what did you do Saturday?

A nice early start Saturday morning, which made a change from the weekend before when I had another nice early start to swap the engine and ‘box on one of the cars. I’ll blog that later.

We met up outside Ikon. I’d gotten there a touch earlier than the others and did some people watching. It was gone 7am yet the club opposite was still allowing people to enter. When the others arrived we started the twenty minute walk to our pick-up via a stop to McDonalds. It’s always interesting ordering items in another country when you don’t speak their language. Neal seemed to be a bit of a pro at it yet my attempt to order the same as him failed until the lady at the counter brought out the idiot board so I could point at the pictures. Maccy D’s tastes the same in all countries it seems. The sausage is as joyously greasy and the eggs just as potent. Our journey continued and when we got to the end we settled down. Coats were off at this point as the earlier rain had cleared and it was already getting warm and very humid. We had stopped off at the supermarket we’d end up using all weekend on the way. The pastries there were surprisingly good but the main reason was for water for the day ahead. It took me almost three days to get the hang of not accidentally buying carbonated water. They appear to go mad for the salty fizzy stuff out there. Phil and Rob had bought some bread and cheese so settled down to a picnic as I showed off the photos of curious animal prints and strange Jesus themed painting from my apartment I’d taken with my phone.

Soon we twigged that our chariot had arrived and we went and joined the crowd for the Mercedes Sprinters. What we thought was going to be a quiet trip with just eight people transpired to be a day out for over 30. Not ideal but nothing could be done. We (actually it was mostly Kevin, Dennis and Neal) sorted out the money so we were all square for the rooms and that days trip as Neal, Rob and Kevin had paid out for the rooms the night before and then we hopped onto the second of the two vans.

We had Nick, a PhD student in ours who we were able to ask all sorts of questions. He’s doing his thesis on tourism so gets lots of trips to Chernobyl. Oh, did I forget to state where we were going?

The long drive was… interesting. The roads out there are crap and our driver wasn’t the worlds best at over taking. He always forgot to pull back in and only drove on the correct side of the road when an oncoming car got within two feet of his front bumper. There was an old CRT at the front of the van which played a constantly jumping video about Chernobyl. What happened, why and where went on afterwards. Neal, Kevin and me were in the back row with Dennis and Rob in front of us and Phil in front of them. We probably ruined the trip for everyone else with our loud talking and laughing. The scenery to Chernobyl was amazing too. Looking out the window and seeing all the different houses and cars was like looking out into another world. Which I guess in many ways, it is.

We pulled up to the boarder control and were allowed to stretch our legs and take some snaps before getting out our passports to be checked by the guards. Back onto the vans we jumped and were driven to a cafe area. This is were we had our briefing for the day ahead by our guide, Yuriy. He’s an interesting chap! Mental and serious at the same time. Nick read out the list of rules whilst Yuriy changed his clothes and we signed the forms which pretty much said “if you die a horrible death because of today it’s your fault”.

Yuriy hopped into the lead van and we could hear his voice over CB radio. Our van followed his and he described what we passed as we drove along. At this point I was beginning to wonder what was going to happen that day. We appeared to be driving past all the interesting places and not stopping. I needn’t of worried as we often double backed on ourselves. We stopped at an abandoned laboratory next to a lake, a monument to the firefighters whose courage saved many lives at the cost of their own and then headed to the local shop to buy water. The whole site is still highly active and this is where they buy their local groceries. It was like stepping back to a 50’s America.

Back onto the vans again and lots more driving. It’s pointless reeling off a list of where we went and stopped. My memory won’t allow me to and you’d get bored. Points of note however were the bridge where we saw a mahoosive catfish, a half built reactor which was abandoned and obviously reactor four. This is the site of the large kaboom on 26th April 1986. You can find all the info you want about it and what’s happening now on wiki and it’s far too much to write on here. One point of note is that it wasn’t until 15th December 2000 that the site actually stopped producing power when reactor #3 was turned off. I personally found this extremely surprising. We never got to see the vehicle graveyard. Rumour has it that it’s too radioactive for people to see. The truth is that it’s been sold off for scrap to the Chinese. Our next stop was Pripyat.

Again, wiki has all the info you need but the synopsis is that it was a city created for the workers and families of the nuclear plants which was later abandoned. Yuriy took us to many places, up to the top of a couple of buildings, the school and the fairground being some. I missed out on the pool as I got lost in the school and spent my time making asbestos angels instead. We can’t go into most of the buildings in Pripyat. Partly because they are unsafe due to decay and also because they’ve been stripped leaving boring shells. In fact, soon no-one will be allowed into the buildings as they’re concerned about the safety of it. One sobering sight was all the gas masks. The floor of the kitchen and cafeteria of the school was full of them, as was a room at the top. Each one a child’s mask.

Then that was it, the tours was done for the day. The only thing left to do was to eat. After we’d been tested for radiation of course! A fun little contraption was used which you have to stand on and place your hands onto the metal plates on the top. Green means good, red means bad. Very bad. The machine must have a sense of humour as although we all passed it some people had a bit of a wait before it showed them the green light.

