Kyiv and Chernobyl Tour 03/05/13 - 06/05/13 (Part 1)

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May 7th 2013
Published: May 9th 2013
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My knowledge of Kyiv

Before going to Kyiv and even Ukraine I had little knowledge of the area, similarly to Copenhagen which turned out to be quite the adventure. what limited insight I possessed could not have prepared me for the short stay we had in store.

So you can imagine my lack of knowledge I shall list what I thought I knew.

• Ukraine was part of the USSR
• There was a horrendous famine in the early part of the 20th century
• Independence was gained following the dissolution of the Soviet Union
• Ukraine has historically been crapped on by the German's and the Russians
• Kyiv was sacked by the Mongol's in 1240 resulting in a Mongol victory
• The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station Lenin Reactor #4 exploded during tests on April 26th 1986 releasing 400 times the amount of Radiation into the atmosphere than the Hiroshima bomb
• A Colleague of mine has a half-Ukrainian boyfriend and she can cook Borscht
• Ukrainians enjoy a snifter of Vodka now and then
• Dom Joly visited and chronicled his short stay (similar to mine) in his book The Dark Tourist

There you have it. Pretty ignorant, wouldn't you
The main stationThe main stationThe main station

taken after we had passed through

Once more, into the fray

Dan and I both said a few days before leaving we were becoming increasingly apprehensive over our trip to Kyiv, there were so many uncertainties, and so few certainties. For one we knew it would be unlike anywhere else we've been to, but ultimately that is what draws anyone to travelling. The unknown, the adventure, the risk and the discovery. In hindsight my regret is our lack of time in Kyiv, Dan, Gemma, Dannie and I would all agree time was our greatest enemy on this journey.

At the end of what seemed like the longest week in work Gemma and I picked my brother and sister-in-law up then made for Birmingham airport (in reality I had worked 3 Days in the run up to our flights on Friday). The flights were uneventful and we landed late afternoon at Boryspil under a scorching sun and 27 degrees centigrade heat, it felt like half a lifetime since Copenhagen 6 months before. We were out of England and life was good. Coming through the exit at the airport we were mobbed by taxi drivers, I learnt a valuable lesson here: <em style="text-align: center; font-size: 1.4rem;">Don't give these urban Hyenas the time of day

I spoke to one briefly as my brother led Dannie and Gemma toward a SkyBus, I called after my brother to inform him of the great deal this particularly charming and not at all shifty looking individual was offering me. Dan told me in no uncertain terms to walk away, which became quite a challenge as the circling mob closed around me while I tried to make my escape. Luckily although they encroached upon my personal space none of them touched me and the abundance of tourists spilling out of the airport gave me valuable seconds to find a weak spot in their ranks and push through to catch up with Dan, Dannie and Gemma.

The mobile oven

Dan paid the 160 Hryvna (UAH) for the four of us to be taken to the main station about an hour away and we climbed aboard the small and stuffy bus and found seats at the back where the legroom is. The heat outside the bus was amplified a million fold on the bus (note minor exaggeration) and we sat for an undetermined amount of time waiting for the bus to fill up. I cracked open two windows and relaxed. There was a steady stream of people climbing aboard so it seemed like we should be en route soon, windows open breeze in our hair... oh how my optimism was cut short.

The driver pulled off and the air began circulating around the bus, lowering the temperature dramatically we joined the highway then suddenly two passengers simultaneously shut the windows and the temperature shot up. So there we sat, for the next hour marinading in our own juices as we bounced over potholes and cracked roads and drove through some shifty looking areas.

We crossed the Dnieper and could see golden domed churches, the motherland monument and lots of trees, trees as far as the eye could see.

Some time later and after a stop in a makeshift market under an over-pass we made it to our final destination. We disembarked into the late afternoon sun and made our way into the station.

Room with a view, but no food

We ambled along and could see our hotel in the distance, The Ibis Shevchenko rising above smaller buildings and a market in a car
A Lada on Shevchenko BlvdA Lada on Shevchenko BlvdA Lada on Shevchenko Blvd

a good portion of my childhood was spent in a Lada, the worst car known to man
park... The Kyiv-ites seem to love these impromptu pop up markets, they were everywhere.

We were treated to seeing a man several stories up standing on a window ledge cleaning the exterior of his windows, with no safety equipment. Just him, a wet rag and a pair of slippers. We gawped at this death defying window cleaner before making our way round to the hotel.

Dan checked in first for him and Dannie to be informed there was no breakfast included in our stay, Dan had specifically booked the rooms with breakfast as both he and Dannie are notoriously picky eaters, I on the other hand would consider roadkill squirrel if it was seasoned with enough pepper.

