Kherson region: pink lakes, deserts, and the unbreakable people of Ukraine’s south

What do you know about Kherson? The only regional center that the Russian Federation was able to temporarily capture at the beginning of the full-scale invasion — and photos of happy people with Ukrainian flags who cheered the Armed Forces of Ukraine at the time of their dismissal from invaders in November?

Well, let’s give some more context about these lands. The largest European desert, the great Dnipro River, and two (or two and a half) seas. Great nature reserve with 3000 different types of animals in it and incredible lakes. All this is Kherson region (Ukr. oblast) in the south of Ukraine, which still fights for its freedom — like in 1991 when more than 90% of its inhabitants voted for independence.

Kherson region continues to fight for its freedom.

A fortress with Cossack genes

Kherson region is a part of the legendary “Wild Fields”, where the most diverse peoples have lived, fought, and traded since ancient times. For centuries, Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Greeks, Khazars, and Mongols passed through, and the Black Sea grasslands became a geolocation of audacity, danger, and free life. And, of course, Ukrainians have always been here. For example, in 1851, the Russians conducted a census in Kherson region, where nationality was determined by language. Ukrainians made up the vast majority of the population — more than 700,000. The second-largest nation was the Moldovans, with 75,000, followed by Jews, Germans, and then Russians.

The first mention of the Cossacks in history is precisely related to the Kherson region: in 1492, they attacked a ship here, which the Crimean Khan later complained about in his letters. Later, the Cossacks began to build fortifications and settlements in the Wild Field. They mastered not only the steppe but also the sea — whole flotillas of Cossack boats called chaikas sailed from the mouth of the Dnipro and were a formidable threat to Turkish cities.

Most likely, the Kherson fortress was built on the site of the old Cossack outpost at the end of the 18th century. For its time, it was a rather powerful and innovative structure that towered menacingly on the bank of the Dnipro, ready to meet the enemy with a volley of 220 cannons.


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Natural wonders: lakes and deserts

The sea is always a good idea. But wait. If it’s called Hnyle (Rotten Sea), but it’s not actually a sea? But it’s still a good idea. Because Hnyle Sea is the second name of Syvash Lake — an amazing system of eleven shallow salt lakes. 

Due to the peculiarities of the area, the water of these lakes is extremely salty, which reminds another famous basin with a not-too-positive name: the Dead Sea. And before the full-scale invasion, people here just gladly wallowed in medicinal mud, which helps in the treatment of diseases of the respiratory system, musculoskeletal system, nervous, and cardiovascular systems, or is used in cosmetics. Well, local iodized salt is used not only for food but also against diseases of the thyroid gland.


Lemuriiske Lake, which is also called Pink Lake, attracts special attention in Syvash. The second name clearly explains why this lake is unique: thanks to tiny algae, the water in it is pink. So let Syvash sometimes be called Hnyle Sea, and the freshness of impressions from it is guaranteed.

There are completely different natural wonders in Kherson region. Surface temperatures of up to 70ºC (158ºF), sand dunes, and rain only on major holidays are what you would expect somewhere in Africa or the Middle East. However, we are talking about a unique place, in fact, in the center of Europe: the largest sand massif in this part of the world, Oleshkivski Sands. 

Even 200 years ago, grassland vegetation flourished here, and even trees grew. But at the beginning of the 19th century, mass grazing of sheep began in Kherson region. Millions of flocks simply ate and trampled all the greenery, and the steppe actually turned into a desert. 

Now, these 1,620 square kilometers (625.5 square miles) of sand surprise us with their existence in the middle of the picturesque steppe and once again prove that Ukraine is an amazing place. After all, where else can you see a desert in the middle of Europe? 

Free Ukrainian lands

The battles for Kherson region (Ukr. oblast) began as soon as Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Towns and villages suffered from missile attacks, and there were miles of armored vehicles from Crimea. The thing is that even after the attempted annexation in 2014, the peninsula was closely related to mainland Ukraine, so now, after the intrusion, the main goal was to hunch over Ukrainian lands around it. 

