Chernobyl

On the 30th of July Sue attended one of the more adventurous activities provided by her U3A Experience Group. It was a foul day, windy with frequent showers and it didn’t end well for her. A small group of intrepid members travelled down to Irchester Country Park near Northampton to spend the day climbing trees, swinging like monkeys on ropes and sliding down zip wires. A super activity I thought, one that I would have liked to participate in myself, but I spent the day cleaning out the pool, cutting back the ivy growing up the garage wall and picking the last of the broad beans. Plus I am not a member of the U3A!

At first all went well, despite having to take shelter from the occasional shower, thus making the tree top conditions a little more trickier than usual. However, towards the end of the day I guess she got a little too exuberant and crashed heavily at the end of one zip wire run. When she returned  home she appeared decidedly paler and very sore down one side. She took to her bed earlier than usual that evening dosed up with anti-inflammatories and paracetamol.

I was picking Jamie up in Desborough at 1.30am the following morning to travel down to Stansted Airport so it wasn’t long after that I too ‘hit the pillow’. It was a son and dad trip to the Ukraine with the object of visiting the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site.

When Jamie suggested that we travel to the Ukraine I watched a documentary and a mini-series based on the 26th April 1986 incident at the No. 4 nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the nearby city of Pripyat. I remember the incident well (so I thought), but after watching the TV series I realised how close the world came to catastrophe. A definite ‘must-do’ tour for anyone visiting this ex-communist state and a sobering and salutary lesson on the past and I fear present  ideology and doctrine of the Russian state. A lot of myths have since shrouded the true facts regarding the cause and aftermath of the meltdown of reactor No. 4 and one has a to keep an open and sceptical mind on all the ‘facts’.

Today the Nuclear Power Plant is not in use as a power plant. All reactors are offline, two of them shut down under severe accident scenarios (Units 4 and 2). Unit 1 was still used until 1996  despite permanent core damage from a partial fuel meltdown in 1982; and Unit 3, the twin to the exploded Unit 4, carried on until 2000. The reactors are all defueled now (though the fuel is still on site, held in concrete bunkers next to the sarcophagus erected over Unit 4).

After the nightmare of my last early morning journey to Stansted I had my fingers firmly crossed that the A14 would not again be closed over night with a non-sensical diversion in place. It was closed, though on this occasion the diversion made sense and we lost very little time and were soon having and full English breakfast in the departure lounge prior to our 6.40am flight to Kiev.

We landed at Boryspil International Airport at noon and after locating our pre-booked taxi transfer we were soon racing through the Kiev traffic to the Adria Hotel on R.Okipnoi Str.2, Kiev. While checking in I chatted to a couple who had been on our flight, they too were visiting Chernobyl the following day and asked how we were getting to the coach pick-up point. I informed them I had negotiated with our taxi driver to pick us up to tomorrow and offered them to come with us. They gratefully accepted.

After chilling out in the room we then went for an explore around the locality before eventually making our way down to the Dnipro River and relaxing in the warm late afternoon at a floating bar, watching the passing river traffic and city scape. Our hotel was situated on the opposite bank of the river to the older and more touristy part of Kiev and part of a hotel complex that is very convenient for the nearby Metro Station. There is a day and night market close by and the area has a multitude of shopping malls and eating establishments and is very busy. On crossing the road it is best to use the controlled crossing points as there are few gaps between the cars, however the drivers are more civilised than those I have encountered in the Far East, they WILL stop if you walk out in front of them (but best not push your luck too far!)

We ate that night in a very disappointing restaurant. We had spotted an establishment with a balcony overlooking the large roundabout near our hotel, but on climbing the many stairs to reach it we discovered that there was a very elegant wedding reception in progress and though it was tempting to gate-crash a free meal I doubted my Russian would have stood up to close examination. Enquiring of a secretary seated in an office on the same floor if she could point us in the direction of another  restaurant, she kindly led us along the corridor to the other side of the building and there was indeed another eating establishment.