Dan then proceeded to engage in a minor verbal altercation with the desk jockey who's name badge had some spurious management title emblazoned on it. He became sassier by the word and quite condescending, going so far as to indirectly accuse us of being liars. It was futile arguing with him and Dan conceded the argument. I checked in with less aggro as I just nodded indifferently to most he had to say... I didn't like him and his sassy
Man vs ManholeMan vs ManholeMan vs Manhole

Manhole nearly won
attitude. Then again I hold little appreciation for anyone who would deny me food.

The Health and Safety Executive

Part of being British is moaning daily about the state of the Health and Safety culture here in Britain. We just wouldn't be happy if we didn't have this looming spectre of red tape saving us all from injury and mishap. Well, to any Brit who complains about the health and safety culture in Britain I seriously recommend moving to Kyiv, the HSE was detained at the border.

We sought out a supermarket to stock up on the essentials... water, crisps and chocolate. While out and about we saw a trio of iron rods tied together in a tipi shape placed next to a caved in section of pavement. It felt so rustic and homemade, their approach to warning the common man of potential threats to his well being, that coupled with our hotel being in the seediest looking part of town we were increasingly beginning to worry for our safety.

We managed to make it to the super market and stocked up then began walking back to the hotel. Not far from the hotel I had my first brush with the Kyiv underworld, in this instance meaning the sewer. I stepped over a manhole cover with my right foot but trod on it with my left. The cover proceeded to flip up under my foot and shot backwards, nearly hitting Dannie in the process. Luckily I had one foot on terra firma and was saved from an untimely trip to the grimy depths below.

We made it back without further incident and parted ways for the evening, however I was already beginning to miss the warm embrace of the British Nanny State and our esteemed Health and Safety Executive.

The morning after

We convened at breakfast for a typical hotel breakfast buffet, which was to cost us 120 UAH each (about £10) and to plan our day. We were impressed so far with the hotel and it's facilities, aside from Sassy Desk Clerk, who was still working. He appeared to live at the hotel. We planned to catch the metro south-east to the bank of the Dnieper and to try and see a more upmarket portion of Kyiv, as so far we were unimpressed with, what the guide booked described as, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

20 pence Metro

We made our way to Universytet metro station and paid the 2 UAH to ride, that's less than 20p a journey, and so began our long descent into the bowels of Kyiv. Honestly, I've never been on an escalator that went so far down. We caught the metro up to Arsenalna station (which is one of the deepest in the world at 346 feet deep). The trains looked like they hadn't been updated since the late 70s and were essentially rickety shacks on wheels, but they did the job. It was here we first noticed the undercurrent of right wing nationalism sweeping this portion of the world. Stickers were placed all around the tubes sporting such logos as "Good night left side" or "Dynamo Ultras White Boys Club". From then on, when riding the tube I kept to quiet conversations so as not to draw too much attention to myself as a foreigner, many of the few things written about Kyiv state how it is not safe for tourists to be out and about after dark. Personally we didn't witness, or fall victim, to any such incidents.

The tomb of the unknown soldier

We arrived at Arsenalna and made our way toward the Lavra Monastery, via The Tomb of the Unknown soldier the monument stands over looking the Dnieper and is flanked by marble plaques with Ukrainian names and years of birth and death. The pillar rises up to a point and at the base is a small flame. The monument has the remains of unidentified soldiers killed in combat interred beneath and serves as a monument to all individuals who are killed in combat that do not leave enough physical remains or recognisable features to positively identify them. While at the tomb a group of young Soldiers were performing marching drills around the monument and having orders barked at them by a weasel of a Commander. We, and a gathering crowd watched the procession with great intrigue as they frog marched around and had orders and possibly scathing insults barked at them.


Not far from the thought provoking Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is another monument. This one to the victims of Holodomor, the name given to Stalin's policy of Extermination through hunger. Not too dissimilar from Hitler's policy of Vernichtung Durch
Gemma and I, and the Lavra MonasteryGemma and I, and the Lavra MonasteryGemma and I, and the Lavra Monastery

The caves were somewhere nearby, but thanks to Dan's exceptional navigation we never found them
Arbeit or Extermination Through Work. Ukraine and the surrounding Cossack territories were gripped by a famine so severe that it is believed over 3.9 Million died as a result of the famine, the monument has a simple and effective statue of a waif of a girl staring longingly into the distance. Someone had lovingly placed a rose through the girls arms. It served as a stark reminder of the evils of Stalin's empire, who I often find is sidelined to the shadows by Hitler's reign of terror. The museum appeared to be closed which was a shame because I would have loved to have learned more about Holodomor, I guess some light reading on the subject will have to suffice, lest I never return to Kyiv.

