Posters with Stalin, tricolour flags with a double-headed eagle, military equipment on the streets, eradication of everything connecting with Ukraine, domination of Russian ruble, total mass insanity on Putin and prayers “Russia, come!” are realities of today’s Donetsk … Unless bears in the trapper hats and felt boots still have not gone on the streets.
In a short time Donetsk having been until recently a European city, a regional capital, a center of Euro-2012 will be perceived exactly in this way. During the mutual information war between Russia and Ukraine we have to separate the wheat from the chaff when reading media reviews, and especially social networks.
After establishing relative peace migrants began to return to their homes. Social networks are filled with posts that it is possible to live here, walk about the streets, there are a lot of people and cars, so please come easily and do not be afraid.
In any way, we do not call anyone to go and look at life in the Donetsk People’s Republic. However there are some tourists wishing to visit Donetsk, as my husband and I, who previously often have been in Donetsk on business.
Most our former partners left the city, but through their help we could find a guide who helped with the trip. Out of curiosity we asked Ukrainian travel agencies. They had got not any tour to the “DNR”, and a maximum of what they could help was finding a hotel or apartments. That we could do without their fees and charges.
So, we realized a tour in Donetsk at our own discretion- without any notification of so-called Ministry of State Security of the “DNR” and other similar agencies, without any announcements in social networks such as “we go!”, without any registration in the city. So we traveled as ordinary tourists without local registration and with maximum understanding of whither we went based on the general (often frightening) information. As a result of the trip we made travel advisory for tourists traveling to Donetsk.
The Donetsk People’s Republic is an incomprehensible part of the Donetsk region. Legally it is occupied territory of Ukraine. But in the “DNR” it is considered as a territory independent from Ukraine (by not all, but many people). Despite the course on Russia, the area also can not be named as Russian. This is an outright unrecognized, as they say here, “republic”. If South Ossetia and Abkhazia are recognized even by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru, the “DNR” like Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh is not recognized by anyone (without taking into account South Ossetia having signed documents on cooperation with the “DNR”).
Special living aspects of the “DNR”
The “republic” has got a number of its features. Here people live by “Moscow time” (it is called “Donbas’s time” or “Donetsk time”), i.e. in the winter-spring period difference from Kyiv is one hour (when in Kiev 12:00, in Donetsk – 13:00).
Currency is Russian ruble. Not so long ago hryvnia has been also in use, but now everywhere only ruble is used. Hryvnias, Dollars and Euros are changed in exchange offices. There are many such points. It is interesting that all exchange offices have got unified rate, established by the so-called Republican Central Bank of the”DNR”. Coins and banknotes with nominal value less than 20 hryvnias are not changed. In mid-November the exchange rate in the exchange offices was as follows: 1USD – 63.50RUR, 1EUR – 66RUR, 1UAH – 2.56RUR. There is an advice for tourists: rubles are profitable to buy on the mainland of Ukraine – the rate is higher. Be not afraid to change money in the “republican” exchange offices: everything is “civil” – testing devices, security, calculators at the windows, allowing licenses on currency transactions stamped by the “DNR”.
There is no international banking system here, so bank cards are not useful. All consumer payments are in cash. So please stock up with cash in advance. In the extreme case you can withdraw cash from your bank card in special locations – on average at 4.5% if you withdraw hryvnia, or “at the rate of 1: 2 plus 25%” when withdrawing cash in rubles from hryvnia card. But we did not risk – even outside such locations had no credibility.
Communication. Among all Ukrainian mobile operators only MTS and Life operate in “republics”. There is also a “republican” operator “Phoenix”, but it is not particularly extended. Try to top-up your mobile phone maximally being on the “big land” (so inhabitants of the “DNR” call a territory under the control of Ukraine), stock up with top-up scratch cards (they are on sale, but the price is half as much again). In the “DNR” you can top-up your mobile phone using terminals, but there are a few of them and topping up is already three times more expensive. There is Internet in the “republics”, so you can top-up the mobile phone via internet banking.
