Looking Back

I’m back!  It’s been a while, but here I am, writing my last blog on my time in Edinburgh.  It’s been a bit over a month since I left residence at the University, and three weeks since I returned to Toronto, so I feel that sufficient time has passed to let me reflect the five months I spent on exchange.

The most common questions I’ve gotten are “did you like it?” and “would you do it again?’  The answers are yes and yes –  I definitely did enjoy my time, as has been clear from many of my blogs, and, as a result, if the clocks were turned back, I would still choose to do the term away.  I’d also recommend that people go – anywhere – on exchange, but would definitely extol the virtues of Edinburgh.

But I’d also caution people to know what they’re getting into, and ask themselves if they’re prepared for the worst-case scenario (or, at least, not the best-case scenario).  No matter how social and outgoing you are, you will never have as many friends, acquaintances, etc. on exchange.  You just won’t – it’s impossible.  Going from a place where you’ve built up a social network over years to one where you most likely don’t know anybody means you’re starting from ground zero.  And that’s part of the charm – you have to make friends in a new place, and you never know what great people you’ll meet.  But sometimes conditions don’t always line up just how you want, and places where you think you might meet people don’t pan out.  The friends that I made weren’t other exchange students that I met during orientation – they were regular University of Edinburgh students I met doing Model UN.  And while my flatmates in residence were great, the difference in age and the fact that I was a newcomer to their tight-knit unit meant that I never really integrated there (which, to be clear, is not something I begrudge them for, and also is my fault, as I surely could have been more social.)  This isn’t a veiled way of saying I didn’t make any friends.  That’s not true.  I met some great people who I hope to keep in touch with for a long time.  But, with the help of a very light class schedule, I had more time by myself than I ever had before.  And I was fine with that.  But for some people, especially if they don’t get involved in extra-curriculars or other things,  it could be a big problem.  So to anyone going on exchange in the future, keep this in mind.

As for Edinburgh, the city, it was a good place to live for a few months (extraordinarily high prices aside.  And, UK, if you really had to leave the EU, couldn’t you have held the referendum when I was there?? Things would’ve been so much cheaper…)  I’d wanted a different experience, a city university instead of a campus one like Queen’s, and the University of Edinburgh definitely provided that.  I’m still undecided on which I like better, but I know for sure that the wealth of food options available to me for lunch was a major plus.  It was a nice city, with a decent amount to do, though I have to admit that I didn’t feel it lived up to all the hype I’d heard about it going in.  From what everyone had told me, it would be a top notch city.  And while I did like it, Edinburgh has not entered my upper echelon of cities.  Nevertheless, high prices aside, there wasn’t much to complain about living there (yes, the weather, but that’s a given and something I knew about going in) – so both as a school and a city, I would recommend it.

I’ve read things about how people go on exchange and come back a changed person, having had profound experiences that have left an indelible impact on them.  Call me cynical – but I don’t feel it.  Maybe it’s because I’ve traveled more than the average 20 year old, so the sense of enlightenment that comes with it has been dulled for me.  Or maybe any changes are subtle, not ah-ha moments but underlying things that may take a while to come out.  And if this is the case, I can’t comment, because whatever mysterious change this is may not have materialised yet – and, whatever it is, if it were to ever happen it would likely be noticed not by me but someone else.  The only thing I can pinpoint – and it really doesn’t fit into the category that I was talking about – is an increased desire to travel.  And yes, I know that might sound somewhat ridiculous, given that my travel diet has been much closer to gluttonous than starvation.  But I was exposed to a new type of travel, a kind that is more spontaneous, more free, more unpredictable.  The kind where you make decisions on the fly, are unsure of where you’re going to spend the next night, and never know who you will meet along the way – where you have to expect the unexpected and not only live with it, but embrace it.  This kind of travel was new to me, and travelling on a budget, and often by myself, exposed me to it – the world of hostels, budget airlines, and heavy backpacks.  And the more I experienced this world, the more I wanted to dive even deeper into it, with longer trips, less planning, and stranger destinations.

So, that’s about a wrap.  I often pine for nostalgia and poignant moments, but it seems they never materialise, or at least not in a way I recognize or am well able to put into words.  So, I’ll try to conclude with a few sentences.  I enjoyed my time on exchange immensely, both in Edinburgh and on my travels.  I am very happy that I went away for the semester; it is a very easy thing to not do, and I know I am better off having gone.  It’s not always easy being away for so long, or having to deal with complicated travel logistics on your own, but it is difficult moments like those that, while vastly outnumbered by more enjoyable ones, are probably the most valuable.  Adversity is something that we all shy away from, but at times need to embrace.  You can’t learn and grow and improve by being safe, comfortable, and right all the time.  Sometimes you need life to slap you in the face, make you question what you’re doing in that particular place, wonder why you’re not home, wish there was a voice in your ear other than the host of the podcast you’re listening to.  And that’s what exchange is for.  Living on your own, on another continent – most of the time it is going to be awesome.  Occasionally it will be boring.  And on a few occasions, it will just downright suck.  So revel in the great times, forget the boring ones, and learn from the bad ones.  That’s my take away from exchange.  What I learned, not necessarily about myself, but about life in general.  Well, that, and that I experienced a miracle by having two straight weeks of sun in Scotland.  Maybe it isn’t always cloudy in Edinburgh.


Almost Done

As I sit here in my favourite cafe for the last time, I have under 24 hours left at the University of Edinburgh.  Tomorrow, at 11:30am, I’ll have finished my last exam (finally), and my time at the school, if not in Scotland, will be over.  Since you last heard from me, I haven’t done much, apart from 2 nights in Cardiff and a day trip to Newcastle.  I had 5 weeks from the end of classes until my last exam, then 2 weeks between my first and second exams – and then less than 48 hours between my second and third.  I am most definitely not a fan of this absurdly long exam period – despite finishing classes at the same time, some Queen’s students will have had a month of summer by the time I start mine.  This extensive period has led to great boredom.  With no real routine, and the drudgery of studying only exceeding by the boredom of reading the same material over and over, it has been a struggle to stay even moderately engaged with the material.  And this is made even harder by the lack of necessity to get top level marks.  So now the light at the end of the tunnel is not only visible, but almost blinding.

