Ukraine & Poland Easter 2017 (Chernobyl & Auschwitz)
I’d been to Ukraine the previous year and had enjoyed it, I wasn’t quite sure if my wife would too at that time but having been I was safe in the knowledge that it was nowhere near as bad as I’d expect it to be; in fact, quite the opposite. So, a return trip was hatched and having always wanted to go to Chernobyl, that was at the top of the agenda with everything else planned around it.
It was a trip of two halves, even if we had very limited time in Poland at the start and end of the trip. The idea being we’d have a second attempt at visiting Auschwitz, after our first attempt the previous year ended with us not setting foot through the main entrance.
Everything, logistically, was sorted in the UK before our departure. As the Orthodox Easter fell at the same time as our Easter we were a little wary of what might happen at Public holiday time so we didn’t attempt to be in the middle of nowhere during the Easter weekend. Plans also had to be changed when I realised that the Warsaw – Kiev overnight train now didn’t stop anywhere internally in Ukraine, so we ended up going back to Kiev for the return working rather than getting on at Lutsk as originally planned. In hindsight, going direct L’viv to Krakow would have been the better option but I’ll save that for next time!
Booked through Wizz Air
W6-1316 0820 Doncaster – Warsaw
Booked through British Airways
BA873 1420 Krakow – Heathrow
Kyiv – Ibis Kyiv Centre – can be seen, standing out above most other buildings, as soon as you walk out of Kiev Pas. Station. Looks are deceiving though and the walk to it is almost all uphill and takes about 15 minutes. It was nice that we could check in a little after 10am and we were in our room on the 15th floor moments later; as I’d checked in online with being an Accor member. The view from our window was excellent, it was just a shame it wasn’t of anything interesting, just the Kiev downtown skyline. The comfort room was spacious, clean and well presented. As always, a good choice was served at breakfast and the WiFi was good.
Lviv – Taurus Hotel & Spa – ME Maps got us there in about 15 minutes. During the walk, we realised there was a shorter route to get there, via the back entrance to the station, over the works. When I’d changed our reservations on Booking.com and dismissed the Chernivtsi night’s stay, the website wouldn’t let me amend my booking at the Taurus so I just booked another separate night. When checking in I asked the girl at the reception if we could keep the same room for the duration of our stay; with having the two separate bookings. Surprisingly I was told no as the room types were different. The first night was apparently a suite and the following two nights were a different room category. When I asked if I could upgrade the room to allow us to keep it for the duration, I was told it was only possible for one night as there was no availability on the third night of our stay. Eventually we resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d have to change rooms the following morning but the girl couldn’t confirm our room would be ready for us in the morning, to allow our stuff to be relocated. It all seemed a little hard and we eventually went up to our suite to savour it for the one night only. It was the biggest room I’ve ever stayed in and the main room, with sofas, TV and massive lounge area was bigger than the bedroom itself. The bathroom was also huge and had an all mod-con shower system and if that wasn’t enough there was another mod-con shower above the large bath. We wanted for nothing, toiletries, even earplugs, bathrobes and slippers were all provided as part of the service. What I didn’t realise when we went to bed was that my reservation for the following two days was for a suite as I’d changed it when I’d booked the additional night so we’d have the same room for the duration of our stay. It turned out the following morning, that the girl checking us in had been looking at my cancelled reservation and not the current one!
Krakow – Ibis Stare Miasto – We hadn’t discovered the short cut to the Ibis Krakow Stare Miasto, which isn’t in the old town at all, last time we’d stayed but if you use the subway at the Ibis end of the station, the footsteps come up right in front of it and it cuts out walking through the shopping centre out front and then right along the front of it. We’d checked in online through my Accor account and the keys were soon handed over when we walked up to the front desk. Our room was spotless, not too spacious but did have tea/coffee making facilities; it was typically Ibis and worth what we’d paid for it. Having not eaten for a while the Ibis restaurant was a welcome sight and the food rustled up in the open kitchen was very nice. As breakfast wasn’t started in the hotel until after 0600 we had to give a time that we required the early-breakfast and it would be laid out for us when we got down at our given time of 0530; and so, it was.
Booked through PolRail
Warsaw – Kyiv & Kyiv – Warsaw overnight sleeper tickets and berths
Booked online at Ukraine Railways (UZ) website
ALL internal UZ tickets, except those on local trains in Chernivtsi
Booked online at Polish Railways (PKP) website
Warsaw – Krakow IC tickets
Krakow – Oswiecim & tickets for Warsaw & Krakow airports bought at tickets offices in Poland
Sunday 9th April 2017 (Doncaster to Kiev via Warsaw)
As is always the case, the taxi I’d booked for 0600 to take us to Doncaster airport, was nowhere to be seen. At 0605 the taxi company told me it was 5 minutes away, which is taxi speak for its going to be at least 10 minutes but we’ll just lie to you to keep you quiet. Sure enough it was 0615 before it turned up. There weren’t any dramas though, as it was a Sunday morning and there was no traffic around at all; and I was pleasantly surprised by the £12.60 fare as the taxi company had told me it would be £15-16 when I’d booked it the previous day.
Doncaster airport had an early morning feel about it when we turned up, there weren’t many people about and immigration was like a ghost town; which we breezed through in minutes. Wetherspoon’s The Running Horse was waiting airside for us and breakfast was served within 10 minutes. As there were only two morning flights out of Doncaster there weren’t too many people about. Our Wizz Air flight was late boarding after the inbound flight was 20’ late landing and having priority boarding with Wizz definitely has its advantages, not to mention the extra bag you’re allowed to take in the cabin.
Unfortunately, the pleasantness of the morning went out of the window after we took off as we had the most miserable, whiny little shit you could wish for sat behind us and all the way from Doncaster to Warsaw it was constant forced crying, whinging and general fucking about behind us; it was enough to give us both headaches and if the flight had been any longer I think some stern words would have eventually been had! Enough said!
Once on Polish soil we ambled to the Warsaw Airport Railway Station and bought tickets from a ticket machine to get us into central Warsaw. There are various options for tickets but we bought one journey tickets that last for 20 minutes from validation and allow travel in zones 1 & 2. Warsaw Airport and Central Warsaw are both in zone 1 and the journey takes 18 minutes! Tickets cost 3.40 Zloty.
Lunch was on the cards when we got to Warszawa Centralna and a quick scan on Triposo & Trip Advisor found us Mama Mia Never Closed, which is a 10-minute walk from Centralna station. Its open 24/7 and the pizzas we were served were decent; as was the price.
On the way back to the station we accumulated some snacks from a supermarket and I changed some money into Ukrainian, to save the hassle on arrival the following morning. With nothing else better to do we plonked ourselves in Starbucks at Warszawa Centralna and bought some drinks to keep us company.
TLK68 1631 Warszawa Zachodnia – Kiev Pas. Started to run slightly differently in the December 2016 timetable change; not that I realised until I tried to book tickets on the return service from Luts’k to Warszawa. I’d wrongly assumed that the schedule for trains 67/68 on the UZ website had been uploaded wrongly when there were no stops between Kiev & Dorohusk and vice versa. I was wrong and thankfully PolRail had put me right before I got too far into the planning of the trip and buggered things up beyond repair! The service does indeed now run non-stop within Ukraine as there are no internal UZ day coaches. There is now a separate service from Kovel to Kiev for said coaches and the day coaches on the PKP side now only run to Chelm and not to Dorohusk like they used to. So, when we set off from Warszawa Centralna I was intrigued to see what happened when we got to Chelm and was also intrigued to know if the train would run via Sarny to Kiev, like it used to do, and be through engine from Jagodin, or if it would still run via the electrified route from Kovel.
I’d booked a 2-berth compartment for us on train 68, which is a 3-berth compartment with one bed in the foldaway position. The charging facilities worked a dream, once I’d found the socket hid away in the cabinet above the sink, and it was comfortable enough, also with an en-suite sink. I spent most of the journey towards Chelm with my eyes closed, clearly still trying to recover from finishing two weeks of nights on Saturday morning; but I was wide awake when I needed to be and was surprised the coach door had even been opened at Chelm. Still, I was off in time to watch the PKP coaches being shunted off into the distance and a headlight was soon bearing down on the train; which had been sat up ahead on the far left when we’d arrived. While I had been half expecting the PKP loco change to take place at Chelm, there was no surprise when it happened. There wasn’t any drama at Chelm and I was safely back on board, waiting for the Dorohusk Polish border grip.
Border checks on the Polish side were less severe than those over the border at Jagodin on the Ukrainian side, it was nothing more than a quick scan of the passport, a few taps on keys on a mobile computer and they were handed back. At Jagodin things are done a little differently, with passports taken and processed while the train is being re-bogied in the gauge-changing shed. Also, unlike on the Polish side, certain bits of the coach are dismantled to allow the border guards to check for stuff being smuggled into their country; one of whom just wondered up and down with a big screwdriver checking all the bolts on the overhead racks in the compartments. Quite how he expected to deal with bolts, while armed with a screwdriver, is anyone’s guess.
Initially we were drawn out and passed the gauge-changing shed and then propelled back into it; before the splitting of the three coaches. The staff were then left to get to work in changing the bogies. Which all turned out to be rather efficient and I’m sure I’d been jacked up higher on my previous trip through the shed!
It wasn’t long before the UZ gauge loco could be heard entering the shed and was piecing the three coaches back together again. There’s not much chance of getting off in Jagodin station; which then brings with it other issues, like the fact your passports are still with the border staff and even then, once back in your own hand you’re not guaranteed to be allowed off the train. Just as I was about to step outside, with my passport back in my custody, one of the on-train staff said I probably shouldn’t as the border staff didn’t like it. With that I took the opportunity to ask which route the train would take and was told via Kiverchy, not Sarny; which was a shame!
Monday 10th April 2017 (A Day in Kiev)
Once train 68 1631 Warszawa Zachodnia – Kyiv Pas. left Kovel it really was a non-stop run to Kiev and we barely slowed down at all; arriving 2 minutes early into Kiev.
Before heading to the hotel, I got myself a Vodafone sim card from the shop at Kiev Pas. station, which is on the upper concourse, to the left of the escalators as you get off. One of the guys there spoke good English and the sim cost UAH50, which comes with 4GB of data, 175 minutes of free calls within Ukraine and 25 minutes of free calls to 25 other countries; which I never did find out which ones were included. The sim lasts until 2019 and remains active as long as its topped up within 12 months of purchase. Which is a lot better than a lot of other countries!
