Lifelong Dream To Visit Chernobyl Reactor Fulfilled, And A Near-Deadly Encounter With Ukrainian Ranger

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Reading through my travel diary the most striking statement I found was the following,

“I don’t travel to see things, I travel because of how it changes me.”

For me traveling is more of a process of self-realization and actualization than it is a tour. Sometimes I need to remind myself of this fact when I get tired or sick or I am lost and confused. For me traveling is frequently all four of these things, as soon as I get comfortable in one place I want to move on to see more.

Started the trip flying into Kiev, that evening I could not find accommodation. This was especially bizarre because for the rest of the trip it seemed like I was the only resident in the huge 200+ room life-sucking soviet hotels. I ended up sleeping in Kiev proper behind an abandoned building. As I was trying to sleep I smelled something that smelled suspiciously like human crap. Turns out there are basically no public toilets in the Ukraine and I put my tarp and slept in the local crapper. That morning I washed off the bottom of my tent and went on the Chernobyl tour with about 80 other Scotsman who were here to see some big Football (soccer) game.

The Chernobyl tour was pretty interesting and I really enjoyed it. I had wanted to visit Chernobyl since the accident after I saw pictures of Pripyat on the internet. http://www.pripyat.com/en/ It seemed to be the place to live out all my post-apocalyptic fantasies. In reality it was a pretty dreary and depressing place, I’m glad I didn’t try to sneak in, I probably would have been shot by one of the 4 guard posts on the way in. The guide said that they caught 2 homeless people who had been living in Pripyat for the last several years. The reactor was huge, much, much bigger than any nuclear reactor I had ever seen. One of the tour people said that at the time the reactors were being built, if all 6 had been completed they could have provided power to the entire world. Back then it seems like the Russians wanted to build the biggest of everything. Everywhere you look the soviets show nothing but contempt for the environment. The total mismanagement of the Chernobyl disaster may have been the worst government screw up in modern history. It helped me to me more appreciative of the relatively minor mismanagement of things like New Orleans by Fema, 9/11 by the US ‘intelligence’ agencies and the war in Iraq. As an American I am constantly bitching but it could always be much, much worse.

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Went to Odessa on a night train that was about $14 US for several thousand kilometers. The public transport in the Ukraine is the best quality for the best prices I have ever experienced anywhere. They are heavily computerized and I would guess that the public transit system is not heavily subsidized like it is in other countries. The Ukrainians seem to enjoy the highest standard of living of any extremely poor country that I have ever visited. The average Ukranian makes $100/mth and yet most of them seem to have cars and nice clothes and well-maintained homes and gardens. Russians make about 10x as much and seem to constitute the bulk of Ukrainian tourism. I only met one other non-Russian speaking tourist and she was traveling with a Russian-speaking friend. The Ukraine is not tourist friendly, even the train ticket sales people do not speak any English which I found very unusual.

Odessa was beautiful, the women there were all dressed to kill and were unbelievably attractive. The city was very attractive, but I quickly wanted to escape and see more of the countryside. I took a guided tour (it was only me on the tour) of the Odessa catacombs, which were really cool. There are no trees in the flatlands of Ukraine so people just dig into the limestone ground to get bricks for their houses. The limestone is so soft you can cut it with a handsaw and insulates very well. There are thousands of miles of tunnels under Odessa and the surrounding areas where people have removed huge chunks of limestone to build with. During WWII the ‘patriots’ hid out in the tunnels and printed pamphlets for the resistance. I can’t imagine spending several years trapped underground in fear for my life while the Nazi’s killed the people I loved up above.

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After Odessa I headed to Volkyvo to see the Biosphere reserve there. It was pretty amazing and I spent 2 days just walking around and exploring the old canal-city and parts of the reserve. There was a very nice woman named Kita who was a local English teacher for the children there. She showed me around and we went on a boat tour out to the Red Sea. I found myself wishing I had my kites, the wind was perfect and the water was dead flat. It was cool to see how the people here make TV antennas out of anything, even head gaskets. Also they make gates out of anything they can find, even out of bed frames with springs. The Ukrainians are very resourceful, honest and extremely hard working. There was plenty of opportunity for getting taken advantage of but it never happened, except the taxi drivers of course who are terrible no matter where you go.