What have I done in the interim to break up the monotony?  Well, after my first exam, I headed off to Cardiff for the weekend.  Why Cardiff?  Well, the airfare was cheap, I’d never been to Wales, and it seemed like an interesting place.  So why not?  The main thing in Wales is castles, and I saw three in two days.  They were all very different, but all involved the same medieval Norman (Gilbert de Clare) and the same rich Victorian (the Marquess of Bute) in some way.  Cardiff Castle had a lavishly appointed and decorated Victorian house that was the Butes’ main residence.  Designed and furnished as you would expect from a man who was considered to be among the richest in the world in the 19th century, it was quite the place.  The castle grounds also held the old Norman keep,  remnants of the Roman wall, and air-raid shelters from WWII.  Castell Coch, just north of Cardiff, was funded by the 3rd Marquess of Bute as an upscale medieval fantasy project.  It too was very nice – as expected – but it was never really used, as Bute was more interested in designing and building things than occupying them.  Last, but certainly not least, was Caerphilly Castle, the second largest castle in the United Kingdom.  Used for less than a century in the medieval period, it was never captured despite many attacks – unsurprising considering its unique and impenetrable double moat system.  Slightly run-down, it’s a great place to explore, and quite pretty since the moats are filled.  Overall, an it was an enjoyable trip to Wales.  Cardiff was an interesting city, though two nights are quite sufficient to explore it and the surrounding area.

Cardiff Castle
Grounds of Cardiff Castle
Arab Room
Ceiling of the Arab Room in the Residence at Cardiff Castle
Backside of Caerphilly Castle
Caerphilly CastleCaerphilly
Historic Sites
Aerial View of Caerphilly Castle (not mine, obviously)

My other “adventure” was to Newcastle,  where I met up with my friend Adam from Queen’s (and elementary school before that!).  He was doing some travelling in Europe, and was in London for a few days, but decided to make a trip up to Newcastle to see his favourite Premier League team (Tottenham Hotspur) in action.  Since Newcastle is an easy train ride away, things worked out perfectly to meet him there.  We were hoping for Spurs to be in position to win the league, or at least for Newcastle to have to win to avoid relegation, but we got neither, left with a matchup between two teams whose fates had already been decided.  But we got a game that we couldn’t have imagined.  The roles were reversed, with Newcastle looking like a top of the table team and Tottenham playing like they were resigned to their fate.  The home side dominated in a 5-1 victory, even scoring three goals after going down a man to a red card.  It was an unbelievable game, and pretty fun to watch as a neutral observer.  The atmosphere was definitely the best at any top-flight game I’ve been to, with lots of singing taking place throughout the game, mostly trying desperately to convince manager Rafa Benitez to stay with the club.  It was probably the happiest a fan base could be when their team was being relegated.  It was a lot of fun and a much needed break!

So, that brings me back to Edinburgh.  I’m taking a break from studying, though I’m not sure how much good further revision will do.  Seems like I’m at the point where my brain is full, one way or another, and it’ll spit out whatever it can depending on the questions tomorrow.  At this point I’m sure you’re expecting some deep reflections and commentary on my time in Edinburgh, and exchange in general.  Well, sorry to disappoint you, but those aren’t happening.  Yet.  I’ll wait until I’m finished my exams and have left the city before tackling that subject.  So you’ll have to wait a few weeks for that!  But, what I can say, is that I’ve enjoyed my time here.  However, I am also looking forward to finishing, seeing my parents, our trip around Scotland, and eventually going home.  All good things must come to an end – and for this good thing, time is up.


The Moldova segment of my trip got off to a pretty good start, as I, for some unknown reason, got upgraded to business class at the gate.  Typical of European business class, it wasn’t luxurious, but a free drink and a free paper, along with a comfier seat, weren’t bad.  I won’t complain, even though it was just an hour-long flight.

I got in after dark, so can’t give an initial impression of the city, but I was interested to see that a number of the signs were in Russian as well as Romanian.  It is a former Soviet republic (probably the least-thought of, I’d say) but still…  Hostel was busier than I thought it would be, but apparently there was a marathon earlier that day that had attracted people from all over.

It was at this point that I decided to book my flights back to Edinburgh.  I’d purposely left my dates open – it was a long time before exams, and I wanted to have flexibility.  I’d booked two nights in Chisinau, but had planned to see some other stuff in the country, especially Transnistria, the breakaway, Soviet-wannabe state in the east that runs itself autonomously but isn’t officially recognized by any country.  But it was not to be.  I’d gotten a gut feeling that it was time to head back.  Not that I was unhappy or anything – just an internal alarm clock going off telling me my time was up.  My brain was telling me to stay and go to Transnistria, but my gut was telling me to call it a trip.  So I did, getting surprisingly cheap airfare on TAROM (Romania’s national carrier) to London.  It was too bad, but it felt right at the time.

That left one full day left on my trip, and I devoted that day to exploring Chisinau.  And explore it I did, walking up and down seemingly every street in the city centre.  It was pleasant enough, as the streets were all leafy and tree-lined, but the high humidity with the temperature pushing 30 made for a sweaty day.  There really isn’t much to say about Chisinau, because there isn’t much to do.  Perhaps I should’ve realized this when the first attraction listed in the Lonely Planet guide book is a pair of parks.  They’re nice parks, don’t get me wrong.  I would know, as I walked through both of them extensively.  Good places to sit and hang out with an ice cream on a warm afternoon.  But main tourist attraction?  Uh, not really.  The national history museum was interesting enough, a solid hour, and unlike in Kiev, all the explanations were in English, which was nice.  And that was about it.  I had a long lunch, did some wandering, and returned back to the hostel well before dinner, in time to catch some of the Jays game, which was on at a reasonable time thanks to Boston’s Patriots’ Day.  I had seemingly traditional Moldovan food for dinner so your standard Eastern European stuffed chicken accompanied by polenta – and a nice Moldovan white wine.  Seriously – they’re known for their wine, it’s good stuff, and quite cheap.  Though they didn’t sell any at duty free at the airport, which I found strange.  But that was it.  That was my time in Moldova, one full day to see the capital, and that was about a half day too much.  In hindsight, I could’ve gone to Transnistria that day, and just booked a later flight day out the next and have the morning in Chisinau.  Oh well.  Next time.  And you know what – I’d actually like there to be a next time.  You probably think I’m crazy – I just told you how there’s nothing to do in Chisinau.  And that’s right, there is nothing to do there.  But it’s a useful base for exploring the rest of the country – the numerous wineries, an old monastery, a well-preserved castle, and of course Transnistria, the last bastion of Leninism.  So maybe, hopefully, I’ll make a return trip in the future, spending very little time in Chisinau, but using at as a base to see the rest of the country.

