05. Russia-lite

July 31st, 2010

(31st July 2010)

Well that’s Belarus “done”.  I really can’t say a lot about the place other than it is most definitely Russia-lite. Amazingly clean, amazingly ordered, amazingly communist and an amazingly large number of secret police on the streets.  Well not that secret as they all wear jeans, tight sleeveless tops and turn the volume on their walkie talkies up to full.

Minsk, Belarus

But this place is amazing, they really want to be part of a greater Russia again, but Russia doesn’t really want them as it sees this place as the old world.  Unlike other parts of the Soviet Union they have actually kept all the reminders of the past, particularly on the main street in Minsk where the Old KGB building still proudly shows off its KGB logo on the door.

Minsk, Belarus

I have so little to say about Minsk though, it was completely destroyed by German and Soviet bombing in 1944 so with a clean slate the soviets built grand boulevards for marches and processions. Like Moscow they removed all the little squares and curvy little streets which has removed all charm and character.  There’s nowhere to go in the evening to eat out and take in the atmosphere.  The soviets seem to have removed the atmosphere and the locals appear to quite like it that way.

The only eventful thing was trying to get out of the country. I had two border police looking at my passport for well over 20 minutes using various UV lights, magnifying glasses etc as they were convinced it was fake! I just lay on my bunk on the train waiting for the words “you have a fine” but then their boss walked on, shouted at them, threw my passport at my head and walked off. They definitely not the most social of people in this country.

Right, hopefully Ukraine and my hopeful visit to Chernobyl will be more interesting..... God these blogs are boring aren’t they!

PS: my backpacking jinx has started already. The region of Pakistan I have to travel through has just flooded and been declared a state of emergency! Cool!


Minsk, Belarus

06. There are two Ukrainian firemen in a changing room and one turns to the other and asks.......

August 7th, 2010

Why are you wearing those for?

What?

Those?

What? my Y-fronts?

Yeah, why are you wearing those, don't you know that they are dangerous to wear in northern Ukraine?

No, why's that?

Because there's a real danger Chernobyl fallout!

------

W-hey.....


One of my favourite school time jokes which came out just after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, however, I'm not so sure it would have been as funny if I'd know then what I know now about the incident.

While in the Ukraine I thought I'd spend an expensive 100 euro for a trip around the no go area around Chernobyl and it was a real eye opener.  Not necessarily for our personal Geiger Counters going mental with the radioactivity, nor the sight of the rusting cover keeping the contamination in side and not even the sight of the ghost city of Prypiat where 50,000 people once lived, but for the things we were never told at the time of the incident.  The most important of these was the fact that we were just a short number of days away from a nuclear incident which would have wiped Minsk and Kiev off the map and affected pretty much the whole world.


Chernobyl, Ukraine

I knew the official figures for the deaths as a direct result of radiation from the plant, released by the Soviets was 57.   What is surprising is that soviet documents released by the Ukrainian government after they gained independence shows actual figures to be approximately 4,600.  The first four were the firemen who went in to put a fire out of which they didn't know the cause.   Two died that evening and two later that week.  Then, other firemen followed as their bosses did not tell them of the risks.  Over 600 helicopter pilots were used to hover over the reactor and dump lead and sand into it.  At least 600 of these died.  Then when the radiation caused remote controlled bulldozers to fail, humans were used to clear radioactive debris within meters of the core. Even with 20 minutes max on site they received fatal doses.   A huge team of what they called "liquidators" were used to clean the site as the soviets believed the towns around it could be repopulated.  These guys sprayed a chemical on the ground which would help "wash-out" the contamination.  These were all army conscripts and approx 2000 have since died.


Chernobyl, Ukraine
Chernobyl, Ukraine

I sort of knew this as a Bulgarian friend once told me about people from her home town being forced to go there and work on Chernobyl but they all died within days of leaving.  I have to be honest and say that I didn't believe her at the time as I didn't think a society could be so heartless in terms of people's lives, but then I discovered the reason why it had to be this way.   The water those first firemen had pumped into the reactor had not cooled down the molten uranium which was burning uncontrollably but had pooled underneath the reactor core.  The molten uranium was slowly burning its way through the concrete floor of the reactor towards the water, if contact was made the sudden temperature change, production of steam and contact with oxygen (simplistically speaking) would have resulted in an explosion which would have wiped out an area it would take a significant number of conventional nuclear warheads to do and left wide regions of Europe uninhabitable.  To prevent this firemen were sent in to remove the water.   They now knew the risks but realised that they were doing it for the greater good, something I can't imagine us in the western world doing.