Public Conveniences

Next along the street was a public convenience, I was keeping well hydrated in the morning sun as I am not great with heat and obviously nature's inevitable call soon gripped me. I decided to give it a go. Oh how I lament that decision. 3 of the 4 urinals were covered with shopping bags, the fourth was stuffed with cardboard and over flowing with dirty yellow water. Of the
Mother MotherlandMother MotherlandMother Motherland

affectionately known as "Tin-Tits" by the locals
4 cubicles 3 were locked (either in use or out of order, who knows?) and the fourth was wide open. A miasmic stench emanating from the cubicle drew a crowd of flies into the humid toilet. Their delicate ballet around the entrance an omen of what was to come. The toilet was a long drop, which I learned is the fashion in Ukrainian toileting. Either side of the "bowl" were two ridged sections of porcelain to stand on, smeared with excrement and inside the bowl was the remains of the last visit. My bladder could hold for now. I made a sharp exit and didn't look back.

The Caves (that never were)

On the walk to the monastery we walked by beggars with crippling deformities sat at the road side, and elderly Baboushkas. All trying to serparate you from your money. I have heard rumours that those with deformities and disabilities are actually crippled at a young age repeatedly to get an advantage in the dog world of begging. Legend has it that in Manchester there is an eastern European who rides around on a skateboard with twisted, gnarled legs begging. I can't quantify this rumour, but I deem it Blog-worthy.

We paid a fee for entry to the Lavra monastery with a view to seeing the caves, the catacombs where the monks are buried. Lavra monastery is the holiest place for Orthodox Christians in all of Russia and surrounding areas. We wandered amongst the golden domed buildings and more beggars listening to the Hymns. We followed a sign to go down to the caves, then followed Dan and a large crowd of people up a hill. Dan believing the summit held the entrance to the caves. This turned out to be untrue, we were back on the street. We resolved to not seeing the caves but Dan couldn't get the bitter aftertaste of defeat from his mouth, after all he paid around 200 UAH for the four of us to get in to the caves...

For the Motherland, stride forth to glory

The day before when crossing the bridge over the Dnieper we glimpsed the Mother Motherland monument, and all along our walk from Arsenalna station we could see her looming presence growing ever larger in the distance. Standing tall over Kyiv, keeping a watchful eye over the USSR and gazing toward Moscow. The monument is made entirely of Titanium and stands atop the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which is what the Soviet's called the Second World War. She stands at 335 foot tall and weighs 560 tons. Her back is turned on the west which was a symbol of Russia's power over the Western World during the Cold War tensions.

The area all around has soviet military hardware from all of the USSR's conflicts, including several tanks, artillery cannons, a Hind helicopter, a MiG 23 and a mobile ballistic missile launcher. There are several small museums in the complex that chronicle major conflicts such as the Soviet war in Afghanistan. There seems to be a strange rule for museums in Ukraine, you pay your entry fee, then a separate (more expensive) fee for your camera, however these fees are actually very cheap altogether as is most things in Kyiv, Sadly the first of these mini museums we went in to we didn't really understand as nothing in Kyiv other than the airport and metro has English translations and barely anyone speaks the language. This though gives a great experience overall as there is that risk of the unknown in every
Smashing the ReichSmashing the ReichSmashing the Reich

A Mural depicting the taking of the Reichstag

At the Foot of Mother Motherland is a vast square, typical of Soviet Era grandeur. Traditional music is played through a PA system to evoke a sense of patriotism and love for the Motherland amongst the visiting crowds. There is another huge monument to the soldiers who Won the Eastern Front. Two tanks sit in the square with odd paint jobs, obviously designed to keep kids interested, shame in my opinion, it took away some of the seriousness of the area.

We went into the actual Great Patriotic War Museum under Mother Motherland and saw artifacts and relics of the battle for the Eastern Front. Hitler had made the same fatal mistake as Napoleon when invading Russia, a winter invasion. His forces although nearly taking the capitol of the USSR were woefully under prepared for the winter and as he was fighting a war on several fronts he was unable to break the Soviet will and a forced retreat out of the USSR was ultimately on the cards. His invasion didn't come without it's price to USSR citizens. Millions died during Nazi occupation or were deported to labour or death camps such as Sachsenhausen, which Gemma and
Outside the Chernobyl ExhibitOutside the Chernobyl ExhibitOutside the Chernobyl Exhibit

This vehicle was used in the evacuation of the Exclusion Zone
I visited last June.

Here a Mullet, there a Mullet, everywhere an Ape-Drape

We had seen most of what the museum had to offer and made our way back toward Arsenalna station, via an ice cream vendor. We had been privy to sporadic sightings of Mullets adorning the scalps of boys and men alike. It seemed to be the in-fashion thing. But all of a sudden they just piled out of the woodwork. Mullets everywhere, as far as the eye could see, it was like some bad 80s dream, from which there was no escape. I mean come on, who in their right mind thinks the mullet has any kind of appeal?!