Parcul Catedral
Parcul Catedralei (Cathedral Park)
Stefan cel Mare
Statue of Stefan cel Mare, the Moldovan national hero, at entrance to Parcul Stefan cel Mare
Arc de Triomfe
Arcul de Triumf (Arc de Triomphe/Triumphal Arch) commemorating Russia’s victory over the Ottomans in 1840

The trip back was uneventful, if long – Chisinau to Bucharest to London on TAROM, then a long wait followed by a delayed train to Edinburgh.  But hey, at least I got free food on both TAROM flights – unheard of in economy these days (they’re part of SkyTeam, so you can rack up Delta miles if you want to take advantage of this perk!).  The Chisinau airport was… an experience.  It was almost totally devoid of people at 9am, and when I went through security the woman looking at the x-rays was talking on the phone.  Not exactly very security-conscious, but it is Moldova.

So that’s my trip.  A rather anti-climactic, anonymous ending, but a great trip overall, bringing me to very new and different places (that I’d highly recommend!).  When I got back it was almost two weeks to my first exam, and I started to go a bit stir-crazy, regretting that I’d ended my trip early.  As I write this, however, I’m finished my first exam, and am off to Wales tomorrow, spending the weekend in Cardiff before the home stretch, with my final exams on May 17 and 19.

Ukraine Part 5 – Conclusion

Just as it is said that Istanbul is the division between East and West, I would say the same about Ukraine.  But while Istanbul divides, loosely and broadly, the Christian and Muslim worlds, Ukraine divides, much more starkly, Eastern and Western Europe, and the people, values, and history that are inherent in that divide.  It is this division that has been at the root of the country’s problems since independence, an ever-present conflict that is always simmering just beneath the surface and, on multiple occasions, has exploded into violence.  The Orange Revolution, emanating out of a rigged election in 2004 that was won by Victor Yanukovych, a businessman from the east of the country, saw protests by supporters of Victor Yushchenko, a more reformist, European-focused candidate, who eventually became President after a second election.  Yanukovych eventually became the legitimate President in 2010, but his rejection of an EU association agreement in favour of closer ties to Russia triggered the 2013 Euromaidan protests, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the fighting in the east (centred around Donetsk and Luhansk) between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian (and real Russian) forces.

Orange Revolution Protests, 2004
An aerial view shows Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square crowded by supporters of EU integration during a rally in central Kiev
Euromaidan Protests, 2013, filling up Maidan Nezalezhnosti and Kreshchatyk St

This is the context in which I found Ukraine.  The conflict in the east had died down, but was by no means over.  The current, generally pro-Western, government was close to its death throes, popularity tumbling, and the Prime Minister’s resignation not making things easier.  I’d followed the situation in 2013 (and beyond) fairly closely, and was interested to see what the country was like.

The only signs of the violence of 2013 are the memorials around Maidan Nezalezhnosti.  Posters are plastered on the column, mostly with pictures of young men who I assume were killed by the police or other security forces.  The distinctive blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag was always present, especially in Lviv; while I’m sure this reflects the upswing in nationalism, I can’t say if there are less flags than before 2013.

Euro square
European Square, Kiev – formerly bearing the names of Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin

But the differences are there – you just have to know what you’re looking for.  In Lviv, at the heart of the nationalist west, Ukrainian is the only language that you’ll hear locals speaking.  In Kiev, however, you’re not sure if the proper response to getting your food at a restaurant is dyakuyu (Ukrainian) or spasibo (Russian).  The odds of being greeted with dobry den (Ukrainian) or zdravstvuyte (Russian) are about equal.  Even the makeup of these words is telling – both Ukrainian words are etymologically quite similar to the same phrases in Polish, Czech, and Slovak, while the Russian words are, well, Russian.  The two languages are obviously quite similar, sharing the Cyrillic alphabet and a great many words.  But the appearance of Central European-influenced words, especially ones that are used everyday, are indicative of Ukraine’s tilt westward.

The architecture of Lviv and Kiev is also quite instructive.  In Lviv, you could think you were in Poland (which, up until WWII, you were, but more on that later), with all the cobblestones, squares, and rows of quaint buildings.  In Kiev, golden-domed church spires abound, and while not near as numerous as Moscow, massive Soviet-style behemoth-buildings do make an appearance, as well as vast wide boulevards traversed not by sidewalks but by underground passageways.  The staunchly Ukrainian city looks nothing like an ex-Soviet metropolis, while the linguistically (though not ethnically – 75% of the country’s population is of Ukrainian ethnicity) divided capital, while not all the way there, does retain some of that authoritarian architectural aura.

Much of this, I’m delighted to tell you, is a product of history.  Lviv only fell under Soviet rule as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact during WWII; it had been part of Poland and, prior to that, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Kiev, and all of Central and Eastern Ukraine, had been part of the USSR since its inception.  That explains the current cultural differences, and the territorial ones to some extent – but Russian interest in Ukraine runs stronger and deeper for reasons that go much further back in time.  Kiev is seen as the birthplace of East Slavic civilization, being the capital of Kievan Rus, a federation of Slavic tribes that existed from the 9th to 12th centuries.  The Kievan Rus had a vast empire and their leader Vladimir the Great introduced Christianity to the Slavs (building the original St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev), and Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Russians all originated from this group.  Both Ukraine and Russia now try to claim Vladimir as their own.  Russia sees itself as the leader of the Slavic nations, and Putin and others are probably none too pleased that the cradle of their civilizations is outside their borders –  and they’ll go to great lengths, as we have seen to try to ensure it stays within their sphere of influence.

