Kiev City Tour

Today we had planned a drive/walking tour of Kiev.  After yesterday’s super long day out to Chernobyl and the way my back was feeling, I was doubting the sanity of lining up for another long day out. This morning my back is still not back down to its usual dull roar, but we only have limited time, I just have to push on and hopefully not pull the pin too early.  Seriously, I really need a sea day!

Monument to Kyiv, Shchek and Khoryv, the are three legendary brothers, often mentioned along with their sister Lybid who are believed to be the founders of the medieval city of Kyiv. According to legend, Kyiv, the eldest brother, was a prince from Polonia and he named the city after himself.  There are also mountains named after his brothers and a river named after Lybid around here somewhere.Bridal couples like to visit this monument and turn their back to the longship throwing their bouquets onto the ship – if the flowers land on the deck of the ship, they wll have a long and happy marriage.This is called the ‘Tree of Happiness’ and it is full of ribbons and tokens placed here from the parents of the aforemented bridal couples.
Banks of the Dneiper River.The Motherland Monument stands high on the hills over the Dnieper River and is a part of the Ukraine World War II Museum – it is the only remaining monument in Ukraine bearing Soviet imagery, and the reason is that no one can decide how/what to replace it with.  At 102m tall, it is an imposing structure designed to convey the power and strength of the Soviet Union. The WWII Musuem is lined with tanks and helicopters, many of which are from the 1980s wars with Afghanistan.  Thanks Charlie Wilson – Ukraine has plenty of young vets with PTSD.Our next stop was the National “Holodomor Victims Memorial”.  The Holodomor (literally “to kill by starvation”) of 1932-1933 was effectively the Ukraine’s version of the Halocaust.  It was a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine that killed millions of Ukrainians. The museum was opened on the day of the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor in 2008 and gained the status of a national museum in 2010. The museum is located on the Pechersk Hills on the right bank of the Dnieper river in Kiev, adjacent to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. During the Holodomor, millions of inhabitants of Ukraine, the majority of whom were ethnic Ukrainians, died of starvation in an unprecedented, deliberate and orchestrated famine that was carried out against the Ukranian people by the Soviet Government. Fatalities are uncertain, but up to 12 million ethnic Ukrainians were said to have died as a result of the famine. As it was explained to us, the Soviet Union has always tried to subjugate the ethnic Ukrainians and this famine was an effort to try and ‘eradicate’ the region of the Ukrainians altogether.   Children as young as 12 would be jailed for possessing more than five stalks of grain, foodstuffs were confiscated allegedly for military efforts, and people became so desperate that evidence of widespread cannibalism (literally thousands of people resorted to eating people) was documented during the Holodomor, with children quite commonly ending up victims. The World War II obelisk and to the right, what was designed and built to be a ‘youth skating rink centre’ but by the time corruption and government was through with it, it opened as a bar for diplomats with topless waitresses on roller skates.  :/ 

Kalyna berries are one of the national symbols of Ukraine. The red fiery colour of the berries represents beauty in Russian and Ukrainian culture and they symbolise the passionate love of a beautiful woman.  They are seen quite commonly in folk painting and embroidery designs, and are used in decorations at holidays and weddings etc. Somewhat incongruously, right beside the impressive St Michael’s Monastery sits the official Department of Foreign Affairs building.

St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery is located on the right bank of the Dnieper River in middle of the historic administrative/governmental, Uppertown.  It overlooks the city’s historical commercial and merchant quarter known as the Podil.  Originally it was built in

Originally built in the Middle Ages by Sviatopolk II Iziaslavych, who was the supreme ruler of the Kievan Rus for about 20 years (1093 to 1113), the monastery is made up of a Cathedral, the Refectory of St. John the Divine, the Economic Gates, and the monastery’s bell tower, which were all added in the 18th century. The exterior of the monastery was rebuilt in the Ukrainian Baroque style at that time while the interior is in the original Byzantine style… none of which really means anything because the original cathedral was completely demolished by Soviet authorities in the 1930s, and was then completely reconstructed and opened in 1999 following Ukrainian independence that happened in 1991!  So the whole thing is new anyway. No photography is allowed inside, so I have totally stolen a picture from the Internet*:
*I would normally list a photo credit, but I found this image on Pinterest, which as you all know is where all copyright and image credit information, goes to die. 🙁
Fountain on the monastery grounds – and the first of several ‘wishing spot’ today.  Wet a coin and see if you can get it to stick to the metal fountain taps, if it sticks, the wish will come true.  My Australian 5c piece was just too heavy for the task (or the powers that be in the Monastery Business know I atheist/heathen type, and aren’t into granting wishes to people like me!) 

