This is adventure travel

January 14th, 2014 00:04 1 comment

The title of this post is s bit of a play on the phrase “This is Africa” but I’ve done a lot of travel in Africa, and there has been plenty to fix with this trip already, so I feel that it’s appropriate.

When you take part in adventure travel, be that as a solo traveller or on a group trip of what I like to call “organised adventure travel” inevitably something will go wrong. Indeed I have had plenty of examples of that. To name but a few of the memorable ones.

  • In Namibia in 2002 we had to leave our school project a week early due to how uncomfortable we were being made to feel by the officials at the school.
  • Again in Namibia we had to cut our evening plans short one night due to the police getting into a shootout with some people fighting outside the bar we were in.
  • In East Africa in 2009 we missed the final admission to a National Park after a border crossing took longer than expected.
  • Again in East Africa in 2009 our truck broke down half way up a hill meaning we didn’t get to our campsite until after dark and couldn’t take part in our planned canoeing on a lake.
  • In Central America one of our buses took too long to get to its destination and we had to have one of the fastest and scariest taxi rides I’ve ever been on, after a quick bag swap between vehicles, to get to the ferry we had tickets for.
  • While touring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone we ran out of time to meet the resettled residents as we spent so long exploring inside the abandoned buildings which, according to policy within the zone, we weren’t due to go inside anyway.
Fixing Oscar

Our truck being fixed in East Africa – taken from my East Africa blog

Whether you will enjoy adventure travel or not depends on how you take to little mishaps like this. On every trip there tends to be one person who stands out for moaning about everything as they weren’t expecting it, and on some trips there may be more than one. For example.

  • In East Africa in 2009 we had one person who moaned bitterly about the previously mentioned delays even though there was nothing anybody could have done about them. We also had one person who moaned that we didn’t have hot dogs all trip despite the fact we were in Africa and had a beautiful, and large, selection of freshly cooked tasty food each day.
  • In Central America there was one person who every time the smallest thing went wrong felt the need to complain. Apparently the bus ride taking too long was the tour leader’s fault, as was a previous bus getting stuck in traffic in Guatemala City. This person even moaned that our leader was a few minutes late arriving back to the hotel on our last transfer morning despite the fact the leader was grabbing food for the first time in days after feeling ill – during which time all duties were performed to a much higher standard than I could ever hope to achieve. This person even made a point on the last few days of telling everybody she was going to complain which did nothing other than persuade some of us to send compliment to Intrepid about the tour leader in addition to completing the survey form.
  • In Chernobyl there was one member of the group who moaned for 24 hours continuously about missing the resettlers to the point that we all had an argument while out for a group meal as we couldn’t take any more.

However if you are willing to accept that things happen on adventure travel you can have the most amazing time. In Namibia sure the sound of a bunch of gunshots outside were scary but we had just spent a few great hours in a local bar in a town that hardly any westerners had visited in decades so it allowed us to get under the skin of the country in a way we wouldn’t have if we had stayed in our sterile camp within a walled school. In East Africa our food was the best I’ve ever had while travelling, and the delays crossing the border meant that we stopped in a town that wasn’t on our itinerary and ended up playing pool, playing darts and drinking with the locals at a local bar. Some of us also had a chance to hang out with some Park Rangers at the entrance to a National Park for a few hours while the others insisted on going on our pre-planned nature drive even though it meant delays in getting to our next destination.

Then more recently in Central America we got a true taste of the region and if it wasn’t for using public transport we would have been disconnected from the surroundings and missed so much. Central America is a chaotic but vibrant and friendly place which you won’t see as much with private transport. In Chernobyl if we had left Pripyat early to ensure we saw the resettlers we would have had to cut out the last few buildings which we were allowed to explore – and these for me were the most amazing and memorable.

Science Lab

We were allowed to wander around the abandoned buildings in Pripyat, against policy, which allowed us to see and experience so many memorable things. This was far better than a staged meeting with resettled residents.

None of the things that have happened in the past while travelling have put me off the idea of going to weird and wonderful destinations – in fact they have probably persuaded me even more that this is the style of travel that I enjoy. While camping may not be the top of my list of things I want to do right now, and while after Central America I’ll make sure ear plugs are at the top of my packing list, what I want to do with my life is get out there and see the world. I want to get under the skin of the countries I visit and see what they have to offer and I want to discover and experience things that most people I know could even dream of. I also want to do this on the terms of the country I visit rather than acting like a stereotypican western tourist who wants everything the same as back home.

That’s why when I saw a photo of the Myeik Archipelago in Myanmar in an advert on Facebook advertising new trips for 2014 with Intrepid I knew it was something I had to do. Myanmar is a place I’ve wanted to visit for some time and the idea of experiencing a side of the country that nobody else gets to see really appealed to me even though I had never really considered a sailing holiday before. However being an adventure holiday, and a brand new one at that, inevitably things were to go wrong. On this occasion, however, things started going wrong and needing fixing a few months before the start of the trip instead of during it.

The Myanmar sailing trip, when I booked, had two options available. I could either start in Phuket in Thailand and be driven up to the Myanmar border or could start in Yangon and fly to the starting point. Phuket has never really appealed to me, and I wanted to see as much of Myanmar as I could, so I chose the version starting in Yangon. However a few weeks after booking I noticed that it had disappeared from both the Intrepid and Gecko’s website. After contacting them I discovered that this version had been temporarily suspended as a temporary travel warning had been put in force by the Australian government for the town that we would fly to in the south of Myanmar. Being an Australian operation they had to put a hold on the trip following this advice for legal reasons but they recommended I didn’t change my flights yet as there was the possibility that it would be reinstated.

A couple of tense months followed where there was still no news so Gecko’s advised me to change my flights and transferred me onto the trip starting in Phuket. A week or so of heated three-way negotiaton between Gecko’s, myself and STA Travel and I managed to change my flights and managed to persuade Gecko’s that they should pay for the £350 upgrade to my flights needed to make the changes as my original trip was a guaranteed departure but was no longer operating. While I’m upset at how long it took them to make that decision they didn’t have to agree with me so I’m thankful for that. I’m also upset with the service I got from STA when trying to change my flights but that’s the matter of a complaint that’s still pending with their customer relations department so I won’t go into detail about that here – even more so as the complaint was twice as long as this post.

However despite all of these setbacks there was no point getting too stressed about it as there was nothing that could have been done either way. It’s sad that I’ll no longer see Yangon and won’t get to travel on the Circle Train, visit the many beautiful golden temples or see Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, among other things, and it’s sad that my new flights only give me one evening stopover in Hong Kong instead of two full-day ones. However there are benefits to these changes including visiting Thailand as well, the trip being considerably cheaper and now being able to see the Hong Kong skyline at night. I’m sure there will be numerous other mishaps and corresponding benefits by the time I return home but this will still be an amazing trip which I’m really looking forward to.

I still need to receive my reissued flight tickets from STA and need to book some extra hotel nights in Thailand and Hong Kong but I’ll get to these. If I can get through the chaos that the original person at Gecko’s left me in before leaving the company and if I can weave my way through the web of illogical staff and unacceptable customer service to find the one helpful person at STA Travel then I can wait a few more days until I receive my new flight tickets and can book some hotels without any problems.

Route of new trip

This is the route of the new trip I’m doing to Thailand and Myanmar.