The Ibis Kiev Centre can be seen, standing out above most other buildings, as soon as you walk out of Kiev Pas. Looks are deceiving though and the walk to it is almost all uphill and takes about 15 minutes. It was nice that we could check in a little after 10am and we were in our room on the 15th floor moments later; as I’d checked in online with being an Accor member. The view from our window was excellent, it was just a shame it wasn’t of anything interesting, just the Kiev downtown skyline.
As breakfast at the Ibis is served from 0400-1200 we opted for a late breakfast at the hotel before setting out to discover what Kiev had to offer. As the weather was good, not a cloud in the sky, we made the most of the rest of the afternoon, the idea being to head towards St Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery and see what we could find on the way.
Bright yellow in its splendour, St Vladimir’s Cathedral was the first spectacle we came across and some sight it was as the afternoon sun lit it perfectly. There was a constant stream of worshipers in and out of the front doors while we were there, all giving a double crossing of the heart sign before entering and again when leaving.
Continuing towards St Michael’s Monastery, guided by ME Maps on my phone, the Golden Gate was soon upon us, which isn’t golden at all and is virtually all made of wood; outside which is a statue of Yeroslav the Wise. Further along we walked by the walls that lined St Sophia Cathedral, which is now a museum site and you can only access by entering through the base of the bell tower and paying your way; in our case we just paid for entry to the grounds, which cost UAH20 per person. The grounds of which were nice and peaceful and there were hardly any people about at all. It was well worth spending the money to get into the grounds for the photos we got.
Right outside the bell tower’s entrance was a massive display of eggs, which spread basically all over the square out front and continued all the way to St Michael’s Monastery; which was probably what was keeping people occupied enough so as they didn’t venture into the Cathedral grounds. The eggs were all mounted off the floor and were the same size, about 3ft tall, but all were decorated very differently. It was a nice display, in what would have otherwise been an empty square; and was sponsored by non-other than Kinder themselves, who had the biggest eggs on display at the bottom of the square.
The golden domes of St Michael’s Monastery do stand out when the sun is glinting off them but once inside the walls the bright blue building itself stands out even more in glorious sunshine; and its absolutely immaculate. A massive contrast in colour to that of St Vladimir’s Cathedral yet both buildings are spectacular examples of how things can look from the outside if looked after well. The turquoise & white coloured St Andrew’s church is also another contrasting example of fine workmanship, it’s just unfortunate that work was taking place out the front of it and we couldn’t get too close.
Behind St Michael’s Monastery is the Kiev Fenicular, which runs steeply downhill to Podil at the bottom, by the river port. It was built in 1902 and has been running ever since. It uses two cars, simply lettered in Ukrainian for left & right; which is the side of the loop they take when going up or down. A journey on the funicular costs a mere UAH3 per single journey and was worth paying just for a ride down and back up again.
Before heading back towards the Ibis, we took a look in at the remains of Desiatynna Church and St Nicholas Church and then headed back to the Ibis, pretty much the same way we’d headed out. Which was essentially the quickest route anyway. It had been glorious all afternoon, we’d both caught the sun and my head was bright red.
With some of the afternoon left I headed to Kiev station and was very pleased to find VL80T-1024 sat waiting to depart with 148 1620 Kiev Pas. – Odesa and even more pleased when it made 763 1614 Darnytsia – Odesa at its origin, which was headed by another twin unit, ChS8-011. When I found 780 1709 Kiev Pas. – Sumy waiting to depart with ChS8-006 that was my move sorted and I walked to Darnytsia Metro station after that and got the metro back to Universytet station then walked down the hill to the Ibis; job done!
Food that evening was at a place called Spaghetti, which was just over the main road from the Ibis and it was good food as well, at a reasonable price. Unfortunately though, despite advertising it, they disappointed me when they didn’t have Tiramisu! That’s the second time this year I’ve been to an Italian restaurant that hasn’t had Tiramisu; the first time being in Doncaster!
As we’d not had a great sleep the previous night on our overnight from Warsaw, had been up early the previous day and were up early the following morning, we were in bed by 7.30 and it was still light outside! I needed no persuasion to drop off to sleep though….
Photos for Monday 10th April 2017
Kiev St Vladamir’s Cathedral
Kiev Golden Gate
Kiev St Sophia’s Cathedral
Kiev St Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery
Kiev St Andrew’s Church
Tuesday 11th April 2017 (A tour of Chernobyl & Pripyat with Solo East Tours)
Breakfast at the Ibis, proper breakfast that is, starts at 0630 and we were in the restaurant in good time, as we needed to leave at 0700 to get to the meeting place where our trip to Chernobyl would begin. First things first though, and a priority for the morning’s breakfast attendance, was to gather up enough food to last us the day as it would be a long one with only one meal stop during the day; and the time of that couldn’t be guaranteed, even after departing for Chernobyl. Thankfully, there was enough stuff to be able to make a few sarnies and there were plenty of cakes and pastries to put into the lunch carrier bag too. Armed with our stash, we set off for the Hotel Kozatskiy at smack on 7am.
I’d booked our tour to Chernobyl online, after searching the net for suitable tours from Kiev. What swayed me towards using Solo East for the trip was the fact that they seemed to have been doing the tours for a while and had quite a lot of information on their website, including details of the levels of radiation expected during the day; and if Top Gear used them to arrange their barmy driving antics to Pripyat, then that was good enough for me too. The price of the tour was $218 for the two of us, with $118 being paid when booking and the balance is due no later than 24 hours prior to the trip’s commencement. I paid our balance online a week or so in advance, which is easy to do using the link on your original invoice; it really was so simple to book.
I’d originally booked us into the Hotel Kozatskiy for our stay in Kiev but changed my mind, based on its distance from Kyiv Pas. station. When we got there, I was glad we’d changed our mind too as even though we only used the toilet in the lobby, the place looked a little rough round the edges and didn’t look to have been given a facelift since its Soviet days. When we asked at reception about the pick-up point for our tour we were directed outside the hotel and no sooner had we walked out, did a minibus park up with Solo East on the side; and big letters saying Chernobyl! So, the meeting place is right outside the front doors of the Kozatskiy.
We all had to show our passports as confirmation of who we were and taking passports with you on the trip is mandatory as the checkpoints require them for identity as well. Once a rollcall was done we were on the bus and heading off towards Chernobyl, just after 8am. Constantine was our guide for the day and he explained what we’d do during the day, which of course didn’t mean a great deal until we’d been, then he gave us a very insightful commentary of Kiev as we drove out of the city, explaining what every building we saw was and quite a lot about the history of each, along with some very interesting spiel about the general history of Kiev and its Soviet rule.
Once outside the city we made a brief stop at a petrol station for people to gather snacks and use the toilets and then we were shown a few videos on the way to the 30km exclusion zone checkpoint. The videos were nothing short of excellent viewing and would have fitted in well on National Geographic! Firstly, everyone’s mind was put at ease about the radiation levels, through a very good video that Solo East had shot themselves. Which basically showed that during our day inside the exclusion zone we’d be exposed to less radiation in total than we would be making a flight from Kiev to Toronto; and they even filmed their Geiger counter on the plane!
The other videos showed breaking news coverage from the days after the Chernobyl explosion. Having been only 10 at the time all I could really remember about it all was the poor people that had to shovel radioactive debris on the site. This simple video showed just how much confusion there was after the explosion had occurred, while the West figured out for themselves that something wasn’t quite right when the radioactive cloud drifted into Scandinavia and was detected first in Sweden. The Soviet Union eventually admitted to the disaster, probably as there was no way they could hide it from the world; but they made a very good job of hiding it from their people in Ukraine & Belarus at the time, assuring all that the explosion was nothing to be concerned about!
The explosion at Chernobyl took place in the early hours of 26th April 1986 and all came about due to tests being carried out on the No.4 reactor, which all makes sense when its being explained to you. Ultimately though, we all know how the test went and it wasn’t until a few days after the explosion that the town of Pripyat was even evacuated and for 3 days the occupants of Pripyat just went about their normal everyday life as though nothing was wrong; until 1000 buses were eventually sent to evacuate everyone; and that was the end of Pripyat! Literally! Ironically, the town’s iconic amusement park was being built specifically for the May-day celebrations in 1986 and the park was only ever in use on one day. This was the day after the explosion to keep the town’s folk’s minds from being concerned about the explosion they’d all probably heard the previous day!
All in all, the videos painted a very grim picture of the situation and showed how badly it was managed. Initially firemen were sent to the scene to pump water directly onto the fire, all of whom died very soon afterwards; having not even realised how much radiation they were exposing themselves to in their line of duty. Little did everyone realise at the time, that pumping water onto the fire could well have made the situation worse; a lot worse!
As the water did little to help the situation, the excess pooled beneath the melting reactor and became more of a hazard that could have caused another explosion. In a second attempt to cool the melting reactor, sand was dropped from helicopters in bags and was done so constantly for a couple of days. The sheer heat being created by the reactor eventually began to melt the sand and all efforts were then turned to preventing the reactor melting through the soft soil below it and getting down to a large underground aquifer directly below the power plant. Now had the Soviets not been so blasé about the power plants stability they’d have protected the aquifer when building it; but they didn’t. And they were so confident in its build and structural integrity that they didn’t build in control measures that would contain reactors in such an event like they were combating in April 1986! In fact, at the time they were even confident that the reactor would be up and running again a couple of months later! Their faith in the reactor and what they’d built was almost like having blind faith in any religion!
As the sand couldn’t curb the reactors heat, eventually lead was dropped in, which would also prevent some of the radiation getting out. This did a way better job than the sand as when it melted it sealed the reactor below it. Finally, to put a stop to the whole reactor debacle, local miners were drafted in and made to dig a massive room below the reactor. This was to house a large-scale cooling system that it was believed would cool the reactor from below. While built, the cooling system was never used and the whole room was pumped full of concrete as the reactor had cooled sufficiently by the time it was finished. Then came the clean-up exercise.
With radiation levels as high as they were, initially remote-control vehicles were used to start clearing the radioactive material from around the reactor and on the roof of the building. Unfortunately, these machines also succumbed to radiation and stopped working. Some had electrical fits and literally threw themselves off the roof and into the reactor; ultimately all were removed and stored in a massive machine graveyard, along with helicopters and a whole host of other military vehicles used in the clear-up. This graveyard no longer exists and everything in it has been dismantled after the radiation levels dropped low enough to allow it. With no hope of machines finishing off the job, it had to be humans that finished it and army reservists were called upon to finish it. And with no choice, the poor guys had to be dressed in lead to try and prevent as much radiation getting to their bodies as possible and were given stints of 45 seconds only on the roof; just to shovel radioactive debris over the side so it could be cleared up from the ground. Some of these men did up to five stints on the roof but live to tell the tale; unfortunately, not without health issues.