Directly outside St Michael’s Monastery is where Kiev lived through its most recent violent political upheaval. The Revolution of Dignity, as referred to as Euromaidan was a nationwide Ukrainian protest movement that lasted from November 2013 to February 2014.  The historic events that took place here were precipitated from the abject rejection of the European foreign policy development vector, and the last minute refusal of the Ukranian government to sign the EU Association Agreement.  The protests started peaceably enough but after ten days of peaceful protesting, the government resorted to violence and sent in Special Forces troops to Kiev’s main square Maidan Nezalezhnotsti (Independence Square) to disperse the protestors which saw many young protestors brutally beaten. The protestors took to the Monastery for shelter and the church turned into a makeshift kitchen, clothing distribution point, information and press distribution centre, and even emergency operating room. The protest turned into a longstanding civil disobedience campaign against unchecked state power, corruption and blatant human rights abuses and one hundred people died in the uprising.  The ‘Heavenly Hundred’ are commemorated all over this part of the city – in particular on the street outside our hotel, the Ukraine Hotel, which was sadly used by the government as a sniper tower when dispersing the protests.

Our next point of interest was hopefully something a little less morose, St Andrew’s Church, which is a major Baroque church constructed between 1747 and 1754,  It overlooks the historic Podil neighbourhood and is situation on a steep embankment called Andriyivska Hill.  Currently, the church have become a major headache for local conservationists as the foundations have started to shift, causing worry that the entire building may collapse… pieces of the church’s decor have been found down the hill called St Andrew’s Descent.  :/ 

The Descent is considered ‘Kiev’s Montemarte’ and is a parade full of the work of local artists visible from the viewing platform at the base of the church. The diversity of architecture in the city is quite stunning.

After St Andrew’s we headed to see the Theramin Fountain, which is one of seven iron fountains manufactured in the factory Alexei Theremin, in the pre-revolutionary era. Theremin had been commissioned to build several fountains for the city and was known for being an abusive and foul-mouthed boss.  This fountain, which ended up bearing his name was the final fountain in the commission and unfortunately for Alexei, he left town a few days before it was completed and placed in situ. His workers, who were apparently all fed up with his abuse replaced several lions heads that were intended for the fountain with a representation of Alexei’s face – spewing water forth like the vitriol he spewed at his worker.  When he came back and saw his likeness on the fountain, he was apparently none too impressed and attempted to buy back the fountain from the commissioning authority, but they were having none of it and so it remained.Nearby a piece of art designed to draw attention to the world’s plastic plight.  There’s a cat thing in this city – not sure why… Just around the corner from the fountain is the Golden Gates of Kyiv which was where the main fortification gates of the city were located in the 11th century. It was named in imitation of the Golden Gate of Constantinople (not Istanbul!) but the structure was destroyed in the middle ages, so there were only ruins on this site and no one knew what they original gates looked like.  In 1982, the Soviet government decided they should be rebuilt and this is what was created even though many different reconstructions were proposed?!  So the original medieval gates probably looked nothing like this at all… Nearby is a statue of a cat named Pantyusha who lived in the kitchen of a local restaurant. He was a well-mannered one and was loved by the cooks, waiters and diners alike. At some point, poor Pantyusha died in a kitchen fire, and not long after that some of the restaurant’s regular patrons donated a statue to a nearby park.  People visiting the statue stroke Pantyusha’s head and tail and whisper wishes into his ears. Across the street from the Golden Gate is this marvellously elaborate building that was called the Renaissance Kiev Hotel, built by a millionaire who went bust and had made the exteriors of the building so elaborate that he didn’t have money to fit it out properly. It was eventually bought by someone else who finished it and it became a popular dining place during the Soviet era, where buying a table (bribing the maitre d’hotel to give you someone else’s table) would cost you as much as your entire meal.  More recently, it is seeing its own history repeating itself as it was purchased by a new owner was were going to restore the hotel to its former glory, but apparently hasn’t had the funds to complete the plan, so it’s been boarded up for about five years now. After wandering around the Golden Gate area, we made our way to the Kiev metro so we could jump a train to get to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra Monastery via the ‘deepest Metro Station in the World’– Arsenalna station which is 105.5 meters deep.  First thing I noticed is how fast the escalators are moving in these stations – if you weren’t paying attention, I could imagine plenty it’d be pretty easy to be put your arse by them.  The decor is a little austere – very much in the Soviet-style not at all like the elaborate Art Nouveau and Art Deco metros in Moscow and St Petersburg, where some of the metro stations are also pretty deep – but this one takes the cake.  It took a full three and a half minutes standing on the escalator to get to the surface at our destination, even with the fastest escalators I have ever seen. At the other end of the Metro, we took a walk along the banks of the Dnieper River towards the Lavra and got a closer look at some of the landmarks we had already briefly past.  I loved this statue… it rotated which allowed you to turn it however you wanted, which meant the light was always going to be able to be on the best side for a photo.On it are represented many of the famous cathedrals, churches and monasteries of Kiev. ‘The city is a little foggy and misty’, said our guide whose name I can’t pronounce and definitely couldn’t spell… foggy?  poluted?  potayto?  potarto?  It looked like this at 10am and was still ‘foggy and misty’ at 4pm. The Gate Church of the Trinity is a historic church of the ancient cave monastery of Pechersk Lavra and was originally being built in the Kievan Rus style, but is now decorated in a Ukrainian Baroque style, because like everything else in this city it appears to have been destroyed and reconstructed many times.The massive Pechersk Lavra monastery complex covers nearly 30 hectares on the hillsides of Kiev overlooking the Dnieper River. Since its foundation as the cave monastery in 1051, the Lavra has been a the centre of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe (so, kinda like the Eastern Orthodox, Mecca) and attracts many pilgrims each year who come to pray at the relics of saints that are preserved in the caves.  It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and built on a massive hillside, so a bugger of a walk to get down to the caves and back up again. The caves are built into the hillside and are touted as being ‘catacombs’.  But if you have ever seen any catacombs in Paris or Rome or somewhere, this place is completely different – it is a series of small paved and stuccoed tunnels connecting some rooms where the relics of saints have been preserved. No photos allowed in the caves at Lavra, just plenty of noisily praying pilgrims.  It is said that every Eastern Orthodox adherent should come to the caves of Lavra at least once in their lifetime.  The dehydrated preserved relics of the ‘saints” reminded me of somewhere else I had seen a catacomb-like this – but I would have to go back through my travel photos to figure out where that was… St Petersberg maybe?  Not sure.