Inside there was just one other couple who were choosing items from a buffet cabinet containing around 10 different dishes. We stood behind them and listened as they enquired in Ukrainian as to what the dishes were. After 10 impatient minutes of listening to chat and no food yet placed on plates Jamie and I decided to sit down at a table and rest our legs and wait. Twenty minutes later, with just three items each on their plates they sat down at the table next to ours. By now we had worked out that this was a vegetarian restaurant, but we had invested so much time in waiting we were not going to move on. I have on several occasions stayed with vegetarians Phil and Joan in Italy and I know how despite the lack of a meaty element, vegetarian fayre has colour, flavour, texture and a surprising piquancy. This array of unknowns looked drab, lifeless and mulched. However, the test is in the eating. The young lad behind the counter spoke perfect English and described the contents of all that we pointed to, so it wasn’t long before we were sat down with our collection eager to have our taste buds titillated. It was bland baby food, the only item in my selection that was worthy of note was the cabbage burger, which did indeed taste of cabbage, but I ask why?

As we left, the couple were still picking at their victuals and I noted were now speaking in English. Had they heard our earlier impatience and decided to extend our wait in retribution? We shall have to be more careful in what we say, the locals can apparently speak our lingo! I also observed that they, in common with the few diners that had joined us, appeared painfully thin and pale.  I think the last laugh may well be on us, though I think it may be quite a long time in coming.

We met the couple from check-in of the previous day sat outside the Adria sipping coffee as we emerged at 6.15am. The taxi turned up on time and together we made our way through light traffic to the Dnipro Hotel in central Kiev.  After checking that this was indeed the meeting point, we then entered the hotel restaurant and ordered breakfast. Our food had not arrived by 7.30am, eager not to lose out on an order the kitchen boxed it up. Jamie and I checked onto the minibus and ravenous from the night before I opened my box. I was greeted by a mixture of congealed fried egg, bacon, potato cake and I think cheese. Not pleasant to look at, but I was hungry, and the one advantage of Ukrainian baby food is that it isn’t difficult to chew, someone has already done that for you!

We were delayed in departing as one couple hadn’t turned up, this also happened to be advantageous for our taxi companions. When they attempted to board the bus they discovered that our tour and meeting point was not the same. The previous day I had told them the name of our tour and the hotel that we were meeting at, so why hadn’t they checked their paperwork in the interim?. Unlike ourselves, they had come to Kiev just for the tour to Chernobyl, they were flying home the following day. Unable to get any telephone response from the tour company they had to buy their places onto ours and so were fortunate that we had a couple of no-shows. I wonder if the reverse had happened with those two?

A little later than expected  we were on our way  on a two hour drive to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Passing by rows of tired city concrete tower blocks the landscape soon gave way to a flat, heavily  forested countryside punctuated by scattered villages, consisting of predominantly the same style of house (whether concrete, brick or wood) and the obligatory animal pens and necessary vegetable patch on either side. Traffic was thin and considering our destination, I was not surprised.

First stop was at the 30km check-point on the edge of the outer Exclusion Zone, here we had to show our passport and official pass and were issued with a small radiation monitoring device that we hung from our necks. Boarding our transport again we continued into the zone along the main but deserted road towards the City of Chernobyl.

After 15 minutes or so we stopped at the side of the road and disembarked. Alex our guide explained that we were going to explore one of the abandoned villages. From the road we could just about make out  a few structures  through the trees and mass of undergrowth. We followed a narrow path into the forest which had been the main street of the settlement and like all the principal streets in this part of the Ukraine was named Lenin Street. This was one of a 167 abandoned communities of varying sizes in the Exclusion Zone and particularly special as it had been quite wealthy and many of the buildings were of brick and had stood the 33 years better than most. Indeed it was used as one of the bases first by the liquidators then by the army.

We  first entered the administration building, treading carefully inside as not to disturb any debris and raise dust only to discover that much of the wooden flooring had been looted, along with many of the valuable contents of the surrounding houses such as furniture and electrical items in the days following the disaster. Everything here is radioactive, as evident by the numbers on the Geiger counters we carried, anything looted from the zone and sold on the black market was certainly tempting fate and no doubt was the cause of many early deaths, no doubt the recipient of the booty was not told where it had come from and the invisible danger it held.