Everything in the Ukraine is Diesel except the old soviet Lada cars, which seem to represent about 80% of the cars once you get away from the cities. Seems like everyone in the Ukraine smokes, the bus drivers smoke while driving the buses and people smoke indoors everywhere. The women all seem to smoke as well which probably helps them stay very slim. The women all seem to be drop dead gorgeous or they are really old Bambushka’s hunched over with handkerchiefs on their head. There does not seem to be any in between. Its like they reach a certain age and they metamorphosis into little old ladies. I think the smoking and the high meat diet they eat here contributes to problems in older age, but the Ukrainians don’t really seem to mind.

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The Tartar cave city at Bakhchysaray was really cool. I spent a half a day walking around and exploring it then decided to go to Zalisine and check out the Manhaup-Kale cave city, which was supposed to be ever bigger, and no tourists. As I started climbing up the 3 km long trail a stray dog followed me. That was actually really cool because he was really a nice dog and scared away the animals while I was sleeping. I spent 2 days exploring the cave city in the fog, which was really cool then I went back to the city. I gave the dog some food for his troubles and set off on my adventures. Funny thing was that the dog seems to understand what I was saying more than the Ukrainians. Sleeping outside was far more enjoyable and refreshing than sleeping in the laughably bad Soviet Hotels that were unbelievably overpriced.

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Some of the big buses have been converted to run natural gas instead of normal gas. They just strap all the huge natural gas tanks on the roof of the buses, which looks strange but is really quite practical. The minibuses are all brand new and look like the Dodge sprinter diesel vans that get 30 mph. The smells I’ll remember of the Ukraine are the cigarette smoke and the diesel exhaust.

Balaklava was a neat little city in a small bay with a secret submarine factory left over from the USSR days. There were also some nice fortresses up on the hill that were and easy hike. Like everywhere else it was past the tourist season so the town was not in tourist mode, more like ghost towns with really expensive shops catering to ‘rich’ soviets. Yalta was another bigger city that was a lot like Balaklava. Along the seaside promenade there was plenty of enterprising teens on rollerblades who for a little bit of money would push your child around the promenade in a little car getting propelled from behind by the rollerblading teens. Looked pretty fun actually. In Yalta I had my first good hitchhiking experience, I went to a waterfall, which was quite disappointing because of the huge hydro pipe that went down the waterfall along with the pump house at the top. Decided to go another 15 km up the mountain so I caught a ride with a huge Orange fuel truck. I was sure he was going to careen over the edge at any second. Hitchhiking is strange when you don’t speak a damn word of Russian and you’re supposed to pay the driver when you get out. I paid about $.20 a km, which seemed to be fine with most drivers. The mountaintop was beautiful, caught a ride on a cable car back down.

The shoe stealing fox.
The shoe stealing fox.

I started a 6 hour hike with only 3 hours of daylight left. I was bushwhacking at a crazy pace up a very steep hill pushing through tons of brush and prickers because I could not find a trail. I had made it to the Valley of Ghosts near Luchyste. My broken ankle was really bothering me, I had been putting 10-20km a day on it and this particular hike was making it really sore. I didn’t think I would make it to the top, but right as it was getting too dark to see I managed to break through the brush and into a beautiful clearing right below some amazing natural statues that looked a lot like human faces. I camped out and it was so beautiful and I was so excited it was hard to sleep. The sky was so beautiful and I remember looking at each of the stars and thinking “Everyone one of those is a solar system.” I was just totally amazed at the size of the universe and went to bed wondering if there was any way that anything I ever accomplished in my life would ever really mean anything. More than that I wondered if it even really mattered that my life meant anything.

The next morning I woke up paralyzed with fear. I could hear a wild animal was in my pack, which was right next to me. All my food and food waste was packed up so tight that animals should not have been able to smell it. Sitting upright very quickly I saw a wild fox walking down the hill with one of my smelly shoes in his mouth. I yelled “Hey that’s my shoe, don’t take that” and the fox dropped the shoe and came back. I took his picture with the camera and once he saw that I wasn’t going to give him any food he took off again. It would have majorly sucked to get stuck up on the mountain without a shoe.