After our tour of the city, we went back to the hotel to rest my stupid back.  I had made it through the itinerary without piking until we got to the last section of the Lavra Monastery and I looked at the hill and went, that’s a big ‘nope’.  Seeing the Ukraine Hotel again after hearing its involvement in the recent uprisings – it looked different to me now, knowing that it had been used by the Soviet authorities as a sniper tower to quell the protesting population, made it less impressive and somewhat menacing.  :/ Another statue of the three founding brothers and their sister.  The main monument in Independence Square is the 62m victory Column of Independence. The figure atop the column is Berehynia, a national goddess or earth mother type.  She holds a guelder rose branch which is the symbol of life, love and motherland. Some people love it, some people hate it apparently. We had asked our guide earlier where to go for dinner and she recommended a restaurant called ‘Chicken Kyiv’… really – that is what the restaurant was called. We were seated and presented with menus that looked as thick as a bible! Only it turned out they were coreflut pop up books!  Cute.  Food was cheap and plenty of options. yale tried the chicken and mushroom tart for a starter which was very tasty… And I splashed out and ordered the sturgeon caviar (which turned out to be a quarter of the entire price of our bill). It was so totally worth it – absolultely delicious. For mains, we tried their signature dish – when in Rome and all that – and ordered the Chicken Kyiv.  It was a little disappointing to be honest, loaded with dill rather than the garlicky goodness we were expecting, it wasn’t exactly a taste sensation, but by the time we had put away a few more vodkas we didn’t really care. For dessert – proper honey cake!  It was so good. And yale had a Kiev cake – some sort of meringue and chocolate and pistachio concoction… but he liked my honey cake so much he went and ordered one of those as well. Throughout the meal we worked out way down the vodka menu starting at the top – drinks were so cheap we just kept ordering the next one down the list… and we made a pretty good dent in it, if I sawy so myself.
All up our dinner – three courses each including the ludicrously expensive caviar at (€27 for 30gms), plus about 12 vodkas was barely AUD$100.  Woo-hoo!  We’re not in Iceland anymore, Toto!  Gotta love that exchange rate in Eastern Europe!

We stumbled and laughed our way back to the hotel, via a supermarket to pick up more alcohol, of course. We picked up a few things and at the checkout, three rather average Ukrainian men roughly about 5’8″ – 5’10”, but you know, stocky Ukrainian types came to line up behind us and started immediately commenting on Yale’s height (for those that don’t know him, he’s 6’9″. Naturally, we couldn’t understand what they were saying but with all the gesturing it was really obvious they were remarking how ridiculously tall he is, and of course standing beside him at 5’1″ (on a good day) I look equally ridiculous. It seemed in good natured and we weren’t feeling outnumbered or threatened at all, so as we made our purchase and as they moved to the register, yale started walking towards me, and I moved aside from him and put up two fingers about ten inches apart and winked at these guys, before turning on my heel and walking off. These poor guys fucking lost it!  It was hilarious.  🙂  

All up another great day out and a lovely evening, even though it was supposed be a lighter day than yesterday! Tomorrow, tomorrow will be a lighter day!  *looks skywards*

Kiev Chernobyl

Tour we were doing a full day, 12 hour tour of the Chernobyl nuclear power station which is the site of what is considered the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history, The Chernobyl disaster (hereafter referred to as ‘the Incident’) was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 – I can remember the news being dominated by the footage of the mangled reactor when I was in highschool.  I do not remember images of the fire that took days to contain, as the Soviet Union wasn’t really great at caring and sharing back then, (*cough* some may say they are still not).  The incident occurred at the Number 4 light water graphite moderated reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant which is located near the town of Pripyat – about 104 km north of Kiev… so of course today is a good day to do something stupid like pick up my hairbrush off the floor and send a group of muscles in the centre left of my back into severe pain spasms.

