Springtime in Chernobyl

It's Spring. I hear that the tulips are blooming at Chernobyl so I cash in some frequent flyer miles for a ticket to Kiev. I schedule a one day stopover in Amsterdam because it also happens to be the height of the tulip season in Holland.

I again visit the showplace of Keukenhoff Gardens, then do something I have wanting to do for a long time: bicycling through the tulip fields. Conveniently, the gardens are set amidst the fields and a bicycle rental booth is right outside the gate. The long strips of uniform color are a sight to behold. I am just in time, because the farmers are in the process of mowing off the flowerheads, which is done right at the peak of the bloom to improve the quality of the bulbs.

Boy, is Europe expensive! Even with my 40 euro hotel room the stopover costs me over 100 euros. At current exchange rates, that's over $135.

The next afternoon I arrive at Borispol airport and I stop in for what I figure will be the last clean public restrooms for two weeks. The sinks look like giant ashtrays, and the urinals are even worse. In front of the door four cleaning women are deep in discussion. Welcome to Ukraine.

Ukraine is the largest country in Europe (not counting Russia, which is partly in Europe). It's slightly smaller than Texas with a population of 48 million and falling due to low birthrate and emigration. Kiev was the cradle of Russian civilization but was eclipsed by Moscow after the Mongol invasion in the 14th century. To this day Russia looks upon as a little brother even though the latter deems itself the venerated elder. Prior to 1991 Ukraine was always part of someone else's empire, but nationalism was never suppressed, as reflected in the current national anthem, "Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet."

As the airport bus crosses the Dnieper the golden domes of Kiev's churches reflect the afternoon sun. Rising from the hills is the giant statue of the motherland with sword and shield commemorating victory in The Great Patriotic War (WWII).

The bus takes me to the railroad station. I am taking the sleeper train that night to Odessa, where I will meet up with my Europhile nephew, Andy, who is making his way across Moldova. There is a special ticket counter for foreigners, but the only foreign languages spoken are Ukranian and Russian. Train travel in Ukraine is seriously cheap with the result that all tickets to everywhere are almost always sold out. There a first class berth still available to Odessa, for which I pay the shocking sum of $80, almost a month's salary in these parts. With the assistance of an English-speaking student, I also purchase advance tickets for the next train journey (second class, also overnight, $22).

The station is a real Stalinist showplace and a beehive of activity. Kiev is in the center of the country, and almost any destination is an overnight train ride away. Consequently, most trains are sleepers and evening is the busy period. Dinner is at McDonald's across the street. Just before boarding I buy a bottle of water from the kiosk next to the tracks. Instead of a coin, I get a stick of gum as change.

The ride is quite comfortable. The sleeper car is new and the toilets clean. My compartment mate is the mother of a biznesman  only Mafioso and foreigners can afford first class travel here. The trains in Ukraine are slow, but always punctual. They are scheduled to arrive in the early morning. Andy isn't due in until afternoon, so set out to explore the city.

Odessa is the home of Jewish humor and the Russian mafia. Only the latter survives. It was the principal southern port of the Soviet Union and still a major gateway. Its most famous feature is the Potemkin steps which lead from the bluff on which the city is built down to the seafront. It it weren't for the baby carriage scene from the Eisenstein move, The Battleship Potemkin (reprised in The Untouchables), they would be unnoticed.

The guidebooks say that one needs to spend a few days here to take in all the sights, which means that half a day is plenty. There are a few handsome buildings, but the city is rather ramshackle. This place was the scene of heavy fighting in the war, and it does not appear that much money or care went into rebuilding. Sixty-plus years on, wedding couples still lay flowers at the war memorial. There are a string of beach resorts along the Black Sea coast, but the season has not begun and they hold no interest to me. One thing I do like: poppy seed pastry is sold everywhere, as it is throughout the Ukraine.

