July - September 2018
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  • Day42


    September 6, 2018 in Ukraine ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    My lack of preparation for this trip came back to bite me a number of times on this trip, but nothing ultimately stung more than being denied more time in the Ukraine due to my simple oversight of getting a single entry visa. We both loved the time we had in the country, but it feels underdone and begging for more. I was surprised to discover that Ukraine (including Crimea) is the biggest country located entirely within Europe and we barely scratched the surface. Odessa and Kiev surprised and amazed, yet everyone I met told me that neither comes close to the magic of Lviv a city in the west with easy access to the amazing looking Carpathian Mountains. Both places that could have easily been done if I’d simply done my research.

    Not that I’m that bitter, the time we had was incredible and soooo ridiculously cheap. In Ukraine, we lived like kings. On balance I have never been anywhere that represents such incredible value for money. We stayed in beautiful accomodation for a pittance and drank the best cocktails and ate the most beautiful and sophisticated meals in stylish bars and restaurants for prices that felt criminal. We never had a bad or even mediocre meal (not counting the power plant canteen at Chernobyl). And the restaurants themselves were just phenomenal too. Trendy joints with fancy brickwork, exposed air ducts, and artistically creative plating. I have been to very few places in the world with such an abundance of chic and stylish restaurants. I am constantly amazed at the exuding coolness of Eastern Europe, and Ukraine may just be the epitome. Dining here while the beautiful people of Ukraine came out to sip a latte’s and cocktails felt worlds away from my preconceived notions of the country skewed by the media reports.

    Maybe it was because of the lack of tourists and touts, but we also slipped straight into local mode. We did very little sight seeing, just enjoying the city, markets, cafe’s, bars and restaurants, it was just a lovely place to be. I guess because postings are on my mind, but I kept thinking that those that get posted to Kiev must think they have won the lottery. A beautiful, vibrant, cosmopolitan, clean, green, safe and modern city that has to be one of the heaped things places in the world to live.

    Of course, it’s not all roses. Putin is not just at the door, but has crossed the threshold, which, consistent with Newton’s law, has created an equal and opposite reaction in the rise of Ukrainian ultranationalist. I read an article while I was here about the growing violence towards minorities, particularly Romas, and I happened upon a large nationalist demonstration on my final afternoon (which actually explained all the stencils I’d been seeing around the city in the days before). There was a large contingent of police and a complete lack of counter protesters, so the vibe wasn’t overtly hostile so I wandered around the periphery for a bit taking photos, it was only as I was leaving through the adjacent park and came across hundreds of soldiers drawn up in lines waiting for the order to move in that I got a sense that this was an event that could easily have got out of control.

    But, that’s that. This will likely be my last trip to Europe for a few years as my professional and personal focus shifts to north Asia, but once again I’ve had an amazing time, come through largely unscathed and with a broader and richer view of the world.
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  • Day41


    September 5, 2018 in Ukraine ⋅ ☁️ 23 °C

    In the early hours of Saturday 26th April 1986, a routine experiment at Reactor Four of the Chernobyl power station went seriously wrong – leading to a radiation breach equivalent to 400 Hiroshimas. The experiment was designed to establish how long support systems would last after mains power had been removed; but a combination of poor design and insufficient training led to a fatal error. Automatic shutdown mechanisms were disabled as part of the test, so that when the insertion of fuel rods into the core caused an unexpected power surge, there was no way of venting the resultant steam. Internal pressure loosened the reactor’s cover plate, rupturing the fuel channels and causing a steam explosion in the reactor core.

    The first emergency teams to arrive were firefighters, many of whom had been given little or no briefing as to the nature of the accident. One of those firefighters, interviewed on the scene, described a feeling as of pins and needles, accompanied by a metallic taste in his mouth. He died soon after of acute radiation sickness. Within a week all 28 firefighters were dead.

    As authorities began to realise the scale of the disaster, radio-controlled bulldozers were deployed to clear the rubble. These robotic carts and diggers were sent in to find and remove radioactive debris; but their electronics were soon scrambled by the radiation, rendering them largely immobile. In the end, it had to be human hands that cleared the bulk of the waste. These ‘bio-robots’ as they were called were only able to endure 40 seconds of exposure at a time, as they shovelled the radioactive waste back inside the reactor so that it might be contained.

