A booming tourism industry isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Donbas, a war-torn industrial region in eastern Ukraine. However, there are many tourism projects here that celebrate its culture and embrace its landscape and industrial history.
The region offers geological points of interest, both abandoned and working mines, abandoned factories, new green farms that naturally come with an immersion in local culture and landscapes as far as the eye can see. If all of this sounds good to you, then it might be time to book a trip.
Such adventures, often referred to as “industrial tourism,” may not be as orthodox as beach holidays or sightseeing; but they have a growing and devoted fan base. We collect what the area has to offer.
The labyrinth and lakes of the gypsum mine, Ivanhrad
This used to be a gypsum mine, but to the outsider it looks like a chain of orange hills alongside a small village. The entrance to this mine acts as a gateway to a mysterious underground world, worth every minute of your time.
Head protection gear in places like this is a very good idea. Another would be to look for a good guide; Exploring the region is easier with ‘kraeznavtsi’, which means ‘local historians and enthusiasts’, plus there is less chance of getting lost.
We follow Mykhailo Kulishov, an expert on the fascinating geological scene of the region.
“What is very special about geological tourism in Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast is that in a relatively small area you can see rocks from almost all geological eras, from the oldest granites to unique alkaline massifs,” Mykhailo said.
Mykhailo knows the way to the most beautiful parts of the region, explaining natural phenomena and decades of human exploration in a captivating way.
“I would really like to show how unique our region is, which is why Western Europeans were so drawn to it,” added our guide. He was talking about industrial investors who contributed a lot to local development. For example, the largest city in the Donetsk region, Donetsk (now lost to control by the Ukrainian government) was founded by the Welsh industrial engineer John James Hughes in the late 19th century.
The gypsum mine was one of these places. Essentially it is a maze of corridors, located on different levels, abandoned after the removal of plaster. The tunnels in this labyrinth are generally between 7 and 12 meters wide and can reach up to 6.5 meters in height. It is estimated that they extend up to 7 km in length.
Some of the galleries in the cave network are flooded with water and the resulting ‘lakes’ are up to 4 meters deep.
How do we know this? A certified local cave diver told us, right after swimming out of one. There really are many possibilities to explore these hidden places, some more accessible, others require specific training, but all are fascinating.
Salt mine near Soledar
In the historical part of the local salt production, you can take an elevator that takes you to a depth of up to 300 meters. The underground galleries here are very deceptive. In one of the largest, a festival of philharmonic music takes place. Another is a soccer stadium. There is a church and salt sculptures with some light decorations.
It is not the first day that industrial facilities like this serve the culture of the region. A newspaper publication dating back to the early 20th century reports a very well received mining performance by a touring choir, says local historian Andriy Novoselskii.
An underground speleological sanatorium
The so-called speleological sanatorium called the “Salt Symphony” is also located in the salt mine, and is generally fully booked when it is not affected by pandemic-related restrictions. People come here for a couple of weeks hoping to treat respiratory problems. Residents spend time underground watching movies, playing chess, exercising in groups, playing table tennis, reading books, and visiting the local bar.
Sparkling wine cellars
The long history of regional industrial development, foreign investment and Soviet rule have helped unite the area’s mining traditions with … the production of sparkling wine.
Today, local producer Artwinery offers the opportunity to see the entire sparkling wine production cycle along with tours of its historic underground galleries, which lie up to 72 meters below the surface.
The pyramids, as they are sometimes called by the locals, are the piles of waste from chalk production that stopped here in the 1990s.
As is often the case, nature embraced the results of human activity and turned it into something quite beautiful. Right now it is the perfect place for a walk or cycle. There are bike clubs here that you might want to join for one of your local cycling expeditions.
Unfortunately, the infrastructure lags behind the possibilities that this region offers. One option for your trip is to choose a larger city to stay in, for example Sviatohirsk, Kramatorsk or Slaviansk, and then go on day trips from there. Another would be to communicate with locals who provide ‘green’ housing options; follow our additional posts from the region to learn more about them.
However, there is some hope for infrastructure improvement. The region is now receiving some attention from the government in terms of tourism development and a lot of love and thought from local tourism enthusiasts. They often receive funding from international non-governmental aid organizations, which help them start their businesses, which in turn will improve the lives of people in local communities.
Yana Synytsa, a local tourism guru and community development activist, says international tourists were not uncommon in the Donetsk region before 2014, when the conflict began. Now his business is reviving, but he still mainly serves the domestic market, with some foreign guests from international NGOs and international journalists also coming.
One of the main projects that Synytsa is working on at the moment is called “The Path Marked by Salt”, a must see in the upcoming spring / summer season. Tourists will be offered the opportunity to follow the path of historic salt production with some of the attractions we described above, equipped with interactive maps or potentially 3D glasses. The program includes descending into the mines, enjoying the scenery along the banks of the Siversky Donets River, tasting local delicacies cooked from the typical plant that grows in the marsh, visiting farms to sample produce, and more.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism