Zagreb: Change trains, five minutes

The Hungarian and Croatian rail networks are rare and perplexing beasts. Having done a hell of a lot of cross country travelling around Europe in the past, I expected – as is usually the case in this part of the world – to simply rock up at Budapest Deli Station with our pre-booked tickets, jump on a shonky old Eastern Bloc cattle car and grind along crumbling rails accurately, if somewhat slowly, to the next capital city over. But somewhere in their mission to adhere to these simple criteria, these two central European nations badly lost their way.

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A thrilling Hungarian train ride

In this case, our trip was a straightforward six-hour shot from Budapest into the heart of Zagreb, Croatia’s under-visited capital city, often seen as little more than a layover or connecting junction for backpackers heading elsewhere in the surrounding area, perhaps down to Belgrade or Croatia’s own famed coastal regions. After partaking in a blood-vessel-bursting race across town at 5:30am in a taxi that inexplicably waited to collect us almost two blocks away from the place I had asked, we wandered frantically yet aimlessly around the moody concrete mess that is the Deli terminus before finally locating our train and clambering up its unusually steep ladder, our wine-loaded suitcases bouncing precariously against the steps below us as we ascended into the carriage.

A few hours passed in which Kate slept stretched out across three seats in our private compartment while I sat opposite with my feet up, sipping a miserably warm Coke Zero and staring into the middle distance as the endless conveyor belt of flat Hungarian farmland inched past at an agonising tempo. At about the hour mark, the first – and less crazy – of this journey’s two ticket inspectors popped his head around the door; a portly Budapestian who took our tickets and punched them without so much as glancing at them, chucking them back to us with a tired nonchalance before slumping into his own seat in the corner.

We crept past the blue expanse of Lake Balaton, pointlessly stopping every five minutes or fewer to neither let anyone off nor let anyone on, before finally, three hours into a six hour journey, we reached the border.

As always, two swarms of ever-so-slightly zealous and incompetent border guards boarded the train one at a time. First were the Hungarians, who haphazardly stumbled about the carriage interrupting each other and cracking jokes, and who needed reminding to give us back our passports after scanning them. The train fell silent as they hopped back down the steps, their chatter flooding back out onto the platform, before the train shuddered back to life and creaked forward 50ft, bringing a huddle of frowning, tightly-wound Croatian border guards and their shimmering assault rifles sliding ominously into view.

Shouting and jostling their way down the carriage, they ripped passports from hands and pointed fingers as they went. A group of five young Japanese men who spoke no English ended up acting as a magnet for their collective anger; about five of the guards crowded round the entrance to their cabin as the Japanese guys’ surgical-mask-covered faces contorted into a mixture of shock and terror, or at least what I could see of them. By screaming for their passports a mere two minutes after they had already shown them to a group of bumbling fools, the guards had clearly baffled the Japanese guys who obviously hadn’t quite adjusted to the weird world of Balkan bureaucracy. They instead presented their tickets which seemed to enrage the guards further, and I was just about to jump in to show them my passport to help them understand when one of them finally reached into the inside pocket of his coat, ripped out his passport and shakily held it up to the policeman. Almost crestfallen, they shrugged, fell silent and wandered off the train. We clunked back into gear and headed off again.

If it hadn’t been weird already, it was at this point that our journey took a strange turn. When we booked this trip we specifically bought tickets for a 6am train as it was one of only two daily direct services between Budapest and Zagreb. All other options had at least three connections, the whereabouts and duration of which I had no interesting in discovering first hand.

Yet we had barely lurched another 100 metres down the track before the second of the journey’s ticket inspectors then came calling, a short, spiky-haired Croatian man in his late 30s who checked our tickets before handing them back to us and mumbling: “Next stop, change trains. Five minutes.”

