Archive for October, 2016

August 29: Chernobyl

Posted in Abandoned buildings, Chernobyl, Ghost towns, Russian Woodpecker, Self settlers, Soviet Union, Travel, Ukraine, Vacation, Zalissya with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2016 by Amanda

Today was the beginning of my whole reason for coming to Ukraine in the first place!  I was at the meeting point at the train station quite early as I was paranoid about somehow getting misdirected; I wasn’t the only one though!  I found the other three people in the group but we didn’t find the guide right away which was a little stressful.  On the drive to the first checkpoint (at the edge of the 30 km exclusion zone) we watched a documentary about the disaster.

There were a lot of rules that we had to sign a form agreeing to but a lot of them aren’t enforced most of the time (wearing long sleeves, not entering buildings in Pripyat etc.).

Not long after the first checkpoint we stopped at the “village” of Zalissya.  By my standards it was definitely more of a town and had housed about 2,000 people.  Its last resident, a self-settler, died only about a year ago.  Self settlers were older people who came back to their homes illegally after the evacuation but their presence was tolerated; there were once thousands but as many have now died (of old age) their numbers have dwindled to maybe a couple hundred.  We visited her house that still had clothes in the closet, pictures on the way and such.  There were obviously many buildings to explore here including many houses, two grocery stores, a health clinic, and a school but my favourite was definitely the culture house (basically a community centre).  It had originally be a family’s house (more like a mansion) but had been repurposed by the Soviets; they even changed the founding date on the building!  I think we could have spent close to a whole day here but we all knew that there were much better things to come so we moved on by lunchtime.


Entrance to the culture house with its Soviet founding date

The town of Chernobyl is actually still pretty active as workers as still housed there; they stay for 15 days and then leave for 15 days. This is where our hotel (more of a hostel really) was; it also has a functioning church and a (very small) store along with quite a bit of housing and some offices. There are also some memorials here including signs for all the communities in both Ukraine and Belarus within the exclusion zone; there are so many!


Just some of the signs of the former communities with the exclusion zone.

We then headed to Chernobyl’s port where there are some rusting boats.

After that we headed to a huge formerly secret Duga radar station. It was called Chernobyl 2 or by its nickname, the Russian Woodpecker. It is about 900 metres long. It was officially a summer camp. It was down a bit of a rough road and not too close to anything else. While it didn’t take long to look at the radar itself as I wasn’t interested in climbing it, there were lots of other places to explore at the site. I especially enjoyed looking through the medical centre. This was place was the first of a number of places I encountered that had signs of the Olympics back in 1980; the Olympics were clearly a big deal for the Soviet Union. While we were there one group member wandered off and we couldn’t find him for some time which was quite distressing to our guide; it seems that she would have been in big trouble if the police had to search for him. We did end finding him eventually and got through the 10 km checkpoint (our first experience with the radiation detectors) before the 7 pm deadline.


Just part of the radar

My feet once again felt pretty terrible at the end of the day. After dinner, we headed to a bridge with a nice view of the power plant in the distance.

August 28: Kiev

Posted in Kiev, Kiev Fortress, Rodina Mat, St. Andrew's Descent, Travel, Ukraine, Vacation, Vegetarian with tags , , , , , , , on October 30, 2016 by Amanda

I felt okay when I woke up this morning.  I did go ahead a book a different hotel from after my trip to Chernobyl.  It looked a lot better for only an extra $10 a night though it wasn’t as central and I hoped it would be quieter.

I got on the metro again and was absolutely shocked that it was busy at 9 am; I guess it must always be busy.  I walked past the Lavra, a huge Orthodox monastery complex with some underground caves.  It is considered by many a major tourist site but it didn’t really interest me.  Plus, it was Sunday morning and thus super busy.  It looked like head covering was required to even enter the grounds which solidified my decision not to bother with it.  The sidewalk outside seem to be a popular spot for old women to beg.  It was one of the few places I saw begging.

