Day 52: 10/05/19
Location: Kiev – Krasnyi Rih, Ukraine
Miles driven: 36
Waking up in our hostel, three remarkable things had happened. Firstly, we had spent the night in a 8 person dorm where nobody snored; secondly, everyone in our dorm was up and ready to face the day by 8:30am; and thirdly, the sun was shining. As we left the dorm, a guy came in, not having been there all night, sat on top of his bed and immediately fell asleep – fully clothed and shoes still on. So it wasn’t a completely abnormal hostel after all.
We found a free walking tour around the city and spent a leisurely few hours walking around being told about Kiev’s history. Kiev has many monuments, and our tour guide informed us that the Ukrainian’s like very few of them, always able to pick out a fault or two: the man on the horse was too small, the angel was black when he should be white, another man was facing the wrong way (towards Russia). They did however like the modern artwork, a statue of a hedgehog, and cats. We were shown many different ways in which the Ukrainian’s make wishes at several different places in the city. Questioning their effectiveness if they needed so many different ways to do this, we nonetheless followed suit and wished for the sunny weather to continue. We also walked to ‘The Landscape Garden’: an area of land that was going to be turned into a shopping centre and car parks. The locals were opposed to this so they clubbed together and built a one of a kind, gaudi-esque children’s play park there instead.
Our tour was longer than we had expected, and we were pretty hungry by the time it finished. We followed the instructions of our guide book and went to the ‘unmissable Kiev eating experience’: a small window in a wall from which women served out hot dogs cooked inside donut batter – Ukraine’s version of a sausage roll, kind of.
We finished our day in Kiev walking down its oldest street, Andriyivskyy Descent, back to our hostel. The hostel was fully booked over the weekend, so we headed to a wild camping spot outside of the city with the intention to return Sunday afternoon and check back in.
Day 55: 13/05/19
Location: Chernobyl & Pripyat, Ukraine
Prior to leaving the UK, Chernobyl was already on our bucket list. Leaving the hostel at 7:15 in the morning, we, with another person from the hostel (Alan), got a taxi to the meeting point in Kiev. From there we were put into a group of 12 and loaded onto a small bus for the two hour drive to the exclusion zone.
During the journey they played a video about the nuclear disaster. As one can only imagine, there are many layers to this horrific story, and much controversy. I will try to summarise as briefly as possible… In the early hours of the 26th April 1986, one of the nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded during a safety test. There was a huge fire which was not contained until the 4th May. The first firemen respond to the fire were all exposed to lethal doses of radiation and died within days of the event. The explosion resulted in masses of radiation being spread not just across the nearby area, but far across Europe, the effects of which are still prevalent today. This was kept quiet by the Soviet government: the closest city, Pripyat was not evacuated until the afternoon of the following day (27th April), and the residents were told that they would be back in a few days (the city is still uninhabitable due to the radiation). The accident was not announced to the world by the Soviet government until the 28th April, after the Swedish government had noticed an abnormal increased level in radiation in the air over Sweden and made enquiries.
Following the accident, over 500,000 workmen (named the “liquidators”) worked to reduce the levels of radiation: many wearing little protection and exposed to far higher levels of radiation than they were told about. The reactor was encased in a concrete shelter (called the “sarcophagus”) to prevent the radiation from spreading – a fairly short term solution that was completed in December 1986. Another shelter (named the “New Safe Confinement”) was put in place over the old “sarcophagus” only recently in October 2017, which is meant to confine the radiation, still leaking from the reactor, for the next 65 years. This also has robots inside it that are being used to dismantle the old reactor and dispose of it safely. The official death toll figure from the Soviet government was (and remains) at just 31. The actual number is unknown and continues to be debated – ranging from thousands to tens of thousands. A 2,600 km² exclusion zone remains in place around the site of the reactor.
When we arrived to the exclusion zone, we met our tour guide for the day (Oxana), signed our lives away to the small print, and were given a device to put around our necks. The device measured the level of radiation we took in throughout the day, and was checked on our return. If we had too much radiation when we got back to the edge of the exclusion zone, we would have to pay for the pleasure of being ‘cleaned’ – exactly what this entailed we did not know. Oxana spoke very fast, and was keen to show us as much as possible in our 6 or so hours we had within the exclusion zone. We were driven around in our little bus, stopping every now and then for photo opportunities, and a few longer stops where we had a walking tour for about an hour before getting back on the bus. A rent-able optional extra was a dosimeter that measured the level of radiation in the air as you walked around. One member of our group had rented this, and Oxana revelled in showing us areas where the radiation was still astronomically high, setting the dosimeter to sound out an alarm.
The tour guides live within the exclusion zone, working and living on a 15 day cycle inside and outside of the exclusion zone. Oxana used the fact that she felt “absolutely fine” after a year of working here to prove that the radiation levels were nothing to worry about. She also told us how the victims of the disaster also claimed they felt absolutely fine until about 24 hours before they died – these two pieces of information were completely unrelated though of course.
We walked around parts of Pripyat. We visited the cinema, the football stadium, the infamous amusement park that was due to be opened on 1st May 1986 (but never opened due to the evacuation), a school, kindergarten building, hospital, hotel, supermarket, and much more. We were also taken to the Duga Radar, a whopping 150 metre high, 700 metre wide radar that was built to detect incoming missiles from America. Just before lunch we were taken to the site of the reactor. After hearing all about how much of the disaster was brushed over or covered up by the authorities at the time, we found it quite amusing that Oxana did not believe that the new safe confinement would last 65 years. We drove through the “red forest”; a forest in which the radiation is still extremely high, and cars have to drive through as quickly as possible without stopping. One of the last stops of the day was the railway line with old trains. Chris and I were slightly sceptical that this had not been used within the last 30 years as it looked in far superior condition than many of the active railways that we had crossed whilst driving through Ukraine.
All in all the day was fascinating, we learned so much about this truely tragic event, but at the same time felt that we had only begin to scratch the surface. Chris was marginally disappointed that we did not get to go inside more buildings. I on the other hand did not share this disappointment, and felt that exposing ourselves to the radiation had been quite enough daring for one day, we did not need to have the risk of unstable 30 year old derelict buildings (full of said radiation) falling on top of us as well. After a lot of looking, listening, and walking, we were exhausted. We handed back our radiation measuring devices and were pleased to find out that none of our group had been exposed to enough radiation to warrant the cleaning process. After a long two hour bus ride back, we were glad to be back in our radiation free bed in the hostel, and had a surprisingly good (nightmare free) night’s sleep.