Part 11: Kiev / Chernobyl (Days 24, 25, 26 and 27)


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September 18th 2008
Published: September 20th 2008
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Kiev is full of people trying to get somewhere in a hurry. Buses, marshrutki (public minibuses) and metro trains cram residents in, making the London Underground at rush hour look deserted. And why not. Because unlike neighbouring Belarus, Ukraine seems desperate to shake off its former communist shackles and make its way in the world.

Russia, its influential neighbour, has expressed an unease about Ukraine joining NATO. And the port of Sevastopol remains a potential flashpoint between it and Russia. But despite years under its command, Ukraine doesn't seem to be afraid.

Kiev's official population is three million people. Unofficial estimates have it at double that. Arriving bleary-eyed at rush hour, we were tossed mercilessly into the husle and bustle. Swarms of people almost carried us to the metro station from where we would catch a train to our hostel. It suddenly dawned on me. It was 8.30am. On Saturday.

It was an exhausing experience, particularly as our night train had crossed the Ukrainian border at roughly 4am - prompting border guards from both sides to invade our first-class cabin and interrupt an already relentless sleep.

When we arrived at Hostel Ukraine, at about 9am, it appeared that we weren't the only ones to get a rude awakening. A young Ukrainian woman - the owner, we wrongly presumed, answered the door in only her nighty wearing a weary frown that screamed "you inconsiderate set of bastards".

Frustratingly, our first day in Kiev was to be spent unravelling red tape, the incessant downside of this trip. We were to travel to the exclusion zone around the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power station on Monday, and I needed to visit the travel agency to finalise arrangements as attempts to carry it out by fax in Belarus had failed. Si needed to sort out an apartment for the remainder of our stay in Kiev as his girlfriend Carmel was due to arrive the following day.

Before we could get out and carry out these tasks, we were called by a young member of staff to "have a word with the boss". A bald, chubby man sat at a computer addressed us with an accusing "so you guys didn't show up yesterday huh?". To explain, we had been due to arrive on Friday (the previous day) but had emailed the hostel on Wednesday to inform them we had been unable to get a train and would get there Saturday morning.

On explaining this to the gentleman, who was clearly gearing up to tell us off as if we were not in fact grown adults but 12-year-old schoolboys who had been caught smoking behind the bikesheds, he said he had not received said correspondence. "Well you replied" was my curt response, guard raised.

While searching through the email he continued his tirade, aggressively informing us that he was trying to run a business and we were supposed to give 24 hours notice and we would have to pay for the night we didn't stay. Eventually he found it and the response, presumably from a member of his staff who would doubtless get a dressing down later. His climbdown was as amusing for us as it was embarrassing for him. He never apologised, but offered his hand and, reasoning that I should maintain the position as the bigger man, I shook it. One night here would be enough.

Not a good start, and it was made worse by my inability to withdraw money from any ATM on the long three mile walk to the travel agency (I had rather underestimated the distance). I had been forced to call my bank from Belarus two days previously after they stopped the card because of where it had been used, and I didn't intend to have the same conversation again and pay another fiver for the privilege.

Si and I had split up to perform our respective errands, but we met up near the national stadium, where we were hoping to watch Ukraine play Belarus later that night. On closer inspection, a flaw in this plan emerged as it was now a building site. Turns out the stadium is being renovated ahead of the 2012 European Championships which Ukraine is co-hosting with Poland. That night's game was to take place in L'viv.

UEFA has concerns that both the potential co-hosts are falling behind schedule, with transport and infrastructure being the main stumbling blocks. The Scots are circling like vultures watching a thirsty man in the desert in case Platini and co decides to withdraw the privilege from the Eastern European nations.

Si then began experiencing ATM issues, prompting a 20 minute call to his bank only to find they were just as in the dark about why the card wouldn't work as he was. Our day of woe was complete when news came through that Southend had thrown away a goal lead to lose to Carlisle. Back at the hostel later, I launched into a rant. If there is one thing worse than having a bad day, it's having a bad day 1,000 miles from home.