I then headed to Rodina Mat, the motherland statue.  It is absolutely massive but from the way I approached it wasn’t visible much before I arrived there.  However, you can see it from huge distances in other directions.  There is a World War II museum at the base which wouldn’t normally be my type of museum but I tried to visit as it was the only museum beside the Chernobyl Museum with an English audio guide but despite looking to be open (and the hours online saying it opened at 10) I was told to come back at 11.  I decided to not bother.  I wandered around the area but it seemed not to be the most interesting part of town.  However, I did get a nice view of Rodina Mat from the back.


Rodina Mat

I decided to have lunch at a raw vegan restaurant which was right near my hotel. It was surprisingly good. I found being vegetarian on the trip to actually be pretty easy.

After that I headed to Kiev Fortress. This place definitely doesn’t get many English-speaking visitors at all; perhaps this was why it was missing from the Lonely Planet. It seems that I might have bought the wrong type of ticket as I wasn’t allowed in one of the buildings and the ticket seemed cheap even for Ukraine. I think if there’d been any kind of English signage I would have definitely enjoyed the visit more. I did get an interesting view of the stadium for the fortress though.


View of the stadium from the Kiev Fortress

Later I went to St. Andrew’s Descent and wisely went down the street rather than up it as it is rather steep. Kiev is city with a number of hills and in places it is pretty much San Francisco-level steep. It was a pleasant walk down and it is probably the most touristy part of Kiev but it really wasn’t all that busy. There were plenty of paintings and souvenirs for sale.


St. Andrew’s Descent

I walked around randomly for a bit and then headed back to my hotel when my feet couldn’t stand walking any longer. I hate blisters so much!

I attempted to exchange a 20 euro bill I had that I knew I wouldn’t have time to spend on my brief stay at the airport in Paris on my way back at one of the many exchange places nearby hotel. The first one I tried wouldn’t take it. I was mystified as to why as they weren’t busy, the bill was in perfect condition and euros should be easily exchangeable; maybe they didn’t like to bother with small amounts (though 20 euros actually goes a long way in Kiev). The second place exchanged it with no issue though.

I had dinner at another restaurant near the hotel. It looked very nice and had an English menu and English-speaking staff and barely cost $4.

August 27: Kiev

Posted in Chernobyl Museum, Kiev, Landscape Alley, Metro, People's Arch of Friendship, Travel, Ukraine, Vacation with tags , , , , , , , on October 29, 2016 by Amanda

After a weird but okay breakfast at my hotel, I went to a metro station for the first time.  I’d done some research online so I knew that English signage existed (especially helpful in a place with a Cyrillic alphabet and where few people speak much English).  I was very happy to find that it was very east to navigate.  My research had also shown that MasterCard Paypass should work to access the metro even for foreign credit cards but I couldn’t get either of my MasterCards to work.  Luckily, the token machines were very easy to use.  It was actually probably better to use tokens than have many 20 cent charges; yes, that is the approximate cost of a metro ride in Kiev!  I found it interesting that quite a few things were actually cheaper here than in India.  I was also aware that many metro stations here are very deep but I was still a bit surprised with just how long it took to get down to the tracks and I wasn’t even at the deepest station!

I wandered around for randomly for a bit after I got off the metro and found my ultimate destination, the Chernobyl Museum, before I even tried looking for it.  I got there right when it opened so I had no trouble getting an English audio guide which are apparently in short supply.  The museum would have been pretty useless with the audio guide.  I spent close to an hour and a half there and I felt it was good preparation for my trip to Chernobyl in a couple of days.  It was obviously a bit depressing as the museum really made clear how many people had died or became sick (especially thyroid cancer) from the Chernobyl disaster.  It was also very clear that the government’s initial cover-up made things a lot worse.

Afterwards I bought ice cream.  I realized that the cone had a hole in the bottom and as I’m not exactly a quick eater this was an issue.  I later learned that this is normal here.  I really don’t understand why though!

I then did two free walking tours.  The first walking tour focused on history and stopped at a bunch of churches but only went inside one.  The interesting thing was that, with one exception, they were reproductions as the Soviets had torn down the originals.  One church (St. Michael’s) had even been a small concentration camp.  This tour also stopped at Landscape Alley, which is an area of colourful sculptures and a children’s playground.