Ukraine’s most recent problems started because of an attempt to turn west, towards Europe and away from Russia.  From ground level, there is no question that Ukraine could be a qualified candidate for EU membership.  There was everything you’d expect in a modern city – and certainly none of the blights like I saw in Bucharest many years ago which, despite being an EU member, had an open sewer downtown and a disgustingly green river.  But there are obviously still issues, even if they are not immediately apparent – I can’t say I’ve seen anywhere else with posters at customs reminding you that bribing the border guards is illegal.  And, of course, there is the strife in the east, which, until it is resolved, means that Ukraine could never even think about applying for EU membership.  And it seems like it will only be resolved, with any sort of finality, by either a formal partition of the country or an all-out war – one that Ukraine is sure to lose, unless its supposed allies in Europe and North America come forward with more than the toothless, meaningless support they’ve given so far.

Violence Escalates As Kiev Protests Continue
Euromaidan turned into violent clashes with riot police in 2013-14

But, despite its lingering problems, I get the sense that Ukraine is a country on the rise.  I saw a populous that was happy and vibrant, full of talented and energetic young people.  Maybe I didn’t get a full picture, only visiting what I have to imagine are the two wealthiest cities in non-occupied Ukraine, but this is not a poor country.  It may not be well-off, but, in the urban areas at least, things don’t seem bad at all.

Ukraine is a country in transition, sitting in the midst of a zone of transition.  Where it will end up is anyone’s guess, and there is a wide spectrum of good to disastrous scenarios on how things will play out.  It only seems to get attention now for its political and military strife – maybe that would’ve changed if Lviv had got the 2022 Olympics.  It certainly is a significant better choice than the remaining options – but they understandably pulled out.  But, Olympics or not, Ukraine is certainly worthy of your attention, your interest, and your tourist dollars.  Go before its too late – otherwise either the tour buses or the Russians will have beat you to it.

Ukraine Part 4 – Chernobyl

Whatever you think Chernobyl is, it’s probably not.  A massive explosion that immolated hundreds of people?  Nope.  While the death toll is in the thousands, at least, the vast majority of this number is from cancer and other diseases that killed people in the months and years after the disaster.  A nuclear wasteland that is totally devoid of human activity?  Not quite.  Over 7000 people work in the Chernobyl exclusion zone – and the last reactor was only closed in 2000.  A place that only highly adventurous – and slightly insane – tourists go, rife with chances to be exposed to radiation?  Far from it; you’re exposed to about the same amount of radiation on a tour of Chernobyl as you would be during a flight from Toronto to Kiev.  We all know about Chernobyl, but we don’t really know Chernobyl.  There are many things it is, and many things it isn’t.  But what can be stated without any doubt is that visiting there is an experience that is unforgettable and unparalleled.

Chernobyl sign
Welcome to Chernobyl!

A tour of Chernobyl starts with, what else, a Geiger counter, showing us the radiation level in Maidan Nezalezhnosti – 0.15 microsieverts per hour, a perfectly normal and safe level (because remember, radiation levels are never zero).  (From here on out, microsieverts per hour will just be mSv.  Saves me the hassle.)  Our minibus jolted out of the city, hitting more potholes than it avoided seemingly, but given the state of the roads, I’m surprised we didn’t see cars just lying wrecked on the shoulder.  The start of the exclusion zone (30km out from the reactor) is well over an hour from Kiev, and quite close to Belarus (which actually has a larger exclusion zone than Ukraine, because of how the winds were blowing that day).  For entertainment, we saw a series of documentaries and other media on the disaster, much of it quite informative, some of it absolute trash (to waste 8 minutes of your life, click here to listen to two of the worst songs you’ll ever hear).  But the documentaries were quite informative – a second, much worse, disaster was avoided by grueling, and often fatal, work by Soviet troops.  Had the nuclear waste mingled with the water under the reactor, a second explosion, ten times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, would have destroyed a huge chunk of Eastern and Central Europe.  As only the USSR could, 800,000 soldiers and miners were brought in to avert the disaster, which they obviously did – but at great cost, as their exposure to radiation was massive.

Exclusion zone
Map of the exclusion zones.  Bigger yellow one is the 30km, lighter shade is 10km

Security checkpoints await at the start of the 30km exclusion zone, and again at the 10km zone.  (Take a guess, what do you think the radiation level was at the 30km checkpoint? Pretty high?  No!  Actually, 0.15mSv, just the same as in Kiev.)  Between these two, however, was not the deserted area you’d expect.  There were rows of depressing worker housing, the local canteen, and numerous construction sites.  Thousands of people work there every day, cleaning up, repairing things, carrying out tests.  But people become scarce the further into the exclusion zone you go, and out of the window you spot a few tiny mounds, barely discernible among the fast-growing trees.  We’re in the middle of a house cemetery, our guide Igor tells us.  This village was so irradiated that all the houses were knocked down and buried.  Only a few structures were allowed to remain standing, like the elementary school, which we were allowed to wander around, giving us our first taste of the eerie nature of the lives and places abandoned.

At another spot, after a bit of a walk through small trees and bushes that have been allowed to grow uninhibited, we ventured upon a community centre, where we roamed freely into the decrepit gym and crumbling theatre.  There was no getting used to the strange feeling of being inside these buildings, and despite knowing that everything was safe, the paranoid feeling of avoiding every droplet of water falling from the ceiling, or brushing your hand against the wall, never quite went away either.

Gym in a community centre

Eventually we came to what may very well have been the strangest part of the tour, the Russian Woodpecker.  Officially known as Duga-3, it’s a massive Soviet-era early-warning ICBM detection system.  It’s hard to put into words just how huge this thing is.  It consists of 18 levels and must be at least half a km in length.  Hulking, rusting, and doing absolutely nothing, it is a strange monument to the Cold War era.  When we first saw it Marko (jokingly?) asked Igor if we could climb it.  I felt rebellious just tapping one of its pillars.  But after giving his spiel about the Woodpecker, Igor floored us – “OK, you have 10 minutes to climb if you want.”  Everyone hesitated for a second, but I jumped at the chance.  We all made it to the second level, before our time conveniently expired, saving us the trouble of likely bailing on going any higher.  The ladders up were stable, but definitely rocked a bit when the wind picked up.  And there was a bit of give in the platforms when you stepped on certain spots.  But perfectly safe, for sure!  Something like this would’ve been squashed by about a thousand regulations back home.  But we weren’t in Canada, we were in Ukraine, and this made things a lot more interesting.

Up woodpecker
Looking up the Russian Woodpecker
On woodpecker
On the lowly second level of the Woodpecker.  Oh, hey Scott!

Before being brought to the reactor, we were given a chance to see and feed the giant catfish that inhabit the river.  They must be seven feet long, and Igor swears their massive size has nothing to do with radiation.  I’m not sure if I buy that, but one of those guys would produce a lot of good fried catfish…

All of my pictures weren’t very clear. But check these guys out, they’re huge!

Seeing the reactor felt a bit underwhelming at the time, but that seems pretty silly now.  It’s not like we were going to go in the damn thing.  Pretty much the only nuclear facility in the world you’re allowed to take pictures of, it’s just a hulking, somewhat decaying huge building.  A sarcophagus was put over it to keep in all the stuff you don’t want to be getting into your body (or the air), but it’s been breaking down, so a new one is being assembled right next door, and, while delayed and well over budget, it’s due to be in place next year, and to last for the next 100.  Radiation levels were a fair bit higher there, but if you took a reading right behind the monument that was erected, the mSv level isn’t significantly higher than usual.

Reactor #4 (I’ve zoomed in a fair bit fyi)
The new, 2 billion Euro sarcophagus

So, what constitutes normal radiation levels?  Well, best as I can remember, Igor said anything under 0.30mSv was the standard for most places.  A bit above that level is still perfectly safe for constant exposure, but is higher than average.  Some of the buildings we went in registered readings in the single digits, while the “hottest” things we found – patches of moss, certain rocks (generally things that were on the ground) peaked in the high 20s/low 30s.  This is obviously quite high, but if you’re just staring at the thing for a few seconds, it does nothing.  Lick it, however, and you’ll have a problem.  (And if you’re doing some googling on your own, beware that the short-form for microsieverts isn’t mSv – that’s for millisieverts.  But they don’t have the fancy symbol they use for microsieverts on here, so I had to improvise.)

Geiger counter
Geiger counter reading on a pretty radiated patch of soil

The last stop, and the one that is most familiar, was the town of Pripyat.  But here’s where Chernobyl isn’t what you think it is – the town of Chernobyl isn’t the actual town that is seen in pictures, the abandoned, overgrown, hollowed out city.  No, that’s Pripyat, the company town built for a population of 40,000 Chernobyl workers and their families, ready to be expanded to 100,000 after the completion of two new reactors (which were just starting to be built in 1986).

Pripyat, an all-Soviet city

Pripyat was, by all accounts, a decent place to live, at least by Soviet standards.  It received supplies similar to that of important cities like Kiev or Moscow, kept happy because of its status as the housing for an important energy-producing facility.  But now, the town is deserted, devoid of any human life except for the tourist groups that roll through, a few scientists, and, because we’re approaching the 30th anniversary, a Polish TV crew.  Old Soviet apartment buildings stand vacant, although looking pretty much as you’d expect 30 years on, nuclear disaster or not.  Trees and other vegetation have made considerable inroads into all the unclaimed spaces, making the streets hard to discern at times.  An old amusement park sits alone, having not seen the smiles or heard the laughs of children for three decades.  The Ferris wheel, still wholly intact, looms over the leaf-strewn ground, looking like something out of a horror movie.  And, at times, that’s what Pripyat feels like.  The setting for a really cheesy horror film, a place that’s supposed to be abandoned, but then a door opens.  Or the merry-go-round starts spinning.  It’s almost surreal.  It’s probably as close as you will get on earth to a post-apocalyptic landscape, one in which the signs of humanity remain, but all hope and life has been sucked out of them.

Ferris wheel
Pripyat’s Ferris wheel

The school cafeteria had hundreds of child-sized gas masks littered on the floor.  But this has nothing to do with Chernobyl, or nuclear waste, or radiation.  It was 1986, after all, still firmly within the bounds of the Cold War.  It is here that you start to get a whiff of what I now think of as managed apocalypse.  The forlorn girls’ dolls seem a bit too strategically placed.  The textbooks just happen to be open to pages about Lenin.  But these objects, staged or not, do their job.  It hits home, the starkness of it all.  The empty classrooms, the decaying walls, the lumber strewn all over the floors.  But thinking back on it, so much of the interior of the buildings in Pripyat, the school and the apartment especially, were not real; they were not stopped in time.  All the broken glass, wood everywhere, furniture overturned haphazardly, the residents wouldn’t have done this.  When they left, they thought they were coming back in a few days.  Never did they imagine that when they stepped out of their apartments in late April, 1986, that they would never be coming back.  No, most of the damage and detritus, buckled floorboards and peeling walls aside, seems to have come from vandals, or at least adventurous, rebellious teenagers, as the broken beer bottles everywhere would indicate.  This is probably just the critical historian in me coming out, but it’s true, nonetheless.  It doesn’t necessarily detract from everything.  But you also can’t come out of a visit to Pripyat thinking that decrepit state was all natural and have a firm grasp on what actually happened.

