Chernobyl: Death and Destruction

Part I: Fault

It has become almost a cliché amongst travellers to want to visit Chernobyl. Though it is about as far from a conventional tourist destination as one could ever hope to visit, the lure of something so uniquely bleak, not to mention historically significant, is one that covers all bases for – seemingly – all intrepid travellers. Yet those who wish to venture into this dirty speck of post-industrial carnage in the wilderness north of Ukraine are all aware of the same thing; this isn’t grief tourism. The failed power plant and its neighbouring city Pripyat are a dark draw, sure, but this isn’t Auschwitz; most people heading to Chernobyl will have no intention of actively mourning the 31 deaths that occurred on the night of the accident, nor will they plan to feel deep remorse for a flourishing city – and the hundreds of thousands of lives within it – forever ruined by one mistake. But this doesn’t mean that they won’t.

Nope, they, like me, will head the site of this catastrophic event because they want to see something exclusive to Chernobyl. Across the globe, incidents and accidents, both man-made and natural, have brought to an end the habitability of hundreds of towns and cities. However, they all have one thing in common; in the days, weeks, months and years following the event that caused their abandonment, people have returned to either ransack the place, or to clean up. This applies to the vast majority of these cases, but not to Pripyat and Chernobyl; almost immediately after the all-encompassing evacuation of the area surrounding the power plant, a 30km ‘exclusion zone’ was set up. All citizens within this jagged patch of land were told to leave immediately, and to this day, nobody is allowed into the zone without strict authorisation including background checks, passport checks and a veritable ream of insurance forms. Thus, Chernobyl, Pripyat and the exclusion zone are, in an illustrative sense, still stuck in 1986. Only the invasive encroachment of nature has restructured this landscape in the years since then. Sure, tourists come and go, but nothing can be taken away from the Zone, and nothing was ever really salvaged by those who once populated it. Thus, while evidence of decades of decay – crumbling concrete, shattered glass and rusted metal – are now part of the furniture in Pripyat, there really is no timewarp more effective on the planet. The classrooms, gyms and hotels remain untouched. And, for everyone reading this, it will always be that way. The area is still highly contaminated, and due to the astronomical amount of radiation released into the atmosphere, Ukrainian officials currently estimate the area will not be safe for human habitation for another 20,000 years. It is, for all intents and purposes, dead forever.

Perhaps a little bit of scientific background information wouldn’t go amiss here, even though I’m sure all of you will know of the basics of the Chernobyl disaster. In the early hours of the 26th April 1986, the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, situated in Chernobyl, Ukraine (around 68 miles north of Kiev), underwent an experiment. During regular operation of a nuclear reactor like the four used at Chernobyl, around 6% of the power of the reactor is harnessed from something called ‘decay heat’ (the residual heat from a nuclear fission reaction), which continues after a fission chain reaction has finished. As a result, after a chain reaction has finished, further cooling may be required to bring the decay heat down and prevent damage to the reactor core. But there were flaws in the design of the reactor, and some were deemed unacceptable by the USSR’s already-lax safety standards.

For instance, should there be a sudden power grid failure (something remarkably common during the Soviet Union’s later years), the fission chain reaction would cease due to a lack of power, and a backup generator would kick in to pump coolant into the reactor to counteract the decay heat. However, the operators at the plant were well aware that their current backup generators, which were primitive and ran on diesel, would take over a minute to provide sufficient power to the cooling system in the event of a power failure; easily enough time for catastrophic core damage to take place. The operators thus turned to the plant’s steam turbines, and theorised that, during a power failure, they would release enough residual steam pressure to power the coolant system for around 45 seconds – enough time for the diesel generators to reach max output and then take over.

However, this was merely a theory, and this switch of electrical supply needed to be tested. In a remarkable lack of foresight, the operators of the plant presumed that such a test would run smoothly and assumed that, while it may show that their theory was incorrect, there was no chance of any damage to the reactor. As a result, the director of the plant (who gave authorisation to go ahead with the experiment), astonishingly chose not to consult their plans with either the scientific manager of the plant, nor the designer of the reactor. In the run-up to the experiment, the operators of Chernobyl paid almost no attention to any regular safety protocols, and, assuming the core would not be damaged, disabled various safety features that may have mitigated the effects of the disaster further down the line. Here it gets a little complicated, so I’ll try to create the most abridged version I can.

