A man selling stills to make ChaCha, a strong Georgian Vodka at Tbilisi's Dry Bridge Market. The market is sizable, spanning a couple city blocks, including the Dry Bridge over Mtkvari River. I maintain that whatever your heart may desire, it's at that market.

Kyiv Travel Excursions from SRAS

Published: June 15, 2017

Kyiv sits in the heart of Eastern Europe and is an excellent base from which to explore Central and Eastern Europe as well as the nearby Caucuses. SRAS Programs in Kyiv offer two categories of travel components. All regular programs offer a weekend trip to either Lviv or Odesa. SRAS’ Identity and Conflict in the Post-Soviet Space (ICon) program offers a much more ambitious package that usually covers 3-4 other countries besides Ukraine. Students not on the ICon program can often take some of these trips as optional add-ons. Note that not all trips are taken each session and trips themselves may differ from session to session.

All Programs: Travel Ukraine

All regular programs offer a weekend trip to either Lviv or Odesa.

 

Odesa: Beaches, Wine, Ancient Fortresses, and Small Town Charm

Since the time I first watched Everything is Illuminated and fell in love with Eugene Hutz’s character Alex, a Ukrainian wannabe gangster from Odesa with a heart of gold and a glorious mustache, I have longed to visit the city, the “pearl of the Black Sea,” as it’s called.

As a part of my internship with NovaMova and SRAS in Kyiv, I had a chance to fulfill my longtime desire when they asked me to travel with a group students that they were hosting on a trip to the city as part of a cultural immersion program. They wanted me to document the trip and get some updated photos of the city. Needless to say, I accepted. Sometimes it pays to be a photographer. So, I hopped on a minibus and made the seven hour sojourn to Odesa.

In short, I loved it. More importantly, I love it for different reasons than why I love Kyiv. Both are wonderful places in their own right. The difference is reminiscent of that between Seattle and Portland. While Seattle is a hip place, it is a big city and feels like it. People hurry, business is serious and efficient. This is Kyiv. Like Portland to Seattle, Odesa is like a weirder relative, somehow achieving the friendly, laid back vibe of a small town, despite the fact that more than a million residents call it home.

By the way, the name of the city is sometimes written “Odessa” – which is transcribed from the Russian name of the city. The Ukrainians only use one “s” in their spelling and, as transcriptions from Ukrainian become more used for Ukrainian locations, the English spelling is slowly being updated. It’s the same story with the older spelling “Kiev” and the newer “Kyiv,” which has almost entirely taken over.

A man strolls through Odesa’s Botanical gardens, offering horse rides to its visitors on March 17, 2017.

This overall friendliness and slowness has led to many opportunities to practice my Russian. While wandering the quaint and cobblestoned European style city center hunting for interesting moments to capture on camera, numerous Odesans wandered up to me to chat. Even people in need of directions responded to my “Sorry I’m not from here” with questions about why I was visiting, where I was from, etc, as opposed to simply walking away.

If the welcoming atmosphere isn’t enough reason to go, it’s also extremely beautiful, there’s plenty to do, and it’s on the coast. That’s right, within walking distance from the center, there is a path through a park that leads you to a sandy beach. It was even fun in the cold of March. As a part of my photographer duties, I got to tag along on tours of the Akkerman Fortress, Shabo Winery, and the Odesa Catacombs, all some of the funnest tourist activities I’ve ever engaged in.

Beach goers enjoy Odesa’s Black sea coast, on March 17, 2017.

The downside to this tourism based beach town is that, while it has many classy bars and tasty restaurants like Kyiv, it is noticeably more expensive. More often than not, drinks are close to what you would pay for them in the US, and while hotels are restaurants are still cheaper by American standards, a month in Kyiv will make Odesa prices seem unreasonable. That said, even though I didn’t meet Eugene Hutz and his mustache, I highly recommend going.

Odesa’s city center at dusk, on March 17, 2017.

 

Identity and Conflict Program Travel

SRAS’ Identity and Conflict in the Post-Soviet Space (ICon) program offers a much more ambitious package that usually covers 3-4 other countries besides Ukraine. Students not on the ICon program can often take some of these trips as optional add-ons.

Moments from the Streets of Moldova

Although it’s a mere hour away by plane, Chisinau feels far from Kyiv. It’s smaller, slower-paced, simpler, closer to nature, and entirely more curious about foreigners with cameras. That’s not to say they have nothing in common. Both are capitals of former Soviet nations, and both are still working to evolve towards a future independent of Soviet influence. Like Kyiv, Chisinau appears to be looking to, and moving towards, the rest of Europe and the West when it comes to it’s future, perhaps even leaving the East behind. Nevertheless, traces of Soviet Empire in Chisinau are tangible, perhaps even more so than in Kyiv.

The most obvious remaining piece of the USSR in Moldova is the language. Much like the Ukrainian Language in Ukraine, Although the official language of Moldova is Romanian (Moldova was once part of Romania), for the most part, everyone speaks Russian, even if they don’t like it. More often than not, on the streets, in restaurants, stores, etc, conversations around me took place in Russian. If someone addressed me in Romanian from the start (which was rare), I would simply respond in Russian and they would switch effortlessly. Only once or twice did this switch accompany a roll of the eyes. In fact, it surprises me, but from my experience, Russian might be the more commonly spoken language in Chisinau. I hear far more Ukrainian in Kyiv than I did Romanian in Chisinau.

Furthermore, while Kyiv’s center, for the most part, is modern, full of skyscrapers and business centers, Chisinau’s miniature city center is full of Soviet architecture. USSR iconic apartment blocks, and government buildings are shorter and wider and poke out above the tree tops on every corner. Judging from the architecture,  strolling down Strada Pushkin in Chisinau feels a bit like you’ve been transported back to 1982.

Despite the other obvious disparities between the two cities, the most memorable to me as a visitor was a difference in mentality. Where Kyiv is popular tourist destination for all of Europe, I got the distinct impression that foreigners are out of the ordinary on the streets of Chisinau. Where this may sound less exciting, it has it’s upside. There are more opportunities to practice your Russian. I couldn’t even order a coffee without it turning into at least a five minute conversation on where I was from, what I was doing there, etc. If not with the barista, then with another customer who heard my accent. This made my internship as a street photographer very interesting in Chisinau. Instead of ignoring me like usual, people in Chisinau either giggled at the camera or walked straight up to me to figure out what I was doing. Because of their interest in me, they were also very tolerant of my less than perfect Russian. Most of them were just delighted I had taken in an interest in their country and culture, and even wanted to stay in touch. But as always, images, moments from the streets I’ve been describing will convey more than my words ever could. Thank goodness I’ve got plenty to show.

A young Moldovan girl walks along Strada Pushkin, Chisinau’s main street after school, in front of Triumphal Arch on April 3, 2017. The Arch was built in 1840 to commemorate the victory of the Russian Empire of the Ottoman Empire.
People gather in the park and courtyard behind Nativity Cathedral in Chisinau’s center on April 8, 2017. Parks are scattered across the entire city center.
Chisinau cityscape just before sunset on April 7, 2017.
A Moldovan man leans into the frame of my camera to get his photo taken on April 4, 2017.
Friends walk through Stefan Chelmare Park, one of the city’s most popular on April 6, 2017.
Soviet architecture lines Chisinau’s streets on April 7, 2017.
Children play in the courtyard of one of Chisinau’s primary schools on April 7, 2016.
Residents of Chisinau wait for the bus on April 5, 2017.
Storm clouds roll in over Chisinau on April 5, 2017.

 

A Glimpse of Armenia’s Many Monasteries

A little known fact (at least, in America, where most things about Armenia are unknown) is that Armenia despite its many Muslim neighbors, was actually the world’s first Christian nation, officially adopting it in the early 4th century. What I learned after only a week in Armenia is that this is not simply some travel guide fact, used to entice tourists. As Armenians will tell you, they are deeply proud of being the worlds first Christian nation, which is unsurprising when you learn that about 92% of people belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. If you’re like me, and had no idea what that was before talking to a priest from a monastery near Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, then don’t feel bad. Father Garegin, the aforementioned priest, explained to us that the religion is, for the most part, a religion that has a lot in common with Orthodoxy.

With such a high percentages of believers, it’s not surprising that Armenians consider their faith to be a central part of their identity. This is precisely why the Policies and Conflicts in the Post-Soviet Space program (or PCON) through SRAS and NovaMova made sure to cram as many monastery visits as was feasible into the week we spent in Armenia. My impression after visiting several of these sites is that, while the churches themselves are actually rather plain in comparison with famously ornate Orthodox cathedrals (Father Garegin explained that they believe that too much flash can be a distraction when trying to worship), the places they are built in are often times breathtaking. As always, photos will do more than I ever could to explain, and so, let me show you what I saw through my camera lens during my week in Armenia.

Formerly an island, the peninsula of Lake Sevan in Eastern Armenia houses Sevanavank Monastery. Due to artificial draining of the lake under Stalin, the water level fell and transformed the island into a peninsula, making it much more accessible to tourists. Sevan is now a pretty popular tourist destination, and a bit of a resort town, given the Monastery’s picturesque location.

 

Khor Virap Monastery is located in Ararat Valley, just 15 km from the border with Turkey. The looming mountain peak, hardly visible on the day I visited the monastery, is Mount Ararat, located in Turkey.

 

The inside of Khor Virap Monastery. As Father Garegin mentioned, considerably less ornate than an Orthodox cathedral. Almost every monastery church we visited shared this same basic layout.

 

The entrance to Armenia’s Echmiadzin Monastery Complex and Seminary School. The cathedral, being built in the 4th century, is considered the oldest Christian cathedral in the world.

 

The inside of Echmiadzin Cathedral, despite being under renovation, was the most decorative I witnessed.

 

A woman lighting candles in the Echmiadzin Cathedral, on April 23, 2017.

 

A seminary student at Echmiadzin Monastery on April 23, 2017.

 

The view of Mount Ararat in front of Saint Gayane Cathedral, only a few hundred feet away from Echmiadzin.

 

About an hour from Yerevan, Noravank Monastery was built in the 13th century. Yet another Armenian monastery built in a breathtaking location.

 

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia is known for its unique (and un-regulated) architecture and cheap cost of living. In a few short days I discovered both are true, but also that there is much more to the city than some weirdly shaped iconic buildings and inexpensive cafes (of which there are many).

At the end of my travel for Policy and Conflict in the Post-Soviet Space, I chose to spend a few extra days in Tbilisi, because its quirkiness intrigued me, and maybe a little bit because if I went back to Kyiv any earlier I would overstay my 90 lawful visa-free days in the country. Thus, I spent five extra days in Tbilisi doing what I always do: wandering and trying to understand the place through the lens of my camera.

No matter how far I ventured from Fabrika, the very hip hostel that I stayed at (a very hip, converted Soviet sewing factory), I was always fascinated by Tbilisi. From priests to grandmothers and skeptical children and gaggles of teens, I saw every type of Georgian on the streets. And the further you get from the swanky hills on the edges of “Old Tbilisi,” where the former president spent a fortune renovating decaying old buildings into fancy hotels and restaurants, the better. The real Georgians are in the markets, at the produce or khachapuri stands that line streets, or near the churches. Here, let me show you:

 

One of the streets in the “swanky hills” I described earlier. Though it feels, and is, very touristy, it is worth a trip down this street for some outside seating and a good meal. It’s lined with restaurants and bars.

 

A man selling stills to make ChaCha (a strong Georgian vodka) at Tbilisi’s Dry Bridge Market. The market is sizable, spanning a couple city blocks, including the Dry Bridge over Mtkvari River. I maintain that whatever your heart may desire, it’s at that market. Prepare to haggle, though – sellers will try to rip off tourists.

 

A group of teenage boys practicing backflips in one of Tbilisi’s numerous parks.

 

A little girl looking out of a crowded marshrutka window. Though Tbilisi does have a Metro, many rely on the city’s plentiful marshrutkas, or mini-busses, to get around.

 

A clerk in one of Tbilisi’s plentiful roadside produce shops in the city center.

 

A man smokes a cigarette on one of Tbilisi’s main streets at dusk.
A little girl begs her mom for a bag of popcorn she’s holding, as she tries to chat with her friend in downtown Tbilisi.
Tbilisi’s iconic cable cars, taking those who don’t wish to walk up a steep hill to an ancient fortress overlooking the city.
Downtown Tbilisi, overlooking the Mtkvari River towards the aforementioned fortress.

