Ukraine / Kiev and Chernobyl - 2008

I have always been interested in urban exploration (according to Wikipedia it means "examination of the normally unseen or off-limits parts of urban areas or industrial facilities") and after reading some stories about the tours they make to Chernobyl power plant area in Ukraine I had been considering a trip there for about a year.

This summer I noticed that I had collected a number of SAS frequent flyer miles that were about to expire soon. Fortunately I had just enough points for a return flight to their Eastern European destinations. So I could not resist ordering LP Ukraine from and soon after receiving the guidebook I booked the free flights from SAS call center (for some reason it was not possible by using their web site!). Additionally I booked the Chernobyl tour in advance by using the web site of the Tour Kiev travel agency.

I did not quite know what to expect from this trip - Chernobyl sounded a bit scary but at the same time fascinating. Kiev was a bit of mystery to me - I was expecting a dull city with Soviet style ugly buildings but fortunately I was wrong!

Check out the photo gallery.

29.08.2008 Helsinki - Kiev
Kiev is not far from Helsinki but as there are no direct SAS flights there it took several hours to get there. I had an early morning flight via Copenhagen and as I had almost missed my flight the previous time I was travelling I decided to be on time this time. I ordered a taxi already in the evening - this proved to be a very good move as I ended up in the worst chaos that I had ever experienced at the Helsinki airport. Don't know the reason but the place was just so packed that it took me over an hour to get from check-in to the gate (just before the final call)!

The flights were uneventful - seems that everything (even coffee and water) costs something on these flights. I had a very tight 40-minute transfer in Copenhagen but there were no problems catching my second flight. Kiev airport turned out to be one of the smallest and most chaotic airports I've seen so far. Immigration took ages even though the only procedure was to hand the immigration form to the officer. After reclaiming my luggage there was some kind of customs form that everybody should fill in. Interestingly nobody was interested in the form as I chose the green line. After passing the customs area there was the usual hassle with taxi drivers and other touts - after getting some local currency from an ATM I just walked past the crowds to the bus stop.

A minibus was just about to leave for the city center and proved to be a convenient option for getting to the railway station. I had booked a hotel in advance by using the Amadeus service - it was just a 0,5 km walk from the railway station to the hotel. It was quite warm weather so I was a bit sweaty when I came to the hotel. The place was decent enough to be one of the cheapest around - there was airconditioning and even a balcony with nice views.

After resting for a while I started walking towards the downtown area. The first impressions were quite positive - lots of beautiful old building from late 19th / early 20th century that reminded me of Riga. It seemed like a lively city but by no means chaotic. It is actually a rather green city as there are lots of parks in Kiev. I wandered pointlessly for a while and ended up by the main street that was lined with numerous shops that were selling luxury brands. As in Saint Petersburg cars were new and expensive (apart from the considerable number of Ladas) and there was lots of construction work around. So you could see the economic upturn everywhere. And one thing you definitely will notice there is the amazing number of super model type of ladies - in this town it is important to look good!

I was getting really hungry so I had a meal at a local fast food / buffet type of place where you could create your own set meal from a huge selection of local dishes. Really cheap, efficient and tasty! After eating I checked out a couple of impressive churches with huge golden domes but it was already to late to get in. I was feeling more and more tired so I decided to return to hotel. Looks like an interesting city but that's it for today! 

30.08.2008 Kiev
I had the intention to get up early but as expected it proved to be difficult. So it was about half past nine when I finally found myself in the breakfast room. The complimentary breakfast was surprisingly good - including everything from blintzes to local sausages. The weather is half cloudy and it is a bit calmer than yesterday.

I start my sightseeing tour with Chernobyl Museum - it takes about 15 minutes by metro (including a transfer). This time I manage to find the connecting metro line and the museum is not far from the metro station. As expected the exhibits are mostly in Russian but they are pretty much self-explanatory anyway. The museum is a bit scary experience - looking forward to visiting the area on Monday!

I continue my tour towards the banks of river Dnepr. On my way I visit an old shopping street with countless art vendors - the paintings are impressive but I don't feel like buying anything... On the banks of Dnepr there is Hotel Salute that looks like a grenade (really!) - would be interesting to know what is the reasoning behind the architecture! Next to the hotel there is a big park where most of the major sights in the city are located. Interestingly the park seems to be a popular spot among the locals for shooting the wedding photos - there are lots of dressed up people who obviously have been just married.