Finally, the whole reactor No.4 was entombed in a sarcophagus, which was only designed to last 30 years at the time and didn’t quite manage that in reality. It even had holes in it by the time it was to be replaced. The “new” sarcophagus that now entombs the whole reactor, and the original sarcophagus, was built adjacent to the reactor and moved into place on rails. Fitted in place in November 2016, this sarcophagus was designed to last 100 years; the question then remains, what next?
All that was gleaned from a few simple videos shown on the minibus on the way to the first checkpoint and they finished just in time for us to pull up at the first checkpoint at Dytyatky; which is the border of the 30km exclusion zone. Formalities at which seemed to be simple enough but we all had to get off the bus and have our passports checked off on the list, by the checkpoint security staff. Once on board and on the other side of the barriers, we were literally “in the zone”!
Once back on the bus we drove down deserted roads, but for the odd vehicle, and were then given our first taste of a deserted town. Zalissia is outside “the 15km zone” but was still deserted at the time of the accident. Unlike many of the surrounding towns though, it survived being literally bulldozed into a hole and buried; systematically, building by building. This happened to many of the surrounding villages and there is no trace to be found of them now as it was deemed to make sense to bury the radioactive buildings below ground. Yet around the immediate vicinity of reactor No.4 about 6m of earth was removed to get rid of the radioactive layer; so how could burying buildings make sense?
I was intrigued more than anything else as we were guided round the crumbling, deserted buildings that remained at Zalissia; and a little excited. Deserted and abandoned places have always fascinated me and I’d watched a few programmes recently, on Vice Channel, that were generally about deserted places in the USA. Seeing these things on TV though doesn’t prepare you for the real thing; it’s just fascinating. While I appreciate that everything we were shown in Zalissia was once someone’s home, or had been used by the town folk during their everyday routine, it was still fascinating to see. Obviously, the place had stood empty and abandoned for almost 31 years and time hadn’t been friendly to it. Wooden floors had disintegrated, window frames had come adrift and exposed the insides of buildings to the elements, and paint on walls was peeling away. Nothing had remained intact, as though it had just been left and nobody had touched it since the accident, due to the looting. But once there was nothing left the place lay abandoned and exposed to the elements; which will ultimately take Zalissia to the grave itself as it crumbles on its foundations.
Our time in Zalissia was over all too soon and that would be our taste of abandoned places until after lunch. On arrival into Chernobyl Town we were shown around the town, which has plenty of occupants and people working there and looked like a regular town, where nothing had happened. There are a few memorials in the town, the biggest of which is the Memorial “To Those Who Saved the World”, which depicts people clearing debris from the No.4 reactor. Other memorials lay in the main park in the town; the one that got my attention was the two lines of town entry/exit signs that ran from one end of the park to the other. These were the memorial to every town that lost its identity in the disaster, including those in Belarus, which was also heavily affected at the time. Also in the town is a small display of vehicles used in the clean-up exercise, all of which look in half decent condition and more like they should have been used in a lunar landing program! These are a mere few that were saved from the massive machinery graveyard; but at least they were saved and cleaned up for display.
Lunch at the Chernobyl Canteen was a lot better than I thought it would be. All ingredients are brought in from outside the zone but prepared on site. Soup starters, followed by fried pork & proper chips, with pastries and fruit for afters. There’s a vegetarian option available and your guide will ask beforehand if anyone wants it. The facilities at the Chernobyl Canteen are very good and are the only ones you’ll get to use during your venture into the zone; so, make full use of them. There are other toilets at certain points along the way but they are wooden huts with holes in the ground; which is ok for us men but definitely not for the ladies. You’d be better going behind a bush, it’ll be cleaner, less smelly and probably a whole lot better experience. Either way ladies, bring your own bog roll!
After lunch, we set off towards the 10km checkpoint at Leliv, where we didn’t even have to get off the bus before being waved through. At which point we were even more “in the zone” than we had been at Dytyatky 20km away. A lot of safety rules had been explained to us by this point, which basically tell you not to touch anything, not to take home any souvenirs from the zone and not to eat anything growing in the zone. Stick by those rules and you’ll generally be ok, although there have been cases where people haven’t been allowed to leave the zone with their trousers due to them being contaminated! Apparently, sitting down on the floor to pose for photos by the Ferris wheel in Pripyat is a good way to have an embarrassing end to your day!
Our first 15 minutes in the 10km exclusion zone were spent bumbling our way down a narrow road, which had more potholes than a cricket green with an army of moles beneath it! Hence the slow journey but it was worth it when we got to Duga 1 and the Chernobyl 2 base. Duga 1, also known as the Russian Woodpecker, is, or should I say was, a Russian Military “over the horizon” radar (referred to as Russian Woodpeckers due to the nature of the interference electrical items and radio frequencies received from them worldwide). It was developed during the “Cold War” to detect missile launches from the US and was kept secret due to its location in the back end of beyond and the fact it was surrounded by miles and miles of tall trees. Quite how anything as big as the radar itself was kept secret is beyond me as its huge, and not a radar like you’d initially expect to see. When someone says radar, we all think of revolving dishes and the likes, but Duga 1 is a sheer wall of detection system, probably over 100m tall and at least 500-600m long, possibly more; and is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Before we got to see the radar in all its glory though, we were shown round the Chernobyl 2 base first; which is a showcase in Soviet propaganda, with paintings on the side of buildings and other slogans on walls within them. All this would obviously promote a sense of purpose and wellbeing and have everyone going about their business thinking they were doing some good for the world, or at least Russia anyway.
It was interesting to look round a military base, even if it was abandoned, where even parts of the old control room were still intact and the 900m corridor beneath the radar itself was something else; which thankfully we didn’t end up walking the whole length of. Once outside the base and at one end of the radar itself its sheer size hits home as it dominates your view, as far as you can see. Towards the end of the cold war the radar lost its sense of purpose when both Russia & USA had the capability to detect and destroy one another’s missiles after they were launched; the problem being early in the cold war that Russia didn’t have the capability to launch missiles quick enough to combat at US strike, mainly due to them not being on standby fully fuelled. This is part of the reason the Cuban missile crisis occurred as well as the missiles didn’t have long range capacities way back in the 1960’s so Russia wanted their warheads closer to the US. All that aside, the Chernobyl disaster pretty much spelled the end for the Duga 1 radar and the end of the Cold War a few years later more or less hammered the nails in its coffin; and there was no way back for it after that.
After returning down the same potholed road, to get back to the main road towards Chernobyl Power Plant, we made a brief stop at Kopachi village, which was almost completely buried but for its Kindergarten. This was our first experience with high levels of radiation, when our guide showed us a “hot-spot” outside the Kindergarten entrance. There are hot-spots all over the exclusion zone but the guides generally know where they are and even though the radiation levels are a lot higher than those experienced during most of the day, the fact you’re only exposed for a short period is ok. The biggest risk with the hot-spots is getting some of the debris on your footwear or clothing and getting back to the exit checkpoints with it! Burying Kopachi was actually an experiment by the authorities but again their lack of understanding of radiation resulted in the radiation seeping into the surrounding water table and contaminating far more than it would have if the buildings had been left standing!
Kopachi is quite close to the main Chernobyl Power Plan and once back on the main road towards it we got our first glimpse of the No.4 reactor and saw the unfinished reactors No.5 & 6 and their associated unfinished cooling towers; all left to the elements after the disaster, which resulted in their construction being abandoned 3 years after the meltdown of reactor No.4. While out by the roadside, during a brief stop, we were asked to get back on the bus when bright yellow lorries carrying waste from the power plant passed by; draw your own conclusions why.
A stop outside the front gates to the Power Plant, right in front of the No.4 reactor, revealed a memorial that depicts the entombing of the No.4 reactor. It was during this stop that it was explained to us just how much cleaning up went on in the immediate vicinity of the Power Plant; which basically made the area safer than everywhere else we’d already been during the day. While photos can be taken of the No.4 Reactor, randomly you can’t take them from certain points and when taking them with the memorial in front of it, you’re not allowed to include the perimeter fence in your shot; which is impossible if you want to take a decent photo.
Part of the Chernobyl tours includes feeding the huge cat fish that occupy the Chernobyl cooling pond. These catfish are huge because they live and grow to that size, not because of some freak genetic mutation caused by a nearby radioactive disaster; and are merely a spectacle because they’re there, not because they’re related to the disaster. That said, I’ve never seen catfish that big and it was a spectacle worth spending a few minutes throwing biscuits to. More interesting to me at that point though, was the railway bridge we’d walked onto to ogle from. Our guide told me it wasn’t used any more but plenty of the lines around the Chernobyl Power Plant are, which I found out through a little research when I got back. Had I realised before we went I’d have asked if we could have stopped off at Yanov (Yaniv) Railway station, which was a very short drive off the main road we’d be heading down to get from the Power Plant to Pripyat. Yaniv still has abandoned Soviet DMU’s and a few locos dumped around the yard area; more on that later though.
At 1530 we stopped at the iconic “Pripyat” sign on Lenin Avenue and then headed down Lenin Avenue towards the centre of Pripyat. During the whole time we were in Pripyat our guide showed us photos of the places we visited, from before the disaster. These really put things in perspective, even as we drive down Lenin Avenue, where trees as tall as buildings masked them from sight. There was an eerie silence about the bus as everyone ogled out of the windows, astonished at what they were seeing. Zalissia and Kopachi hadn’t really prepared our minds for what we were seeing as we drove through the main checkpoint into Pripyat; where everything is derelict beyond belief and on a scale, you can’t imagine without seeing it with your own eyes. The only thing I could liken what I was seeing to were scenes from the Walking Dead series on TV; thankfully we didn’t have to contend with any zombies during our visit though but in places it was still a little creepy and not a place I’d like to be stranded in overnight!
I didn’t realise it at the time but from my photos I figured out that we were in Pripyat for 90 minutes and had to leave when we did to get back to the exit checkpoints for the exit curfew time. Initially I was a bit disappointed that we seemed to rush through the town but later realised we didn’t rush at all but were shown a lot more of the town that I thought and were moved along a bit quicker than I’d liked to have been. I’m grateful for this now and the guide told us that our group had been a very good one to move along and keep in tow, with no stragglers and idiots making his life hard. As a result, we got to see more than he’d expected.
Maps of Pripyat are hard to come by and when trying to get captions to my photos at home I found that the ME Maps app that I use has by far the most detailed map of Pripyat and Google Maps is shocking. That said, it’s hard to keep up with where you are, mark photo spots on maps, take the shots, listen to the guide and take it all in at the same time; so, it took me a while in front of a computer to figure out where we’d been and it was only thanks to the Solo East itinerary that I was able to figure it all out.