Basically, the test protocol states that thermal output of the reactor should have been no lower than 700 MW (a low power level for a nuclear reactor) at the start of such an experiment, yet due to the hurried nature of the plant’s preparations, the reactor didn’t respond accordingly to controller input, and dropped to near-total shutdown levels of 30 MW by accident, 5% of the necessary power for the test to go ahead. After workers at the plant took a series of highly unsafe decisions (most of which are not understood due to the deaths of numerous operators), the test started, with the thermal output levels at well below the recommended number. Due to questionable actions taken to counteract the dropping output of the reactor pre-test, once the test began, power skyrocketed, generating ten times the reactor’s normal output. At this point, little could be done to avert disaster, and a steam explosion blew a giant hole through the roof of the building, exposing the reactor to the outside air. Three seconds later, a larger explosion obliterated the reactor’s containment vessel, and sent huge quantities of the reactor core’s mass hurtling into the atmosphere. And the rest is history.

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Part II: Shame

Perhaps part of what makes Chernobyl so fascinating, and so fit for a gloomy narrative, is how almost no good can be salvaged from its story of catastrophe. It was an unprecedented disaster. It permanently ruined over a thousand square miles of pristine forest, rendered vast quantities of surrounding natural life totally sterile, and caused pain and suffering to thousands and thousands of people, both physical and psychological. When the reactor exploded, to the average man and woman living in Ukraine and Belarus, the science didn’t matter, and due to the USSR’s shameful cover-up operations, they would likely never have known anyway. The following night, as an assortment of government scientists attempted to assess the damage and effects, many of them inadvertently exposing themselves to lethal doses of radiation, buses arrived in darkness to ship the 49,000 residents of Pripyat away from the reactor. While most would have been killed within days had they stayed, the government still refused to tell its subjects what was happening. Instead, citizens within the zone were given two hours’ notice to pack up their belongings and get in a bus to somewhere. Nobody knew where.

And this is maybe where my infatuation with Chernobyl as a monument to post-industrial abandonment morphed into something a little more melancholy. As you stand in these people’s abandoned apartments, as you stand in their now-empty swimming pools and walk through their overgrown parks, it’s easy to get a sense of the panic that hung over the city during evacuation. In photos, it looks like a decrepit mess; a mountain of useless shit left behind by people reluctantly moving into another phase of their lives. But when you’re there, stood amongst the toys, furniture and books left behind by these people, it’s an altogether different feeling. It’s decrepit, sure – it’s been sitting there, exposed to the harsh Ukrainian elements for thirty years. But at the time, it wasn’t useless, nor was it unwanted; after the accident, the Soviet government, in a shallow attempt to mitigate panic amongst its subjects, told these people that they would be allowed to return to their homes within a few days or weeks, and resume their lives amongst their friends and families. The USSR’s behaviour on all levels in the wake of the disaster was nothing short of a disaster in itself. From the diplomatic to the personal, their arrogance and lies led to far more suffering and death than was necessary. By withholding vital scientific information from the west, scientists who would have been able to help stop the spread of radioactive material were instead left in the dark to speculate on the nature and scale of the disaster. And by telling innocent citizens they would be able to return to the lives they once knew, before shipping them away forever and obstructing their return, meant tens of thousands of people, from that point onwards, would no longer be able to appreciate their own homes as something tangible or attainable, but as a series of distant memories.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate the scale of the disaster until you’re at the epicentre of it. The explosion killed 31 people, and over 4,000 people have been diagnosed with cancers thought to be linked to the fallout. But to many, including myself, its always been a kind of joke at the expense of the Soviet Union – a kind of ‘look how much these idiots messed up!’ rhetoric aimed at the USSR which, in hindsight, is just about the easiest target going. At that time a failing state with fast-depleting funds fighting a pointless and costly war against Afghanistan, they made a little foray into nuclear energy and ended up poisoning their own people. No matter how fascinating one finds it, for a distance it has always been unnervingly easy to detach yourself from the disaster and either see it as a just a game of numbers, or, depending on your level of jingoism, a sort of dark justice for their atrocities. To many, including myself, it was less a human event than a political event; the cleanup operation practically single-handedly destroyed what was left of the Soviet economy and was a pivotal cause of the collapse of the USSR entirely. But realistically, nobody suffered more than the people, and that is why a tour of the area is so vital.

Pripyat also exists in a paradigm that makes it difficult to fully gauge. On the one hand, it’s a city long-dead; left to fend for itself against time without the maintenance or fondness that comes with human occupation. But on the other hand, it’s only 30 years ago that this town was rendered sterile. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a long time at all. When you look back at the great disasters – or indeed, atrocities – of history, most of them seem so alien or foreign, simply due to the time that has passed since they occurred. As an obvious example, nobody is left to remember the First World War, and we’re running out of people who remember the Second. So the wounds of Chernobyl are relatively fresh. On your way into the Exclusion Zone, you excitedly look forward to standing in cavernous empty swimming pools, and walking down the aisles of dead supermarkets, glimpsing into the past or merely immersing yourself in the alluring, chaotic horrors of what humanity can do to itself, perhaps even salvaging a perceived beauty from the wreckage. But on your way out of Chernobyl, after you’ve trampled through apartment blocks and addressed empty concert halls, you are played a video – silent save for a musical backing – that shows those very same places as they were 30 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to say they seemed ‘full of happiness’ or anything that contrived, but it was oddly disheartening to see them functioning so routinely. It wasn’t some picture-perfect postcard town beset upon by a caricatured evil; it was just a normal city full of ordinary people that was accidentally destroyed. The citizens may have begrudgingly moved on with their lives in other places, but within the confines of the city limits, nothing was gained and everything was lost. Soon after the video, we moved onto a documentary about the disaster. There was footage of soldiers bravely charging toward the reactor, unaware it would lead to their deaths, and clips of the hollow void in the roof of the reactor building. But no moment summed up Pripyat’s hardships more soberingly than a clip of a former resident, stood silently at a window overlooking the deceased city, before blankly stating ‘this has marked my life forever’.

* * * *

Part III: Liquidator

I couldn’t let this post drift into the dark without talking about one last thing. Perhaps the most essential and noteworthy thing one can know about the disaster – one that is sadly often forgotten by history – and that is the importance of the Liquidators. In the days following the explosion, and before the Soviet Government had fully assessed the scale of the disaster, almost 500,000 young men – mostly firefighters, soldiers, pilots and engineers – were drafted in to help wage war against the radiation at Chernobyl. These men were known as the Liquidators.

For days, they toiled in vain to put out the fire raging in the reactor, which would stem the release of further radiation into the atmosphere. Yet the government’s callousness and contempt for its own people meant that these men were sent into what was, for them, the unknown – a minefield of radioactive hotspots that could kill a human in days or even hours. They were given almost no protection, and were lied to repeatedly when they questioned the safety of the job. But even once the gravity of the situation became apparent (they were forced to work for only two minutes at a time before switching with another Liquidator), any response would have been futile. Even as their ever-weakening colleagues were shipped off to die agonising deaths in Kiev hospitals, they were forced to stay and slowly kill themselves, under threat of labour camp detention.

Yet this doesn’t reduce what these men gave to the cause. In the context of war or genocide, we mourn those who were killed through forceful means, and so too should we mourn those who were forced to kill themselves through such means. And though the Liquidators were almost certainly sent in by the Soviet government in a heavy-handed and shallow attempt to salvage some pride in a failing state, what they ended up doing for the rest of the world was more remarkable than a hollow face-saving gesture.

After days of an all-encompassing and vaguely-directed cleanup operation, the direct consequences of the disaster became vastly more serious and urgent. For instance, once the top of the reactor had been hastily sealed by the Liquidators, the heat trapped within the building led to the molten core beginning to melt through the floor, toward two large pools of water which were designed to be used as an emergency cooling system. If the core made contact with the pools, the resulting conversion of the water into steam would have led to an explosion many times greater than the one that had caused the original disaster. Once this problem was discovered, the Soviet government hurriedly requested three volunteers to enter the pools and drain the water before the core reached them. In the end, two engineers – Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov – accompanied by a third man – Boris Baranov – successfully drained the pools, but due to the proximity of the reactor, it was discovered afterwards that the three men had been aware that they were volunteering for a suicide mission. All three fell ill and died shortly after.

There were hundreds of cases like this during the clean-up. Scores of men perished in an attempt to rectify a mistake that was no fault of their own. And due to the Soviet Union’s unparalleled drilling of nationalism and the importance of honour into its people, it’s easy to remain cynical about these sorts of events. Maybe these men unwaveringly marching towards their own deaths was a result of blind patriotism. Maybe, at a personal level, the idea of dying for one’s country was seen as a glorious exit from this Earth, rather than this being a case of selfless men dying for a cause greater than themselves. And of course we can point to the fact that these men were under threat of being sent to GULAGs if they didn’t comply. But it would be insulting to pin it all on such empty accusations.

I know I personally would have taken time in a labour camp over an inevitable and agonisingly excruciating death. But that’s what makes the story of the Liquidators so moving. Whether it was through force, through sheer will of wanting to honour their country, or through genuine compassion, every shovel-load of granite tumbling off the roof of Reactor 4 might have meant one more life spared, even if it meant that their own would be cut short. They knew it themselves; in the words of one firefighter, Alexander Fedotov, ‘Somebody had to do it’, and who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t.

As mentioned earlier, it’s easy to doubt the claims of the Soviet government. They claimed that, had the reactor reached the cooling pools, the resulting explosion would have destroyed half of Europe, and while this has been disputed by western sources, it leaves a particularly sour taste in the story of the Liquidators. Maybe the explosion would have been massive, maybe it would have been tiny. All we know is that people sacrificed themselves to prevent further damage to the Earth. And this doesn’t merely apply to those who climbed into the tanks, but to all the workers at Chernobyl. The size of the catastrophe they were preventing or cleaning up didn’t matter; they could only take on what was put in front of them by their superiors, and all faced the challenge with a bravery that most could never come close to matching. And for that, every one of them will forever deserve our admiration.

