A Travellerspoint blog

Week 35, 24.Oct.09 - 30.Oct.09

Kiev, Ukraine to Brasov, Romania

View Week 35 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Kiev, Ukraine
Well, Ukrainians can definitely drink, so I've learned after last night! After grabbing my pack and getting some help from a super-nice local man to find Pozniaky metro stop, met my CouchSurfing host Alex and his fiance Olga - such a nice couple, super friendly to help me feel welcome and "at home" in their nice apartment - not even a couch, but my own bed! We had some wine & snacks in their kitchen getting to know each other then headed next door to a local pub, had some food and a lot of beer then were joined by their super cool friends Anastacia and Marina. Once the live band jamming Russian songs started and we moved on to vodka, I can't remember too much after that - but Alex is retelling some of the night, I'm not sure if I believe all the stories but pretty damn funny!

Now, after having the amazing breakfast my hosts made, consisting of chicken, grain, pickled carrots, etc. (more like T'giving than breakfast!), we're about to head out to walk around for the day, and hoping the rain holds off!

I've boarded a train I'll take overnight from Kiev to Odessa, and after the past 72 hour marathon weekend, have a feeling for once I'll have no trouble falling asleep! Yesterday Alex, Olga and I caught the bus across the river and to the spiritual heart of the Ukrainian people, Caves Monastery. So we bypass the Kasa (ticket) booth and go directly to the entrance, start walking in but the ticket-checker babushka stops us before we enter, and her and Alex exchange words in Russian for a minute, then he says, "Ok, let's go", and we go inside. A minute later he says that he told the ticket-checker that he's going to visit his mother working in the souvenir shop inside (she doesn't) - and even though the ticket-checker questioned him about my being a foreigner (can I be spotted that easily??) - he still pulls it off for free entrance... hilarious! Roaming around the complex of cathedrals and belfrys was truly awesome - just beautiful architecture.

We're later joined by their friend Marina then head into the caves - ancient place of winding, narrow and low ceiling corridor that is illuminated only with the candle you hold. Well, if you have a claustrophobic tendency to small places this would not be recommended with the hundreds of people flowing in single file, shuffling along in one direction...

Along the way there are small rooms to the side with glass covered wooden coffins containing mummified monks, decorated with elaborate robes and veils - so cool!

Well, after we walk over to the gigantic (1,108 m) Rodina Mat, Defense of the Motherland Monument, atop of the Great Patriotic War museum.

Very similar entry to the Brest Fortress in Belarus, with the Soviet anthem proudly broadcasting on outdoor speakers.

And to really get me in the mood, Olga buys me a pin replica of the Monument statue outside - the babushka working at the souvenir shop tells me in Russian that I must say, "Sluzhu Sovietskomu Soyuzu" as I am pinned on the chest, Alex translates for me, "Serve to the Soviet Union"! - so funny! We walk around the museum which really has some cool displays and remnants of the war, they definitely put a lot of effort into the museum here.

The bonus for me was Alex able to translate a lot of the display information (all in cyrillic). We left and walked along the parks lining the hills above the Dnipro river - not a touristy location, I felt like a local for sure!

There are people walking around carrying Ukrainian flags in support of (and compensated as well, from what Alex told me) political candidates for upcoming Jan 2010 presidential election. Walked along until we reached the "rally point" where thousands were gathered in Maydan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square.

This is also the place in 2004 where between 500k and 1mm people turned out for the "Orange Revolution", to protest the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko and subsequent, obvious fraud from that presidential election results. Alex took me to the nearby train ticket office to help me buy this train's ticket in about 30 seconds; it would have taken me at least 10 minutes to try and communicate on my own! We then met backup with Olga, Marina and were joined by Christina and Anastacia at a local restaurant for authentic Ukrainian meals - the stuffed animal trophies and weaponry donning the walls added to the atmosphere!

We all ordered our meals - mine, of course, was chicken Kiev, along with the borsch and mashed potatoes. Well, after the soup when appetizers arrived I took a big fork-full of what I thought were the mashed potatoes... hmm... didn't taste quite right? So, a bit later Alex tells me to try it spread on bread, when I asked him what it was he told me the name of it in Russian. I asked if it was the mashed potatoes, but he replied, "No, it is something like a kind of pork fat". Ugh, barf! We ordered drinks, I first try the Ukrainian staple "honey pepper vodka" - pretty good! Then Alex proceeds to order a bottle of vodka... and we're making toasts and doing shots while eating dinner. Then when we finish the bottle Alex says something to the waitress in Russian. I ask him, "You didn't order another bottle??" He replies, "No!... Well, yes". Oh no! So we finish up at the restaurant and move to O'Briens, an expat Irish pub for many more drinks and some live music.

