Jan 122019
 


So, you’ve already seen the Chernobyl Post, but what else did I get up to in Kiev? Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I didn’t get to see nearly as much as I’d like. However, since this was my first visit in 30 years, I did accomplish my two goals of seeing Chernobyl and getting a feel for the place. I’ll be right up front with that: Kiev was absolutely awesome, exceeded all my expectations, and I can’t wait to go back for a longer trip!

Finally!  I’ve been to every country in the world post-independence! Move over Ukrainian SSR, I’ve now been to Ukraine!

Found a great craft beer bar called Punkraft with an amazing selection of beers – I wouldn’t have expected that in Kiev!

Tasty burger with dinner too – see the shot glass behind the burger? I assumed the black thing inside was a wet nap for after the burger…nope….it turned out to be a rubber glove. Ok, that’s….odd.

Statue at Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square – Independence Square – where in 2014 protests were finally successful at toppling the government and instituting true democratic rule for the first time.

Monument on Maidan Square:

Monument to the “Facebook Revolution” – Facebook was largely crediting for helping to organize the protests which eventually brought down the government.

Looking the other direction onto Independence Square. There was a strong wind as you can see with the Ukrainian flaga, and light snow was falling….you can see on the building it was also -2 out. Brrrr!

Thanks to google, I found some of the more artistic subway stations to visit. I love just popping around to subway stations in Moscow to see the grand Soviet architecture, so wanted to see what Kiev had to offer. Teatralna station, where the national theatre is:

Zolotoy Vorota Station – Michael the Archangel and Patron Saint of Kiev. Can you imagine religious figures in a US subway station?

More from Zolotoy Vorota, note in the upper left that all the arches are covered in mosaics:

Yaropolk II of Kiev – Grand Prince of Kiev in the early 1100s:

Slavutych Station – it’s supposed to symbolize the river. It looks more like a space odyssey:

See, very sci-fi space odyssey:

I loved the futuristic look of this station with the shiny pillars and the tiled walls and floor:

View of the Palace of Sports. Next time I’m here I definitely want to catch a hockey game:

On the way out, information board at Kiev airport. The price for business class on the way out was outrageous, so I settled for economy once I saw that if there were remaining business seats you could buy them at the airport. It was a bit of a protracted negotiation, but I finally managed to buy one for about $130. The website said $95 – so end of day it was fine.

Still Christmas in Kiev Airport!

Turned out when I got on the plane, I was the only person in business class! Made the upgrade totally worth it! It would have been empty without me, and the crew was super friendly and attentive. Bit of pre-departure champagne and a newspaper:

Three choices of snacks! Not bad! It was like my own private jet. Some smoked beef with potatoes and peas. The chocolate tort was super tasty tho…and a bit of champagne in very stylish glasses:

Sunset on the way to Riga:

Fantastic sunset tonight:

Deplaning at Riga:

Unfortunately immigration at Riga took more than an hour, due to a sour and suspicious immigration drone who decided my passport must be fake with all the stamps and “too many Russia visa.” Ugh. Eventually allowed into the Schengen Area (which is 100x easier in Frankfurt) and off to explore Latvia for the first time in 20 years!

Jan 092019
 


I think this is the third time I’ve planned to go to Ukraine, Kiev, and Chernobyl in the last five years, and unfortunately the third time that it just didn’t look like it would work out. Battling a nasty sinus infection for the last six weeks that refused to go away, beaten down by nearly 30,000 miles of work travel in the same period, combined with getting food poisoning on Christmas Eve…it once again looked like it wouldn’t happen.

However, the day of the trip rolled around, I decided I could survive the flights, and since I really wanted to see Chernobyl in the winter I decided I had to try. After all, Ukraine is the one country out of all the countries I feel worst about “counting” when I say I’ve been to every country. See, I was in the Ukrainian SSR of the Soviet Union in 1989, but I’ve never been to independent Ukraine. Add that to the fact that the Chernobyl scare was a significant global event during my teen years…I felt I had to try.

If you don’t know what the Chernobyl Disaster is, I recommend you head over to Wikipedia to read up. Basically, in 1986 during a very poorly designed emergency test the reactor ran out of control causing a fire and steam explosion that propelled a bunch of highly radioactive material into the atmosphere, which was then carried by the wind all over northern Europe.

I’ll skip over the flights, but I made it to Kiev around 1030p, and with the tour kicking off the next morning nice and early sleep would be scarce…but that’s not a problem. I never sleep great the first night in Europe with the time change anyways. Right. I’ll review the flights later, but onto the stuff you’re probably really interested in. What’s Chernobyl like in the winter?

Well, for starters, I was worried about snow. Watching online, temperatures had hovered around 0C for the previous two weeks leading up to my trip, although there were dips above and below, and times that seemed to indicate significant snow was falling. The minute I walked out of the airport, it was actually 2C…and a good amount of snow coming down. I was hopeful!

