As if our down to the wire panic attack to make the bus to Chernobyl wasn’t enough, it was another down to the last minute effort to make a bus that would take us to the border town of Lviv in Western Ukraine.
We ran back to our hostel (and having lost Andrew along the way), threw our stuff in our bags, and scrambled up and down the streets of Kiev, trying to make sense of a map that I could have been reading upside down, with 17 other people in the group who either trusted me or thought they knew better on how to get there (and they probably did).
Add that to slippery icy streets, the darkness of winter, and the fact we had lost Andrew…and you got yourself another heart attack in the making.
Kiev Central AV Bus Station
Luckily we ran into Andrew on the way out of the hostel (God bless him for finding a way back on his own) and we thanked our lucky charms nobody slipped and cracked their head open on the icy streets. Down to constant rushing, the bus also waited for us as we arrived to the station 10min late.
The stars must have been aligned in our favor that day.
We then passed out on our 9 hour overnight bus ride to Lviv.
Lviv Bus Station at 5am
From the Lviv Bus Station we borrowed a fellow traveler’s phone to reorient ourselves and then we took Bus #10 from the bus station to the train station at 6:15am to drop off our luggage at train station’s left luggage facility.
Lviv Train Station
From there we headed onwards on Tram #9 to Ploschka Rynok, Lviv’s UNESCO World Heritage city center, where we wandered around a bit.
Visited a cafe that literally has its own underground coffee bean mine to explore and,,..have coffee in.
We then met up with a friend of a friend, Tolic, who lives in Lviv and wanted to show us around. So first order of business in Ukraine: grab beer and grub at Kryjivka, an underground bar (same building as the restaurant Mason) where you need a password to get past AK-47 wielding guards.
Dining at Kryjivka will get you a discount to eat upstairs at the very expensive Mason, a Free Mason themed restaurant. To find it upstairs, you first need to find the right apartment. And once you do, an old man will open the door and give you a puzzled look of “who are you and why do you want to come in?”
Be insistent on entering this old man’s random living space. If you’re stubborn enough, he’ll lead you past some curtains into a decked out Free Mason restaurant.
Afterwards we went up to the city center tower, which costs 10UAH and a crapload of burnt calories for a 10min slog to the top.
We then popped some champagne
We then were taken to a nearby Jewish-themed restaurant, Under the Golden Rose, where supposedly there are no prices; you haggle the price of the food you order. Not sure if that’s supposed to be flattering (according to the owner, he created the restaurant to honor the city’s Jewish past), but I wouldn’t be surprised if this place got dinged for its stereotyping (for which I’m not a fan).
The restaurant is also known for having a car on its roof and for its views.
Then we hiked up High Castle Hill to get sweeping views of the sunset over Lviv:
Afterwards, we headed back down to the city center, playing Coldplay, Jimmy Eat World and other sunset-fitting songs.
We visited a few churches and then headed to Gaslamp, a gaslight-themed restaurant for dinner. Lviv seems to love its themed-restaurant concept.
A guard explains to us the theme of the place prior to entering...check out Ruchika's expression.
Due to the the size of our group, we were able to snag a private room for free and without reservations. And here we are, having dinner and taking naps from a really really long day.
Tomorrow: Krakow, Poland — Auschwitz, Auschwitz Bircanaeu, and Oskar Schindler’s Factory from Schindler’s List.
- At time of posting in Lviv, it was -4 °C -
Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
Our first full group photo; some of us didn't know whether to smile or keep a straight face...
The Pripyat Ferris Wheel just got served
Close your eyes. It is April 25, 1986.
Imagine if you had to leave everything you knew behind: A split second decision no time to pack. Imagine not being allowed to return home because your neighborhood Soviet nuclear power plant has just exploded. Imagine that less than a mile away, the world’s worst nuclear disaster has taken place.
This is the true story of Chernobyl.
Enough has been documented about what went wrong at the plant: An unnecessary (and ironic) safety procedure was being carried out one morning and in a smorgasboard of a perfect storm, everything went to hell and the plant exploded.
First responders who came to help put out the fires and clean up the debris died within hours of acute radiation poisoning. Pilots who flew sandbags back and forth to the area to smother the flames and radiation died within days. Miners who dug tunnels to patch up the leaking molten radioactive lava died never lived past 40. Entire generations in the Eastern European bloc would suffer from radiation sickness worth 400 atomic bombs.
Memorial to those first responders who died putting out the initial fires of Chernobyl
The entire population of the nearby town of Pripyat were forced to evacuate their homes within 3 hours of notice, packing only a passport and nothing larger than a suitcase. Although they were reassured they would be allowed to come back in a few days, they never did.
Passing by one of a few abandoned villages on our way to Chernobyl
Today the plant continues to be contained by worldwide efforts with production of a new steel sarcophagus to support the already existing but crumbling concrete slabs that’s keeping in the radiation. Pripyat and its iconic amusement park, remains a true ghost town in every sense of the word.