That was Saturday. On Sunday morning I let Andy see the city on his own while I laze at the hotel. In the afternoon we visit Battery 411, a coastal defense installation which has been turned into a military museum. One of the big guns is there along with a submarine and various items of hardware for kids to climb on.

Our train leaves in the early evening. Second class travel  four berths to a compartment  is not too bad, and in the morning we are in Simferapol, capital of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (f/k/a Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic). Crimea is ethnically Russian and minority Tatar, but geographically contiguous to Ukraine, to which Khrushchev gave it in 1954. Back then it hardly mattered, but today a touchy subject. We immediately board the world's longest trolley for the 54 mile, 2 1/2 hr ride to Yalta. Good scenery along the way.

When looking for the hotel recommended by the guidebook, a guy offers us rooms he has built behind his house. Two rooms, 2 baths, separate entrances, right in the center of town. A little small, but at $20/night for the both, how could I refuse?

Yalta is a "tropical" resort at the same latitude as New York City. It was the premier resort of the Soviet Union and still completely touristified. Lenin's statue still dominates that main square, but these days he overlooks McDonald's. The promenade is full of flash shops and overpriced eateries. Above the planted palms snow-capped mountains ring the city.

Outside the city is Livadia palace, summer home of Czar Nicholas II and site of the 1945 summit conference where postwar Europe was divided. It's now a museum. The admission tickets are Soviet-era and show a price of 20 kopecks although the current charge has increased a hundred-fold. Then a view of the famous "Swallow's Nest" castle, which looks better in photos because you can crop out the hotels now crowding it.

On the second day in Yalta we visit the Alupta palace, where Churchill and his delegation stayed.

On Wednesday morning we take a bus along the rugged and scenic coast to Sevastopol, home to the Black Sea fleet. The city was closed to foreigners until 1997. It is a spic-and-span navy town.

We stay at the Hotel Sevastopol, described as the most attractive thing Stalin ever built. In 1945 there were fewer than 10 buildings standing, and this was a showpiece of the reconstruction. It's still a soviet experience: at the front door a burly guy gruffly demands your purpose; he then directs you to "administration," a walled-in office in the corner of the lobby with a six-inch window. Forms are handed through, and, when completed, handed back with passports and money. If acceptable, you get a room key and a breakfast voucher. The rooms are en-suite, but the bath is down the hall  it has an large antechamber and an inner room with a hot water heater and a tub w/ hand shower attachment. In the room there is an English-language booklet "Instructions For Use of Hotel."

Sevastopol withstood a 349 day siege in the Crimean War, and the city is covered with monuments. Ninety years later it held out against the German for 249 days, for which struggle it was awarded (along w/ Odessa, Stalingrad, and Leningrad) the honor of "hero city."

Not far away is the the town and harbor of Balaclava. It was British naval HQ in the Crimean war and now yacht basin for the Ukrainian rich, but we come to visit the secret submarine repair base carved into the mountain. It was built during the cold war so that subs could come and go without having to surface and be seen by satellite. It is a vast complex now open to tours. Unfortunately, most of the cool stuff has been removed and a modern, rather boring museum is being installed. Still, the sub "caves" are pretty impressive.

At dinner, Andy orders rabbit. I think he's been living in France too long. No visible ears or tail. An item listed on the dessert menu, as we have seen in all restaurants so far here, is a stick of gum.

I like Sevastopol. Unlike Yalta, it is a working city, yet has much to see. There are no other foreign tourists; Lonely Planet says "don't bother," so they stay away in droves.

A giant hilltop Lenin overlooks the harbor entrance. He will soon be rivaled by an enormous war memorial in the final stages of completion  right now you can still climb on it. I am disappointed by the Black Sea Fleet Museum, the second oldest in Russia, because the building housing the cold war era displays is closed.

Our train to Kiev departs in mid-afternoon. All trains are scheduled to arrive in early morning, so the departure times are calculated accordingly.

