2008: I first visited Ukraine in November, 2008 with my friend Dan to the Black Sea port city of Odessa. On that trip, Dan and I traveled via public trnasportation from the Modovan break-away republic of Trandinistr to odessa and spend a few days exploring odessa. I realized after my first visit to Ukraine that I needed to return. The country is just too big and amazing and it deserved another visit if not many more visits.

My friend Dan and I in a booth at the Odessa Opera house

Old Town, Odessa

January 2015: My 2nd visit was part of a larger Eastern Europe trip with my friend Frank  to visit the nuclear power plant of Chernobyl and the ghost town of Pripyat that was evacuated during Soviet times when Chernobyl had a meltdown releasing lethal doses of radiation into the environment. During the trip we also stayed with an elederly family in their home in a rural village along the outskirts of the Chernobyl exclusionary zone.

About Chernobyl

Location of Chernobyl in Ukraine

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown in 1986 was the world’s worst nuclear disasters. The meltdown of its nuclear core killed at least 100 immediately in the days that followed and in the years that followed it is extimated that thousands may have died from the impacts of radiation exposure. Due to the radiation comtamination from Chernobyl, a huge swathe of land in Ukraine and Belarus is restricted and is uninhabitable. To enter the exclusionary zone, a special permit must be obtained and for us to obtain it our fixer needed to apply a week in advance. To reach Chrnobyl, we first needed to fly into Kiev, the capitol of Ukraine and the closest major city to Chernobyl. 

Kiev and Ongoing Conflict in Eastern Ukraine

Day 1: Frank and I arrived in Ukraine during a tumultous time, which sadly has become all too common for Ukraine. President, Viktor Yanukovych, widely believed to be a puppet of President Putin and brpught into power via a sham election, was just overthrown via a bloody revolution only a year before our trip and burnt building facades were still evident in the main square in front of the Kiev Hotel,  a large imposing Sovier era hotel overlooking the swuare, where we stayed in Kiev. Then in the far east of the country in the Donbass region, a was was underway between the Ukrainian government and Russian separatists that were widely believed to be supported by Putin. The war ,although far away from Kiev, left a very real impact on the entire country.

Kiev Main Square with Martyr Memorials and Hotel Kiev in the Background

Refugees, who fled the war were living in the street, in the airport, and even in the lobby of our hotel. It was depressing to see so many uprooted families with no where to go in the cold of winter.  Another side effect of war is inflation. The Ukrainian currency was crashing and even though this was a benefit to me, since prices for almost everything were very low, it was a menace to the people of Ukraine. When I changed money at the airport, a crush of Ukrainians residing in the airport pushed up against me all struggling to be the first to buy my US dollars, which were far more stable and resistance to inflation than the ruble. Once I finished my transaction, a desperate struggle ensued amng the Ukrainians pushing behind me to be the first to exchange worthless rubles for my dollars.

Our hotel overlooked the main square. All throughout the main square there were small shrines in memorial to theUkrainians who died in the revoultion to overthrow President, Yanukovych and in the conflict currently raging in the east of the country. There were candle light vigils full of people singing folk songs, anti-Putin murals. There was definitely a heavy mournful feeling present in the country.

Monuments Adorned with Anti-Putin Signs in Main Square

Martyr Photos from Revolution

Frank met a few Ukrainian girls on Tinder-a dating phone app, and we met them at a dessert shop. They were college aged girls, who spoke english and were outspoken about their beliefs that Russia has been meddling in Ukrainian affairs, which led up to the revoution. Both girls recounted the terror they experienced during the revolution and a friend of one of the girl’s, who was protesting was shot by a government sniper.  

Frank in our room in the old Soviet Hotel, Hotel Kiev

The city of Kiev was a delight to explore. One of the highlights was the Eastern Orthodox church-St. Michaels that was constructed in the 1700s.

St. Michaels Golden-Domed Cathedral

Young Boy Saying a Prayer at St. Michaels Eastern Orthodox Church

Day in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Day 2: We left early in the morning to Chernobyl in a small Russian jeep bus with a guide and handful of other tourists. Chernobyl was becoming a so called dark tourism destination and had begun to attract international tourists. After a few hours of driving, we passed a military checkpoint and our permits were checked by soldiers. Then as we entered the exclusion zone, a thousand square mile area of forest with abandoned old wooden houses and vestiges from the Soviet era. The exclusion zone is a glimpse into the Soviet past frozen in time and also into the a post apocalypto future.  In the exclusion zone, nature has reclaimed the land, and forests are now starting to grow from buildings, retaking streets and animals like wolves, moose and bear that were once locally extinct are now thriving with the absense of people.

With our guide, we were free to explore the ghost town of Pripyat. The cold, blustery, wintery weather added to the zombie invasion, post apocalyptic feel of the place, especially since there were no other groups visiting the exclusion zone. We visited a highschool, amusement park, nursery, elementary school, radar towers and finally the nuclear power plant itself that was in the process of being covered in a new modern more permanent sarcophagus to contain its radiation. There are thousands of places to visit in the exclusion zone but most places are restricted to tourists because they are deemed too dangerous because of radiation or structural instability. 