 

Svaneti: The Mountains of Georgia

I’m from Missoula, Montana, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, where you’ll find beauty wherever you place your eyes, so much so that you become desensitized to it, take it for granted, even. That is, until you move out of your cozy valley full of nature and into a city where the closest thing to mountains are massive, concrete Soviet apartment buildings.

The closet thing to mountains you’ll find in Kyiv, April 12, 2017.

This isn’t to say Kyiv, Ukraine isn’t a wonderful city. I love Kyiv and each and every one of those soviet apartments, and by now I’ve certainly gathered enough photographic evidence that it too, is a beautiful place. It’s just not Montana, and I guess wherever I go the mountains will always have a big piece of my heart.

That’s why when I got an internship to come along with NovaMova and SRAS’s Policy and Conflict in the Post-Soviet Space program this Spring, I was particularly excited about one aspect – Georgia. If you don’t know anything about Georgia, I’m not surprised. Though it’s slowly becoming a more popular tourist destination, especially for Russians, it’s generally regarded as one of the world’s best kept secrets. Having now traveled around (almost) the entire country on a marshrutka (minibus), I understand why. Georgia is a cache of beauty, both natural and man-made. Tbilisi and Batumi, its two most populous cities, are famously unique. It has a black sea coast. It also has one very more important thing, mountains. Lots and lots of tall, forested, jagged mountains, and that’s just the way I like them.

Mountain Peaks in Svaneti, on May 4, 2017.

So naturally, when I heard we’d be spending two days in Svaneti, a mountain province in the country’s northwest where we’d be taking a 14 kilometer hike to a glacier, I was pretty stoked. I was stoked as soon as we started our (sometimes terrifying) marshrutka ascent up a mountain, stopping at particularly scenic spots along the way. The Georgian mountain air would have been enough to make me homesick, had I not been so satisfied to be right where I was.

As we approached Mestia, the name of the village we were staying in, it was just before dusk, and the clouds broke for an especially golden “golden hour,” which is what photographers call the hour before sunset. I was practically bouncing up and down in my seat with eagerness to take pictures. Lucky for me, Inna, the program coordinator noticed my excitement and let us pull over so I could take pictures. It was a truly breathtaking sight, even from someone who’s so accustomed to them.

Upper Svaneti as the sun broke after a rain shower, May 4, 2017.
Sunset in Mestia, the village we stayed in upper Svaneti, on May 4, 2017.
Mestia, a village in Svaneti, at Sunset on May 4, 2017.

Our 14 kilometer trek to one of the nearby glaciers from Mestia, despite the fact that it is still spring and was very, very muddy, was incredible. It was just what a Montana girl needed. It’s also even safe to say I’ve never seen anything like it. And although I promise you that I tried by best, the pictures I snapped this time around just don’t quite capture the awe of being in Georgian mountains. When we finally reached the glacier, we all sat beneath a bare tree. It was sunny, rainy, snowy, and windy, but it was peaceful. The type of peaceful that makes you feel so small.  It’s something you need to experience with each of your senses to understand. However, maybe seeing some pictures will help convince you to go and do so for yourself.

The clearing in front of the glacier we hiked to in upper Svaneti, on May 5, 2017.
PCON student Sam Fiore after our 14 km hike in Svaneti, on May 5, 2017.
A bird’s eye view of upper Svaneti, along the route the hike to glacier, on May 5, 2017.
Donkeys napping in the mountains of Svaneti, on May 5, 2017.

About the author

Rebekah Welch

Rebekah Welch is a senior at University of Montana in Missoula. She is a double major in Russian and Journalism with an emphasis on photography. She is studying Russian language at NovaMova in Kiev, and am also working for the school as an intern, creating a photoblog. After a semester abroad, she hopes to become fluent enough in Russian that she can work as photojournalist throughout Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. Although she loves this area of the world, she has a passion for journalism and will go wherever the story takes her.

Program attended: Challenge Grants: Funding for Study Abroad

View all posts by: Rebekah Welch