Finish up at some local diner place for - yes, more drinking. We cab it back to their apartment at about 4 AM, I go to bed while Alex, Olga and Anastacia stay up talking - and more drinking - nuts! Well, about 7 AM I hear voices from the kitchen and see sunlight coming through the bedroom window, so I get up to get ready to leave. The crew was still awake, still drinking - damn, that's hard core! After Olga made me a sandwich (such a great host!), bidding them good morning (or good night?), I head out to the metro to make it to the Kozatskiy hotel, where I'm joining a tour group heading up to infamous Chernobyl. Did a bit of research on Friday and read it is (supposedly) safe to visit, so figured this may be one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The 2 hour ride up I sacrificed sleep as the minivan was showing on the TV a documentary of the Chernobyl disaster, so it was really informative and kept me interested enough to stay awake after only ~3 hours sleep. Stopping at the border control area to enter the "Exclusion Zone", a 30km barricaded radius from the site of the reactor, the group (about 14 of us) had to present our passports to the guard for a validation check of our pre-registration of the tour. Passing the barricade you could instantly notice the change of the road condition -- pot holes and beat up all over, a sign of lack of maintenance for 23 years. Along the side of the dilapidated road, started seeing the affects from the disaster - abandoned homes with tress and other vegetation slowly reclaiming the land over man-made structures.

Arriving into the town of Chernobyl, we were escorted up the stairs of a military-style building, where we were given a waiver form to read & sign, releasing the tour company of any liability from any liability from future health "deterioration" or damages to film/camera equipment due to radiation exposure - well OK then! Our somewhat boisterous guide began describing the agenda for the day, then started to recap the events of 26-April-1986... apparently, there was some form of test being conducted to try and manage a way to raise and lower power levels more quickly. In the process, the emergency defense mechanisms were shut off, and at some point around 1 AM when raising and lowering manually the power level, the energy began to rise and kept rising; unable to control then combusting in the process. Pretty crazy. We all had a preliminary check of our individual radiation levels, then headed out to drive toward the plant. Along the way our guide was giving us information about the area. The town of Chernobyl, several kms from the actual plant, today has a functioning post office (with radiation barometer out front), market shop where I bought a water (made sure that sucker was properly sealed!), and a couple other signs of life. Anyone who works there in town has a regimented schedule for time they must exit the Exclusion zone and spend a number of days away from the exposure. We first come to a former stadium where on the field now sits the final resting place for contaminated military vehicles. Our guide shows us first-hand the level of radiation on the tank's tracks, the reader is off the chart!

A couple stray cats were nearby, our guide gave them a check with the radiation reader - all clear!

We then drove by the abandoned shipyard at the river, with contaminated boats rusting away, then drove along the town and stopped to watch the "famous" wild boar walking down the road. This boar was found 2 days after the disaster, and other than being neutered (and thus "without direction", according to our guide), seemed pretty healthy! We next stop off at an abandoned school where everything was left untouched since the disaster. After touring the classroom, we drive off and come up to the plant. First site dominating the skyline is the traditional Simpsons/Springfield-looking cooling tower, and next to it are about 1/2 dozen construction cranes above structures adorned with scaffolding... reactors # 5 & 6 under construction back in 1986, but never finished and all abandoned.

We're maybe 1/2 mile from reactors 1-4, and I confirm with our guide that the big, barn-looking structure we're looking at is in fact the sarcophagus containing reactors 3&4, and it is confirmed. So I start taking some photos, thinking this will be our best view of the infamous site...

but oh, wait... we get back in the minivan and our guide tells us, "Now we will go see reactors 3&4". Uh - "now?"... and then pull up about 100 meters - max - away from the sarcophagus, right next to some memorial honoring those who worked toward the cleanup effort.

Some idiots in the group walk past the memorial and right up to the fence - our guide tells them, "Guys! Get back here, that area of grass hasn't been secured!" I'm thinking, "Great, I'll be sure to avoid stepping, touching, breathing anywhere near those fools!" Get back in the minivan then drive over the bridge to the town of Pripyat, only about 2km from the plant. We pass the abandoned train tracks that used to serve as a major gateway between Moscow and Kiev,

then pull up next to the 7 or so story hotel and get out. Other than a couple other small tour groups in the immediate area, there are no signs of life - eerily quiet, completely abandoned ghost town. We confirm this by entering into the lobby and climbing the stairs - all of which looks like a nuclear bomb did go off, with broken glass everywhere. Get to the roof and see incredible views of the abandoned city which formerly had more than 40k residents.