Even though this has been a long post I guess what I’m trying to get at is, for those of you that are reading my blog to try to decide whether adventure travel is the right thing for you or not, I would say that by the time you get this far in the post you’ll already know. You’ll already know whether you’re the sort of person that thinks it’s the end of the world when your bus stops for traffic lights or whether you can’t go 24 hours without hot dogs for example. You’ll also already know whether the things I have mentioned in this post would make you panic, feel scared and never want to leave the house again or whether you see them as getting under the skin of a country and all part of the fun of travel.

Adventure travel, be it solo or in organised groups like the ones I go on, can be incredibly rewarding if you are ready for it. You get to see so much more of the world than most people and have some of the most amazing experiences and memories that will stay with you for the rest of your life. I would say if it’s something you want to do, and don’t think you’ll be that one person on the trip that moans about every small detail with the aim of ruining everybody elses’s trip, then go for it. Otherwise you may as well just lay by the pool in an all-inclusive gated community in the Benidorm for a week and never experience anything that this amazing planet and it’s people have to offer.

Sunset over the Kazinga Channel

Without adventure travel you wouldn’t see amazing scenes like this…

Playing Football

…or have great memories like our own England vs Namibia football match in a town that only a handful of westerners have visited in the last few decades….

Team Breakaway

…or meet amazing people like this who you keep in contact with for years and still consider to be friends even though you live on opposite sides of the world and only rarely see them, if at all, after the trip ends.

It has been a tubulent few months since booking the sailing trip to Myanmar but I’m confident that I’ll see some amazing scenes, have life-long experiences and make new friends. In 2-3 months expect some great photos and a new blog of my experiences. I fly out on February 27th and return on March 12th.

Share
 

Myanmar Sailing 2014

October 19th, 2013 22:06 No comments

I tend to get very distracted by special offers when travelling in order to maximise everything I see. In 2010 North Korea shot to the top of my list when I spotted some special offers on flights and accomodation and the same happened in 2012 with Central America. Both were on my list but not at the top before the time I booked.

This year it seems is no different. I’ve been looking at Myanmar (aka Burma) as a holiday destination for some time as it’s a country that has a lot of history, that I’ve heard a lot about, and that just looks spectacular. However it has never been at the very top due to the cost of trips there and there still being places on my must see list that I added 10 years ago. However last week I spotted a special offer on a trip to the country and when I discovered a special offer on flights I decided the time was right.

So I’ve booked a trip to Myanmar for March 2014. The trip stars in Yangon (aka Rangoon) for a couple of nights before flying down to Kawthoung which is a small fishing town in the far south of the country on the border with Thailand. From here we board a catamaran for a week of sailing around the remote and largely uninhabited Myeik Archipelago before returning to Yangon where the tour finishes.

There was a cheaper option to start the trip in Phuket, Thailand, before travelling up to the Myanmar border but I didn’t want to spend a week in the country without seeing it so decided to take the option to start in Yangon. This also had the added benefit of flights via Hong Kong with stopovers in each direction that are long enough to allow me to escape into the city for 5-6 hours.

So there you have it – in 5 months or so expect some great photos of some beautiful scenery and a report of what looks like a fascinating country. If you want to see some photos from the archipelago click here to go a Google image search.

2014 Myanmar tour map

The route I’ll be taking on the trip. Map taken from a different tour company to the one I’m using but it’s the same trip.

Share
 

My Chernobyl Blog is online

September 1st, 2013 23:15 No comments

I’m happy to post that my blog from my recent trip to Ukraine to visit Kiev and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Zone that I took with Regent Holidays is finally online.

This blog is taken straight from my notes that were written while in the country but took a while to type up due to how many photos I needed to sort through and due to how busy I’ve been at work.

I found the trip to be hugely worthwhile – not only because it was a unique destination but because of how much I saw and learned on the trip. I took some amazing photos, met some amazing photos and just learned so much more than I ever thought I would.

The trip blew my mind because it destroyed all my perceptions of the area. As mentioned in my last daily post of the blog for this trip I expected the trip to all be about death and destruction but it’s actually all about life. The trip showed me how the point of a trip is to learn about the disaster but also about how nature can reclaim whatever we do to it and I found this very powerful and humbling.

This post is mainly for the benefit of my Facebook link app, and search engines, and so to make sure they all link up here is a photo from the trip plus a list of the things we saw.

Me at Chernobyl

Me at the new Sarcophagus that is being built at Chernobyl

Some of the sights we saw during our trip to Kiev and Chernobyl are:

  • Kiev
  • Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
  • Pripyat
  • Nature
  • Store
  • Schools
  • Leisure Centre
  • Swimming Pool
  • Sports Stadium
  • Inside the buildings
  • USSR
  • Radiactive Hotspot
  • Hospital
  • AK-47
  • Shooting Range
  • Cathedral
  • Cave Monastery
  • Khreschatyk
  • Funicular
  • War Museum
  • Soldiers

I tend to find that blogs are incredibly useful when planning a trip so that I can find out what it’s truly like to visit an area. Hopefully you’ll have found this blog useful – feel free to send me any questions you may have about a trip to Chernobyl or feel free to just send me a message to say hi. I don’t write these blogs for recognition or credit I write them for my own records and to help people but it would still be good to hear from you!

To view all of the blog entries from this trip in date order please click here.

To contact me please click here.

Share
 

Back home from Chernobyl

June 22nd, 2013 21:29 No comments

I’m back home from my short but amazing trip to Ukraine to see Kiev and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This isn’t the sort of trip that I usually go on as it was mostly all planned in advance but as I said at the start of the blog I like exploring the unknown places around the world that you can’t see anywhere else. Chernobyl is one of a kind and certainly something you can only do here.

I won’t spend any time trying to persuade you that it’s a place you should go as most of you will probably have a good idea whether it’s a place for you before you even visited my blog but will have been looking for further information and photos to cement this yes or no view into your mind. I found it to be worthwhile to get away from the usual tourist trap trail (except for Kiev of course) and see something unique but it’s certainly not for everybody. There were a lot of rules in place, such as not being allowed out of the hotel in Chernobyl at night, but like my trip to North Korea a few years ago if you don’t mind following the strict rules and want to go somewhere to learn something then it is worthwhile.

Chernobyl Sign

This was part of the Chernobyl Town Sign

Dosimeter

This is the maximum radiation level that we detected – not in dangerous levels just above normal.

People tend to think that a visit to Chernobyl is all about death and destruction. Sure a lot of destruction happened, and some people did die, but after visiting I found it all to be about life. The life of the locals, the events that happened and even the life that has returned to the area in the form of workers and reclamation of Pripyat by nature. I already knew that I wanted to visit but was still in awe and surprise when I finally arrived.

Now on to my planning for my next trip. I’m hoping to visit Central Asia next year as I’ve been looking to go there for a while. There are a couple of trips in the Uzbekistan / Kazakhstan / Kyrgyzstan area that I noticed in the past 12 months but I couldn’t afford them which is why I chose Chernobyl. They say everything happens for a reason and I’m glad I made this choice as I had a great time.

Share
 

Visiting a Kiev Shooting Range

June 21st, 2013 23:24 No comments

One thing I discovered online while researching things to do on the final spare day in Kiev is the possibility to visit a shooting range outside of the city. I’m far from being a gun enthusiast, and in fact I’m proud that I live in a country where people don’t have access to guns, but I’m the sort of person that likes to experience everything. So when a couple of other people in the group said that they were interested in visiting the range we decided it would be an experience.

It took some time to organise the trip to the shooting range. Before going to Chernobyl a few days ago we tried to book but couldn’t get through to them on the phone. The concierge at the hotel offered to try for us again and book while we were in Chernobyl but when we returned we found they hadn’t booked it – all they had done was call to find prices for us. So we called them back again and it seems we interrupted the guy when he was “busy” with a woman and were asked to call back later. When we finally managed to get through to him we arranged to be picked up from the hotel after breakfast.

