Kiev 2018: Sun 4th (day 5)

There are many things to hate about Kyiv Boryspil. Like that the spelling on the door is not the same as the spelling on my boarding card. Like the fact that you have to go through an x-ray machine just to get into the building, because emptying your pockets in the doorway with no tables handy is loads of fun. Like the fact that it’s taken an hour to connect my tablet to the wifi.

Today I went to St Volodymyr’s Cathedral, said to be the prettiest (if not the most important) in Kyiv. In Kyiv. On a Sunday. Well, now I know what a Ukrainian Orthodox service looks and smells like. It’s prettier outside, that dark brown Art Nouveau thing is not as much to my taste as the mounds of gold in the other churches.

I walked down to Shevchenko Park where trees have eyes, all the benches are weird and children wear manes made of golden autumn leaves. Back to the metro at Khreshchatyk and along to Arsenalna to visit Rodina Mat, Nation’s Mother, a 91m statue of a warrior on the hillside, surrounded by a war museum. It’s just next to the Lavras but I didn’t walk to walk the extra distance on Thursday. I had lunch down there and then walked back.

Back at Maidan I did some shopping, finished lunch, collected my luggage and made for the airport. This time the Skybus was a coach and half empty, which was nice. Wifi’s not very good on it.

I also hate that there are only three places in this entire airport where you can get food or drinks – all takeaway bar things. Kyiv Boryspil, you need something like a mini Smiths.

Kiev 2018: Sat 3rd (day 4)

Today I went to При́п’ять, Pripyat. It was a new city, built in the 1970s, with an average age of 26 and all the amenities you could want. Today it’s a ghost town, totally abandoned. Why? Because the town was built to house the workers in & around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Short story: unnecessary safety test about 1am in April 1986 resulted in a fire which resulted in a steam explosion which resulted in the worst nuclear disaster in history. I read about it a lot. Today I visited it.

We met at 7.30. This was the bit of this whole trip I’d been nervous about – finding a single bus in a strange city and having my passport checked against the details I’d provided when I booked, even though I’d double and triple checked. Both went fine. In fact, I was the first there and it wasn’t a single bus, it was five buses. I was on the last one, one of at least two English-speaking buses, with guides Олександра and Oльга – Alexandra & Olga.

Having arrived first I sat and watched everyone else arrive. Every single other person, once it was established which bus they were on, asked “Is there time to go to the toilet/ATM/McDonalds/food shop before we go?” as if those weren’t things you were supposed to do before you got to the bus. I also noticed that almost all the tour guides smoke. Well, if your job is to expose yourself to radiation…

We drove an hour and a half to the first checkpoint where Special Group Permission was eventually granted and our passports were checked by military officials. While we waited for the bus to cross, we were advised to use the last “civilised restrooms” of the day – not so civilised, really, but better than the “radioactive – but not because of the radiation” ones we might encounter later on. Now we were in the 30km exclusion zone.

It was at this point that we were given our Geiger counters. They’re yellow and look like big GPS units except that they click incessantly and beep frantically if radiation levels get higher than national average of 0.3 µSv/h. At the checkpoint it was 0.16.

We drove to Zalissya, an abandoned village. It’s in the woods now – they’ve grown up around everything in the last 32 years. Here we went in a small hospital, a mini supermarket and the house of a girl called Yulya. These buildings are in worse condition than they should be for mere abandonment – the walls and floors have been torn apart by looters looking for copper wiring and valuables.

We drove straight past Chernobyl city and to the checkpoint at Leliv, entrance to the 10km zone where we didn’t have our passports checked. Not far along the road we got our first glimpse of reactor 4 under its new dome. We stopped at Kopachi, another abandoned village. This is where you see the photos of dolls – the only building still standing is the kindergarten and it’s surrounded by hotspots, which is where radioactive residue was literally washed off with soap and water which then soaked into the soil. Geiger counter says 2-3 around here but you can get it up to 13 at the roots of some trees.

Next: Pripyat, the town built to house the workers. Soviet Paradise. Best city for best people. Average age: 26. Definitely has something in common with Disney’s Discoveryland. It’s a ghost town now. You can’t live here. Well, you probably could. Radiation here mostly averaged 1 µSv/h except in hotspots, the hottest of which was on the bottom of one of the Ferris wheel cages, which got up to 270 and which Alexandra has seen at 350. We walked through the abandoned overgrown streets. It’s hard to get a sense of scale. Old photos says this is a wide road and those blocks right over there are on the other side of the road. But we were looking at them half an hour ago.

