Christmas in Pyongyang - by Shailyn Shah (http://www.earthuncovered.com)
“Does Kim Jong Un live in Pyongyang?” A rather ‘safe’ question I thought to myself. The response I got “probably”, with minimum eye contact as our Korean tour guide hastily looked away. Other members of the group looked at me as if to say ‘that was awkward’. The secrets of North Korea stay in North Korea…
In August having found a super cheap ticket to South Korea and China, I decided it would be my big long haul holiday for the year. In my interest, I looked at whether there were any tours to North Korea whilst I was there. I came across a few but struck gold with a tour run by Lupine Travel which perfectly matched my timings and price range. I mentioned to a number of people I would be going to North Korea in December. The resounding response I got was “wow” followed by “you won’t make it out alive” or “you will get arrested”. I said it would be fine, though at the back of my head did have some worry. Even a number of the Chinese I spoke with in China were shocked that I was going to visit “third world” North Korea.
There was something about the secretive kingdom that intrigued me. Whether it was to experience what I believe to be the last truly functioning socialist society or to experience daily life in the hermit kingdom I can’t quite pin point it. Ultimately, it was this intrigue that lead me to book a tour to the country, but also the same intrigue that was shared by a number of my friends who asked me to share my experience of North Korea. Prior to my trip to North Korea I had done a lot of reading on the country. I read a range of travel accounts, human rights accounts and books written by those who had previously lived there or defected from the country (thanks to my friend Jess for lending me her book “Without You, There Is No Us”). As expected, the majority of literature was somewhat negative in tone, with the occasional horror story thrown in to make you think twice about going. One of the facts I came across is if a person commits a crime, three generations after him or her will have to stay in a North Korean “rehabilitation” prison camp. Also interestingly, suicide rates amongst North Korean defectors are amongst the highest in the world. Those who defect from the country cannot bare the guilt of their families being tortured in a prison camp as a result of them escaping. Of course, a lot of these facts need to be taken with a slight pinch of salt, given that many come from South Korea which has its own political agenda to promote.
Travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) is highly restricted. Only 2000-3000 western tourists and around 100,000 Chinese tourists visit a year. In recent years the number of Chinese tourists has decreased as relations have strained due to the North Korea taking a relatively lax approach to the Crystal Meth drug trade with China (according to the Chinese) and China’s anger at the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. Our group of 12 had one Chinese guide accompanying us and two North Korean guides with us at all time. We were the last western group to visit the DPRK of 2015. It’s important to note, tourists are not allowed to visit the DPRK freely, and must join a group or private tour accompanied by local guides.
Crossing from China to North Korea
My trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) started in the Chinese town of Dandong. Dandong is one of the few entry points in to North Korea via the “Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge” which crosses the Yalu River. As one of the few crossings in to North Korea, it’s interesting to see difference either side of the river, particularly at night. Whilst Dandong is lit up with high rise buildings, barely any light comes from the North Korean side.
Starting at Dandong railway station, we set off on train 51 which runs from Beijing – Dandong – Pyongyang twice a week. The mood at Dandong Railway station was one of excitement, but also worry as to whether we would even be allowed in the country.The group was split between two six bed sleeper compartments, in one of the three carriages that departed from Dandong. We departed China at 10:30 and within minutes, having crossed the bridge were met with images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il as the train stopped Sinuiju station. We were in!
In a matter of seconds, immigration and military officials poured in to the carriage…and so proceeded the most intimidating customs and immigration experience I have been through, lasting around an hour and half in total. Prior to the tour we were warned to delete any controversial images or videos from electronic devices and leave behind any controversial literature at the hotel in Dandong. As expected books, and magazines we searched (page by page) and some electronic devices were searched – laptops, tablets and mobiles. My copy of ‘Time’s Person of Year’ was thoroughly checked. Thankfully, there was nothing about Kim Jong-un in the magazine! After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting, we finally got our passports back, and the all clear to continue on to Pyongyang – some 227km away. The journey was painfully slow, and we arrived in Pyongyang around 18:30 in the evening. Though a relatively short distance, the journey took a long time due to a number of stops along the way where carriages were added to the train. Poor railway infrastructure also meant the train had to travel very slowly. This was somewhat surprising given it was one of the few routes used by tourists to enter/exit the country, but also the key route used by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to visit Russia and China, due to their fear of flying.
