Europe 2010 – part 1 – Ukraine

Here goes….

My flights took me to Ohare, and then Frankfurt before finally Kiev. Uneventful but long, with long layovers in Chicago and Frankfurt. Borispol airport in Kiev is not at all what I expected. I just assumed it was a big modern airport, so when I saw that it had only 2 jetways I was sort of shocked. But an airport is an airport and it works and it does it’s job. Found Dan and Jamie, with our driver from Solo East, Igor, and we were off to our apartment at 22b Mikhailivska St. The apartment was in a pretty good location, up the street from Independence square, the main street of Kiev Kreschatik Street, and St Michael’s church. It was in walking distance of St Andrew’s and St Andrew’s Descent, and St Sophia’s.

Upon arriving and unpacking I discovered my lens was no longer attached to my camera body. 2 pieces of plastic from the lens mount had broken off en route. shiiiiit. So the first night was spent trying to find camera shops or repair shops that would fix it. We weren’t really successful, one place had a lens but it would have cost more than if I got it here. So in the end, we found some super glue and Dan glued the pieces back on. Had to do it twice, but in the end it was a pretty solid repair job, the lens stayed on and worked.

First impressions of Kiev, it’s a massive sprawling city, with a combination of old architecture and depressing Soviet architecture. Like other European cities, instead of crossing major intersections, you go under them, but all of their under intersection walkways contain stores…you can pretty much get anything. Some intersections were “small” and would have just sort of convenience stores, food, drinks, cigarettes, gum, etc. Other ones had practical malls, with furniture stores and souvenirs and anything you would need. Imagine how much nicer American cities would look if our convenience stores and strip malls were underground. The entire underground of Independence Square is a normal mall, with your usual clothes stores and mall stuff. Kinda cool.

2nd day we went off to the Pecherska Lavra, an Orthodox Church monastery. It’s a huuuge place, and we spent most of the afternoon there and didn’t see it all. There are caves which hold old monks, tons of buildings (which we didn’t go in any), and a miniature display that we missed. Very cool place, very pretty. On the way there we walked past and stopped at the Famine memorial, and then after the Lavra continued down the street to the Motherland Statue and War Memorial. By then it was getting dark, so we caught some dinner (I got a drink/shot called a Hiroshima – sambuca, baileys and absinthe…strooooong) and headed back to the apartment. We went out for drinks later, though it was a Wednesday so there weren’t alot of people “out”. The first bar had shots of high end vodka for $9 hryvnia = $1.12!! Score. Stopped at 2 other places, and Jamie had terrible luck at drinks – he ordered a mojito at the first place which had no alcohol in it, and at the 3rd he tried to order a Tornado, which was similar to the Hiroshima, and then never got the drink…I had ordered some food, so when bringing the food we assumed they’d bring his drink, only they brought him a big silver platter…containing food. Beef tournado’s LOL. The perils of language difficulties.

The next 3 days were spent in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The town of Chernobyl has about 250 residents, mostly military I think, and you need permission to be there. Visitors are only allowed to go around with a military guide, so when we were in town and not on the “tour” we were pretty much confined to the hotel, or walking to the military building for our meals. The drive to town was about 2 hours, and we began with lunch before heading out to see the actual power plant. We had our military guide, Vladimir, who didn’t speak english, and our tour guide, Sergei from Solo East who did, so it went well. The plant looks really cool and you get pretty close – way closer than you’d get to any plant in the US. You can only point your camera and take pictures of the sarcophagus though, despite the fact the rest of the plant is now decommissioned. Then it was off to the town of Pripyat, which was the closest major town to the plant, and completely evacuated after the accident. Other towns in the area were evacuated and then buried after the accident, but it was decided that burying didn’t really help the spread of radioactivity so they gave it up, and it would probably have been impossible to bury Pripyat with all it’s high rise buildings (some 16 stories).

What can really be said about this? It’s an explorers dream, and when I tried to count all the buildings I could see from the top of the hotel in the main square, I gave up at 40. There is just sooo much, and the tour takes you to the highlights, you don’t even begin to see most of the residential highrises (we climbed to the top of one of them the 2nd day, but it was just to the top and back, no time to see the floors). So the first day I believe we saw…hotel rooftop, bookstore, and hospital. The hospital was huge and sweet, but there is a 4:30 curfew which I didn’t realize, and our guides had gone in to find me haha. In the end, I barely saw any of the main hospital (I guess I had gone into some off wing or even other building haha). We had been told to make a list of what we wanted to revisit for the 3rd day, so that was on the list for sure. I added the bookstore to the list as well, because after we had been there someone mentioned the stack of wrapped postcards still there, which Sergei said I could take. Cassie had asked for a postcard, so I freaked out that I was actually going to have a real postcard to send her from Pripyat!