We were being picked up about 0715 and at about 0655 I found myself doubled over in pain experiencing acute stabbing pain just below my left shoulder girdle with every movement, including breathing.  FFS!  I considered cancelling and sending yale without me, but I never know how long the spasms and elevated pain levels will last (sometimes a few hours, or on one occasion earlier this year around the time of GNW, about four days :/ ) What to do but get on the bus, try not to cry, and hope for the best.

Our mini-bus driver, Igor (no shit), was charged with driving us the 100kms to the first of a series of checkpoints, called the Dytyatky checkpoint, where we passed through the official entrance to the Exclusion zone. Igor appeared to take his job seriously. He had the physique of a security guard, work a black beret and a determined chin, and he drove like some sort of ex-military transport specialist in desperate to hurry to get to his next smoko break. So with me and my back all stirred up – the drive out here was not fun (read: fucking painful!). At the Dytyatky checkpoint, we exited the bus and stood in line with our passports while the local police (who now have jurisdiction over the 2,600 km2 Exclusion Zone, since the military withdrew) checked our passports. No photos of the checkpoints. Instead have an APC…
Many people in the group had chosen to hire Geiger counters for the duration to be able to see how radiation we were being exposed to in various areas.  These counters were also able to collect spot readings off the ground or items in the area.  This reading is about half what you would get if you turned on this meter in downtown Kiev… we are being exposed to very low levels of radiation constantly, but at this checkpoint, 30kms from The Incident site we are in a very clean area.

The long empty roads in this complex are somewhat unnerving as you drive past so many abandoned buildings. Our first stop is in the little village called Zalissya which has several abandoned houses and barns, a shop and a medical clinic. I was a bit flummoxed that they let tourists enter these dilapidated houses – they are definitely unsafe and we found ourselves walking on as many broken floorboards as broken glass.  From an OH&S standpoint – no way this shit would fly at home. Or in the US. Or in most of Europe. Or… well, anywhere else really.

The roads and buildings were all abandoned about nine days after The Incident, when the government had to finally admit that the radiation from the reactor meltdown was much worse than they were prepared to own up to, and decisions were eventually made to evacuate first a 10km radius and then a 30km radius from the reactor site.  Nature has started to encroach on all the disused buildings and take over the roads that are now only looking like clear pathways.

The damage that is apparent on the buildings has been accelerated by Stalkers – people who enter the zone illegally for various reasons.  Some Stalkers are thrill seekers who want to skulk around the abandoned towns and villages, some are plundering whatever they can find that may be of re-sellable value (including things like scrap metal, copper wiring, and initially hidden valuables after the evacuation.

The zone is a primarily a destination for scientists studying the effects of long-term radiation exposure on the flora and fauna.  It is also quite well visited by documentary film crews and curious tourists, like us. But some people don’t want to deal with the red tape (of which there appears to be a great deal), and they prefer to simply trespass into the Zone knowing that they only risk a fine if they are caught.  It is pretty dangerous here though, being over 60kms from the nearest hospital, unguided people have died here, mostly from misadventure – several have died from falling when climbing old Soviet military installations, like the radar we went to see a bit later.  Cumulative exposure to radiation aside, ‘Stalking’ seems like a pretty stupid pastime.

Inside the houses you can see that many household items were left behind.  This was the Zalissya medical clinic and birthing centre and the papers that are strewn, about are patient records.  Things like this have just been left where they were found, even the Stalkers don’t seem to want to move/interfere with them. The local market.  Our guide Nicky described how a trip to the local shop would be riddled with anxiety when she was a child growing up in Soviet Russia. The mature women who ran the shops were more than unusually stern and goods were often in high demand and low supply, so they had quite a position of power in their little villages. Lines are torn into the walls and ceilings where the copper has been ripped out by looking Slackers.  Zalissya is the only town that saw a lone self-settler named Rozaliya Ivanivna return to her home after the area was sort of declared ‘safe’.  She lived alone in this abandoned little town for many years, growing most of her own food needs (in the contaminated soil) until her death of non-radiation related old age.  Apparently, on one occasion, she had a pack of wolves surrounding her house for three days, and she was unable to leave the house… it is a particularly harsh sort of lifestyle, especially if you do not have a village to rely on.

Our next stop took us along a long and very direct military grade road.  You could tell we had gone off the civilian roads and onto the military roads as they were now made of concrete and not asphalt (some military vehicles would just rip up asphalt, so they preferred concrete, as it was easier to maintain if a section needed replacing.  The road leads to what was once a top-secret Soviet site containing the Chernobyl-2 “DUGA-1” Radar. Giant radar antenna “DUGA-1”.  At the end of this long road, a secret military town of Chernobyl-2 was built in the 1960s which provided the administration, maintenance and support for the antennas of an early warning horizon tracking system that was designed to detect ballistic missile launches during the Cold War.

