Chernobyl. The lure of exploring an abandoned town. To see that Ferris Wheel. That’s why I went to Kyev for a weekend. I’m not quite sure how I convinced my Bezza Ali that this was also where she wanted go, but regardless there we were 6pm on a Thursday night, at a pub in Victoria Station. Our flight wasn’t until 1am so we had a few drinks before heading off to the airport, with the intention of checking in, and then finding a nice place to eat, another couple of drinks. before getting on the plane at midnight, full, a bit merry and ready for a sleep.
The reality? A Wetherspoons pub crawl. Victoria station followed by a Gatwick Express journey fuelled by wasabi snacks and cider. A failed attempt to check in early saw us headed off to Giraffe for our dinner. But it was shutting, so, Gatwick Arrivals Wetherspoons it was until 10pm check in. Making our way through an eerily quiet (and predominantly closed) terminal we headed to plane side Wetherspoons for a dinner of snuck in McDonalds fries (their kitchen was closed) and more cider.
Coincidentally, one of the drunk guys in the row in front (had a similar evening at the airport to ours) was good mates with the owner of Young Pioneer Tours, who Katie and I subsequently traveled to the DPRK (North Korea) with.
Landing at 5am we’d pre-booked a taxi straight to our hostel in Central Kyev. Hidden away at the top of a decaying apartment block it was signposted only by handwriting on a scrappy, crappy piece of paper. Too tired to even change into the Onesie hostel attire that had filled ALL of Ali’s carry on bag (and I really mean ALL) we lay our heads down on our Paris Hilton pillowcases for a few hours kip before our free walking tour.
Waking up just 20 minutes before our 12noon tour we rushed out the door, down our crumbling staircase, still with time to buy a cheap coffee en route, arriving at the Globe on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Sq) ready to learn! Sadly our guide mistook our group for people familiar with Ukrainian history; questions left lingering amongst silent blank faces. Answers then given to equally vacant and still unrecognising faces. This changed to utter bemusement when the answer to ‘what is wrong with that angel?’ was an unintentionally racist remark from our exceptionally chirpy guide.
She also falsely seemed to believe we were young children unable to spot her trick questions; ‘Tell me how many bells are in this Church?’ (Clearly none; there were no bell towers) Ali, sweetly trying to break the silence uttered, ‘Uhh.. are those buildings bell towers?’ to which the loud response was ‘AH HA! (laughter) There are none!’ Silence from the group…. And so it continued…
Though it was good to be guided around a city I didn’t know by a very pleasant guide, what I know now about Ukraine and Kyev is predominantly from reading my guidebook later as she chose to bypass explanations of events like the Great Famine (1932) or the Orange Revolution (2004), and the significances of where we were standing and ignoring the monuments there to commemorate them, opting instead to focus in depth on the rebuilding of the many, many churches.
Hungry from walking in the cold, we stuffed our faces at a buffet style local restaurant serving typical Ukrainian food, recommended by our guide. Filled with my usual Eastern European favourites of rye breads, cheese, dill covered vegetables, and a variety of beetroot based dishes I was a happy lady. We finished up with cherry dumplings covered in cream and sugar, dipped in a strawberry sauce before rolling our way back to our hostel to put on more layers; Ali as bad at dressing herself for the cold as I generally am.
I think now is a good place to mention, that much to the irritation of ex boyfriends, we have prided ourselves in being the dynamic duo that is Team Stupid for coming up to 19 years now, giggling and high fiving at stupidity wherever we face it… or create it.
The night consisted of walking around Kyev, beer bottles in hand, witnessing some kind of fashion event, drinking prosecco, beer, cider and shots initially in various rock bars (with some friendly locals), then ending up in some sort of journalists expat bar where the large water bottles on the table were actually filled with neat vodka. Found out by taking a huge swig of the stuff…. Eventually we left getting fed up of being propositioned. Who would have thought answering a straight ‘no’ when a older, drunk American expat asks ‘What would you say if I asked to sleep with you’ would be such a conversation killer?
Happily that night, we slept alone in our hostelwear animal onesies instead.
I now cannot type, or say the word Chernobyl without thinking of this song:
This was played at the start of an otherwise genuinely really well done, serious, documentary, along side one of Example’s less finer works, below. At least both songs united us tourists on the bus in disbelief, and laughter, if nothing else. If I remember correctly we had also had a little sing along with the two middle aged English blokes sat behind us.