We had lunch at the canteen at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. Reactor 3 was still producing electricity until 2000 and now reactors 1, 2 & 3 are in the process of being decommissioned so there are still workers here. The canteen is both very Soviet and very Discoveryland. We had to go through radiation control before we were allowed in – a frame that measures how radioactive you are, that is, how much dust you’ve picked up. We passed with flying colours.

After lunch was reactor 4 itself. You’re only allowed to take photos of the New Safe Confinement from one angle, no photos of the facility or the protection. It’s a big fence with razor wire on top, exactly what you’d expect and the new NSC control building is a two-storey portacabin. Nuclear secrets revealed. What’s amazing is that exploded reactor is right there. Like right there, under the big steel cover. It’s due to keep it safe for 100 years and in the meantime they’re hoping to dismantle and clean up the wreckage underneath by 2065. Radiation here 1.01 µSv/h.

By now we were about done but there was more to see. There was Radar Duga-1, a secret Soviet military installation disguised as an abandoned Soviet kids’ summer camp, right down to the painted bus stop at the junction. It’s a pair of big antennae, like 150m high fences that were supposed to detect USA ballistic missile launches – except that it never worked. By the time the zone was evacuated it worked in test mode. Secret Soviet military installation is interesting but it was getting cold, the sun was setting and everyone was too tired to take much interest in it.

We left the 10k zone at Leliv, via another radiation control frame, made two stops in Chernobyl itself to see some of the clean-up robots and the monument to Those Who Saved the World and then a final radiation check back at Dytiatky before returning to the real world. Alexandra read my Geiger counter and declared I’d been exposed to 0.004 mSv today – higher than the other two people with them on the bus at 0.003 and 0.002, although Conrad left his on the bus most of the day. Olga managed 0.003 as well but Alexandra, who had hunted down the hotspots, had managed 0.006.

An hour and a half later, on Ukrainian roads in the dark and we were home.

I have a lot of reading to do about radiation and nuclear power.

Kiev 2018: Fri 2nd (day 3)

Today I got up early (earlier…), had breakfast (the bread was nice and crispy on the bottom today. High hopes for crispy top as well by Sunday) and went out into Kyiv.

My first destination was St Sophia’s Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the monastery where I went yesterday. And when I say “along with”, I mean the two are considered one entry on the list.

I paid my 20UAH to go into the grounds. It’s a good cathedral although I start to wonder if someone around the 11th century had a lot of green and gold paint to sell off. The trees here were yellow and the grounds were relatively quiet and the sun came out so I sat on benches and looked at it and maybe took a few selfies.

Then I went back outside & spotted another gold-domed church at the other end of the road. This is St Michael’s Gold Domed Monastery and it’s another 21st century reproduction of an ancient building destroyed in the last seventyish years. I suspect the Kyiv of 100 years ago would look very different. This church is bright blue and you can see it beautifully from outside the walls so I enjoyed it for a while and then walked round the back to the funi.

For another 8UAH you can go down to the river and the Podil district. From down by the river I could see the floodlights of a stadium up on the hill – the very same ones I can see from my window. I hadn’t gone as far as it felt. The road would go up the hill, turn right and end up on Maidan. Bit steep though.

I took the funi back up & went into the grounds of St Michael’s through the side gate. This is one of those rare ones that’s free to enter. You can go inside the cathedral free too. There are two things inside Kyivan churches – old ladies sweeping the floor and people kissing the icons. They even keep a cloth on the frame to wipe them clean. I’ve never been anywhere where I’ve seen religion taken so seriously.

I was right about St Michael’s, it’s prettier from outside the walls, although from the inside you can see how very very blue the cathedral is. I walked back up to St Sophia’s and down the hill to Maidan, popped into the Billa for more supplies and came home for lunch.

After lunch I set off for St Amdrew’s Descent, which starts near St Michael’s. No need to walk all the way up there, not when it’s one stop on the Blue Line to the metro outside the funi. 65p to be too lazy to walk up the hill in the drizzle. It probably took longer, though.

St Andrew has a good church. I’d seen it from the river this morning. It’s closed for renovations so you can’t go inside. Behind it is a nice winding steep street with interstate yellow buildings. It doesn’t take long to realise it’s just a steep street lined with souvenir stalls. I’m sure St Andrew did walk here when he put his cross on the hill but this vitally important sight is not as exciting or beautiful as it was made out to be.

At the bottom was a big square with a Ferris wheel. Can’t be a serious capital city without a wheel in this century. Attached to the square was the ruins of an old shopping centre, with neither insides, roof or windows. Beyond that was another square, clearly a hub for minibuses and trams and just up the road is what I think the guidebook called Kyiv’s oldest surviving church. No gold here but the customary green domes very much present.

Once I’d wandered this square two or three times, gone in the big sweet shop and got lost, I found the metro. I could have walked along parallel to the river and returned to the one at the bottom of the funi, where I’d emerged earlier but this one was closer and still only two stops from home.

