century – an opportunity to get a scope of what the country’s nature was like some twelve hundred years ago, still mostly underpopulated.
There was one thought that did not leave my mind even for a second during the whole time I spent in Ukraine: “I cannot believe that this country and its fantastic nature, history and culture are so unknown to the rest of the world!” Ukraine was a true discovery for me, and one of those times when your expectations are nothing like what you see. I have visited this country two more times over the past three years, and every time my respect for Ukraine grows. If you should ask me what place I can recommend to those avid and blasé travelers who seem to have seen it all, I would say without a second of hesitation: “Go to Ukraine! Whatever you will expect – this will still amaze and astonish you!”