First impressions of North Korea
Despite the train travelling painfully slowly, it did give us a good opportunity to experience the real North Korea as we passed through small towns and villages. With 80% of the nation covered in mountains, it’s no surprise we experienced these along the way. With the mountains in the distance covered in snow the natural beauty was truly stunning, reminding me of the Swiss Alps, particularly at sunset. Though, you just have to look in the foreground at the poorly constructed housing to realise life for citizens of the DPRK is far from stunning. Stopping at various stations along the way and seeing many military men guarding bales of hay on a train in a daytime temperature of -6oC, or those on the few other trains that passed us, which clearly looked like they had no heating I couldn’t help but feel sorry. There we also a lot of bikes and people walking, but very few cars. We are later told the primary reason behind this was because the North Korean regime wanted to limit the greenhouse emissions they send to the atmosphere. The reality is the country is so poor many simply cannot afford a car or motorbike.
Arriving in Pyongyang
We arrived in the capital of the DPRK, Pyongyang after the sun had set. Pyongyang has a different vibe to the other areas in North Korea we had passed. Though it was night time, it looked like any other city, just with fewer lights. This was something which was confirmed in daylight as I peered out of the window of our hotel room on the 23rd floor, surrounded by high rise socialist housing and monuments in the distance. Pyongyang is where the North Korean elite live, so it is distinctively different from other parts of the country, and relatively well maintained (at least the parts we were allowed to see). Having originally been told we would be staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, on Yanggak Island in the middle of the river Taedong, we were pleasantly surprised to be told we would be upgraded to the DPRK’s best hotel – the Koryo Hotel – as we were the last tour group of 2015. The Koryo Hotel is primarily used by North Korean and International delegations whilst the Yanggakdo is primarily used by tourists. We were later told the hotel had problem with its heating and with such few tourists around logistically it made sense to close the Yanggakdo and move us to the Koryo.
The upside of staying at the Koryo was we were surrounded by some local people and the military, though I had no interaction with them other than maybe sharing a lift with 10 other military personnel or passing them in the hotel lobby. As we entered the hotel there were two long lines of hotel staff with garlands, party poppers, streamers who we thought were there to welcome us. They were actually there to welcome the DPRKs fishermen who walked in just after us, and wow what a welcome it was! Sharing a room with one of the guys in my group, we were on the 23rd floor with a city facing view. The hotel and room, was like any western hotel room, just that interior design hadn’t progressed much from the Soviet style, and the room smelt like “nans house”. The room even had BBC World News, Russia Today, Al-Jazeera and CCTV of the 15 TV channels available, alongside North Korean TV. I very much doubt the North Korean delegations staying on other floors had access to these channels. We were given a strict warning by our two North Korean guides that we were not to leave the hotel grounds under any circumstances unless accompanied by one of them. The same was also true for certain floors of the hotel which we were not allowed to visit. Towards the end of my time in North Korea the hotel almost felt like a prison. On the plus side, we quickly learnt that North Koreans make amazing beer (who would have thought!), which definitely helped to pass time some of the evenings. Who else can say they got drunk in North Korea? The love of North Korean beer was also shared at a brewery we visited, which had 7 different types of beer on offer. Our guides took our passports for the duration of our stay which was somewhat worrying. Welcome to Pyongyang …
Dinner was at the hotel restaurant serving a large selection of Korean food, tofu, meats and eggs for the vegetarians. Breakfast the next morning was a standard western breakfast of toast, eggs, tea and coffee, albeit a limited selection.
‘Exploring’ the DPRKs capital – Pyongyang
We spent the remaining days of our tour exploring Pyongyang and the De-Militarised Zone which separates North and South Korea. We had a strict schedule that we stuck to and were driven around between sites in a modern Chinese Yutong coach. After a while, I realised we were driving on the same roads again and again between sites and shared this observation with some of the others in the tour. On the last night the coach even crossed the river to travel on the road we usually went through on town, only to cross back across the bridge to get to the restaurant. Perhaps I was looking in to this too much, or our movements were restricted such that we could only see the better roads of Pyongyang. Interestingly, when we travelled close to some monuments, the coach always went around the monuments unlike the rest of the traffic which always drove through the monuments.
The first site we saw in North Korea was Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. This is the mausoleum in which you can see the bodies of the previous leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lying in state, alongside the medals/awards they were given and some of the transport methods they used. The palace is massive in size with strict security, who go as far as to check contents of your wallet. Once inside, you take a series of travelators with images of the leaders on each side. An observation I made was that a number of the images looked photoshopped with shadows facing in different directions and what appeared to be people floating above the ground.
We then got to the room where Kim Il-sung’s body is lying in state, prior to which we passed a small tunnel of fans – I presume to blow any dirt off us before we see the Presidents body. Inside the room, Kim Il-sung’s body is in the centre with a Korean flag surrounding the casket on which his body is rested on. The room has red lighting with exception of white lighting on his body. We were told to bow once at the feet, once on the left side of his body and once on the right side of his body. Our guide made a point to mention the lower you bow, the more respectful it was, so I was somewhat paranoid to make sure I bow as low as possible so as not to offend anyone. After this, we moved on to a room showcasing the medals and awards Kim Il-sung received domestically and internationally, before going through a similar experience viewing the body of Kim Jong-il lying in state. Interestingly, before we bowed there were a number of military personnel who bowed before us, quite a few of whom were crying as they bowed. Whether these were genuine or forced tears I don’t know. The last few rooms we visited in the palace were the rooms documenting the travel they both did alongside viewing the train carriages, car and boat both used whilst alive. Kim Jong-il’s train carriage (also the one he died in) had an Apple MacBook laptop. Someone I spoke to on the train from Pyongyang back to Dandong mentioned that model of MacBook wasn’t available until 2012, despite Kim Jong-il passing away in 2011, though I don’t know enough about MacBook’s to verify whether this is true. Following this we went back on the “never ending travellator” and took some pictures of the exterior of the building.
From the palace went to the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill. The focal point of the monument comprises of two statues – one of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il which is placed on the highest point of Pyongyang. The statues are 22.5m in height and overlook Pyongyang. One of the anecdotes we were told by our guide was that a South Korean delegation visited the statue and asked a girl how high the statues were, to which she answered the correct height. The girl was then asked, how much the statues weigh, to which she answered “the hearts of the North Korean people”. At the statues some group members placed flowers, and we all bowed. After some photos, in which we had to frame the full statue in the picture, we then proceeded to take a short city walk in Pyongyang’s chilly -11oC temperature. We passed some of the high-rise buildings, reserved for some of Pyongyang’s elite residents. I couldn’t help but think of an article that I had read on the Guardian a few weeks ago which made reference to how many buildings in Pyongyang have collapsed due to the poor construction practises.
Walking in the city centre was a surreal experience. Absolutely no one who passed us on the streets showed an interest in us, whilst those who passed us in buses were super interested in looking at us. I couldn’t help but think those we passed on the street were strategically placed there. We continued on, passing the People’s Canteen (effectively a large restaurant) and the Grand People’s Study House (national library) at Kim il-sung Square where our tour ended. The square is the principle place in which political events, mass demonstrations and parades take place, covering an area of 75,000 square meters. Across the river from Kim Il-sung Square we could see the Juche Tower. Reminding me of the Washington Monument, and less than a meter taller than its US lookalike (very convenient), the Juche Tower commemorates the North Korean Juche ideology. Juche is often viewed as a variation of Marxism-Leninism, and was developed by Kim Il-sung following the idea “self-reliance”. The three key principles of Juche follow political independence, economic sustainability and self-reliance in matters of national defence.
After recovering from the cold with a hotpot lunch, we moved on to President Kim Il-sung’s childhood home in Mangyongdae. Four generations of the Kim dynasty lived in this simple thatched house in which relics used by Kim Il-sung and his family are preserved for the North Korean people. Officially, all North Koreans are required to visit the house at least once a year. My personal favourite was viewing the walking stick presented by Kim Il-sung to his grandad!
Our time in Pyongyang continued with a visit to the circus. Unlike any circus I have been to in Europe the circus was a purpose building, but rather than a traditional circus it was more of an acrobatics show. The circus was the first place where we really got to “interact” with the local people. Many of these locals had mobile phones and where flicking through or letting their children play games on them before the performance started. We were definitely in the company of the North Korean elite I thought to myself. The performance itself was incredible. Acrobats were flying all over the stage, many without any safety ropes. The interlude acts as they set up the harnesses, rigs and safety nets were also super interesting making the most of audience participation to get some laughs. Mid way through the performance they bought out two bears for a mini acrobatics performance. Looking around, the North Koreans were thrilled at this, my fellow western tourists weren’t anywhere as near as impressed. On the plus side, both the bears looked well fed, even if they were placed in restrictive harnesses.