Huh? Was it five minutes from now? Or did we have five minutes to wait at the station? I raced down the carriage and tapped him on the shoulder before asking, allowing him to explain that we inexplicably had to change trains, and that the station was five minutes away. I hurried back to inform a bleary-eyed Kate who helped me scramble together all of our things. We hopped off the train into the hazy sunlight to see before us a deserted freight yard platform somewhere on the border between Hungary and Croatia, with not so much as a farmhouse in any direction as far as the eye could see.

As both of us stood still, melting under the heat of the three jumpers, hoodies and coats we were wearing as they couldn’t fit into our bag, the Croatian ticket inspector pointed vaguely into the distance at a coal shipping carriage, before gesturing that our train was hidden behind it. We and around 30 other passengers hopped and skipped across the depot over exposed train tracks before a rather shiny Croatian passenger train came into view. We took a seat and again started to move, this time at a much more 21st century pace, before the same ticket inspector yet again came calling, asking for our tickets again before handing them back and saying: “Two stops, change trains. Five minutes.”

Seriously? Everyone on the train had been somehow inadvertently conned out of their direct service and began searching for answers, bewildered by the wild goose chase this man had sent us on, until the train ground to a halt in the tiny village of Lepavina. Behind the crumbling station building sat four Yugoslav-era coaches belching out black exhaust fumes, each one more hideously Communist than the last, and none of them with their destination listed as Zagreb. Without much explanation we were ferried across the parking lot by the mad ticket inspector and piled into the buses haphazardly. We crested hills and troughs as we snaked our way through the surprisingly green Croatian countryside before I nonchalantly turned to Kate, both of us covered in sweat from our manic journey, and said “… where’s my coat?”

As her face fell, I immediately ran to the door to demand the ticket inspector let me out, but neither he nor anyone else seemed to understand what I was doing or why I – clearly a British holidaymaker – was so adamant to alight in a small Croatian village consisting of a horse, an elderly man in a beret and two houses, one of which didn’t have a front door. I slunk back to my seat and collapsed in a miserable heap, typing out maybe the most ambitious lost-and-found email to the Croatian rail service.

Suddenly a lengthy but hushed conversation broke out between the ticket inspector and a passenger a few rows ahead of us, complete with plenty of intense hand gestures and furrowed brows. The ticket inspector looked at me and pointed, and the other man nodded. Using the corners of the seats he clawed his way toward us and said “Excuse me, you lost something on train?”.

“Yeah, my coat,” I sighed wearily, my head resting on my fist.

“And a white plastic bag?”

“… Yeah?” I responded, realising this had suddenly got interesting.

He smirked and scuttled away to the front of the bus like an excited schoolgirl before reappearing, arms fully aloft and with my gigantic woollen winter coat in one hand and what I assume he didn’t realise was a plastic bag full of unwashed bedbug-ridden clothes in the other. I almost jumped out of my seat as he returned them to me, my moment of joy accompanied by the soundtrack of one overenthusiastic onlooker a few rows behind me making a failed attempt to kickstart a round of applause by awkwardly clapping twice and then giving up.

“Thank you so so so much,” I said. “And please thank the other man for me too.”

“That is not problem, do not worry,” he responded, chuckling. “By the way, change trains. Five minutes.”

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St Mark’s Church, Zagreb

And so, mentally bruised, battered and bewildered Kate and I made it to Zagreb. The capital cities of the Balkans are – for the most part – quite similar in architecture, layout and atmosphere. The recipe seems to be: take one “old town” on a river, maybe 500-1,000 years old and with a fort or castle dominating the landscape and expand rapidly from there, commissioning the construction of some questionable Communist architecture that grows exponentially more hideous the further from the centre you are. Throw in some dodgy food, a tram network that hasn’t been renovated since 1958 and maybe an uncomfortably nationalist statue in the city’s main square and boom: you’ve got yourself a Balkan capital.

There’s nothing explicitly bad about this set-up, however, and while Zagreb adheres to most of these guidelines, I found myself actually quite surprised by it as a city. The main square is typically bland at first glance, dominated by pastel-shaded knock-off Vienna Secession architecture left over from the city’s history as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the outskirts are mainly made up of dead straight tram-lined streets and chain supermarkets. There really isn’t much to see on the surface until you enter the walled old town.