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I spent the day hiking around the Valley of the Ghosts then left to hitchhike to Sudak. Actually I tried to hitchhike to Sudak but spent 2 hours not getting a ride from anyone. Finally a bus came and took me to Sudak, but the funny part was it was way past the end of his route so it cost me an extra $6 (most bus rides are under $1). The people here are so hard up for cash even the bus will go past its normal route to take you wherever you want to go, if you pay them enough. There were 2 other Russians in the Bus, Vladimir and Natasha who spoke good English and were super friendly. They also went to Sudak so I went to the big fortress there with them. After the fortress I split and felt pretty bad and more than a little lonely. I wandered around for an hour trying to find the apartment they had rented. I finally found it and after 30 minutes of very confusing exchanges with the apt woman who spoke no English, she called a friend of hers who spoke English and we worked out what I wanted. She was super friendly and the room was 1000 times nicer than the soviet hotels that I had been staying in so I stayed there 2 nights. That night I stayed up late talking to Natasha and Vlad and killing a bottle or two of champagne. It was excellent to get to know people from the country that I had always been told was evil. Growing up the word “Communist” was a bad word, but Soviets were really the same as we are. They just got stuck with a government that didn’t really care about the standard of living of its subjects.

The statues in the Ukraine are often large concrete structures where fingers and hands have fallen off and only rebar is sticking out. There is a distinct lack of art and color here. The only colors and art seems to come from advertising, which is a little disappointing. The only public art are huge monuments to men that were supposed to be ‘great’. What makes these men ‘great’? Did they ever enact change in a non-violent way? I think that these monuments and others around the world would do better to be replaced with statues of Gandhi, Martin Luther King or the Dali Lama who are the only people I can think of that deserve monuments to their memory, maybe Lassie too. Statues of Stalin? Give me a break, that guy was no saint. He engineered famines that killed over 6 million Ukrainians in the 1920’s and drove the Tartars from their homes in Chimera.

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The last adventure I had on my trip was the best. I snuck into the Kara Dur nature preserve which you’re not supposed to be in without a guide. After hitchhiking to Kurotorne I walked by the two guide houses into the preserve like I knew what I was doing. One guy yelled something at me and I just kept walking. There was a marked trail that went to the next city, which was 7km, but what fun is a marked trail? I hiked right up onto these amazing weathered volcanic structures that jutted up thousands of feet from the ocean. It was positively amazing, there was some of the most beautiful formations I had ever seen, and hardly any garbage! A guide who was showing a family the preserve walked by me so I pretended I didn’t speak Russian or English and kept walking. She called the ranger who came to get me about an hour later. He had a terrible fit and was screaming and spewing spit he was so mad. At one point he pushed me, which was pretty sketchy seeing as how we were on a narrow, trail thousands of feet about the ocean. For an instant I saw myself pushing him off the cliff, but I restrained myself. After 30 minutes of frustration he finally said, “Fuck” which was a word I knew so I said, “Fuck, Fuck” excitedly. I kept saying Fuck and laughing hoping to diffuse some of the anger. It got a little strange when he started snorting like a pig and then making a motion with his hand like he was going to shoot me. Not the Ukrainian version of Deliverance I was hoping for… He chilled out when he saw how much garbage I had picked up, almost a trash bag full. After a while he was really much cooler, I gave him $1 worth of OJ which he appreciated and then he gave me a ride to the bus station and I gave him another $1 in Grivnas which seemed to make him happy too.

The trip home took a long time and was mostly uneventful. On the night train I met a Ukrainian named Igor who spoke very good English and was very friendly. He seemed very interested in owning his own car someday. I told him about my cars and he was pretty excited. Like most people I have met in other countries they want to have the freedom to work, to be happy, to get married and have children (Igor’s wife was expecting). The more I travel the more I see how we are all the same, the language might be different but at our core we want to relate to others, to be seen and heard, to be loved and respected and to have a chance to contribute. That is all we really need.

Kiev->Chernobyl->Odesa-> Vylkovo->Simeropol->Bakhchysaray->Zalisne-> Sevastopol->Balaklava->Yalta->Alpuka->Alushta->Luchystoye-> Sudak->Kurortne->Koktebel

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One thought on “Lifelong Dream To Visit Chernobyl Reactor Fulfilled, And A Near-Deadly Encounter With Ukrainian Ranger

  1. Pingback: The world’s ten creepiest abandoned cities

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