Back in Grand Stalin Station. The metro station is closed for the morning rush hour, so we hike to the next stop. The platform and train are absolutely packed. As I board, I am forced into a familiar squeeze. Recalling an identical situation in Barcelona, I reach for my back pocket. My wallet is gone. I shout out, but this time nobody cares and whoever was behind me is long gone. I rebuke myself for not having transferred my wallet to my front pocket while taking consolation in the fact that the only thing I keep in my travel wallet is a modest amount of money and nothing else. I guess it had to happen eventually.

Ukraine has been in political turmoil for weeks. The pro-democracy Orange Revolution has stalled, and the President has dissolved the parliament. Pro-Russian protestors are camping in Independence Square, where a column has replaced Lenin, and staging periodic mass rallies. The hotel I want is right on the square. The front desk says they are full, everything is full. Across the square at the massive Hotel Ukrainia they say check back at noon, so we store our luggage and set out to see the city.

The first stop is the Chernobyl Museum, an exercise in forced weepiness. The first gallery has walls of ID cards of the cleanup workers with radioactive stamps over the ones who died. Some films, some artifacts, a deformed calf fetus, and lots of international proclamations of solidarity. One case contains a copy of Earth in the Balance, that screed by noted science fiction writer L. Ron Gore, and a box of "Long Life Tea" showing the outline of Ukraine. Last year was the twentieth anniversary of the accident, so there are plenty of recent items on display. The final gallery consists of anti-nuke posters, but absent are any that praising coal-fired power plants or that reference Iran or North Korea nuclear ambitions.

The principal sights of Kiev are its churches. Fifteen years ago there were not much to see because Stalin blew them all up except for two kept as museums. (The big monastery in Odessa was used as a planetarium.) They have been rebuilt since independence. The people are very religious: they cross themselves when passing or even driving by a church. Within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church there is a schism between the Moscow patriarchate and the new Kiev patriarchate, resulting in rival churches.

At 11:59 I check back at the original hotel to see if any rooms are now available. "Too soon," I am told. One minute later, I ask again. This time they hand me registration forms. According to the guidebook, the hotel is owned by the Ministry of Defense but has been upgraded to western standards. Mostly. Two of the elevators are modern. The third one has clunky electromechanical buttons that must be pressed in sequence and pop out w/ a loud thwack when you reach your floor. The in house phone comes with a directory  calling room to room requires dialing a seven digit number that has no relation to the room number or any other phone number on the list. No keys at the reception desk  there is a soviet-era "key lady" on each floor is there is to give you your key (and spy on you). But the hotel is not a total killjoy -- on the counter are cards for Later at the internet place I take a look. I thought it would be like eBay, but there are no prices shown.

Ukraine has discovered sushi and Mexican food. Both types of restaurants predominate. For dinner we try the latter. There won't be a repeat performance.

The next day, Saturday, we head to the Caves Monastery, the number one attraction in Kiev. It a whole slew of churches and museums underneath which are a series of caves containing mummified saints in glass coffins. The caves are dark, claustrophobic and packed with pilgrims. The thing for them to do is buy a bunch of candles and spend hours praying at each coffin and shrine; the thing for me to do is squeeze past and get though and out. No photos allowed.

Up top, the great bell tower is closed, depriving me of an important photo opportunity. The best of the museums is a soviet relic devoted to the microminiature creations of an exceptionally skilled nutter. Through microscopes, one examines such items as a human hair with "peace" engraved on it in seventy languages, a detailed portrait of Yuri Gagarin on a 3 mm stone, a flea shod with shoes of gold, a rose inside a hollowed-out hair, a full chessboard and pieces on a pinhead, and a scene carved into half a poppy seed.

Nearby is the war memorial and statue. The museum is very good. No subtlety here: in the lobby is a giant sculpture of a nazi eagle smashed on the ground with broken wings. (Stalin ordered "no retreat," so in 1941 four entire armies and half a million men were taken prisoner at the Battle of Kiev. Two years later the city was retaken after heavy fighting.) To my disappointment, the next-door Museum of Foreign Wars is closed, so we do not get to see their more recent adventures in Angola and Afghanistan.