Most of the wooden buildings in the zone had been bulldozed and covered in a layer of earth before having a bright yellow radioactive sign placed by, warning of the hazard, but in this village there was still one standing and we entered it. It was quite poignant to explore this one room structure, where it was evident that the people had left in great hurry. The bed and paraphernalia of day to day Ukrainian life was left just as it was from  three decades ago, when the inhabitants were given two hours to pack enough clothing for three days with a promise that they would then return. They never did.

Wandering back to the minibus I spotted the first of many wild dogs that now were the only inhabitants of these lost settlements, like the others I would come across, they seem unperturbed about our presence and more concerned on sniffing out long gone food among the rubble and buildings.

We moved on another fifteen minutes or so to the town of Chernobyl itself. This place is in a much better condition, though no one actually lives there, it is still a place of work for those that administer the security and reclamation of the area. You can stay there if you wish (or mad enough), by renting out one of the apartments, but the only things of interest here is a large flat concrete map of the Exclusion Zone which has small steel cups representing the locations of the abandoned settlements and into which a candle is lit every 21st April and an avenue of signs that display the name of each of the the now defunct communities.

On the outskirts of the town we stopped briefly to photograph some of the equipment that was used by the liquidators in an attempt to push the 100 tons of lethally radioactive material off the roof of the reactor. They are still highly radioactive but not all their parts were on display as it would have been too much a of a hazard, no doubt they too were consigned to the many lead and concrete lined graves deep in the forest that all the other machinery used during the disaster were placed. It is hugely tragic that none of the equipment we were looking at worked (none of the electronics survived the intense radiation) and 5 000 soldiers were given the task of removing it. They had just 40-90 seconds each to complete the task.

Next stop was a relic of the Cold War, Russian distrust and aggression. A twenty minute drive down a narrow forest lane brought us to a huge aerial structure that dominated the landscape, the Russian Dugar Radar, even with the uninhibited forest growth of three decades it could easily be seen from miles away. It was an over-the-horizon early warning radar station. The system was cheaper than the American and European satellite systems, but it only worked in a fashion and so I think could rightly be called a folly. It would detect the launch of large number of missiles, but if only one was fired it could not see it. I wonder if the Americans knew this? It was operational until 1989, three years after the disaster.

Returning to the road leading to the power plant we stopped at the 10km check-point for passport and pass checks and also to step into a radiation scanner with fingers crossed. Thankfully the little exit gate clicked open, hopefully indicating that all was well.

On the next leg of our journey, we were greeted by yet more forest, until sweeping around a sharp bend alongside what I took to be a river we could see the power plant and containment sarcophagus. We stopped around half a mile away for photographs. Ironically, I thought yep this is as close as I would like to get, a clear view, great photos, job done! On boarding the minibus I expected a ‘U’’ turn and a quick exit but instead we swept passed the front of Unit 1 and down alongside Units 2 and 3 before coming to a halt outside the sarcophagus covering Unit 4!!! On exiting the bus a train and two wagons pulled out from the side of two huge concrete boxes situated to the side of the reactor. It was accompanied by a group of soldiers and then stopped a few metres away from us.

Only take photos of the reactor, we were warned by Alex. Photograph the concrete boxes, train or soldiers and you will have your camera taken, we were further warned. The wagons contain spent fuel rods and the huge structures are where they are stored.

I fired off more photos of the nasty reactor and wasn’t at all displeased when we were requested to return to the imagined haven of our bus.

A brief journey brought us to a large building on the outskirts of Pripyat, here we were to have our lunch. We were scanned in an identical machine to that used at the 10km check-point, before joining the queue for a typical Ukrainian 4 course meal (I think). Alex chose to sit next to Jamie and I and we chatted throughout the meal. I found the meal much improved on the two offerings we have so far had, quite tasty and filling. Our guide particularly liked the borsch and proceeded to tell us in great depth how to make the perfect borsch.