Our route round Pripyat first took us through the undergrowth and by a school building, which had partially collapsed recently. This showed what would eventually happen to the rest of Pripyat and would ultimately probably put pay to tours round it. All caused by heavy snowfall and the resulting ice eating away at the building’s integrity and ultimately bringing down over time. Our first taste of the inside of a building was Pripyat hospital, which we weren’t initially going to go inside but thanks to a startled hare on the pathway outside it our guide figured out that nobody else could be inside, so in we went. The place was in total disarray and was crumbling at its seams. Some rooms were in better condition than others and there were even old patient cards laying around in their filed boxes, beds left in the maternity area and some old operating equipment. All of which looked very out of place where they stood. At the back of the hospital is the entrance to the basement, where clothing that the first responders wore is still stored. Rather than remove it and decontaminate the area the entrance to the basement has been filled with dirt to prevent anyone going down into it. Another case of burying the problem instead of dealing with it.
Close to the hospital is Pripyat Ferry Terminal and its café, which was our initial destination. This once grand place lay in ruins with vending machine still evident and the stained-glass windows in the main building starting to collapse. Someone had kindly written a message using pieces of glass, which simply read “tourist go home”. Our guide told us that the message hadn’t been there on his previous visit so had been a recent addition to its place on the floor.
From the Ferry Terminal, we headed straight to the main square of Pripyat, at the end of Lenin Avenue. This is flanked by the Hotel Polyssia, Pripyat Palace of Culture and a department store. With “eyes” being in the vicinity of the main square our guide couldn’t take the risk of taking us into the Palace of Culture or the Hotel but we could see into the ground floor of the department store and its supermarket. As we walked round the back of the Palace of Culture though plenty of Soviet era propaganda could be seen through windows.
Right behind the Palace of Culture is the Pripyat Amusement Park. This park was being developer for the May Day celebrations that would have taken place in Pripyat in 1986. Of course, it was never opened foe the celebrations as Pripyat had been evacuated by 1st May 1986, but it had spent one day in operation; the day after the disaster. This apparently to take people’s minds off the disaster that was unfolding around them and their town. The iconic Ferris Wheel still dominates the park and looks in a far better state than the bumper cars, swings boats & paratrooper ride. In fact, it looks in better condition than a similarly designed Ferris Wheel we found in a park in L’viv some days later; which had its cars been all yellow you wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart!
Our walk round Pripyat continued straight out of the back of the park and to Pripyat’s Central Stadium, known as Avanhard Stadium where FC Stroitel Pripyat used to play football before the disaster.
We were quickly breezed through the stadium with time running short and straight to Pripyat Middle School No.3, which is in the Microdistrict No.3. Unfortunately, we only got time to get a few quick photos of what used to be the old canteen area, where iconic gas-masks are now strewn all over the floor and a decaying old cash register sits on a desk. The gas-masks are a sign of Soviet times, during which every eventuality was catered for and drills were carried out using the gas-masks; just in case. Had nuclear strikes ever been used during the cold war the masks probably wouldn’t have been much use at all……
Suddenly, our trip to the Chernobyl Zone and Pripyat itself was over and we were ushered back to the minibus to head back to the checkpoints and out of the zone by the permitted time. I wasn’t ready to go and even though I’d had an excellent day, I left wanting more and felt like we’d only skimmed the surface of what the area had to offer, especially Pripyat. There are only 8 hours of permitted time per day in the zone and even that wouldn’t be enough to explore Pripyat properly on its own and I’m now considering a return to the zone but this time on a one-to-one basis and doing it on my terms. Without having done this group tour though, I wouldn’t have a clue about the area and what I wanted to do so it’s a good initiation into exploring the zone and gives you everything you need to prepare for a second trip, should you wish to make one of course. For some I’m guessing once is enough? For me, my curiosity was nowhere near satisfied…
At both the Leliv & Dytyatky checkpoints we had to pass through radiation machines, which make sure people haven’t got themselves contaminated during the day. Apparently, it is very hard to get contaminated, but not impossible, and people have found themselves being decontaminated at the checkpoints in the past! Once back in “the real world” it was a case of relaxing during the journey back to Kiev and we were dropped off on Khreschatyk Street, in front of the Independence Monument and by Maidan Nezalezhnosti Metro Station, just after 1900. It had been an excellent day, one of the most interesting of my life, and one that I wouldn’t forget. It had also been a tiring day, even though it hadn’t been that long, and we were ready for bed by the time we’d walked back to the Ibis Hotel. We had a brief stop at the Spaghetti Restaurant first to refuel and the excellent ginger tea they do makes the place worth a visit just for that!
Photos for Tuesday 11th April 2017 – Chernobyl Trip
Duga 1 Radar
Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor No.4
Wednesday 12th April 2017 (Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves))
A leisurely morning followed breakfast as we headed out to Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves), which is east of the city centre by the Dnieper River. You can use either of Arsenalna or Dnipro Metro station to get there and we chose to get off at Arsenalna as it’s a straight walk down the road to the main entrance. Universytet Metro station is a short walk up the hill from the Ibis and to get into the stations Metro tokens are purchased for a flat UAH4 and put into the slot at the ticket barriers; which basically means you can bumble round the Metro system all day if you want for less than 10p. As the Kiev Metro is one of the deepest in the world it can take a while to get down to the platforms and the escalators run at a higher speed than anything we’ve got in the UK. Signs are predominantly in Ukrainian and English and announcements on the trains are in both Ukrainian & English. It’s all very efficient, the service is frequent and things are well signed in English everywhere.
It turned out to be a decent morning, weather wise, and it’s about a 20-minute stroll from Arsenalna Metro station to the main entrance to the Monastery. Entry costs are only listed in Ukrainian but there was a very helpful English-speaking lady at the kiosk who helped us buy our tickets. Entry cost UAH70 each, what we didn’t realise at that point was that to take photos with a “proper” camera costs extra; so, when a rather obnoxious tosser challenged me while I was using my camera, there were a few words exchanged. Especially when I pointed out people taking photos on their phones right in front of him. Mr “you can’t take photos” wasn’t going to spoil my day with his attitude and the woman at the kiosk couldn’t be more apologetic. The cost for using a camera to take photos is a rather whopping UAH200; which is around £5. While some might consider it not worth it, for me the massive difference in quality between phone photos and those taken on a Digital SLR made spending the £5 necessary. The fact that we never saw any other security staff or got challenged at all made spending it rather unnecessary; so, my suggestion would be to take your chance until challenged.
It was a pleasant walk round the Monastery site with the Dormition Cathedral, Refectory Church and the Great Lavra Bell Tower dominating the upper part of the Monastery. The lower part is dominated by the Church of the Conception of St Anne & Church of the Elevation of the Cross. There are two sets of caves at the Monastery, referred to as the Near Caves & Far Caves. The entrance to either isn’t easily located; even with the signs. Women must wear a skirt, which is provided at the entrance as a wraparound skirt. Contrary to popular belief the need for candles in the caves isn’t necessary as they’re lit well enough and the puny candle you’ll buy for a few pence will make no difference whatsoever! The caves aren’t claustrophobic but are narrow and low. Off the main corridors are chambers containing mummified bodies, in which people take time to pray and pay their respects. It felt a little like we were intruding on them while they were deep in prayer so we only went into the Near Caves and gave the Far Caves a miss.
It took a couple of hours for us to amble from the Upper Lavra to the Lower and back again and it wasn’t very busy at all; so, we paid UAH50 to take a walk up the Great Lavra Bell Tower. The views from which are worth paying the £1.50 each to get up and braving the dizzying spiral stairs in the process. The Motherland Monument, a remnant of Soviet days, stands out well above the city and is very prominent when you’re almost looking down on it. It’s visible over the walls of the monastery but when you see it from the bell tower its size stands out. We really just couldn’t be bothered to take a walk round to it though and were content with having a gawp at it from up high, before taking a stroll back to Arsenalna Metro station and paying UAH4 to travel deep underground back to Universytet Metro station.
After a relaxing lunch in the Ibis Restaurant I headed out to the station to see what was on offer and by just after 1800 and we were soon checking out of the Ibis; which I’d already pre-paid for a late checkout. Of note though is that Accor Silver members can get a free late checkout, subject to availability on the day.
A final meal at the Spaghetti Restaurant has us stocked up on pizza before our overnight journey to Chernivtsi; where we were originally going to spend a night but due to a timetable change the train we needed to run had changed from even days to odd days, randomly, and the others towards L’viv didn’t run on the day we needed them. So, we were technically L’viv bound from the moment we left Kyiv, just in a roundabout way.
Train 117 2005 Kyiv – Chernivtsi runs via Hrechany. From Hrechany the train runs direct to Chernivtsi, passing through the north-eastern most part of Moldova in the process, where there are no border checks; probably as its quite remote? Our 1st Class 2-berth compartment was cosy and had two lower berth beds. There was even a small flat-screen TV in the compartment and places to charge phones. Towels, decent soft pillows and toiletries were provided and if you’ve booked it with you ticket so is tea/coffee, which can be purchased from the coach attendant for a nominal fee if need be anyway. Unfortunately, we were in an end compartment, right over the bogie, which is never too much fun. Thankfully earplugs and tiredness helped a little with that issue! I was awake at Hrechany but wasn’t allowed off the train to spot the locos so went back to bed, resigned to the fact I’d have to spot them at Chernivtsi in the morning.
Photos for Wednesday 12th April 2017
Kiev Monastery of the Caves
Thursday 13th April 2017 (A day in Chernivtsi before heading to L’viv)
There’s a left luggage place on the main platform at Chernivtsi, towards the south end of the station, and our big bags were left there for a nominal fee of about UAH20 if I remember correctly. It then took us ages to find the booking window to buy local tickets from and we almost walked round the whole perimeter of the station building, even after being told to buy them from ticket window No.9. We eventually found a separate booking office at the south end of the station, entry to which is via the platforms, and had no issues buying our tickets; even if I did have to show the woman behind the counter where I wanted to go on ME Maps. A morning of riding on local trains followed.
It was still morning when we got back into Chernivtsi and ME Maps then led the way towards the star attraction in the city, it’s University. What it didn’t show beforehand was that Chernivtsi is mostly on a hillside and it was a very steep walk to the University, which is seemingly on top of the hill! It’s an impressive old set of buildings though and worth a look at. Thankfully from there it was all downhill to the bright pink Cathedral of the Holy Spirit and even more downhill from there to the sky-blue building that is Chernivtsi City Hall; on the way to which we found ourselves a nice place to eat.