Up here feels like being in a different city altogether, its surprisingly chaotic layout allowing visitors to twist and turn their way through tiny cafe-flanked alleyways and parks resting in the shadows of opulent government buildings draped in enormous Croatian flags.

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Good name choice

The old town is also home to what the locals ominously call the “bar street”, a zig-zagging lane of clubs and restaurants catering to tourists that should, on paper, be absolutely hideous, but the soft streetlamps and fantastically landscaped parks breaking up the rows of bars leaves it feeling like a rather relaxed place. Furthermore, Croatians are a friendly, unpretentious bunch, meaning the bar street is one of the only truly touristy drinking districts where locals can be seen mingling with foreigners without rolling their eyes or spitting in their drinks.

But really the greatest thing about Zagreb – and what really sets it apart from other Balkan capitals – is below surface level, and I don’t mean their impressive underground aquifer network. Dig a little deeper into the city and you’ll find some funny little quirks that make the visit well worth it.

For example, from the gargantuan hangover brunch with which we started our second day there to the truffle-infused cheese board we washed down with Dalmatian wine later that evening, everything we ate or drank during our time there was astonishingly good. I know I’m one to massively exaggerate everything on this blog but seriously, Zagreb is on another level to the rest of the Balkans when it comes to food and wine.

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Brunchfast

And yet despite the somewhat elaborate range of nonsense we ate during our time here, consisting of everything from organic Istrian olives to uštipci soaked in pumpkin oil, the hearty old-school pljeskavica, which I had been raving to Kate about for well over a year now, was easily the highlight. A spiced meat patty mixture of pork, beef and lamb, this ludicrously unhealthy dish is originally from Serbia but each country in the Balkans has made their own version (and loves to claim they invented it). In particular, the punjena pljeskavica is the absolute king of burgers – a gigantic patty around seven inches in diameter, stuffed full of chilli, cheese and bacon and topped with kaymak, a kind of cream-cheese-esque sauce served in a ball on the top that melts all over the plate. It sounds disgusting, and it kind of is, but it’s also the best burger you’ll ever eat.

Kate and I embarked on a tour of the old town, which took in the mosaic-tiled roof of St Mark’s Church and covered the calamitous reconstruction of the city’s cathedral. The tallest building in Croatia, this towering neo-gothic cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake in 1880 (which also levelled most of Zagreb with it) and was accidentally reconstructed using a highly absorbent limestone, pooling water inside which then freezes in the winter and threatens the integrity of the entire structure, meaning it has been under scaffolding constantly for at least 50 years.

However, again, the surface level information simply wasn’t the highlight here. If you’ve visited European cities before you’ll likely have seen more impressive cathedral facades and interiors than Zagreb’s, and you’ll definitely have seen less garish chandeliers than the ones here, which the local Zagreb authorities bought second-hand from a Las Vegas casino, and no I am not joking.

But what was not mentioned by the tour guide is that, in the corner of the right-hand nave, stands a mammoth 100ft deep grey concrete wall that acts as a break in the cathedral’s vibrantly colourful interior, engraved with a floor-to-ceiling paragraph of script in a bizarre alphabet neither Kate nor I had ever seen before. With not so much as a pamphlet or caption in sight, I was forced to rather inconspicuously get my phone out, being careful not to drop the bottle of wine I was hiding under my hoodie. It’s a long story.

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Glagolitic script

Amazingly, there was almost no information online either, but just as the headscarved old woman selling candles in the corner had started to stare at us for an uncomfortably long time, we stumbled across a random blog post from 2013 by a lady called Vivienne Mackie who, after doing some impressive research, had ascertained that it was a biblical passage written in the Glagolitic script. The oldest known Slavic alphabet, the Glagolitic script is thought to have been created in the 9th century by Saint Cyril, a Byzantine monk who, along with his brother Saint Methodius, were sent by the Byzantine Emperor Michael III in 863 to Great Moravia to spread Christianity among the Slavic people in the region by attempting to translate liturgical books into the Old Slavic language that was understandable to the general population. However, many of the words of the Old Slavic language could not be easily written in Greek or Latin alphabets or vice-versa, and so rather amazingly they decided to invent a new script, Glagolitic, based on the local dialect of the Slavic tribes from the Byzantine Salonika region. It fell entirely out of use in the early 1800s.

