Sunday, November 13, 2016

Ukraine Trip Post #14--Ukraine Trip Wrapup & Trip Tips

(To see everything from my Ukraine trip, see here.)

This wrapup post will address things people have asked as well as tips for taking such a trip.  If you have other tips, please add them to the comments so that future readers can benefit!


Many people asked me if I felt safe in Ukraine.  I felt entirely safe during the entire trip.  The only time I even saw a mention of the conflict with Russia was in shops and at markets in Lviv.
Ukrainians aren't fans of Putins.  They also sell lots of Putin doormats.


People have asked what the food was like.  Well, it looked really good.  But I keep kosher which means that I had to bring all of my food with me.  I managed to bring a carry-on sized rollerboard suitcase (but expanded it on the way there so I had to check it through) and a backpack.  One side of the suitcase held clothing, and the other side held all of my food.  The outer pocket of my backpack held things for my flight, and the entire main compartment was stuffed with things that didn't fit in the suitcase.
Yes, those are instant mashed potatoes.  And pasta.  And lots of granola bars
For breakfasts, I mostly had breakfast bars or instant oatmeal.  Lunch was either a peanut butter or tuna (I brought the flat packs and packets of mayo) sandwiches.  I had salmon jerky, almonds and granola bars for snacks.

For dinners, I brought an immerser that works on 220V and a stainless steel cup, so I could boil water (which I also used for the oatmeal packets).  I was able to (kind of) heat up food, boil pasta, and make water for oatmeal and instant mashed potatoes.  It wasn't fancy, but I didn't starve!  And as we traveled, my suitcase got lighter and lighter as I ate its contents!

Keeping Track of Locations for Later

There were certain places that were difficult to find (particularly cemeteries in some of the towns I visited).  My iPhone (even when there was no cell reception) was still able to locate me on the Maps app.  I could take a screenshot and keep track of the exact location.  Here's a page with locations of some of the cemeteries I visited, and perhaps that'll help future visitors.


Pack light (easier said than done if you have to bring along your food).  In my 10 days in Ukraine, I stayed in four different hotel rooms, took 2 overnight trains and one half-day train, and my luggage needed to come along.  Trains don't wait very long at the station, and you see people running to their assigned cars and getting onto the cars as quickly as possible.  You don't want to have to deal with lugging huge suitcases.  Bring the basics--including a good pair of shoes even though they take up space.  Some of the hotels would have done laundry very inexpensively, so I actually could have brought less clothing than I did had I taken advantage of that service.
My (very stuffed) backpack on the train from Mukachevo to Lviv.  My suitcase fit in a bin under the bench; a larger suitcase would not have fit.

Cemetery Photography Garb

If you're planning on photographing cemeteries, you need to have appropriate clothing, even if it conflicts with the packing advice above.  You need good shoes as well as long sleeves and pants (I brought a pair of leggings that I could just throw on under my skirt) so that you don't get all scratched up.  Gardening gloves came in handy as well, helping me to move aside ubiquitous thorny plants that seem to enjoy blocking tombstone inscriptions.  Expect to get a huge workout in the majority of these cemeteries.
Photographing the Kolodne Cemetery.  I had scratches all over my arms from not wearing long sleeves!  (That's my ggg grandmother's grave, by the way.)


I can't emphasize how important it is to have someone knowledgeable in both the language and the area.  I tend to be a do-it-yourself tourist who eschews organized tours and plans everything out personally.  But having Alex Denisenko was like having my own personal encyclopedia.  He was incredibly knowledgeable in so many areas.  His English is impeccable (with a vocabulary better than many Americans), and he simultaneously translated what people were saying.  I wouldn't have been able to communicate with the people who remembered my family (or even know that they remembered them) or get directions to various cemeteries, or even check into some of the hotels.  Very few people spoke English at all--and I'd have learned a lot less about the areas I passed through.
Alex talking about Mukachevo (Munkacs)