The Pyongyang Metro was also on our jam-packed itinerary as we joined the locals at rush hour for short ride on the Pyongyang metro between two stops. At over 100m deep the metro along with buses, trolley buses and trams make up the lifeline of the city’s transport network – particularly as cars are in their scarcity. The metro currently uses former German rolling stock from the Berlin U-Bahn, with each carriage featuring a portrait of the former leaders President Kim Il-sung and General Kim Jong-il. We boarded the train at the terminus Puhŭng station and went one stop to Yŏnggwang Station travelling on one of the two metro lines in Pyongyang the Chollima Line. Both stations were immaculately maintained reminding me of some of the grand metro stations in Moscow with its columns and great attention to detail when it came to the art that flanked each side of the platform. It’s safe to say I have never taken so many pictures inside a metro station in my life. But I couldn’t resist it. There was something strangely fascinating about riding the Berlin U-Bahn in Pyongyang, almost an oxymoron in itself. In the centre of the platform, glass boards held up sheets of the local newspaper for people to have a quick scan of as they were waiting for the train. A great idea I thought to myself. I remember thinking to myself it’s quite strange they take us on a metro ride as part of an organised tour, but in hindsight I guess North Korea is keen to show the small number of tourists who visit that it is like any other country. The fact we only visited two stations was strange however, and I recall thinking whether all the other stations were the same, and indeed if other stations even existed. I can confirm after doing some research, other stations do exist.
We exited the station jumped on the bus and headed to a local school. Approaching the school, we could hear music playing from one of the rooms and kids playing football. We headed inside in to a large auditorium where we watched a performance put on by some of the girls at the school aged around 14 or 15. The performance consisted of traditional North Korean song and dance accompanied by some of the girls playing music instruments. The only downside, was that the school wasn’t heated! This was interesting given we were likely taken to the best school in Pyongyang. I hate to think what the other schools were like. Whilst we were freezing cold in Pyongyang’s -13oC, the girls – many of whom were traditional dresses – couldn’t wait until the end of the performance!
We left the school at dusk and headed to the Arch of Triumph. Modelled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris our tour leader was keen to point out Pyongyang version was taller than the one in Paris – the ultimate snub to capitalism I thought to myself. The Arch of Triumph was inaugurated on the 70th birthday of Kim Il-sung in honour of the role he took fighting Japan to gain Korean independence. Lit up in all its glory, starting at the Arch of Triumph, for a split second I forgot I was in North Korea. We were called back in to the coach and I remembered exactly where I was.
My time in North Korea had been super interesting. So much had happened in such a few days, with such a jam packed itinerary, I really had no chance to take it all in at the time. Having almost every movement watched, a carefully orchestrated route and fear of breaking the rules I was somewhat happy to leave North Korea and head back to China. Paranoia had led to paranoia, and even more paranoia, to the extent I wondered if our hotel room had been bugged. Time and time again I found myself questioning the smallest of situations again and again, wondering whether people had been strategically placed for us, whether things even existed, whether there was genuine love and respect of the leaders and what of the outside world people knew about. Questions led to more questions many of which will forever remain unanswered. Yes, people are extremely poor, yes national unity verges on psychotic and yes, by no means is life easy, but underlying all of this is a beautiful and completely fascinating country. That is, if my organised tour showed me the “real” North Korea…
Below is a great piece written by one of our clients who took a trip to Chernobyl with us earlier this year.
Nine Went to Chernobyl: One Took Baggage
Nearly thirty years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, H E Sawyer takes his Cold War neurosis for a trip
The sapling’s claw is persistent.
“Let GO of me!”
Yesterday’s grasping branches were an amusing distraction, but that’s all changed. Perhaps prolonged exposure to abnormal levels of radiation fuels paranoia, because the snags now feel intended, and in the past hour I’ve become convinced I’m being followed.
But the Indian trail over my shoulder lies empty, save a solitary leaf that cartwheels, pirouettes and innocently curtsies at my heels as the breeze dies. The others are long gone, there’s no sound of them, no sound at all. A corridor of deserted apartment blocks stare down through the coppice from soulless square eyes. A face at a window now and I’ll be a gibbering wreck. This abandoned town of Pripyat, once home to the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, is without doubt the most surreal environment I’ve ever experienced.
I was living in a Soviet era bed sit in urban Essex when news of the accident at Chernobyl filtered through. Early May in 86, warm enough not to notice the missing pane of glass in the window, nor need the cankerous gas fire, which was great, because I could never shake the feeling the two were somehow connected.