Chernobyl, Ukraine

Further to this, similar problems would happen if the Uranium was left to burn uncontrollably as it would reach the water table. 2,500 miners from other soviet states were brought in to by dig a chamber underneath the reactor, built in record time this was filled with enough concrete to handle the burn.  Approximately 1,200 are thought to have died. All these guys gave their lives and prevented a disaster on a global scale but only the 57 high profile firemen and a few helicopter pilots are recognised.  Surely it's about time at the very least that the families of these victims were recognised by the world for the sacrifice they made in preventing a disaster on a global scale.

Chernobyl, UkraineChernobyl, Ukraine

That's the amazing thing about the site, not the ghost town, but the ghosts of those who died here in an amazingly painful way.   In a way I had as much guit about taking pictures here as I did in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Rwandan Genocide and the Auschwitz concentration camp.  It's not about the numbers of people killed but all about how and why they died and the individual stories.

Chernobyl, UkraineChernobyl, Ukraine

The other amazing thing is their attitude towards radiation safety.  One thing I did not know was that Chernobyl had 6 reactors with two in the process of being commissioned, these were stopped after the incident and the cranes are left around the half build building as a reminder of the mass evacuation.   More shocking is that within months of the incident reactors 1 and 2 were started up again with workers operating on the highly contaminated site until they were shut down in 1996 and 2000.  But even more shocking was that reactor 3 on the opposite side of the building to the destroyed reactor 4 was also started up again a few months later and operated until 2000.   The doses workers would have got would have been astronomical and these guys are likely to be affected for many years to come. It's maddening.   And all this happened after it's now transpired that there was a reactor core meltdown in reactor 1 in 1982 for which they did not learn their lesson.


Kiev, Ukraine

But their attitude towards radiation safety seems to continue with the tours.  At one point while stood in front of the reactor I was receiving a dose of 6 mSv/hour! The maximum allowed dose for a radiation worker was I real 20mSv per year.  Then while walking around the ghost town of Prypiat, our guide pointed out points of high contamination.  This was from Strontium 90 which is beta emitter, and he left people squat over the infected area for pictures with the Geiger counter recording 2.5mSv/hour. Women crouched over the area and allowed vulnerable organs to be exposed to unnecessary doses, it was ridiculous, women can't reproduce eggs, once damaged they stay damaged! What you can't see can't hurt I suppose.


For more pictures of Chernobyl click HERE.
Anyway mustn't go on but what about the rest of the Ukraine....

Kiev, UkraineKiev, Ukraine

I've quite liked it.  It is very European facing and has the cafe culture I needed.   I even saw a Ukrainian smile once which isn't really the Slav way.   Nothing really of note has happened so I won't bore you with facts on Kiev or Lviv, but am now heading south again after a forced diversion back west to Lviv as the whole of the Ukraine appears to go on holiday at the same time meaning all coaches and trains were booked for the route I wanted to take.   So off to Moldova, a place according to an online guide book with "nothing to offer", can't be disappointed then can I!

Kiev, UkraineLviv, Ukraine

Most weird thing in Ukraine:
Every other male over the age of 60 appears to have a missing limb....  Usually a leg! Seems a bit careless.

Best Moment:
Hearing Boney M's "Rasputin" being played on a loud speaker outside a Ukrainian Monastery and the locals not realising the irony! ....

07. Back on line!

August 13th, 2010

After 3 weeks without being able to contact people my phones working again if people need to text.  Thanks Carphone Whore-house your service is Spack-tacular!



