Wednesday, October 5, 2011


A 25 hour train ride carried us from Moscow to Kiev, Ukraine. Kiev was sort of Moscow-lite. The metro was almost identical in design to that of Moscow, but without all the glitz. It was also a bit more English friendly, which made things less intimidating. Furthermore, the prices were actually reasonable.

Our hostel was immediately next to independence square. We were stuck in a completely packed 10 bed dorm room, apparently because every room in town was occupied for a major dance competition taking place about a hundred feet away from us.

Our first night we grabbed some sandwiches and headed toward the Dnieper River to have a picnic dinner. We were surprised to find ourselves with lots of company, as we ended up in a former soviet outdoor theater that had been converted into a small amusement park. We watched teenagers climb on the tops of heads of imposing soviet statues while Matrix-themed thrill rides spun in the background.

One of my stranger life long goals has been to explore Chernobyl, so when we found out that our hostel could connect us with a guide who could bring us into the exclusion zone signed up immediately.

chernobyl nuclear plant sarcophagus

We were loaded into a van where we ended up seated next to two Japanese guys. We were pretty tired so we let them chat for about an hour before they began contemplate where we were from and we chimed in with a Japanese response. One of them was from the area near the Fukushima plant, so he was especially interested in seeing how the government reacted to the disaster.

We watched a video explaining the basics of the disaster. It was the first time I had heard the phrase "bio-robot." Apparently actual robots weren't getting the job of shoveling highly radioactive rubble off the roof of the plant done quickly enough, so the government had soldiers sew together their own lead bibs and run onto the roof for twenty second shifts.

welcome to pripyat

Finally arriving at the exclusion zone, you have to pass through a security check before attending a meeting where you sign off on your life in a waver and get told not to touch or sit on anything. Then we were brought into Pripyat, the worker's town. Two days after the disaster, 53,000 people were told they needed to evacuate for three days, but then they were never allowed to return.


message board

The preferred method of evacuation was to break windows and throw out your belongings. You more often find yourself stepping on broken glass or books than actual floor. Nature has made its way back into the buildings.

lenin at the library

red leaves

ferris wheel

The amusement park was scheduled to open a few days after the evacuation.
radioactive moss at chernobyl

This moss is registering at 12 micro sieverts - the equivalent of about two and a half dental x-rays.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much freedom we were given to explore the town. At the school, we were simply told to "come back in twenty minutes." I got so wrapped up in taking pictures that I got completely lost and had to run through the hallways trying to find an exit.

interrupted lesson

sea of gas masks in the school

On the way out, we had to pass through a machine that allegedly told us if we were covered in radiation or not. I'm not entirely convinced the machine did anything more than flash a green light every time a person stood on it. To this day the government only acknowledges the deaths of the 31 workers who died immediately, but Greenpeace estimates that 200,000 or more people have probably died early from cancer as a result of the disaster.

We had two more days in Kiev due to a lack of space on trains. We went to some churches and markets, but I came down with a slight cold and was too tired to do a whole lot. I used it as an excuse to spend some time going through all my Chernobyl photos!

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Four straight days on a train can kinda get to you after a while. I didn't feel completely terrible, but when the closest thing to a hot shower is throwing cupfuls of warm water onto your head inside a cramped, bouncing restroom and your only food consists of cereal, bread, and instant noodles, you enter this weird, grimy altered state that you're not fully aware of until days later.

This time, our train was mostly occupied by Mongolian traders, who use their cabins as makeshift warehouses to house cheap jeans, hats, track pants, jackets, and purses. At each major stop, a mad horde of Russian shoppers will come to the train station simply to buy up dirt-cheap Mongolian merchandise on the platform, then go home.

Apart from looking out our window to endless forests, innumerable little wood shack cottages, and the pristine waters of Lake Baikal, we mostly passed the time by playing games, watching movies and TV on Andrea's computer, and hunting for the few-and-far-between power outlets on the train. Half of them didn't work at all, some required bribing the carriage attendant, and the rest almost always had somebody else's cell phone plugged into them. I finally found an open one, and while sitting waiting for my stuff to charge, this little Mongolian kid walks up to me, grabs my iPod touch out of my hand, and proceeds to try out every single game and app for the next 45 minutes. He occasionally asks for help when he can't figure a game out. I was captive, as I needed the charge and didn't feel comfortable just leaving it there.

Finally, we pull into Moscow. With a population of 11 million, it was by far the largest city we had visited, and the most European. I was picturing endless gray apartment blocks encircling the Kremlin, but was pleasantly surprised by its rich, varied architectural styles and (usually) modern infrastructure and amenities. Most impressive of all was the Metro, which consisted of rickety old 1940s trains surrounded tunnels carved out of pure marble and decorated with bronze statues and fancy paintings everywhere, deep underground, with escalators that sometimes take 2 and a half minutes to reach the platform from the surface. Stalin clearly spared no expense, as each station resembled an art museum or sculpture park. Too bad he made the rest of the Eastern bloc so butt-ugly!

Speaking of costliness, Moscow is not a cheap place. It makes Tokyo look reasonably priced by comparison. The cheapest black Starbucks coffee goes for 6 US dollars, and flavored drinks are even higher. Despite high poverty rates, the city also has the highest concentration of billionaires in the world. The whole city had this weird mixture of scummy cheapness alongside Ferrari dealerships and luxury watch stores.

It's also the least tourist-friendly big city I've ever been to. If you can't read the Cyrillic alphabet, you're completely lost; most signage is exclusively in Russian, even on public transport. I know no Russian but can read enough of the alphabet to get by, so we were never completely lost, but the act of simply figuring out where you are and where you're going can be pretty frustrating.

Our first day was devoted to a personal walking tour, led by a pleasant Russian lady who showed us around Red Square, the Kremlin, and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. I was excited to see the iconic St. Basil's Cathedral, which I had previously seen only in photos and on the title screen of Tetris.

Our guide told us about growing up in Moscow in the era of Khruschev and Brezhnev, and told us that the huge, impressive reconstruction of the Cathedral was the site as a large public swimming pool when she was a kid.

The next day we spent going to some interesting specialty tourist sites that we'd been looking forward to for a while. First up was the Cosmonaut museum, devoted to the history of the Soviet space program, which included a full-size reproduction of Mir that you can enter. After that, we found the Soviet Arcade museum, which housed some hilariously primitive (and occasionally fun) ripoffs of the American and Japanese games of the 70s and 80s. My favorites were the submarine games that used a combination of scale models and light guns through a little periscope. We also had fun with a basketball game that consisted of about 16 hexagonal holes, requiring you to push the correct numbered button to shoot the ball toward your opponent's basket.

Owing to restrictive Russian visa rules, we had only one more day, which we opted to spend at Gorky Park. The park itself was pleasant enough, if mostly unremarkable, but it had this peculiar kiddie area with some really strange attractions. My favorite was this, a spinning chicken spitting out plastic eggs that you're supposed to catch with a net. The best part was the music it played, which was this demented version of Old MacDonald that will stick in your head forever if you hear it even once. This bizarre carnival game lifted my spirits greatly after a disappointing visit to a Statue Park that ended up being a waste of time.

Moscow is a very cool city, but it has this intimidating quality that makes exploring it for a couple days feel a little like you got your ass kicked in a bar fight. I feel like we only scratched the surface, so I do think I'd like to return one day, as well as see other places in Russia we didn't have time for, like St. Petersburg. Hopefully, next time, the Visa won't be so expensive, or require filling out an incomprehensible form with questions asking if I've ever operated a nuclear device or have had weapons training, or basically asking me to list every school I've ever attended in my life.