Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Train to Березнегувате: May 25-26

Valentyn asked me during dinner “So where exactly are you going after this?” I told him that I wasn’t exactly sure of the name of the place, but it was a small village in Mykolaivska Oblast where I would be helping out with a summer camp. Valentyn said that he had seen my train ticket lying on his desk and didn’t recognize the name of the city. It wasn’t a place most people in Ukraine would probably know of. I left dinner a little bit early to make sure I could catch my train. Valentyn had drawn me a map of the train station to make sure I would be able to find my way. Once I got to the platform, I asked around where the car number was. I followed the direction people pointed until somebody eventually took my ticket and told me to get on the train. Nobody around where I was in the train car spoke English. I felt a little awkward with my big bulky suitcase. Shortly after the train left, Valentyn texted me, making sure I made it there on time.
After awkwardly glancing at the other people sitting in the compartment for around an hour, people started standing up and making their beds. I’d never taken an overnight train before, so I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I just copied what the other people were doing. When I was lifting my suitcase onto the luggage rack, and older man in the compartment asked me “Помочь?” At first I got was worried that I was doing something wrong, and then I realized I knew that word and he was asking me if I wanted help. After an awkward conversation with many “Я не понимаю”s (I don’t understand) and “Извините”s (Excuse me?), I figured out he was telling me that I could also put my backpack in the compartment under the benches.
Before I went to sleep, I went to the restroom to brush my teeth. The toilet was a shade of grey that I don’t think exists in the US. Whenever the train went around a bend, water spilled out of the tank above the bathroom all over the floor. I brushed my teeth, and then left before I got too wet.
The bed was surprisingly comfortable, and I slept pretty well (especially compared to my red-eye flight a few days before that). My feet hung off the edge of the bed a little bit, but that was fine. I thought it was really nice that they provided us with sheets and blankets. On the overnight buses I’ve taken, they wouldn’t do anything like that.
I woke up around an hour before my train arrived (my alarm clock hadn’t even gone off yet). I got a text from Christina (One of the Peace Corps volunteers I’d been talking to) that she would meet me at the train station and pick me up there. About 30 minutes before my train was supposed to arrive, the train stopped at a station and a guy in uniform came to talk to me. I asked in my best Russian if I was supposed to get off here, and he replied in broken English that it was the next one.
I got off the train at my station, and met Christina and the guy that was driving us into town. On our way into town, I wasn’t sure whether the driver was drunk or if the driver was just trying to swerve around pot-holes in the road and doing a very bad job of it. After a few more car-rides in Ukraine, I eventually learned that it was definitely the latter. On our way into town, Christina translated what the driver was saying for me. He asked what I was studying. I told him politics and geography. He said he hated politics and if he had a gun, he would shoot all politicians (I was already feeling welcome in this town). Then he said that in America, politicians represent the people,  which is good, but in Ukraine they don’t.

We got to Christina’s house and her host-mother greeted us and asked us if we wanted tea. Christina made hash browns and cookies and we had a breakfast and then started packing up a few things before we left for the camp.