I booked my tour with SoloEast Tours based on the recommendations with several friends, and their instruction to meet at a square in central Kiev seemed easy enough. I don’t know if it was because of snow in the morning or what, but I had four straight Uber drivers drive towards me for five minutes or so…then abruptly cancel. After a successful Uber from the airport the previous night I was puzzled, and a bit confused. Fortunately, I finally got one and made it to the point at exactly the departure time. Fortunately, turns out, they always wait 10-15 minutes just in case, so wasn’t a problem.

There were maybe 15 people in my van, which was a good size for a tour. Mostly younger people in their 20s and early 30s, but a good group of people to spend a roughly 11 hour day with. With that, we were off to a gas station on the outskirts of Kiev so people could stock up on water, snacks, bathroom, whatever, and then to the edge of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone about an hour away.

While our guide sorted our permits, we got to enjoy…what else…a tourist information centre. Felt a bit…”wrong” at the sight of a nuclear disaster, but…

Into the exclusion zone, and a stop at a small abandoned village. The town hall/meeting spot, now overgrown:

Then onto Chernobyl itself, where posing with the town sign is practically obligatory. Note there was no lack of snow at all to make everything otherworldly:

WWII memorial statue outside a Kindergarten in Chernobyl:

Geiger counter shows a radiation hotspot in the snow outside the kindergarten. 10-15x background radiation, but still only about 3x higher than a transatlantic airline flight.

Abandoned kindergarten:

Creepy doll in the kindergarten…according to the geiger counter covered in mostly dirt, but probably a bit of radioactive soot too:

Decapitated doll amongst beds:

Hey, welcome to Chernobyl!

Next stop was for lunch in the exclusion zone, which was at a small motel with a restaurant. Food is brought in daily from outside the zone, so you know it’s relatively radiation free. Nice tasty lunch of soup, meat, and potatoes, and it was off and time for the main event…the reactor itself!

Approaching the nuclear site, with reactors one, two, three, and four. Reactor four was the one that blew and now has the domed sarcophagus over it:

About 80 meters from the sarcophagus of Reactor #4, and the still highly radioactive material inside. Bit of background, in the couple of weeks immediately after the disaster, many firefighters and military conscripts died fighting the highly radioactive fire, some in rather horrific ways due to radiation poisoning and burns. Eventually, a concrete sarcophagus was built over the reactor to stop the wind from carrying more material into the atmosphere, but everyone know this sarcophagus had a very limited life.

A few years ago efforts began to build a more permanent solution, but there was one problem: getting within 100 meters of the reactor was still far too dangerous for more than a minute or so, so how were there going to build such a massive structure? End of the day, it was built about 100-200 meters away, and then slowly inched over the reactor on a massive series of hydraulic jacks. Great details on the “New Safe Confinement” on Wikipedia where you can read about the massive international engineering feat. Right, so here’s the new safe confinement…and also melted down reactor…from just about 80 meters away:

Near the reactor, hotspots are marked by signs. Most of these contain between 10-40x background radiation levels.

Town sign for the town of Pripyat, near the reactor, where most plant workers lived. Pripyat is actually closer to the reactor than the town of Chernobyl. Not sure why it wasn’t called the Pripyat Nuclear Power Plant…

Recreation Center in Pripyat with a destroyed basketball court:

Remains of an Olympic swimming pool:

Olympic pool from another angle:

One more shot of the Olympic pool. Was very post-apocalyptic creepy:

Next up, an abandoned Soviet apartment building in Pripyat. View from the roof:  (shhh, don’t tell anyone, we weren’t supposed to go up there)

Abandoned apartment:

Front of the apartment building 30 years after the disaster:

Then on to an amusement park in Pripyat, scheduled to open the week after the disaster. Unfortunately, it never opened. Abandoned ferris wheel:

Anyone up for a ride?

Bumper cars:

The snow definitely added to the effect:

Next up, the town square in Pripyat, complete with abandoned restaurant:

…and grocery store. I found the beer aisle, of course:

Sadly, the candy and cookies aisles were bare:

Random gasmask on the ground outside the grocery store:

One final stop as the sun was setting was the DUGA radar station, also known as the “Russian Woodpecker” for the pecking noise it made over shortwave radio bands. I can’t describe the technology well, but Wikipedia has a great explanation of what the DUGA was. One thing it certainly was was massive:

View of a small part of the abandoned radar from below:

After that, it was completely dark, and time to head out of the exclusion zone. To get out, we had to pass through two separate radiation detectors, one at the 10km marker and another at the 30km edge of the exclusion zone. Here I am being scanned. If you pass, the gate would automatically open for you. Supposedly the detector at the 10km marker isn’t very sensitive, but the 30km one is since that is where you’re “free” from the zone:

With that, it was about a 90 minute drive back to Kiev, which we reached just before 8pm. It had been a very long day, but super fascinating and well worth it. Highly recommended for anyone going to Kiev! SoloEast was also absolutely amazing – especially our guide Vika – and would highly, highly recommend them to anyone wanting to visit Chernobyl!

