Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Best Depressing Tour Ever: Chernobyl, Auschwitz, and More

So, this summer, my lovely lady friends Veronica and Pnicole came to visit and we embarked on the greatest tour of depressing world events, ever!

First stop, Chernobyl. I learned so much about this confusing and secretive disaster. I never knew that "they" were so close to almost wiping out all of Europe! The tour took us to the abandoned kindergarden, and through the red forest to Pripyat (Припят), where the plant workers and their families lived. It's deserted now, with overgrown weeds and leftover traces of radioactive dust, or "hotspots." Don't worry. I was radioactive-free and I know this because I went through multiple detectors, before and after eating lunch near the plant. I also "walked faster than everyone else" which I was told to do since I forgot a long-sleeved shirt.  

This tour was OK. I don't think I'd recommend it because of the price, which was $170 USD. However, it was really interesting and I learned the story of Chernobyl while seeing some of the aftermath. 

Next stop, Lvov. I think every single train ride in Ukraine is an adventure. The train ride to the beautiful city of Lvov was like being in a wooded cabin at summer camp, talking with good friends late into the night...and sweating. Lvov was actually a break from depression. Instead, we took a tour with the Kumpel brewery and learned the history of Lvov and beer. We got to taste 5-6 different beers and talk with a great and energetic man with many secrets about Lvov, including the secret about how Jesus was a red head. (That one was especially for me.)

Next, we traveled to Poland. We took a bus to the border of Ukraine and Poland for about 20 UAH and walked over, only after passport control giving Veronica a hard time for her gypsied up passport, seeing old ladies trying to slip cigarettes into peoples' bags, and getting herded like cattle through metal gates. At first, there was a long line in the hot sun, but as soon as they found out we were foreigners, the process was expedited and we made it over in a few minutes. I heard one man say, in English, as we sped ahead of many Ukrainians: "Rrrrrrussian Tradition!" with a nice rolled 'r'.

Poland was great. We talked and heard all about the Pope (not Benedict). To get to Krakow, we took a short bus ride (maybe an hour?) to the elektrichka train station in Poland, where we could get tickets to Krakow. 4 hours and three sleeping friends later, we arrived in Krakow and found the Secret Garden Hostel, which was the best hostel I have ever stayed at. It was more like a hotel and it had free breakfast every morning. It was about 100 UAH a night, which is about $12 for my American readers;). Krakow was a really cool Medieval city. There are hundreds of bars, clubs, and restaurants paired with beautiful churches and a trumpet player who plays on the hour every hour (read about him, here: the interuppted/ing trumpeteer). It's a great city, day and night, full of light AND an underground market museum, which I recommend. 

We spent a few hours on tour at Oświęcim (Auschwitz) before leaving Poland. It was a good experience. It made me reflect on a lot of things, like how I never have the right to complain about anything ever again. The most powerful moment for me was at the beginning of the tour, when we were looking at photos of people taken to the camp, without knowing what was going to happen to them. I almost lost it then. After seeing Auschwitz for an hour or so, we visited Berkinau, which was a much bigger camp. I really liked the modern art memorial sculpture. So sad.

Poland was also great because we missed our flight and were told to get off our train to Kiev and then watched it leave without us. So, it was fun trying to figure out how to get back to Ukraine. We did, eventually, thanks to an awesome, kind, grandfatherly Polish man named Yatsik. He drove us from Poland to Lvov and helped us catch up to the train we "missed." Long story (which includes my heart dropping when I saw a line of cars at the border waiting and stopped for days, someone mistakenly telling the border police we were from from Spain, a garbage can toilet, confused friend faces wondering what was going on and why our driver was yelling in Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian, and a bribe) short(ened), we made it.  Yatsik even walked us to our train (which we found out was late) and waited with us for an hour and saw us onto our train! Once again, the kindness of strangers saved the day and I will forever return the favor by being nice to and helping frazzled travelers.

OK, I lied. This was not a depressing tour. We saw some sad things and reflected on life and terrible historical events, but mostly, this trip was a wonderful reunion tour with friends and it was so strange and amazing to see them! I think I needed someone to pinch me when I saw P and V walk through the gates at the airport. And, I think that because I wasn't pinched, the whole thing seemed like a dream...

But here's some evidence of our adventures:

Memorial at Auschwitz

I'm not sure if you can tell, but Logan is walking away from this exhibit and you can see his reflection lined up with this prisoner outfit

On the kindergarten floor in Chernobyl


Add caption

Geiger counter and hot spot

Summer fun in Kirillovka

The Great Square in Krakow 

St. Mary's Church in Krakow
Alchemy in Krakow where I had an excellent vanilla vodka drink
Lvov wave of beauty
Chilly down with the fire gang!

Into the torture chamber! 
That's what you get for
saying that Filipino's
 invented everything moohahah!
On our way to Lvov 

Ukraine has such beautiful sunsets...