To reach these venues we take the subway. Because they are located on a high bluff over the river, getting to the surface requires a ride on the world's longest escalator. Kiev has three lines, named for colors and so designated on the map; however, the colors exist in name only  in the stations there is no use of color.

For dinner we hit the food court at an underground mall. Rather than picking something at random from a Cyrillic menu, I prefer food that I can see and choose.

Sunday is Chernobyl day. You can only go as part of a tour. The reactor site is about two hours away, just short of the border with Belarus. The current exclusion zone has a 30km radius, entry to which requires a permit. Within the zone are numerous abandoned towns and villages, many of which have been bulldozed and buried, 8000 workers, and 300 diehard residents.

There is another checkpoint at 10km, where the really cool (i.e., hot, radiologically-wise) stuff is. There were twelve reactors planned. By 1986 four had been completed and numbers five and six were under construction when reactor four blew up and melted down. A temporary "sarcophagus" was hastily built to confine the radiation. It is gradually crumbling while everyone argues about who will be in charge of and pay for a permanent containment structure. The closest tourists are allowed is a monument in the parking lot where you can have your photo taken holding a Geiger counter.

We stroll across a bridge over the Pripyat river, where monster catfish rise to the surface. I was hoping they would be Godzilla-sized, but they only grow large because no one has been fishing for them for twenty years. Also, they only have two eyes each. The fleet, however, is not looking so good.

The nearby town of Pripyat is where all the ghost-town photos are taken. A modern, high-rise town of 50,000 built to house the plant workers, it was abandoned on an hour's notice. The accident occurred five days before May Day, so carnival rides had been set up. We are warned to stay on the pavement  the counter shows soil radiation levels almost 200 times normal. Other places we don't walk are twice as hot.

We visit an abandoned village across the river and meet an old woman who has spent her whole life there and has refused relocation. She says she would die if she leaves.

We have lunch in the town of Chernobyl, now home only to researchers and workers. The town once had 14,000 inhabitants. Before we eat, our hands are tested for contamination. And, on leaving the zone, we go through radiation detectors to make sure there is nothing on the soles of our shoes and that we haven't brought out any souvenirs. (Sorry to disappoint all of you that were hoping for a rock that you can use as a nightlight.)

I've been trying to buy train tickets to Lvov since we arrived, but have had no success. Since I don't speak the lingo, I would write down the desired train and destination and pass it to the clerk. Figuring I was mute, she would write on it "nyet" and hand it back. Finally on the fourth visit I get lucky,

The tickets were suspiciously cheap: $10 for a sleeper train. That night we find out why: third class. At least we get bed linens; overall, better than hard sleeper in China or second class couchette in western Europe.

Lvov (Lviv in Ukrainian. Cheater's guide to Ukrainian: same as Russian with one letter per word changed.) is on its fourth name and fourth country in ninety years. When Poland was partitioned it went to Austria, where it was known as Lemberg. In 1919 it was returned to the reconstituted Poland and became Lwow. In 1939 Stalin annexed eastern Poland and it became Lvov. After the breakup of the USSR, Ukraine became independent and the city is now called Lviv. As Lonely Planet proclaims: "forget about the search for 'the next Prague,' this is it."

The city can be described in three words: faded Hapsburg elegance. Lvov didn't suffer much war damage, and since then mostly neglect. Things are being fixed up now, and the city has been discovered by (mostly Polish) tourists. There are churches galore, other elegant buildings, and a few museums. The history museum is fiercely nationalistic in focus and does not attempt to sugarcoat the region's pro-German, anti-soviet sympathies during the war. Whole divisions of Ukrainian troops fought with the SS (they also manned the concentration camps, but nothing about that), and their uniforms and photos are proudly displayed. My favorite is a poster of a nazi-uniformed (w/ Ukrainian insignia) soldier bayoneting a porcine commissar

In the afternoon I take a taxi for a quick visit to the town of Bibrka, believed to be the ancestral font of the Bergwerk lineage. There's nothing special there, just a quick photo op.

