Day -2 to Day 1 (Part 1)

(Station identification, North Rush street, Chicago: 0.13)

My trip begins with the end of another trip. The company I work for is having a marketing event in Chicago the day before I need to leave for the Ukraine. I'm expected to attend and give a short talk, so I arrange my flights departing from Washington Dulles airport. Tuesday morning I drive down to Dulles, have a leisurely lunch, then take an evening flight to Chicago, taxi to my hotel, have dinner at Le Colonial, go to bed and write my talk for the next day, then get up, do my dance, then head for the airport to catch a midafternoon flight back to Dulles. Since I was heading straight to Kiev after Dulles, I managed to check my bags all the way through, which means that I'm either travelling very light (ipad + book in my tech purse) or heavy (clothes bag, alice pack full of gear, and tech purse) depending on where I am. Mostly I wanted to avoid having to haul an alice pack through Heathrow airport. If you've ever made a connection through heathrow, you know what I'm talking about.

Hanging out at Dulles for 4 hours, I board an uneventful flight to Heathrow, hike miles through corridors to the departure area in Terminal 1, hang out there and eat 2 breakfasts of quite excellent eggs benedict, then board my flight for Munich. By this time, I am pretty exhausted, so I immediately fall asleep, waking up only when we land in Munich. Apparently we sat in the plane for a long time before taking off, and have arrived nearly 2 hours late; my flight for Kiev leaves in 12 minutes! I have already settled in for despair because I know I won't make it through security and passport control in time for my flight but the Germans have a surprise for me. As the plane is landing the stewardess says "when you get off the plane there will be a bus waiting for the passenger to Kiev."  Sure enough, there is. German efficiency never fails to impress! I'm loaded onto the bus and the driver zooms at top speed across the airport to a passport control, I hand them my passport, they stamp it, and load me back onto the bus for another cross-airport top speed zoom: right back to my plane! It turns out that the plane to Kiev is right next door to the one I just got off of, so 5 minutes later we are rolling down the runway headed for Kiev and I couldn't help but imagine how likely it would be that a transfer passenger would get bussed around the airport like that if it were a US airport. Midway through my wondering, I'm asleep again.

Ukrainian immigration stamps my passport, hardly looking at it, and I get 200 zorkmids from the ATM then find a cab stand and negotiate service to my hotel downtown. I am staying at the recommended "Premier Palace Hotel" which looks like a newly renovated soviet-era brickpile, but which turns out to be fairly nice and comfortable. Checkin is a breeze and I shower, then try to sleep since it's close to midnight. Of course, since I slept so much on the planes I'm mostly brain-fried but not really tired.

I check email and go to sleep

The next morning I woke up at a leisurely 9:00am and find the breakfast area, eat a fairly substantial meal, then pull my camera out and take a hike around Kiev. I wasn't too impressed by Kiev; there are some churches that everyone apparently likes but I despise churches because they're such a waste of perfectly good real estate. Otherwise there's a lot of soviet-era buildings that loom like stolid babushkas glowering at everyone. I wandered around and found a flashlight (the one thing I forgot to bring!) and food and headed back to the hotel. On the way back I decided to cut through what appeared to be a large department store but, instead, it turned out to be the temple of food. It was this gigantic soviet-era indoor food market, full of gorgeous piles of wonderful-looking fruits and vegetables, etc. I spent a while watching a couple of old men play chess at a butcher's booth; their play was vastly superior to mine and when the game ended, one of the men invited me to play. I didn't exactly "run away" but I explained that I was not worth his time, and resumed my wander back to the hotel.

(The temple of food)

(the meat section in the Temple Of Food)

The Ukrainians are crazy for sushi. I have no idea how that works or why, but there are sushi bars everywhere. The Palace hotel had one in its downstairs that looked likely, and turned out to be fantastic. They had a version of edamame that had been steamed then quickly pan-fried in red chili sauce and ponzu - wonderful! I also had a fantastic miso soup that was rich and salty and full of chopped fresh shiitake mushrooms. Washed down with a Sapporo beer and a
few pan-fried scallops, my attitude improved amazingly.