The trip out to the range only took half an hour or so and we spent most of the time talking about the last couple of days exploring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The minibus we had was a luxury executive seater which would have been great to have over the last couple of days. I think the general consensus between the group, except for the disagreement yesterday, is that the discomfort of the minibus was the only bad point of our visit.

On the minibus

On the minibus to the shooting range

When we arrived at the shooting range there was a short delay while the group ahead of us finished their turn on the range. It seems that the range isn’t just used by amateurs as it was being used by bank security guards. We took the time to sit and relax while confirming which weapons we were interested in firing. We had booked AK-47, Dragunov Sniper Rifle and Shotgun but decided to swap the shotgun for a pistol and we found out the Dragunov was unavailable so would be swapped for an M4 Assault Rifle. This change wasn’t too much of an issue for any of us as the main thing we were interested in was the AK-47.

We spent maybe an hour or so firing the various weapons. During my time on the M-4 it kept jamming so we it was swapped out for an M-16 which was fine by me as it meant I was able to try out more guns for the same price. A few of us decided to pay a little extra to take a turn on the pump-action shotgun anyway though as we were given the option to have 10 shots on any other weapon for a set price. I have to say it was a little scary how big the adrenaline surge that the shotgun gave us was – all of us found it the same and were rather jumpy at the end of our 10 shots. I am glad I chose to have a turn on it but I don’t hope to be using one again any time soon!

AK-47

One of our group with an AK-47

AK-47 impact

An AK-47 hitting the end of the range

Pistol time

Pistol time

M-4

Next was an M-4

M-16

Then it was on to an M-16

Shotgun

Finally it was a shotgun

AK-47 target

Apparently my AK-47 shooting is rather accurate!

On the way back the minibus driver dropped us in the city so we could have lunch and stock up on souvenirs (or ‘tat’ as most of the group had started to call it). We decided that the area around St Andrew’s Church would be a good place to start as we saw loads of souvenir stands there the other day and it was close to the old town that we also wanted to visit.

We spent some time checking out all of the souvenir stalls before slowly making our way down towards the old town. The road down the hill was still lined with stalls but the majority of the better ones were up the top where we started. We were all starting to get pretty hungry by this point so decided to grab something to eat at a restaurant half way down the hill which had a nice terrace overlooking the street. A bit stereotypical but I decided to have Chicken Kiev and while it was very different to what we have back in The UK it was really nice.

Souvenirs

Lots of souvenirs were available

Walking around Kiev

Walking towards the old town

Chicken Kiev

Eating Chicken Kiev

Lunch time

Looking out from the restaurant

When we got to the bottom of the hill we spent a little time exploring the old town but it was starting to get a little late in the afternoon so we made our way towards the Funicular that travels from the old town up to the top of the hill. We spent a long time trying to find it as it was further away than we thought but a couple of locals helped point us in the right direction. It’s right on the main road though so if you plan to use this to get back to the city centre just head up the hill out of the old town along the main road and it’s on your right you can’t miss it.

The views from the Funicular weren’t as spectacular as we hoped as the trees were in the way but it was incredibly cheap (the equivalent of 15p) and took us back up to the back of St Michael’s in no time. We relaxed up in the park taking photos for a little while before deciding to head back to the hotel ready for our night on the town. There were 5 of us so it would have been too many for one taxi so I decided to make my own way back on foot as I was in the mood for exploring on my own anyway.

Old Kiev

The Old Town

The Funicular

The entrance to the Funicular

Kiev Funicular

This is the Funicular in Kiev

I said my goodbyes to the group and made my way back to the hotel via St Sofia’s Cathedral and then some of the back roads that ran parallel to the Khreshchatyk street to get a sense of what Kiev is like away from the main roads that tourists use. I took some great photos along the way and eventually got back to regular surroundings in the vicinity of the Lenin statue.

Statue in Kiev

Walking back to the hotel

Kiev Independence Square

Independence Square

Walking around Kiev

Khreschatyk Street is the main street in Kiev

Time for a quick refresh in my room before meeting the others down in the hotel bar. We had found a Ukraininan restaurant down the road from the hotel that served traditional foods with live music and homemade drinks so decided this would be a great place for a final group meal. We were right in some aspects, but how wrong we were in others.

This is a view of the Hotel Rus

Our hotel

Hotel Rus

The hotel bar / restaurant outside on the terrace

The restaurant, called Shinok, had a great atmosphere. We were greeted with homemade flavoured vodka when we arrived before being shown to our seats. There was a live folk band playing in the room next door which helped the atmosphere and the staff were really friendly. We couldn’t decide what to have as a starter so the waiter persuaded us to try some sharing plates in the centre of the table. The sharers were really nice, as was my veal main course, but we had a nasty surprise when the bill arrived. What we didn’t realise was how expensive the sharers or homemade drinks we were served at regular intervals were and several of us didn’t have enough money to cover our share. Luckily between us we had enough, and I had just enough to cover everything, but it meant that we had to walk the 2km back to the hotel. It provided a great chance to see more of the city and get away from a couple of people who kicked up over the price of the meal plus a few other things.

Music Time

Entertainment at the final meal

Dinner Time

Dinner for me. It was yummy :)

Kiev by night

Kiev by night from my room

I’m back in my room now and have just finished packing for the flight back to London tomorrow. We need to leave fairly early so I’m not able to do my usual last minute panic packing that tends to happen every time. Sometimes I even surprise myself!

Share
 

Exploring Pripyat

June 20th, 2013 23:14 No comments

Before heading to breakfast this morning there was time to pet the hotel cat while waiting for our guide and minibus to arrive from outside the zone. He seemed to love the company so I guess there aren’t many visitors to the hotel although from the feel of various cuts and lumps that we noticed while petting him he didn’t seem too well which was a shame.

Breakfast was two courses and you’ll never guess what the first one consisted of. That’s right… cucumber! The second course was just as unusual and consisted of cold pasta, a cold fried egg and a lukewarm burger but I guess it’s part of the whole Chernobyl experience even though I hate cucumber. There was some paperwork that needed taking care of so we relaxed for a bit outside the canteen before making our way further into the zone.

Cat :)

The Chernobyl Hotel resident cat

Breakfast at Chernobyl

Breakfast in the canteen

There are several checkpoints within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The first is at the outer perimeter which is 30km away from the plant itself and is where you have all your permits checked before being allowed on to Chernobyl town where our hotel is. The outer perimeter is also where the most sensitive scanners are that make sure you aren’t radioactive upon leaving the zone. The next checkpoint is 10km away from the plant and while the scanners aren’t as sensitive on the way out you need extra permission to enter this part of the zone and resettlement is totally prohibited. There is one final checkpoint that you must pass before entering the abandoned city of Pripyat and it was here where we spent most of today.

Our first stop was in what was one of the squares within Pripyat which is now completely overgrown to the point that you can’t even see the road or lamp posts around the edge until you’re right next to them. Around the square were military dorms and you couldn’t see those until you were right next to them either but when we arrived at the main door we were surprised by our guide by being told that we would be allowed inside the buildings at Pripyat if we wanted to. Of course we all accepted but I’m guessing as we signed papers to say we weren’t allowed in, and we were told yesterday that entry into the buildings of Pripyat was prohibited, then while officially it’s only discouraged to enter the buildings if anything did happen and we got injured then it would be our own fault.