The Soviets had planted kilometres and kilometres of dense forest on every side of the installation to obscure the radar from being seen from any direction.  There were three checkpoints on this road, which hapless civilian campers and fishermen may accidentally drive down.  Nicky told us that at the first checkpoint, drivers would be greeted thus: “Comrade, there is nothing interesting down this road, you should go back.”, but they were not compelled to follow the instruction and if they chose to keep on going, they would eventually encounter another checkpoint where they would be greeted again with: “Comrade, there is nothing intersting down this road, you should probably go back.”  If the idiot driver didn’t take the hint, they would eventually encounter the third checkpoint with: “Comrade, there is nothing interesting down this road, you should go back. I am authorised to shoot you on sight.”  Which I imagine would have been an excellent deterrent if phrased that way in the first place. The abandoned military town is now manned by a local police checkpoint – there are like three guys here sitting around smoking, but we can’t take photos of the ‘security measures’. On many of the walls of buildings in the towns and later the city of Pripyat, Soviet propaganda is evident.  This mural is literally ‘The Red Army Want YOU’, which ironically is painted on a wall inside a top-secret military town where the only person who had access, were already enlisted.The DUGA-1 Radar: Radioactive mushrooms. The radar is enormous and was part of a series of six of these installations scattered around the Soviet Union from here in Ukraine to the very east near Vladivostok and the border with China. Turns out the radar system was not particularly efficient, it was only operable during the day and depended on the weather, clouds, sun flares and all sorts of shit to be reliable.  Local radio operators could hear serious interference from the radar and were constantly complaining to the government about a ‘doof, doof, doof’ helicopter sounding noises that it was emitting, to which the Soviet Government would respond, we don’t have an antenna out here’.  When challenged with satellite images they would claim the enormous radar installation was a weather station – ‘It is a big country and we need big weather stations’. When the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in 1986, the military personnel maintaining and monitoring the site were evacuated – meaning the entire network of radar sites became pretty much towers of expensive useless as the radars had to work together to be effective.  

So far, I had been managing to keep up with the group – but here they wandered a little further afield that I was able to move with my back screaming at me every step and every breath. I thought I’d skip a section knowing they had to come back this way, in order to take a rest.  Which turned out to be a mistake as you literally can not sit down anywhere in the Exclusion Zone – the objects are contaminated, the ground is contaminated – there is nowhere to rest, and it sounds like I missed out on hearing an interesting anecdote about a radar operator who saw what looked like five missiles appear on the radar out of nowhere moving in perfect formation, but failed to hit ‘the button’ because he felt it ‘just didn’t look right’.  Turns out he saved us from WWIII – as it was just some birds. But that didn’t matter to the Soviets.  He was dishonourably discharged from the army in disgrace for abject failure to do his duty.

Our next stop was to the almost entirely buried village of Kopachi.  Kopachi had very high levels of radiation on their buildings and on the ground, that attempts to make the area safe involved taking down most of the buildings and burying them under mounds of soil.  The area is still way too hot to be inhabited, and the only things that remain of the village of Kopachi are a few random buildings that were not destroyed, a memorial to the Unknown Soldier (every village in the area has a similar memorial), and a kindergarten. The area is full of ‘hot spots’.  As we moved about the Geiger counter alarms were starting to go off all the time, and several people in our groups were checking the ground looking for the highest readings they could find – it was a bit like some sort of grotesque grown-up version of the “Hot or Cold” we used to play as kids. Outside the kindergarten… there are man objects laying around that look like they have been just in situ for many years.  But I imagine most of them were placed by avid photographers over the years.  I didn’t touch or move anything… as ‘found object’ photography sites go, this place is crazy.

After our visit to Kopachi, we were making our way to ChNPP (the actual site of the reactors) via a lunch break at a canteen that is run for the workers of the power plants.  On the way, we saw a newly built containment unit that is designed to store up to 200,000 tonnes of nuclear waste that is going to be moved from an old containment unit that has outlived its use by date.  Seriously, there is nowhere to put this stuff… are we just going to keep building more and more containment sites as the old ones stop being effective for the next 240,000 years until the material is safe to be near humans again?