As expected, I found Alex very knowledgeable on all aspects of the disaster and the Exclusion Zone, but surprisingly his understanding of British history and politics was equally as good. Your average Ukrainian is a lot more politically aware than we Brits and they certainly have a resolute and fierce view of Russia and its current leader. Considering that the Russian army is just 30km away to the north of Chernobyl and Russian doctrine was responsible for the catastrophe whose aftermath is the purpose of our visit, I can see why.

Stomach now full (hopefully not glowing), we drove into the centre of Pripyat.  Sobering, the first building we entered was the hospital, it was here that took the brunt of the casualties before passing them onto Moscow Number 6 where many of the liquidators would die. No one really knows the true number of deaths but laughably the official figure is 31. Pripyat was built to serve the Nuclear Power Plant, it was very modern and had a population of just under 50 000 prior to the disaster. Even with the passage of time and the encroachment of nature it is easy to see that it must have been a lovely city with all the modern conveniences that Russian society could offer. The hospital is naturally in a very sorry state now, the long dark rubble strewn corridors, the rusting cots in small six bay cubicles, the scattered forms and peeling paint is so sad, so sinister. The discarded, futile gas mask left hanging on the banister of a stairway has a story to tell, since being laid there no one has taken it as a trophy or I guess even tried it on. Possibly out of respect, but I sense there is a much more sensible reason.

Following Alex we silently made our way through the tangle that is now Pripyat, what was there to say? A once pristine environment ruined because of stupidity, words are insufficient for this spectacle, it has to be seen to be believed.

The stunningly beautiful stained glass window in the restaurant by the lake, the elegant motif on the front of the theatre, the typically masculine and garish statue outside the administration building, the deserted dock on the lake with missing boats, surrounded by water that you daren’t dip your toes in. A gymnasium with no gymnasts, a lone piano set on a stage in a crumbling auditorium, a swimming pool with falling tiles and no water and the iconic scene of all, an empty rusting carousel, still swaying back and forth in the gentle breeze.

I guess each of us was particularly touched by one or more of these locations but one that caught my soul was when I walked into an empty classroom, scattered desks and teaching paraphernalia took my breath away. They would be in their 40’s now. I am not sure I want to know. I took no photos here.

Wherever you go in the Exclusion Zone, there are hot spots (highly radioactive). Much of the equipment used in the attempt to make the place safe has long since been buried, even the soil was removed and buried! It is the best that humankind can do with our present technology. Unit 1 reactor has a sarcophagus built with a roof made in Italy, held together with bolts from the UK and insulation from Germany it has been and international effort, yet it is not the answer. The life of this solution is just 100 years, the gamble is that by then man will have developed the knowledge and technology to create a permanent solution. The clock is ticking.

On our return journey back to the Safe Zone, as a reminder (as if we needed it) Alex asked us to place the Geiger counters against the bus window as we quickly passed by an area called the Red Forest. This was marshland 30 years ago, but is now a well developed forest. It took just 3-4 minutes to pass through and the meter jumped from 8 RADs up to 1440 RADs. Hmmm, a point well made but perhaps I would have preferred a different route or the foot down harder on the accelerator.

Our return to Kiev was without incident and little conversation, I think we were all absorbed in our own thoughts.

From our drop-off point at the Dnipro Hotel Jamie and I opted to have a meal in nearby Nezalezhnosti Maidan (Independence Square). The square has lots of statues and water fountains, very popular with locals and tourists. We had an excellent meal in a Turkish restaurant at the top of the square and finished off the evening by watching a spectacular colourful fountain display to music before catching a taxi back to the Adria.

 

We woke late the following morning and after coffee in the hotel bar we caught the Metro to Hydro Park , just one stop away. The Metro is extremely busy, cheap and easy to navigate. The fare was just 8 Hryvnia each (26p), you are given a small plastic disk from the ticket office which you place in a slot at the barrier then walk to the platform. The barrier beeps when you slot in the disk, but there is nothing to prevent you from not bothering to purchase one, but everyone did.