Lenin

Lenin inside the dorn

Military bath

A bath inside the military dorm

Changing room

Changing room inside the military dorm

Walking around Pripyat

Walking around Pripyat

We spent some time walking around the first floor of the military dorms and it was a very eerie sensation considering we were the only people there but 30 years ago there would have been hundreds of people at any one time. All of the bedrooms were empty, except for a few small items such as brushes and a chair, although the shower rooms still had baths and all of the fixtures. The highlight of this particular building was finding a room which had a portrait of Lenin on the wall which was at one point a meeting room. There wasn’t as much to see here compared to other buildings later in the day but all of us on this trip are keen photographers so we still spent quite a lot of time taking photos – not so much of the ruined state of the buildings but about how life just stopped and moved on one day.

Walking down the road from the dorms we passed a few apartment buildings and stores before arriving at the Pripyat Hospital. We weren’t allowed too far into the building as it was fairly dangerous according to our guide but we were able to walk around long enough to find the doctor on call list, a couple of ward rooms and an examination suite that had the remains of X-ray machines among other things. I got the feeling very early on that one day exploring Pripyat would not be enough as I could easily have spent an hour or so exploring the hospital.

Pripyat Hospital

The notice board at the hospital in Pripyat

Pripyat Hospital

Walking around the hospital

Medical equipment

Medial equipment inside the hospital

Pripyat Hospital

A chair and gas tank surrounded by debris

After the hospital we spent some time exploring the Pripyat River Port before walking down the road to another square which was hardly recognisable with all of the trees that have taken hold since the disaster. Pripyat was a planned city and was made up of several districts all around the main parade ground – each district had a square, stores, recreation areas, a school and a square but as we found out while walking around the city only the bigger buildings have survived so far and some of them are in bad shape as we found out in this square. One of the buildings that we saw was a concert hall and we were able to enter as far as the main auditorium where there were seats, or what was left of them, and a stage which still had the original piano on it. The stage itself was in very bad shape and we were a little foolish to walk across it but we got some great photos.

Vending Machines

Water Vending Machines at the River Port

Me in Pripyat

Me at the Pripyat River Port

Waiting area

The waiting area at the River Port

An overgrown square

This used to be a big open square

Pripyat theatre

The outside of a theatre in Pripyat

Pripyat Theatre

On stage in the theatre

We walked past a secondary school that had collapsed in the middle, allowing us to see into the classrooms on the top floor, before making our way around to the main parade ground in Pripyat. This is an area that you see in many photos and contains a hotel, the offices of the atomic energy department, a theatre, supermarket, restaurant and more. It was the only square that was still recognisable as it was so big in its day that trees haven’t had a chance to reclaim it yet. While in the square our guide showed us a photo of the main road leaving the square, Lenin Street, which was once four lanes wide and is now unrecognisable as a road.

Collapsed school

A doorway in the collapsed school

A collapsed school

A collapsed school

The hotel was the first place we explored around the square. It had been stripped pretty completely but you could still make out the reception area, restaurant and store rooms. We didn’t spend much time here as there wasn’t much to see so we headed straight along the square to the supermarket. It wasn’t safe to go upstairs but we spent some time exploring the ground floor of the building which still contained all of the original refrigeration units along with shopping trolleys. At the far side of the ground floor loads of beds had been set out which looked confusing but our guide explained these were available on the first floor of the supermarket but that after the disaster looters had moved them downstairs to use the area as a base for stealing what they could find.

Abandoned hotel in Pripyat

The main square in Pripyat had a big hotel

Abandoned hotel

Inside the hotel

Before...

Lenin Street before the disaster

.... and after

Lenin Street now

Supermarket in Pripyat

Inside the Supermarket

We entered the backstage area of the theatre and saw some materials which were being prepared for the May Day parade that year. One of the most striking stories to come from the disaster is how while the area near Chernobyl was being evacuated the rest of the Soviet Union just got in with their business. It was 36 hours after the disaster before the Soviets admitted there was a problem and started evacuating citizens near the zone but even while they were doing this they denied the disaster was serious – it was only when the radiation was detected in Sweden that they even acknowledged to the outside world anything had happened. During the time the citizens were being evacuated, and being exposed to huge levels of radiation, just up the road in Kiev the May Day parade happened as planned even though they were close enough to get exposed to unsafe levels of radiation.

After leaving the square we had a chance to explore the famous theme park which was due to open the day after Pripyat was evacuated. Most of the articles about Pripyat that I have read featured photos of the theme park and I was excited to finally see it. In the park there were several rides, a Ferris Wheel and a dodgem arena. We spent maybe 20 minutes exploring the area and it was great to wander around in a nice open space which was still clear of trees… although by now the temperature had risen above comfortable temperatures so while the main photo savvy people in our group finished taking photos of the Ferris Wheel I hid in the shade of the ticket office. I was very impressed with the time we spent in the theme park, however, but we would soon be lead to another entertainment facility that was even grander.

Pripyat Fairground

The famous Ferris Wheel

Dodgem time

Abandoned Dodgems!

The Pripyat Stadium was just around the corner from the Theme Park but once again you couldn’t see it for trees. Our guide told us all about the stadium and how it was used to train athletes, in addition to holding meetings of its own, but it was only when we reached the stands that we realised we had walked through a collapsed section of the stands and across the field without noticing. Our guide said we would have 5-10 minutes to explore the area so I decided to walk into the building to get a sense of the original enormity of the site by walking up to the top level of the stands before emerging to look over the field. It took some time to find my way – I got lost a few times, found the toilets, motor room, several long corridors, the commentary boxes and then had to climb over a wall but eventually I found my way to the back of the seating area where at one point thousands of people would have sat to watch sports.

The sports field was so unrecognisable even when sitting down for a few minutes taking in the view but it was at this point when I realised how a trip to Pripyat isn’t about death it’s about life. We were visiting places that once thrived and were crawling with people and even though the human population has moved on the earth is still thriving. There are trees where 30 years ago there was a big open space and even though we didn’t see any wildlife there are loads of animals in the area including wild horses and wolves. I have witnessed the power of nature on several occasions – I have seen an avalanche, skied over the remains of another even larger avalanche, felt a magnitude 6 earthquake, seen a tornado and I also happened to fly over Iran a few years ago when they had those bad nationwide floods but all of those were about what the power of nature can do to us. A visit to Pripyat is the reverse and shows you that no matter what we try to do to the planet, and no matter how important you think human life is to the planet, things seem to work better without us. Of course I had known this for years but it’s very humbling when that reality hits you in a situation like this.

Pripyat Stadium

This is a view of the Pripyat Stadium grounds

Pripyat Stadium

The stands at Pripyat Stadium

Pripyat Stadium stands

Looking out over the track and field

Relaxing at Pripyat Stadium

Relaxing in Pripyat at the stadium. Disclaimer – do not sit down in Pripyat it is against the advisory notice.

I was sad to leave the stadium as we met up with our minibus and I thought that the trip was over but we were told there were still a couple more sights to see. The first was one which I had looked forward to since seeing photos of the first Regent trip here a few years ago – the sports centre that included the main swimming pool. We spent some time exploring the area although we had to stick together and be quiet and I got the feeling that this was one building we definitely weren’t supposed to be in. In addition to the swimming pool area we saw a motor room, basketball court and gymnastics arena but the batteries in my camera ran out at this point so I wasn’t able to get too many photos.