How to get to DNR
If you decided to visit the “DNR”, you should get an “e-pass”. Now this is no problem with it: fill the data on a special website of SSU (urp.ssu.gov.ua) and in two weeks you get an approval for crossing the boundary line.
It is not recommend going to the “republic” by your own car. Firstly, for safety reasons (great attention is paid to cars with car numbers from other regions of Ukraine – you will be examined at the checkpoints and when moving through the city the police of that place can stop you). Secondly, your car is an additional temptation for checkers. There is no blatant arbitrary, as it was in Donetsk in spring and summer of last year. But there are different situations. It is better not to risk. Thirdly, there is a huge queue of cars at a checkpoint on the boundary line. So the locals advise a more mobile way to travel: by train to Sloviansk, Kramatorsk or Kostiantynivka, and then by bus to Donetsk. Bus drivers fell in with the new rules and quickly, without any particular queue, transport their passengers through the checkpoint. The fare without changing at the checkpoint is 300-350 UAH.
Instead railroad you can use bus service. For example, a ticket “Kyiv-Donetsk” costs 600-700UAH for travel “with changing” (when you are brought to the checkpoint, debussed, then you let to check your luggage, and on the other side a connecting bus of the same company waits for you and carries you already in Donetsk). Also minivans “without changing at the checkpoint” ply, but the price of the ticket “Kyiv-Donetsk” is already 1500UAH.
For obvious reasons it is the most delicate question. This was the first thing we discussed when the idea like “would we gone to Donetsk” appeared. It is difficult to gain an understanding alone. Therefore, another travel advice will be: choose a person for accompanying (among friends or colleagues) who resides on the “hosting side” and understand all nuances of the local “customs”.
Our friends recommended Mykhailo, who became our guide in Donetsk and undertook the main organizational issues. He instructed us “on behavior,” and a thing or two we learned of our own experience. So there are a number of safety adviсes.
Behavior features in the “DNR”
- A martial law is applicable in the “DNR”, and one of its points is imposing a curfew (it is forbidden to be in the street from 23:00 to 5:00). As residents tell, the patrol may delay you for violation of this rule, then you can be put into pretrial detention facility (or rather, places for detainees are called “cellars”) for three days, be used in public works and then set free. In extreme situations you can take a taxi at night.
- Have always a passport about you when going out. This is also one of the conditions of the martial law. This does not mean that it will be checked constantly. Staying two weeks in Donetsk we had to show the passport twice. And not the police, but watchful grandmothers in the outskirts were disquieted, because we photographed on mobile phones. They just did not like our Kiev registration; right for such cases a support with the local address in the passport is needed. Our guide introduced us as his relatives coming to visit him.
- Your behavior on the street can not show that you are “a stranger” (residents of Central and Western Ukraine, foreigners are taken as “strangers”, but the Russians are “our”). Not only security forces, but also ordinary citizens show increased attention to “the strangers”. There is a feeling that they see a spy or saboteur in every stranger. So going with a map of the city means getting into troubles (for better orientation use maps in your mobile phone). Naturally, using Ukrainian symbols in your clothes or attributes is out of the question.
- There are limitations on photo- and video shooting. If you go with a camera on the street, meeting with the police can not be avoided. This is connected with “spies and saboteurs.” In principle, you can photograph monuments, parks, churches, and vegetation, each other against the backdrop of attractions. But it is forbidden to photograph houses, destruction, military, police, military equipment, goods and prices. It is better not to risk, because the camera can be removed, and you can not prove anything. That is why even the locals take pictures of the city mostly on their mobile phone and then secretly.