The guide tells us most of the "destruction" of the buildings came from people returning to loot window frames and other valuable objects (contaminated or not), and of course subsequent vandalism. In fact, when watching the documentary on the ride up in the morning, then were showing home movie video clips being shot in Pripyat the morning after the explosion, and the city was completely unaware of anything wrong (they were told the following day they had 5 hours to gather essentials because they were being evacuated). Really crazy - trees now growing through the floors, etc.

We enter into other buildings - Art Center, Theatre, Sports Complex - all the same look inside, loads of broken glass we just walk right over, and ceilings dripping water (despite my efforts to avoid, one drop splashed on my jacket sleeve... I fully expected it to start disintegrating like Homer's bowling jacket in that one Simpson's episode...). Really eery and depressing overall. We drive over to the amusement park built in early 1986 for the annual Soviet Union May 1st holiday, but of course it was never used.

Next stop was to the Olympic-size swimming pool, then another school - big one - that also had all of the desks and even lesson plans still remaining on chalkboards, all frozen from 1986.

We drove back toward Chernobyl city, and arrive at the barracks starting point for lunch. Whether the food was "safe" to eat I couldn't say for sure, but we all ate - and they served a ton of food, too. After lunch we leave Chernobyl and head back toward Kiev, but prior to exiting the "Exclusion Zone", had to get out for a full-body screening measuring radiation levels to make sure we weren't contaminated - the assistant guide told us there had been cases in the past where people had to leave behind shoes/gloves etc; surprisingly, the idiots who wandered off today didn't set off the alarm.

I slept a little of the way back, then arrived in Kiev made my way back to Alex and Olga's - they had just woken up! Olga and Anastacia made me borsch and some chicken dish for dinner, and Olga made me another sandwich for the train ride, and handed me my washed/dried laundry -- really, too much, too nice!! I bid them all a very sad farewell, but promised to come back someday soon. Really, how could I not?!?

Odessa, Ukraine
Having a late lunch/early dinner at a pizza place here in Odessa, about to go shower then meet up with the British guy Edward I met in Lviv last week. Sure enough, got some sleep on the train last night, but unfortunately they wake you 45 minutes before the scheduled stop, so in total still only had about 5 1/2 hrs sleep. Had a coffee at the station to help me wake up a bit, checked my pack then wandered around the town. No info in my guidebook on this place and no tourist info center, so didn't have too much of a plan! But, Odessa is a nice port city on the Black Sea.

Colonial-style buildings/monuments around were nice,

but being a Monday, the museums were unfortunately closed. Got online and looked up a hostel which took me quite some time to find (the neighborhood is akin to the crazy cross-directional streets of the Village in NYC!), and now that daylight savings ended as of Saturday (for all the world except USA, thanks to George W. Bush), everything is dark by 17:00, so that's about it for Odessa sites!

Chisinau, Moldova
Just about to grab a beer here in Chisinau, having run out of daylight to do any sightseeing! Back in Odessa this morning, made my way to the bus station to inquire on buses to Tiraspol. First woman at the ticket counter said, "No bus". Hmm.. since my guidebook says there are several/day, I assume it is just a language barrier issue so I ask the ticket worker next counter over, she told me "Yes, bus.. 17:45." What?! Definitely didn't want to wait that long, so asking about buses for Chisinau, found one leaving about every hour - book it! But, due to the de facto separist state of Transdniester, the bus doesn't pass through Tiraspol en route as I thought, but rather drives way out of the way to the southern tip of Moldova for the formal border crossing, then all the way back north up to Chisinau. What is only about 175km from Odessa and should take a few hours, ends up taking 5 (the horrendous road conditions in Moldova didn't exactly speed things up). So got off the bus in Chisinau not knowing what station I was at (love those smaller cities with several stations spread all over, and no easy way to get from one to another!), I wandered to a gas station and asked where the Hotel Cosmos was. A super-friendly (and not bad looking) girl who doesn't speak English but knows what I am asking and where the hotel is, leads me to the local maxitaxi (minibus) stand across the street, hails the correct maxitaxi for both of us - pays my fare, and gets off at my stop which I assume was a bit out of her way to wherever she's going as she starts backtracking. I tell her I have to at least repay her for the bus fare, but she refuses to accept - wow, so nice! So far I am giving the thumbs up for Moldovans!