We also went past a concrete factor that was purpose-built after The Incident because so much concrete was needed to built the original Sarcophagus that covered the Number 4 reactor in 1986, that logistically it was more sensible to build a concrete factory rather than ship concrete in. We were going for an ‘ecologically-clean dinner in a Chernobyl state canteen’ that was purpose-built for the Exclusion zone workers, or as Vicky kept referring to it: Atomic Lunch.  To enter the canteen, we all had to pass through a decontamination frame to make sure we had no radioactive material on our person or on our belongings.  The food is all shipped safely in from Kiev and none of it is sourced locally.
The industrial canteen had quite the set up an din a huge hall.  Staffed by stern Ukranian women, lunch was whatever they put on your tray (vegetarian option available).Cabbage, carrots and beetroot.  Some sort of potato soup.  A weird battered and panfried mystery meat thing on rice. Bread. A sweet bun and rhubarb juice.
Outside was this mysterious piece of art that was commissioned by a local artist to adorn the city of Pripyat prior to the 1986 nuclear disaster.  Apparently, after the disaster occurred, no one was interested in the artwork anymore and so the artist never got paid for this work.  It is supposed to be a dove, looking back and holding a flower and represent a conjoining of nations or something to do with the Soviet Union being a singular cohesive state.  Who knows? #modernartThe statue of Prometheus that used to be in the middle of Pripyat, but has been moved here to ChNNP to keep it safe from Stalkers. So now we are finally arriving at Chernobyl NPP, the site of the late-night safety test which failed spectacularly on so many levels as leave the world with the word ‘Chernobyl’ being synonymous with ‘catastrophic disaster on an unimaginable scale’.  The test was to simulate a situation where the station had a blackout power-failure. In the course of tests, various safety systems were deliberately turned off. From here, a combination of inherent reactor design flaws and human errors in the form of reactor operators arranging the nuclear core in a manner that was somewhat contrary to the actual checklist for the testing eventually resulted in an uncontrolled reaction condition (read: monumental cluster fuck). Water used to cool the reactions flashed into steam which generated a massive steam explosion that blew the 1,200-tonne concrete roof off the reactor, which led to an open-air, extremely radioactive, graphite fire. This fire was spewing radioactive material as much as 1km into the atmosphere and produced considerable updrafts for about nine days. Nine days during which none of the people surrounding the reactor were evacuated.  These plumes of fission materials that were being spewed into the atmosphere. During the fire that burned for days, they estimated that approximately the same amount of airborne fission material was released continuously as was released on the initial explosion. The radioactive material blew and landed according to prevailing winds in two directions to the west and then to the north, before finally precipitation onto large areas of Western Russia and central Europe… during which time, the Soviet Government was busy assuring everyone, that everything was fine.

There were 500,000 people involved in the cleanup efforts which took over 200 days.  The ‘liquidators’ put themselves at extreme risk in some areas being only able to work for minutes or even only 45 seconds at a time so as not to be exposed to fatal levels of radiation.  The main plan to contain the explosion and the radioactivity that was still leaching from the reactor core was to enclose the remains of the Number 4 reactor building with a large cover which was named the “Object Shelter”, but more commonly referred to as ‘the Sarcophagus’. The purpose was to reduce the spread of the remaining radioactive dust and debris from the wreckage and to stop weather from decaying and disseminating the wreckage any further. The Sarcophagus was finished in December 1986, and completed just as the reactor was starting to cool down on its own.  A team of 3,000 miners had been working to dig underneath the reactor to start installing freezing equipment to cool the remaining volatile nuclear material – but when their mine was completed, they discovered the core temperature had reduced to a point where the mine was not needed, no freezing equipment was installed and the entire mine was concreted full again. The Sarcophagus enclosure was not intended to be permanent radiation shield, but was built quickly as an occupational safety measure for the crews working at the other undamaged reactors at the power station which basically had to stay online.  The Number 3 reactor was in continuous use until 2000.

The Incident prompted massive overhaul and safety upgrades of all remaining Soviet-designed nuclear reactors like the Chernobyl Number 4 reactor – the RBMK type, of which 11 were in continuous use until 2013.

The Sarcophagus was designed to last approximately 30 years, and a new French designed and built, New Safe Confinement building which is over 100m high, (known as The Arch) has been built over the top of the old Sarcophagus to contain radiation.  A  memorial “Life for Life” has been erected in front of the Arch to commemorate those people who were instrumental in fighting the ‘Battle of Chernobyl’. The Arch has been designed to last 100 years, and has only been completed – it is the largest moveable building in the world, as it was built a few kilometres away and moved into place over a two week period using rails and jacks. The French engineers are in the process of training locals staff to maintain the building and monitor all the fancy recording equipment that is installed in the Arch.

Next stop was to be the city of Pripyat… once an affluent city of 50,000 people, it is now abandoned. Before the evacuation, Pripyat was a thriving modern Ukranian metropolis with 50,000 people most of whom worked at the power plants.  They were on better than average salaries and the city provided all the modern conveniences that a semi-Soviet city would expect.  A beautiful river port, Hospital, five kindergartens, ten schools, two swimming pools, cafes, restaurants, two stadiums, an ‘Energetic Palace of Culture’ cultural centre, youth clubs, amusement park and all sort.

the hospital receiving the firefighters and NPP workers, badly affected by the accident;
a river port and the most prestigious Pripyat café at the embankment;
a town hall – the first headquarters for mitigation of the accident consequences;
Polissya hotel, a correction point for helicopters dropping lead bags over the 4th reactor ruins;
Energetic Palace of culture, the main recreational site for the Prypyat youth;
Ferris wheel in the amusement park which was never open;
Prypyat stadium;
Swimming pool “Azure”, which was still in operation after the accident; The prestigious Pripyat cafe near the embankment of the river port. Before and after – the local cinema with the statue of Prometheus that is now situated at ChNNP. The local cultural centre – known as the ‘Energetic Palace of Culture’ for conventions, weddings,etc.