Second day we started earlier of course, no drive there, and had asked to skip lunch so we had all day (until 4 haha). The first stop was on the water, but I had lagged behind so I don’t know the significance. Then was the music school, which was cool, but again I was rushed out of – I only needed 5 more minutes! We went to the oldest school in town, but we couldn’t go in because one section had collapsed. Bummer too because looking in the windows one classroom had the most amazing, totally sterotypical Soviet propaganda mural. Then a music store, with a bunch of left over pianos, and a 2nd school. Then a very cool athletic center with gym and pool, and climbed the 16 story apartment building to see the view. Next, the amusement park with left over bumper cars, swing type ride, and ferris wheel. After that was another school, which they called a “kindergarten” but was maybe more like American preschool, or perhaps even an orphanage. There were 2 floors, lots of left over toys so it was definitely for young kids (compared to the other school which was clearly a normal school), but there were also rooms of cribs…the cribs make me think orphanage, but I’m not sure a town like that would need such a big orphanage haha. Will have to look up some more history on the town. Sergei had to leave, so he instructed Vladimir to take us to a few other places – the police station and jail, and department store in the main square – before heading back.

By the end of the 2nd day, one plastic piece had broken off the lens. It was still staying on the camera, but it was no longer sitting close enough to the sensors to work super good – lost autofocus to infinity, and sometimes it wouldn’t recognize that the lens was there. Holding it and jiggling it made it usable, so I was able to continue the day and the 3rd day. But after returning to Kiev the camera went away, and I ended up buying a nikon coolpix point and shoot to use for the 2nd week. Lighter and easier to carry for sure haha.

The 3rd day we only had our military guide, a different guy named Evengi maybe? He spoke ok english, good enough! The problem was that he was coming into town from outside, and the bus was late for some reason, so we didn’t get “on the road” until 11 instead of 9. After breakfast Vladmir took us around town to kill time, to the town sign, a park, and to see the harbor with rusted dead boats. When our guide made it, we started by stopping at what he called a “fish factory” near the cooling towers and cooling pool, then a real factory in Pripyat. He was funny, because he said officially the factory made small plastic parts for cassette tape recorders, but unofficially he didn’t know what they did. And it did seem like a rather huge and strange place for just making plastic parts. There were posters about radiation, that didn’t seem like it was just because they were near a plant. Ahh the secretive soviets! We left town and stopped at the bus station, and then train station which was REUSED!!! An abandoned and radioactive town has a train station that was reused into a work shop. Crazy! The last stop was his “secret location” that most tourists don’t see, which was a sort of small vehicle grave yard, and included a derailed train. We then headed back to Chernobyl and home, an hour early 🙁 We didn’t get to go back to the hospital and bookstore and I’M SO BUMMED I COULDN’T GET THE POSTCARD FOR CASSIE!!! GAAAH (souvenir bummer #1).

So my overall impression of the Exclusion zone – clearly awesome from the explorer/photographer perspective. It was great to see, but the work that still needs to be done is overwhelming. The environment and nature is flourishing, they said there are wolves again, wild boars, and a wild horse population (and cats haha), but it all needs to be cleaned up still. I don’t know if/how that will ever happen. It’s beyond me. Pripyat is a dream of course, but I was sort of surprised that it had been scrapped. Sergie explained that under communism you waited in a line for 4 hours to get a toilet – it was so difficult to get what you needed – that despite the contamination and the danger, people went in and took everything (it was not always as secure as it is now). If you expected apartments and buildings to be just as they were left in 1986, they really aren’t. In one sense it is a freeze frame of 1986 but it is not the perfect untouched place you might expect.

Back in Kiev, hung around the apartment, and I took a walk up to St Michael’s and St Sophia’s real quick (it was cold), before Dan and I went out for some food and drinks. We were leaving Kiev for Tallinn in the afternoon, so we went to St Andrew’s (which you can’t go in because it’s being restored) and did some souvenir shopping at the booths along the Descent (cobblestone hill down the side of the church).

So what I saw of Kiev was cool, it was very inexpensive, Chernobyl was clearly awesome, but I did lose my sunglasses somewhere in Pripyiat haha (good thing it was gloomy and rainy most of the trip).

Kiev Photos

Chernobyl Photos

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