The food was alright, sort of. The starter was a salad with a form of salami and pate on the side then it was onto the main. I’d never had borscht before. It’s a simple soup made from beetroot and not at all enjoyable. It came complete with random bits of meat floating in it. They do things differently in the Ukraine and next up was mashed potato and mystery meat surprise with a side of meat stuffed pancake parcels. Nick (the PhD student) was at my table and was telling me how in the previous weeks they’d not been able to tell whether it was pork or beef. When we first arrived we saw a large number of cats wandering outside yet when we left there were less. I think that answers any questions.

After successfully keeping down the meal it was time to go back through the boarder control after another radiation check at a much more elaborate and far larger machine. The drive home was just as eventful as the one to the site. The driver most definitely had his foot down and overtaking was a little more exciting.

That night we revisited Ikon where I had a nice cold beef salad and some ropey Corona. The food at this place was excellent but we didn’t make it back there again for the rest of the trip. I could happily eat there every day if I ever had to. We then retired to our beds a little later than planned. We needed plenty of sleep for tomorrows drive to Pervomaysk.

Chernobyl

Pripyat

meeting up and the first night

Back in April some people I knew were mumbling about a rather different trip from the norm. This turned out to be perfect timing for me due to various events at the time and was the catalyst for a rather excellent long weekend.

On Friday 27th August I was meant to meet up with some people at Gatwick at 8am. This meant getting up at 4:30 so I chose to get a later train and sweatily staggered into Frankie and Bennys ten minutes before check in at 9am. I’d only ever met Neal before so sat down at the table with Dennis, Rob, Neal and Kevin and as they tucked into their breakfast I quietly recovered from the crispy chili beef and special fried rice I’d eaten the night before. When they finished I took custody of Dave the Duck and we made our way to the desk for Ukrainian Airlines.

Kevin and Rob had slightly… over packed their carry-on so as they gritted their teeth and managed to get through the procedure without question the rest of us talked and got to know each other. Then Phil, Dennis’ wifes cousin (cheers for the correction, Dr D!) arrived. Unfortunately because he was behind us it meant we weren’t able to take up the entire back row of the plane and I had a random next to me for the flight, but he slept the whole time which was welcomed and allowed Dennis and me to shoot some breeze. Rob, Neal and Kevin took up the naughty side of the plane for the flight leaving England.

Touching down in Kiev we were slightly perplexed when the head stewardess finished her welcoming speech with “good bye, and good luck”. Well, that’s a lie. What the five of us actually did was burst out laughing for the whole plane to hear. Speaking of the plane, I’m not sure it was the newest model in their fleet. The CRT monitors down the center of the aisle and 8-track in an overhead locker being the give-aways.

Leaving the plane by steps and bus was painless. Getting through passport control wasn’t so much. No-one seemed to be doing anything and rather than an orderly queue behind the big signs saying “foreigners” a mob was forming. Eventually we were allowed into the country thanks to the oh so pleasant airport staff. Maybe eating too much borscht makes them grumpy and mildly surly? Afterwards off we went to find out taxi – a rather nice Mercedes. The driver was an interesting character. After almost scraping the side of the van getting out of the carpark he picked up a passenger and whilst looking back to us said “nice girl, yes?” It would have been rude to disagree, most likely insulting to her and would have been a lie. Let’s get this straight, Ukrainian women, or at least the ones in Kiev are stunning. They turn gay men straight and straight men to jelly. And… I’ll stop there!

The weather was shite and the driving iffy, but we got to our apartments. We were renting three between the six of us. Dennis and Phil took the two bed one, Rob wanted to share with Kevin to use his sensor cleaning equipment and so Neal and I competed in a mighty battle of rock, paper, scissors to see who would share with them and who would be Billy no-mates. I was valiantly defeated and got the apartment to myself which turned out to be a blessing. I got to shower and do what bears and the pope do in the woods as and when I wanted. And I had the only apartment which came with obscene amounts of lurid animal print which made all the others jealous!

Later that evening we met up in a club come restaurant called Ikon. I really liked the place. The food was good and there was a naked lady in one of the toilets. Ok, she was only painted onto the walls but she was nice. Not sure who did her make-up though! Luckily I did nothing more dodgy than take a photo of her as people at the bar could see through the spinning propeller blades on the wall next to the throne. You should be getting an idea of how epic this place was now. Most of us had the chicken Kiev – it seemed the right thing to do! It was stuffed with crab meat and was ever so tasty! I wasn’t sure mine was cooked all the way through but so far I seem to have passed the 72 hour food poising scare so should be safe. They also had Hoegaarden on draft. It would have been rude not to have one, so some of us had two. In half liter glasses of course! Oh, I almost forgot to mention the snail and caterpillar animation playing behind a clear glass panel which had water running down it and the other toilet full of ears!

After a few jokes, a bit of banter and getting the attractive waitress to take our photo we retired to our homes for the next few nights. Tomorrow we were off to a place which made the news in quite a big way in 1986.