On March 1, 2022, the Russian army, with a significant advantage in equipment, broke into the defenses of Kherson. However, the city did not surrender — even armed invaders and tanks on the streets did not prevent Kherson residents from coming out to rallies of thousands under the slogan, “Kherson is Ukraine.” As an answer, invaders shot at the crowd and dispersed peaceful protests with grenade explosions.

In addition, the Russians immediately began to destroy Ukrainian culture — they started teaching in Russian, confiscated books and introduced Russian currency. Pro-Ukrainian townspeople were subjected to brutal repression, and often people simply disappeared. In fact, they tried to quickly turn the Ukrainians of Kherson into Russians, to force them to give up everything Ukrainian. Despite the mortal danger, the totalitarian habits of the Russians did not break the locals — a powerful partisan movement was launched in Kherson region.

Another crime was forced deportation to Russian-occupied territories under the guise of “evacuation” for safety.

However, on November 11, 2022, after 256 days of occupation, the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated Kherson. The streets were filled with happy people holding blue and yellow Ukrainian flags that they had kept at great risk to their lives, pending Ukraine’s return.

Part of Kherson region is still under occupation, its lands are the most mined in Ukraine, and Kherson is always under fire. Still, locals know that Kherson is in Ukraine, and no aggressor can ever change that.


“Eiffel” on an uninhabited island

In what story can the ancient Greeks, the Eiffel, dolphins, and mud be united? Well, for example, in the history of the Black Sea island of Dzharylhach. 

This largest island of Ukraine occupies an area of 56 square kilometers (21.6 square miles), but is considered uninhabited. However, despite this, life was bustling here at all times. Legends about the picturesque island were told in ancient times, and the Scythians, Sarmatians, and other nations left their burial mounds here.

200 shallow estuarine lakes have always attracted travelers with their healing mud, and dolphins, shrimp, and two dozen species of crabs can be found on and around the island. As well as people. Although the island is officially uninhabited, it is one of the centers of wild tourism, so sometimes Dzharylhach can be called a kind of branch of Burning Man in Eastern Europe.

And the best way to see all the beauty of the island is from the old 25-meter lighthouse, which was built here in 1902.

For a long time, locals even believed that it was designed by Alexander Gustave Eiffel himself, the creator of the famous tower bearing his name. Be that as it may, the lighthouse turned out to be wonderful and would definitely appeal to the ancient Greeks, Scythians.


One of the strangest monuments in the world

What is the strangest monument you have heard of? There is a candidate for this title in Kherson region — there is a sculpture in honor of a watermelon here!

The thing is that Kherson region is a famous agricultural region where various types of delicacies are grown: tomatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage, and eggplants. 

But the most famous flagship of the region’s agriculture is watermelon.

Every year, trucks and barges with this juicy berry (yes, watermelon is a berry!) go in different directions so that people all over Ukraine and abroad take a big bite and say, “Wow, how delicious!”

Therefore, it is not surprising that as early as 1988, a four-meter-high art object — a watermelon monument — was installed in Kherson region. The unusual sculpture was loved by everyone, and now you can see it even in the movies — for example, in the wonderful film “Volcano”, about the phantasmagorical life of southern Ukraine after the occupation of Crimea and the start of the hybrid war with the Russian Federation.

Due to the Russian temporary occupation, 2022 became the first year in many decades when Kherson watermelons remained in Kherson region, although before that they conquered the markets of Ukraine and other countries every year. However, after the successful counterattack of the Ukrainians, these fruits became one of the symbols of the warm meeting of fellow countrymen — they were taken out of the stocks and given to the soldiers almost every few meters.

And when the president came to Kherson a few days after the de-occupation, he was asked: “The Dnipro River is behind you now, and they (Russian troops. — are very close.” You could have just recorded an appeal from the President’s Office, but you are here. Why?” Volodymyr Zelenskyy answered not without irony:

“Well, what about Kherson watermelons?”

Zebras in the Ukrainian steppe

Do you remember the story about Oleshky Sands? One of the main owners of the millions of herds that actually ate the steppe, turning it into a sandy massif, was a German by origin, Friedrich Falz-Fein. However, it is unlikely that he really wanted to be the creator of the desert, since he really loved nature. So much so that he even created the largest steppe reserve in Europe!