The question on most people’s minds would be: is it safe to visit? The short and only answer everyone needs to hear is: Yes, it is. A Geiger counter we had with us measured radiation levels to be less than what it was in the capital of Kiev. And it was even far less than the radiation anyone would get when flying on an airplane. Although there are certain hotspot areas that are restricted, the places where you are allowed to visit are certainly kosher.
We even ate lunch at the site:
It was actually pretty decent
Walking out after lunch
Chernobyl has been a destination for curious, alternative, “off the beaten path” travelers for many years now, and there have been no reports of radiation poisoning given that the appropriate responsibilities are ensured. And since the new steel sarcophagus is due to be completed by the end of this year, this would be our last chance to see the Chernobyl plant in its freeze-frame snapshot as how it looked like exactly as it did on April 25, 1986.
Driving towards the iconic Chernobyl plant
The new steel sarcophagus
Chernobyl just got served
The tour lasts about 4.5 hours and is about a 2 hour drive north from Kiev.
Pripyat is one of those oppotunities of seeing what happens if time all of a sudden stopped. Pots still on the stove, newspapers half read still on the dining table, children’s toys strewn about on the floor…like North Korea, this is the closest we’re ever going to get to time travel, short of actually having a time machine.
Entrance into Pripyat
The long road into Pripyat
"Don't go up the stairs," they said. So I did.
Somebody left behind their shoes
Heading onwards further deeper into town, we came across the abandoned town theater, which we decided to spelunk.
Anyone who’s played Call of Duty Modern Warfare (I know I know) will recognize this iconic Ferris Wheel. This is it!
After seeing the Ferris Wheel, the sun began to set. For anyone who endured the horror movie “The Chernobyl Diaries” will know why it’s a bad idea to stay after dark.
Nobody wants vengeful mutants chasing after them on their winter vacation.
Afterwards they do the responsible thing and check if our radiation levels remains in the safe range before letting us go back home.
Say what you will about visiting Chernobyl, but it’s a completely different thing to see pictures instead of actually being there. It’s a different feeling to be able to smell the air and feel the snow crunching beneath your feet, as pictures you once saw in history textbooks and on Google Images come alive before your eyes.
So in pulling an all nighter after last night’s festivities, I made a major mistake of letting everyone sleep a little more. Instead of giving them about an hour before having to leave the hostel, I decided to wake everyone up about 20-30min before.
What ended up happening out of such well-intentioned ignorance: a literal race to Kiev’s Independence Square, the meeting point where a bus would take us to Chernobyl.
Although we weren’t lost and we knew where we were going, we had no way of getting to Independence Square in the amount of time we had (10min) by foot. So I decided to take the metro. First of all, the metro isn’t like American subways…they’re Soviet by design and having remembered my time taking the metro in North Korea, I should’ve anticipated that getting *down* to the metro is enough of a time-waster:
An escalator ride that took 8 minutes
And by the time we hopped on a train, we realized it was going one stop in the wrong direction. We then jumped out of the train and ran across the platform to take the other train back up, and once more it was a race against the clock journey back above ground:
Finally, we reached Independence Square, although at this point we were already 17 minutes late. We looked around for any bus but in vain, but nothing was available; it had seemed the buses had tired of waiting for us and left. Luckily Kiev has FREE OUTDOOR WIFI (you hear that USA?!), which I promptly used to Skype my hostel. When the signal got bad (okay, the wifi wasn’t that useful), I used the cell phone of a tourist information kiosk that luckily was nearby. I then got the word from my hostel that they either could have already left or they were still waiting for us across the Square by the McDonald’s.
So we ran across (it’s not a small square mind you). There were no buses.
And then, like a miracle out of a cloud, a man walked up to us asking if we were going to Chernobyl. We were saved. I literally bear hugged all 16 people in my group. The miraculous thing was not that we made it to meeting point over 30min later, but rather nobody got left behind in all this madness.
Welcome to Ukraine, where the underground bars are just out of this world. This is Palata #6 (play the video!):
Panorama of our underground hospital themed bar (click to enlarge).
I’m not judging or anything…but this is a Ukrainian birthday tradition called “The Injection.” Hey, I’m only an observing reporter.
And the moment when everyone finds out that every bar in Kiev has wifi…
How dare they. So we picked them up and headed out to a pub down the block for a brief respite. Is that a confederate flag in the background? I’m outta here (but first we have to rescue Ruchika).
…So we bounced quickly and left for a nightclub called “Sorry, Babushka!” 50 UAH cover.
There is no judgment in this house.