I walk past the golden domes of the Lavra monastery to the Museum of Great Patriotic War that is actually one of the most interesting areas in the town. It is a big area dominated by the huge Mother Russia statue - you have to see it to believe it. Basically it is something that distantly resembles Statue of Liberty (both in size and posture) but still it is still so clearly Soviet in style so you don't know whether to cry or laugh at this sight... In the pedestal of the statue there is a museum that concentrates on the horrors of the 2nd World War - the collection is very interesting but again there is pretty much nothing in English. It should also be possible to go up inside the statue but it took a while to locate the elevator. I realize that you need to purchase a separate ticket to get to the top and as I need to hurry to visit the Lavra before it closes I decide to come back tomorrow.

The Lavra is one of the prime attractions in the city - in practice it is a complex of churches and some other holy buildings. The main draw here is the "caves" - some kind of catacomb below one of the churches where there are a number of mummified monks. It is a bit difficult to locate the entrance but finally I find the narrow stairs that go below the ground level. The caves are an interesting (and a bit claustrophobic) experience - the dark and small corridors are packed with people holding candles. People are constantly crossing themselves, kissing the icons and staring at the mummies (protected by a glass wall). The mummies are far from the ones in the Egyptian Museum - you cannot really see anything as they are all covered by ornate clothes. Anyway it is quite disturbing to see (young) Christian people expressing their feelings in a such intense way - some mothers are obviously trying to bless their newborn babies by bringing them to this dark cave...

I exit the caves after a quick tour and continue to the courtyard. The churches are beautiful and the amount of gold plating is huge. The most interesting sight in the area is something that has nothing to do with religion - the Museum of Microminiatures. It is basically a small room with about 20 pieces of art that are so small that you need a microscope to view them (for example there is a Lenin figure that is carved on an apple seed).

I return to downtown by metro and spend a while to explore yet another church called Cathedral of Saint Sofia. It is nothing special really so I decide that is the time for dinner. As the place I tried yesterday was such a pleasant surprise I decide to go there again (quite a few dishes yet to be tasted!). I return to the hotel after the meal and think about checking out the local club scene for a while but as I'm feeling really exhausted I decide to get some sleep instead..

31.08.2008 Kiev
For some reason I wake up at 4 AM in the morning and it takes until 7 AM to get back to sleep again. There seems to be some mosquitoes in my room - don't have a clue about where they are coming from. Fortunately the breakfast is being served until 11. It is the first sunny day during my trip - therefore a perfect day for exploring the local beach scene! When I leave the hotel I realize that it is actually quite cold - maybe not the optimal beach day after all... 

I return to "The Statue" by metro - just to hear that the elevator to the top is closed today! After exploring the old military vehicles in the area I take the metro to the other side of Dnepr (or actually to the island in the middle of the river) where Hidropark is located. The place is a big recreational area with numerous beaches, bars, clubs, funfairs and an outdoor gym. The sand on the beaches is fine and white but there is litter everywhere and the water does not look too clean. It is not very crowded on the beaches because of the cold weather - outdoor gym seems to be packed though. Even though there are clouds gathering on the sky I spend a while on the beach. City beaches by a river are a good concept but unfortunately Hidropark does not have the perfect beaches that I am looking for...

I return to downtown where the main street is blocked from cars and there are thousands of people walking there. I quickly learn the reason for this - on the central square there seems to be some kind of outdoor rave going on - there is a huge stage and PA system and some local dj's are playing electro and trance tunes for the crowd. The volume is very high and an MC is constantly shouting something in Russian. Very few people are dancing - seems that drinking beer is the main activity here.

It is time for dinner and today it is the time to taste some tatar food in a nearby restaurant. I order stuffed wine leaves and some kebab - really tasty indeed! I visit an Internet cafe that is located in one of the numerous underground shopping centers and check out the latest news just to find out that pretty much nothing has happened. I return to hotel to get some sleep as tomorrow will be the most anticipated day of this trip.

01.09.2008 Kiev / Chernobyl
It was surprisingly hard to get sleep as I was so excited about today's tour. I wake up at seven as the tour starts from an unknown hotel near the main street and it takes a while to get there. So far the process for booking the trip has been very smooth and the travel agency has communicated all the details by email to me. Locating the Rus hotel turns out to be easy but I don't see anybody who looks like a potential participant there - just some business travelers. After 10 minutes the fellow participants start arriving - including the elderly photographer Bo from Sweden (who is taking this tour already for the second time!), traveler stereotype Michael from Ireland and a couple of people from the UK and Canada.

