At first when people asked us where we would go for our honeymoon, we laughed off the question, pointing out that we recently returned from almost eight months of travel. But, when it came down to it, were we really going to pass up such a great excuse for a trip?
And so: Ukraine.
At times I feel that Western media lumps in Ukraine with Russia — just another country that the US president wants to use to help him get re-elected. Sure, you can find things that ex-Soviet countries have in common (such as an uncanny ability to make great soup), but with its decidedly more European feel and fierce pride in the Ukrainian language and culture, Ukraine is not Russia.
Some people would have you believe you shouldn’t visit Ukraine at all. A few months ago I stumbled onto a list of the most dangerous countries to visit in the world, but when I saw that Ukraine was on the list, I read the rest of it with profound skepticism and derision. There is a lot of trash on the Internet. My advice: just don’t be an idiot and go into those areas in the east where there is still fighting.
Our trip started in Kiev, which Andrejs and I had visited together before in 2017. What’s not to love? Great food, low prices, and beautiful architecture.
We walked around the city and saw some interesting street art. How about this one depicting Ukraine being attacked by a two-handed snake? It represents the West and Russia trying to grab a piece. (We read up on it — I’m not just guessing.)
We happened to arrive in Kiev for the “Day of the Defender” — a public holiday on the 14th of October to honour defenders of Ukraine. After Russian interference started in the east of the country, this new day was decreed in 2014 to replace the former holiday (in February) that had a Soviet origin. Families were out in the glorious warm sunshine, with their kids climbing over tanks painted like the Ukrainian flag.
But, on this trip I wanted to the see more than cities. I wanted to see some of those wheat fields represented by that yellow band on the flag. The country has a relatively small population of 42 million, but in terms of area it is the largest country in Europe — almost twice the size of Germany. So, there is a lot of countryside to see.
We were rewarded with beautiful fall colours as we headed out of Kiev. We even spotted a wild moose in a lake.
You would never associate such beauty — including a wild moose — with the city of Pripyat — a town with population of zero because it is located only 2km from the Chernobyl power plant. (Did you spot the abandoned theme park ride in the middle photo?) With no people around, nature has taken over. As you stand in an area that feels like a forest, you realise that it is actually Pripyat’s football stadium, abandoned since the 1986 disaster happened.
Of course we went to the Exlcusion Zone with an official guide, because that’s the only way you’re allowed to visit, and we carried personal dosimeters to measure our radiation exposure. In total, we measured 0.003 mSv over the course of the day, which is about the equivalent to what you would get during one hour in a plane at 35,000 feet.
In fact, the area is quite safe if you stay with a guide who knows where the hot spots of radiation are so you can avoid staying in those places. Oh, and don’t dig anywhere, don’t take anything with you, and don’t rub yourself all over walls or something. But really, that should be obvious. If you happen to get anything on yourself, two checks with radiation-measuring machines will detect it before you leave, so you can clean it off. (If they can’t clean it off your shoes, they apparently keep them, but our guide hadn’t seen that happen yet!)
What strikes you is a feeling of lives uprooted. People were suddenly told to pack a bag and board a bus, not realising they would never return. The result is a profound sense of abrupt abandonment, albeit 33 years ago such that everything left behind is now old, musty and decrepit.
Then you see the actual power plant, now encased in an enormous, 108m tall ‘New Safe Confinement’ structure. The place looks clean and industrial, but underneath lies the cause of many deaths, many lives changed forever, and a swath of land 2,600m2 left largely unusable. It is an eery feeling to stand there.
You are struck by how current this issue still is. This latest structure was only recently completed — in 2018 — and confines the radiation to such an extent that you are able to stand only 300m away without your dosimeter jumping much at all. It allows about 2000 people to still work here. They are all involved in the gargantuan task of managing the after-effects of this disaster and, hopefully, somehow disassembling and decommissioning the plant before the current confinement structure is no longer viable — in 100 years time. Who knows how successful their mission will be.
Now, some of you may be thinking to yourselves that Chernobyl is not the most romantic place for a honeymoon.
I am pleased to say we countered our sombre destination with a few days in Lviv. A city in the south-west, about six hours by train from Kiev, it has an entirely different feel to Kiev. This is probably because it has previously been Austrian, then Polish, then Soviet, then Ukrainian. A chequered past, indeed. The result reminds you a little of Krakow and a little of Austrian towns, with some eastern European elements thrown in.
Our highlights were the food, the chocolate, and a visit to the opera. (Does that sound more like a honeymoon, now?)
I have to admit, though, that Lviv also had a much more touristy feel, with a lot of restaurants catering to late night parties and drinking. That doesn’t mean Lviv isn’t a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t recommend making it your only experience of Ukraine.
I’m left wondering how different other places in Ukraine might feel, given that I’ve only seen a sliver in the West. Ukraine is a big country with a lot of great and safe places to go — some beautiful, some interesting (e.g. Chernobyl) and some delicious. Sounds like a good place for a honeymoon to me.