Day 20: April 1, 2018
Laying in the airport in Riga I fell asleep for maybe an hour and then a guy with his hat half over his eyes sat next to us. I thought he was on a call because he was talking and laughing. When I sat up he was laid back resting. I decided to go for a walk and I FaceTimed by parents for a bit. I went back and Danny was still sleeping so I laid down again. I woke up another hour later freezing cold. There were more people moving through the outside doors and the metal benches had holes so you were never able to warm up. I went for another walk then Danny finally woke up. I told him I was freezing so we moved to another spot a floor down. We found a spot in the back where it was slightly warm and there were less people. I slept for maybe another 2 hours then walked again to warm up. Danny slept through it all.
I researched Riga for a bit and found some maps near an information booth. Danny finally woke up around 7:00 am. We bought bus tickets at a shop and then went outside. It was quite chilly: 3 degrees. The bus took about half an hour to get to the Old Town.
We walked to the Central Market that opened at 8:00 am. The first building was meats and the smell of sausages was very enticing. The next building had breads. We bought a pizza looking thing, but it had some sort of odd cheese on it. It didn’t taste much like pizza. We bought a spinach roll that had a sweeter dough than I expected and a poppyseed crunch pastry which I very much enjoyed. The next building was fruits and vegetables. We picked up some carrots and apples. The last building was fish which was very smelly. We went back to the meat building and got some sausages. All the food we picked up ended up being only about 5 euros. Not many of the merchants spoke English, but we were able to work it out.
We walked into the Old Town and the streets were dead. It was Easter Sunday so it wasn’t too surprising. We walked around pretty aimlessly checking out all the streets.
The place I most wanted to visit after my hours of studying in the airport was the Cat House which has two black cats on the turrets. The homeowner was declined membership into the Great Guild so the owner turned the cats so that their tails faced the house of the Great Guild.
Riga’s Old Town was very pretty: lots of churches, Old Town walls, and a statue of Death.
We stopped at a café. I had a chai latte with a bunny in cinnamon on top.
We people watched for a while then went out to see what everyone was taking pictures of. It was the House of the Blackheads a 14th century guild of unmarried German merchants.
We walked to St. Peter’s Church and there was already a small crowd for the free walking tour. It was approximately a two hour tour. We learned about the origins of Riga and Bishop Albert who brought Christianity to the Latvian pagans. It was owned by Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia. The major industry during the German period was trade as it had a good central location between Germany, Russia and the Nordic countries. It’s first independence was obtained in 1918 then again in 1991. The guide talked about how during the Soviet rule they banned religion so the churches were repurposed. One in Riga was a disco and one in Estonia was a museum of Atheism. The major industries in Latvia now are forestry and pharmaceuticals. Latvia’s major sport is hockey. How much of that did you know about Latvia?
On the walking tour we walked past the house of the Great Guild. They were merchants that would have had political control of the town as well. To be in the guild you had to be a wealthy, German male.
We also saw the Three Brothers a famous Riga site. The buildings show the different architecture of the time. From left to right they are from the 18th, 17th and 15th centruries.
After the tour we walked back to the bus stop to go back to the airport. We very much enjoyed our stop over in Latvia as we really knew nothing about it. We ate our lunch in the airport and my teeth started chattering from being so cold. We had to walk around for a bit for me to warm up.
Through security we bought a chocolate Easter bunny to celebrate Easter. Easter is always one of my favourite holidays. First of all chocolate, but for my family it was always a really fun day. My parents still put out Easter eggs so that I can do a hunt. We colour Easter eggs and have a big meal. The snow is usually starting to melt and it’s relatively warm (it sounds like this was not the case this year). That combination means it is the best time for puddle jumping as well. I felt very sad to have missed it this year. We are having a ton of new experiences here, but there are also those things we are missing back home.
We had some ramen for supper then boarded our flight to Kiev. I was able to sleep on the plane probably from exhaustion. The SIM card we bought in the UK didn’t seem to work in Kiev which was a bit frustrating. We connected to the airport wifi and found the address for the Airbnb. I booked an Uber, but we had trouble connecting properly. We got the license plate and headed out to look for it. We saw him pass and walked to the parking lot where he was talking to the police regarding where he was parked.
We arrived at the Airbnb and then didn’t know how to contact the host. We got her phone number right before Danny’s phone died. Luckily she had an iPhone and there was free wifi in the restaurant we were standing outside. I messaged her and she scolded us for not messaging her from the airport. Oops. We had to wait about 30 minutes for her friend to arrive with the keys. It was quite windy, but not super cold. We were glad when we got inside and were able to sleep in an actual bed.
Day 21: April 2, 2018
We woke up at 6:00 am to scrounge up some breakfast and get to the train station for our tour to Chernobyl. We took an Uber to a McDonald’s near the train station and had some Egg McMuffins there. We walked up the street and checked into the tour. We were in smaller tour vans with fourteen other people.
For those who don’t know, on April 25, 1986 Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. During a simulation of a station blackout, uncontrolled reaction conditions occurred. A fire resulted and radioactive material was released into the atmosphere.
On the hour and a half drive north to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone we wanted a Discovery Channel documentary called “Battle of Chernobyl”. It was really interesting, but I fell asleep. I will have to watch it again. From the parts I was awake for they had Gorbachev interviewed and he claimed to not know the extent of the issue until Sweden started asking about radiation levels they were seeing in their country. It is hard to know if he was lying or if his subordinates were too scared to tell him. The film also talked about how the Soviets asked for help from other countries to build robots to get the situation under control, but they didn’t provide accurate radiation levels. This resulted in many of the first robots not working at all. The helicopter pilots that flew over the site dropping sand bags would do 25-30 passes a day over the site accumulating fatal levels of radiation. The Soviets claimed that only 27 people died as a result of the explosion. However, they did not keep statistics on the after effects so it is unknown how many people actually died.
We arrived at the 30 km zone and had to have our passports checked. To go into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone you must go with a tour. They obtain the permission required for you to enter.
We continued to our first stop: a village called Zalissya that was evacuated following the Chernobyl disaster. We were able to walk into some of the houses and a store.
All that was remaining was mostly papers and some furniture. Looters had been there following the explosion and then the government decided to clear out as much as they could.
We drove on to the town of Chernobyl which is now the base for the workers in the exclusion zone. The village part was abandoned and the city part is occupied by the workers. They work on 15 day shifts to limit their radiation exposure. Approximately 3,000 people live inside the exclusion zone.
We saw some of the robots that were used during the disaster to put out fires and move debris.
We also saw a memorial built by the firefighters for the first responders.
From there, we went to an old Soviet army base called Radar Dugar-1. The base was labelled on maps as an abandoned children’s summer camp. There were approximately 1,800 people on the base during the 1970s. The radar system was built to detect missiles from the USA within 5 minutes, allowing them 25 minutes to respond. It was believed to be only 30% accurate making it unusable. The radar was massive and built in 1975. Due to the noise it made it was named the Russian Woodpecker.
Next we stopped at Kopachi which was an abandoned town that became a burial ground for radioactive waste. We were able to walk through a Kindergarten. Off to the side of the sidewalk was a hot spot. The Geiger counter was placed next to it and the level just kept going up.
Next we got a panoramic view to the reactor site. To the left, you could see Reactors 1, 2, 3 and then 4 was covered by an arch. Across the cooling pond you could see where they were building Reactors 5 and 6. The cranes are still paused there.
We stopped for lunch at the worker’s canteen for a Soviet lunch. There was no colour to the food. Basic noodles, breaded chicken, soup, bread and coleslaw. It wasn’t as bad as it looked.