Just got back to the Hotel after touring around Chisinau all day. I met up with Alison, UK girl who I had met during the Chernobyl tour on Sunday and now also traveling in Chisinau... we agreed it would be a good idea to keep in touch, to monitor eachother's "long-term" health conditions following Chernobyl! We wandered down Chisinau's main strip Stefan Cel Mare, passing by the government buildings and Holy Gates (what Moldovans call their "Arc de Triumph" - uh, maybe, if the town is inhabited by people also 1/3 the size of normal!),

then into the two diagonal parks. One of the parks was just lined with busts of famous Moldovans - not sure who any of them were, though!

Had lunch at a nearby pizza cafe then we checked out the Pushkin museum, which is a small cottage where the Russian poet Alexandr Pushkin was supposedly exiled for 3 years, and where some of his more famous works were composed.

So now I've seen Chisinau with daylight to spare - heading out for drinks next, to celebrate 8 months on the road!

Tiraspol, Transdniester (Moldova)
On a minibus here in Tiraspol and heading back to Chisinau after touring around this bizarre city for the day. This morning in Chisinau I did a bit of research on this breakaway state of Transdniester - from the time Moldova claimed independence from Soviet Union in 1990, this eastern region fought the separation, with a civil war. Today the region has its own currency, police, army and borders, which are only recognized (and funded) by Russia. I read some travelers having issues crossing the "border", being stopped by guards demanding some sort of bribe, even though this region of Transdniester technically doesn't require any visa/fees from USA, EU or Moldovan citizens. But since there is no embassy support from any countries in the area, it is essentially lawless and you go it alone. So as a precaution, I asked the receptionist at the Hotel to write on a piece of paper in Russian, "I know I do not have to pay to enter Tiraspol!" So got in a maxitaxi in Chisinau & headed to the border. One of the passengers spoke broken English, and I could tell by the way he kept looking at his watch was in some kind of hurry, so when we arrived at the Transdniester border he asked me if I needed help when I got out for the immigration office. I replied that I didn't think so (having my note handy), but he got out and walked up with me just to be sure - I assume he knows about the bribes, and was trying to avoid delays to get home! But no issues arose, and we continued onto Tiraspol (about 15 km beyond the border). Wandering down the main street, Ulitsa 25 Oktober, I was really blown away with the total pro-Soviet billboards, buildings, monuments -

even their national flag has the hammer & sickle etched in.

This place really rivals Minsk for the closest thing to a present-day Soviet city. Also, people were doing full 180 degree head turns when the tourist with a backpack walked past... not sure when the last time they had seen a Western tourist, but I think I'll be the topic of some dinner conversations tonight! Stopped at the Tiraspol National United museum, but was turned away with my Moldovan Lei currency, so I went to exchange Lei for some Transdniester Roubles - good souvenir! Back inside the museum I was approached by some young locals, one of the guys spoke really broken English but asked if I would like a guide to explain the exhibits - it was really cool! There were 4 locals, and we'd go from one display to the next and they'd all be telling him things about the display in Russian and he would then try to translate for me while they eagerly waited for my reaction.

There is definitely an interesting story with this area, and the experience was really great to be able to interact with the younger locals. They then encouraged me to visit the Nikolai Zelinskogo museum next door, offering me free admission so they could proudly show me the displays about their favorite Soviet chemist. Thanked them all and said I needed to head back to the bus station, the one guy asked for me to wait so he could walk with me - looking to practice his English (by telling me stories of his friend Vilnius who now lives in St. Petersburg - he was definitely a little obsessed with Vilnius...) and ask me about NYC. Really nice guy, helped to flag down the correct bus heading back to Chisinau. Now, just passed across the "border" back into Moldova without incident - good day!

Brasov, Romania
I just got checked-in to my hotel in Brasov - another "3" star gem, and about to head out for a look around the nightlife. So this morning back in Chisinau, I managed to find my way to the Southwest Bus Station - no where near where I thought originally - and got on the next maxitaxi to Brasov. Prior to actually heading out of Chisinau, we pull over and wait 45 minutes for the driver's friend or boss to bring him something he forgot or extra cargo to carry - that happens way too much, for these drivers to wait for extra passengers or cargo or something - never leave on time! And entering into Brasov we're pulled over by some EU drug inspectors that comb through the vehicle for about 20 minutes - maybe the "cargo" the guy was waiting for was a stash, indeed!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 08:06

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