Predictably, we spent the evening in a local Irish bar which screened the Ukraine game and also showcased the 'talents' of a local covers band who struggled their way through an eclectic mix of Western songs including 'Englishman in New York'. We had hoped that the England game might be on after Ukraine had finished, but when tennis rudely presented itself onscreen it was clear it was time to move on. We stumbled upon a basement joint a few doors down promising 'Live Football'. Sure enough, a big screen was showing the second half of Andorra v England while three other punters looked on disinterested and a waitress had a loud barney with presumably her bloke. It was a beautiful moment and we watched England make a meal of the rest of the game before heading back content.

With Si heading to the airport the following afternoon, I had a chance to take in the sights and sounds of Kiev at my own pace. We had already seen the main Independence Square, which had been filled with around a million protesters around the time of the 2004 elections that saw Viktor Yushchenko come to power. These days it is surrounded by stalls and hawkers including a man in a monkey suit charging tourists to have their photos taken with him (Yes we did, despite the stench of vodka eminating from his person). We had also seen the shopping street, vul Khreshtchatyk, lined with western boutiques, so I made my way to the winding Andreiyivsky Urzuz where stalls fill the steep cobbled street selling all kinds of souvenirs from football shirts to multi-coloured painted eggs, a Ukrainian tradition. After purchasing a rather cool authentic Soviet army belt, I hauled myself back up and began another climb to the west where I peered through the trees at the Dinamo Stadium, home of Ukraine's most famous side, Dinamo Kiev.

From the parkland surrounding the stadium there were spectacular vistas of the east of the city over the wide Dnipro river. It was a pleasant walk on a hot afternoon.

I emerged from the park at Arsenal'na metro station, supposedly the deepest in Europe, and eventually after I had finally got off the downward escalator I rode one stop to Dnipro station, right on the riverside as you might expect. I had hoped to get a closer look at the Defence of the Motherland statue, a 62m high figure of a woman with a sword which had been an awesome sight as the train had chugged over the river the previous morning. However, the prospect of another steep climb diminished the appeal, so I returned to the city centre and enjoyed a few beers on Independence Square, unpeturbed by a semi-naked pensioner scratching his exposed genitals nearby.

On the way back to the apartment I had my first real unpleasant experience with Eastern European folk in what I now realise was a botched pickpocket attempt. Walking through an area of pavement which was sheltered above and to the side because of construction work, two lads in their 20s walked towards me. One feigned towards me and yelled to try and make me jump and stop while the other walked straight on in a collision course with me. However, a few beers had slowed my reactions and I didn't check my stride. As a result, we collided at chest level full on, knocking him flying backwards to the floor. Before he fell I had felt his hand go into the pocket of my shorts. I shouted after them in my best English a choice phrase that can probably be understood the world over, and they ran off. Fortunately I had just minutes earlier been texting my brother and had replaced my mobile into the bottom, velcro pocket, where I never normally keep it so nothing came of the clumsy attempt.

That evening we attempted to locate a Mexican restaurant in a dingy northern suburb, but after half hour of fruitless searching armed with a map that was nigh on impossible to read, we decided it has either gone bust or moved, so before we got mugged we settled on a cheap pizza joint instead.

The danger did not stop there - what fearless, brave characters we are. The following day would be one of the highlights of the trip for me as I realised an ambition I had harboured for years.

In April 1986, Pripyat was a busy small town of 50,000 people. Built in 1970 to house workers at a nearby power plant and their families, there were schools, restaurants and shops, and a funfair was due to open shortly. Nobody lives there now. The buildings still stand, overgrown with vegetation and with windows broken. Everything has been looted and is now derelict. The big wheel and dodgem cars of the funfair can still be seen, but they were never used. Nobody will ever live here again - they can't. The town was killed by the plant that spawned it.

22 years ago, on April 26th, a series of errors were made during a testing operation inside reactor four of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine. A huge explosion sent lethal radioactive particles into the night sky in massive quantities. 500,000 people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are estimated to have died as a direct result of the disaster, the worst involving nuclear power in history.