Since the end of the 19th century, amazing animals have been roaming freely near the Black and Azov seas on 330 000 square kilometers (127 413.71 square miles), from zebras, camels, and Przewalski’s horses to bison and exotic birds. This is Askaniia-Nova, a unique nature reserve with a century-old history. By the way, did you notice the word “freely” in the first sentence of this paragraph? Yes, Askaniia-Nova animals move around the reserve as they wish.

However, a full-scale invasion changed everything, not only for humans but also for animals. Animal rights activists began to talk about “ecocide”: on the territory of an internationally recognized nature reserve, the occupiers keep armored vehicles, and the animals are frightened by the constant flights of aircraft at extremely low altitudes. Unfortunately, it will be possible to take care of the unique nature there only after de-occupation.

Ukrainian Seas and the Global Flood

Kherson region is a region where you can see two seas in one day. The Black Sea washes the shores in the west of the region, and the Sea of Azov — in the east. And these are one-of-a-kind seas.

The Sea of Azov, for example, has many records. They are, however, not the reservoirs that are usually proud of themselves: the shallowest, the smallest in volume, and the furthest from the ocean.

The Black Sea also has its own unique features. For instance, carbonated water! However, it is not like the bottles we are used to in the supermarket — the fact is that below the level of 150 – 200 meters (492–656 feet), all the water in this reservoir is saturated with hydrogen sulfide. Because of this, there is practically no life in the depths.

And it is quite possible that the birth of the Black Sea was so spectacular that people still remember it. According to two American geologists, a deep freshwater lake existed in its place 7500 years ago. However, then the level of the world ocean rose, and the salty water broke through the Bosphorus, rushing down a colossal waterfall.

It was this flow that over the next few years formed the Black Sea — and, perhaps, remained in the memory of many peoples as the legend of the global flood. It seems that this is a good career jump — from an ordinary lake to the sea, the history of which is remembered for thousands of years.

Kherson itself is also a city on the water. So much so that it has two ports — river and sea. And in the treasury of unusualness, there is a seaport in the city, but the sea itself is not. However, it is located only 95 km from this place, so large ships enter here through the Dnipro, and the infrastructure allows moving goods by road, rail, sea, and river transport.

And in Kherson, not only do they hospitably receive any ships, but they also build their own. For example, the Pallada plant in Kherson in peacetime builds modern ship repair floating docks that are exported to many countries around the world, from South Africa or Egypt to Japan, Malta, or South Korea.

Trubetskyi winery

Kherson region is a region that is definitely worth drinking wine for. Especially if it is a wine that has collected dozens of awards at international exhibitions and has been raising the spirits of everyone for more than 125 years.

The Trubetskyi winery is the only historical château in Ukraine. The first vineyards were planted here back in 1896, and already in 1900, the wine from here won the Grand Prix at the World Exhibition in Paris. Later, it also conquered London — “Velvet of Ukraine”, “Pearl of the Steppe” and “Naddniprianske” were supplied to the royal court of Great Britain.

Trubetskyi products continue to win prizes even today. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Malbec, Chardonnay, Riesling, Aligoté, and Pinot Blanc are now grown here, and wines from these celebrated varieties are enjoyed around the world.

Or, to be more precise, were enjoyed. The winery came under occupation almost immediately after the full-scale Russian invasion. The aggressors completely looted the wine collection that Ukrainians had been collecting for generations. Equipment and furniture were also stolen, and even after the liberation of Kherson, the winery is under constant fire.

However, it was this release that showed the importance of the Trubetskyi farm for Ukrainians — the employees of the winery said that they received hundreds of messages from all over the country, where people uncorked their wines for the best reason — freedom. The freedom of Kherson first, and then of all of Ukraine.

Kherson region is a region that, in peacetime, could rightly be proud of its history, culture, and nature.

And now he can also be proud of his unbreakableness. Even in the terrible days of the occupation, Ukrainians did not give up here and continued to fight for their land. And, in the end, they win step by step.


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Last updated 15.03.2023

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