Swimming Pool

The famous abandoned swimming pool

Basketball Court

The leisure centre also had a Basketball court

After returning to the minibus and putting new batteries in my camera we were taken to what ended up being by far the highlight of my visit to Pripyat – the secondary school that you see in many photos of the area that has a huge pile of gas masks in one of the rooms. Our guide showed us up to the first floor before giving us 15 minutes to explore at our leisure as long as we stayed on that floor. What made it the highlight for me is how most things there had been left exactly as they were before the city was evacuated. The hotel had been stripped, the dorms had been completely emptied and the supermarket had been looted but the school was still full of items. The entire corridor was littered with books where they had been tipped off the shelves by the decontamination team but walking around the rooms I discovered geometry text books, paintings that students had created, postcards, a model of The Kremlin and even a science room still with experiments out on the table and test questions written up on the board. I genuinely believe that I could have spent half a day exploring this building so it’s a shame we didn’t have an extra day in the zone to be able to take in things at our own pace.

The Kremlin

A model of The Kremlin

Geometry time

A Geometry text book

Science Lab

A science classroom at the abandoned school

Abandoned corridor

A corridor in the abandoned school

Painting

I wonder what the teen who painted this is doing now!

School dinners anybody?

A very old looking cooker in the school kitchen

After meeting back up with the rest of the group again we were shown town to the ground floor where the kitchens still had plates in the sinks, there were bike wheels in vices where they were being repaired and even the huge pile of gas masks which I mentioned previously. We asked our guide about these and she said these were all made available for the children but they evacuated Pripyat in such a hurry once the order was given that they were never used.

Our final stop in Pripyat was the old Bus Station where workers at the plant, and residents at the city, would have been able to board buses to Kiev and other towns / cities in the region. We only spent 5 minutes here but we took some great photos, including the below photo of me in the ticket office, and I also now finally know what the mechanics of a locker look like due to one of them being broken open.

Me at the bus station

Me in the ticket office or Pripyat Bus Station

The time had finally come to leave Pripyat and head back towards Kiev. There would be a chance to stop for one final late lunch at the canteen first but unfortunately we were told that we would be unable to visit the resettlers houses inside the zone as we had taken too long in Pripyat. This was a shame as it would have been nice to see the residents who have come back to the exclusion zone to live but it would have been a set up meeting so I not sorry about missing that opportunity to be able to explore the building which, officially, are completely off limits. We would have missed so much by not exploring the buildings that seeing the resettlers would not have made up for.

Cucumber... again

Two different types of cucumber to start lunch

Main Course time

Main course… it was mainly barley!

After passing the first radiation checkpoint and making our way back to Chernobyl town we had lunch which consisted of two courses. The first one, you guessed it, had cucumber in it but this time not just one type of cucumber it had two – sliced cucumber with cucumber fritters. The second course was much more pleasant as you can see from the photos below, however it was soon time to leave the zone for good. We made our way back out the main road, were scanned again at the outer checkpoint, before saying goodbye to our guide. She was an amazing guide and showed us far more of Pripyat than I ever hoped to see so I’m incredibly pleased with her service.

When we arrived back in Kiev it was already early evening so after checking into our rooms and having a well-earned shower we met in the hotel bar to discuss dinner plans. The unanimous decision was to go back to the Bavarian restaurant from the other night as those of us that went had been talking about it so much the others wanted to try it.

Over dinner there was a little bit of a disagreement with one of the group in relation to missing the resetllers. I agree with that it would have been nice to have seen them but on any trip that’s into the unknown you can’t expect things to go exactly to plan. Our plan, according to the brochure, said that we weren’t going to be able to go into the buildings and even missing out the resettlers the trip still went more to plan than any trip to Africa that I have done. The disagreement didn’t spoil dinner, however, and I’m glad we came back here. I highly recommend the restaurant to anybody that visits Kiev. I can’t remember the name of the street but once again if you go along Khreshchatyk Street from the Lenin statue in the direction of Independence Square you’ll come across the political protest tents on the left. Go past those and it’s the first road on the left where the tents end, a few doors up just past the bar.

Back in Kiev

Back in Kiev

The night finished with watching a pyromaniac display with the group, before exploring on my own again for a little bit, but I’m now back in my room and completely exhausted. I have a feeling that I will sleep well tonight after what has been a very long and exhausting but extremely worthwhile couple of days visiting Chernobyl. We still have one more day left and have arranged to start it by visiting a shooting range which should prove very interesting!

Share
 

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

June 19th, 2013 22:18 No comments

I rose fairly early today to make sure I was ready for our departure to Chernobyl. One of my bad habits when travelling on a trip where I use my normal suitcase rather than my 65 litre rucksack is that I still live out of the bag – and since it only has one compartment everything gets messed up and whatever packing system I had in place fails and I can never find anything. This doesn’t happen when I overland and use my rucksack but meant that this morning I had to repack everything so that it would be where I needed it to be when we arrived at the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Luckily there was still time for a quick breakfast before it was time to meet the group in the lobby.

After leaving our hotel we made a quick stop at the offices of Regent’s local partner so that they could check our documents and tell us the rules for the next couple of days. The rules were simple – wear long sleeves, follow the instructions of the guide and don’t leave the hotel without an escort or you’ll be arrested by the military. That last rule may sound harsh but it’s for your own safety – there are still a few hotspots around in the area and probably a few things we’re not allowed to see. Although as we found out by the end of the day there’s not much to do after hours in the zone anyway!

Then it was back into the minibus for the two hour trip to the zone. The minibus we have for the Chernobyl portion of our trip is smaller than the one we had yesterday, which meant it was a bit cramped on the journey from Kiev, but the rest of the day was fine as there were plenty of opportunities to get out and stretch our legs. During the journey we watched a Discovery Channel documentary about the Chernobyl disaster which helped to pass the time and gave us some interesting facts about the disaster and the recovery process. One fact which stuck in my mind particularly is that reservists were drafted in from all over the Soviet Union to help with the cleanup process. They were required to make their own radiation suits and to manually throw radioactive material from the top of the Reactor 3 / 4 complex as the robots they planned to use kept failing. The reservists could only spend a maximum of a minute doing so before being sent home after receiving a dose of radiation as large as most people will receive during their entire life! I guess we should all be very thankful for the bravery they showed helping to clean up – once the Soviet Union admitted there was a problem.

Arriving at the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Arriving at the exclusion zone

After arriving at the zone we were greeted by our guide from the Ministry of Emergencies who would be with us for the entire time in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. We also had to have our passports checked by the military to ensure that our documents matched what was on our permit before we would be allowed into the zone. The whole process was smoother than I thought it would be, although I’m usually pleasantly surprised how smooth things go in places you would expect delays. A few years ago in North Korea we took less time to go through passport control than I have done when returning to the UK on occasions for example. Although back to Chernobyl one thing that did make us all laugh was the sight of one of the soldiers guarding the entrance to the zone wearing a Greenpeace sponsored “Hard Rock Cafe : Chernobyl” T-Shirt. We saw them back in the hotel in Kiev and I might have to buy one in a couple of days when we’re back.

We were due to drop our bags at the hotel and have lunch before heading further into the zone but we were early enough to be able to explore some sights on the way. I use the term sights loosely as Chernobyl is far from being a tourist destination – this is a real disaster zone as you’ll see from my photos but it’s a place that I felt I had to visit to see the struggle of man vs physics vs man vs nature. The Chernobyl disaster is something that will live on in the history of the planet for eternity and as mentioned previously in this blog it’s a place that I just felt I had to visit.