Radiation levels are still relatively high in and around the plant. A 30km exclusion zone is in operation around the plant, and special permission is required to enter. We had paid 140 pounds each for that permission, and on Monday morning at 9am we were picked up by the driver for the agency that had arranged our visit.

The middle-aged, moustachioed man at the wheel spoke no English, had a penchant for overtaking at high speeds while talking on his mobile phone. He also had an unhealthy passion for Ukrainian folk music of dubious quality. We were concerned that he would be our guide for the day. During the two hour drive north from Kiev, the traffic gradually thinned until we were the only car on the road as we neared the exclusion zone.

On arrival in Chernobyl town, we were ushered up to the small tourism HQ where we were relieved to meet our real guide, a man in his early 30s called Denis. He was friendly but quiet, mostly speaking only to impart his information. Reassuringly, he had a device which measured the concentration of radiation particles in the area. He warned that at any time, the conditions could mean we would have to leave the exclusion zone immediately.

We were first taken to see some of the 'clean' vehicles used in the emergency operation following the explosion, and then to the nearby memorial for the firefighters who fought the initial blaze. All were killed. An inscription on the memorial reads "To those who saved the world".

Still being driven by our original chaffeur with Denis in the passenger seat guiding, we drove by the riverside to see some abandoned boats. Denis quipped that the water is safe but "fishing is not recommended". He showed occasional glimpses of this dark sense of humour, which must be inevitable in a job like his.

Denis pointed out a piece of land which had been occupied by a village of over a thousand people. About a month after the explosion, residents accepted they could no longer stay, and it was burned to the ground - nothing remains except an entry sign by the side of the road.

We were getting closer and before long, the huge reactors loomed ominously into view. I had read so much about the disaster which has always fascinated me, but I never dreamed that I would see it with my own eyes. Cranes surrounded one grey monstrosity - it was the proposed new reactor five which was under construction at the time of the disaster and unsurprisingly never finished.

We were allowed within 200m of reactor four. It was close enough, the scale of it was immense. We were only allowed to stay a few minutes because of the radiation levels, but the evidence of the explosion was stark, as was the concrete sarcophagus built hastily to stop any more radiation from escaping into the air. Workers building it were only allowed to spend one or two minutes up there at a time because of the extremely high exposure. Unsurprisingly, it was a rudimentary job and had been unstable until recently when it had been reinforced.

A monument to those who, for the most part, sacrificed their lives building that sarcophagus is positioned behind it, where we stood. It was amazing to learn that many people still work at Chernobyl today and the plant has not yet been fully decommissioned.

Our last ad probably most emotive stop on the tour was Pripyat itself. We walked through eerily silent, deserted streets and were shown inside buildings including an apartment block and a school. One room in the apartment I saw had been decorated as a nursery. Chernobyl arguably devastated the young and unborn more than anyone else. There were still original teaching materials and work in the schools. It brought home the human element of the tragedy.

The town had been evacuated on the afternoon following the explosion (which occurred at about 1am), and the whole town was empty within two hours. Residents were instructed to pack minimal belongings and were assured that they would return.

After a canteen three-course lunch back in Chernobyl town, we were put through a machine to ensure we had not been dangerously exposed to radiation. All three of us were clean and we bade Denis farewell before heading back to Kiev. It had been one of the most significant days in all our lives - since the day of the disaster only a nominal amount of people had been able to see what we had.

Problems arranging accommodation in Chisinau, our next destination, meant we stayed an extra night in Ukraine, but our final day was spent arranging hostels and booking trains, always a draining experience. Having been queuing at a window for 20 minutes only to be directed to another where the attendant doesn't speak English before painstakingly going over times, class, reservations and money makes me somehow think fondly of Virgin Trains, whom previously I had considered the antichrist. Of all the elements of travel, I would put booking train tickets as my number one pet hate.

We managed to book ourselves on a train - at 4am the following morning. It was barely worth us going to bed.

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