The first thing I did when I arrived in Kiev was get lost in a relatively small market about 3 minutes after getting off the train. Once I finally made it to my hostel, the next thing I did was go in search of a deep fried hotdog. That’s right. I’d read about these hotdogs, I was very excited, and I had an even more excited friend at home who is a deep fried hotdog enthusiast (shout out to Cam!) who couldn’t wait to hear about it.
The shop, Kyivska Perepichka, is just off the main street of Kiev, near Zara, and can be easily found because although it doesn’t look like much it always has a long line of people. I lined up, looking at the menu I saw they only had the one option, plus drinks, and when I got to the front of the line I just did what everyone in front of me had done: I wordlessly handed over my 12 hryvnia (0.70 cents) and a grumpy looking Ukrainian woman took my money, turned away, and turned back shoving a lump of bread in a plastic bag into my hand and that was it. Intrigued, I found a place to sit down and I got stuck into what turned out to be a bit like a hot jam donut but without sugar and instead of jam in the middle there was a hotdog. It was delicious, but very oily as could only be expected.
From there continued up the main street which had been blocked off to cars and was full of locals, street performers, and people selling fairy floss. I made it to Independence Square and just stood in the middle thinking “Max was right”. I wasn’t expecting much going to Kiev, I’d heard from just one or two people that Kiev is a really nice city and I seriously thought those people probably just had something wrong with them, but no joke: Kiev is possibly my new favourite city in the world. At least in the top three along with Dublin and… Somewhere else, I don’t even know. Maybe Bologna.
Besides being beautiful and clean, the vibe of all the people enjoying their Sunday afternoon in the square with their families and friends, listening to live music and eating ice cream, playing on the water fountain steps and taking selfies in front of the I ❤️ Kyiv sign, literally everything that was happening around me just made me happy, content, satisfied. “Isn’t Ukraine unsafe?” people have asked me so many times. The answer is no. 100 times no. There is absolutely no sense of the war going on in the east, and to be honest you’re safer on the streets of Kiev right now than you would be in London.
Things I did in Kiev (besides marvel at how amazing it is):
1. Peizazhna Alley: this strip of playgrounds and mosaics is so bizarre. Playgrounds include themes such as Alice in Wonderland, giant bugs, food, and a swan and frog kissing. There are giant elephants, zebras having a cuddle, donut seats, chairs inside giant grinning cat mouths, and if that’s not enough you can walk through the archway of pissing children.
2. Andriyivskyy Descent: this 700m street snakes it’s way downhill from St Andrew’s Church to the Podil neighbourhood and is lined with market stalls selling everything from soviet style souvenirs to babushka dolls, hand painted plates to what looked like voodoo dolls. There are also many interesting looking cafes and some large murals along the street.
3. Hydropark: volleyball, beers and barbecues are the main things found on Kiev’s beach island. That’s right, Kiev has a beach. Some people were swimming but the river water looks a bit sketchy so I simply participated by falling asleep in the sun while listening to Stephen Fry read me Harry Potter. I woke up sweaty and covered in sand, mmmm.
4. A day trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
I could probably dedicate a whole post to my visit to Chernobyl but I won’t. I booked my tour through a company called Solo East, it cost US$89 which included mandatory insurance, transport to, around and back from the Chernobyl Zone, a professional guide, and lunch. Yes, it’s a bit of an expensive day but everything else in Ukraine is so cheap that it mostly balanced out.
My group was made up of 11 people plus our guide and our driver. We met in Independence Square at 8am and off we went. On the way we watched a documentary in the bus about what had happened at the end of April 1986, causing so much death, disability and sickness. During the tour we stopped at several little villages, the city of Chernobyl where the workers in the Zone live now, the Reactor 4 encased in its giant sarcophagus to contain its radiation, and the city of Pripyat just 3km from the reactor, the real ghost town that people think of when they imagine the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
A tour of the Chernobyl Zone is completely safe in terms of exposure to radiation, as long as you follow the rules set down by your guide. Standing in the main square of Pripyat the radiation level is now the same as in the main square of Kiev, the same as any other major city around the world. In fact, you receive a higher amount of radiation on a seven hour flight than you do on a full day tour of the Chernobyl Zone. This is because so much effort has gone into cleaning up the main paths and areas that are used by workers and also, of course, in order to make tourism a viable option. Some people think it’s a great adventure to sneak into the Zone and go wild camping. This is incredibly dumb because as soon as you step off the main path the radiation level jumps from 0.3 to as high as 150, many many many times the lethal dose. Visiting this place is no joke.
Technically, legally, tourists aren’t allowed into any of the buildings. 100% of the guides blatantly disregard this rule as long as there are no security guards wandering around. They all know which buildings are safe and which are also the most interesting. By the time we were nearly ready to leave Pripyat I realised our guide was not intending to take us to the place that I knew would probably be the most interesting, so I said to him: “I heard that sometimes it’s possible to go to the top of one of the apartment buildings to see the view over the city…” Once everyone found out that this was an option he kind of had no choice so took us up the 17 floors of one of the apartment buildings. It was definitely worth the climb.
Hearing about the death and destruction and stupidity surrounding the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl was full on. The only reason the Soviets even admitted that anything had happened was because the radiation spread in clouds all over Europe and were detected and traced back to that area. Officially, 4,000 people died as a result of the disaster. In reality the death toll is more than 40,000, and this doesn’t even take into account the people still living with debilitating illnesses as a result of being exposed to high but not lethal levels of radiation, and babies born even today with disabilities as a result of their parents being exposed to radiation many years ago.
The most overwhelming thing that I learnt that day, however, is how close the world came to having an even bigger disaster. After the initial explosion the molten remnants of Reactor 4 were slowly melting the concrete block underneath it, and experts realised that if it managed to melt through all the way and reach what lay below the concrete it would cause a nuclear explosion 10 times worse than the first one, rendering most of Europe permanently uninhabitable. In the days after the Zone was evacuated hundreds of men worked to reinforce the concrete base and cool down the area, working in sweltering temperatures of more than 50 degrees in full body, lead reinforced, protective gear. They managed to contain the radiation, obviously we would know about it if they hadn’t, but all of these men died sickening, painful, torturous deaths within the next year, most within weeks. Radiation poisoning is not pretty. And because the Soviet Union refused to admit how badly they had (excuse me) fucked up, these men died unsung heroes, having fought in extreme conditions against an invisible enemy to prevent something that only a select few people in the world knew about but that would have killed millions of people if not for their sacrifice.
And on that incredibly morbid note, I’ll finish up. The Chernobyl tour was the main reason I came to Ukraine, as soon as I found out I could do it there was no question about coming to this country that most people would never consider as a tourist destination. And it was well worth it. Fascinating, exciting and sobering all at the same time, it’s one of those stand-out experiences that will stick in my memory forever.