A few days in Kiev …

Its been a while since I last visited Kiev. Of course a city with many memories for me. Be it my time here with Yulia and her friends, my first business trip in 2008 after which i called for the coming economic crash or the 2012 boys trip to the European football championships where my friends Sean, Guelane and Hubert managed to destroy Arndt on the first night out (contrary to his reputation at the time). Its always been a welcoming city and this time was no different …

I arrived via Minsk on Monday and enjoyed an evening of catching up with Yulia and Inna. The last time we hung out together goes back a some way to NYE 2015 in Lviv – some great memories which we fondly discussed. There was also a new guest in the house – a young actress that doesn’t seem to digest samogon (local moonshine) too well as we saw on tuesday night when she arrived home on all fours after her premiere. Man was she drunk ;o)

Yanukovich residence: Tuesday the weather was on our side and we three made our way to a village 40mins by car north of Kiev (location). Idea was to visit the former residence of pre-Maidan revolution president Yanukovich. The estate is located right on the shore of the Dniepr river and its enormous! Electric vehicles for tourists and bike rentals at the entrance just prove the point. It boasts endless parks, main & guest residences, a zoo, a port, a collection of mainly soviet vintage cars, tennis, golf and football facilities and a lot more. We wandered around for 4 hours or so and even saw deers coming our way out of one of the many forests and no overly shy of people. Definitely worth a visit! Thanks ladies.

Swan lake (no 3 this year): I didn’t plan on seeing swan lake when i came here, but as fate had it was the only show on in the time i had. And i did want to see kiev’s beautiful opera house. So Tchaikovsky once more please (love it). Great evening!

St Sophia cathedral: On Wednesday weather didn’t treat us as well calling for some indoor activties. We decided to head to the center and visit the St Sophia cathedral. Quite impressive although i am not so keen on churches as much anymore after my pilgrimages in Spain & Italy and a visit to Jerusalem in 2015/16. Alongside old mosaics and frescos, some Ukrainian artist also created a portrait made of 1000’s of hand made Easter eggs – fascinating. Inna joined us again, as her interview scheduled for today had been moved. After the museum & church tour we headed for my favourite pub in Kiev – the metropole. Its a belgian styled pub and, naturally, serves belgian beer including leffe & chimay. Mmmhh … The evening we made a spanish one. No shortage of options in the local supermarket (different to russia due to sanctions). Jamon, manchego & rioja – ole! Не плоха!

Thursday was Chernobyl day. See Chernobyl: Trip back to 1986. Once back in town i headed for the supermarket where i met yulia in a pure coincidence. We figured to make this dinner italian themed – and I was to cook. It proved to be a nice atmosphere in the kitchen (e.g. alone) with some italian youtube classics running in the background while i got busy. Tasty!

My last day in Kiev started slow and quiet. Yulia was again flying somewhere around with Ukraine Airways. Inna made breakfast and eventually we headed for Arsenalno station with some spectacular gardens and panoramic views over the city in walking distance. We talked in russian throughout. It felt actually good and certainly wouldn’t have been possible last time we met. We rewarded our walking effort with a nice meal at a very traditional (be it touristic) Ukrainian restaurant nearby. Вкусна!

And then it was already time to go. I briefly saw yulia at the airport – she arrived, i left … ‘Thanks for flying with UIA‘ she said with a smile. Time to say goodbye and to get back to London after three month. Thanks Kiev!


Chernobyl: Trip back to 1986

Chernobyl: Trip back to 1986

Even though I was not even seven years old at the time, I remember the Chernobyl disaster well. I am actually not sure if i recall the disaster as it happened (information flow was far from twitter like at the time) or whether I remember it from the many Ukrainian children that were sent for holiday to East Germany. Be it as it may, its a tragic event i remember well and recent photojournalistic work by my dear friend Tina reminded me of a long overdue visit.

Short drive in: I booked an organised tour to get all the paperwork to the exclusion zone done. There are in fact two zones – 30km around the exploded reactor and 10km. Details about the events in April 1986 can be found here. After a 2,5h drive from Kiev we arrived at the 30km zone check point. Having been a completely deserted area post the nuclear accident, there a fews settlers back. All old people that usedd to life here numbering less than 100 today and falling as people die of age or nuclear impact.

Radiation varies: This outer zone shows only limited levels of gamma radiation (0.15 mSv) though much more can be found in the ground rendering living off the land a potentially fatal exercise. We measured 24mSv at an old school (30km zone) and even 46mSv in Pripet town (10km zone).

The 30km area might actually self – heal … in a few hundred years. There is no such hope for the 10km one that remains uninhabited though has daily power plant and other commuters. There was, however, no mentioning during our tour of undetected fall-out or forced relocations in the area as late as 1995 in the tourist version we got presented (see here for a bit more reality).

There two mandatory radiation checks on each check point when you exit the exclusion zones. We got a total of 1mSv all day – a typical plane ride can easily be 4. So looks ok ;o)

Chernobyl town & nearby village: 14000 people used to call this place home. Today still some 3000 workers (ex the power plant) live here that deal with radioactive waste removal, science, foresting etc. There are three hotels around for the keen. We visited a monument for fire fighters, a machine park with remote controlled vehicles used to fix reactor 4, saw crosses in memory of 97 erased/deserted villages and a nearby village with its kindergarden.

Chernobyl power plant: The 1986 ‘sarcophagus’, which had been built to cover radiation with an estimated lifetime of 30y, has since 2016 been complimented by a new structure above it. Radiation here was higher at 0.8mSv though still relatively low. The reactor type used here was usually only for army use, but cheap and used for energy even despite its (known) dangers. No comment. Today’s workers here are chiefly busy with deconstruction work that is expected to last to 2065. Ukraine still spends huge sums (5% of GDP) on Chernobyl – money missing elsewhere – taking the total economic cost of the disaster to multiple times the countries economic output over the years.

Pripet town: This was the largest settlement in the direct vicinity of the plant with 50000 inhabitants. It was considered a soviet model town, with well above average salaries at RUB200-300 at the time vs RUB100-150 in Kiev (at the time, the FX rate vs USD was 1:1). Here you find the most striking site – a deserted amusement park. Empty scooter parlour and a large ferris wheel. The latter actually never worked, but legend tells of a few spins just on day of tragedy and within days of the official opening on 1st May 1986. Beyond that you find all kind of buildings in desolate states – hotels, schools, hospitals. Tragic for all those who could never return to their homes.

Soviet radar station: Last stop was a soviet (over the horizon) radar station with the biggest antenna i have come across (90m high, 180m long or thereabout). And we only saw the receiver! These were extremely powerful things (up to 10MW at times, see here) and carried the name Russian woodpeckers from the knocking-like interference they caused. Impressive structure though long decommissioned by now.

Tour to Chernobyl: i booked with the moderately priced go2chernobyl guide company. UAH 2000 for the c12h roundtrip from Kiev (lunch extra). I think there is no point getting geiger/dosi meter, as the guide has one and takes frequent readings. Our guide was very average and lacked any real insight or story. Most about the accident i learned during a movie on our way to Chernobyl and from my friends work.

Clouded lands – 30years Chernobyl‘: On the 30 Oct 2016 I received a mail from Tina asking for support for her Chernobyl venture. I helped, no question, and am still impressed by the work she and her friends produced. I copy one of her pictures below, but urge readers to check the whole fotoset & story here: Life after Chernobyl

Goodbye Russia & cycling to Shlisselburg

Time has truly been flying. Almost 3 month in Russia are over. Feels somehow I leave just in time with the arrival of colder weather and ever shorter days. The time here has been rich in old and new friendships (thanks all again!), new knowledge be it the Russian language, farm life or the ins and outs of this country and its people. I also regained my pre-Lhotse weight thanks to an uncountable number of Soljanka’s and other russian meals. But now its time for new adventures and three weeks with my son after a brief stopover in Kiev and Chernobyl.

