You can find Part 1 – Why We Traveled to Ukraine During a Time of Conflict – here.
Is Ukraine Safe for Travel?
The short answer: yes, most of Ukraine is actually quite safe for travel.
The situation currently unfolding in Ukraine is the first time since World War II in which one European country has used force to take land from another (although Russia may deny this). The death toll has now risen over 2,000 and many more have been injured. These brutalities have been felt by not only soldiers, but by civilians in the area too. And then there was the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane that was shot down while simply flying over the area. So with all of these horrible tragedies taking place, how on earth can I say that it is safe to travel there? Please let me explain.
At the time of our travels (August & September 2014), the conflict area was very isolated to very specific regions in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border. Ukraine is composed of 24 “oblasts” which are like states or provinces. Two of these oblasts, Donetsk and Luhansk, is where most of the fighting is taking place. While there are atrocities and horror stories unfolding in these isolated areas, life in much of the rest of the country resumed as normal. There are a few other oblasts, such as Odessa, in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russia sentiment is strong. Here, protests and even deadly clashes have taken place. But, again, this is an isolated area in eastern Ukraine. We heard about these potential dangers and stayed far away from these areas.
Ukraine is a very large country. Actually, it’s the largest country entirely in Europe (fun fact!) The areas we traveled through on the western side of the nation were very far away from the conflict zones. Perhaps the closest we got to any of the turbulent areas was a very long 14-hour train ride of around 800 miles away from the nearest area of conflict. To put things in perspective that’s nearly the distance from Michigan to Florida! We were nowhere close to anywhere with war-like activity. While the conflict areas of the country near the Russian border should absolutely be avoided for obvious reasons, the rest of the country was currently completely safe, calm, and peaceful.
We ended up spending more than two weeks in western Ukraine split between six different destinations. And each of these places we would have never even known there was a conflict in the nation, had we not been closely monitoring news reports online. In these western oblasts we visited, to say that pro-Ukrainian support is strong, would be an understatement. They love their country. They love Ukraine.
While it appears that Ukraine is a country divided, the western and most of the central oblasts appear completely united. These western and central oblasts were and are completely safe. In fact, even the US Government, which tends to be overly cautious with its travel advisories, has not issued a travel advisory for the country as a whole. Instead it took a very reasonable approach of issuing an advisory for the specific conflict areas.
The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer all travel to the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
We were extra cautious and stayed very far into western Ukraine and didn’t even get within a day’s worth of travel time to those oblasts in the east. We can report first hand that we never saw any military presence or even any demonstrations during our 17 days in these beautiful western areas. Instead we witnessed school children playing, people picnicking in the park, couples dining out at trendy restaurants, cheerful celebrations of Independence Day, and lots of weddings. Really, we’ve never seen so many weddings before. Saw dozens every day during the weekends.
Life went on as normal. Never was there any time where we even had the slightest fear for our safety due to the conflict or any other reason. We always felt very safe here.
The largest city in western Ukraine is Lviv, which was the first destination we sought out. Before heading there, we wondered “Is Lviv safe?” and found little information about Lviv in particular in relation to the conflict. The reason is because it is so far removed from any of the conflict areas, its almost ridiculous to even fathom safety concerns for that entire area. So if you happened to land here from a Google search wondering if Lviv is safe, we can most definitely confirm that during our time of visit that it is not only safe but quite lovely.
So is it safe in western Ukraine? Absolutely. The biggest danger for us was our increased vodka consumption. 😉
Note: While our experience in Lviv, the Carpathians, and western Ukraine during August and September 2014 was completely safe, conditions can change. Before embarking on your own travels to Ukraine, be sure to stay abreast of the current situation and head any advisories. Here is a link to US travel advisories in Ukraine and here is a link for the UK’s travel advice for Ukraine.
Signs of War
We only experienced or heard about some very indirect signs of the conflict throughout our Ukraine vacation. Here are a few brief stories of such.
The former Soviet Mig pilot who hosted us in Truskavets mentioned to us how when he served under the Soviet Union regime he made some very close friends, who are now Russian. He said over the course of the past year those good friends stopped calling and this, of course, is saddening to him.
During a train ride we met a student who was forced to change universities because his school was in the conflict area. In order to continue his education he would need to register with another University away from the dangers taking place in his former college town.
We also learned that grade school would have longer hours this year in the Ukraine so they can have two months off during the harshness of winter. They’re doing this because the Ukraine fears that Russia may turn off its gas supply at this time in which they wouldn’t be able to power and heat the schools. So we were told that extended classroom hours have been implemented as a preventative measure.
We met a German couple that has been running a farm in Ukraine. Their firsthand account of feeling the subtle side effects of the conflict is when some of their beloved farmhands had to be deployed into the area. Thankfully they all have now come back in good condition.
The patriotism on display during not only on Independence Day but also throughout our entire stay in the country was evident everywhere. It rivaled that of the 4th of July in the United States. The country’s blue and yellow flag flew ubiquitously and those colors were predominantly on display all over the place, from bows in girl’s hair to the guardrails of bridges. The country was a sea of yellow and blue. I can only imagine that the recent conflict has created a heightened sense of patriotism throughout western Ukraine.
And finally, on a lighter note, there were some indications of a humorous take on the awful situation. Putin-faced toilet paper was widely available at souvenir stands. Cut-out boards depicting kicking Putin out of Ukraine were set up for photo opportunities.
It is these indirect effects and secondhand tales from the conflict that were the only indications of any sort of crisis the country was facing.