At the end of the tour, as the sun set through the trees on the dead straight, pothole-strewn road out of the Exclusion Zone, our bus slowed to an unexpected stop. By the side of the road was a grey, concrete statue. Our tour guide, who had been rather stoic and unemotional throughout the day, stood in front of the statue and addressed us in a tone tinged with a noticeable and uncharacteristic sadness. Everything she had described throughout the Exclusion Zone had been very matter-of-fact. This was a shop that sold electronics. This was a theatre that opened in 1972. But here at the side of the road, she broke character and let a tiny bit of emotion in, as she told us that the Liquidators, those who had given so much, had received so little back. While the Soviet government had given each of them a medal, that was all they had to show for it. Promises of bonuses were proven false, and any notion that they may be regarded as Soviet heroes was soon forgotten as the disaster’s consequences continued to dominate headlines. The neglected memory of the Liquidators was never even so much as etched onto a plaque.

Many years down the line, once the dust had settled and the Soviet Union had drawn its last breath, a group of Ukrainian emergency service workers and soldiers began an independent funding campaign to create an official memorial to all of the Soviet Liquidators, whether they had died or not. It was funded, designed and built by the emergency service workers and soldiers who would have been Liquidators had they been there ten years earlier. The tour guide handed us this caveat to lessen her criticism of the design. And she was right, it’s not the prettiest memorial. It’s rather crude, a little disproportioned and the colour is not particularly pleasing to the eye. But never has a memorial been more apt – built by ordinary people, independent of the state within which it was designed, just as those who were killed should be remembered independently of the appalling regime under which they died. Because they weren’t sacrificing themselves for their deceptive superiors, they were doing it because it needed to be done. And although it may be just a tiny plaque on a small roadside memorial, after years of being overlooked, the Liquidators finally have their memory etched in gold: ‘… To those who saved the world.’

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Gabe

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Odessa: Hammerman Destroys Viruses

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That’s what they call me

After a week of ups and downs, the time has come for us to turn our backs on Odessa, and to head back north to Kiev, Ukraine’s industrious capital city. It would take the obliviousness of a legitimately insane person to suggest that Odessa isn’t by far the ‘nicer’ city of the two we’ve been to, in all its neo-classical glory. Compared to Dnipropetrovsk, it’s more lively, cleaner, prettier and a lot less weird. But I guess that same weirdness is what made Dnipro so stupid and so loveable at the same time. Even through visuals alone, one can tell that Odessa has stood as a vital cultural hub for the Ukraine (and the USSR before it) since its inception – it’s church after church and opera house after opera house. The city is literally the antithesis of Dnipro, which was factory after factory and concrete high-rise after concrete high-rise. And yet, while I’m sure you’re expecting me to finish this meandering paragraph by choosing one over the other, I’m not going to. I like them both equally and for very different reasons. Deal with it.

Although Dnipro is the Ukraine’s main purveyor of that ‘weirdness’ I mentioned earlier, Odessa can – occasionally – still hold a candle to Dnipro. As many of you more seasoned nomads will know, sometimes when you’re travelling, there are days when nothing of interest will happen. Then there are days where you’re kept pretty busy and captivated by whatever your current location has to offer. And then – every once in a while – you hit the jackpot. On Saturday night, Elliot and I found ourselves exploring the city (Jake had excused himself to hang out with some local friends), and as we approached the top of the famous Potemkin Steps, we noticed a vaguely-musical sound coming from below the edge of a 30-40ft drop from a park at the top of the steps.

As we got closer, we realised a gig was going on, so we sat on the wall and had a listen. However, as we discovered, this was no ordinary gig. In a pub garden down below, a large stage was set up, and, in front of an audience of around 20 people – many of whom appeared to be straddling the line between interpretive dance and interpretive seizure – a man was absolutely freaking out to the sound of a bizarrely-remixed version of David Bowie’s Changes. Yet, just as this was clearly no ordinary gig, nor was this an ordinary man. Save for a cardboard box on his head and a printout of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers covering his manhood, he was completely naked.

And as he switched from extremely camp prancing around, to suddenly dropping to the floor and doing push-ups, the crowd – and two members of the audience in particular – could barely contain their feverish delight, clapping and yelping uncontrollably in what was the icing on the most perfectly surreal cake I have ever seen baked. We sat and watched as the tunes kept coming, the crowd growing more and more animated. The following morning, after a ludicrously difficult few hours of sleuthing, I discovered what we had just witnessed – a two-man band called Хамерман знищує віруси (‘Hammerman Destroys Viruses’). Upon watching further videos, I am none the wiser as to who they are, why they are constantly either naked or in skimpy outfits, what they’re singing about, or why they occasionally perform with a clarinetist with a hat shaped like a giant penis. The mystery goes on.