Chernobyl: May 24th

On my second day in Ukraine, I went on a tour of Chernobyl. It was a really interesting experience. I met the others on the tour at the main square (Maidan) and we left for a 2 hour bus ride north of Kiev. Once we were 30km from the site, we needed to pass the first checkpoint. We all had to get out of the bus and have a guy from the military check our passports before we passed through the gate. Our guide told us that there were strictly no pictures allowed of the checkpoint, and if they saw us taking a picture, they would make us get off the bus and wait at the checkpoint for the bus to take us back to Kiev. The first stop on the tour was one of the villages nearby the powerplant. This village was a smaller one. Right after the disaster, the government decided to handle the situation by completely demolishing most of the village and burying the waste. This was actually a terrible idea, as it allowed radiation to leak into the soil, poisoning the surrounding areas. After they noticed their mistake, they decided they wouldn’t do that again. The only building in this village that was left standing was a kindergarten. We got to go inside the building and look around. It was incredibly eerie. There were children’s toys laying around and all the paint was peeling off the walls and most of the windows were shattered.
Nearby the Kindergarten, our guide showed us a hotspot where radiation levels were particularly high. He explained how radiation is measured. A normal radiation rate for most places on earth is between .1 and .3 micro-zewots. In Ukraine, anything over .3 is generally considered unsafe for extended periods of time. The rate in most places around the village we were in at that time was around .4. The guide pointed out a tree near the location of the hotspot. As he walked closer to it, the radiation levels got closer to around 4. The guide held the radiation meter close to the ground near the base of the tree. The level went to around 8. This was most likely due to some sort of speck of radioactive graphite around the size of a piece of sand being buried underground. The guide explained how radiation is very local, and you can go most places in the Chernobyl area without a problem, but you need to be careful about where you step, as there are many radioactive hotspots similar to this scattered around the area.
Our nest stop on the tour was a memorial to the fire fighters who fought in the area immediately following the explosion, most of whom died pretty soon after that. After we saw the memorial, we passed through the second checkpoint, 10km from the powerplant. While we were in the 10km zone, we passed a cooling channel. The material at the bottom of the channel is still extremely radioactive and water needs to constantly be pumped into the channel to keep radiation from escaping. The water acts as a shield against the radiation. There used to be fish swimming in the channel, one of which was around 9m long, which tourists could see. However, a few years ago, they put in a series of dams so not the fish are not in a part of the channel where tourists can go.
Our next stop was the actual powerplant. Our guide explained to us that while we were at the viewing location for the powerplant, we could only take pictures of powerplant #4 (the one that exploded) and the new sarcophagus they are building for it. If any other pictures were taken, police would confiscate our cameras. At the viewing site, there was a memorial to the victims of Chernobyl. The radiation levels in the area were around .8 to .9. Right after we left the viewing are for the powerplant, it started raining real hard.
Our next stop was Припять (Pripyat), the nearest major city to Chernobyl, located just a few kilometers from the powerplant. A day after the explosion, the whole city of around 49,000 people was evacuated. People were told they would be able to return home after a few days, so they left most of their belongings and packed only the essentials. They never returned home, and the city remains how it was left 27 years ago. We stopped outside the city to take pictures of the Припять sign and the red forest (in the rain). The red forest was one of the hardest hit places by the radiation, and remains the most radioactive place in the region. We weren’t able to go anywhere near the forest, but we could look at it from a distance. We could see some of the dead vegetation, but most of the vegetation had grown back. Our guide told us that radiation levels in the forest could reach 200-300 microzewots in some places. A few people stood off to the side of the road and measured rates of 7-8 microzewots.
When we got into the city of Припять, it was still raining really hard. Our guide told us that tourists were technically not allowed in any of the buildings in the city, because of the danger that buildings could collapse. He told us that since it was raining so hard, he would lead us into a couple of the buildings which he knew were safe. We walked through the hotel and the palace of culture. There was broken glass everywhere and chunks of all sorts of stuff lying all over. In the Palace of Culture, we went into a theater, with a stage and rows of seating which had all pretty much caved in. The radiation levels inside the buildings were lower than the rates on the streets outside. As we walked through the city, we measured radiation in different areas. Moss acts like a sponge for radiation and our guide warned us to try to not step on any moss on the ground. He took a measurement right next to a patch of moss, and the level was around 5, but a few inches further away, it was much lower.
Next we went to an amusement park. The amusement park had never been used before. It was set to open on May 1, 4 days after the explosion. All the rides were set up like they were ready to use. Most of the rides were overgrown with bushes and really rusty. There was a large chunk of the Ferris wheel laying in the middle of everything. Most of the Ferris Wheel was intact.
After Припять, it was time to leave the 10km area. On our way out, we needed to pass through a radiation control booth. There’s no danger that a person who visits Chernobyl would become radioactive. The largest danger for tourists is that somebody leaves the area with a speck of radioactive dust on their clothing. In order to prevent this, each person needed to stand in a metal contraption with censors all around it. After around 5 seconds, a green light would turn on, and a door would open letting you out. If somebody didn’t pass radiation control, they had stations where people could brush off their clothing. Everybody in our group passed through without any problems. Our guide told us that one time when he went to a particularly radioactive area, he could not get all the mud and dust off of his shoes and he needed to leave his shoes at the control booth.

Before we went to back to Kiev, we stopped at a cafeteria for lunch. During lunch, I talked to our tour guide about Ukraine and my trip for a while. He said that he really liked volunteers that came from the US. He recommended I travel to cities in western Ukraine in my free time and told me he didn’t like the Russian speaking areas of the country very much. I wanted to tell him that I wanted to see as much as I could of the Russian speaking parts of the country in order to learn Russian, but figured that might make him a little resentful of me. After lunch, we headed back to Kiev.

A guy that worked for the tour company had a cool shirt.

On the highway outside of Kiev, we saw this.
Not something you see that often in the US.

The main gate to Chernobyl.

Buildings in the town of Chernobyl

A memorial to the fire fighters that first responded.

A radiation level of 0.4

A few steps closer to the hotspot: 1.3.

Holding it close to the ground: 8.1

A WWII memorial

Something along the lines of "Nobody will be forgotten. Nothing will be forgotten."
Part of the WWII memorial.

The Kindergarten, overgrown in trees.

"Parents Corner"

Another shot of the WWII memorial.

A view of Reactor #4.

A cooling channel. At the bottom of it, there is tons of highly radioactive material. The constant water pumped in keeps that from getting out.

Reactor #4 from the bus window.

The new sarcophagus they are building.

Close up of Reactor #4.

Radiation: 3.4

Russian plaque on the memorial. The English version is below, in another picture.

There were security guards everywhere. Hard to get a picture without them.

The memorial.

People left coins on the memorial.

An English plaque.

The entrance to Pripyat

The Red Forest

Radiation: 6.5, off the side of the road near the Red Forest.

Our guide in the light blue, and another tourist, measuring the radiation.

Buildings in Pripyat


"Palace of Culture"