Jan 062019
 


A few months ago, Saudi Arabia announced that for the Formula E race they would be hosting in December they would also be issuing eVisas to those who bought tickets to the event. Now, historically, Saudi Arabia has only issued tourist visas if you travel with one of a very few authorized tour agencies, who universally charged rather outrageous prices for what you get – usually in the several thousands of dollars range. Because of this, Saudi Arabia has always been a country that “country collectors” have trouble checking off unless they’re Muslim and can go on the Hajj, or they get invited on business.

The Saudis have promised several times that tourist visas were coming soon, but it has never materialized. We all thought this was too good to be true, but their Sharek website was not only online, but buying a race ticket and getting your eVisa only took about 15 minutes and you received your eVisa by email. Now, the timing was terrible for me as my December was already packed, but this was one of those “once in a lifetime” opportunities, so I couldn’t say no. Hopefully they keep issuing these visas going forward.

The other reason I felt I had to jump on this is that Saudi Arabia is one of a few countries that I’m not thrilled with the quality of my initial visit on the first round of visiting every country. (Others include Yemen, Syria, Sudan, FS Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands) So this was a chance to take care of one of them.

Right. Fast forward a few weeks, and the first people started arriving, and were having no trouble with the visas, so this was really happening! Now, word of this spread like wildfire in the country counting community, and there was a rather substantial number of people jumping on the bandwagon, so this would also be an awesome opportunity to meet a great number of other travelers with well over 100 countries under their belts. Should be an awesome time!

Landed pretty late at night, and wanted to get to bed since we had a very early morning tour planned to the “Edge of the World.” This would be the first chance for the majority of the group to meet each other, and there were about 30 of us heading out. We were meeting at 0530 to head out, which prevented hotel breakfasts or even a Starbucks stop. I thought to stop at Starbucks the night before and get an iced coffee with extra ice and put it in the minibar fridge, in hopes that in 6-7 hours it would still stay largely frozen and cold…and it worked like a charm.

Small hotel note: stayed at the Marriott Courtyard, which was a perfectly nice hotel. Rooms were very nice for a Courtyard, and staff tried to be helpful, but like most places in Saudi Arabia the service culture was short of Western standards. All said, however, it was a perfectly nice hotel.

Right, off on the drive to the Edge of the World. Beautiful scenery on the way out of Riyadh. The grey cloudy skies certainly gave it an otherwordly look:

Our driver just chugging along in our Chevy SUV:

First impression at the Edge of the World:

A little better perspective. It was also super windy and surprisingly chilly here!

Did I mention that the sky was just crazy?

Standing at the Edge of the World. You can’t really see the perspective in this shot, but if you look at knee-level that’s where the ledge sharply drops off hundreds of meters.

This puts into much better perspective just how huge and vast this place was, and how sheer the drop was. About half of our group only about 100 meters away:

The windy walk to the Edge of the World. I think this is my absolutely favourite shot.

Three of the ladies on the trip, Ania, Katelyn, and Jenna, rocking their abayas. More than 500 countries visited between them

The group. I’m not sure a larger group of people who’ve visited 100+ countries has ever been assembled in one place!

After the Edge of the World our drivers took us straight to the Formula E race, which was the raison d’etre for issuing the visas. I wasn’t terribly interested in it, but with no other plans for the afternoon figured I should stop by and check it out at least. They had a fair/festival going on as well near the race, with a bunch of very slow food trucks and displays. Scott and I briefly considered giving it all up for jobs with Saudia….

Who would have expected a Grilled Cheese truck in Saudi Arabia? Unfortunately, it was as bad as I expected. Boo.

Locals milling around the festival waiting for the race to start.

The race….was a disorganized mess, but we eventually made it to the bleachers to watch for about an hour. I can’t say I’m in a great hurry to go to another Formula E race, but it was cool to see an event like this happening in Saudi Arabia.

Note all the westerners taking photos, lol

Little close-up race action:

…and I definitely didn’t expect to see a local guy in a unicorn onesie at the race!

Security…being effective?

After we’d had enough racing action we headed to the Kingdom Tower, otherwise known as the giant taser. You can see why the way it’s lit up at night: (not my photo – not sure who in the group took it though) It changes colour every few seconds, which gives a pretty neat effect:

The walkway at the very top, 99 stories up, is a glass enclose walkway. I’m not generally a big fan of heights, and this was pretty creepy. They’d even let you lean on the windows. No thank you!

View of Riyadh’s main drag from 99 stories:

We got there right at sunset, so got a chance to see the city lighting up at night:

Playing with perspective…giving the inside a bit of a Star Trek look:

Forget who in the group took this photo, but at night there was also a concert featuring David Guetta and One Republic. It was really hard to believe this was happening in Saudi Arabia of all places, where just a few years prior even movies were banned!

Next morning, I was up early to get some Starbucks. Store was divided right down the middle with two separate entrances, although the employees worked behind the same counter. The dividing was was just a foot short of ceiling high, and ran all the way up to the counter. Way to rub it in Saudi Arabia, making me sit in the “Single’s Section”

After that it was time to begin the trek onwards to Germany…but I’ll write about the flights in my next post about this trip.