Goodbye Issad: I only spent half the week on the farm doing the routine tasks and helping Cohan to build the new milking parlour. We also had to replace a flat tyre, which was fun. We also had a visit from the Russian special police force at the farm looking for illegal immigrants. Given Jan, Cohan and I didn’t register our stay in Issad formally (you are meant to within the 24h), we figured its better to avoid them. The evenings seemed like a non-stop good bye party. Tuesday with Richard and Wednesday with the entire issad gang. Thank you all and see you somewhere in the world another time.

Cycling to Shlisselburg: Before I came to Issad i had prepared a list of things to do in and around Issad. The only point missing was a cycle trip to/from Issad and the city of Shlisselburg with its fortress. I decided to go for it on Thursday and made the 100km ride through mainly forests, old villages and along the Novoladoshskiy canal. It was beautiful though admittedly tiring. Well, never done a 100k ride in my life. I arrived in Shlisselburg around 8pm. Next morning i visited the fortress. Its located on an island and needs a ferry to get there (RUB250 return +RUB entrance at fortress). The name Shlisselburg, originally built in 1323 and now unesco world heritage, comes from german for key (=Schlüssel) fortress (=Burg) and was given to the place by a peter the great after he took it back from the swedes at the cost of 1500 russian soldiers. In the time before and after WW2 its been used as a political prison and was host to names like lenin’s brother.

I dropped my initial plan to continue cycling to Peter given my bottom was still sore from yesterday. Instead i took the 575 bus back (RUB75 bike included) and spent some time reading. Once in St pete i just cruised about town mainly along the Neva and delved into memories as i cycled past many places i been to in the weeks before. I felt a bit melancholic.

Goodbye St Pete: Friday eve i stayed with Katya, Max and Hadley in Sestroretsk to chat a little about my farm experience and share some of my thoughts. Saturday last evening out with Nika, Yuri and Daniel. They had booked a real nice Georgian restaurant not far from Nevsky prospect. Vodka was part of the menu and set us up for a good night out. After a bar i hadnt been to (Orthodox) we went to my favorite pub (fiddlers green on Rubinshteina) where Felix joined us. After off to poison karaoke bar before we retired. Big night, many memories.

Sunday started unsurprisingly slow, but i didnt have too much time to rest with lunch at larisa’s & victors coming up. That also meant a to of olivier and cognac as usual. In the living they keep a scales on which i ‘weighed in’ at 74kg during my first Wednesday after school visit. 3month later i had added 6kg. I collected some presents to take to london (alex has turned into a book worm and asked for russian books – grandpa larisa is just the right person for that. Time for a final good bye.

The evening was reserved for another group of friends – the 1703 guys. Anna mentioned that Artëm was in town and so we all ended up at this hip-hop bar where we met many weeks ago. Arthur, the cab driver who took us for a night-tour, also came along. I once more admired the battle rap skills of some Russian rappers and karaoke at nearby poission with some good eminem tunes. Fast these guys. DJ – spin that shit! Eventually we ended up in the flat i had booked for the last evening and chatted away. Cool icing on my Russia cake figuratively speaking.

And that was it. Next stop Minsk on my way to Kiev. I can now speak Russian. Basic, but I can. See you soon Russia!

9 things to do in & around Issad village

Having spent close to six weeks in Issad, I summarise here the highlights of what to see & do. Enjoy!

5 things to do in Issad

  • Visit the local Orthodox Church (Tserkov Troitsy Zhivonachalnoy): Pretty run down and under some form of reconstruction at the time of writing, but if you have nothing else to do an option to consider.

  • Fishing on Volkhov river: Given limited indoor options in the village, a fishing trip is a must do. View of the Volkhov river are great and within walking distance from anywhere in the village. No fishing gear? Absolutely no problem since there is a fishing store right by the local supermarket. I got a fishing rod and some accessories for RUB700-800.