Stockholm, Sweden

08. Backpackers, Shagpackers and Soviets

August 14th, 2010

Night bus journeys are usually quite horrific for me as by a freak of nature I turned out to be quite tall.  This means that my head is far too high up for a head rest and if I try to slide down so I can rest my head then my l knees get crushed by the seat in front, and it can always be guaranteed that there will be a fat ignorant man sat in front who will slam the seat down as fast and as hard as possible.  On this journey I was not disappointed and as it was an old coach we even had less legroom than normal.....

So at 2am on my 16 hour coach journey we arrived at the Ukraine Moldovan border, I always enjoy borders as I don’t think I’ve ever been to one on a coach where at least one person has been thrown off. My favourite on this trip was the bloke on the German Denmark boarder who when asked if he had a passport responded that “I don’t need one because I’m Iraqi”....  Wrong answer and the last I saw of him was him spread-eagled on the floor with a customs blokes black boot kicking his legs to open them further!

Chisinau, MoldovaChisinau, Moldova

Anyway, this time I was lucky, it was the lady next to me who was taken off which was a double bonus as she had decided to perch two kids on her knee one of which would deliberately kick me when she wasn’t looking. Cool two seats, I could now stretch out and sleep. We all got our passports back from the both sides of the border and we set off, but just as we did I noticed that the Moldovans had not given me an entry stamp. I got the bus to stop and ran back and demanded the guy did it. It is quite common for this to happen in Moldova as if you don’t have an entry stamp then when you exit they will give you a $200 fine as it’s likely that you’d entered by the separatist soviet state of Transdniestria which doesn’t provide entry stamps. So happy that I beat the system I popped back on the coach.... I couldn’t believe it the fat guy in front had moved to the seat next to me to give his wife more room..... cock...

Chisinau, Moldova

Moldova, and particularly the capital Chisinau is definitely not a tourist destination, there is very little to do although looking at some of the little villages in the countryside it clearly has a lot of potential and that’s why I think the type of backpacker I’m meeting has changed, I think for the better. What amazed me with the Baltic States, Russia and Ukraine was the amount of sex tourism. You sort of know about this and expect it but I’d never noticed this of backpackers before. Yes, you do get backpackers who go around the world with the only intension of sleeping with other backpackers, a group I’ve always called “Shagpackers” but now it’s different. In Kiev Ukraine there were a group of four French backpackers who would go out every night and pay for prostitutes, an Irish guy and another two French guys in Moscow, in Lviv Ukraine a couple of Germans. These guys shouldn’t really be in hostels, these places have mixed dorms and it must be horrible if you are a women stuck with them. But now these guys had gone, I sure they will come down here as it opens up more, but for the time being I’m safe and don’t have to put on a fake smile trying to look impressed as they tell me the stories of the night before.

Transdniestria

Having said that, it was all quite dull now so I decided to head across the “border” to the separatist soviet state of Transdniestria for a little more excitement. I took only what I needed with me as I’d heard many stories about the Transdniestrian border officials taking money and items off people which they can get away with as no country in the world recognises them. So if something happens you can’t even rely on diplomatic help from your embassy, you are really out on a limb here and you have to realise that before you go. Even though it has a police force it can be considered lawless as they make up the laws and no country recognises those either. So at the border it was me being taken off the bus for a change, an interesting twist! There is no Moldovan border (they don’t recognise it as one) although there is a police line we passed straight through. Then you pass the Russian “peacekeepers” a bit of a misnomer as they basically fund the entire country and support and fund the army. Your passport is handed to the Russians to check which I kind of object to, before going on to the Transdniestria border where I had a little issue as I don’t speak Russian and they speak nothing else but. By some quirk of fate (and laziness) I got the 11am bus which was a proper coach with a “stewardess” she could see that I was heading towards needing to pay the guard a bribe so she stepped in and said something in Russian in quite a bolshie dominating kind of way which made him squirm. Don’t know what she said but he quickly gave me my entry stamp on a piece of paper with the exact time I had to leave the “country” by and the places I was restricted to visiting.

Transdniestria

The first thing you notice in the outskirts of Tiraspol (Bender), apart from Russian soldiers entrenched with their military hardware at strategic points, is how ordered it all becomes again. In Moldova pedestrian crossings are used for target practice for drivers, here it is like Russia, drivers stop, it’s weird. Then there’s the people, the majority are most defiantly ethic Slavs like the Russians and Ukrainians. Ethnic Moldovan/Romanian are few and far between. The “sovietness” is not apparent and anyone who says it is hasn’t been here. Yes there are loads of police and military wandering the streets, yes the language changes to Russian Cyrillic and hammer and sickle images everywhere, even on the coins. However, you still see this in the non-soviet Russia including the hammer and sickle signs but there they are left really for historical value, here not so. The only thing that’s stands out here in the capital Tiraspol is the shopping high street, there’s basically nothing on it. There’s the odd shop and a gathering of western imitation “fast food” restaurants near the main soviet square (designed for parades) but the contrast between Chisinau is huge. Chisinau was bustling with a market with all the sights, sounds and smells you’d expect. The shelves here are bare and what they do have seems to be from Russia. The people who live here have free movement with Moldova and so get everything they need from there so is it really soviet having a free market border? Nope!

Transdniestria

Walking down the high street you see Lenin statues everywhere and posters for the old soviet equivalent of the boy scouts. The boys march holing up pro- ransdniestria posters as if they were at a Nazi rally. I guess if you were lucky enough to visit during such a parrade then that would apear very soviet but I won't be returning specially. As tourists are few and far between (1 to 5 a day according to one book and most just passing through as they have no choice!) people who speak English do come up and talk to you and I had a number of interesting conversations including one where when I asked about their nationality they responded “Russian, here we are all Russian”. Right, so not Transdniestrian then! When I left I was quite relieved as although some people were friendly, in some shops people made it clear they didn’t want me there..... and they always short changed! It’s a sad place and like the other 5 or 6 soviet separatist states or those wanting to be separate (Crimea in Ukraine) from the old Soviet Union, they are purely caused by Russia moving ethnic Russians to those regions displacing the local population. They will always want to be separate. Not so much a Soviet Union but a Russian takeover.

Transdniestria

Anyway, next stop Romania and Bucharest. I’ve been before but found it quite dull. Hopefully it’s changed.....

Best thing in Moldova/Transdniestria:
Seeing newlyweds in Transdniestria pose for photos draping themselves over the tanks and graves of those who died in the 1990-1992 war of independence. They do this in Russia to but at WWII memorials! Is that not sick?

Worst thing:
The coach journey with “fat man”, he spilled over into my seat and I got “man touch” where your leg gets sweaty from contact with another. Uuurrgggg.

09. In Romania three people go for an interview for the job of scientific advisor........

August 20th, 2010

Each were asked to define what “pi” was. The first said “it’s a number about three isn’t it?” The second said, “it’s about 22 divided by 7 I think” The third said “It’s a unique number with no recurring sequence which relates the area of a circle to its radius” and went on to define it to 10 decimal places.

Who got the job?

.....

Answer..... Nicolae Ceaucescu’s cousin!

Ahhh, old Romanian joke from the communist period (although I’ve changed it to make it sciencey) and it’s not mine I stole it from Sam sorry!

Bucharest, Romania

The train between Moldova and Romania was horrific. So far on the trip I’ve found that when you get on the train they are unbearably hot and humid as the outside temperature has been consistently between 35 to 40 deg C since I started travelling. In Moldova the humidity has been a killer with a peak temperature of around 40 degs and humidity of up to 90 percent. It may sound weird but when you breathe you can feel the density of the air, or the sogginess as I tried to explain it to a local! Although the train was hot when they eventually attach the engine and set off they usually put the aircon on. So I was sat there sweating and dripping in my shared compartment, I usually sweat a lot but on this trip it was been very bad, so much so I think I’ll be seeing the docs once I get home as it’s getting ridiculous. I’m getting through about 8-10 litres of water a day which is quite dangerous as it dilutes your essential mineral concentrations. But as the train set off, nothing! All the guys including myself were now sat just in shorts, the women not much more. Then we got the distinct smell of burning plastic wafting down the carriage. Looking at the end of the carriage I could see the train guard trying to light a wood burning boiler with a plastic bag! Yeah, that’s what we need, more heat and hot water as we sat melting! I figured that as they had a wood burning stove there was little chance of there being any working aircon!