Tomat Gold Italian Restaurant wasn’t busy and had a nice relaxed atmosphere of a lunch time. The menus were in Ukrainian only but the waiter serving us spoke a little English. In the end, the Google Translate offline app sorted us out and we were able to order our food without help. The pizzas were good and I even chanced a piece of cheesecake afterwards, which well and truly beat me; it was huge!
A leisurely walk back to the station, which didn’t get rid of my cheesecake shaped gut, bags collected, we were soon L’viv bound and we were into L’viv right time on 116 1707 Chernivtsi – Kharkiv Pas.
Our hotel of choice in L’viv was the Taurus Hotel & Spa and ME Maps got us there in about 15 minutes. During the walk, we realised there was a shorter route to get there, via the back entrance to the station, over the works. When I’d changed our reservations on Booking.com and dismissed the Chernivtsi night’s stay, the website wouldn’t let me amend my booking at the Taurus so I just booked another separate night. When checking in I asked the girl at the reception if we could keep the same room for the duration of our stay; with having the two separate bookings. Surprisingly I was told no as the room types were different. The first night was apparently a suite and the following two nights were a different room category. When I asked if I could upgrade the room to allow us to keep it for the duration, I was told it was only possible for one night as there was no availability on the third night of our stay. Eventually we resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d have to change rooms the following morning but the girl couldn’t confirm our room would be ready for us in the morning, to allow our stuff to be relocated. It all seemed a little hard and we eventually went up to our suite to savour it for the one night only. It was the biggest room I’ve ever stayed in and the main room, with sofas, TV and massive lounge area was bigger than the bedroom itself. The bathroom was also huge and had an all mod-con shower system and if that wasn’t enough there was another mod-con shower above the large bath. We wanted for nothing, toiletries, even earplugs, bathrobes and slippers were all provided as part of the service. What I didn’t realise when we went to bed was that my reservation for the following two days was for a suite as I’d changed it when I’d booked the additional night so we’d have the same room for the duration of our stay. It turned out the following morning, that the girl checking us in had been looking at my cancelled reservation and not the current one! The daft cow……
Photos for Thursday 13th April 2017
Friday 14th April 2017 (L’viv – a visit to Lonsky Prison National Memorial Museum)
Not an early start and a relaxing-ish day planned really. It wasn’t until we’d packed our bags up, in preparedness to move rooms, that I realised we needn’t have and once the sensible staff at reception had confirmed it, our bags were unpacked again and we could savour the huge apartment style room we had. Breakfast in the Taurus was plentiful but not what I’d call satisfying. The breakfast theme was quite rightly eastern European themed and for us, despite the massive choice, there wasn’t a great deal to choose from. Randomly freshly cooked fish was placed next to some rather nice apple pancakes; which of course tasted like fish, so even they were a disaster. No toaster either! Plenty of tea later, we were back in our room, preparing to head out.
The weather wasn’t great and our hatched plan for the day would have us visiting the Lonsky Prison National Memorial Museum and then heading further afield to try and find the L’viv Children’s Railway. L’viv railway station is a 15-minute walk from the Taurus, in the opposite direction to the old town, which is a good 20-minute walk itself. While there are trams and buses all over the place, it’s good to walk; so we did. On the way to Lonsky Prison we passed by St. George’s Cathedral and during the walk it tried to rain on and off so we were pleased to be spending some time indoors when we got to the Prison.
Lonsky Prison isn’t signposted at all and only a small sign outside the rather unconvincing entrance gives it away. If using ME Maps its well position and you’ll have no problem walking right up to the front door. Don’t be put off by the fact its closed though. Opening times are clearly shown outside the front door, 1000-1900 Weekdays and 1000-1700 weekends (I think). There’s no charge to get in but the guy manning the front desk would have you think he was a prisoner there judging by his attitude. We were the only people inside during the whole of our visit and the two women minding the place, even though they spoke no English, we nice and accommodating.
Obviously, only parts of the prison are open but you get a good idea of what conditions people had to endure while they were in the prison. The reason it’s a memorial is because of the mass-murders that took place when the Nazi’s entered the Ukraine and it wasn’t the Nazi’s that did the killing! From 23rd June 1941, the start of the German / Soviet war, the Soviet NKVD were unable to evacuate prisoners so they began a mass execution of them instead. Between 23rd & 28th June approx. 4000 prisoners were killed in L’viv, 1681 of them in Lonsky Prison. This included those that had been sentenced to labour camps and even those scheduled to be released.
Bodies of some of the dead were buried in 3 mass graves in the outer prison yard, with other just being left in cells. Once German rule was established, on 30th June & 1st July 1941, bodies were exhumed and relatives of those murdered were allowed access to the prison to identify their loved ones. Jews living in L’viv were forced to carry the bodies of the dead to the courtyard. After identification, most of the victims were buried in a common grave at plot 83 in the Lychakiv Cemetery and 92 others were buried in ploy 55 at Yaniv Cemetery. All this detail is explained in the handy booklet that is in both English & Ukrainian, available as you walk in the door; and can be carried round the prison with you so you know what you’re looking at.
The prison museum gives a very sobering insight into what happened when the Nazi’s basically walked straight through the Ukraine on their way to Moscow. There are quite a lot of very graphic pictures and in a second-floor gallery there are a lot of artefacts from the war and periods leading up to it, all in chronological order; including Nazi coins, which have unfortunately had holes drilled in them to be mounted on the walls. All-in-all it was a very informative place to visit and the way the museum is set out you get a very real feel for how the poor souls that perished suffered. I highly recommend a visit as it puts a lot of things in perspective. And for me this turned out to be the highlight of our trip in L’viv.
Back out in the fresh air it took us a good 45 minutes to walk through Stryiskyi Park, which is a bit of an up and down affair, to find the Children’s Railway Depot at the far side of it. The Children’s Railways don’t usually start running until May but I thought it might operate over the Easter Weekend; I was wrong. A rake of coaches was in the platform, all locked up, the ticket booth was completely empty but for a table and the only loco we could see was TU3-039; safely tucked up in the shed. It was a long walk back from there, via a nearby hotel to utilise their toilet as every public toilet we’d seen had been closed!
Stryiskyi Park itself was home to a lot of red squirrels, and rather tame ones at that. One woman almost got one right up to her feet by simply clicking two things together; which a greedy squirrel obviously thinks is food? By the time we’d walked back to the hotel it was raining so we stayed there for lunch, instead of heading to the old town, then it was an afternoon trip to Khodoriv and back.
The back way from the Taurus to L’viv station took us over a footbridge that overlooks the L’viv electric works. The stock for our 606 1545 L’viv – Rakhiv was in the adjacent platform and a very red liveried 2M62K-1163b/a were soon basking in the sun as they waited to depart with it. It was a pleasant 75 minute’s journey to Khodoriv on an un-wedged train. On the way, the ruins of Stare Selo Castle can be seen on the right-hand side. Unfortunately, I failed miserably to get a photo and I’m afraid to say that the ruins are not protected at all and will eventually give way to the elements I’d say. It’s quite a big site as you pass by and probably worth a run out on a local train if you. Stare Selo railway station is adjacent to the ruins for simple access the moment you step off the train.
At Khodoriv it was all go after we got off the train, with local trains arriving and departing and the red 2M62 couldn’t depart until something else had arrived. We killed an hour in the waiting area in the booking hall and had to make sure we were on the right platform when our train back to L’viv was arriving as there was a southbound train in at the same time and it’s very easy to get bowled if one prevents you from getting to the other! Of course, we couldn’t understand the announcements but having watched others walk onto the platform and keep an eye out for a train coming from the south we were confident we were in the right place. 144 1351 Vorokhta – Kyiv Pass arrived first and then had to wait for a late running 608 1720 L’viv – Chernivtsi, before being able to continue north. On paper, it’s a plus off 608 onto 144 at Khodoriv but 144 was on the move before 608 came to a stand; and it well and truly missed.
It was a decent, uneventful journey back to L’viv and from the station we walked down to towards the old town, which took about 30 minutes. We’d picked the Da Vinci Italian Restaurant to eat at, which is right by the L’viv Opera House. It wasn’t busy and service was a bit hit & miss. The food was ok but nothing special. Still, we enjoyed it and were suitably stuffed as we walked back to the Taurus Hotel. Where we enjoyed a minute relaxing in our huge room, where all the shower caps had been replaced in the room but not the earplugs…….
Photos for Friday 14th April 2017
Saturday 15th April 2017 (A day riding on trains to Truskavets & then Khodoriv)
It was another late breakfast but the karma was spoiled by a very rowdy crew that came in singing happy birthday, at the top of their voices, to some poor girl they mobbed by the breakfast service. It was bordering on ridiculous and thankfully they were ushered towards the bottom end of the breakfast room, as far away from us as possible. The apple pancakes were a little better than the previous morning but were still right next to the fish!
Ironically, now we weren’t walking all over town, the weather was a lot better than it had been the previous night and the sun was shining as we walked to the station. 605 0022 Rakhiv – L’viv arrived when we got there and moments later 41 1430 (P) Dnipropetrovsk – Truskavets followed suit; our train for the morning jaunt. The loco immediately shunted the car carrier off the front of the load 20 train, and before it had dropped it into the adjacent platform a fresh loco had dropped onto the train to work forward to Truskavets. While we sat on board train 41, waiting to depart, another loco brought the stock in for 74 0940 L’viv – Moscow then shunted 3 through coaches off 608 0028 Chernivtsi – L’viv, which are attached at Ivano Frankivsk, onto it; all the doors of which had been open in the platform when I’d walked by.
The journey to Truskavets was harmless and quite pleasant. At Drohobych our loco ran around the train, which was that long that ¾ of it was outside the platform limits; this didn’t stop people getting off for a quick smoke though. Quite a few got off a Drohobych anyway and the train was pretty empty for the final 20 minutes of its journey to Truskavets. Where it arrived bang on time. Truskavets station only has one platform and a loop so the loco arriving on train 41 can’t run around as the set off 49 Kyiv – Truskavets occupies the opposite road; hence the loco that works in on 49 Kyiv – Truskavets works back out with 42 Truskavets – Dnipropetrovsk and the loco arriving off 41 Dnipropetrovsk – Truskavets works back out with 50 Truskavets – Kyiv of an evening.