The Hydro Park is a lovely amenity for the citizens of Kiev, it is situated on a  large island in the middle of the Dnipro River. It has a funfair, restaurants, museums, parks, a superb beach and lots of water sports. We had come for breakfast, which we ate in an establishment near the entrance and a visit to the Kiev in Miniature Museum. As this was to be our last full day in Kiev it seemed a good idea to see what the city has to offer, the easy way. Entrance was cheap and we found it interesting and a nice way to spend an hour. After a brief wander around the north side of the island we made our way back to the Metro and caught a train to Dnipro Station, the next stop along the line (same price).

From the station it was a bit of an uphill trek to Kyievo-Pecherska Lavra. also known as the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, a historic Orthodox Christian monastery. It is a beautiful many golden domed building that can be seen from much of the city. We first visited the caves that it is famed for. Dark narrow white washed passages wind away in all directions each leading to a crypt containing several glass topped coffins, through which you could see (if you purchased a candle) the splendidly robed inhabitant, presumably a past priest or abbot.

Next, we climbed the bell tower for a great view over the city and river. The staircase is certainly not for the unfit, faint hearted or with any kind of life threatening medical condition. Both Jamie and I were truly shattered by the time we got to the top! But it was worth it.

Returning to ground level we wandered out of the complex towards the huge statue Rodina Mat (Motherland) that dominates the skyline.

On route we passed many military vehicles that the Ukrainian army had captured in the Russian incursion in 20114/15. Each vehicle had its fighting spec outlined on an information board and the battle that it was captured in. From the obvious damage inflicted on many of them I fear the occupants did not survive. The Ukrainian Army is no pushover. Jamie and I decided to have a bit of fun in an attack helicopter that had a fearsome array of armament. For 10 Hryvnia each we sat in the cockpit and blasted away with the front machine gun, great fun. The helicopter was intact apart from a small bullet hole in the corner of the windscreen, I suppose that the pilot had been shot yet managed to land the aircraft without further damage. I wonder how he fared?

The Motherland statue is quite spectacular, Jamie likened it to Christ the Redeemer, though I see his point the surrounding scenery is nowhere as iconic. As you see this statue from a mile away there are no surprises when you actually arrive at her feet, so we gave her just a brief visit.

Feeling hungry we found a small restaurant nearby the monastery and spent a good hour or so soaking up the afternoon sun with a very tasty meal.

It was our intention to return to Dnipro Station via a short cut path which took us down a very steep wooded incline. However, due to extensive works in the area, we found that we couldn’t actually reach the station, though only some 50m away. Annoyingly, we had to traverse back up the slope and do it the long way! From the station we again journeyed to the Hydro Park. Here we made our way down to the beach and boarded a small cruiser for an hour long trip down the river. Cost 120 Hryvnia.

There were three boats tied up alongside the small quay, one doing a 4 hour trip, another a 2 hour trip and ours. Each left within a few minutes of each other and headed in different directions. It had been a gorgeous day up till now but as we departed, the heavens opened up causing us to scurry down inside from our prime top deck spot. We were soon joined by others. The storm lasted around 15 minutes and the sun came out to play again. I treated myself to a beer and at 40 Hryvnia it was the cheapest drink I’d had so far! It is a shame that Cunard don’t have the same drinks policy.

After steaming down stream for a while we about turned and sailing passed our departure point we continued upstream to the Motherland Statue, eventually returning to our berth on the hour. A relaxing way to see Kiev with a bit of stormy excitement.

We caught the Metro back to the hotel and chose an Irish bar for our evening meal and entertainment.

Breakfast the following morning was taken at a Ukrainian fast breakfast outlet on the other side of the roundabout. Very, very popular, very, very cheap, you pick a number from a picture on your tray’s place mat and they make you a similar plate of food. Fast food poor quality, filled the stomach and stayed down so it couldn’t have been that bad?

After a brief panic by Jamie who thought he had lost his wallet when we got in our taxi to take us to the airport, I found it in the bag that he had frantically searched through. We got to Boryspil Airport in plenty of time to catch our flight and have lunch in departures.

We were separated again on the flight back, but as before had a spare seat next to us, so could stretch out and sleep. The journey back to Harborough went without incident.

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