That this bizarre medieval language and alphabet still exist in 100-ft bold letters carved into the walls of a cathedral in a major European capital is an awe-inspiring and almost moving tribute to history, yet the fact that there was not a single item of information on it is indicative of an unfortunate trend from which Zagreb urgently needs – and deserves – to break free. A city that clearly cares so deeply about its messy, wildly diverse past should undoubtedly do more to proudly showcase it to the outside world. Even if it seems pointless to preserve the Glagolitic script, and even if before I stumbled across it here I had no idea it existed, the extinction of things like this remarkable linguistic find would be a tragedy.

Thankfully, the next leg of our trip was about as straightforward as it gets, turning up at Zagreb bus station in the late afternoon and asking for a ticket to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. But that’s a story for the next blog post, because right now Kate and I are anxiously clutching our seatbelts on a bus headed north from Ljubljana to Bled, the driver of which appears to be dead set on doing anything except actually navigating the bus round these perilous cliff-edge hairpin turns, instead choosing to count wads of cash and, rather ominously, sift through an operating manual.

Gabe

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Budapest: Liberate Our Orb

And then there was light.

On the third day of our Budapest stay, and upon discovering that everyone’s favourite hostel owners – the Slumbering Magyar and his Furious Spouse – had offered us a full refund for our troubles (not before telling HostelWorld that he wouldn’t be giving us one), the clouds parted, the sun shone upon the grand Hungarian capital, and God saw it and saw that it was good.

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An angry selfie I took when I realised I had to either burn or wash all my clothes

And so, running on a total of about 6 hours of sleep over two nights at 11th Hour Hostel, Kate and I woke up at around 7am and found an amazing aparthotel online in downtown Budapest at a massively discounted rate for our last night there, meaning we were up financially from our original situation.

We leapt out of bed (not for the first time at this hostel) with an almost rapturous gusto, threw our clothing in great heaps into our suitcases, bolted downstairs past empty, cavernous dorm rooms to the reception and gleefully checked out of Bedbug Manors a night early, our rather acrimonious early departure garnering little more than a shrug from the staff. With suitcases in tow we holed up in a coffee shop nearby until we could stroll across to the southern district of the city centre and check into our new digs which, as we discovered, consisted of an enormously roomy hardwood-floored suite complete with a strangely well-equipped kitchen and – most importantly to counter our current predicament – a washing machine.

With just a hint of the Richard the Lionhearts about her, Kate began a ferocious holy crusade against the mighty bedbug hoard, chucking every single item of clothing into the washer and practically boiling them before putting the machine on a spin cycle so vigorous that it broke free of its wall fittings and shuddered its way halfway across the bathroom.

At this point I should say that, despite my inane ramblings, we hadn’t actually spent the entire time doing domestic chores cos.. y’know… we’re here to see stuff or something.

This is my third visit to Budapest and every time it takes me by surprise. Yet there’s never a discernible pattern to the surprise – the shocks and unexpected twists it delivers just seem to be a vital characteristic to a city that appears to endlessly morph. As such, no two trips to the Hungarian capital are alike, but how dependent your perception of it is on your mood or the company you bring may have something to do with it.

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Just the second-largest synagogue in the world

The first time I visited I couldn’t believe how relaxed and cool it was, especially for – and no Hungarian will thank me for saying this – a former Eastern Bloc state. Undeniably a city that has, in recent years, built a somewhat fearsome yet eye-roll-worthy reputation as a magnet for slimy stag dos and unwashed interrailers, Budapest is deep down a city where the tourism sector has melded with the local atmosphere almost seamlessly. Though there are obvious tourist hotspots which will charge 4x the price of anywhere else and where the sight of a St George’s Cross may not seem out of place, walk into most bars or restaurants around town and you’re likely to hit at least one Hungarian if you were to throw a stone, something I would – not from first-hand experience – strongly recommend not doing.