Bucharest, Romania

Soon we were at the border and although hot, everyone got dressed as I think it’s considered bad form to cross a border practically naked. We spent three hours passing into the EU, including me having to completely empty my bag on the Moldovan side with the customs guy asking what everything was. It soon became apparent he did not understand a word I was saying so I threw in some odd words. I was hot, sweaty and tired figured it was ok! He picked up my mini speakers, “cheese grater”, my universal battery charger “elephant trap”. I think what concerned me more is why those words came into my head in the first place, must be the mineral imbalance! At this point I leaned that the Moldovan guy sat across could actually speak Moldovan as when the customs guy walked off he said “funny.... you must be English”. Mmmm.

Bucharest, Romania

Anyway the next bit was quite amazing.   The old soviet states have a different railway gauge to the rest on the Europe, something to do with Stalin wanting to slow down any German advance should they wish to invade.  Sort of makes sense, but what doesn’t is that the train barely has 15 people on each of the 7 carriages so it would have been much simpler just to make people change trains. I would understand it if it were the early hours of the morning and people were asleep but this was 7 pm!  Another soviet hangover as I guess it keeps people employed! It’s a bit odd as they lift each of the carriages up then pull the wheels out.  It doesn’t feel that safe!

Click HERE to see a video of the wheels being changed!

Eventually pulling into Bucharest in the early hours of the morning my memories of my last visit came flooding back which were basically, dull, boring! My name suddenly changed from Darren to “Taxi” as random people rushed up to me shouting “Hello taxi”. I’ve always found it funny to respond with, “sorry, the name’s Darren, you must have got the wrong guy”. As usual when I did this the taxi drivers would look very puzzled for a while, go quiet, but then eventually repeat, “Taxi”. I would then reply sternly, “no, I’ve told you before, it’s Darren”. Bizarrely, these silly little games keep you sane when travelling alone otherwise you would go mad with all the attention. The last time I was here I was backpacking with my friend Liz so we could just ignore the guys by talking to each other and luckily this time a friend had kindly offered to put me up for a few nights.

Bucharest, Romania

I won’t go into too much detail about Bucharest, because I can’t! But I enjoyed it a lot more this time. It was good to get the low down of what people here thought of the place and it was definitely confirmed that’s it’s not a top tourist destination. Every time I suggested something to do a certain young lady (who I will keep anonymous for fear of Romanian backlash! Let’s call her “C”), would say “it’s really nothing” or “it’s not worth it.” To be fair she was right, I never realised before that the Old town, historical centre, hysterical centre (as it’s to be known from now on) was not actually that old and pretty much contemporary with the rest of its surroundings. And that’s where Sam helped by taking me on a half day cycle around the backstreets of Bucharest to see what they city is really like. There are some real hidden gems with little houses, courtyards and streets all with the unique Romanian architecture and even the more modern stuff is quite interesting to look at. Cycling around, even with trying to navigate through Bucharest traffic and tram tracks, definitely opens up a city and you do feel more connected to the place you’re visiting.

Bucharest, Romania

The city has definitely changed in the 6 years since I was here last. Sadly you rarely see the old Dacia cars. The ones which look practically the same from front of back and as if a pair of elephants have sat on front and back to bend it into an odd shape. The hysterical centre is now buzzing in the evening with thousands of people in Bars and restaurants. When myself and Liz where there before we spent ages looking around there for places to eat without success. To be honest I much preferred the centre when it was full of old shops selling bric-a-brac, street food, kids running around, buildings which had seen better days, wonky cobble stones. It’s now in the process of becoming just another clinically clean tidy soulless centre aimed at tourists passing through on a day trip or people wanting to get drunk. It really could be anywhere.

Anyway, thanks to S&C for showing me the sights and sounds of Bucharest. I really enjoyed it this time, it’s good to go and see things like a local.

Bucharest, Romania

Best thing in Romania:
The thousands of private security guards sat in very expensive cars on every street corner at night. Playing the game to see if you can actually catch any of them awake! Lost every time!


Worst thing in Romania:
Walking all the way to see Ceaucescu’s grave only to find that he’d been removed a few weeks earlier as they wanted to DNA him to make sure it was him. Just got a picture of the hole in the ground!