- Mobile phones, smartphones, pats are a separate issue. According to Mykhailo, when you meet with checking your passport, the patrol often requires to show your phone. They will check the latest calls, photos and videos, as well as your social networks and emails. Take into consideration this point: going outside remove anything that might rouse suspicion (especially private correspondence in social networks). When traveling in the “DNR” review your subscribers’ name in the phone book. The car of our guide Mykhailo once was stopped by the military; it was a raid on saboteurs. “Staff Igor” was among the recent calls in his mobile contacts. Can you imagine what here has begun … The “Staff” meant Humanitarian Rinat Akhmetov’s Staff, where he received medicine and food set for his elderly mother. And Igor is one of the volunteer of this staff, with whom Igor supports contact. That time they gained an understanding on the ground. But Mykhailo is a local and behaves calmly in such situations. If on his place was a “stranger”, arrest for clarifying the circumstances would be imminent.
- Be especially careful when dealing with ordinary people. Do not touch upon any political themes or discussions on “who is right, who is wrong, who has started this war,” do not show any disrespect to the city, the “DNR” and its rulers. Remember: you are “a stranger” and information against you can be quickly denounced to the authority (yes, there are denunciations here even from neighbors). Hotlines for informing about everything suspicious are constantly televised.
- Go to crowded places, ordinary for civilians – among people you feel calmer.
- However, even being in an apartment or hotel room, do not relax, do not forget that you are in the “DNR”: ensure that loudness of Ukrainian broadcasts being watched on the Internet is not too loud: no loud music (especially Ukrainian) no breach of order – in other case meeting with the police is ensured.
Nobody will give you full security assurances in the “DNR”. And you have to understand this fact when going thereto. But in general, if you come to town like a normal person with good intentions, comply with local rules of living together, the trip will be calm. There are always a lot of people in the city center, resting places. The police maintain public order. There are no crowds of military; nobody goes with a weapon in the areas of civilian life. But in first days, until getting familiar, nervous trembling when going out is guaranteed.
Means of conveyance in Donetsk
We traveled by Mykhailo’s car in remote areas of Donetsk. But public transport normally works in the city (travel by trolleybus/tram costs 3 rubles, by minibus – 6-8 rubles). However, there are problems with transport after eight in the evening, because drivers try to get back into transport pools and then get home before the curfew begins. But taxi service works round the clock (the minimum price is 60-70 rubles).
Sights of Donetsk People’s Republic
They can be divided into three blocks. Firstly, there are significant traditional places of the city having been visited before “Russian Spring”: Pushkin Boulevard (with cafes and restaurants), recreation parks, the famous stadium “Donbas Arena” and a seating area around it, a botanical garden, a park of forged figures and so on.
Secondly, there are areas related to military operations. There are places in the city, namely, a museum of regional ethnography, the Palace of Youth “Youth”, a railway station, houses subjected to massed shelling, terrible consequences of which are still visible. You can visit them along. But it will better to take support when visiting the outskirts of Kiev, Petrovsk and Kuibyshev regions (which are still “on the front line”), because life is special here, it is very different from life in the city. Views of the outskirts are, of course, shocking – fired houses with charred black holes, without any windows, with damaged roofs. … But even here people live. They are much less than in other areas, but they are. And children play on survived playgrounds.
Third block of attractions we have identified as “republican” – everything that reflects everyday life of ordinary citizens of the “DNR”. And the main thing here is new spirit impregnated with “republican ideology”. You can understand that when listening to people talking in transport, shops and cafes. This is backed up by surrounding attributes: flags of the Donetsk People’s Republic (they are everywhere); St. George ribbons (on backpacks, cars, trolleybus); billboards throughout the city on the October 18 election, which has not occurred, on the ministries, the “head of the republic” Oleksandr Zakharchenko. On every street corner you can see sale points of “Novorossia’s” and “DNR’s” souvenirs. In kiosks “Press” there are only newspapers “Novorossia”, “Donetsk republic”, “Voice of the republic.” Tobacco kiosks offer then cigarettes “Novorossia”, “Russ”, “Heorhyevskye” And absolute absence of blue-yellow color combinations.
A separate theme is shops and markets. They are also like attractions. Prices shock at once – they are in rubles. Unusual items are new brands of Russian and Belarusian production.