  • Eat in the roadside restaurant just outside Issad: I had food vouchers from the farm and went there twice a day. Typical Russian menu with good soups and generally tasty food. Much better than other cafes located roadside in the village. The one thing I didn’t like was that they serve food in plastic are open from 8am to 4am every day.
  • Have a BBQ: Sometimes its best to make your entertainment given limited options in the village – a BBQ is a great way of doing just that. All the kit you need can be bought on the 2nd floor above supermarket. Enjoy your meal!

  • Visit Cafe Britannia: The only place to go for non-Russian food (like pizza ‘standartne’) and a beer in the village. Styled in a London theme though doesn’t quite feel like a pub. Drinks are often not cold though maybe my time here has trained them a bit. Opened to 10pm Sunday to Thursday and 2am in Friday / Saturday. They have TVs and it’s possible to catch the odd football match though champions league is tough given games tend to start just before closing.

4 things to do around Issad

  • Staraya Ladoga: Located just on the other side of the river, the town is pretty stunning and one of the oldest in Russia. There is a fortress, monastery and some good views. I have written about my visit here.

  • Veliki Novgorod & Kayak on the Volkhov river:  The town is located up the river Volkhov and a 3.5h drive away. Beautiful old town, many bars and decent nightlife options. See here for details. We decided to see the tour via kayak from the riverside – highly recommended.  Best get I touch with Nikita (http://kayakvn.ru/). You are looking at about EUR20 per kayak per day including pick-up from wherever you finish.

  • Novaya Ladoga & Lake Ladoga: While the city of Novaya Ladoga underwhelms on a good day, the nearby lake is simply stunning (14th largest by area in the world and largest in Europe). Don’t miss it! For more details the lake have a look here. We rented a small motorboat for RUB2000/day at a lakeside camp side (www.krenitsy.ru).

  • Volkhov: Not that much too see there really beyond the hydropower station (best views actually from the other side of the river on the way to Staraya Ladoga). Has a Megafon shop (best network in Issad), a sushi area and an entertainment Center with pool, cinema, bowling and a decent restaurant called Ёлка (https://m.vk.com/elkacafe).

There are certainly more things possible (eg sauna, hunting, forest walks etc), but thats my best-of list.

Week five on the farm: Danone bloggers & lake Ladoga

Highlights of last week included Monday’s group of bloggers sponsored by Danone, a first proper catch of fish on the river and my last weekend here that presented itself with beautiful weather and a trip to Lake Ladoga. The international crowd in issad now counts a further guest in Cohan from New Zealand who is in charge of building a new milking parlour. The russian crowd shrank in turn as Lisa headed back to St pete. Was a pleasure!

Danone bloggers: I had written about this earlier. Danone basically uses micro-influencers in form of instagram bloggers to promote their Tëma – childhood line. They had visited Danone’s production facilities in the past, but now went a level deeper looking at the milk origin here at our farm. Quite a few big insta names in town with a total of close to 3m followers and Russian actress Anna Mihailovskaya. Overall, it went quite well though one hardly will get 100% honest feedback for these (paid) influencers I should think. Here a short movie of the farm.

Otherwise the work week was mainly routine tasks and a lot of time helping the vets again.

Fishing with success: Having changed spots to the new one Jan located a bit further up the river, I finally caught two medium sized fishes last week. great success! Rather than eating these bony little things, I donated them to Evelina’s sea turtles.

Last weekend in Issad: The unbelievable happened … we actually had a few more guests at cafe Britannia and some sort of party. Must have been arranged ;o)

Lake Ladoga: To visit the lake has been on my agenda already when I left london. It’s the 14th largest freshwater lake in the world (by square meters) and an absolute beauty. We made our way there on Sunday hiring a small motor boat to get around (RUB2000/day from local campsite in Novaya Ladoga). However, since the local fish shop in issad had run out of worms we were a little short of good bait. We tried fake fish with mixed success. I caught a small pike before losing my plastic fish to the lake … just got stuck somewhere on the ground I guess. Anyway, relaxing in the sunshine and taking in the scenery was top class nontheless.