When we flew into Kiev, we were concerned. After spending an extensive time in Russia and the Caucuses, we wondered – would we experience Soviet era fatigue? Would the beauty of the Orthodox churches shine as brightly as they had now that we had seen so many, and in such splendour? Would the frustrations of the immense language barrier (despite extensive improvement with the Cyrillic alphabet) finally boil over? What were we getting into, yet again?
Despite the above concerns, we were determined to make the most of it, and we quickly realized that we had it all wrong. The first thing you feel when when you enter Kiev is the surprising magnificence of the city. The churches in Kiev are some of the most striking I have ever seen, Orthodox or otherwise. These buildings come alive with beautiful shades of emerald and cyan, like those from a fairytale, the colours blurring into a brilliant kaleidoscope with the pyskanas – Ukranian Easter eggs – that adorned the courtyards into a myriad of designs and colours. The roofs of the churches are all comprised of a brilliant gold, visible throughout the entire city like a beacon in the night. I frequently found myself with my jaw wide open as I’d come around a bend and be (again) blown away by the sheer opulent beauty of the old parts of the city, combining some of the best aspects of European architecture in a uniquely Ukrainian way to paint the most mesmerizing picture.
However, despite the beautiful façade, all is certainly not well in the Ukraine. Since 2014, the country has been engaged in a bloody battle with Russia along its eastern borders. Although no visible sense of turmoil is immediately evident to the passing eye (at least in Kiev), Ukrainians can feel the cost of battle in their wallets. The local currency, the hryvnia has been suffering from inflation, devaluing the currency and costing Ukrainians more and more in their day to day lives. Being a tourist from a stable economy, I have to admit that selfishly I am pleased when changing money against a currency other than USD or the Euro, but you can’t help but feel like someone isn’t getting paid when you can order six craft pints and two great meals, spending less than $20 in the process with a tip. Regardless, we took full advantage of the food and beverage scene in Kiev, one that I would say is niched but world class, especially when factoring in the prices.
Overall, I would have to say that Kiev was one of the most surprisingly wonderful cities I’ve ever visited. I was extremely impressed by the green space that the city has carved out. Walking trails are everywhere, the food is fantastic and varied (and this was after eating Eastern European cuisine almost exclusively for a month and a half), and as mentioned above, the churches are like walking through a children’s story book, stimulating all of the senses simultaneously. It felt like a city ripe for discovery, one you could spend a long time wandering, constantly finding little nooks and surprises along the way.
On April 25, 1986, a catastrophic nuclear accident occurred at the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant, when a combination of factors led to uncontrollable reactive conditions, sending radioactive elements into the atmosphere with drastically far reaching effects throughout the USSR and Europe. It was an unprecedented disaster that would have worldwide implications, and initially the Soviet government attempted to cover it up. The cracks in the government were already spreading like spider webs at the time, and the public image disaster that would accompany something of this magnitude was more than leadership could bear. Only on April 28, after Swedish officials more than 1000km away detected radioactive particles that could be traced back to the source did the Soviet Union admit that Chernobyl was the source of this disastrous accident and begin the far overdue evacuation of the area.
The disaster would have long reaching implications both worldwide and most drastically for those close to the source, the families that were forced to uproot their lives and homes, never to see them again.
When we initially considered visiting Chernobyl, the predominant question was whether or not it was safe. The answer is: yes, it is safe to visit Chernobyl. You have to do so with express written permission, on a guided tour. Coincidentally, our visit was on Friday the 13th, adding an eerie element to an already surreal situation.
Wandering through the villages surrounding the disaster area feels like being on another planet, one where things went terribly wrong. Like walking through the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, the houses stand abandoned with belongings still inside, nature reclaiming what had been rightfully taken from it in the first place. Oddly enough, it was a picture-perfect spring day, the sun shining brightly and the sky a vibrant marine blue. These pleasant conditions added a bizarre juxtaposition to the barren and deserted homes and communities that we were visiting, one that was difficult to wrap my head around, like a puzzle piece that just doesn’t fit right.
In addition to the villages, our tour took us to the base of the fourth reactor, ground zero of this terrible accident. Initially, in order to contain the radioactive material, the Soviet Union hastily built a sarcophagus to house the fourth reactor. Understandably, this control mechanism failed far earlier than expected, and a $1.4 billion new sarcophagus containment program began construction in 2010 under the French company Novarka. Being so close to the source of an event which could have altered the entire course of the world as we know it had the radiation spread in a different manner was a moment that I will never be able to accurately articulate.
Lastly, we visited the town of Pripyat. Pripyat was designed as a veritable Soviet Eden, harvesting the best young minds from throughout the USSR to this small town offering state of the art health care, employment opportunities, and an abundant variety of food (three elements that were not common, certainly in conjunction, throughout the Soviet Union). At the time of the disaster, 49,360 people were living in the town. These days there are zero. Walking through the town feels like a movie set, the ghostlike silence creeping in from every corner. Eerily enough, the town had a carnival set up for the week following the disaster – a carnival that was never to begin. Despite this, the rides are still there, slowly accumulating rust, patiently waiting for the crowds that will never arrive.
Driving through Chernobyl, there are areas where the Geiger counters (used for measuring ionizing radiation) began beeping incessantly, the high-pitched wail warning of dangerously high levels. Suffice to say we didn’t spend long in these pockets of intense radiation, but it was meant to demonstrate how serious the repercussions of radioactive fallout are. Long after we are gone, the radiation will remain in Chernobyl. Although a fascinating place to visit, it’s one I hope never to encounter again.
Our time in the Ukraine was short – less than a week – but contrary to experiencing ‘Soviet fatigue’, it left me thirsty, longing to see more. While certainly an unorthodox travel destination, I would highly recommend it to travelers, those seeking adventure, value, raw beauty, and novel experiences without throngs of tourists. The country is in the midst of a desperate struggle, and is one that deserves to be seen.