With 1h45m to kill before 42 1256 Truskavets – Dnipropetrovsk took us back to L’viv we walked the short distance to the Hotel Dvoryk Leva, visible straight down the approach road to the station, and had lunch there. As it was a little early for lunch we were the only people in the restaurant but the food was good, as well as nice and cheap. Back at the station, our train basked in the afternoon sunshine as it waited to depart. The station area was quite busy with people boarding and luckily, we were in a different coach going back to L’viv so didn’t have to explain to the attendant why we’d only been in Truskavets for a short period. The attendant in our coach was clearly up to no good after we boarded and I eventually spotted him trying, very badly, to hide a crate of beer as he stashed it into his compartment at the end of the coach. 2h15m later at L’viv, there were beers missing out of the crate and our attendant stank of beer; safe to guess where that went! And he wasn’t the only one that stank of beer that day! Having experienced UZ trains I can honestly say that the female attendants are a lot better than their male counterparts.
With only a short time back at L’viv snacks were purchased from one of the many kiosks outside the station and we were soon Khodoriv bound on 606 1545 L’viv – Rakhiv again. Our wait in the booking office didn’t fly by as quickly as it had done the previous day. 144 1351 Vorokhta – Kyiv arrived before 608 1720 L’viv – Chernivtsi; and for the second day in a row the plus from 608 to 144 missed as 144 was on the move before 608 came to a stand.
As it was the eve of Easter Sunday we chose to head to the Da Vinci Italian Restaurant to eat at again; knowing it was open. On the way there we passed hundreds of people with covered baskets; obviously a Ukrainian tradition. Which we later figured out that the baskets contained food stuffs that the families had given up for lent, which would be blessed by a priest and the contents eaten after mass on Easter Sunday. We managed to witness some basket blessing outside one of the churches en-route to the old town. The locals were all lined up outside the church doors, their baskets placed on the floor in front of them, with the priest walking round blessing them by spraying holy water over their baskets. Once this was completed everyone followed the priest into the church.
Food at the Da Vinci was so, so and the service, compared with the previous night was a bit poor. Based on this we decided we wouldn’t be bothering with the place again and would find somewhere else to eat the following day. On our way back to the hotel we walked round the back of St George’s Cathedral, which was well lit up of a night. Unfortunately, it’s not lit at the base inside the main gates; where again hordes of people waiting in the courtyard, baskets laid out on the floor, waiting for the priest to bless their food. Whether the lights weren’t on in the courtyard for that reason, I don’t know, as we never ventured round the back again at night.
It had been a long day, not featuring much touristy stuff at all but it had been a decent one nonetheless. Our large hotel room back at the Taurus was a welcome sight though.
Photos for Saturday 15th April 2017
L’viv at night
Sunday 16th April 2017 (A day in the old town at L’viv before heading to Kyiv overnight)
After a quick breakfast at the hotel our day started with a walk down toward the old town. We’d originally thought about visiting Lychakiv Cemetery but the fact that it was Easter Sunday, coupled with the fact that the trams weren’t currently running to the end of the line near the cemetery, we decided to have an easier day in the old town instead. It didn’t take us long to do the rounds in the compact old town, where virtually nothing is photographable properly due to how clustered some parts of it are. It’s still an interesting place to walk round and it was very busy, I’m guessing due to the fact it was Easter Sunday and locals were enjoying their holiday weekend as well. There are plenty of sight-seeing opportunities and at one point there were no less than 3 wally-trolleys (road-trains) in Rynok Square vying for business. There were plenty of tour groups being rushed about as well, some so quickly that they barely had time to point their cameras at whatever they were visiting, and definitely didn’t have time to listen and photograph things as well!
After we walked round, the way we wanted, at the speed we wanted and taking photos of what we wanted as we saw fit, we came across a Celentano Pizza Restaurant, which was huge inside and quite busy. When we’d finish our very good pizzas we left wishing we’d discovered it before we’d wasted our time with the Da Vinci. The service, food and ambience were all a lot nicer and the fact that it was a big place gave a more spacious feel to the surroundings. There are a few Celentano’s in L’viv, both restaurants and takeaways, and if they were all as good as this one, just off Rynok Square, then I’d say you can’t go wrong with them.
It had turned into a nice afternoon as we walked back towards the hotel and St Georges Cathedral looks cracking with the sun gleaming on it, with a cloud studded sky above it. Plenty of people were in and out of the ground as we gaped at it, with one young kid getting most of our attention as he dissed his parents and sat in a strop on the wall by the monument outside. Having been marched to the car once, he’d then run away and done the kid thing of throwing his arms in the air type strop before being defiant and turning his back on his parents as they beckoned him over. Needless to say, the outcome didn’t go in his favour and kick & scream as he did, while being carried horizontally by his father under one arm, he was soon kicking and screaming in the back of the car on his way home; and no doubt there’d be no PlayStation for him that afternoon!
Back at the hotel, where we’d already checked out when we’d departed earlier, our bags were collected from the left luggage room and we were soon on our way towards the station, via the Church of St Olha & Elizabeth; which I’d not managed to get a photograph of until this point. The station front to L’viv station is also quite photogenic and worth wasting a couple of minutes of your time on.
Back to business, our set for 606 1545 L’viv – Kharkiv was in the station when we got there, with no locos attached and they only backed on 5 minutes before departure time but 606 1545 L’viv – Kharkiv still got away on time. The train was pleasant and the journey relaxing to Khodoriv, where the usual mad rush of units occurred when we got there. On the way into Khodoriv I’d spotted a golden domed church and left Danielle in the booking office, relaxing, while I took a brisk walk in the direction I’d seen it. Having done a bit of research when I got back, as it wasn’t on ME Maps, my 10-minute dash had led me to the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian (which I could only translate from Ukrainian as there was no listing in English for it at all). It was worth the walk and by the time I got back there wasn’t much time to wait at all. For the third day in a row 144 1351 Vorokhta – Kyiv Pasazyrski arrived into Khodoriv first and inevitably had to wait for the late running 608 1720 Lviv – Chernivtsi; which didn’t make 144 for the third day in a row! Definitely not a small plus you want to be risking without a backup is that!
With a bit of time to kill before our overnight to Kyiv we didn’t want to walk far for food and settled for one of the fast-food type places on the main station approach. Buzzini, which is a pasta place more than anything else, was pretty empty but for people wasting time and sponging off the free WiFi. The menus were in English & Ukrainian but the staff didn’t speak any English at all. Payment could be made by card though so the amount of speaking was pretty much limited to grunts, in reaction to questions that warranted a yes or no answer; or so I assumed! The food was piping hot, freshly prepared, very tasty and nice and check; it was a winner all round.
L’viv station front if as impressive during darkness as it is during the day with the sun shining on it; and even more worth a minute of your time if you so wish to point your camera at it. The station wasn’t busy at all, despite the amount of impending departures. Our 2-berth compartment on board 142 2151 Lviv – Kyiv Pas. was thankfully in the middle of the coach this time and there was no bogie noise or rough riding. Our journey was only broken by the fact we’d drank too much before boarding and then chose to entertain the coach ada’s offer of more tea! It was a lot better night’s sleep than we’d had on our previous overnight though.
Photos for Sunday 16th April 2017
L’viv Old Town
Monday 17th April 2017 (Another day in Kiev)
I was up and about as we approached Korosten for the engine change which was all very efficient and I was allowed off while it took place. On arrival into Kiev we wasted no time in heading for the Ibis Kiev City Centre and were soon checked into our room, well before the 1200 check-in time. I’d realised after our last visit that as a Silver Accor member I qualified for late check-out free of charge, subject to availability and didn’t hesitate to ask; and my request was of course granted. As it was a rather nice day outside, we didn’t hang around at the hotel long.
Our plan, having visited Chernobyl already, was to head to the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev and we took a stroll towards it, a walk that was about 4km in the end. As we got to St Sophia’s Cathedral we soon noticed that the main square in front of it, where the host of painted eggs were displayed, was absolutely crammed solid with people. Easter Monday bring people out to celebrate it seemed. As the weather was good we queued for 5 minutes or so to get tickets to go up the bell tower of St Sophia’s Cathedral, paid our UAH40 each and were soon admiring the views down below, from up high. The elevated view really did give a clue as to how busy the square was and the hoards extended right the way to St Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery. As we walked towards that, still on our way to the Chernobyl Museum, we walked by loads of stalls selling freshly cooked meat, veg, pizza and a whole host of other niceties; it reminded me of the Christmas Market in Budapest but with food I actually liked the look of. We joined in with the crowds and stopped for a bite. With the turnover being so quick some stalls were struggling to keep up with demand.
Our route got a lot easier when we headed downhill from St Andrew’s Church towards the Chernobyl Museum in the lower part of Kyiv. It was a pleasant area “down below” yet I got the impression, from the graffiti on the buildings as we walked down the windy hill, that it wasn’t a place to be hanging around in late at night. The Chernobyl Museum is a strange place, out on a limb and nowhere near the main tourist area. It cost UAH10 to get in and cameras aren’t allowed. Bags must be stored in a cloak room type place and the guy there is like the keeper of the realm or something, as well as the guardian of the toilets; which were a welcome sight! There’s a hell of a lot of information in the museum about the Chernobyl disaster, along with documents, shrines and even a radiation testing machine, exactly the same as the ones at the exclusion zone checkpoints, but nothing is in any other language other than Ukrainian. Audio tours are available but when we entered we weren’t offered them and only discovered they were available when we saw others with them upstairs in the main exhibition area. The display of how the disaster unfolded at the power plant was the best part of the exhibition for me, probably as it was visual and didn’t need any interaction. There are pictures of school kids up all over the walls, representing their class prior to the disaster and I left wondering how many, if any of those kids kept in touch after they were relocated. Unfortunately, I found the museum a big disappointment. Would it have been had we not already been to Chernobyl? I’m not sure, but do make your own mind up by visiting as they’ve taken a lot of time to put the museum together and there are a lot of interesting things on display; unfortunately, I don’t know what most are.
Walking back along the flat in the Podil area, we decided to get the Kyiv Funicular back up the hill; until we saw the queues. It was queuing out of the door and almost into the metro entrance, so the metro it was from Poshtova Ploshcha to Universytet, changing at Kreshchatyk on the way, form line 1 to line 2. The efficiency of the Kiev Metro and just how cheap it is, is a breath of fresh air compared the farce that some metros around the world bring. Ibis restaurants are also proving to be a breath of fresh air as well and the one at our hotel was more than a welcome place to sit when we got back; having hardly eaten all day!
