Our trip to the Southern tip of Ukraine offered new cultures to savour.
Being at the far side of Ukraine from our base in Kyiv, the trip to Kherson Oblast was always going to test. However, fortune had struck, and we found ourselves at the airport on a Friday evening after work to catch an early evening flight to this southern outpost. The internal airline sector is well developed, with several flights taking commuters back to their home regions for the weekend. As in September, this had created a good vibe at the airport, building a positive atmosphere and a curiosity for the weekend ahead. A quick fifty-minute flight and an equally swift transfer through the airport had me arriving at the hotel in time for a quick drink before grabbing some rest.
Welcome to Southern Ukraine
When I first arrived in the country back in 2010, it almost seemed inconceivable that I would be able to fathom the complexities of travel in the country. Amazingly, it is now quite straight forward, with Kherson bus station proving a painless experience. I would never have had the confidence to take on such a task without the support of a seemingly endless line of good-spirited Ukrainians. They are happy to help in any given circumstance. Tickets purchased, bus located, and a quick hit of coffee later, I was ready for the 30-mile trundle through the Kherson countryside to the small town of Nova Kakhovka. It is located upstream on the River Dnipro.
The mode of transport today was an archaic reminder of Ukrainian history and designed as such to handle to potholed roads that lay ahead. There was a friendly vide inside the bus as we rolled through the Kherson City suburbs. The driver had selected some Ukrainian comedy to entertain the passengers, and I dived into a book about an American drug runner from the ’70s. The countryside was majestic, with rolling plains, stretching as far as the eye could see. I could sense the mighty Dnipro just the other side of the horizon, but the road would never take us close enough for a peek. The vineyards had closed down for the winter season, but they showed signs of their fruits, which will tempt me back in warmer seasons. Every now and then, we would pass through small villages, which offered a glimpse of a simpler life.
As the road turned south, the purpose of the dual communities of Kakhovka and Nova Kakhovka came into view. A mighty hydroelectric dam stood proudly over the river, providing energy for millions beyond the local communities. I am not sure, but I assume that it provided a great deal of work in the local region and was very impressive in its construction. I was able to admire the building, as we seemed to be held up in never-ending road works while crossing the dam into the town itself. It would be rude at this point, not to mention the mighty river, which runs the length of the country. It widens well as it approaches its southern exit of the country, offering a vast array of inlets and beaches for the locals to enjoy.
My arrival in the town was supported by more friendly interactions with the Ukrainian transport system (I do not joke here). The staff in the city were more than happy to share the timetable and inform me that tickets were only available later in the day. In the end, I did not take them up on the offer as I found a cheaper taxi that was a lot quicker taking me home. I found several friendly welcoming people on my tour of the town, which certainly endeared me even more. From the coffee shop staff, which let me charge my phone at their one spare socket (I need a lot of battery power on a match day) to the restaurant staff who were proud of their no alcohol policy, the small town was unique in its pleasantries.
Match Day Experiences in Ukraine
The ticket office for the ground revolved around a couple of people sitting behind a pop-up table at the main gate. Yes, a sports complex and not a field in a more simplistic state. For the second time this year, I had stumbled upon this little treasure trove. There were basketball courts, handball courts, and a small gym to explore before I reached Kakhovka’s highlight. As mentioned earlier, the bus had crossed the Dnipro before heading into town, and the ground was located right alongside it. A couple of security guards showed me down a quiet path in the woods, which led me to the river. I was astounded by its beauty and power. It was a beautiful place to spend a few reflective minutes of tranquility before getting ready for game time.
Stocked up on supplies, I engaged in a deep conversation with a local employee with the football club. He did not seem mainly involved with the game in Ukraine and wanted to support football overseas a lot more. It was quite sad to see the negative stance that some of the locals would adopt to the only professional team in the district. It does seem that the notion of supporting the community does fail in areas where the team may not be so successful. I was personally happier to note some fans approaching the ground, wearing club merchandise. However, I should add here that sadly I was unable to locate any for my own purchase. It does make me wonder why more people do not buy into their local club in such a way, and I am curious to see how they market themselves more. My lack of language and time these days does put a roadblock in my way.
The ground itself was a beautiful little treasure on the banks of the river. It was easily accessible from the entrance to the complex, with easy access to the open goal terrace. There were a couple of benches tucked in between the trees. Either side of the pitch had the new purpose-built stands stretching the full length of the ground. The main side, though, had what looked like a cricket pavilion sitting on the halfway line. It was an ornate delight, even if it looked like it had seen better days. Inside the clubhouse, it was decorated with memories of days gone by, numerous heroes of the clubs past are celebrated on its corridors – it was a pleasure to be allowed inside.
I took my place on the opposite terrace, which was filling up slowly with supporters of the home team. Unfortunately, as they were playing a reserve team, there were no visiting supports, and it did influence the atmosphere. The game felt like it was a community gathering, with very little focus on the teams and more on social interaction. During the first half, numbers rose, and there was a friendly banter going on among the crowd. My flag had drawn the attention of a few supporters, who were intrigued by the Sheffield United colours being flown in southern Ukraine.
Race back to Kherson
Fortunately, the lack of investment in Ukrainian football brings the kickoff times forward in the early winter period. We had a two o’clock start time in Nova Kakhovka, which had given me an hour leeway to get back to my hotel for the Blades game. The choice of a taxi was an inspired decision, but it also gave me a close-up look at the road quality. In summary, it was abysmal. However, the race back to Kherson City, during the dying sun was a memory I will never forget. I touch on the post-game incidents as I had a lovely evening out in the city. The locals went to great pains to introduce me to the region, highlighting the desert (yes, a desert) and the vineyards particularly. I will definitely need to come back in warmer seasons.
Despite my early start on Sunday morning, I spent my time considering what the trip had brought. The town of Nova Kakhovka was a surprise destination for me, as I did not expect this small town on the banks of the river to hold a professional outlet. However, the locals did go to great lengths to make me feel welcome in the region – surprisingly, fewer tourists make their way around from Odessa. Ukraine is an incredibly vast country, which creates immense differences as we race across it. It is a pleasure to witness it, and I can only stress to others to take the time out to experience the real country. My map is looking a lot fuller, with much of the west and east being completed already this autumn. It is now time to focus on the central regions, with our first stop being Cherkasy next week, just the 200km down the Dnipro from our base in Kyiv.