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Travel Guide: Unexplored Ukraine

12th Oct 2011 1:53am | By Editor

As its neighbours open up to tourists, Ukraine is being forced to decide between Lenin and McDonald's. ROBIN MCKELVIE reports.

While progressive eastern European countries like Estonia and the Czech Republic breezed into the European Union in 2004, Ukraine remains trapped in a Cold War timewarp. Torn between the legacies of the old Soviet Union and the bright lights of western Europe, the country hit news headlines around the world last year with a bitter election campaign that became embroiled in swathes of shady dealing and even included a sinister plot to poison the eventual winner.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the old Soviet Union quickly imploded and many eastern European nations took their chance to break free from Russia and seek out new friends to the west, a process cemented in 2004 when a string of former Soviet bloc countries were accepted into both the EU and Nato. Ukraine, though, with no borders with the West, a population that is 20% Russian and a ruling elite who, since independence, have at best demonstrated a very hazy idea of democracy, never entered the race toward the EU.

This geopolitical anachronism is home to a large and vocal student population who in recent years managed to motivate the ethnic Ukrainian majority into getting firmly behind pro-Western presidential candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. Widely expected to walk the election in November 2004, his supporters were outraged when his establishment-sponsored rival, Victor Yanukovych, was declared the winner in a vote described by independent observers as flawed. Yushchenko supporters flocked to the streets of the capital, Kiev, in what became known as the 'Orange Revolution'.

Amid claims of Russian intervention on one side and Western influence on the other, the crisis point came when Swiss doctors confirmed Yushchenko, who today still sports a badly scarred face, had been poisoned. His irate supporters immediately blamed the government and Yanukovych supporters, adding fuel to the demands for a new election, which finally came in December. This time the votes confirmed Yushchenko had breezed in and, despite the best attempts of Yanukovych to mount a legal challenge, the Government changed and Ukraine is now on course for integration with the rest of Europe.

While the likes of the Czech Republic and Hungary are now well trodden with the guidebook-toting hordes, much of Ukraine is still largely undiscovered. Before the 1990s the land of the Chernobyl disaster and the home of Russia's Black Sea fleet was off limits to prying foreigners.

Ukraine is surprisingly well equipped for independent exploration these days as it has an extensive and cheap rail system that connects the historic cities of Lviv and Kiev with the surrounding countries and the Black Sea coast. With much of Europe becoming increasingly homogenised, 2005 may be the year that adventurous travellers finally discover the country.

Ukraine still faces the prospect of serious unrest before it finally takes its place among the ranks of the EU's tourist friendly nations, though, as the election has left the eastern and southern parts of the country deeply disillusioned. This is where the majority of the Russian population lives, people who firmly backed Yanukovych and consider Yushchenko's victory a crime.

Down in the Crimea, a stunningly attractive peninsula blessed with a Mediterranean climate that should be swimming with tourists, the resorts are almost empty. As Petra, a student from the city of Yalta explains: "We feel we are being ignored. CNN and Bush decided Yushchenko should win, but we want Yanukovych and no one listens to us. I would rather rejoin Russia than join the EU."

In pro-Western Kiev, communist theories are out and mobile phones are in as 21st century capitalism and all it entails encroaches. In contrast, Yalta could be a world, not just a train ride, away. In Yalta, they do have a McDonald's, but the figure of Ronald McDonald is dwarfed by a statue of Lenin. These kinds of statues were jettisoned by much of eastern Europe in the early 1990s, but in the Crimea, Lenin is still deeply revered and respected.

Feelings run even stronger in Sevastopol, a naval port in the Crimea, which was totally shut off to Ukrainians, let alone tourists, until the 1990s. Bizarrely, the Russian and Ukrainian fleets both now use the same port, which may be a source of tension as Ukraine moves towards the EU. Sailors parade through the streets of a town with a proud military history that shouts from the museums and galleries, and talking to the locals you might imagine the heroic Siege of Sevastopol was only last week, when it actually ravaged the city in 1855.

Visiting the Crimea can be a surreal experience as its epic beauty grates with the harsh realities of its current dichotomies. For independent travellers, this is a deeply rewarding corner of Europe where history and the present day lie side by side. In the Crimea, there is an ancient Greek city that sits complete with its temple and amphitheatre dramatically overlooking the sea, while in the hills are the famous battlefields of the Crimean War, when Britain battled Russia, most notoriously with the disastrous 'Charge of the Light Brigade' near Balaclava. The locals often talk of these events in as real terms as they do the bitter election feud.

In the hills overlooking Yalta is the Livada Palace, a dramatic setting for one of the most dramatic conferences ever held. As World War II drew towards its bloody denouement, Soviet leader Josef Stalin, American president Theodore Roosevelt and British leader Winston Churchill met there to decide the future of Europe. The result was half a century of Cold War division and decades spent with the world threatened by nuclear war. In the brooding mountains of this long forgotten corner of Europe, many locals fear the flame has only just been lit for Europe's next great political showdown."