We got a closer look at the site after lunch and were able to see that arch that was built over Reactor 4. An original shelter was built over Reactor 4 following the disaster in 1986 by the Soviets. When the Soviet Union collapsed Ukraine was left to handle the site. The original cover was meant to last 30 years, but upon further inspection it needed to be replaced much sooner. The international community helped to donated money to a fund for the new arch. The other reactors were actually operational following the disaster with the last one being shut down in 2000.
We drove on to the closest city to the site: Prypiat. It was built to be a model Soviet city. It rewarded the citizens that worked hard for their country at the nuclear power site. It had state of the art buildings, a swimming pool, a modern grocery store, a hotel, a stadium and a hospital. There was also an amusement park that was scheduled to open 4 days after the evacuation.
We were able to walk around and even saw a moose. Since 2011 no one is allowed inside the buildings in Prypiat due to the structural integrity. The guide had pictures showing how the city used to look.
From there we drove back and had our radiation levels checked by machines. You placed your hands on the sides of the machine and it told you if you were okay to go or not. The Geiger counters were reviewed to see our exposure levels. We had about 3.0 mSv of irradiation which is less than having an X-ray taken.
We drove back to Kiev and found a nearby place to eat. It was the most delicious Georgian food. We had a salad, a pizza thing and Khachapuri (a cheesy bread, ours had stewed vegetables in the middle). It was all amazing.
We took an Uber back from there and went to sleep.
Day 22: April 3, 2018
We woke up fairly early to take in Kiev. We saw the Princess Olga Monument and St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery very close to our Airbnb.
We then walked passed The Wall of the People’s Memory of the Victims of Ukraine 2014-2017. I was actually a bit shocked with the number of people listed. The wall shows the names, photographs and background of 2,896 Ukrainians who were killed or died during the period from March 17, 2014 to February 19, 2016.
We then walked passed the Canadian Embassy on the way down to Independence Square. We saw the Founders of Kyiv Monument. We looked out at the square and imagined it filled with people.
After we visited I found this set of pictures comparing the before and after of Kiev’s Independence Square during the Russian-Ukrainian war: Before and After Pictures Independence Squre
We walked back up from Independence Square looking for somewhere to eat breakfast. We passed St. Sophia’s Cathedral and Bohdan Khmelnystky Monument. He led an uprising against the Commonwealth in 1648-1654 that resulted in the creation of a state led by the Cossacks of Ukraine.
We ended up back at our Airbnb and ate breakfast in a cafe just outside. I had dumplings that were like perogies and Danny had potato pancakes. They definitely weren’t as amazing as the Georgian food the night before. We went to a different cafe nearby and had some gelato. We then took an Uber to the airport and flew to Budapest. We definitely did not do Kiev or the Ukraine justice with our short visit.
We arrived in Budapest and the weather was so much warmer! We caught a bus to the city centre and then transferred to Keleti train station. We had taken cash out at the airport, but what we thought was $50 was actually $300. Our math to do the conversion was not very good. The denominations are quite confusing: 1,000 Hungarian Forint = 5 Canadian Dollar. We tried to buy train tickets with a 10,000 ft not realizing it was $50 CAD so the machine wouldn’t take it. We then tried to split the bill by buying 2 croissants and the lady was very unhappy when we showed her our 10,000 ft. Now we understand why.
From Keleti train station it was a short walk to where we stayed. A friend from Danny’s work has a daughter going to school in Budapest and she was kind enough to let us stay in her spare room. She was waiting outside to greet us. Her place was very spacious and it was nice to be staying somewhere homey again. She had a foster cat who Danny and I both fell in love with. We chatted for a bit and then we went up the street for some supper. We had goulash soup and a plate with chicken, fries, sausage and salad.
Grocery shopping was next! The produce had to be put on a scale to be weighed, then you enter the code and it prints a tag. When we got to the till with our one onion the lady said something to us in Hungarian and Danny dolefully said, “Sorry”. She then put the onion on a chair behind her and continued. We never got the onion.
We are looking forward to our next couple of days in Budapest!