Restaurants: Evidence is everywhere of Stalkers: Inside a local market:

More Stalker grafitti:
The amusement park: Nicky pointed out a hotspot on the bottom of this Ferris wheel carriage – readings over 100 were taken here.  Possibly debris particles landed here directly or an accumulation of radioactive particles caused by rain.  Nature reclaiming the stadium fencing. The fancy new Pripyat Stadium that was built in 1986 – right before the explosion.  On the night of the on disaster April 26 1986, a team of local footballers were practising at the brand new stadium getting ready for the Grand Opening which was to happen on May 3 1986. They were told that due to the accident there were to be no games held that weekend and within days it was decided to evacuated Pripyat so that no games were ever held at this brand new stadium – bad timing!

It is hard to see Pripyat as it was before the disaster… on the way back to Kiev, Nicky showed us a video which I found on Youtube which brought what we had seen and the town we had been walking through, into stark contrast.

At the nearby fire station, the crew here were the second crew to work on extinguishing the fire at the NPP at night of the disaster on April 26, 1986.  Several of their crew died of radiation exposure as a result of working to put the fire out. This unofficial monument was created and erected by firefighters to commemorate them. Farewell to the Exclusion Zone – ‘Have good roads’ As far as the cost and the casualties are concerned, the Chernobyl accident is considered to be the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history with over 500,000 workers affected and an estimated cost of approximately 18 billion rubles. According to the IAEA – International Atomic Energy Agency – the official death toll is around 4,000 people as a result of the accident.  The truth of the matter is that the real toll will never be known. The Soviets did not research and follow people who suffered considerable exposure and who were moved out of the zone never to return.  Thyroid cancers have been known to have spiked as well as other cancers, and children have been born with many deformities – but no official figures exist on the extent of the damage.

If anyone wants to know more about the Chernobyl Disaster, we watched this excellent, and somewhat alarming, documentary on the bus on the way to and from the Exclusion Zone. Also, keep an eye out on a BBC World short film on why people travel to visit Chernobyl, I was interviewed for a tourist’s perspective and may appear in the film.

We got back to Kiev late – around 9pm, whereupon we had to go find somewhere to have dinner.  I was absolutely Fucked with a capital F, but out we went.  We found a restaurant and had a quick dinner… and then trudged back up a steep hill to the hotel.  By the time I got back up here, I lost it and there was pain and tears and mess.  If you ever needed proof of how stubborn I can be – here it is.  Every step and every breath causing acute exacerbation of pain.


Warsaw Castle then on to Kiev

We weren’t really planning on being in Warsaw on this trip, we had intended to hire a vehicle from Berlin and then drive our way to all the destinations we wanted to see in Eastern Europe, but as luck would have it you can hire a car in Ukraine and take it wherever you want (Crimea excepted) but you can’t hire a car in Berlin and take it east for insurance purposes.  We were only in Warsaw to basically hop a cheap flight to Kiev, but we found ourselves with a free morning so we head off into the Old Town to have a bit of breakfast and have a look around.

I have to share yale’s super healthy picked Rueben sandwich that he had for breakfast – I had a boring old omelette (that cost about $5 – gotta love the exchange rate here compared to Iceland!)
The Warsaw opera house that was built in1825 to 1833, is known as the Grand Theatre in Warsaw or Teatr Wielki w Warszawieis. It is actually a large theatre complex consisting of spaces for the national opera company and the Polish National Ballet. It is one of the largest theatres in Europe can seat over 2000 people.  Warsaw’s Castle Square, Zamkowy w Warszawie, is located in front of the Royal Castle and a seriously picturesque and popular spot.  It’s surrounded by historic townhouses and cute little cafes.

In the middle is Sigismund’s Column, which sounds much better in Polish: the Kolumna Zygmunta Originally erected in 1644, it is for obvious reasons one of Warsaw’s most famous landmarks. The statue commemorates King Sigismund III Vasa, who moved Poland’s capital from Kraków to Warsaw in 1596.

The column used to be of red marble and was only 8.5 m high, with a 2.75-metres high statue of the king. However, on September 1, 1944, the monument was completely demolished by invading Nazi Germans and the bronze statue was severely damaged.  In 1949, the statue was repaired? recreated? and set on a new granite column so Sigismund’s Column now stands at 22 metres. The Royal Castle in Warsaw, or Zamek Królewski w Warszawie, is a castle residency that formerly served for several centuries as the official residence of the Polish monarchs, including Tsar Nicolas of Russia when Poland became part of Russia after the Napoleonic wars. The complex has been the primary residence of the Dukes of Masovia since the 16th century and has been the seat of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, being for the King and for the Parliament, with fancy Chambers for the Deputies and Senate. In its long history, the Warsaw Royal Castle was repeatedly looted and devastated by the invading  Swedish, Brandenburgian, Prussian and Tsarist armies. Seems everyone wanted a piece of this Castle at some point.

