Saying goodbye to Bulgaria just means saying hello to Ukraine! Continuing our Eastern European leg of this journey, Ukraine had us as close to Russia as we’re going to get. And if you’re not sure what to expect from Eastern Europe, let us tell you: we did some crazy things in Ukraine. If you don’t recall where this country is, we’ll lend a hand.
One of the big reasons we planned on coming here was the Chernobyl tour. If you don’t recall, the Chernobyl area was the site of a nuclear reactor meltdown. In resulted in the deaths of many people and the evacuation of an entire city, leaving it a ghost town.
Unfortunately Hayley was not feeling well due to some Georgian food (we’ll touch on that later in the post) but I was all rip roaring and ready to explore this monumental moment in nuclear energy history.
From Kiev I hopped in a minibus with some other folks and our guide drove us about an hour and a half north to the towns Pripyat and Chernobyl. After a lengthy passport check by security guards, we finally got in and got exploring the ghost towns.
First place we went was a teeny tiny village.
All those houses were abandoned and the floorboards were ripped up to prevent people from moving back in.
This was all spooky, but it was just the beginning. We moved on to a kindergarten building.
Everything you see is original to the kindergarten. Chernobyl has been a tourist hotspot for many years now, so naturally people have raided these spots and moved person effects about the room.
After the kindergarten, we went to the actual nuclear reactor that exploded. This history behind the explosion and the resulting evacuation is fascinating.
Think of a nuclear meltdown like this. When the reactor exploded, it was like a volcano erupted, except the ash, smoke, and lava were invisible. That ash and lava moved faster than the speed of sound and poisoned everything it touched, killing the nearest people within days. The ground is unusable and won’t be farm-able for thousands of years.
It was bad, bad news. It was basically like Hell broke open and demons were poisoning people. So with all those thoughts in your head, here I am standing in front of the reactor that erupted.
That big dome thing is called a a sarcophagus and is air tight. It prevents any further radiation from escaping. It was built and then moved over top the crippled reactor on rails. The thing is HUGE. Even though this exploded in the 80s, this whole energy compound is still in use. The last reactor was shut down in the early 2000s.
After checking that out, we ventured over to a newly opened section of Chernobyl. It is a gigantic antenna.
This thing was used to monitor the USA in case we fired off any nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union. Nowadays the thing sits idle and vandals and thieves are tearing it apart for scrap metal.
Dare devils also like to climb the thing.
The antenna is so ugly I actually really like it. The symmetry is satisfying to look at. Anyway, after all of that we went to the famous ghost town, Pripyat, itself.
Welcome to the perfect Soviet city! Powered by the peaceful atom, Pripyat is shining example of a high quality of life, good jobs, and good education. The perfect vacation destination!
If you’re looking for crazy things to do in Ukraine, visiting this abandoned cities is at the top of the list – the whole thing is surreal. It feels like you’re walking through a movie or a video game. This was an arena and we were standing on the track runners raced around.
This was a grocery store, the best in the region in fact. People drove from hundreds of kilometers away to shop here. When the town was evacuated scavengers pulled out all the scrap metal and left it in ruins.
This hotel hosted all the bigwigs who visited Pripyat.
These were apartment complexes people had to wait for years to be placed in.
Our guide shows that we’re all standing on the main highway into the city – we’re standing in a single lane of a 4 lane highway. The red flowers in his picture are the median. By looking around you could indeed tell this used to be a main road, but now it looks like any other forest.
This was an art theater.
This is Simon the fox. He’s a celebrity around here and loves treats. If you notice on the young lady’s right wrist she has a yellow device. This is a Geiger counter and monitors radiation levels. Many people had one and they were going off all the time.
Here we have a sunken gymnasium. No one is allowed to enter these buildings anymore.
The local primary school.
This section of building collapsed recently, officially ending tourists being able to enter buildings. For as odd as this all looks, some native residents still live in some of these buildings. Most are old and prefer to live and die where they were born.
This was a super advanced vending machine. As you can see in the machine on the left, this coffee machine used a communal cup. You put your money in, it poured your drink into that cup, you drank it, and then you washed it out for the next customer.
These types of vending machines were still used within the last 10 years in different parts of Ukraine.
Probably my favorite part of this ghost town was the theme park. Everyone loved this place.
You could sit in the bumper cars if you wanted to.
This was my attempt to replicate one of my favorite nuclear winter video game images.
