After breakfast, we began a nice morning stroll across the city to meet up with our van. The weather is surprisingly nice- overcast but calm and halfway between cool and chilly
. Being a Sunday morning, the place is almost deserted. Of course the irony being that by day’s end I would truly understand what it would mean for a place to be deserted. But Kyiv gleamed in the morning light. No bustling business, no honking traffic. Just a city taking her morning stretch before the day truly begins.
We met our van and joined 7 other tourist for 2.5 hour drive north to visit the site of the worst nuclear disaster on record. In April of 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant experienced a catastrophic meltdown and explosion that released more radioactive material than 100 Hiroshima sized atomic bombs. The toxic cloud swept west across Europe, leaving a trail of ecological disaster. But nowhere was the impact more severe than at the site itself. The reactor itself was sealed in a concrete sarcophagus, which has sealed off the reactions inside for 25 years from the outside world. Although the leaked radiation killed forests, poisoned rivers, and continues to make living in the area toxic, scientists can only speculate what chemical processes are going on in side the sarcophagus. Some believe that entirely new, undiscovered elements may have developed.
Thousands of Ukrainian (Soviet at the time) citizens lived within 30 kilometers of the reactor
. The town of Chernobyl is 18 km to the south. The company town of Pripyat, largest in the area, was home to over 50,000 people on the day of the disaster, and lies only a few short kilometers to the north of the reactor. Initially all citizens were ordered to be evacuated from the 30 km radius, taking only what they had in their hands, leaving everything else behind. Since then, a few older, more stubborn citizens have made their way back to the villages where they grew up, and where generations before them had lived. But most of these ‘villages’ now only have a population of 2 or 5 or maybe as many as 15, and almost all villagers are in their 70s or older. But in Pripyat, which is within the 10km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, no citizens were ever allowed to return. The result is a truly deserted city. A veritable ghost down. As we pulled into the city, I honestly expected hordes of zombies to come lumbering out of alleyways. Trees had overgrown gardens and parking lots. Windows broken. Infrastructure crumbling all around. It was one of the eeriest experiences of my life. I’ve visited wild west ghost towns like Bodie, CA, which is cartoonish by comparison. This place was abandoned. Left behind. Fled. It gave me the spooks. We first walked into the abandoned Ministry of Culture, with a dark, dripping theater, shattered glass all over the floor, a peeling Soviet era mural adorning the wall above the main staircase. Then to another building, with an old library. Books strewn about the floor willy nilly
. An empty violin case on the floor. As we continued walking through the town, sometimes clambering over fallen limbs and rotten overgrowth, we encountered a carnival that had just been set up in town before the disaster, with it’s iconic yellow Ferris wheel towering over the landscape. Bumper cars rotted in a melancholy shelter, blanketed with years of old leaves. Then on to the old high school, with all the tools of the trade hidden behind and beneath the detritus of time. It’s hard to imagine that it was once a place of learning, and now is just a broken snapshot of a time long gone. I can’t imagine any place on earth more acutely capturing the essence of what a ghost town really is; this city bore the striking images of humankind’s nuclear epithet.
After a long day in Chernobyl, and a seemingly endless drive back to Kiev, I was wiped. I mean, Chernobyl was a blast. I had a real glowing day. But, upon returning to the city at night, I was reinvigorated with the prospects of what lay before me in this amazing city. The next two days will be jam-packed with all the sight this city can offer (or that we can handle). Our walk back to the hotel this evening included fire-eaters, a helping of borscht, and an interesting experience shopping in the local supermarket for breakfast items and snacks for the next few days. Not knowing any of the Cyrillic alphabet, I feel truly illiterate, unable to even read a sign or label. Unable to even sound out letters to say words I don’t understand. But just wandering down the aisles of any supermarket is always a great cultural experience when traveling. Now that I’m stocked with food, I’m ready for whatever adventures tomorrow brings!
**Note- for the first time, I've added some video to my blog entry. Not the best quality, but at least something different. See the videos at the bottom!
Today started like any other day, I suppose. The alarm went off. I grumpily rolled in my bed to turn it off. Reaching over, I thought to myself, “that’s not the sound my alarm makes.” Then I remembered, I’m in Ukraine! Sleeping on the top bunk in a cool little hostel near the center of Kiev (or Kyiv to the Ukrainians). I roll out of bed, guzzle some water to try to calm the fish hooks that still seem to be lining my throat (reminding me that I’m still actually recovering from the flu), and stumble through an expedited morning routine. No time to dilly dally this morning. Today, I made my way to Chernobyl. In any other year, this would probably be the most bizarre placed I’ve visited, but it still ranks up there.