Me Posing in Front of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Ghost Town of Pripyat

Pripyat Amusement Park

Pripyat Amusement Park

Nursery

Elementary School

Elementary School

Nursery

Nursery

Nursery

Radiation

Radiation Warning Sign

To visit Chernobyl means you will be exposed to radiation. Everything in the exclusion zone is contaminated with radiation. Some areas have more contamination than in others. Although most areas, not all, are safe if you only visit for a day, you need to follow your guide who understands where the dangerous areas are located. Our guide also had a gieger counter that measured radiation levels and he was constatntly taking readings. There were a few random places that had dangerously high levels and so we avoided them. Radiation levels soraed as we appraoched the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and we did not stay in the area for long.

There are three types of radiation in Chernobyl; alpha, beta and gamma rays. All are dangerous but  gamma rays are the most lethal and can easily pass through the human body causing mutations to DNA. The closer you get to the power plant, the more likely you will encounter gamma rays. With this in mind, we didn’t longer around the power plant.

Measuring for Radiation

Apartment Bloc We Climbed

Dead dog in the apartment building. Citizens of Chernobyl were not allowed to bring their pets when the town was evacuated, and most were euthanized, however some survived and at night bands of these dogs take to the streets fighting for territory 

View from top of apartment building of Pripyat

Inside the apartment building

Gas masks and an old school book with Lenin on the cover

Apartment Bloc Interior

Pile of gas masks that someone emptied out on to the floor from storage boxes located in one of the Pripyat Buildings

Duga Radar Towers

We visited the Duma Radar Towers, which just recently just became accessible to tourists. The Duma radar towers were once extremely top secret and were used to detect incoming nuclear missiles during Soviet times. We were free to walk among the tower and climb as high as we comfortably given its rickety unstable appearance.

Radar Towers

Climbing the rickety towers

Soviet Murals

Soviet Murals

Guard Booth

Gas Ganisters and Soviet Red Star

During the days of the Soviet Union, all missiles in Ukraine were pointed towards Europe and the USA. Now the missiles are pointed towards Russia or Belarus, a strong ally of Russia. While in the exclusion zone I observed military hardware in a distant field, and I asked our guide what it was, and his explanation was that it was a portable anti-aircraft battery aimed towards the border of Belarus in the event that Russia were to launch an invasion from there.  

Anti-aircraft missile battery aimed at Belarus 

Upon departing the exclusion zone, we needed to pass through radiation detectors that scan our clothes and shoes for the presence of radiation that we could un-intentionally carry out. Luckily we were negative for radiation. I would hate to think what happans when you are positive.

Me In Radiation detector

Homestay in Village Outside Chernobyl

Day 3-4: I arranged the first home stay in the Chernobyl area. Initially when I requested this opportunity with a Ukrainian fixer, they said there was no such thing. I convinced our fixer to ask around, and she was able to find an elderly couple in her village that would host us for a night. On our way out of the Chernobyl exclusionary zone, we were dropped off at the village, where our fixer met us and introduced us to the couple. They didn’t speak english snd for the short time that our fixer was with us she would translate but outside of then, we would just communicate with them via sign language and a russian translation book. The husband informed us that he used to work in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant as an electrician when he was young and he expressed with strong non-verbals how sad the catastrophe was. 

Me with Our Hosts

The village we stayed in

Our Homestay Host

Our hosts lived in a humble home, with a detached outhouse for a bathroom-although they did a great job in making their outhouse very cozy. They were both retired and living off f a meager government pension. We really enjoyed our stay. It was obvious that they didn’t have a lot of luxuries and lived a difficult life but they were vey hospitable and made sure to treat us well. They cooked us a traditional meal made out of local foods. All Vegetables were made from the garden, and pickled in the kitchen, water was hauled manually from the well, vodka made from local potatoes and meat from local village animals. The house was heated via the combustion of firewood that would in turn heat up hot water that sould circulate throughout the house. This type of heating meant the temperature was increbily hot inside and it was hard to sleep at night. 

Even though we weren’t able to communicate well with our hosts, we managed to find ways to express ourselves and we enjoyed each other’s company, and for me the homemade vodka in a giant jar our hosts shared with us definitely assisted with this process.

To provide the elderly couple living on a small government pension  a little extra income, we left them some money in the morning before departure via public transportation back to Kiev.

I was pleased to hear later on from our Ukrainian fixer, that because of my idea, she was starting a homestay program for tourists in rural villages around Chernobyl to help benefit the struggling rural economy.

Group of Villagers I met at the local store

Our Homestay House

Family room mantle with a photo depicting our host proudly displaying a rabbit he hunted, religion and some cool looking fish 

Rural Village

Home cooked meal

The bed Frank and I had to share in our homestay

13 + 14 =

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