Pick up was early, and we were feeling a little rough. I’ll completely skip over Ali’s pukey lukey hangover and her little escapades at the risk of embarrassing her, even though it’s a good story to tell…
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the day trip to Chernobyl. I had friends and family tell me to be careful though not quite sure what they meant, what this care entailed? Not running away from the group into red zones? I knew we would be ‘safe’ because it’s a well known tour, taken by thousands before us. The radiation levels were fine. I’d done my research and had a couple of friends who had been, and even seen mutant fish, but I’d since found out they were long dead.
90 km out of the city, on our way in we learnt what had happened there in 1986. On 26th April several explosions caused a chain reaction in which a fire ball then blew off the lid to one of the reactors. Subsequently a large amount of radioactive material was released into the atmosphere. In short, the accident was said to be down to a badly executed experiment, in a poorly designed plant, by inadequately trained staff.
Though the name Chernobyl is famous, it’s actually the nearby worker town of Pripyat, at the time with roughly 40,000 inhabitants, that people think of, and that was evacuated the following day. A cover up was attempted by the Soviet Government at the time, but Swedish monitors picked up on abnormally high levels of radiation in their airspace forcing them to come clean. 30 people died within the first few months, though the longer term effects and death toll is disputed. The initial exclusion zone covered a 30km radius, but over time was increased and eventually about 300,000 people were resettled. About 1000 people have since returned to live unofficially within the contaminated zone. It was declared a tourist attraction in 2011.
Our guide took us to a few spots to play around with our own rented personal geiger counters, showing us different levels of radiation. Of course we didn’t go anywhere that was dangerous for us, but it was still pretty fun and interesting.
We spent the next few hours following our guide around the town; exploring abandoned shops, seeing the Palace of Culture, Polissya Hotel, a hospital, houses, a supermarket, a swimming pool, the stadium and of course, the old amusement park, complete with the infamous ferris wheel.
Before I went I expected it to be a much sadder experience, but it turns out the very little I thought I knew about Chernobyl was wrong. The accident, the evacuation, the deaths, the destruction, of course, all was terrible, but thankfully the number of fatalities and casualties was far less than I believed. Exploring a ghost town frozen in Soviet times was fascinating, and in all honesty, most of the time it didn’t feel like a place of great tragedy. I know of course for the inhabitants the reality and their memories would be very different.
We also stopped at Kopachi village and explored the kindergarden, buried in undergrowth. There were a lot of creepy dolls left lying around. Perhaps they had genuinely been left as they were.. but I’m not so sure. Either way they definitely spooked up the atmosphere and made for good photos.
Before our final radiation check (seriously) we went to the see the site of the Nuclear Power Plant. This included the third stage of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (uncompleted reactors # 5, # 6, and unfinished cooling towers) and Reactor #4 (the one that exploded) and its new sarcophagus of Reactor #4.
It was a fascinating day. Perhaps that might seem a little callous, but as well as hearing that the casualty rate was so low, we were also told, eventually, the evacuation and clear ups were handled pretty well. Extensive studies also show minimal evidence of long term effects on the population. Much more detailed information here. For our final stop before we headed back to Kyev we had to pass a radiation check.
Pretty exhausted we didn’t have a heavy evening, a few drinks watching a local band.. but I did get quite frustrated that the wifi code below didn’t work… (A Russian friend told me later the sign actually means ‘reserved’…. )
The following morning we wandered down to Khreshchatyk Street which that day was shut off from traffic. I might want to leave out how hangry I was.. only cured by a pretty tasteless crepe filled with potato.. and a coffee served from a large pink snail.
A wide street lined with grand buildings it was quite different to what we’d been exploring the last 48 hours. Though it was very central and adjacent to most things we had seen, we hadn’t actually walked down it properly, preferring smaller side streets.
Despite the imprisonment of previous President Yulia Tymoshenko and a protest calling for her release, the atmosphere was generally good. Our guides spoke of the violent revolutions as something of the past.
The political leanings at the time were predominately pro-EU (as far as I was aware) and joining seemed like a not far off certainty. I was handed a flag made up of the EU and Ukrainian designs, which I still have. But it was only 6 weeks later that another violent and bloody revolution started, the worst incidents happening in Feb 2014 on Independence Square, leading to the ousting of Pro Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych. I remember feeling pretty devastated at this turn of events. Not just because of the destruction and violence I was witnessing on the tv, but I’d seen Kyev as a vibrant, very friendly and welcoming city, and had happily (naively I suppose) left with the impression that it was in a fairly stable state looking to join us in the EU. (Writing that in 2019 breaks my heart for the UK.)
If you want to find out more about what happened check out Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom