Travelling Hopefully

28 March 

After an overnight in a hotel near Terminal 5 in Heathrow, I got up far too early (5am!) to down caffeine and have a small breakfast. By 6am I was out, and catching one of the driverless PODs from the hotel to the terminal. It was a bit odd to sit something with a mind of its own, but the POD brought me safely to the terminal.

Flight was uneventful, except for the fact that even on BA you have to pay for food and hot drinks. I disembarked at Boryspil, the main international airport for Kiev, and waited for Sonja. Her flight came in three hours later, so I caught up on emails on the free airport wifi. 

I’d booked an English speaking taxi service to take us into Kiev, and the very nice driver was waiting for us. He had provided transport for the Swiss team at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, and he chatted about this with Sonja (who is Swiss). Not only did he take us to the street of the hostel, he insisted on staying with us until we’d found the entrance and gone inside. Not bad for 22 Euros.

We’re in a twin room at the hostel. A grocery store is only a couple minutes’ walk away. The prices took me by surprise. A bottle of decent red wine cost around £1.50, and the hostel room for the week is £42.00 (for the room, not per person). We cooked a pasta dinner in the kitchen and ensured that the second glass of red wine tasted as good as the first.

An early night! No photos from today.

29 March

We slept in until 8am Ukraine time, which was only 6am British time, so I felt tired when I got up. A couple of doses of coffee brought me to life. 

At 10am we headed out. The hostel staff had printed out the route of  ‘trolley bus’ (tram) 18 which would take us into Independence Square, pretty much the city centre. We found the stop, only about a five minute walk from the hostel, and I reckoned we needed to go east. Which we did, and I was right. We couldn’t work out how to buy a ticket, but no one came around to check. Twenty minutes later we were at the Square. Sadly, a lot of construction work seems to be going on, possibly for the Eurovision Song contest which will be here later this year. We admired the grand buildings, then had a coffee whilst we planned our next steps.

I’d purchased an iPhone app which has walking tours of various cities. I was able to use the GPS without using data (there’s a way of doing this) so we used the app to work out how to get to various places of interest. This included the Golden Gates, a reconstruction of one of the original gates to the city. We bought a ticket which gives us a week to visit three of the major sites, which cost us the total of £3.00 each, and went inside the fortress. At the top is a small church, and what amazed me is that people had left money as donations. In the UK, those notes and coins would have disappeared into the pocket of another visitor.

After the fortress, we found our way to the Opera House. On the way we saw a worker trying to remove a rather large section of graffiti from a wall. Like many major cities, graffiti is part of the landscape. We admired the Opera House, then walked through St Sophia Square (which had a remarkable lack of cafes or souvenir stores) to find a place for lunch.

We ended up in a place which had English menus and an English speaking waiter. My starter was borscht soup, and then I couldn’t resist having chicken kiev in Kiev!  The minute vegetable side (one stick of carrot, one stick of celery) was intriguing. The meal, including drinks, came to around £10.00 each. The most expensive item was the bottle of water, which cost us 175 Ukrainian hryvnia. (Around £5.00, so more expensive than our main dish!)

We returned to St Sophia Square and went into the church complex. The church was named after Hagia Sophia in what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul), ‘Holy Wisdom’ rather than a saint. The grounds contain the church, the house of the Metropolitan, as well a bakery and refectory (no longer used). The church was stunning inside, full of frescoes and mosaics. And an injunction not to take photos. There were a many official guardians who kept a beady eye on the visitors, which means I could only sneak photos from a side balcony. The complex is a museum at the moment, not a church, so I cannot understand why photography is banned.

Afterwards we went on to visit the Metropolitan’s residence. Sonja asked about photography, and the answer was ‘Yes, for four dollars.’ This really annoyed me, because the sign on the counter said 20 Ukrainian hryvnia, which is around 75 US cents, NOT four dollars. I told Sonja, next time we should speak in German as we walk in, so that officials don’t try to take advantage of us! 

The bell tower at the entrance offered views from several platforms. Sadly, none of the bells appear to be used any more.

We walked down to a viewpoint over St Andrew’s Church, and then popped into a small church nearby. After that we walked down to Independence Square and popped into a hotel to ask how we could buy tickets for the tram. Although the woman spoke English, I think she misunderstood us, as she tried to send us to the central bus station. So we hopped onto the 18 tram, showed the map of where we were hoping to go, and managed to buy our tickets for the grand sum of 3 Ukrainian hryvnia each.

Then we hit the snag of trying to work out where we should get off. We asked around in the tram, and gathered a group of people who studied our map. Then a woman said in English, ‘This stop!’ And so it was. We took a few minutes to look around so we’ll know for future.

As we’d had a good lunch, we ate snacks in our room whilst relaxing. And finishing off the red wine.

30 March

A far too early start to the morning—6am! Which would have been 4am British time, so the alarm was a very unwelcome sound.

We had breakfast and then caught the 18 bus to Independence Square. We had just enough time for a coffee at McDonald’s, and we had to pay extra for the milk. Then we met up with the guide and his minivan for our two day trip to the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.

At just after 8am we left Kiev. We had a short loo break, but otherwise it was around a two hour drive to the exclusion zone. We had to show our passports, plus sign our lives away on a written contract which none of us bothered to read. I guess if I go back home and my parrot sprouts an extra wing, I’m not allowed to sue the Ukrainian government.

People lived in villages in this area long before the Soviet Union decided to build nuclear power stations here. After the accident, the inhabitants were cleared. We stopped by a small village to look at the deserted buildings. Our guide warned us that, since 2011, no one is allowed to go inside any of the buildings. I guess we could have decided to adhere to the law and not follow him inside the many places we visited over the course of the day.

The town of Chernobyl had existed long before nuclear power stations were built nearby. We admired the church, and the monument to the 188 towns rendered uninhabitable by the accident. The Ukrainian word for ‘wormwood’ is ‘Chornobyl.’ Our guide told us that the destruction of Chernobyl was the fulfilment of prophecy from the biblical book of Revelation, chapter 8: 10-11, which states, 'The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.'

We had lunch at the hotel at which we’d be spending the night. This consisted of a bowl of mushroom soup followed by a pork chop with chips.  After lunch we visited had been a large radar system, constructed as an early warning of nuclear attack from the USA. The complex had been top secret, and hidden away in the forests, and used until satellites took over. We admired the huge construction, and went inside the complex underneath. Sections of the floor have fallen away, and sometimes, in the semi darkness, I could only hope that I wouldn’t fall into one of the gaps.

A dog had decided to accompany us. As we made our way around, we could hear another dog, clearly in distress. Our guide led us to the source of the barking, which was a puppy who had fallen through one of the holes. Our guide lay flat on the floor, and managed to grab the puppy by the scruff of the neck to pull him out. Both dogs followed us around whilst we visited the remains of the school and went up close to the radar system. 

Then we drove to the nuclear plants, visiting other sites in Chernobyl town on the way. I was amazed how close we came to the nuclear reactors, but our guide showed us how low the radiation was in the area. At other places, however, his hand held device bleeped rather alarmingly and he would suggest that we stay on the path rather than venture onto the soil.

Our final stop, late in the afternoon, was at the ghost city of Pripyat. This is where the men and women who worked at the nuclear power stations had lived. The city was evacuated after the accident, and the residents were assured that they’d be back in several days. Of course, they weren’t. The buildings are falling apart, and the trees are taking over. We came across a couple of foxes in the town, in addition to one outside of the city. Again we walked inside buildings hoping that the creaking floorboards would hold our weight, with water occasionally dripping down from broken ceilings onto our necks. Broken glass was everywhere, as well as plaster dust and the occasional glimpse of asbestos.

Our guide left us at the bottom of one apartment block, suggested that the views from the roof were worth seeing, but that he was leaving and we had thirty five minutes to do what we wanted. So of course we went up the seventeen floors, hoping that the stairs and balconies would hold out for our little venture. The roof top, it must be said, felt less than secure, but we did have great views over the town.

Then, as the sun was setting, we drove through the ‘red forest’, the small trees showing where the original forest had been wiped out by the radiation cloud. We had to go through a checkpoint which ensured that none of us had been contaminated by radiation.

At the hotel we dumped our bags in our rooms, enjoyed some beers and dinner, and a good laugh at what we’d seen and the risks we’d taken. 

31 March

Breakfast wasn’t until 8am, so we slept in until 7am. The shared shower and toilet was only across the hall, so rather convenient. Breakfast consisted of an omelette and blinis. The coffee was decent, but only the first cup was free.