Yesterday we decided to do as the locals do, and went to a Ukrainian league football match. The mighty Chernomorets Odessa would be taking on FC Oleksandriya. The teams were level on points in mid-table, and after getting suspiciously cheap tickets off a tout, we made our way into the surprisingly nice brand-new stadium, grabbed some beers, and watched some of the most desperately awful football we had ever borne witness to. Both teams were misplacing passes, misjudging crosses, and misfiring shots. Until one decisive moment in the second half; as the ball gently rolled across the six-yard box during one of very few attacks by either team, the Chernomorets left winger sprinted onto the loose ball and smacked it back into the centre, where it proceeded to hit an Oleksandriya defender on the ass, and rolled pitifully into the net for a beautiful own goal. All 2,000 fans in the 35,000-seater stadium went wild, including the small section of ‘ultras’, who took a break from banging their drums to have a 100-man shirtless bundle on the concrete terraces. The game finished 1-0 and everyone went home happy, save for the 50-or-so away fans who had been placed far, far away at the top corner of the stadium like a leper colony.

Of course, Odessa has not been without its resident heroes either. And by resident heroes, I mean one guy in particular who was neither resident nor hero, but instead an inadvertently belligerent older guy from Perth, Australia. There’s a bar in Odessa called Шкаф (pronounced ‘Shkaff’), and it basically became our go-to hangout whenever we needed a drink. Every time we went, something interesting would happen. It could be good, it could be bad, but we knew it would be interesting. However, on our final trip there, we flew a little too close to the sun and ended up talking to this guy from Perth, cos, y’know, he’s an English speaker. And from here on out, the night became a dense whirlwind of clingyness, ignorance, and saying the word faaackin’ ahead of every noun. As we climbed deeper into the evening, PerthMan slowly evolved from talking about why he was in Ukraine – a perfectly acceptable topic – to some of the most bizarrely contradictory nuggets of self-satisfied wisdom that ever floated into any of our ears.

After we and PerthMan had agreed not to join a bunch of bulky Ukrainian programmers to the strip club across the road, he then proceeded to drag us over to it, ‘just to have a faackin’ look, y’know?’. And by this, he meant literally bargaining with the very confused and bored bouncers to let him stand at the entrance and stare longingly into the club. Like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter, Elliot ended up taking the bullet and ‘having a look’ with him. However, after PerthMan  had imparted such age-old wisdom as ‘what man doesn’t faackin’ love tits?’ and ‘a woman is a faackin’ woman, am I right?’, he then immediately changed his tune, and after berating me with a ‘where the faaaaaaack did you go mate?!’ once I had sneaked away from his sordid bullshit, stated ‘if these faackin’ Ukrainian c*nts wanna see some faackin’ naked ladies, they just need to open their faackin’ laptops and have a faackin’ wank, am I right?!’. His statement was met with aggressively British silence.

Luckily, Jake had stayed in Shkaff, meaning Elliot and I could forcefully state to PerthMan that ‘we’re going to get Jake from Shkaff now’, i.e. ‘please no more’. Yet instead of understanding any part of what that statement meant, he then had a go at us, telling Elliot ‘you have to faackin’ say goodbye to the Ukrainians. You can’t just faackin’ leave without telling them where you’re going’. So after alerting the Ukrainians to our imminent departure (even though they weren’t even aware we were still there), we walked back over to Shkaff, only for PerthMan to walk with us, telling us we all needed to go drink somewhere else, cos 30 hryvnias for a beer is way too expensive. For those not familiar with Ukrainian money, 30 hryvnias is 85p. Ukraine to us is cheap, hence we can afford 85p for a beer, and hence why we get taxis everywhere. However, once we told PerthMan this, he proceeded to berate us yet again, saying that we should get trams everywhere instead of taxis because getting taxis is ‘not supporting the faackin’ economy mate’, despite the fact that a taxi journey costs £3-4, while a tram journey costs 14p. As these words fell from his lips, we realised the nonsensical wisdom of our perilous pal would continue to hang over us like a fat fart no matter what we did, save for jumping in the nearest taxi and telling the driver to get us as far away from that man as possible. So that’s exactly what we did.

