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Ukraine/Moldova/Romania: Back in the Ex-SSR

April 28th, 2010: Back in the Ex-SSR

The Grey Skies of Sea-Tac Airport
The Grey Skies of Sea-Tac Airport

For this trip, I'd worked backward from my usual M.O. of: choose a place, then organize a time to go there. This time around I was just in need of a few weeks off but only had a couple of vague inklings as to where I might go. Combine a spoonful of indecision with a generous sprinkling of Icelandic volcanic ash and what you get is that four days prior to departure, I still had neither a plane ticket nor a definite destination. In the end, I bough a ticket to one of the few places I could afford, that I hadn't yet been, and that didn't require a visa: I was on my way to Ukraine, Moldova and Romania.

On the night before my flight, while packing and hooking up my mp3 player, I accidentally leaned on a cord, pulled a lamp over and had the lit light bulb smash right on the top of my head. If ever there was a symbolic omen of a bad idea, this was probably it. I soldiered on.

The trip was a breeze and generally uneventful. From Seattle to Amsterdam I sat next to a young American guy, Carl, whose ability to sleep, snore and fart with such reckless abandon reminded me of a friend's flatulent pet: friendly, exasperating, and there is really not much you can do about it at this point, anyway. Twenty-six hours and a breakfast beer in Amsterdam later, I touched down in Kiev.

April 30th, 2010: I Ain't No Chicken

Caves Monastery (Kiev)
Caves Monastery (Kiev)

After taking the bus and Kiev's exceptionally efficient Metro system into town, I arrived to a completely empty hostel. With Slavic voices bellowing from the street below, it was reminiscent of a horror film. I showered, changed, grabbed a beer and wandered through the city centre before promptly taking a 13-hour nap.

I woke up fresh and jetlag-free and headed off sightseeing. I began by taking a walk to the city's Caves Monastery Complex, an hour away at my typical tourist's rubbernecking dawdle. Along the way I saw literally dozens of just-married couples getting their photos taken. Friday is clearly a big wedding day in Kiev. One thing in particular struck me about these couples - struck me even more than the preposterous disparity in attractiveness between the brides and grooms. No offense to Ukrainian men, but my goodness they have it good! What really struck me was how young the newlyweds were. I'd put the average age at 20, if not younger. Mind you, if I were one of those guys dating one of those girls, I'd want to lock that down, too.

The Caves Monastery Complex is an intricate series of churches and museums overlooking the Dnipro River, which bisects the city. The Orthodox churches vary in size and shape, each with beautiful frescoes and ornate decorations throughout. The complex sits atop a maze of caves through which visitors are allowed to walk. I was hoping to see the caves but saw only one sign for them, pointing vaguely in the direction of the entrance. Unwisely, I had neglected to memorize the Cyrillic for "caves" and soon was unsure where to go. I finally found some steps that headed downwards and though nobody else was on them, I figured I'd try seeing where they went. How could this plan go wrong?

I popped out at the bottom of the stairwell and was immediately ensconced in the middle of a religious procession of Russians, chanting and eerily marching with candles through the otherwise barely lit caves. With the caves only about three feet wide and close to 60 Russians both ahead of and behind me, I soon realized that I had no choice but shuffle along with the spooky group for 35 minutes as they chanted in the darkness, pacing and kissing the coffins of dead monks along the way. It was like living through a Gothic horror, but one for which you had to pay an admission fee.

In wandering the city that day I noticed that there seemed to be only few Western travelers in town but that there were thousands upon thousands of Russians that had descended on the Kiev for holiday weekend, celebrating May Day. The Russian girls visiting were easy to pick out: they were the ones walking the cobblestone streets with day packs and high heels.

Kiev Photos
Caves Monastery Rodina Mat (Defence of the Motherland Monument) Chimera Building I Kind Of Wanted To Go On This St. Michael's Monastery St. Michael's Monastery Andrews Church Monastery Hidden Buildings in Kiev Bessarabsky Market Bessarabsky Market (Pork Fat) May Day Fireworks (Kiev)

May 1st, 2010: Chernobyl - Nice Place to Visit, But I Wouldn't Want To Live There

Me at the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor
Me at the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor

Day Two, I wake up and head back to the city centre to catch a day tour heading up to Chernobyl. Not everyone's idea of a vacation destination, I realize, but I was pretty excited to see it. And besides, some recent studies have shown moderately convincing results that the radioactivity is now mostly harmless. I like those odds!

During the two-hour bus ride to Chernobyl, we were shown a disconcerting video about how much the Soviet Union had covered up the scope of the damage from the explosion, how they had said it was safe when it really wasn't. I should likely have been concerned, but still feeling the ill effects of jetlag and having met two Scotsmen at the pub the night before, I promptly fell asleep.

I was awoken an hour later by the tour group re-boarding the bus. We had arrived at the checkpoint to enter "the zone" and everyone had shown the border guard their passport. Asleep in the back corner of the bus, nobody has woken me and so all had checked in without me. I grabbed my passport, hopped off the bus and went to the security office as everyone got back on board. While waiting outside for the guard to return to his post, the bus' engine fired up, the doors shut and it began to pull away down the road. As I was the only person visible I found it hard not to take this personally. However, with Chernobyl just one spot ahead of "in the mouth of an angry shark with a particularly nasty hangover" in the "Places I'd Like To Be Left" list, I ditched the guard post, sprinted over to the bus and got them to let me back on board.

Visiting Chernobyl was, well, weird. Forty of us walked through the desolate villages of Chernobyl and Pripyat, all destroyed buildings and remnants of abandoned lives. Workers have now returned to the area and above-ground piping heats their buildings, as locals are not allowed to dig up the still-contaminated earth. Empty edifices, rubble, shattered glass and what's left of an amusement park are all that remain. Fascinating, and not just a little bit eerie.

Our guide had a Geiger counter with him that clicked and flicked with increasing rapidity and volume as we got closer to the reactor, at one point sounding off a piercing alarm due to the high levels of radioactivity in the area. I had thought this was for effect until the guy ahead of me - who had brought his own Geiger counter - had the alarm go off on his, too. This, too, was... disconcerting. On the way out of "the zone" we each had to pass through a machine that tested us, our clothes and our bus for dangerous levels of radioactivity. I passed with flying (DayGlo) colours.

Chernobyl Photos
Chernobyl Above Ground Piping Entering Pripyat Town of Pripyat Town of Pripyat Town of Pripyat Abandoned Ferris Wheel (Pripyat) Abandoned Ferris Wheel (Pripyat) Abandoned Amusement Park (Pripyat) Deserted Building (Pripyat) Elementary School Floor Full of Gas Masks (Pripyat)