Food that evening was sought at a bit of a strange Chinese restaurant, Du Long, which is set back from the main road, through a small alley, on the opposite side of the carriageway to the Ibis, almost directly opposite it. We clocked the signs that said no card payments are accepted as we headed up stairs. I chose to ignore this anyway and order our food, before I counted my money and realised I didn’t have enough! While the menus are in English, there is very little English spoken among the staff. The place was well frequented by mostly Chinese folk, the food was very good and for a reasonable price too. Needless to say, when I attempted to pay with my card I was directed towards the signs I’d already ignored and ended up having to walk outside to get some cash; which wasn’t that much of a hassle really; but be forewarned if you’re running low on funds. Still worth a visit though.
I’d been itching to have a walk round Kyiv of a night to get photos of everything we’d seen during the day, as everything seemed well lit at night. So, after dinner had settled I went out on a blitz trip round Kyiv, which took me as far as St Andrew’s Church and back. Things had quieted down considerably and the main tourist area had become more of a ghost town, which I wasn’t complaining about. The stalls had all but closed too and were selling off the dregs of their mass cooking sessions. As it was a holiday, the area in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was almost devoid of cars, which made for better photos than on a normal day. While I was on a blitz walk, it did take me about 90 minutes, at a fast pace, to get around the places I wanted to get photos of but I was back at the Ibis by 10 o’clock, relaxing with a cuppa in our large comfort room; plotting what we were going to do the following morning before heading back into Poland later in the day.
Photos for Monday 17th April 2017
Tuesday 18th April 2017 (Final day in Kiev before heading overnight to Warsaw)
As it was our last day, there was nothing strenuous about it at all. We didn’t get up early, as there was no need, and had a leisurely breakfast. Safe in the knowledge that our room was available until 1600 that afternoon, thanks to my silver status with my Accor membership, we took a steady walk to Independence Square; which was about the only place in Kiev we’d not visited during our two stints there.
Other than the Independence Monument rising above it and the International Center of Culture & Arts overlooking it, there isn’t a great deal to see in Independence Square. Though standing above it, overlooking the very place at the 2014 demonstrations came to a head, does actually give quite a perspective and we found ourselves searching the internet, there and then, to see what it looked like when all hell was breaking loose. It resembled a war zone and with the sheer amount of people crammed into the square it really is surprising there weren’t more casualties, mainly through confusion and calamity. Evidence of the night’s events can still be seen with the main Trade Union Building being completely covered over, so the extent of the damage cause when it was set on fire can’t be seen. There are also memorials to those that perished in the fire and surrounding chaos. It was more of an educational visit than a sightseeing one in the end and we were still sifting through the gen on the internet when we got back to the hotel for a spot of lunch.
Having had a final meal in Kiev we were checked out of the Ibis with plenty of time to spare and as there are plenty of money changing facilities at Kyiv Pas. I used the opportunity to get some of my Ukrainian money change into Belarusian for a future trip. In the end though, I needn’t have bothered as someone else had just been when I got back home and I ended up with all their remaining Belarusian money to boot! It’s worth noting though and I used the one in the ticket hall on the left-hand side as you come down the escalator in the main foyer of the station; no English was spoken though.
Our stock for 67 1730 Kyiv Pas – Warszawa Zachodnia was in the station in good time and the three-coach train was loading up while the shunt loco remained attached to it. Our two-berth compartment, which was really a three-berth compartment with the middle bed folder away, was in the middle of the coach, thankfully, and not over the bogies. The attendant in our coach seemed to speak a little English, which was a bonus, and the train loco was dropped on only 10 minutes before departure. On this occasion, we were in the leading coach, which would prove very helpful when loco changes occurred en-route and when the train was being shunted in/out of the gauge changer at Jagodin. Randomly the window labels on the train were still from the older route, from when the train used to run Kovel – Korosten – Kyiv, via the diesel route.
The run out towards Kovel was nondescript but quite relaxing for us. Unfortunately, the Kyiv – Warszawa is not a train to do if you want a good night’s sleep as the fun only begins when you want to go to bed! At Kovel, where I wasn’t allowed off the train as it’s not a booked stop anymore, I was able to watch the loco change through the front window of our coach though then retired; for the 59km journey to Jagodin. Between those two points we’d just about managed to drift off to sleep for a bit, before the coach attendant came knocking on the door to have everyone up for the border checks and passport control. We were propelled into the gauge changing shed, where a raft of border checks was done while the train was having its wheelsets changed. While there was a clunking of spanners from time to time in the shed, there was still time for dozing a little, when we were allowed our berth doors closed. It was about an hour before I heard the tooting of a horn at the PKP end of the shed and I seized my opportunity when the border staff made their way from the front vestibule to the back one and braved getting a telling as I opened the vestibule door to watch the loco drop onto the train. Luckily, I timed it just right to watch it come into view, before being asked to return to my compartment by the English-speaking coach attendant. Once in the station the border staff came through with our passports, handed them out and disappeared back to their hideout. Our PKP loco was dropped on for the run to Chelm. It had been visible on the PKP side of the station the moment we arrived in from Kovel, and was sat waiting to drop on when we were deposited back in the platforms. There was no point attempting to get to bed again until after Dorohusk, on the Polish side of the border, and those that had shut their compartment doors were only being knocked up again a few minutes after departing Jagodin; it’s only a 7km to between the two points. Luckily for us the Polish border staff joined the train in our coach and we were among the first to be processed into Poland. There were a couple of questions from the staff regarding our bags and once they were happy we were allowed to close the door and eventually get to bed. At least it was a 5-hour run to Warszawa…….
Photos for Tuesday 18th April 2017
Kiev Independence Square
Wednesday 19th April 2017 (A morning in Warsaw before heading to Krakow)
When we dragged our asses out of our berths, for our impending arrival into Warsaw, ME Maps showed that we weren’t quite there and I soon realised we weren’t quite on the right track either. Instead of running directly from Pilawa towards Warszawa we were diverted via Wrzosow. There was obviously something amiss as the PKP train crew systematically went through the train telling everyone that we’d be approx. 30 minutes late into Warsaw; and that’s exactly how late we were at Warszawa Centralna. I had to run to the front to find PKP EP07-233 at the head of the train; having shunted the PKP domestic coaches on at Chelm, replacing the Cargo SM48. It didn’t look to be a good morning for PKP IC, looking at the arrival/departure screens, with some trains being 120’ late. We didn’t realise at that point that we’d be caught up in the fiasco later, but for now we were blissfully unaware that the central belt in Poland had suffered a massive snow storm that had brought rail services to a virtual standstill in some places. Which was hard to imagine with the sun shining in Warsaw!
We were booked on the 1445 from Warsaw to Krakow and had a morning to kill, so having left our big bags in a locker at Centralna station, we walked the 3km to Warsaw old town; looking forward to seeing Warsaw Royal Castle. What a massive disappointment it was too. Looking at it externally it wasn’t worthy of the title Royal, let alone Castle. The old town surrounding it was quite pleasant though and it was worth the walk just to spend a little time moseying around it. There were a lot of tour groups about and there were also wally trolleys about doing tours of the city. Our time was cut short in the old town by the fact the weather started to turn and we didn’t want to get soaked on the way back to the station. Pizza Restaurant Mamma Mia, which we’d used earlier in the trip, was an obvious stop-off on the way back to the station and a couple of good pizzas were served up before we headed back to the station to collect our bags.
It soon became evident that we would be in for a delayed journey to Krakow, especially as trains coming from that direction were up to 90’ late and by the time we left Warszawa Centralna on TLK83100 0719 Kolobrzeg – Krakow Głowny the train was already 30’+ late. We had 1st class tickets, mainly as the price difference from 2nd to 1st isn’t massive but there was a group of English guys in an adjacent compo that spent the whole journey drinking and talking, loudly, amongst themselves; which spoilt the karma of the journey somewhat. We were making good progress south, until the reason for all the delays was soon upon us and we began to fester around for 20 minutes at a time. The snowfall itself, at the deepest point, looked to have been around 6 inches and I could see why things had gone down the pan earlier. That said though, the railway was now clear of snow and the sun was out, so I couldn’t understand we were waiting around for periods of time. The result of it being a 1h15m late arrival into Krakow Głowny. I’d discovered on the internet en-route that PKP even did delay replay but it wasn’t as simple as applying for it back in the UK and there was only an entitlement of 25% of the fare back, even for hefty delays. I didn’t bother in the end!
We hadn’t discovered the short cut to the Ibis Krakow Stare Miasto, which isn’t in the old town at all, last time we’d stayed but if you use the subway at the Ibis end of the station, the footsteps come up right in front of it and it cuts out walking through the shopping centre out front and then right along the front of it. We’d checked in online through my Accor account and the keys were soon handed over when we walked up to the front desk. Our room was spotless, not too spacious but did have tea/coffee making facilities; it was typically Ibis and worth what we’d paid for it. Having not eaten for a while the Ibis restaurant was a welcome sight and the food rustled up in the open kitchen was very nice. As we were up early in the morning for our 2nd attempt, in as many years, at Auschwitz, we didn’t stay up late and spent some time making sure we were properly equipped and didn’t take more than we needed; the rules for entering the site are quite strict about what you can take in and how big bags can be on site. As breakfast wasn’t started in the hotel until after 0600 we had to give a time that we required the early-breakfast and it would be laid out for us when we got down at our given time of 0530!
Photos for Wednesday 19th April 2017
Thursday 20th April 2017 (Auschwitz & Birkenau II)
After being let into the breakfast room at 0530, some fresh bits n bobs were laid out especially for us and while we picked through what we wanted the chef continued making up the breakfast room around us, for its opening at 0600; by which time we were walking to the station. Most people visit Auschwitz on a guided or combined tour from Krakow but it’s equally as easy to do on your own, using public transport from Krakow. During the peak season from April to October individuals aren’t allowed to enter the Auschwitz site after 1000 and can only enter as part of a group. While its free to enter the site, tickets for the group visits do cost to gain entry. We booked an individual entry to the site at 0940, which you still need a ticket for but it’s free to get on the Auschwitz website; just like booking entry with a guide but costs you nothing at checkout. To get to Oswiecim, which is a 10-minute walk from the main entrance to Auschwitz, we had to be on the 0635 local train from Krakow Głowny, which arrived Oswiecim at 0839. Tickets were purchased on the morning, from one of the many ticket windows in the booking office at Krakow Głowny and were 9 Zloty each. I’d already got our tickets for the return journey from Warsaw the previous day, which was on TLK115 Praha – Krakow IC train and these were only 21 Zloty each.