Gabe

Odessa: Give ‘Em A Hundred

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I call this one Slavs Squatting

As much as I can see that Odessa is an exceptionally pretty city, it is difficult to fully gauge the qualities of a destination that you’re supposed to be able to analyse if you wake up at 1pm with a thunderous hangover and attempt to explore it in 34 degree weather. Last night inadvertently involved drinking a literal 15 litre tower of beer (among other things), so apologies if this post is not exactly enlightening about what is, based on all evidence we’ve gathered so far, a lovely place. So while I can’t tell you which statues and monuments are the most historically significant, I can tell you which is the most comfortable to sit down and catch your breath on.

Yesterday we swam in the Black Sea after being raced across town by a taxi driver who we’re convinced gave us a discount because he was aware of his own batshit insane road rage. After speeding down every sidestreet at 70mph, he then decided to beep furiously at a decrepit old man who was driving slowly in the car in front, and ended up getting so worked up that he not only swerved into (subsequently equally furious) oncoming traffic to overtake him, but then did a fake swerve to the right and pretended to ram the old dude. So he only charged us 100 hryvnias (about £3) for a 20-minute journey.

Speaking of which, Jake has developed a rather cavalier attitude towards his hard-earned hryvnias, and has coined a catchphrase that will go down in the annals of time; ‘Give em’ a hundred’. No matter the cost of an item, Jake will offer 100 hryvnias, which could be seen as either a great deal or a grave insult. A taxi driver charging 60 will give us a big old grin and a thanks as we swing him 100, but when a woman in a shop is asking for 150 for a bottle of wine, the tactic often comes apart at the seams.

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Last night before things went dark

In fact, if we’re all picking up our own little tactics. After one of our longer and more painful nights out, we needed to get home. Despite Jake being our designated Russian speaker, instead it was Elliot who stepped up to the plate when we were offered an 800 hryvnia taxi ride (8x the going rater). Instead of our usual bargaining (give ’em a hundred, am I right?), Elliot decided that a more effective tactic would be extended his arm entirely, putting the palm of his hand up to the taxi drivers nose and shouting NYET!right in his face. While it may have been a simple drunken misjudgment of volume, it certainly did the trick, and the toothless driver sheepishly retreated back into his 1970s Soviet shitmobile.

We’re about to head out again (kill me now) and are inexplicably sat around bleary-eyed in our underwear waiting for a washing cycle to finish, at what looks like the start of a porn film that even the most depraved gay men would shy away from. And when that’s done, we’ll have to deal with the fact that the washing machine becomes electrocuted when plugged in, and shocks you if you try to touch it.

This blog post is about the best I can do in my current state. I will post another tomorrow, promise.

Gabe

 

Dnipropetrovsk: Runaway Train

Last night, far beyond the lurching reaches of Dnipropetrovsk’s smokestacked suburbs, somewhere in the darkest wilds of the Pontic–Caspian steppe, we stood with our heads on our forearms, resting on top of the open window panels as we hurtled towards Odessa on a 14-hour sleeper train. With cans of demoralisingly warm Staropramen we had bought from the housekeeping lady at the end of the carriage, we skipped past abandoned factory after abandoned factory, through towns, districts and regions evidently not sufficiently prosperous so as to have ‘de-Stalinised’ themselves; this was another instance of that pure, unfiltered post-Soviet backcountry that travellers like Jake, Elliot and I have scoured this continent to compile memories of for the past decade.

Having booked a first class sleeper cabin, we naturally assumed that our train would be of similar technological adequacy (and age) as our previous train from Kiev to Dnipro. However, as we touched down on platform five, our oversize luggage in tow, we were greeted by a row of grey-blue cattle cars masquerading as a cross-country train service. Climbing up the stairs into the carriage corridor felt like watching From Russia With Love in virtual reality. As steam spurted from pipes in the walls, and the smell of crumbling skin cells launched itself from the Persian carpet with every step further into the darkness, we sidled along a mahogany-flanked train carriage that must have been at least 80 years old. At our cabin, fold-up leather bunk beds greeted us, along with a window that refused to open, and subsequently a heat so stifling that we immediately knew this was going to be a rough night.

Skip forward three hours and three beers and Jake and I found ourselves with our heads protruding from the windows in the corridor, maximising our lung capacity in futile anticipation of any fresh air that might manage to penetrate the burning coal embers and iron smelting fumes surrounding the train as it sat motionless in a freight yard. Overhead rang out the deafening sound of control box operators communicating with each other and their various cargo-filled subjects via loudspeaker, and we watched as coal truck after coal truck was slowly dragged or pushed into the obsidian blankness beyond the last lamplight of the depot. Under the assumption that our train would lurch back to life once all tracks were clear, Jake then nudged me on the shoulder and pointed into the distance down the tracks. Out of the black rolled a coal truck with no engine attached. As it rumbled into the light, I stupidly asked ‘how is that thing propelling itself?’, before realising that it wasn’t. It was obviously a mistake – a carriage that had come loose and rolled away, and just about the closest thing Jake and I would ever see to a runaway train. As we watched with bleary-eyed nonchalance like a cow stares at a passing car, it then slammed into a row of stationary freight containers, waking the entirety of our train up with a thunderous impact. As everyone jolted upright and a group of worried-looking track workers suddenly jogged into the light, Jake and I burst into hysterics, further angering the burly Russian co-occupants of our carriage. Before we could even finish laughing, our train suddenly sprang to life and wobbled off, inexplicably back in the direction we had just arrived from. I decided to question no further, and promptly went to sleep.