The bus leaves exactly in schedule but we need to make an extra detour as some people have left their passports at their hotel. It takes about two hours to take to the first checkpoint where our passports are being checked for the first time. Our guide also joins us after the first checkpoint - he is a guy in his thirties that has previously worked in the power plant. The guy is not too talkative and does not even tell his name but seems to know a lot of the area. Our first stop is the town of Chernobyl that has been partly repopulated. There are lots of abandoned houses around but still the town is actually quite lively - even there are no new buildings or kids around.

We visit the local "information center" first where we hear about the tour agenda and the safety regulations. Surprisingly we need to sign a form where we commit to the rules (they include a number of forbidden things like eating outside the bus). We start the tour to the power plant area - on our way there are several stops in places like "graveyard of old ships" and the monument for dead firemen. Our guide is carrying a radiation meter that tells about the current radiation levels. In general the scenery is rather green and nature looks pretty much healthy even though in many places all the trees were practically destroyed twenty years ago. There are abandoned buildings and rusty vehicles everywhere that makes the overall feeling somewhat sad.

We pass the second checkpoint and start getting closer to the power plant. Our guide tells some interesting and not so well-known facts about the history - I did not know that reactors 1 and 2 were fully operational for more than 10 years after the disaster. There is also a fifth reactor that was never completed. We stop briefly at a nearby river that has really huge catfish. The unusual size should not be a mutation but rather a result from the lack of natural predators in the area. There is quite a lot of activity in the area even today as they are building a brand new concrete sarcophagus over the old one. Our guide says that if the old sarcophagus breaks down there would be even bigger disaster than the one twenty years ago! The current one looks really fragile - there are lots of suspicious looking makeshift structures that are supporting it... We can get really close to the reactor - it is really disturbing to stand there just about 200 meters away from the site of the disaster.

It is actually a relief to get away from the power plant area - the latter part of the tour is spent in the nearby ghost city of Pripyat. It is a city that had about 50.000 inhabitants that were all evacuated after the disaster. Ever since the disaster the place has been abandoned and it is a place where time has basically stopped. It is interesting to see how nature is gradually conquering the area back again - asphalt is crumbling and there are several trees growing in the middle of streets. The feeling is really eerie as basically everything has been looted - you can see broken windows everywhere. 

Our first stop is at the main square of the city. Unfortunately we are not allowed to wander around freely but I manage to briefly squeeze into an abandoned shop. We continue to one of the most famous locations in Pripyat - the unfortunate funfair that was never taken to use. The rusty ferris wheel and dodgem cars that never got their drivers are a striking sight. After lots of photos we continue to the local indoor swimming pool. The building has been looted as every other place in the area but again you can feel the scary "when time stood still" effect just by imagining how the place would have looked 20 years ago.

We spend a while to explore the city by bus still and see the other one of the two remaining inhabitants of the city - there is an elderly couple who are still living there! The bus takes us back to Chernobyl town where we have a late lunch. People are silent and it is hard to describe my feelings. Even though we did not really see anything particularly shocking it was quite an experience. My head feels somewhat empty and the main thing I'm thinking about is a distant fear of something like this happening again...

It takes another two hours to get back to Kiev and it is about seven in the evening when we get back there. Anyway one of the most memorable day trips ever - a true once in the lifetime experience! 

02.09.2008 Kiev - Helsinki
It is the time to go home. My flight takes of at 15.30 in the afternoon but as the small airport seemed to be really crowded when I arrived. When checking out from the hotel I get my share of Eastern European bad service. Even though I had already paid for my stay the lady at the reception tells me that they have made a mistake and I need to pay more. Even though it is just about 10 euros I am really annoyed at this kind of behavior and refuse to pay. The lady is very stubborn and lets me talk me some "manager". The guy is equally rude and keeps staying that I need to pay and is not even interested in the price that my travel agency confirmed from the Amadeus system. As this discussion with these idiots seems to be a waste of time I pay and leave without saying a word. So try to avoid Express Hotel Kiev - this kind of attitude is unacceptable!

I walk to train station and take the bus to airport. The place is just as chaotic as previously. Again the customs procedure is strange - I fill in the same forms again but nobody is interested in them. My return flights are via Riga. There is just enough time to enjoy a huge dinner at the excellent Lido restaurant before the short flight to Helsinki. It is raining cats and dogs there. A very interesting trip indeed - as expected the language barrier was a problem (even though I learned to read Cyrillic at least!). Maybe I should study some Russian... 

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