Dinner is the best yet: a restaurant inside an old house filled w/ old-time memorabilia. The date is 1938, the year before the Reds marched in and "civilization ended." The dιcor is absorbing and the food is excellent.

In the morning we visit a park in which rural structures representative of the Carpathians have been reconstructed as an architectural museum. The huts are unexceptional, but the wooden churches are quite nice.

My original plan was to visit the castle town of Kamiyets-Podilsky before coming to Lvov, but transportation proved impossible, leaving my one day ahead of schedule. My flight back is from Warsaw, so I decide to depart Lvov a day early and devote the extra day to Poland.

The Polish border is just a hop and a skip away, but the backup at the customs check can be horrendous, four or five hours. (Now that Poland is in the EU, it is the eastern bulwark against barbarism.) The train, scheduled for three hours, is the recommended route out.

The train is at 1:53. At 12:45 I arrive at the station. One can only buy tickets at a particular window at which nine people are ahead of me. The clerk moves so slowly that time-lapse photography is required to detect any motion by her at all. At 1:30 there are still three people ahead of me. There are several more behind me, all trying to get on the same train (the next one is not until tomorrow). At 1:40 there are two people ahead, and I get a break: the next guy is directed to another window. At 1:48 the clerk slowly hands me my ticket. I race to the platform, say a quick goodbye to Andy (he is returning to Kiev tomorrow night to catch a flight to Latvia), and climb aboard.

All around me people are unpacking cartons of cigarettes and cheap Chinese goods. The cigarettes they are taping to their bodies and the goods they are stowing in their luggage. At the border drug-sniffing dogs are brought onto the train, but that is it; what they need are tobacco-sniffing dogs. When we arrive at the station in Poland there is a baggage x-ray. I don't know the protocol, but I guess loose goods can pass through. The dozen or so tourists (everyone else on the train is a smuggler) are allowed to bypass the forever wait for the x-ray, but first we have to wait a half hour until the agents finish their coffee break.

Footloose in Poland. The border town is Prszemysl, another stop in the heritage trail. My mother's grandparents lived here and it was an important Jewish town, but all traces of its former character have disappeared. These days it's a tourist town, with an well-preserved baroque old center. I have two hours of daylight to wander around, which is just about right.

In the morning I take the train to Lublin, another well-preserved tourist destination. The tourist office has mapped a number of walking tours, something for everybody: there is the Jagdellonian trail, the architectural trail, the famous Lubliners trail, the Jewish heritage trail, and the multicultural trail (beats me what that is). The old castle, now a museum, was used a prison for 128 years, including, as the sign says, the "period of communist enslavement"

Just 2 km from the train station is Majdanek, site ot the Nazi extermination camp. It's the only one to have been captured intact (the others were destroyed by the retreating Nazis) so is not a mere recreation cum memorial. The gas chambers (stained Prussian blue from the Zyklon B gas) and crematoria are still there along with the wooden barracks. The Soviets used the camp to intern the Polish Home Army, then, without any sense of irony, opened it as a museum of fascist crimes. Like Auschwitz, the only indication that the victims were not solely Polish political prisoners is the Hebrew lettering on the wreaths left by Jewish tour groups.

The next day, Warsaw. I have already been, so it's a reprise. Everything is closed and flags are flying everywhere. May Day is past. Victory Day (as Andy reports they teach in French schools, celebrating the defeat of Germany by France in WWII, is not until next week. I ask. It's Constitution Day, the national holiday. (I guess the fourth of July was already taken). It's a beautiful day, and the streets of the old town are jammed. Warsaw was completely flattened in the war; the old town is a re-creation and the modern part was built back ugly.

The best thing about Warsaw is that the airport is close, making for an affordable taxi ride to make my 6 AM flight. With close connections and the time change, I am home by 6 PM.

Trip date: April-May 2007