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Sunset from Monastyrsky Island

So now it’s Odessa’s turn to undergo my mild-mannered and irrelevant scrutiny. Dnipropetrovsk had been fun, but a sort of challenging fun. A city that is in no way built for tourism, it’s grey, industrial and rough around the edges. With only one major boulevard, the centre is compact and – apart from on Sundays – mostly lifeless. However, there is an untapped beauty within it. For instance, while the city is a hollowed out former Soviet industrial stronghold, it also has sights like Monastyrsky Island, hugging the western bank of the vast Dneiper River, complete with forested parks, white sand beaches and – if you’re a fan of industrial landscapes – one of the most stunning sunset spots one could ever hope to see, underscored by the vast expanse of water surrounding the island, and punctuated by concrete bridges and shipyard cranes far, far in the haze of the distance.

Dnipropetrovsk is a city that I could never recommend to anyone I know. Nothing about it is conventional. There isn’t much to do, there isn’t much to see, but something about it left me with a sort of unspectacular love. And that’s still love, I guess, so it feels like it has to be qualified by something, but it isn’t. The emptiness, remoteness and unfamiliarity of the city are its drawing points.

I am perfectly aware that this knowingly-backhanded endorsement generously affords the average person an adequate arena within which to pick off reasons to avoid Dnipro at all costs, but that’s not really the type of person I’m selling Dnipro to. I write this because I know that simply by being in a place like this, Jake, Elliot and I are in a miniscule minority, even though I’m aware it comes across as perhaps a little overtly abstract to constantly try to put into words the perspective of someone who frequently finds himself in far-flung places purely because they exist. As a result, it’s difficult to explain much further, beyond saying the kind of fondness one has for a city like Dnipropetrovsk can only really be felt by those who have a love of travel off the beaten track – those who go somewhere simply so they can expect nothing and thus relish everything.

Gabe

Dnipropetrovsk: Gogl-Mogl

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Time to statue!

I promised myself (and of course all you tragically bored readers) that I would finally get this blog up and running again, and that I would be so on the ball that said ball would slip out from underneath me and I would crack my head open on the Dnipropetrovsk concrete, in a manner not too dissimilar to an exceedingly drunk club-goer I stumbled across in the midst of having his pockets ransacked by a bunch of burly gangsters pretending to help him last night.

As the mercilessly hangover-inducing unfiltered lager of eastern Ukraine flowed through my veins (that’s not good is it?), I stumbled up to this helpless man, passed out face-down on the concrete, while I waited for Jake and Elliot to emerge from the already-infamous Club Rio on the banks of the Dnieper River, its unusual girth measurable only by the blurry twinkles of streetlamps over a mile away on the opposite bank. As I stretched out a tentatively violent foot to nudge him (or kick him depending on my inebriated lack of judgement), two skinhead men appeared from behind a tree, and with an almost routine-like efficiency, power-walked up to the man, knelt down at his side, and rootled around in his pockets, stuffing his copious wads of Ukrainian hryvnia into their own coat linings, before locating his phone and tucking that into their waistlines. After that, they helped him to his feet, slapped him in the face to wake him up, and vanished into the darkness, leaving our drunken victim drooling long chains of saliva down his own shirt and onto the feet of a statue of Taras Shevchenko.

While I imagine this is the kind of story you were expecting a lot of in a blog about Ukraine, this is just about the only moment of genuinely reprehensible behaviour we’ve witnessed in our time here. I mean granted it’s only been four days, but it must be said that – what with everyone questioning our choice to head to a recent war zone – Ukraine is no more dangerous than any other country in Europe, unless you feel like taking a couple of shells to the face in Donetsk or Luhansk. The vast majority of this country is perfectly safe. Sure, the infrastructure is a little shonky and it does feel somewhat impoverished in places, but it’s not Mogadishu – people aren’t going to kidnap or murder you for being a foreigner.

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Shevchenko Park, Dnipro

So, after about 24 hours in Kiev (during which time I of course had a chicken kiev), we took the six-hour train to Dnipropetrovsk at 7am, weaving through the floodplains of the Dnieper across the flat interior of this vast country. We decided to spend the extra £3 to get a first class ticket, complete with reclining chairs and a buffet car unfortunately called the WOG Cafe. After knocking back a couple of hot dogs and watery americanos on our arduous march across the former UkSSR, we shuffled down the aisles and off the train, squeezing past the buffet car’s trolley service which we affectionately dubbed WOG-On-Wheels.