The first place we stopped was what looked like a small hamlet but our guide informed us that it was once home to several thousand people and that the track we were walking down was once a main road. You can’t tell this from how much nature has reclaimed the area and maybe this was a good place to be introduced to the zone – to see how powerful the reclamation of the zone by nature has been. We were allowed into the buildings to look around which was a pleasant surprise for us as we thought that entry to the buildings had been recently prohibited, although it was explained that it’s only in the city of Pripyat where people are officially not allowed into the buildings anymore due to an accident that happened the year before. Some of the buildings we explored included a shop and several houses an it was so moving to be able to walk around and imagine how life must have been for people living there 30 years ago. In the back room of the shop the toilet was still there and in one of the houses there was even still a bed.

Abandoned house

Inside an abandoned house

Abandoned store

An abandoned store in the zone

Inside an abandoned store

Inside the abandoned store

There was so much to fit in we weren’t able to spend as much time in the first town as we could have but it was soon on to our next stop – the War Memorial. In every town in Ukraine it’s traditional to have a war memorial to those who have fallen in battle and Chernobyl is no different. The monument was erected during the years before Chernobyl to commemorate those lost during World War 2 and it has been carefully tended to ever since, even during the clean up process after the disaster.

After the war memorial our guide lead us down an overgrown dirt track, which it turns out used to be a two lane road, towards what she said would be a special sight. What we saw was our first example of how nature has reclaimed the area since the Chernobyl disaster as it wasn’t until we were just outside the building that we saw the massive “Palace of Culture” building that would have been a prominent feature of the town in Soviet times. The Palace of Culture was a feature of many towns at the time of the disaster and was usually a large hall where people could take part in recreational activities as well as feel like a good Soviet. It was an impressive building to walk around – the stage area was still intact although many of the floor boards had long since been taken due to safety concerns.

War Memorial

Chernobyl Town War Memorial

An overgrown road

This used to be a main road

 

Palace of Culture

Outside the Palace of Culture

Palace of Culture

Inside the Palace of Culture

A quick photo opportunity next to the town sign for Chernobyl and it was time to have lunch. All of our meals during our time in the zone are to be in the staff canteen building as this is the only place where you can get food inside the zone. We were expecting to be in the main canteen with the locals, as my friends who went on the trip several years ago were, but we found out that there was a separate dining room on the first floor where we would be eating in private. Lunch was very basic but filling, and very interesting and a sign of what was to come. When we arrived the table was already set with salad and lots of cucumber and cold meat, followed quickly by soup. It was edible but not what I would call a good lunch.

Sign for Chernobyl

Chernobyl Town Sign

The canteen we ate in

Chernobyl Canteen

Lunch at Chernobyl

Lunch. Chernobyl style

Then it was time for us to check into our hotel – the Chernobyl hotel which is the only option inside the zone and which is usually occupied by scientists plus the occasional tourist. We found out upon arrival that we would be the only people staying there that night so had the entire top floor of the hotel to ourselves. The rooms we were assigned were very basic but very impressive and consisted of a room containing two single beds, a separate lounge room containing a pull-out sofa, chairs, desk, TV, refrigerator and cabinet plus a shower room and separate toilet cubicle. This is much more than I expected when I heard that the rooms would be basic and in the end my room buddy decided to just have a room each within the suite – the beds were small so he said he would rather have the pullout sofa and this suited me as it meant we both had our privacy.

Our hotel

Chernobyl Hotel

Chernobyl Hotel room part 2

This is the bedroom of our suite at the hotel

Chernobyl Hotel Room part 1

The lounge area of my hotel room in Chernobyl

There wasn’t any time to relax in the rooms as it was soon time to head to the park opposite the canteen to be shown some monuments. I can’t remember what they depicted but I seem to believe they mainly depicted old Soviet legends. We also saw a memorial pathway containing road signs to all of the towns and cities that no longer existed due to the Chernobyl disaster and it was very moving to walk along the pathway to get a sense of the scale of the disaster. It was starting to get really hot by this point, especially as we had to wear long sleeves inside the zone, so I used this time to apply sun cream.

We spent the next couple of hours looking around the zone seeing other buildings including the Soviet Party building, a nursery school, the local fire station, an exhibit of some of the robots that helped in the clean-up, the river port and also the only working church that remains inside the exclusion zone. The same theme as before was evident when we explored the buildings – that life just stopped and that mother nature is slowly reclaiming what rightfully belongs to her. Inside the Soviet Party building there were still paintings of Lenin on the wall and which was in good condition due to the foundations, contrasting the top floor which was unsafe due to the roof being in a dangerous position and the basement which had turned into a swamp filled with frogs.

Lost towns

Memorial to the lost towns

Church grounds

The grounds of the only church in the zone

Soviet Party HQ

The old Soviet Party HQ

Firefighter Monument

Monument to the Chernobyl Firefighters

Chernobyl Robots

Chernobyl Robots

The primary school we visited was particularly moving – all of the cots were still in one of the rooms, there were children’s books on the shelves and I even found a medicine cabinet containing an old syringe, tablets and other miscellaneous items. There were some thing which has obviously been put there by previous visitors, or by the clean-up crews, such as toy animals lined up by the window and dolls in the cots, but it was very moving to walk around the site to see what life was like for the children. Outside the school we were shown a radioactive hotspot where the radiation given off was in the region of 50 times greater than background – needless to say we didn’t stick around there for long!

Radiation Hot Spot

Our guide showing us a hot spot with higher than average radiation

Primary School playground

Abandoned playground at the Primary School

School beds

Beds inside the school

Medical stuff

Medication in the primary school

Our next stop was the highlight of today and was the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant itself. Whenever I travel anywhere I usually have one particular photo that I want to get in advance more than any other. In North Korea it was me straddling the DMZ, in Rwanda it was me with a Gorilla in the background and on this trip it was me with Chernobyl Reactor Number 4 in the background. Before visiting Reactor 4 we stopped at the side of the road where we could see all of the reactor buildings. Reactor 1 and 2 were next to each other in the distance, reactors 3 and 4 were in the same complex a little bit closer and just across the river from us were the unfinished buildings of reactor 5 and reactor 6. According to our guide they had planned to build a total of 10 reactors at the Chernobyl site but never finished anything beyond number 4 which is the one with the disaster. We were informed that there would be some photo restrictions while near the plant due to military operations and other restricted operations that we could not take photos of. One of these restrictions was just down the road where we visited a monument to the disaster as it was next to the working operations centre for the zone but we didn’t stay here long before being driven to just outside the perimeter of the Reactor 4 complex.

Unfinished reactor

One of the unfinished reactor buildings

Chernobyl

Looking towards reactors 1-4

Chernobyl Memorial

A memorial near the operations centre

We parked up and walked up to the memorial to the people who died while tackling the disaster where we were told that there were only two directions which we were allowed to take photos – directly towards the Reactor 4 building and directly towards the area where they were building the new Sarcophagus which will cover the Reactor 3 / 4 complex when it’s finished in a couple of years. From a visitor point of view I’m glad we visited when we did as come 2015 any visitors to the zone will only see this new Sarcophagus they won’t be able to see the original building at all, however it’s long overdue from a safety point of view. There have been some recent collapses of non-essential parts of the original Sarcophagus and while no radiation has escaped it will only be a matter of time before it fails completely.

After taking our photos near the reactor we had a stopped at the town sign for Pripyat, which we will be visiting tomorrow, before making our way to the final stop of the day – an abandoned railway station with some old Soviet era diesel trains. I’m not a huge train person but it was nice to be able to walk around and take photos of the old trains and to be able to walk on the old tracks without fear that we would be run over by anything. It was then time to head to dinner.