The day was overcast and cold. We stopped off at the town’s very small convenience store. I bought a souvenir mug and a fridge magnet. We drove to the unfinished cooling towers. Construction had halted after the nuclear accident. To wander around inside the tall cylinders felt eerie, and the walkways we used were definitely less than safe. We also viewed the abandoned catfish farm and mink farm. The cages of the latter made me shudder. 

Then back to Pripyat. We visited the hospital, a couple of schools, a cafe near the waterfront (with beautiful stained glass windows),  piano store, an electronic goods store, the fire station, and the police station. By now I was beginning to reach my fill of abandoned buildings. The guide showed us a piece of highly contaminated clothing, which set his radiation counter squealing in warning.

Rain started around noon, so we were ducking in and out of the showers to go inside the buildings. We had lunch at the works canteen near the nuclear reactor. A large number of people are employed to help decommission all of the reactors in the area. The food was edible, just.

Then we headed out of the exclusion zone and back to Kiev. We had to go through several checks to ensure that none of us had been contaminated, and our minibus was also checked twice. The guide showed us a film of Pripyat before the accident. The city looked like a lovely place to live, and so very different that what we’d walked around.

We arrived back in Kiev around 5.30pm. Goodbyes were said, and Sonja and I caught the bus back to our hostel.

1 April

We had a lie in until 8am, which was very welcome. After a leisurely breakfast, we down into the city. We walked along the main shopping street, admiring the buildings and hoping that the grey skies wouldn't turn into rain. The goal was to do some souvenir shopping. Many major international brands were displayed in the store fronts, but not much for tourists. After popping into the indoor covered market (which offered slabs of octopus as well as other meats, fruit, and vegetables) we had lunch in a brew pub. My order of smoked pork ribs didn’t come with any vegetables, and there wasn't even the option to order some as a side dish. The dark beer, however, was excellent.

Then a long walk past St Andrew's Church and down a long, bendy street. Now we encountered dozens of souvenir stalls, set up on either side of the street. Many of the items you might expect to find were on display, such as the nesting Russian dolls and painted wooden eggs. For some reason, many old cameras also featured. Some women were selling home made stuffed toys, and several wood turners also had their handicrafts on display. Some of the Russian dolls were quite inventive, trading the usual doll painting for Angry Birds, Minions, and one even had a 'Star Wars' theme. Darth Vader was the outermost, then inside was a Stormtrooper, a Chewbacca, I think Han Solo, and the smallest was an Ewok.

Our destination was the Chernobyl Museum. Several of the vehicles used in the clean up were parked outside. The entrance lobby featured a display sent from Japan, small shapes which had been painted by people evacuated from the area contaminated after the Fukushima nuclear power plant had been affected by a tsunami. 

Several large display rooms held items from those who had worked (and died) to stop the radiation leakage and then to clear up afterwards. TV screens showed videos of the accident and the clear up. Although we'd paid an entrance fee, and an extra fee to take photos, yet another fee was asked of us should we wish to see an explanatory movie. We declined out of principle. 

One room was set aside to commemorate the children of the towns affected by the nuclear accident. We stopped to look at the photos of how Pripyat had looked before the evacuation. It was hard to believe that this was the same decaying city we'd explored just the day before. 

As I like to try out the metros of other countries, we ventured into the underground, and with the help of a young man who spoke some English, we bought the tokens (rather than tickets) which we fed into the turnstiles before going down to the platforms. Two stops later, we were at the Independence Square station, where we got lost before working out where the exit was. One of the longest escalator rides of my life brought up to the Square, bathed in afternoon sunshine.

We headed back to the hostel, and packed for our trip to Odessa. Rather than work out how to get to the train station for our 9.15pm overnight train, we asked the hostel staff to book us a taxi. The drive took only ten minutes, and cost us around £1.50. The station itself is a grand structure. We wandered around, as we had arrived an hour before our departure, and by sheer luck our train came up as we were walking past the platform. So by 8.30pm we'd boarded and made ourselves at home in our twin bedded, first class carriage. Bottles of sparkling water and a small pack of toiletries were on our table. Several toilets were on either end of the carriage, which could only be used when the train was moving. Sadly, there was no water from the sink taps.

We went to bed soon after that, as the train was due to pull into Odessa at 6.19am the next morning.

2 April

The bed was surprisingly comfortable, and my first ever night on a train passed pleasantly enough. The 5.30am alarm was still very unwelcome. The train steward brought us a glass of hot water and a tea bag. I dumped a coffee bag into the water instead, and we munched on breakfast bars and dried fruit.

At the train station, we had a coffee and then I had no option but to use the station's toilets. These were the hole in the ground sort (I call it 'squat and hope') and there were no doors to the stalls.

By 7am we were walking through the quiet streets towards the Black Sea, We passed through an amusement park, then a monument which seemed to be for those who had lost their lives in WWII. A query to a passerby sent us done to 'Nemo Hotel and Spa with Dolphins.' We went to the roof terrace, where I had a coffee and tried not to dwell on the horror of a hotel which offered a swim with captive dolphins. I detest the cruelty involved with any cetacean being held in captivity.

Around 9am we asked the hotel to order a taxi to take us to the City Garden, to save us both time and foot ache. The 15 minute ride dropped us off in the old part of Odessa. We had an hour long tour on a small electric bus, stopping off at various points. Later we explored further on foot. To my great sorrow, the Potemkin Steps are shut off as these are undergoing repair. 

Families were out in force on this bright spring day. Numerous food and craft stalls lined the streets. A half dozen ponies and horses stood waiting the opportunity to take people for a ride up and down the street. We had an early lunch, admired the Passage Hotel (a covered arcade built over a hundred years ago with shops on the ground floor and hotel rooms above), and visited the cathedral. The cathedral was a mixture of white marble and gold leaf. In common with many Orthodox churches, there were many icons and no seating. No photography was allowed, but as many people were coming in to pray, I didn't mind.

We started to make our way back to the train station, stopping off for a coffee and piece of cake along the way. We passed a synagogue and a mosque before going into another church. A service was in full flow, with men and women regularly kneeling and kissing the ground. The priest came past with incense, stopping to cense the various icons.

Then on to the station. We paid to enter the 'enhanced comfort waiting room’ and killed time until we went outside to check for our train platform. Sadly, as I’d booked rather late, our sleeping compartment was second class rather than first. There were two lower and two upper bunks, and although we had been given the number of our bunks, there was no indication which were meant to be ours. We made up the lower bunks and made ourselves comfortable.

A single man came to share our compartment. He spoke little English, and we couldn’t work out which country he came from. We worked out that he was getting off the train at 2am, and the cabin steward informed us that he should have a bottom bunk and we too were booked into the top ones. But the man insisted that I could stay down, whilst Sonja moved to a top bunk.

I did my best to sleep. The man spoke on his phone, and when he left at 2am, two women came to the cabin. The older one brought in a whiff of garlic and indignation, as it appeared that both of them were expecting bottom bunks. But they made up the top bunk and both went to bed. The one on the bunk opposite me snored in garlic until we all got up around 7am. 

3 April

The train pulled into Kiev at 10.38am. The two women had disembarked around 8.30am, so Sonja and I had the cabin on our own. ‘Do you think they have wifi?’ Sonja asked me. ‘The toilet doesn’t have running water,’ I pointed out, ‘and you expect wifi?’ We both agreed first class was the better way to go.

All we wanted was to get back to our hostel and have a shower. So we took a taxi, neglecting to fix a fee in advance and therefore paid well over the odds for the short trip (more like £6.00 rather than the £1.50 we’d paid a couple of days previously).  

Although both of us felt rather tired, we headed down to the city centre to view a few last sights. The weather was bright and warm. We walked up to the Chimera House, a hundred year old building covered with animal sculptures. The President of Ukraine lives in there now, so sadly one cannot visit inside. After a break for an ice cream and coffee, we walked down to view St Michael’s. We had hoped to also visit inside St Andrew’s, but it’s closed for renovations. Continuing our religious theme, we used the metro to get us to St Volodymyr’s Cathedral. 

Then back to the hostel, where we made a pasta dinner, packed, and shared a bottle of Ukrainian wine between us.

4 April

And not much to report from my last morning. An easy taxi ride back to the airport, flight back to England, and the fun of catching a POD back to my car. Now all I have to do is face all the jokes about being contaminated by radiation!

Many thanks to Sonja for being such a great travel companion.

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