Dnipropetrovsk is an interesting city. It’s got a really post-industrial, post-Soviet hinterland vibe about it. It’s in the middle of nowhere, stranded hundreds of miles from the coast, with one big wide avenue (named after Karl Marx, of course) slicing through the middle of the city. Thick black smoke billows from the chimneys of factories that flank the edges of every panorama of Dnipropetrovsk, their corresponding high-rise apartment blocks for workers visible in their shadows. However if there was one trait I had to select as the most noticeable in this city, it’s that the Latin alphabet is nowhere to be seen, and if you’re hoping anyone can speak English, dream on, friend. In most Eastern European cities, signs will be written in their native Cyrillic, underscored by the Latin version, so us heathens can have a crack. However, in Dnipro, there is no Latin alphabet – it’s just thick, imposing Cyrillic, and there’s somewhat of a British mentality about your average Ukrainian’s attitude towards the English speakers of this world; if they don’t understand your language, say it again, and louder. We’ve had Ukrainians repeat phrases we already don’t understand twice as loud enough times to truly understand how infuriating it must be when English people do the same to unassuming foreigners trying to ask for directions.

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The sign in the background says Gogl-Mogl. We felt it deserved some reverential respect.

And no scenario saw as much heightened repetition as when our beloved Jake proceeded to leave his Sainsbury’s bag of valuables in the back of the taxi taking us from the bus station to our AirBnB. After rushing back to the station to find the driver, we found that he wasn’t there. He seemed like a nice enough guy and were convinced he wouldn’t steal someone’s stuff, so we approached another driver who saw us get into his car and asked if we could phone him. After the longest phone conversation in modern history, we were told in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian that the driver was asleep. Then that he was driving around. Then that he was at home. Then that he had the bag. Then that he didn’t. Then that it was still in the boot. After about half an hour, a different taxi driver showed up with the bag. In our euphoric relief, we ransacked the bag to discover that Jake’s phone wasn’t in it.

Oh typical, bloody taxi drivers giving back the bag but pocketing the most valuable item in it. After it slowly dawned on us that he may have stolen the phone, we continued to quiz the other drivers about the whereabouts of the phone. Yet again, we were told that he both did and didn’t have the phone, that he was both asleep and awake, that he was both at home and still out driving around. Defeated and a phone down, we trudged back to the apartment to unpack. I hung up my clothes, did some laundry, drank some beer, and then unfolded the sofabed to reveal underneath a sight all three of us both wanted to see and didn’t want to see at the same time; Jake’s phone. For God’s sake.

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A disappointed selfie on Jake’s newly-found phone.

Gabe

Gatwick Airport: Lazybones

Yes, you read that right. The blog that nobody asked for in the first place, and that nobody pined for in its absence, is back. Though this will be one of my shorter blog posts as a half-hearted re-introduction of Hidden Gabe, it still needs to be said that I have been tragically lazy in recent months, in a manner that is unbecoming of an aspiring journalist.

The days of my weird and wonderful round-the-world trip are long behind us, and I have reluctantly hurtled myself back into the menial trivialities of life in the frighteningly middle-class terraced-house corridors of East Dulwich, I have been ‘travelling’ in a somewhat less explicit manner since then. For instance, I took a trip to Spain in June. It was undeniably a trip that was jam-packed, however it was mostly jam-packed with red-wine-laden family card games, and silently creeping further and further towards a melanoma diagnosis. And who wants to read scheduled updates about how many Catalan words I can mispronounce per day? I sure as hell wouldn’t, even if I had written them myself.

Then there was the Georgia trip. Now that was legitimately too busy and full of insanity for me to even pause for a moment. From winning over a grand on the Europa League final, to necking four glasses of wine with our own taxi drivers halfway along a poorly-maintained mountain road in Kazbegi, to helping clear a highway of debris from a truck that had recently disintegrated after tipping over on a sharp turn, Georgia was fast, furious, and fantastic. Hence, I just didn’t want to miss anything by taking time out to write paragraph after paragraph detailing every single event of the day. I just wanted to live it, not analyse it. Yes, that is as wanky as I have ever sounded on this blog.

And so, in 45 minutes I will be boarding a flight to Kiev, Ukraine. I will be spending 16 days touring the country with my companions Jake and Elliot (who are not on the same flight as me which is a pain), and really at this point I can only speculate on what’s to come. And I’m not going to do that because people don’t want to read blogs that tackle subjects that can only be written about by guessing. Oh wait, I forgot about Brexit.

Expect more soon.

Gabe