Once we were all done exploring we had to go through a radiation check, just to make sure you weren’t carrying any radioactive material on your clothes or shoes. If you were, you had to leave your clothes behind – no joke.
After a full day of exploring the ruins of a nuclear city, I was happy to make it back home to Hayley. You don’t realize how lucky you are until you see disaster and mayhem like this.
Some of you might be wondering how safe this place was to visit. Short answer: very safe. The levels of radiation you experience from a day in Chernobyl and Pripyat are less than flying in an airplane for an hour. As long as you don’t get in very close proximity to some of the real hotspots of radiation, you’re fine.
Remember, the theme of this leg of the journey is crazy things in Ukraine. As if exploring abandoned nuclear towns weren’t enough, I really wanted to visit a nuclear missile silo. Ukraine is great for these sorts of excursions. They let you climb on missiles, shoot machine guns, and crawl all over tanks. This is good old fashion fun you just can’t get in Western Europe.
This huge green truck that looks like a long garbage truck carried nuclear missile. It would raise the bed and the missile could be lowered down into the underground silo.
Our guide encouraged us to climb on stuff. You won’t find any nagging safety officers here!
The Soviets built this knockoff motorcycle during the Cold War. It was based on a German motorcycle they reverse engineered.
Like I said, they really let you climb on anything. Our guide mentioned this was probably the only opportunity you could get to ride a missile as an homage to Dr. Strangelove.
First we made our way to the entrance to the missile silo. Don’t touch anything electrical, the silo still works – though of course missiles no longer exist.
This phone works. Our guide used it to call her coworker. Now it’s time to head down into the missile command silo. This is where some Soviet troops would live, way underground, and wait for news to push the button to fire the missiles.
And of course this tour was centered around the opportunity to push the literal button that would fire nuclear missiles. The other man in this video below and I had to turn keys and push a specific button within a short amount of time. Apparently, this would have been impossible for a single person to do – just like in the movies!
As you can see in the video above, this missile silo is not very wide. Four people makes it cramped. Add to that we’re 11 stories underground.
While the metro isn’t the modern in the world, it sure is affordable. A single ride, with unlimited transfers was 30 cents per person! We couldn’t believe it.
The whole time we rode into the Kiev I could only think about that Seinfeld bit where Kramer and Newman play Risk on the subway,
Since we were as close to Georgia (the country, not the state) as we were probably ever going to be, we decided to stop by the local Georgian restaurant, Mama Manana, for some authentic cuisine. Yum!
We had dumplings, a cheese pizza-like thing, and grape leaf rice rolls – it was a huge meal. It was flavorful with tons of spices. A solid meal for me, but I Hayley’s stomach wasn’t quite ready for it.
We weren’t aware of this before we arrived in Kiev, but Ukraine suffered through one of the worst famines in history, and certainly the worst in Europe during the 20th century. It was a man-made famine from 1932-1933, instigated by the Soviets as a form of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Ukrainians.
During those years, between 3.3 to 7.5 million people died of starvation. While Ukraine has historically been a bread basket and produced vast amounts of food, the Soviets took all produce and left the farmers to die a slow death. The famine had a dual purpose: 1) to murder ethnic Ukrainians; 2) to sell the wheat Ukrainians produced to fund the Soviet technological program.
It always stuns me to think as many people died as the Holocaust in Ukraine, but very few people have even heard about it.
This is The Motherland Monument. She is big! Bigger than the Statue of Liberty, in fact. Here’s another view of her.
What follows are a series of statue collages in the same park as The Motherland Monument. These statues are probably 20 feet tall and look ominous in the shadows.
You’ll see everyone plays their part in the Socialist utopia. People harvest grain, defend the front lines, feed the fires, care for the children, fix the equipment. These statues, for as out of date as they are, attempted to galvanize the people’s loyalty to the State. In other words, it’s all propaganda.
All in all Ukraine was pretty exciting, at least for me. Hayley, on the other hand was sidelined with a stomach bug – plus, a lot of this military history doesn’t interest her too much. Thankfully Ukraine was the last country we visit that’s skewed mostly to things I wanted to do. The rest of the trip has us visiting countries we’re both curious about.
Ukraine was fun, but now that I’ve done those crazy things, we don’t feel a huge desire to return. The people were fine, the food was not the most familiar and comfortable, and we were approached by street performers all the time. It got pretty annoying.
So having said all of that, we give Ukraine…
There you have it! Have you been to Ukraine? Did you love it? Did you hate it? What did we miss? Let us know in the comments below!