Reactor 4

Me at Chernobyl Reactor number 4

New Sarcophagus

The new Sarcophagus

Pripyat sign

The Pripyat City sign

 

Chernobyl Trains

Abandoned trains in the zone

On the way to dinner we asked if it would be possible to stop at the town store to stock up on snacks, drinks etc and we were told that this would be possible but that we would have to hurry as we were already late for dinner. Unfortunately we took quite a long time, much to the frustration of a soldier who had to wait behind us for ages to buy one item, but the lady who ran the store was incredibly happy with our custom and I’m sure we were her best customers of the day as we bought several bags worth of food, drink and general items which were confusingly handed to us in Sainsbury’s plastic bags. The delay, however, seemed to anger the cook at the canteen who was stood at the top of the steps with her arms folded looking very angry when we arrived. Tip – don’t be late for dinner at Chernobyl! Dinner was much of the same – lots of cucumber broken up with random things I couldn’t quite identify but it tasted nice and filled a gap.

The evening at the hotel consisted of a group social in our room as there wasn’t much else we could do. We weren’t allowed out of the hotel complex and even the doors to the hotel were locked preventing us from leaving after a set time and wouldn’t be opened again until the morning except in an emergency. However this wasn’t too bad as it’s a good group. We spent a couple of hours chatting, eating snacks, drinking random things and watching cheap Ukrainian dramas on TV and I had a great time getting to know the others – especially their shared love of buying tat.

I’m in my part of the suite now as I’m tired and need to catch up on my travel blog notes but it sounds like the others are having a good evening in the lounge area! Let’s hope they’re all awake in the morning as it’ll be a long day.

Share
 

A long day in Kiev

June 18th, 2013 23:46 No comments

After a great buffet breakfast this morning we all met downstairs in the hotel lobby ready to head out for our tour of Kiev. Our first stop was St Michael’s Monastery, which is one of the sights you see in all the photos of Kiev, and within a few minutes of entering I was sorry that I had forgotten to pack sun cream in my bag for the day. It’s very hot out today! The grounds of the monastery are lovely and we spent some time looking around the grounds within the walls being told all about the history of the location. After looking around the grounds we entered the Cathedral that’s within the complex and were presented with some beautiful sights – many, many lovely statues, murals, paintings and photo opportunities including monks praying. However we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the building which was a shame – some of our group did but I didn’t want to break the rules.

Statues in Kiev

Statues outside the Cathedral

St Michael's Cathedral

St Michael’s Cathedral

Outside the monastery there is a memorial board to the Ukrainian Genocide outside in both English and Ukrainian so after visiting the complex we were given some information about the events that were committed. I must admit the Ukrainian Genocide isn’t an event that I had heard about but it was very shocking to hear about and brought back sad memories of visiting the Rwanda Genocide Memorial a few years ago. We also saw the statue of Princess Olga in the square before heading down the road, past the British Embassy, to St Andrew’s Church.

We didn’t have the opportunity to see inside St Andrew’s Church unfortunately as it wasn’t on the itinerary but one thing you notice when visiting old Soviet countries is how beautifully decorated and ornate the religious buildings are. The care and skill that must have gone into the domes and the ornate work on the outside almost puts some of the buildings in the west to shame!

Memorial to the Ukrainian Genocide

Memorial to the Ukrainian Genocide

St Andrew's

St Andrew’s Cathedral

In the UK for the past week it has been quite cold so it’s been a nice relief to have full summer weather while in Kiev – I believe the temperature today was above 30. However by the time we reached the area of St Andrew’s Church the heat was starting to get to us and we had all mostly run out of water. Luckily this area is tourist central so in addition to tens of souvenir stalls there are also stalls where you can by snacks and refrigerated drinks. We stocked up on a couple of litres of water each and then made our way towards the National Museum of Ukraine.

The museum was another sight which unfortunately wasn’t on our list of places we were due to visit but our guide wanted to take us here to show us some old hieroglyphs that had been engraved into some stone slabs in the museum grounds, and also to allow us to see a good view over the city. I’m glad she brought us here as it was a good view.

Walking around Kiev

Walking around the museum grounds

Hieroglyphs

Ancient Hieroglyphs in Kiev

The old Linden Tree

The old Linden Tree

We spent a little time in the museum grounds enjoying the sunshine before it was time to head back to our minibus to head down to the Chernobyl Museum. On the way we stopped at a very old Linden Tree which is described by legend as the oldest tree in Kiev. The age of the tree seems to vary depending on which account you read but you could tell it was indeed very ancient.

The Chernobyl Museum was a very moving experience. It meant even more as we are due to visit Chernobyl tomorrow but I highly recommend a visit here to anybody that travels to Kiev. The museum itself is fairly cheap to enter, although it was included in our tour, and we had to pay an extra token payment to be allowed to take photos. All of the exhibits are in Ukrainian, as was the tour we were given, but our guide translated everything for us. We spent some time looking at the museum and saw so many exhibits detailing the history of the plant, the build-up to the accident, information about the accident itself, the aftermath and the cleanup process. We also saw a lot of personal items belonging to the people that were first on the scene including radiation suits, uniforms, posthumously-given medals, letters home to families and much more. I can’t recommend this place high enough if you are in any way curious about learning more about the disaster.

Chernobyl Trucks

Trucks outside the Chernobyl Museum

Chernobyl Medals

Medals given to the people who died trying to contain Chernobyl

Inside the Chernobyl Museum

Inside the Chernobyl Museum

Lost towns

Signs for the towns lost after Chernobyl

Mutant

Mutated animal

Lunch time!

Lunch in Kiev

The museum seems a little hidden away as it’s down a side road in the old town so make sure you know where you’re going before trying to find it – or just ask a local! We relaxed outside the museum for a bit before being taken to lunch in a very surreal restaurant (translation of the name is moonshine) which sounded as though it was full of budgies! The food was nice but very weird, as were the drinks, but I enjoyed the atmosphere.

Kiev is famous for the Cave Monastery and this was our next stop of the day. After arriving, and drinking most of the water that we had bought by this point, we were informed that regulations meant we had to have a guide from the monastery show us around so we waited for a little while and took photos. The guide that arrived was a very friendly person who spoke perfect English but you could tell everything she said was scripted compared to most tour guides who give you a personal experience. For example the phrase “please take note of the magnificent stone work on the opposing side of the church”.

We were shown around quite a few buildings in the monastery including an old church, an old church bell, a cathedral and several other sites, the names of which I can’t remember, before our tour ended at an amazing viewpoint overlooking Kiev. By this time our brains were in overload – partly because of the heat of the day and partly due to the monotonous script that we had been told for over an hour. Don’t get me wrong the guide was very knowledgeable and the guided tour was well worth it but we were glad to be able to move on to the caves on our own.

The caves that form part of the monastic complex are famous for housing the mummified remains of monks, saints and other people of note from the history of the monastery in or very close to the caved rooms where they lived their lives. To be able to enter you have to hold a candle between your first and second fingers, with the palm facing up, and women must either wear dresses or the robes provided. It’s also advisable that you aren’t claustrophobic due to the cramped conditions although when you’re inside you really get a sense of how isolated the monks must have felt living in the caves for their whole lives away from the sun. As a result of their devotion the caves are a sight of pilgrimage for many so the crowds can sometimes build up. We were fairly lucky when we toured as the crowds were fairly low.

Cave Monastery

Walking around the Cave Monastery complex

Kiev

A view of Kiev from the Cave Monastery

Monastery grounds

The grounds of the Cave Monastery

We were all fairly exhausted by the time the tour of the monastic complex was over but there was still one more sight to see – the Great Patriotic War Museum. The Great Patriotic War is better known as World War 2 in the west but it is known by this term in Ukraine due to the struggle against the oppression of the Ukrainian way of life that formed the major battle in this part of Europe.