Landscape Alley

After this tour I found that the at least some of the maps are upside down as I followed the map and ended up in the opposite direction I’d intended.  Anyway, I still got to the meeting point for the second walking tour in time.  This tour focused on my recent sights including memorials to those who died in 2014.  We also saw bullet holes from 2014.  Everything in Kiev now seems totally calm but tourism numbers are still clearly down and quite a few people were apparently frightened by tanks used for Independence Day celebrations a few days prior.  There also appears to be a relatively heavy military presence and we had to view the House of Chimeras from behind a fence.  This tour also included some other government buildings (from the outside), very nice parks, and the People’s Friendship Arch.  The arch will probably soon been dismantled as Ukraine and Russia are clearly no longer friends.  Our guide was against this as she views it as part of history.  I later saw on the only English-language tv station at the hotel that young people tend to want Soviet history to stay while older people (who actually remember Soviet times) want these types of monuments gone.  It does sound like a lot of them have been dismantled in recent years.  By the end of that tour my feet were really hurting; I guess two tours in a day wasn’t the greatest idea!


Memorial to some of those who died in 2014


People’s Arch of Friendship


When I got back to the hotel I found that my feet were even more blistered.  My stomach hurt a bit and so did my head; the concert going on in the maidan certainly didn’t help.  Needless to say, I didn’t really do anything that evening.

August 26: To Kiev via Paris

Posted in Flying, Kiev, Paris, Travel, Ukraine, Vacation with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2016 by Amanda

Taxiing literally took at least twenty minutes in Paris.  Luckily, getting through security et cetera didn’t all that long as I didn’t have tons of time between flights.  Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if it took a while as we sat for quite a while after boarding waiting for  a large group of children to arrive.   There was a sign at the gate listing the languages spoken by the flight attendants: French, English, German, Spanish and Italian.  It seemed really strange to me that they wouldn’t have Ukrainian and Russian speakers working on the flight.

The airport in Kiev was really quiet.  It didn’t look like any other flights arrived anywhere near the same time as my flight.  After realizing that I had to use one of the “UA and EU Citizens” lines as the only other option was “Crew/Diplomats,” it took no time at all to get through immigration as the lines were pretty much non-existent in length.  The only thing the guy said to me was “Welcome to Ukraine.”  As usual, when immigration is quick my bag ends up being one of the last off the plane.  I’d arranged for an English-speaking driver to meet me but he was nowhere to be found.  So, I went to the taxi booth and the woman thankfully spoke excellent English and actually brought me right to a taxi which ended up being the only one I used that had a metre during my trip.  The driver didn’t speak any English but I ended up at my hotel without incident.

My first impressions of Kiev were not all that favourable.  There were a lot of very empty gas stations not far from the airport and after that there were some rather third world-looking apartment buildings albeit with nice murals on the side.  But as we crossed the river, everything suddenly looked so much better.  At that point, I started seeing gold-domed churches and it there were a surprisingly number of trees.

My hotel was right on the maidan (the central square) which was convenient.  I later learned that convenience came at a price (too much noise).  After a short break, I went on a walk in the area surrounding the hotel.  There were some English signs but there didn’t seem to be many tourists at all though there were an incredible of places to exchange money.


The Maidan


The other direction

August 25: Minneapolis

Posted in Flying, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Travel, Vacation with tags , , , , on October 25, 2016 by Amanda

A mere two months after leaving on my last vacation, I’m finally getting around to writing about it. Sorry!

I left Saskatoon for Minneapolis before 6 am and didn’t leave for my next flight until late afternoon so I had pretty much a whole day to explore Minneapolis. The train from the airport to downtown was cheap and easy to use. I was able to fill the day easily enough but I don’t think I’d plan a whole vacation to Minneapolis. The river area was particularly nice and there as a nice small waterfall there. Unfortunately, I ended up with some blisters. I seem not to walk far at all these days without getting them!


When I got back to the airport, security was dead. It was quieter than Saskatoon had been which was really surprising. The flight was pretty full but I did end up with an empty seat beside me. There was an emergency relatively early in the flight and the people seated near me were convinced we’d make an emergency landing but luckily we didn’t. I’ve been on a bunch of flights that had medical emergencies and we’ve never made an emergency landing; I’m thinking that happens quite rarely. Otherwise, it was an uneventful flight.