    In the city of Pripyat, a model Soviet city of 50,000 people just 3km from Reactor Four, residents were told nothing and life went on as radioactive fallout steadily fell on the city. Initially, the accident was heavily downplayed by Soviet state media, Pripyat’s brand new ferries wheel was even opened earlier than planned to encourage people to stay and go outdoors. It wasn’t until nuclear physicists raised the alarm in Sweden, 1000km away, that the USSR was forced into a public statement. Establishing a special commission to investigate the scale of the disaster, Soviet scientists soon found evidence of widespread radiation sickness; and at 14:00 on 27th April, an announcement called for the immediate evacuation of Pripyat.

    Underground, there was concern that the plasma would breach the concrete foundations and reach the ground table, the consequences of this eventuality were kept secret until 1991 when it emerged that this would have resulted in an nuclear explosion so large that it would have wiped out half of Europe and made Europe, and half of Russia uninhabitable for 500,000 years. Soviet miners were brought in to dig under the reactor to shore up the foundations as Soviet pilots were brought back from Afghanistan to dump more than 5,000 metric tons of sand, lead, clay and neutron-absorbing boric acid, dropped onto the power station from helicopters above. The reactor core burned for 5 months, when it was eventually sealed using and later, a concrete and iron sarcophagus would be installed over the core in order to contain the worst of the radiation. To deal with the clean up, the Soviet Union mobilised between 500,000 and 1 million reservists who were tasked with decontaminating the exclusion zone as best as possible. The political and economic costs are often cited as being a major contributing factor to the break up of the Soviet Union only a few years later.

    No one knows how many people died, either directly or indirectly, but the story is a testament to extreme human folly and cruelty, offset by astounding individual bravery and sacrifice. Chernobyl today is a permanent and indelible snapshot of this extraordinary story, and I’m extremely grateful I have had the opportunity to go.

    While a large draw card of a tour into the zone is definitely the photographic opportunities provided by the zone, with its modern day Pompeii feel of a ruined civilisation frozen in time, it’s often forgotten that the zone is a living breathing place. 700 people have moved back into the zone, illegally living amongst the ruins, while around 2000 people work in the zone, in shifts to manage radiation. Chernobyl should not be seen as as a fixed point in time, but rather as a region that is slowly building towards recovery while simultaneously remembering its past.

    Progress can also been observed at the site of Reactor Four. The old sarcophagus built to contain the radiation back in 1986, having been erected in haste, and under extremely hostile conditions has, of 2016, been replaced with a new shell weighing over 20,000 tons and rises to a height of more than 100 metres, making it the largest movable structure in the world (it was built on tracks for safety reasons and moved into place). Standing in the shadow of the colossal structure, I had to keep reminding myself where I was. One imagines a malevolent, industrial hell-gate, a radioactive Mount Doom; but in reality these neatly mown lawns, the modernist sculptures and – perhaps most of all – the sight and sound of ongoing work, makes this place feel just like any other industrial park.

    It was hard to imagine that beneath the steel and concrete, in the basement of Reactor Four, lurks perhaps the most dangerous single object on the planet. The solidified black lava formation known as the ‘Elephant’s Foot‘, a product of the melting core, an object of incredible mass and density, emitting as many as 10,000 roentgens per hour – that’s the equivalent of more than four-and-a-half million chest x-rays, and enough to kill someone in a matter of minutes.

    While the incredible story and sense of history you get art Chernobyl is palpable, as the holy grail of urban exploration it can be found wanting. The fact that it is so tightly controlled (for good reason) and relatively popular nowadays does diminish somewhat from the sense of discovery. Then again, this was hardly my first Soviet ‘ghost town’ experience. From an adventure/exploration perspective, I found more of value while exploring abandoned villages and monuments in the Balkans and the Caucasus, and we got lucky. Officially people have been banned from going inside buildings since 2015, but our guide was only too happy to break the rules to allow us time to explore abandoned apartment buildings, where we could reach the roof to get fantastic birds eye view of the zone, the sports hall, supermarket, theatre, as well as the famous school and kindergarten. It doesn’t take long in Pripyat to realise how advanced and modern this city was for it’s time, a model Soviet city with a population that had an average income 5 times the national average, this was the most advanced and luxurious city in Ukraine. The loss of the city must have been a huge psychological and economic blow for the state and the communist system.

