A pioneering cultural exchange that supports traditional, self-sustaining communities in Ukraine, is offering lifechanging travel experiences to those up for an adventure.
Organised by Herefordshire-based social enterprise 'Experience Ukraine', the visits offer a rare insight into a timeless, rural culture set amidst stunning geography and wildlife. Visitors take part in family and village life and have opportunities to learn skills crucial to livelihoods that work in harmony with nature.
In exchange, surplus income from the ecotourism venture goes directly to the communities to support social and cultural projects that keep the rural communities and their wisdom alive.
The founder of the enterprise, Nataliya Cummings, has direct experience of such communities: a native Ukrainian now living in Hereford, she was for a time a member of a small artists' commune in the village of Nizhnie Selische in the trans-Carpathian mountain region. While there she set up theatre workshops and festivals for the local young people and became involved with a range of other community projects.
Having fallen in love with the region's beauty and culture, Nataliya recognised that its people had preserved the sense of community and connection with the natural world to which many in the modern world aspire. Not only that, they had retained relative immunity to the frailties of the global economic, energy and food systems, thanks to their ability to work with the surrounding ecology, maintain soil fertility and so provide for the majority of their needs from local food and crafts.
However the villages suffer each year when a number of their population leave for the cities for several months to boost their income. They also struggle to keep their young people from succumbing to the lure of bright lights and western culture offered by the cities. A relatively small amount of income from ecotourism makes a big difference to these communities, ensuring more adults remain in the village throughout the year and providing cultural and entertainment activities that keep the young involved.
Nataliya and her Hereford-based husband Kie, set up 'Experience Ukraine' in 2012, to support this aim while giving British people a unique insight into a beautiful, ecologically sustainable and increasingly rare way of life. They have run trips to the region for the last two summers, which by all accounts were an overwhelming success.
"We took groups from the Herefordshire and Shropshire area. All the participants were captivated by the vibrancy of community life there," explained Nataliya.
"They were inspired to see how easy it is to achieve food-sufficiency when you work together on the land, and they enjoyed the skills workshops in things like food fermentation, rugmaking and wild mushrooming. They were amazed that local transport is often by horse and cart and that all fresh produce is organic and locally grown, untouched by industrial agriculture. And that all the 200 sheep in the flock are milked by hand each day! I think it was really an eye-opening experience for them."
As well as the experience of traditional community life, the trips included visits to stunning landscapes including the largest virgin beech forest in Europe (which has UNESCO protection), rich meadows dense with wildflowers and butterflies, deserted castles, remote monasteries and beautiful mountain scenery. There were parties, folk music and visits to the young people's projects that their trip was supporting, as well as a cultural visit to the city of Lviv, which one participant described as "architecturally enchanting".
Another was delighted by the scenery, the hospitality and the kindness shown everywhere. "I want to go back! … I came back feeling unusually healthy. The food was very good … a distinct lack of traffic, together with the vast forests and mountain ranges, made for low pollution and low stress levels," he said.
Nataliya's vision is for Experience Ukraine to develop into a steady venture so as to maintain regular support to the communities and their instructive ways of living, but not to grow too big. "We will only run two or three trips a year, to minimise the impact of tourism on the region," she explained. "Groups that come to the area are very select and normal tourism operators don't go anywhere near, because it's challenging compared with what many expect for a holiday."
The organisation is currently taking bookings for two visits in June 2014. One, a nine day visit with a focus on wildlife, will include time in the Carpathian Biosphere reserve accompanied by a nature guide, a visit to a Ukrainian bear rehabilitation centre and a trip to the Starunya mud volcano, among other things. The other, an eightday trip, will focus on the cultural side, with more time spent with traditional families, communities and local craftspeople, although both trips will include both nature and culture aspects.
For more information about the adventures, the region and the thinking behind this innovative project, see www.experienceukraine.co.uk, their Facebook page, email Nataliya on nataliya.cummings[at]gmail.com or call her on 07963090838.
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