I went back to the room and went to sleep; the departure for Chernobyl is at 8:00 the next day, and I wanted to be well rested.

I woke up at 6:00am and packed my bags then checked out and hiked the kilometer to the Rus hotel where we were meeting.

(Arekadiusz and his Land Rover)

At 8:00am, sharp, a small group of weirdos with tripods and camera bags began to assemble in the lobby of the Rus Hotel. Then Arekadiusz pulled up in his Land Rover Defender, and a little VW van for the rest of us to ride in. We piled in and hit the road. It's about 2 hours from Kiev to Chernobyl, then another hour from Chernobyl to Pripyat. We got to Chernobyl and checked in to the local authority there, which is responsible for tracking and making sure nobody gets lost in the exclusion zone. It seemed as if someone was checking my passport every 20 minutes, all afternoon. Chernobyl is not a pretty place; it's inhabited by a small population of people who are involved in breaking down the reactors and maintaining the zone. There is no traffic, no pedestrians, no stores (hardly) - just soviet-era buildings that seem to be mostly empty. The hostel where we're staying is "a bit of a dump" but at least it's warm. Outside, it's just below freezing and quite windy. We drop our stuff off and re-arrange our packs then pile back into the van and head toward Pripyat, the town near the reactor.

(The convenience store in Chernobyl. Every gas station, convenience store - news stand - has a vodka section)

The roads toward Pripyat are completely empty and the sides are lined with occasional abandoned buildings. As we zoom along the empty roads we come to the memorial for the firefighters who died trying to respond to the reactor when it exploded. There's some serious historical revision in the memorial because the figures of the firefighters are in protective gear. Near the memorial was a fenced-off lot of "robots" that allegedly were used for dealing with the reactor. That's all complete nonsense, of course; footage shot at the time of the disaster shows that most of the workers were wearing regular work clothes and, at best, cotton breath masks (which they mostly had hanging around their necks because of the heat) - the robots look wrong - like they wouldn't actually work if they were used. Also, remember, in 1986 the state of the art of robotics didn't look anything like these things looked.

(Monument in Chernobyl to the fallen firemen; the guy in the back is telling
the guy in the front "hey, don't touch that!!!"  During the disaster the firemen
were picking up burning radioactive chunks of graphite with shovels and
buckets. They all died.) (Google map)

There's an industrial facility outside of Chernobyl where a fleet of boats is grounded. They're all scattered like jackstraws on the shore, and have been being slowly "recycled" by scavengers over the years. Some of the boats have been cut off straight across the waterline and allowed to settle into the mud. Others wait their turn. This part of the exclusion zone is still inhabited by a small population (who live in Chernobyl) so there is the occasional sound of human activity or the bark of a dog. Everywhere are piles of rusting metal, chopped up with oxyacetylene torches, just waiting to grab your ankle and send you to the hospital. I notice that I, and my fellow travellers, have all started moving very slowly and deliberately, with a lot of attention to where we place our feet. None of us want to experience the local medical care.

(Station Identification, deck of abandoned boat, Chernobyl) (Google Map)

I brought along a rad-meter that I borrowed from Rick Adams. Because of the Fukushima reactor accident, rad-meters are in short supply  and are back-ordered all around the world. My idea was to take my GPS and the rad-meter and periodically measure the state of affairs. I'm not sure what the numbers mean, to be completely truthful, since I didn't get around to digging up the meter's manual on the internet. I don't know what the difference between 0.13 and 0.20 might mean, but I also metered my hotel in Kiev and it read about 0.18. Later, I do some research and it turns out the .15-.20 (millisieverts) is normal cosmic background radiation.

After hiking around the boats for about an hour, we pile back into the van and head toward Pripyat - about 10 kilometers further up the road. By this point, the roads are completely empty and our driver is veering from one side of the road to the over dodging around potholes. At one point we stop on a high bridge and, off in the distance, you can see the beast itself.

(The beast itself; look far to the left of the cooling tower and you can see the main chimney of Reactor #4)