Looted and completely razed to the ground by the Nazi Germans following the Invasion of Poland in 1939, it was left in ruins and then almost completely destroyed in 1944 after the failed Warsaw Uprising.  The Castle has completely rebuilt and reconstructed with fundraising efforts to complete the project starting in 1949.  Many of the Castle’s curatorial staff took great pains to try and move as many of the more important elements of the Castle’s collection and design elements to the National Historical Museum before the advancing Nazi armies could loot and subsequently destroy it entirely.  Their heroic conservation and documentation efforts are the only reason the castle has been able to be rebuilt to its original splendour and contains any of its original artefacts today.  The inner courtyard:
The Great Assembly hall is the biggest and grandest room in the Castle. This is where royal audiences, state banquets, ball and concerts were held.   Audience chamber where the most important visitors were granted an audience with King Stanislaw August, including foreign ambassadors, papal legates etc. The Throne Room has been restored with much of its original decorations and furnishings, including doors, furniture and wooden panelling.  The Polish eagles in hand embroidered silver bullion over the back of the throne’s canopy were all ripped off the original embroidery by Nazi officers in October 1939.  The 86 copies here were modelled on one of these original eagles that was retrieved from the US in 1991. Beside the Throne Room is the Conference Room or Monarchs’ Portrait Room, which was used as a parade chamber.  Dedicated to the seven monarchs of Europe at the time, it is decorated with portraits that were commissioned of their likenesses.  The portraits were painted by Jan Bogumil Plersch between 1983 and 1786.  The parquetry is amazing! The King’s bedroom as part of the residential King’s Apartment.  Some pieces of the room were preserved before the Nazi destruction allowing the room to be recreated accurately. Ceremonial sword of state late 1700s. The Small Private Chapel off the Kings Audience Chamber.
The Marble Room was designed in 1640-1642 during the reign of King Wladyslaw IV and was little used until King Stanislaw August commissioned it’s restoration to famous architect, Jakub Fontana.  It served as a second antechamber to the Throne Room.  Thankfully most of the painting in this room were removed before the Castle was bombed in September 1939, and saved from the great fires that followed.

As luck would have it – the Castle is having an exhibition of fine arts that included some famous Rembrandt works.  Our entrance ticket included entrance to the exhibition (suck that piecemeal ticketed Krakow Castle!).  My photography sucks, but it is lovely to be able to see these pieces in person.‘Girl in a picture frame’, Rembrandt, 1641 (and detail below). ‘Johann Baptist Lampi the Younger’, Antoni Jozef Lanckoronski, 1817 (and detail below). ‘Still Life with a Celestial Globe’, Carstian Luyckx, 1660s (and detail below). ‘Francis I, King of France since 1515’, from the workshop of Joos van Cleve, ca 1530 (and detail below).‘Adam and Eve’, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1520-1525.
‘Mystic Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria’, Flemish School, c.1605. (and detail below)
‘Prince Wladyslaw Zygmunt Vasa’s Kunstkammer’, Antwerp School, 1626 (and detail below). Polish Organ c. 1640. All up we had a much more positive experience at Warsaw Castle than we did at Krakow Castle – no restrictive timed ticketing, more than one person actually selling tickets, staff were helpful and interested in making sure visitors found their way around okay and even pointed out seats to us in dimly lit rooms.  They allowed us to take photography AND they had exceptional books in their gift shops.  Bonus.

As we were heading out of the castle, I saw this small child playing the accordion in the street busking for money. I am always conflicted when I see things like this – especially at midday on a school day.  Has the child been put out here to beg money by the parents?  Is he in a position of some sort of servitude.  I gave him 1 Zolty and leaned down to take his photograph while he played.  I gave him a friendly smile and he looked right through me like I wasn’t there.  Completely validating my concerns – that poor kid didn’t want to be there playing for tourists  :/  The Old Town and Castle Square is just gorgeous little area to stroll around.  But alas, we had places to go and borders to cross!
From here we hightailed it to the airport headed to Kiev.  Thankfully our experience dropping off the rental car was much easier than in Dresden – you could actually find the place which is a good start, but because of our low expectations, we found ourselves all raring to go nearly an hour before our check-in opened, which made for some excellent chilled out time for people watching.

We saw many travellers losing their shit at check-in staff and even though we couldn’t understand a word, we could definitely tell at which point the guy was demanding to see the manager.  It was hilarious… in a pain + distance = humour, kinda way.Flight was uneventful. People cheered when we landed, and some were doing that Chinese thing where you run down the aisle before the seatbelt sign was off to try and get off the plane first, only to be told they had to wait for a bus to take us off the tarmac.  yale looked quite confused, he’d never seen that before.  Then when they did get us all packed into a standing only space bus, someone had left their passport back on the plane so we all had to wait another 10 minutes.

Queues looked dreadful at check-in, like chaotic and way too many people, but the staff cleared the hall quickly – turns out the rope lines were no where near as long as I thought.  We got picked up by a hotel driver and whisked to our hotel.  So far I have noted that driers in the Ukraine seem far more steady than those in Poland… so far.

Quick dinner of beef strog and honey cake and early night sleep.  The honey cake was a disappointment, no where near as nice as I remember from Moscow.