Second time was in July and man alive did the city live up to its reputation as a beautiful-city-turned-trashy-cesspool, awash with bumbling English tank-top-clad lads and their respective female counterparts, whose names are printed in bold across pink shoulder-to-hip sashes awkwardly draped across the pictures of dildos on their shirts underneath.

This time though, Budapest has seemed a far cry from those two iterations. Peaceful yet industrious and with its rowdy side hiding under its almost intimidating opulence, the city this time seems an urban behemoth; a truly sprawling European megalopolis of gargantuan eight-lane boulevards and canyon-like sidestreets that one shuffles through with awed reverence rather than the arrogance of a conquering – and most likely drunk – foreigner.

And of course, few cities in the world, let alone Europe, can boast historical pedigree on the level of Budapest, and so Kate and I decided to partake in not one but two separate walking tours.

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Mr Rubik was apparently Hungarian

First was the Communist Walking Tour, a whistle-stop tour of sites relating to Hungary’s somewhat complicated relationship with the Soviet regime and its own Communist puppet government, which as we learned not only blanketed the country in a grim authoritarian shroud but also decreed that Christmas be renamed “Pine Tree Holiday” and that all mentions of “you bloody Soviet bastard” in James Bond films broadcast on state television be changed to “you evil Chinese pirate”.

One slightly garish Russian monument and an uncomfortably sycophantic statue of Ronald Reagan later, we arrived at the Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion, a hideously poor attempt at neoclassical sculpturing erected in 2014 to commemorate the Nazi occupation of Hungary and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in their hands.

However, as y’all may have heard and many level-headed locals will tell you, the Hungarians weren’t exactly saints themselves during this period. To say they were “occupied” by the Nazis is like saying America is “occupied” by Donald Trump; sure there was a hearty resistance in place but millions of people – including most of those at government level – joyously rolled out the red carpet.

And as a result this commemorative statue is just a laughable shitshow. Almost every inch of it is awash with protest material, whether taped to it or scrawled across it, and the fence designed to keep it from being torn down has become a wall of shame, plastered with flyers and posters claiming the statue – masterminded by Hungary’s current (and pretty racist) President Viktor Orban – was “built on a lie”.

Astride the ruined columns I can only assume were erected as a metaphor for the career of the sculptor who designed this monstrosity is the Archangel Gabriel (representative of Hungary) supposedly shielding an orb (representative of Hungary’s innocence) beneath a bafflingly cartoonish depiction of an eagle mid-swoop (representative of Nazi Germany). However, many detractors have noted that the statue’s clunky design has left old Gabriel up on his perch inadvertently appearing to shield the orb in a way that looks suspiciously like he is in fact gracefully offering Hungary’s innocence to the eagle rather than protecting it. Thanks a bunch Angel Gabe, you couldn’t keep your hands to yourself and now Hitler’s gonna liberate our orb.

The following day was spent in strangely similar fashion, this time setting out on the city’s Jewish Walking Tour, a far more sombre affair that I’m sure – for obvious reasons – I can skip the details of.

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The view from Pest

For anyone who isn’t aware, Budapest is a merging of two ancient cities handily named Buda and Pest, the latter of which is the beating heart of the modern city, while Buda, over on the other side of the river, is mostly comprised of a quaint old town of cobbled streets and narrow staircases. Kate and I spent the day walking off the jaw-droppingly grim stories from the Jewish tour before heading down to Rudas baths, an amazing bath complex which perfectly demonstrates Buda’s greatest strength – that it offers fantastic views of Pest over the Danube.