Speaking of which, due to large number of Asian American females that was entering our hostel (which puts the cherry on top by having illicit looking gray doors as its entrance), a bunch of AK-47 wielding Ukrainian cops came following thinking it was a brothel — they peeked their heads in asking for a “massage.” When they found out it was just a hostel with American tourists, they got upset and started a fight with us, even getting to a point of raiding the hostel. But whatcha gonna do?
So in about an hour we have to wake up to catch 9am buses to Chernobyl. And while everyone’s asleep I figure I’d pull an all-nighter and blog. 😀
I had fun, sobriety intact and all.
- At time of posting in Kiev, it was 1 °C -
Humidity: 84% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
This is what the end of the world once looked like.
About a 4 hour bus ride south from Kiev is a former Soviet ICBM nuclear missile silo (aka the Museum of Strategic Missile Forces), housing enough weaponry to destroy the entire world. We are the fortunate few to not only visit the site, but also go into the depths of the silo: a place once chosen by the Soviet Union for making the decision whether to destroy humankind.
Viewing intercontinental ballistic missiles that house enough firepower for 1,300 times the destructive capacity of Hiroshima, missiles that could have reached from where we were to hometown NYC in less than 20 minutes, we felt out existences on this Earth humbled; there’s not much you can do when the fate of your entire grandparents’ generation becomes vested in a push of a button from some random man in a small bunker 50m underground.
It’s alarming to know how many fail-safe systems were put in place by both the Americans and the Soviets that their missiles would be delivered to their respective targets; it seems they worked harder to ensure maximum destruction than to prevent wrongful launches.
They even withheld the names of the targets that these missiles were pointing at, lest that the officers operating these weapons may harbor second thoughts carrying out their orders when they know that they might have family members there.
This single missile above was nicknamed “Satan” and had the power to “destroy an entire country as large as Ukraine.” It carried a payload of 100 megatons, or 1,300 Hiroshimas.
Above is a former silo, which unlike the American design (1 silo for 1 missiles, single use only), can be used for at least 3-4 nuclear missiles before being burnt out. This one still houses nuclear fuel below the concrete.
Then it was down the underground bunker, housing enough food and water to take care of the personnel there for at least 45 days in the event of a nuclear holocaust-related shutdown. Everything ran on electricity, including powerful turbines that purified the air below.
Going deeper, we appreciated the long, neverending underground tunnels that ultimately led to the engineering room under the silo.
4-5 at a time, we take a lift meant for 2 people. We go even deeper, this time to the missile control room, or rather “the safest place on Earth.”
Panorama of the control room: the fate of the world was decided here (click to enlarge).
The direct line to Moscow
This is where all the cliche movie scenes from The Sum of All Fears, Salt, The Hunt for Red October, Wargames, Command & Conquer Red Alert 2, any Cold War film of “two guys entering launch codes, turning launch keys simultaneously, and waiting for the phone call from the President before pushing the final button of death” come to life: this is where this stuff actually happened.
All that power...
They would work in 6 hour shifts, where every 7 minutes they would drill drill drill, getting fake signals to launch the missiles. This practice drill would go over and over not only to perfect the technique, but also so that the two would be so robotic in going through the motions that the real signal to launch the missiles would feel just as rountine. Thankfully, that never happened.
Going even deeper, below the control room is where the officers lived and slept
Sleeping quarters below the control room
Well, here’s to peace.
- At time of posting in The end of the world, it was 1 °C -
Humidity: 84% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
The guidebooks never said anything about Arcadia Beach in the winter.
For the record, Arcadia Beach is a famous nightlife spot and one of Odessa’s “must-sees.” It’s pretty much a party on the beach by the Black Sea and guidebooks constantly reference it as the reason why most people head to Odessa. However, none of them say anything about what Arcadia Beach is like when visiting in the dead of winter.
So the group decided to check it out for themselves; we all hopped on Tram #5 in front of the McDonald’s by the Central Train Station (2 UAH) which took us straight to Arcadia Beach on its last stop.
Like straight out of a zombie horror film, we walked towards the beach through what seemed like a deserted haunted carnival.
And then we found the beach. This is the Black Sea.
It’s really as dead as it looks. So for the record: Arcadia Beach is literally a ghost town in the winter.
We even swung by Club Ibiza, which is supposedly Odessa’s most famous, most upscale, and most happening nightclub. It looked it got served eviction notices when we got there.
Dejected and tired from jet lag, we headed back from Arcadia Beach to the train station. Since Tram #5 supposedly stopped running at around 10:30pm according to some local youths there, we haggled down 4 cabs to take us to the train station. Along the way we passed by a perfectly functioning Tram #5 heading in our direction. Oh the irony of it all.
We boarded our train at 12:52am.
We passed out on the entire way until the train arrived on time at 9:24am.
Welcome to Kiev, everyone.
- At time of posting in odessa, it was 4 °C -
Humidity: 25% | Wind Speed: 2km/hr | Cloud Cover: foggy