    The final stop for the day was the top secret Durga radar array that was built close to the power plant due to its immense energy needs. This is a huge lattice mega-structure, 150 meters wide, 90 meters high, and 750 meters long. To man the radar system, a small secret city was built, in which 1,000 people lived. It broadcast a sharp tapping sound which earned it the nickname “Woodpecker” in the West due to its propensity to disrupt legitimate radio broadcasts and telephone communications all over the world. While many people worldwide had theories as to what was causing the noises, the source wasn’t confirmed until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
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  • Day37


    September 1, 2018 in Ukraine ⋅ ☀️ 30 °C

    Hangovers, a developing sore throat and a long, bumpy and hot bus trip made the trip to Odessa an arduous one, but eventually we were deposited into the heaving mass of humanity at Odessa’s bus station and market. After the relative sedateness of Transnistria this was quite a shock to the system, but we both fell in love with the place almost immediately. It was immediately thriving, gritty and exciting, and as we walked toward our accomodation closer to the city centre it progressively became grander and more beautiful. Much grander than I was expecting, giving hints of what must have been a truely fantastic and luxurious city back in its heyday in the beginning of the 20th century.

    Of course, as with most of Eastern Europe, the 20th century has not been the kindest, but Odessa is now on the up again due to it today being the largest port in Ukraine and domestic seaside destination, following Russia’s recent annexation of Sebastopol and Crimea. It is a vibrant, safe, cosmopolitan city of tree-lined streets, gardens and parks with multiple museums, a grand concert hall, a period-defining opera house, outdoor cafés, restaurants, bars and colourful street culture. It is a city to stroll through, relax in and explore. The people are friendly, the food is wonderful and international, the architecture stunning and the ambiance decidedly romantic.

    I could write an entire blog about the food in Ukraine, but suffice to say I have never had such technically proficient and high class food for so cheap in my life. Every meal has been to a standard that defies the dirt cheap prices, we have consistently eaten like kings at south East Asian prices.

    We spent the first evening wandering down to the sea front, drinking in a wine bar and having an incredibly decadent meal at a restaurant recommended by the wine bar’s owner, before grabbing an early night. Overnight, my throat only got worse and what I originally thought was a cold, I was pretty convinced was actually tonsillitis. Luckily (or irresponsibly) Ukraine is one of the very few places in the world where you can buy antibiotics over the counter (which probably explains the fact that there are pharmacists on literally every street corner, doing a roaring grey market trade), so following a consultation and recommended dosage from Dr Google, I procured a course of penicillin for $1 and tried to push through. We originally planned on taking a walking tour, but the guide was nowhere to be seen at the designated meeting point so instead we took ourselves to the markets for a wander. After this, I was fading fast so it was decided to dose of sea air was in order and so headed to the beach, hired sun lounges and lay in the sun, swan and drank cocktails while enjoying the decidedly Ukrainian beach ambiance and clientele.

    We had also read about the Odessa Catacombs a labyrinth of old lime stone quarries that extend for an unknown number of km’s beneath the city (estimates range from 1700 to 2500 kms). the catacombs are still being mapped and explored by professionals and amateurs alike. One such explorer is Valentine, our guide, who has been exploring the catacombs for 40 years, collecting thousands of artefacts, including the skeleton of a ww2 partisan, who’d been shot in the leg and who’s body was surrounded by empty medicine vials, providing a grim tableau to one of the Catacombs most violent and important history’s, as the base for partisans, and hiding place for Jews, during the Nazi occupation. Taking a tour with Valentine was a great decision. He was a wealth of knowledge concerning the catacombs and also spent much of the tour debunking numerous myths and old wives tales that are told to tourists on more commercial tours, including pointing out a cross that is one of the most instagrammed spots in the catacombs, complete with a romanticised story of it being hundreds of years old. Valentine knows better, seeing as he was there as a teenager drinking and smoking as his friends decided to carve the cross as a joke. It was a great tour though, giving us a small sense of the vastness and wildness that abounds underground.

    On our final evening Sophia was keen on seeing a show at the extremely grand Opera House. It so happened that there was a Ballet performance of Sleeping Beauty and the Prima Ballerina was Australian, so it was too perfect to pass up. Sticking with my pledge to always say yes to dubious ideas while travelling, I was happy to tag along to be able to see inside the building and for the experience, and I am very glad I did as the building has to be one of the grandest I have ever been inside. We sat in the Balcony’s for the outrageous cost of $18 per seat.

    It was a great cultural experience, but can’t say I’m any more convinced about the high arts than before I went. It did, however, reinforce my belief that humans are funny and continually confounding creatures.. No self respecting adult would dress up in their finest clothes and go for a big night out to the latest Disney animated fairytale, but mime the same fairytale via interpretive dance in gaudy costumes to classical music and suddenly it’s considered high art worthy of contemptuous high society.
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  • Day35


    August 30, 2018 in Moldova ⋅ ☀️ 27 °C

    Transnistria represented everything I love about travel, that addictive feeling of awe and wonder, where you lose yourself in a different and alien world. If travel is a drug, chasing that addiction has become ever harder as the world contracts, caught between my growing body of experiences on one side and increasing homogeneity on the other. Yet Transnistria was a glorious hit of that ever elusive high, a place like no other place I have ever been.

