Knocked Out

Here’s my take on Kiev, mentioning Chernobyl, to be followed by Ray’s take on Chernobyl, mentioning Kiev.

There’s a company in Kiev which provides contract programming services for businesses around the world. Some would call it outsourcing. The company I work for uses their services, and since we were in the neighborhood, I thought it would be interesting to stop by, meet them, and check out the operation. They were super-nice and set us up with a guide and driver for three hours to give us a city tour.

There are many sights in central Kiev which we’d already seen and were walkable from our hotel, so we decided the city tour should concentrate on things which the guide and driver would be helpful for. The first tourist attraction we wanted to see was the office where you buy international train tickets from people who don’t speak English, and the driver took us there. The guide translated, and helped Ray get a ticket going to Romania a couple days hence. Then we were taken to the White House, where the president works, and is just another monumental huge building. But it is across from a very interesting place, the House with Chimaeras designed, and once lived in, by the Ukrainian architect Vlasislav Gorodetsky. It is decorated all around the edge of its roof and elsewhere with fanciful and real animals, and is quite unusual and interesting.

Then we asked to go to Pechersk Lavra, the Monastery of the Caves. Usually her tour just drives by it because it takes two hours to see, but we wanted to go in. She showed us around for an hour or so and then her time was up and we continued on our own. She was definitely the best tour guide we had the whole trip, speaking fluent English, knowing Kiev inside and out, and whenever the conversation lagged, bringing up some interesting information about wherever we happened to be. We toured one small cathedral which had survived a huge fire a couple hundred years ago and had beautiful intact murals. Much of the rest of it has been rebuilt as accurately as possible, and the rebuilding continues now. After looking at the buildings, we headed down to the catacombs, which contain many monks from the last several centuries who were privileged to be buried there. As you go through the narrow hallways, you hold a candle to light your way. Niches next to the pathway hold covered monk mummies in display cases, with a photo and a plaque above. Many of the mummy covers had little holes for the hands, which would protrude, often in some particular mudra (which is a Buddhist term meaning “gang sign”).

After our visit to the caves, it was getting late. We still hadn’t toured St. Sophia’s cathedral, and I still hadn’t met with our city hosts. So we split up, Ray went to St. Sophia’s, and I went and had a fun talk with the manager of the contract programmers, talking about travel, work, Ukraine, and America. Afterwards I came back, and we had an unimpressive dinner at “Chasing Two Hares”, a restaurant speciailizing in rabbit named after a film which was looping silently on a DVD player at the end of the room as a cheesy band played cheesy songs (trumpet, accordian, keyboards, and music-minus-three tape).

The next morning we gathered in front of a nearby hotel for our Chernobyl tour. The bus going up played a documentary describing the accident and the USSR’s response to it — Gorbachev was interviewed in the film. We were assured that the level of radiation we’d encounter there was about the same as in an airplane at 35000 feet, except that we’d only be there for an hour or so and flights often last ten hours or more. We signed a waiver, and headed to the power plant. There was a little reception room with a large window onto the sarcophagus containing Reactor Four, and with a large model of it on a table, maybe six feet across. A guy identified as ex-KGB (Ray says there is no such thing as ex-KGB) showed a five-minute documentary without any real information, and talked about the efforts to replace the band-aid sarcophagus built 23 years ago with a better one that would last hundreds of years, efforts which include removing much of the radioactive material from inside. He opened up the model and it was basically a dollhouse from hell: it was completely packed with mangled modeled reactor innards. We weren’t supposed to take pictures of anything in the plant except Reactor Four, but hopefully we got some good ones of the model.

The rest of the tour was spent in the nearby town of Pripyat, where the workers at the plant lived. We visited a hotel, a rec center, an amusement park, and a school. It would have been a little more interesting if these places had actually been completely abandoned and left only to the elements, but there has been quite a bit of additional destruction and looting over the past years so that the place doesn’t really look that different than any of the other abandoned factories which are found everywhere in Russia. The school did have some interesting things on the walls, desks, and floors, and we had quite a bit of time to wander around and take pictures. And that was the nicest thing about the tour — it wasn’t really rushed and it wasn’t very restricted. We were careful to walk on concrete wherever possible and not to touch anything, and there were machines that checked our palms and soles for radiation before we were allowed out of the area.

The tour fed us an overly large lunch so that we never got around to having dinner. We spent the evening going through all of the luggage, arranging it for traveling separately. I tried to take as much weight as possible so the suitcase isn’t so heavy for Ray’s continued travels, though not so heavy that it won’t be accepted as baggage. The next morning we paid the hotel, did some last-minute shopping, and I took a taxi to the Kiev airport.
This is a very stupid airport. There is no place to wait sitting down. You watch the monitors to tell you when you can check in. The instant they tell you which check in counters are servicing your flight (the one for my flight didn’t open until 75 minutes before scheduled departure) you rush there and find that the line is already formed somehow. You wait standing in the line, check your bag, go through security with your carry-on, and go through the gate to a bus which you wait on. Standing up.

At least they feed you on the short flight to Warsaw, unlike some countries I could mention.