Unlike our previous trip out to Oswiecim, which had been a waste of time, the EMU out was virtually empty and there appeared to be a lot of engineering works taking place at different locations along the route; mostly track doubling by the look of it. The timings had been padded out since the timetable change though and we were a couple of minutes early into Oswiecim. To get to the main entrance to Auschwitz, exit the station, turn right and follow the road to the roundabout, turn left there and the museum entrance is on the left-hand side as you walk down the road. To get to the Birkenau site, turn right at the roundabout and follow the road over the railway, which leads right to the front gate. It is equidistant from Oswiecim station to either site and there are free buses running all day between the two. As we were walking to the Auschwitz site we were treated to a bit of a sight ourselves; which neither of us could believe we were seeing! There are some old railway tracks down the side of the road that leads to Auschwitz, from back in the day, which turn off right part way down. There was a little old lady looking a bit shady as she wandered down the spur towards us. Then we realised why as she pulls up her skirt, pulls down her bloomers and squatted for a wiz; where she obviously thought nobody could see. Well, little old lady, let me tell you, you were wrong!
Still not quite believing what we just witnessed, it soon went out of our mind as we entered the main car park area for Auschwitz and watched all the morning tour buses begin to form a line. The entrance to the museum seemed a lot quieter than it had been last time we’d attempted to get in but we were still asked to wait until bang on our booked slot time by the friendly security staff. As we did we watched quite a few people get turned back to put their bags either back on their tour bus or in the left luggage room as the size limit is very strict when entering the museum; however, this only applies at the Auschwitz site. This is what caused us all the grief on our previous visit but we were prepared on this occasion and when we were let into the security area it couldn’t have been more different that our previous visit. The staff were friendly and cheerful, our stuff, especially my big camera, was treated with respect and we were put through the airline-type security in no time at all, with the minimum of fuss. From this point, we were on our own, and while it’s not immediately evident how to get out of the security area into the courtyard and onto the site, we found it eventually and had to use our tickets to gain entry/exit, depending on how you view the situation.
We bought a very good and recommended guide book before we entered and in it there’s a suggested route for individuals to take round the site, which is clearly marked out and well signed in it. The cost might seem a little steep at €15 but it was well worth it and gave insight at every location around the suggested route, including in Birkenau; although Birkenau doesn’t have a suggested route in the guide but does have a lot more signage to tell you where you are and more about the site. It wasn’t too busy as we entered the main gate to Auschwitz, with its “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“work makes you free”) sign above it. It was very easy to negotiate our way round the site with our guide book and while there were quite a few tour groups about at the time, there were sufficient gaps between them, as they were rushed round, to not get caught up and to give ourselves the time we wanted to take everything in. It took us about 90 minutes, at a very steady pace, to get around the site. This included looking round all the recommended buildings and their displays. The amount of information, let alone information you glean from photos, is phenomenal, very sobering and absolutely astounding at the same time. We all know what happened at Auschwitz but taking the time to understand what happened, for me, can only be done with a visit to Auschwitz. I’m not a big reader, never have been, and I learnt more in 90 minutes walking round the site, than I had done in my 41 years on the planet. They say seeing is believing and that statement is very true. I’m not even going to attempt to describe Auschwitz, or what’s within it but I will say it is a must see memorial site to put things in perspective. At that point, we’d only visited the Auschwitz site too, and weren’t prepared for just how different the two sites are and were during the time of their use.
The Auschwitz site is well maintained and wholly intact but Auschwitz II – Birkenau is not. The free buses between the two sites are well signed within the Auschwitz I site and outside the Auschwitz II – Birkenau site and the journey between the two only takes 5 minutes. When approaching the Birkenau site, you approach almost as the prisoners being transported by train would have done; approaching the main front gate. Access to the Birkenau site has no controlled entry and other than the main entry point at the front there are numerous gate entry point around the perimeter as well. Not quite knowing how to go about our walk round the site, we opted to just walk round the periphery and that covered everything in one fell swoop; albeit in a 4km fell swoop! The sheer size of the Birkenau site can’t be appreciated until you’ve walked round its edges and then there were plans to expand the site as well, which were never completed. Unlike the Auschwitz site, the Nazi’s attempted to destroy as much as they could of the Birkenau site before fleeing. Quite a lot of what remains is brickwork that didn’t burn during their attempts and across the whole site the eerie chimneys, lots of them, dominate the eyeline. These are the remains of each housing block and probably give a lot better picture of the scale of the place that you’d get if the buildings remained in situ.
The Birkenau site gives a lot more insight into how people were treated during their time in the camp and from arriving by train the selection process split people into groups, basically those capable of work and those not. Those capable were marched one way from the train platforms, those not were marched straight through the camp and led directly to the gas chambers. Standing in the trees, where people waited for they thought was a shower, looking at the photos displayed there is haunting. Despite what they were going through, people sat in the shade of the trees, children playing, smiling; completely unaware that they were yards away from certain death! Even their ashes are still around as a stark reminder of what happened as when the Nazi’s couldn’t dispose of them quickly enough bodies were often burnt out in the open and their ashes scattered around the surrounding area. Unbelievable is a word used by many to describe the horrors of Auschwitz, trust me, when you’ve been its very believable. The gas chambers & crematoria at Birkenau were destroyed by the Nazi’s as part of their plan to cover up what they’d been doing.
The conditions people lived in, what they went through every day, the experiments carried out on people by the Nazi’s and what they had people do during their time at the camps is only comprehensible once you’ve been to Auschwitz, seen the scale of the place, looked at the photos on site and read everything you can that’s put up around the site. As horrible as this may sound, as sickening as the place may have been and as wrong as its existence ever was, it is morbidly fascinating as the mind simply struggles to comprehend how the place ever came to be in the first place. And for me, I left, struggling to understand two things, why no group of people had put up a stance to bring the place to its knees; after all there were 60,000 people there at one point. And secondly why the rest of the world didn’t do something about it, knowing what its very existence was there for. After all, there were US bombing raids on nearby factories and some of the bombs strayed into the Birkenau site by accident. Would killing 10’s of thousands have actually been wrong at the time to save the lives of 100’s of thousands? Would it?
As we exited the site, having seen every bit it had to offer and having taken more in than I ever would reading a book, I still left with unanswered hypothetical questions; which played on my mind a little and still do as I write this. Possibly as I can’t comprehend what went off, why it happened and why nobody stopped it. Did the fact that Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss was hung on site at Auschwitz 1 give any satisfaction at all to those that had survived the camps’ confines? I doubt it, but at least the last thing he saw was the place where he’d sentenced so many others to death. The walk back towards Oswiecim station at least gave us time to reflect on where we’d been, what we’d seen and there’s nothing like talking about these things to try and give the mind some satisfaction. I hear a lot of people say they will never visit Auschwitz as it’s too upsetting for them. For me, as upsetting as the situation may have been, the intrigue I had before arriving was cured and replaced with frustration, frustration for those that needlessly lost their lives and were seemingly powerless to do something about it. As a lot of slogans on memorials for Auschwitz say, “Never Again”, did the human race learn from this, will it be “never again”? Only time will tell, but you’d like to think it will never happen again. In historical terms though, Auschwitz is only yesterday; let’s hope that day never occurs again…..
I have to mention that during the day tour groups we saw were generally marched around both sites at a pace, which unless you were constantly listening to your guide, would never have been an enjoyable experience for me. From what I witnessed groups also don’t get shown round the whole Birkenau site as we saw hardly anyone around its periphery and noted that all groups seemed to be marched straight down the middle of the site to the memorial and crematoriums, then back out the same way. Trust me when I say this doesn’t give you anywhere near as much of a tour as you’d get on your own. Furthermore, when we were in the crematorium at Auschwitz I there was a small group there, with their guide, who despite the big signs everywhere asking for silence, spoke to her group through their earphone system the whole time they were in there. This kind utter disrespect should be stamped out immediately. Not only is it disrespectful to those that lost their lives there, its disrespectful to others around who are respecting the rules and where they are. Those who know me, know I don’t tolerate wankers and it was very, very hard not to say something but I didn’t out of respect; she would have got both barrels had I seen her outside but luckily for her I didn’t!
Approaching the road bridge that goes over the end of the station I noticed a coal train approaching and ran like a muppet to get a crap photo of DB Cargo 66227 heading towards Krakow with said coal train. There was a local EMU to Krakow shortly before our TLK115 1022 Praha Hlavni Nadrazi – Krakow Głowny and everyone waiting went on that. There was only one other person, other than us, that boarded TLK115 at Oswiecim which departed Oswiecim on time with three virtually empty CD coaches in tow. On the way out to Oswiecim I was kept busy licking the windows spotting trains, virtually the whole time. To the unknowing eye, I must have looked a bit strange flitting about the place; even more strange than usual!
Back at Krakow, where we arrived just after 1800, our long day had tired our minds. Unfortunately, when we got back to the hotel the whole of the Ibis restaurant was reserved for a group booking but we were allowed to have room service instead; which the girl in the restaurant brought up for us both times we ordered. We’d had a very good two weeks away and had visited two of the most fascinating places in Europe in Chernobyl & Auschwitz. Both were as haunting as each other for very different reasons. But as with all good holidays, they have to come to an end and we were very reluctantly packing our bags after we’d polished off our food! Home time was nigh.
Photos for Thursday 20th April 2017
Auschwitz II – Birkenau
Friday 21st April 2017 (Home from Krakow to Doncaster via Heathrow)
Our BA flight home wasn’t until 1420 and we’d checked in the previous day online and downloaded boarding passes to our BA phone app. With not much time to spare and not wanting to get up early to rush round the old town, we just didn’t bother and had a relaxing leisurely breakfast instead. I nipped out to the station to see what was going off and bought our train tickets to the Airport to save queuing when we set off. The tickets cost 9 Zloty each. When we departed we were airport bound on a shiny SKM EMU.
I’d never flown from Krakow Airport before and was pleasantly surprised by how efficiently run it seemed to be. There were no hassles getting through security and immigration but there is a lack of food places airside. The whole experience from entering Krakow Airport, right through to leaving Heathrow was pleasant and we made very good time on our way into London, so as we were booked on the 2005 Kings Cross – Leeds to Doncaster, with two hours to spare, we used the Kings Cross Tandoori to cure our hunger. Just across the road from Kings Cross, I’d not used the Kings Cross Tandoori for about 20 years. The service was good, the staff friendly and the food was excellent. It was a very good choice and we were far from empty as we rolled back over the road to the station.
Intrigue was already playing on my mind and I was plotting a return trip to Chernobyl & Pripyat, even before we’d left the Ukraine. Maybe next time I’d do a personal trip and include the new service offered by Chernobyl Welcome, which included a night at Slavutych and then a journey into Semykhody on the “workers” EMU service, which is normally not open to people not working in the exclusion zone. Food for thought……..