New Zealanders know little more about Ukraine than its famous chicken dish but it has a long, rich history, writes travel editor JIM EAGLES
Hands up who's been to Ukraine. If your hand stayed down you're not alone. Last year just 42 of the 1.4 million New Zealanders who went overseas said they were heading for Ukraine.
But that will change if Nataliya Poshyvaylo has her way.
Poshyvaylo, who lives in Auckland and is married to a New Zealander, is passionate about her Ukrainian heritage and wants the world to know about it.
So passionate, that she and husband Paul Towler have set up a travel company to take New Zealanders to see Ukraine and, as an unexpected byproduct, to bring Ukrainians to see New Zealand.
"I just want to promote Ukraine," she says, "I know it has lots to offer and I want New Zealanders to experience it."
Towler is certainly a convert.
"Before we met I didn't know a hell of a lot about Ukraine to be honest," he says.
"I think in Soviet times Ukraine was just a part of the enemy and that was about it."
But having been there twice to meet the Poshyvaylo family, he now thinks it's fantastic.
"The culture, the people, the history, the architecture, the food, it's extraordinary, I would never have imagined it.
"I've travelled to places like France and Germany but Ukraine is just so different."
And, he reckons, this is the time to go before the real Ukraine is swallowed up by Western culture.
"The second time I went there I saw McDonald's in Kyiv [Kiev is the Russian spelling] and I thought it was real sad.
"But that's the way the world is becoming, so I'd say it's a place you really need to see now before it changes."
The first thing New Zealanders will notice, Towler says, is the unique architectural style, with its echoes of Greece and Byzantium, which has evolved over hundreds of years.
The second is the overwhelming presence of history. "You walk in somewhere like a cathedral and you can just feel it. You know how old it is by just standing there."
A New Zealander might think Ukraine looks somewhat Russian, but to say that is to invite a speedy correction from Poshyvaylo.
"Ukraine is a lot older than Russia," she explains. "Two thousand years ago a state called Kyivan Rus emerged and it was very, very powerful. And 700 years later Moscow emerged from the same tribe. So we have the same origins but Ukraine was much the first."
And before anyone makes another mistake she also points out that the Cossacks, the famous horse-riding warriors, are also Ukrainian.
"Lots of New Zealanders think Cossacks are Russian but actually they originated in Ukraine."
One reason Ukrainians are quick to assert their country's long history is that its fertile fields and strategic location have seen it subject to countless invasions by the empires of the Mongols, Poles, Muscovites, Turks, Austrians, Russians, Germans and, most recently, Soviets.
The present independent republic was founded in 1991 following the break-up of the Soviet Union and it has seen a renaissance of the previously suppressed Ukrainian culture, with the restoration of abandoned churches, a revival of traditional arts and - notwithstanding the arrival of McDonald's - a renewed enthusiasm for traditional cooking.
Towler, for one, thinks the food is fantastic.
Most people have probably heard of chicken kiev - chicken stuffed with garlic butter - though they might not have thought of it as Ukrainian.
But perhaps the most popular traditional dish is borsch, the beetroot soup that, Poshyvaylo explains, "comes in many, many varieties - vegetarian, with meat, with chicken, with garlic dumplings as an accompaniment, cold in summer to refresh, hot in winter".
Towler's favourite is holubtsi, seasoned meat and rice wrapped up in a cabbage leaf, which is served with sour cream.
Then there is varenyky, dough pockets filled with potato, cheddar cheese, sauerkraut, cottage cheese, blueberries or cherries.
The aspect of Ukrainian culture Poshyvaylo feels most passionate about is the arts, because she comes from a long line of famous potters, and her grandparents are credited with a crucial role in keeping traditional crafts alive.
Her grandfather made small figures, which her grandmother painted - their favourites were Cossacks on horseback - as well as bowls and vases thrown on traditional Ukrainian wheels, which potters literally spin with their feet.
But their bigger contribution was to establish a private museum - "in the best room of their cottage" - of traditional pottery, embroidery and painting.
That collection could never be publicised for fear of earning the ire of the Soviet authorities, but it nevertheless became the focal point of efforts to preserve Ukrainian culture and is now the nucleus of a new National Museum of Ceramic Art and Pottery run by a cousin.
"Their cottage," says Poshyvaylo, "is still part of the museum and I will take people there on the tours. That is very emotional for me because I feel related, it's in my blood, it's who I am."
The 20-day itinerary she has mapped out takes in Kyiv, Polktava, Odesa and Kolmyia and includes visits to churches and monasteries, museums and castles, folk festivals and craft markets.
Ironically, Poshyvaylo's efforts to organise tours of Ukraine have also served to stimulate interest in Ukrainians coming here.
She is now busy organising a tour for Ukrainian travel agents with the idea that they would then sell tours to bring Ukrainian people to New Zealand.
"Ukraine is very flat, so they want to come to New Zealand to see mountains, glaciers, lakes, and everyone is fascinated by geysers and volcanoes."
As it happens Ukrainian interest in New Zealand is something Poshyvaylo can readily understand because it was what brought her here in the first place.
"I was always fascinated with the Pacific, I read books, about Australia, New Zealand and the Islands, and I was very interested to see it.
"New Zealand was one of the countries I studied in school. I knew there were two islands, and Stewart Island, and the capital was Wellington and Maori and kiwi bird.
"Then when I was 24 I knew not many people from Ukraine travelled to New Zealand, and I knew a Ukrainian family who lived there, so I thought, 'Oh well, this is something I'd like to do, a chance to explore on the other side of the world, that would be a bit of an adventure'."
Now, of course, she's selling the same sort of adventure in reverse.
The Poshyvaylo-Towler tour company can be contacted on 0800 ukraine. The 20-day Ukrainian Rhapsody tour costs $7995 a person, twin-share, not including airfares.