School cafeteria (all those things on the ground are gas masks)
A classroom in Pripyat

Finally, we were left to our own devices to explore an apartment building.  Having been told that the roof was accessible, most of the group raced up the stairs and, after grappling with the short ladder and small window, got an unbeatable panorama of the skeleton of a city that is now Pripyat.  We wandered through rooms on various floors, trying to piece together what was what.  A bedroom here, a kitchen there, a living room attached.  It was weird.  These were places where people had lived.  And then they didn’t.  Yet traces of them were still here.  Couches, mattresses (still surprisingly soft when I stepped on it), appliances, strewn in random fashion amidst the broken glass and shards of wood.  You could spend hours losing yourself in the midst of the building; we had 20 minutes.  Each hall and room started to look the same, debris everywhere, but that didn’t make them less interesting, didn’t make exploring around each corner less appealing.  People thought they were coming back within a few days.  Weeks, at most.  The Soviet government planned a full return in four years.  But we know, and when you’re in them the finality is real: those rooms will be vacant forever.

Pripyat skyline
The Pripyat skyline
Inside an apartment in Pripyat

Leaving Chernobyl was pretty unremarkable.  A strange lunch, in a wood room with no lights, where for a while we thought that our only food would be a few slices of deli meats and a huge salad that we wouldn’t eat because of concerns over the water.  But we got real food, and it was decent – and much-needed, considering the late hour.  Hit the same two checkpoints on the way out, checking for radiation.  None of us were over the acceptable limit, not surprising, considering Igor said that only one person in his over 700 visits to the site has set off the alarms.  No weird music videos on the way back, so most people slept.  I did not.  I could tell you that I was reflecting on what we’d seen and its larger meaning, and while that’d make for a great literary conclusion, it’d also be a lie.  I didn’t sleep because I’m not big on napping, and it was too bumpy anyway.

But what was Chernobyl?  It isn’t what you think.  Chernobyl itself, when people talk about the town, isn’t even Chernobyl – it’s Pripyat.  A disaster of that magnitude, you think destruction.  But nothing was destroyed.  At least, nothing physical was destroyed.  Not even the reactor.  You think it’s unsafe, all the radiation.  But it’s not.  There isn’t really that much radiation, at least not that you’re exposed to when there for a day.  And that certainly isn’t the most dangerous part of being there.  I was more worried about falling in one of the buildings and being shredded by all the broken glass and rusty nails lying around.  I’ve been asked whether it was overrun with wild animals, like has been reported in the media.  The only non-catfish I noticed was a few birds mimicking the beeping of a Geiger counter.  Is it depressing?  Sad?  Hard for me to say.  I don’t get too emotional.  But it certainly makes you think.  It certainly is a stark scene, a unique scene, a scene that you don’t forget after you’ve been there.  Whatever you think about Chernobyl, whatever you think you know – it may be wrong.  Maybe it’s right, or partially right.  But there’s definitely more to it than what you know from common knowledge.  Because it’s an area that is more complex than just being a nuclear wasteland.  That would be too easy.  But it’s not that simple, things hardly ever are.  What do you know about Chernobyl?  What do I know about Chernobyl?  Not as much as we’d like to think.


Ukraine Part 3 – Kiev

My time in Ukraine’s capital got off to a rather inauspicious start, as after the long journey in from the airport, I turned the wrong way out of the subway station, walked 10 minutes in the opposite direction of where I needed to be, necessitating a 15 minute journey through pouring rain.  And, when I got to my room and fired up my iPad (because my phone is toast, remember!), the first thing I see is a message from my Dad telling me my credit card has been compromised.  Delightful.  No phone, no credit card.  So it was cash only from here on out, a rather frightening prospect considering I had to try seven ATMs in Lviv before one finally worked (that one being the vaguely sinister sounding Ukrainian Export-Import Bank).

So that was pretty crappy.  But what wasn’t crappy was my accommodations.  This was the one night of the trip I hadn’t booked ahead, and I took advantage of my prodigious travel earlier in the year and cashed in my hotels.com free night, so I paid the equivalent of a non-Ukrainian (i.e. not dirt cheap) hostel for a night in a nice hotel (because free is only free up to the average of your previously accumulated nights).  Having a comfy king bed, a TV, my own shower, no one else in my room… it was all very luxurious and amazing, and I took full advantage of it, ordering room service and not abandoning the space until I was forced to just before checkout.

MaidanMaidan Nezalezhnosti (майдан незалежності – Independence Square) and the wide Kreshchatyk Street (Хрещатик). Sight of the Orange Revolution protests of 2004 and EuroMaidan in 2013-14

It wasn’t until Wednesday, my second full day in Kiev, that I really started to see the city, or at least try to.  The Lonely Planet walking tour twice brought me face to face with stern-looking security guards who blocked my path and the oppressive humidity with the constant threat of rain (that was never carried out) made for a rather uncomfortable outing.  The route brought me past some of the city’s main sights – St. Sophia’s Cathedral, St. Michael’s Monastery – but by mid-afternoon I was pretty fed up and headed back to the hostel, retreating to my bed to watch Netflix.  It was around this point that something dawned on me, a feeling that had been building inside for the past few days but had taken hold in the last 24 hours: travel wasn’t fun anymore.  I couldn’t enjoy wandering around the city because of storm clouds brewing in my head, forget outside.  Finding a place to eat dinner was a chore, not an adventure, and the language barrier was infuriating, not a fun challenge.  I was sick of travelling and just wanted to go home.  Not Edinburgh.  Toronto.  I didn’t know how to respond to this.  Never in my life had I felt this way before.  Every time I’d traveled had been enjoyable.  Every single one.  Never had I wanted to go home early, never had I been daunted by the challenges thrown at me, never had I just not really cared anymore.  Until now.  And this bothered me, frightened me, even.  Travel had always been the one thing that I could enjoy unconditionally.  It was something to look forward to, to get me through tough times, something to revel in once it arrived, and something to gaze back fondly upon once it was over.  And now it had been reduced to a mere nuisance, something I didn’t want to do and just had to drag myself through.  Why?  How?  I don’t know.  But as I lay on my bed, all too aware of these feelings, I hoped desperately that they would pass, and pass quickly.  I still had around a week left on my trip and most of a city to explore.  I’d come a long way, and spent a decent amount of money to get there, and I didn’t want it to all go to waste just because my brain decided to pack it in.  Everything I loved about travelling was being turned against me.  More than the feelings itself, that is what bothered me, and what I needed to escape from.