Do Your Research

Do your research before beginning to plan your trip.  Know all the little villages in which your family lived.  "Near Kiev" will get you a nice touristy trip, but you probably won't stumble across your family's village.  Know family names, so if you see one of your relatives' grave, you'll know that they're actually your relative.  Learn enough Hebrew and Russian to at least sound them out.  You may not know the details of what is written, but you'll at least be able to read names and get photographs to have others translate.  (I found that pre-war stones tended to be in all Hebrew.  Post-war were often a mixture of Hebrew and Russian, similar to the English/Hebrew combination found in America's Jewish cemeteries.)
Stones (all in Hebrew) in the Shpikov Cemetery


You need to be flexible.  No matter how much you plan, things happen.  I didn't expect it to take over an hour to find the Kolodne cemetery.  And I didn't expect to have to wade through an overgrown forest to find the graves.  But it was worth it.  In some cases, Google Maps significantly underestimated the time from one town to the next due to road conditions; Alex was a better barometer than Google Maps.

Plans fall through even though you did everything right.  At 4AM, when we arrived in Vinnitsa, I just wanted to sleep.  But the hotel where we had reservations had given away our rooms.  However we ended up in a nice place, and I got a bit less sleep.  But I still got to see Shpikov, Krasnoye and more that day, and the new hotel was in a great location.
We didn't expect to stay in Vinnitsa's Hotel Prince, but it was nice and centrally located


On the flexibility front, you may have bad weather.  One thing I did right was have spectacular weather (how's that for planning?).  Most days, there were blue skies, no humidity (and to a Baltimore girl, that's shocking), and temperatures in the 70s.  There was a short 5-minute-long downpour one day in Kolodne, but then the sun was back out--and that was the worst weather of the trip.  Because of the beautiful weather, we could get more done during the day without having to hide from sun or rain.
Beautiful weather to run in the pumpkin patch that used to be the Dimant family's yard in Berezhanka

Where Was I?

I tried to include maps in my posts to show where each took place geographically.  But to give you an idea of the scope of travel, here are all the towns I visited:
Lara's Ukraine Trip Map
Am I glad that I did this?  Definitely.  I'd do it again (and I still might, since I didn't get to Nezhin on this trip as well as some additional Volhynia towns).  I'd like to spend some time in Kiev and time in some more of the archives than the one day I had in Vinnitsa.  And as I do more research, I find more family towns--which of course now I'd love to visit!

For others who have taken similar trips, please leave your advice for future travelers in the comments section.

Note:  I'm on Twitter.  Follow me (@larasgenealogy).

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  1. I've really enjoyed following your travelogue through Ukraine. I think it would make a compelling book - a descendant returns to her ancestors' homeland to root out (literally) their past. I've been to Ukraine a couple times and have loved seeing your photos.

    My recommendation for ancestry travel is to journal the adventure. It can help you keep track of what you see and experience each day, and identify additional research questions and action items.

    1. Definitely! I emailed myself at least once a day so I wouldn't forget anything--and that became this series of blog posts.

      So glad you've enjoyed!

  2. Kol hakavod, Lara for undertaking this exciting trip! I've enjoyed reading your posts and seeing the pictures, reading your descriptions and comments - yes, write a book about it! What's your next project?! ☺️

    1. Thanks! Now I'm getting tons of documents for people. :)

  3. I'm glad you felt safe - cemetery trip looks so fun!! great pics

  4. Thanks. Loved it. Hope you get to Nezhin eventually. Good tip on oat meal packages for kosher travel. And immersion device. I agree you should write a book. Again thank you!!

  5. What a marvelous trip, but even more what superb stories and that you shared all of it with us, your virtual fan club :D

  6. Lara, I loved reading your posts! Having done such trips myself, I have learned it is important to have a Plan B for each location, and to prioritize what I want to do in each area. You don't want to waste one minute of your time!

  7. From start to finish, I've enjoyed following your Ukrainian adventures. I appreciate you sharing with all of us. Would it be possible to meet with you & chat a bit at Roots Tech?

  8. It's been great to follow along from start to finish on your Ukrainian adventure. Would it be possible to meet & chat in person at Roots Tech? Leah

  9. Hi Lara, I need to do some research on my father's line that come from the area of Ternopil, Ukraine. I would appreciate any advice/suggestions that you can give me. I too will be at RootsTech and maybe we can connect there.