After a few glasses of wine and a dip in the Turkish baths in the basement of the building, we wearily climbed up to the heated rooftop pool and, while I annoyed Kate by humming Strauss’ Blue Danube on a loop, watched as the blazing sun drifted slowly out of view behind Gellert Hill, casting a hazy orange-blue shadow across the moored boats and colourful Viennese-style facades on the opposite bank.

I should say we are actually in Zagreb at the moment, and are about to board a bus to Ljubljana, but I felt like Budapest was deserving of its own post, such is the quality of the time we had there (and the utter nightmare that was the train journey to Croatia also in need of a separate post).

Despite being a city chock full of hipsters and partygoers, Hungary has a real gem in Budapest – a place sufficiently alien in style and attitude for it to remain a real thrill for western Europeans but also a homely, unpretentious town of laid-back coffee shops, winding sidestreets illuminated by gaslight and a seemingly bottomless mine of complex, fascinating history.

I saw it and it was good.

I just realised by writing that I have accidentally equated myself with God.

My bad.

Gabe

Budapest: Bugs of the Bed

In almost any other dimension in which I exist, this sprawling blog post would likely start with me saying that I am an extremely unhappy man right at this moment. But as it happens I’m actually not. I’m chilling on a chaise longue, watching Roma hilariously dismantle Barcelona in the Champions League on a giant flatscreen TV and eating some suspiciously tasty Hungarian sausage that I just cooked. Life is good.

But for a (fairly) brief and chaotic moment last night it turned into a nightmarish Bruegel painting of angry hostel managers, painful insect bites and maybe the strangest phonecall I’ve ever been a participant of.

When we first booked this trip a few months ago, we resigned ourselves to staying at 11th Cinema Hour Hostel in the Astoria district of Budapest, booking it through the HostelWorld website. Cheap and cheerful but with great reviews and in a decent location, we felt like it would be hard to go wrong here; I’ve stayed at many a hostel on my travels and – bar the time my bed collapsed in Nagasaki – most of them have been relatively incident-free.

When push came to shove, however, 11th Hour, the great hope, was a great shithole.

You could tell from the moment you regrettably waltzed through its oversized doors; cavernous, cold hallways, rude staff and a bizarre 8-bed dorm room masquerading as the “private double en-suite” bedroom they had sold us, this was a dingy, empty and grimy hostel. It was the exact thing you didn’t want to see when trying in vain to convince your partner that hostels are a great way of seeing the world. We checked in, dumped our bags, triple-locked our door and headed out into the city to spend as much time away from the room as we could.

The first night – we thought – went without a hitch. Despite the blazing heat from the radiators that were inexplicably on full blast all night, the sleep was pretty comfortable.

And then…

Bedbugs. Bed bugs. Bugs of the bed.

After a second day of hiding in a point on the map of Budapest as far from our hostel as we could physically reach, we headed back home after a night of drinking and boom: while getting changed Kate noticed a row of three bites on her hip. Having learned – ironically in Budapest three years earlier – that three bites in a row was some sort of cruel joke only played by scheming bedbugs, we immediately freaked out and darted out of bed, both of us no doubt resisting the urge to leap into the others’ arms like Shaggy and Scooby at the sight of a vampire.

“What do we do?!” was my immediate response, to which Kate replied, after we had decided that bleach-boiling our skin or passing out were not viable solutions, that we should stay calm, move all our clothing off the beds and onto the floor, and go get someone from reception.

While I was putting my shoes on I heard a faint but purposeful “oh there it is” from behind me, and I swivelled to see Kate forlornly pointing at full arms-length toward a shrivelled black insect resting on the sheets in much the way a family from Basildon might point at a vandalised council-funded fence in a local newspaper. We took some close-up photos of the creepy little intruder to both present to HostelWorld and to undoubtedly reminisce while fondly looking over with our distressed grandchildren, before I left the room and headed down the corridor to the reception.