The impossibly golden domes of St. Michael’s Monastery (yes, they’re new)

The road back to normalcy started that night, after dinner.  I was on my iPad, doing who knows what, when I heard friendly-sounding voices coming from the common room.  (Don’t ask me to describe what that means.  But I had previously heard people talking who I had no desire to go and join.  This time was different.  I’m strange like that sometimes.)  Figuring I should at least attempt to meet people and not wallow in my self-loathing all night, I decamped all of 10 steps to the common room next door, where I met Scott and Marko, an Englishman and a Finn, respectively, whom, it turned out, were going on the same Chernobyl tour as I was the next day.  Both that night and the next day we swapped travel stories (and, geekily, passports, to examine each other’s stamps).  We’re a pretty well-traveled group of young guys, though Marko definitely takes top prize, with tales from North Korea, Uzbekistan, and Iran.  (Side note: check out tourism to Uzebkistan and Turkmenistan.  You may think I sound insane.  But take a look, and you’ll want to go too.)

I’m not going to go into detail on Chernobyl here, as I think it deserves a whole blog post to itself.  I’ll leave it at this to hook you in – going there is unlike any other experience you will have.  But what deserves a few lines is the bar we went to after our Chernobyl tour.  The Blues Bar was nearby and recommended to us by the hostel staff.  It was a kinda strange place, a cave-like room filled mostly with English speakers, the majority of whom were (North) American.  The walls were decorated with American paraphernalia; I was staring at pictures of Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, and other basketball stars from their college days.  And, true to its name, the music was blues, featuring performances by the only black guys I saw in Kiev.  Music was pretty good, too.  But, despite all of this, the alcohol had a distinctly Ukrainian flavour (sometimes too literally, as you’ll see).  We saw the taster of four vodkas, and thought it’d be a great idea if we each got one.  It turned out to not be as great an idea as we thought, though it was definitely good value for the money.  Each “shot” was probably equivalent to two shots that us normal people are used to.  Crazy Ukrainians.  After tasting each of them, we were quickly able to discard the horseradish-flavoured vodka.  Yes, horseradish, and yes, it was as disgusting as it sounds.  The pepper one was fine, thought it just straight up burned (and shooting it would have been death, which we did not do).  The others all tasted the same – like vodka – despite their purported flavourings, although a watermelon one was slipped in somewhere along the way and was pretty decent.  We didn’t go too crazy because Scott and Marko had to be at the airport early the next morning, but it was a fun time nonetheless.

I’d planned to go to the Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra the next day, a massive and supposedly spectacular monastery complex.  Go I did, but see much I did not, as the pouring rain made the walking around wholly unenjoyable.  The numerous churches I saw were quite nice, but I totally missed out on half the complex as well as the tunnel system.  It’s too bad, but when you’re soaking wet, sacrifices have to be made.  It all worked out OK though, as it meant I had just enough stuff to do on my final full day in the city.

I spent my final morning on and around Andriyivskiy Uzviz (Andrew’s Descent), a twisting cobblestone street reminiscent in some ways of Paris.  Legend has it that Kiev was founded atop the hill, and the way down (as well as the church up top, which was unfortunately closed) was named for Apostle Andrew.  It was great to walk up and down the fairly short street, as well as around the path that ringed the hill.  Being a weekend, there were lots of people out on the street, and tons of stalls were set up, selling souvenirs, both tacky and interesting.  (I passed on the Toronto Blue Jays matryushka doll.)  The Ukrainian National History Museum was interesting, but, frustratingly, the most important displays (in my mind, at least) – mid-19th century through Euro Maidan 2013 – did not have English captions… yet the pre-history archaeological artifacts did.  Of course they did, the bain of my museum existence.  The tiny and quirky museum chronicling the history of the street was well worth a stop as well.

Looking down from the top of Andriyivskiy Uzviz. St. Andrew’s Cathedral on the right

At this point I revisited St. Sophia’s Cathedral, because the first time I went, I didn’t actually go to the cathedral.  A ticket screwup had left me only able to go up the bell tower, so this time I went in the green-roofed, golden-domed building.  It’s quite impressive, in the vein of many Orthodox Cathedrals.  Something has been there for 1000 years, though the current incarnation is nowhere near that old.  For dinner that night I made sure to go to a traditional Ukrainian place for my last night in the country.  I had Chicken Kiev, of course, but almost broke out in laughter when the waitress delivered, before my meal, not one, but two shots of horseradish vodka “compliments of the house.”  Why, I don’t know.  And it’s not as if I like the stuff.  But I downed them anyway, chased by pickles on rye bread (yeah, that’s weird).  But maybe that’s a fitting way to end my time in the country, because while my flight didn’t leave until the next evening, there is absolutely nothing to report during that time – though if you’re flying out of Kiev, and plan on taking the bus to the airport, leave yourself PLENTY of time to do so.  Next up: Chernobyl.

St. Sophia’s Cathedral

Ukraine Part 2 – Lviv

What image comes to mind when you think about Ukraine?  If it’s one of a depressing post-Soviet republic, replete with endless rows of drab, monolithic apartment blocks, well, cast that aside.  Because Lviv, Ukraine’s most-western major city and main tourist destination if the country ever gets on people’s radar, is more Prague than Moscow, evoking images of Central European cities like Krakow that team with tourists.  And Krakow is a good place to start, because Lviv (which you may know as Lwow, Lvov, or even Львів, because you knew I was going to throw in the Cyrillic alphabet somewhere) was Polish a lot longer than it was Soviet, having been a part of the old Polish kingdoms, then the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then Poland again until the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, when the city was taken by the Soviet Union.