We made our way through the crowd of mullets, like Moses parting the seas, me with my bald and shiny head and Dan with his... well there isn't a category for Dan's hair, but we didn't have Mullets. We stuck out like any social pariah would. Sadly I do not have any pictures of Mullet-folk but you can trust in me when I say this: 1 mullet per thousand people of the population is two mullets too many, but 12 in a crowd
Chernobyl MuseumChernobyl MuseumChernobyl Museum

these were all the protection the "liquidators" had from the radiation
of 15 or so people is just ridiculous. The rest of our time in Kyiv would be spent pointing out Mullets of varying calibre, there was one particularly fine specimen of Mulletry on the tube on our final night. He wasn't even grotesquely disfigured, quite the opposite, one would venture to suggest he was a handsome chap, but his mullet reached his shoulder blades. What perplexed me most was he had a girlfriend, who didn't seem the least bit phased by being seen in public with this follicle monstrosity.

Desperately Seeking Chernobyl (Dan Navigates... poorly)

Following the Great Patriotic War Museum we decided to head back to the hotel grab quick showers as it was so hot and then make our way north on the metro to seek out the Chernobyl Exhibit which according to sources is a must, even if you are going to Chernobyl on a tour.

We came out of the metro and couldn't get our bearings, so using a Euro 2012 McDonalds Map of Kiev and my iPhone compass we attempted to navigate, for some reason though my compass kept changing where north was, now I'm not a big fancy science type but I am fairly certain a polar shift doesn't just happen in the blink of an eye, especially repeatedly. Gemma's compass app seemed more promising, but was still a bit twitchy. So Dan took the lead and led us off on a merry walk looking for the museum, we circumnavigated the same 5 streets over and over and over and... you get the picture. I tried to suggest where I thought we were on the map to Dan and which way I thought the museum was, so he led us in a different direction. In the end he resorted to asking a local, they were equally perplexed and carried on walking. We were headed their way so followed and at the next road he told us to head down another road to the "square and turn right".

Well there was no square but it was at the first right so finally we had made it. Sadly inside the museum all the English audio guides were broken and nothing was annotated in English, but you can still get a good sense of what happened in there. I'd recommend a visit if not just to see what the "Liquidators" had to wear while fighting against an invisible enemy so deadly it affects not just the person it touches but also their relatives. I think that that is one of the things about Chernobyl that is lost on most people, that today 27 years later babies are still born with birth defects as a direct result of the radiation absorbed by the people who were there.

Independence square

We finished in the museum and headed down to independence square to look for a pub of some description, the square is a beautiful area of Kyiv, like many of the areas we visited that day, it helped rapidly change our opinion of a city we were so quick to deride and label squalid upon arrival.

There were barely any pubs in sight, instead street vendors sold souvenirs, food and alcohol alike, and most people just sat around the massive fountain drinking. We went to McDonald's and after food and a failed 20 minute toilet trip for the girls (they queued for 20 mins, got to the toilet looked at it and left) headed up from the main square to the St. Sofia Cathedral. I stayed outside watching the crowds and re-hydrating while Dan, Gemma and Dannie went in and had a look around then walked down the road to see the other part of the Cathedral. Dan came back some time later and said the girls were sat in a bar not far away. We reconvened with 4 500 ml bottles of Staropramen, Czech beer... in the Ukraine, but it was the equivalent of £1.30 a bottle so who's keeping score?!

I decided brave Kyiv toileting facilities given my earlier horror-experience near Holodomor Memorial. It wasn't so bad, although I couldn't imagine going for any more than a wee while standing up, it just isn't natural and while I like to think of myself as quite open minded, taking a dump stood up just isn't my bag.

Awaiting the unknown

The day had been an awesome adventure through a city of the unknown, a lot of it based on trial and error down to the language barrier. However, the next day was our real reason for visiting Kyiv. Many people I spoke to about our planned trip to Chernobyl thought I was mental. Their idea of a holiday, however, is somewhat different to mine. I like to experience the world, not spend hundreds of pounds to sit on a beach and burn to a crisp, so it was futile trying to explain to many why I was drawn to going.

Our trip, while booked and deposit paid was still uncertain, we were desperately trying to stave off excitement as we could be turned away, or detained at either of the two main checkpoints one must pass through into the 30 km exclusion zone and again at 10 km.

If the trepidation we felt before flying to Kyiv was anything then the knowledge our trip could still be thrown into disarray at the last moment kept the hairs on my neck stood up and haunted my sleep that night with the spectre of disappointment. Only time would tell. When you need time it becomes a fleeting commodity, when you would wish it away it becomes an insurmountable barrier. Time is fickle like that...

Joe, Dan, Gemma and Dannie will return in:

Kyiv and Chernobyl tour 03/05/13 - 06/05/13 (Part 2)


11th May 2013

Another travel triumph!
Well joe you've had another crazy adventure- mullet mayhem, manhole misery, and toilet tragedy- without eating a chicken Kiev, stealing a trabant or upsetting perestroika. Well done- cant wait for the main event!

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