Nothing. A pitch black room with nobody in it. Sure, it was midnight by this point, but come on. There should be some way of contacting a staff member, right? There was no way I was heading back to that bloody bed. But nope; the nothingness continued despite me waiting around. Nobody came for 15 minutes. With hope sinking I shouted into the staff room, I waved at the CCTV as if there would be someone watching every move I make remotely, and then gave up and called the main phone number of the hostel listed online.

After a brief connecting tone, a small 2005-era flip-phone in the bookcase in front of me lit up and started vibrating. I silently watched as it shuffled its way across the shelf, teetered on the precipice for a moment, and bravely plunged its way onto the stone-tiled floor behind the counter, leaving me standing in a dark room listening to the voicemail message of a phone I had just witnessed kill itself.

Then I saw it: the overnight number pinned to the wall in scrawled handwriting. I thought it would be my ticket out of this surreal waking nightmare, but was sorely let down when I phoned it and it rang out the first three times.

Fourth time, however, someone on the other end rejected the call before the voicemail came. Aha! Someone’s there! You can run but you can’t hide.

Fifth time they rejected the call even earlier.

Sixth time it went back to ringing out again, so I gave up and began composing a tedious email to them while Kate and I started making solemn, tear-soaked preparations to sleep on the floor and/or in the bathtub.

Suddenly, in the dark, my phone rang. It was the same number. No longer would I be left wondering what might have been. I grabbed it, pressed the “accept call” button and heard a croaky, sleep-deprived female voice say “… hello?”

Puffing my chest out with an unearned victorious pride, I described with great gusto the current predicament within which my girlfriend and I had found ourselves, after which was a painful, lingering silence before she sighed, composed herself and shouted something along the lines of: “… I don’t really give a f*** what is happen with the bugs, you are f*** idiot and I have baby here at house and it is night and [swearing in Hungarian] bedbug [swearing in Hungarian] emergency [swearing in Hungarian] f***ing hold on moment.”

[sic]

Then I heard a click. Then the line went dead.

Having overheard the rather surprising conversation as it pierced the glum silence of our disgusting room, I spun round to see Kate standing in awe, jaw on the floor and hands frozen mid-sock-fold. But before we could even begin to stammer ourselves back into coherence, my phone again buzzed in my hand. I looked down, my mouth still agape. It was the same number. I picked up and said “… hello?!”

This time it was a softly-spoken Hungarian man. “Hello? Hello there. Hello Mr Gabriel. Hello I hope everything OK,” he said with an extremely unsubtle, almost pulsating guilt punctuating his words.

“Hello,” I responded harshly. “What the hell happened there?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?!

“It is nothing.”

“Why on Earth did that woman just speak to me like that?”

“Oh it is nothing,” he again insisted with an almost bizarrely passive tone, as if trying to persuade me that I had somehow imagined being sworn at by an aggy mum.

After a lengthy chat about the bedbugs he promised he’d drop by so we made ourselves comfortable for the hefty hour and a half it took him to get to our hostel. Sleep deprived and riddled with insect bites, we insisted he move us to another room, which he did, before we sent him on his way while reminding him we would be seeking a full refund. We then woke up the following morning to find that our new room had also been infested. Ten new bites. We took more photos and left immediately.

Long story short, we salvaged our stay here. We booked a quite amazing aparthotel at the last minute for £30 while waiting for HostelWorld to fully investigate what they call a “case file” on our incident at 11th Hour to determine whether or not what the manager called a “rigorous poisoning scheme” on the bugs had in fact wasted everyone’s time by doing f*** all.

We’re off to Zagreb on a lengthy train tomorrow so, although my writing feels a little rusty, I hope I can use that time to fill you in on the stuff we did in Budapest that didn’t involve taking close-up shots of bloodsucking insects and engaging a hypnagogic Hungarian man in an unexpectedly abstract debate over whether being sworn at by his raging wife counts as “nothing” or not.

But right now it’s pretty late and the word count on this post is getting out of control. Well done to those of you who have made it this far.

Also, never stay at 11th Hour Cinema Hostel.

Gabe

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’.

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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

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