Kiev 2018: Thur 1st (day 2)

Having woken up early, I went back to sleep and didn’t wake up until 9.15, which left only three quarters of an hour to get up, get dressed and eat breakfast.

Breakfast was fine – cherry juice alongside orange for once, the usual assortment plus bread & butter. What was difficult was finding a seat. All the tables are for four to six and hardly anyone was even in a four so more than half the seats were unused & unusable. I walked at least two circles of the place looking for somewhere to sit.

Afterwards I got ready, put on some socks, packed a few snacks and went out into Kyiv. First stop: Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s main square and site of the Euromaidan revolution of 2013/14. Half the square is a memorial to the people killed in the Revolution of Dignity and so is half the street leading down from Хрещатик. I declined to buy a length of woven Ukraine ribbon from a man who materialised right behind – the ribbons are tied on and around all the memorials. I went to cross the road to the other half of Maidan and discovered that Хрещатик – the street, not the metro station named after it – is six lanes of traffic and generally to cross roads here you go underneath. And underneath Maidan is a huge shopping centre. You want books? Make up? Medicine? Clothes? A guitar? It’s all down here – as is a Billa. So I did the day’s shopping. Ukraine really likes crab-flavour crisps.

With food on my back, I headed back to Хрещатик, only to be caught by a girl with white doves perched on her arms. I shouldn’t have stopped. I shouldn’t have touched the doves. I definitely shouldn’t have let her put one on my hand and the other on my shoulder. But I did refuse to let her take a picture of me with them (“I’m not a gangster, you know”) and handed the birds back and fled for Хрещатик, where I soon spotted three men doing the same thing with little grey monkeys in children’s coats.

I walked down Хрещатик, took a wrong turning in another underground shopping centre – put one anywhere you might want to cross a road – and eventually found myself at the Olympic stadium. Having seen it on my map, I’d said I wouldn’t be walking that far and now I had but at least 1) I knew where I was and 2) there was a metro station there. I got on the Blue Line and traveled two stops north to Майдан Незалежності, the Blue Line station connected to my Red Line Хрещатик. I emerged and came home for lunch.

After lunch I set out again, this time bound for Арсена́льна, the deepest metro station in Kyiv, Ukraine, Europe and the entire world except the one in Malaysia. I think it’s Malaysia. No, it’s not. It’s Pyongyang. I was disappointed. It’s two escalators deep but neither of them felt as long as the deeper one in Хрещатик.

But before I got there, I encountered a police or army roadblock right outside the hotel. You could cross at the top or bottom and walk up by the yellow buildings but both sides of the road were lined with people in green uniforms and yellow jackets and there were police cars at the top. Not much going on – a planned road closure for a parade?

I walked down the street, past the WWII memorial and the Holodomor memorial and then to Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, the monastery of the caves. I paid 30UAH (83p) to go in. It’s a mass of gold-domed churches, one of the holiest places in Ukraine. You can go into most of the churches as long as you wear a headscarf and don’t take photos, which is a pity because they are spectacularly gold inside and there are monks everywhere – mostly wearing puffy jackets over their robes. I went into the big Dormition Cathedral, a recent reproduction of the 11th century original which was destroyed in 1941. It’s very big and very gold. So very gold.

Outside, I prowler the Upper Lavra and then went down the hill to the Lower Lavra, which is smaller but contains the caves. I went into the Nearer Caves for the price of a candle (3UAH/8p) although some people just used their phones for light. Oh, the fun of juggling a lit candle & a headscarf in a confined space! I dropped one drop of wax on my finger but I didn’t set fire to anything or anyone. And actually, other than the fun of using a candle for light, the caves were a bit underwhelming. They’re tunnels, not caves and there are a few chambers containing mummified bodies of saints and then you’re out the other end. I’m not even convinced they’re actually underground. I think there’s a chance they’re just built into the walls of the church.

I headed for the Further Caves via the walkway and then the viaduct. As I went into the viaduct, a priest was trying to come out and we both tried to get out of each other’s way. As I walked up the viaduct, I saw him walking outside. He saw me see him and put his hand through the window so I now have something chocolatey as a present from a priest. I didn’t go in the Further Caves – I couldn’t figure out how to get into anything except the Prayer Pass Only so I went back to the Upper Lavra and explored another church.

By then my feet were tired and the sun was getting low – not that you could tell because Kyiv’s been covered in a grey mist all day. I walked back to the metro and came home. The army or police were gone when I got back and there was no sign of anything in or around the road.

Tomorrow I’m heading for St Sophia’s Cathedral and Andriyivskyy Descent.