    A land of mystery and contradictions. A final Soviet enclave, clinging desperately to the glory days of communism, yet almost entirely owned and controlled by a single private company called Sherriff, which is everywhere and is everything, owned by an ex-KGB oligarch of who only one known photo exists. A place where the KGB still exists and corruption reigns supreme, but where seemingly open and free democratic elections happen every 4 years. A land with one of the lowest GDP’s in the world and in dire economic straights, yet with a complete lack of the overt poverty and homelessness you see in either Moldova or the Ukraine on both its borders. A country that has lost 50% of its population since it declared independence 25 years ago and where 98.5% of budget revenue is spent on pensions leaving the rest of the tab to be picked up by an ever growing budget deficit. An economy that is based on 3 major ex-soviet industrial plants, running on Russian gas from the east and exporting power, textiles and steel to the west, with the beautiful irony that Transnistria pays nothing for the gas, because Russia doesn’t ‘officially’ recognise Transitria (despite having a permanent military presence there) and are thus billing Moldova for the gas (an unpaid ‘bill’ that now exceeding $5 billion) - Putin is nothing if not an ingenious bastard. A regional soccer powerhouse, with the best stadium in Eastern Europe, which houses the Sherriff football club, which plays unbelievably acrymonious sounding games in the Moldivian league and winning the last 12 of the last 13 years.

    It’s best to think of Transnistria like Crimea in 2038. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moldova started flexing its nationalistic muscle, forcing the population to speak Romanian. The local Russian population, which had been forcibly resettled there through the Soviet’s extensive efforts to increase Russian influence throughout the region and as a result of Moldova being a Soviet manufacturing centre requiring a continual supply of Moscow educated engineers, took exception to this and in 1992 rose up. The war lasted about a year and was largely a stalemate, until the Russians intervened as ‘peace keepers’ and never left. No peace treaty was ever signed and no UN state has ever recognised Transnistria’s sovereignty, however, you can visit the South Ossetia embassy in the Capital, Trisapol, if you ever feel the need for a visa. Today, the uneasy truce remains, the international community still recognises it as part of Moldova and you won’t find it on any official maps, but this doesn’t stop Transnistria from having it’s own heavily militarised border (complete with pill boxes and tanks), it’s own military (backed by a very heavy presence of Russian troops), it’s own central bank and currency (including plastic coins) and it’s own parliament and president.

    For us, Transnistria could easily have become a whistle stop tour, a passport stamp (well a visa slip, as a stamp would invalidate your passport) and a cool dinner story, if it weren’t for Roman. When I was first planning on Transnistria all evidence suggested that all that was possible was a 24 hour visa, with an extension to 48 hours if registered with a hotel. With such limited time I explored the best possible ways to see as much as possible, which led me to the only American in Transnistria, Tim, and his local sidekick, Roman. Tim offered us Roman’s services for the day to show us around, which was unbelievably fortuitous and single handily made Transnistria a highlight of the trip. Roman and Tim appear to be the main local media fixes and logistics specialists in the country and Roman was an awesome tour guide, a young local who speaks excellent English and the son of the former body guard of the first Transnistria President. As a sign of the older generations indoctrination, he also told us at length of his grandmother’s repeated and fervent warnings of the dangers of the west and glory of the past.

    This was also no ordinary tour, after meeting us in the morning, we started by doing a lap of Tiraspol’s Main Street, where Roman seemed to take our lead as to where to go and what to see next. A loop took us to Transnistria’s university, which is frozen in all it’s Soviet glory, and where Roman warned us we may get harassed by security, but on this particular day they were chill, which may have been because it was the university’s admissions day, so the place was filled with prospective students and their parents trying to secure a spot, probably with the help of a healthy bribe. When I asked whether this is where Roman went to school, he laughed and explained that no and that the corruption is so ingrained that it was impossible to pass without paying off the lecturers and administration, which, of course, makes the expensive piece of paper completely useless at the end of the day. This corruption runs deep, Roman himself avoided compulsory military service by paying off a doctor $1000 (in a country where the per capita GDP is a bit over $2000) to falsify a medical exam.