We were impressed with shops with a sign “commission”. There are a lot of such shops, well, like in the 1990s. This is not “second-hand”, but outright real shops with furs, worn shoes, blankets, pans, spoons and forks … We received bad impression from them, we had a feeling that some things were marauders’ booty .
Another flair of the time is points of Akhmetov‘s humanitarian aid in all regions. They are noticed not only through prominent yellow sign “We help”, but because of long queues. In these queues you can hear many stories about how old people and parents with small children have to survive in these conditions.
There are also other queues in the city, namely in offices of the “Republican Central Bank”, where pensioners receive a pension, and other categories – social assistance.
We, tourists, mostly roamed along the streets half a day, observing what was going on and watching the dead city (hammered shops, neglected buildings of banks, broken ATMs, unfinished skyscrapers).
Amusements in Donetsk
Cafes and restaurants work in the city, among them “Lviv cafe” on Pushkin Boulevard. There is a network of pizzerias “Celentano” (which, incidentally, have free Wi-Fi), a sushi network “Mao edun”. A water park and attractions operate in Shcherbakov park, a children’s railway – in the park of Lenin Komsomol (where pupil are drivers and conductors, and painted caravans are used instead of wagons). Only one cinema “Zvezdochka” works.
Be sure to visit republican celebrations. They are a dime a dozen: Day of love, family and loyalty, the “DNR” Independence Day, Republic Day, Birthday of Komsomol, many sorts of strange flash mobs and round dances – “the dance of unity”, “Donbas speak in Russian”, “Friendship of peoples”, “round dance in honor of the “DNR’s” flag “, “Republican dance”, and so on. Every weekend activists of the local organization “Donets republic”(a sort of ruling party) wave flags on Lenin Square or in resting parks and celebrate something.
In the evenings, when it is impossible to go out, watch local TV channels. They have to “produce an impression”. There is no Ukrainian TV channel in a cable network; there are only Russian TV channels and “republican channels” – “First republican channel”, “Plot TV”, “Union”. You should watch them in order to understand why many people are so inspired by the idea of the republic. Local news and programs are continuous praise and stories about wonderful life in the Donetsk People’s Republic and developing “young state”. They also show news from Ukraine, namely how badly people live in Ukraine; how the country rots and rolls into the abyss (this position is strengthened additionally by the central Russian news channels). After 10 minutes of viewing you are shocked and do not understand what and whom they are talking about. Then you begin to argue with TV, later – to resent. Then everything is changed with aggression. It is important to stop in time and turn off the TV. But the people here live with this box and believe every word…
The price paid
Two-week tour to the Donetsk People’s Republic came to 9,000 UAH ($US 375). Two of them ($US 85) we spent on travel “Kyiv-Donetsk-Kyiv”. On food, travel through the city and incidentals we spent about 300 UAH ($US 12) per a day.
Our guide Mykhailo chose an apartment in the city center in advance (one-room flat after repairing and with home appliances). Two weeks staying came to 1200 UAH ($US 50). We did not risk looking for an apartment by ourselves: we could meet with scams or rent an apartment temporarily left because of the war. And we did not want to explain anyone that we came from Kyiv, and purpose of our trip was just to see the city. By the way, in Donetsk there are several reputable hotels, but standard rooms cost from 1200 UAH ($US 50). You can choose cheap hotels at the base of former hostels for 350-400 UAH ($US 15) per a day.
We paid Mykhailo for his services 1,000UAH ($US 40) (solution of organization problems, journey through the city by his car).
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After visiting Donetsk we had double feelings. On the one hand, we were glad to make our own impression of the city. On the other – this impression was against Donetsk, probably because we went thereto with light and glad memories, so it was difficult to accept what we saw. Mentally we became different, we felt it. Positive thing – all our worries and fears have not justified, and the hope glimmers in our souls that in the near future we will be united, and after some time everything will fit together – and on the flagstaffs, and on the television screens, and in their heads.