The museum is away from the roads and next to the big statue that you can see from all over the city so it was a bit of a walk to get to. On the way we walked past the Afghan War Museum and their outdoor exhibits that included tanks, rocket launchers and helicopters before passing sculptures depicting the struggle to defend the Ukrainian way of life which reminded me of some of the sights I saw in Pyongyang a few years ago.

According to our guide tomorrow is the passing out day for the local military cadets so in the parade ground directly outside the museum we were treated to a sight of hundreds of smartly dressed and uniformed soldiers getting ready for a dress rehearsal for the ceremony.

The war museum housed a wealth of artefacts from all aspects of World War 2 and our guide was incredibly informative in telling us everything that we needed to know. Until today I had never visited a World War 2 museum, unless you count Anne Frank’s House, and so some of the things I saw were a bit of a shock. In addition to the usual military hardware we also saw gallows from a concentration camp, gloves made out of human skin, a bone crushing machine and clothing of people that were executed by the Nazi regime. It was a very moving experience and our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about every aspect of the war but unfortunately we only had time to see about 2/3 of the rooms in detail before the museum closed and we had to leave. It’s a shame we didn’t have a chance to spend more time there as it was huge and incredibly well presented – make sure you visit when in the city or you’ll miss out on something special, in a sombre way.

Kiev Motherland Monument

The Motherland Monument

The Great Patriotic War Museum

The exterial of the Great Patriotic War Museum

Flamethrower

A flamethrower at the museum

A Bone Crusher

A bone crusher at the museum

A careful squeeze around the outside of the military parade and it was back to the minibus for the ride back to our hotel for a rest and shower. Earlier on in the day a few of us decided that we were going to head into town to have a meal together but unfortunately it took us a long time to find anywhere that was suitable to eat – everything was either overpriced or generic TGI Fridays etc. After probably 45 minutes of looking around we ended up wandering up a side road off Khreshcatyck Street where we found a lovely Bavarian restaurant which served everything from German beer to Schnitzel and even Apple Strudel. I ordered Chicken with Almond Sauce followed by the strudel and it was absolutely beautiful so hopefully we’ll be back here again later on in the trip after getting back from Chernobyl.

Dinner in Kiev

“Chicken under the Almond Sauce”

I finished the meal off with a Tequila Sunrise before saying goodbye to the group and wandering around the city for my own taking in the atmosphere for a bit. I like the support of being in a group while travelling but I also need the freedom of being able to explore and do my own thing so spent maybe an hour walking around taking photos, sitting in the square with a drink and generally people watching before making my way back to the hotel.

A few people were still in the bar so I had a quick drink with them before returning to my room. It’s pretty late now and we’re due to head off to Chernobyl at 8.30 tomorrow so hopefully I’ll sleep well.

Share
 

Welcome to Kiev

June 17th, 2013 23:34 No comments

I’ve made it to Kiev, and am loving the temperature so far. It’s been a long and exhausting couple of days even though I haven’t really done anything but I’m relaxing in my room at the Rus Hotel right now and think I’m going to sleep well tonight.

The journey started yesterday as I needed to be at Gatwick Airport in the morning for my flight so decided to get a hotel room in Croydon last night. Not much to report yesterday as I mainly just chilled in my room and explored the shops but it meant a lot less rushing today which I always recommend before travelling (most of my travelling is rushed enough as it is).

I was awake early this morning so decided to make my way to the airport ahead of check in. No sign of the check in desks when I arrived so I grabbed a seat overlooking the check in area and after maybe half an hour they opened up some desks for my airline, Ukraine International Airlines. During my time waiting I saw two people with luggage tags for Regent Holidays a bit further ahead of me in the queue – too far ahead to say hi but it was useful to be able to eyeball some people I’d need to look for upon arriving in Kiev.

Until today I hadn’t been to Gatwick in several years and they’ve made some real improvements. I’m not a fan of e-border gates but the boarding card gates they have made to replace person contact were VERY quick and, except for groups of old people, should help reduce queues. They’ve also spent a lot of money improving the security area and it was very fast and efficient. The only bad change to Gatwick is that the viewing platform has been turned into a Frankie and Benny’s Restaurant so now the only way to see out of the terminal is to pay for food. However I was hungry so I had a quick breakfast before making my way to the plane.

The view of Gatwick Airport while having breakfast

The view of Gatwick Airport while having breakfast

Boarding was late, and chaotic, with nobody listening to the announcements about boarding by rows so I decided to just wait back until the queue had gone before boarding as I had been given an aisle seat anyway. The chaos, plus a few other things, resulted in being an hour late leaving but we managed to catch some of this up in the air. Ukraine International seems an ok airline – nothing special but acceptable compared to some I have used. The leg room was acceptable although it was cramped when people put their seat back. The food was ok – it at least tasted like food!

The chaos of the day continued when we arrived in Kiev. All desks in passport control were open but 90% of them were for Ukraine Passport Holders only with just 2 or 3 for foreign passport holders. I chose the nearest one, which was next to the crew passport desk, but when the officer at that desk went on a break he closed his desk and they changed the foreign passport holder desk in front of me to crew without clearing the queue. By this time the queue at the other desks were huge and there was only one more person in front of me so we decided to wait and jump in at the gaps – this took 20 minutes but was still quicker than joining the other queues. My advice – don’t pick a queue anywhere near the crew passport queue.

I thought by this time I would have been the last person to meet with our guide but the bags hadn’t even started arriving yet. When they did, approximately 10 minutes later, my bag was the 4th to arrive which never happens. It also meant that after all of the chaos at passport control I was the first person to meet my guide. Ironically the people who I eyeballed in the queue at Gatwick were the last to arrive… by a long time!

The journey to Kiev took about 30 minutes and was mainly through forested areas until we reached the city itself. During the ride our guide told us about the history of Kiev and informed us about the itinerary for the trip. She will be our guide for tomorrow when we have a city tour but turns out we will have another guide for the 2 days to Chernobyl and Pripyat.

Hotel Rus

My room at the Rus Hotel in Kiev

The Rus Hotel seems really nice, and my room is overlooking the Olympic Stadium which is a great view. According to a member of our group it has gone upmarket a lot since he was last here – there’s a shop, the restaurant serves actual food, there’s a 24/7 bureau de change and at night there are no longer ladies of the night patrolling the hallways. After checking in we freshened up in our room for a bit before meeting in the bad downstairs. It was too late for most meals but they allowed us to have pizza which was actually really nice, when it arrived.

Four Cheese Pizza

My Four Cheese pizza at Hotel Rus

A long day ahead tomorrow so I’ll be off to bed now.

Share
 

Kiev and Chernobyl 2013

May 1st, 2013 23:51 2 comments

Continuing along with my theme of wanting to visit unusual places that no (or not many) people I know have visited while experiencing a different culture and learning something at the same time I have booked my trip for 2013. In 6 weeks I will be flying to Ukraine to spend a few days in Kiev and a couple of days visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

It’s a fairly short and, compared to my recent trips, nearby trip but due to issues with my travel budget this year I thought I would check Chernobyl off of my bucket list and save places like Kyrgyzstan for next year.

In total I’ll be spending 4 days in and around Kiev plus 2 days and 1 night inside the exclusion zone seeing things like the buildings of the power plant and the abandoned towns nearby.

Should be fun! Expect lots of photos of the trip, and The Travels of Charlie, when I get back.

Location of Chernobyl

Location of Chernobyl in Ukraine near the Belarus border

Share