    He then took us down the main drag, past the Sheriff football club’s fan shop, the prominent office of Putin’s Russian political party, a fantastic little soviet book store (complete with side by side photos of Stalin, Putin and Transnistria’s current president), the flea market, parliament (with the obligatory statue of Lenin out front) and the memorial to the 1992 war of independence. Somewhat annoyingly, Transnistria’s Independence day falls on 2 September, which I only realised a few days previously and, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t make our dates work to ensure we were in Transnistria for the big day. This hurt, but the city was in full swing, sprucing up the place by painting curbs and fountains, lining the main drag with Transnistria and Russian flags and the Presidents’s podium had been set up, which provided an unmissable photo opportunity.

    Roman also took us to the main city markets, which were amazing. Made even better by the villager stall holders who were full of smiles and insistent on us tasting their wares and posing for photos. The meat market was particularly impressive, where Roman took us to the back corner, where the biggest, scariest looking Russian dudes stood waiting by their enormous butcher blocks for the next beast to be brought in to be butchered. The size of these guys meant we were hanging back and giving them plenty of space, but they called us over, asking Roman where we were from and insisting we take photos of them and Sophia wielding huge axes and sides of meat.

    After exhausting the city sights, we jumped on a bus and headed to a village of 1000 people 20 minutes out of town. As a testament to the ridiculousness of Soviet economic decision making, this tiny village had in the middle of it a massive community hall (again complete with original Lenin statue), where, by chance, we caught a class of young ballerinas, who were only too happy to let us sit quietly in the corner watching their lesson and pinching ourselves that we hadn’t just been teleported backwards in time 40 years. This was followed by another time capsule, the village store. Manned (womanned?) by the loveliest babooshka, who, somewhat surprisingly, waxed lyrical (well translated by Roman) about politics, the craziness of man and her desire for everyone to just get along, while plying us with assorted local snacks (mostly of the dried and smoked fish variety), beer and cognac (which is the Transnistria’s equivalent lent of Cuban cigars, highly regarded around the world, and very hard to get, except when you are in Transnistria, where it is less than $10 a bottle). The village also boasted the largest and richest Orthodox monastery we had seen so far, a place so big and wealthy that it has two seperate churches, one for winter and one for summer. It also had extensive vegetable gardens that Roman explained was free for the villages to come and take what they want when they want.

    Back in Tiraspol, I had my second minor celebrity experience of the trip as we were joined by two Polish travel vloggers (Bart and Tomas) who were in town filming their next vlog. Bart had made his name filming vlogs in Venezuela, amassing over 200,000 subscribers, which is very impressive for a Polish language vlog. From Tiraspol we headed out to another village, which is the old workers accomodation for an abandoned collective farm. I had always pictured collective farms as basic and primitive, but this place was mind blowing. The accomodation blocks gave the first indication of the scale as we went inside and explored the large crumbling apartment blocks, went to the local store for some homemade wine and had a really special moment taking a breath and hanging out in the old playground, watching the local kids running amok and the old men playing dominos. From there it was on to the farm’s shell of a university, which was built to educate the next generation of farmers. The building has been torn apart for anything of value, but from the vestiges of what remain, this was obviously once a grand and ornate building for the Soviets, full of intricate tiles and mosaics. A lone security guard on a bike prevented us from going any further into the grounds of the farm, but we got a sense of the farms scale by the regular sentry towers that you could see going off into the distance. These towers were fitted with spotlights and manned by soldiers, not to keep people out, but to prevent the workers inside the farm from stealing crops. The piece de resistance though was the power plant. This farm had its very own power plant with two turbines built especially for it. The place was mind blowing, a testament to the insane soviet economy model and the ultimately futile industrial might that came with it.

    Back in town once more it was time for dinner and drinks, before Roman, loaded up with bottles of cognac and coke, took us on a romantic night river cruise up the Dniester river. We were joined by three other local girls for the trip, where we were serenaded with Russian techno music blasted at 11, while drinking cognac and coke out of plastic cups and trying desperately to distract the drunk locals from causing mischief to themselves and others around them.

    It’s always a risk to build up expectations of a place. The entire reason I am back in Eastern Europe this year was to go to Transnistria, and this is where Sophia was joining me based on my overly excited descriptions, so there was even more riding on a destination than normal and I can’t say I wasn’t a little concerned. In the end though it exceeded my expectations. This place is beyond wild, a place that exemplifies and yet simultaneously defies generalisations. A place where I feel we barely scratched the surface, left me begging for more and memories for a lifetime.
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