Because it was only a part of the USSR for 50 or so years, Lviv escaped much of the destruction and brutality that other cities faced and, as a result, has a distinctly different feel than you might expect.  The main square (Ploshcha Rynok – Площа Ринок) and surrounding old town are reminiscent of Krakow in style and architecture, with every building being, if not spectacular, respectably old and generally pleasing to look at.  The streets emanating in an easily-navigable grid fashion from Pl. Rynok made for pleasant and never-tiresome wandering, especially at night, when the streets come alive with the buzz of young people and the sweet sounds of musicians on seemingly every corner.

It was these streets that I started off my sightseeing on my first day, venturing past all the main churches (of which there are many) and some of the secondary ones (of which there are even more).  Leopolitans (as residents of Lviv are apparently called) and Ukrainians in general are very religious people, evidenced not only by the abundance of churches but by the fact that there are always worshipers inside and that it wasn’t an unusual sight to see people crossing themselves as they were walking by a church.  Because of the city’s geography and history, there are a mix of Catholic and Orthodox churches, all of them quite impressive.  Stumbling into a choral performance at the Latin Cathedral one evening was a very cool experience.

Dominican church
Dominican Cathedral
Latin cathedral night
Latin Cathedral during an evening choral performance

My Lonely Planet-aided walking tour brought me outside the old town and up a hill where a castle used to stand and down a road where houses were demolished by the vibrations caused by Soviet tanks.  But the strangest thing I saw was a kid of maybe 5 years old with a baseball and glove.  He was with his Mom and little brother, neither of whom had any baseball gear.  How he got the glove, what he was doing with it, and if he even knew its purpose, I wasn’t sure – it’s not like baseball is a big deal there.  Maybe we’ll see him in the MLB in a couple decades.

One thing that I loved about Ukraine – and that has taken some getting used to back in the UK – was the absurdly cheap food.  I had a nice lunch at a cafe in the street – which cost me $5 for a beer and chicken.  And Lviv has some great restaurants, at which I paid about $10-$13 for a two course meal plus a glass of Ukrainian wine (which was drinkable, if not outstanding).  It was refreshing being able to eat well and not have to scrounge around for somewhere to eat that wasn’t absurdly expensive.

I spent most of my time in the city just wandering around, popping into churches and the various branches of the city museum.  Lviv is a very walkable city, and I didn’t mind walking up and down the same streets numerous times, as they always seemed to take on a different character.  Filled with ambling Ukrainian and Polish tourists during the day and musicians and couples and groups of friends at night, the side streets of old town are never boring, but never teeming either, the right balance between dead and uncomfortably busy.  Each night after dinner I’d go up and down the streets, and I was there for long enough that I became familiar with the different musicians there.  The best were the alto sax and trumpet duo who were unbelievably talented and played a great rendition of Average White Band’s Pick Up the Pieces, a personal favourite of mine.  But there were also great solo guitarists and a band that sounded like they should be playing soothing spa music but played strange, but good, covers of rock songs.  It was always difficult to pull myself away from the streets at night, as the music quality was excellent, and it was clear that, although these guys were looking for tips, they were playing first and foremost because they loved it.

After two days of seeing all the city had to offer, I was ready to some exploring outside of it, and had booked a tour to go see three old castles that were all not too far away from the city.  I showed up to meet the group at 9:45, as the email had told me.  Problem was, the email was wrong, the tour had left at 9:30, and there wasn’t another one that day.  So considering I’d been looking forward to seeing stuff outside the city, and that, as much as I liked Lviv, I had no reason to spend more time there, I was not particularly happy to have a full day to kill.  And then my phone died.  For no reason in particular.  I had paused the music I was listening too, and then when I went to put it back on, it didn’t play.  And nothing I could do changed that.  So now I had over a week left on my trip, no phone, and was stuck for over 24 hours in a city where I’d seen everything.  Not an ideal situation.  But things got better at night, as you’d think they would when you go to a restaurant where the instructions to get there are “go up the stairs under the dragon’s head.”  I was in Dim Legend, a quirky Ukrainian restaurant with different themed rooms (I was in the cobblestone room, which has a live counter on how many cobblestones are in the city’s streets), an old Trabant on top of the roof, and a ladder to climb up an unused chimney to then throw coins at a statue.  Oh and there’s also a TV screen in the bathroom above your head where a video plays of guys opening a trap door and commenting as you use the toilet.  Needless to say, this place was one-of-a-kind, the food good but the atmosphere better, and a delightful place for my last night in Lviv.

But I still had time to kill in the city the next morning, as my flight to Kiev didn’t leave til 5pm on Monday.  So I did what one does in Lviv – go to a coffee shop.  They LOVE coffee in Lviv, and every street has multiple cafes.  The one I went to on this occasion was my favourite, having been introduced to it the day before by two Americans I’d met in the hostel, an interesting duo who were overjoyed to find a fellow fiscal conservative “unicorn” (their words not mine); but despite that, our political views probably differed more than they converged, since they were Trump supporters who described Cruz as the moderate candidate (seriously).  But they knew how to choose cafes, that’s for sure.

I’d love to have a story that encapsulates my time in Lviv, but I don’t.  Things almost never work out that perfectly.  Instead, I’ll tell you about my drive to the airport, where the taxi driver, who spoke nary a word of English, had the radio tuned to a station that mixed in Ukrainian pop songs with Avril Lavigne and a-ha.  And I noticed halfway through the ride that there was a crack in the windshield that ran the length of the glass.  So that was interesting.  The airport is larger than it needs to be and gleamingly new, a remnant of the city’s key role in hosting part of Euro 2012.

I feel like I’ve gone off the rails after a solid opening, but the word count is getting up there so it’s time to wrap it up.  Lviv was a great city,  a place I really enjoyed being.  There are ample sights to make a few nights there worthwhile, and the atmosphere on the streets makes it always interesting to be out and about.  The city has all the ingredients to make it a popular destination, so get yourself there while it’s not overrun and the prices are still cheap!

Lviv opera.JPG
Opera House and Ballet Theatre
View from the city hall’s tower in Pl. Rynok look out over the city