In truth my only daily concerns were the steampunked sofa bed that concertinaed like a man trap, and the fitness of Bryan ‘Captain Marvel’ Robson for the impending World Cup. Chernobyl changed that.
With no television or telephone, the radio had become my only link to the outside world, and the drip feed of news coming out of the Ukraine. The combination of ‘nuclear plant’ and ‘explosion’, gave me the jitters; it was only a year since I’d been sitting in the shadow of Hiroshima’s skeletal Genbaku Dome with the local school children, folding origami cranes for ‘Peace’.
I was no nuclear scientist, but I knew enough to realise there was going to be fall out. Chernobyl might be a thousand miles away to the east of Romford, but that meant nothing to the wind. Nowhere to run or hide, just find my copy of ‘Protect & Survive’. I plugged the missing window pane with layers of cardboard and tape, before going to work, making a mental note to buy extra tinned peaches and powdered milk on the way home.
Sure enough, in spite of the officials who would come on the radio to soothe and placate, the cloud of contamination spread, north to Sweden, south to France, and before long, rains brought Chernobyl to UK soil. Lambs that grazed those infected pastures in Wales, Cumbria, and Scotland, would be monitored for the next twenty five years.
During those first few days I would examine the backs of my hands as though they were strangers, and exacerbate the mildest irritation. But after a week or so the headlines moved on, Chernobyl dropped down the pecking order, and I became distracted by the footie in Mexico, and the ritual hauntings of a strange young man from Manchester called Morrissey.
Never mind. At some point in the future the world would wonder whatever happened to Chernobyl, but that would most likely be when the anniversary came around, by which time it would’ve all been sorted. By somebody else.
It seems ludicrous now, peering out from the ruins of Pripyat’s iconic cafe, shards of stained glass crunching underfoot, that Chernobyl would simply go away. The cost of its containment, some US$18 billion, may have hastened the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but the cost went far beyond any currency. As a result of the accident, surrounding lands are unfit for human habitation, and the lease back to Nature, free of charge, will run for approximately 20,000 years.
The human cost has never been adequately defined. After the deaths from the initial explosion, and the firemen who tackled the blaze, all of whom died within a fortnight, there’s been the steady demise of the liquidators who cleaned up the aftermath, and the documented increase of thyroid cancers in children across Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Initial studies predicting mass deaths as a result of the increased levels of radioactivity were radically reduced. Meetings took place behind behind closed doors, and scientists, as always, argued amongst themselves.
The only benefit from Chernobyl may have been the cessation of the ‘Cold War’, although whether that was because of the cost of containment, or whether the reality of radioactive fall out across Europe brought everyone to their senses, is unsure.
If you didn’t live through those times then I appreciate they’re difficulty to comprehend, because with hindsight, irrational fear was stockpiled to underpin a climate of fear. That this coincided with my own teenage angst didn’t help. But it was a time of, ‘What if?’, rather than today’s, ‘So what?’
During the early years of the 1980’s, the fear of nuclear Armageddon was all pervasive. Bruce Kent was marching under home-made banners, rallying the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’ across our television screens on a weekly basis, in time and tune with the pop culture of the day. New wave synthsters, ‘Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’, released ‘Enola Gay’, after the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. It reached number eight in the UK charts, and number two in Switzerland, ironic, because Swiss teens had access to public fallout shelters, an indication in itself of how seriously their neutral government viewed the impending threat. That, and the fact that we, the unsheltered record buying public in the UK, knew about it too.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood released ‘Two Tribes’ in 1984, with an accompanying video of ‘Ronald Reagan’ and ‘Konstantin Chernenko’, wrestling to the death in a bear pit. The single went straight to number one, and stayed there for nine weeks. Worth noting that the running time was a savvy 3 minutes 57 seconds, so there’d be just enough time for a final play, come the 4 minute warning, given the DJ had it to hand, and that ‘the birds’ weren’t launched during Simon Bates midmorning show on Radio 1.
Ultravox produced ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’, Heaven 17 ‘Let’s All Make A Bomb’, even Bowie’s 1983 come back number one, ‘Let’s Dance’, featured an erupting mushroom cloud in the video. Even Sting wrote a song.
While the musing of Pop might have been dismissed, the BBC’s ‘QED’ documentary, ‘A Guide to Armageddon’, could not. Broadcast at peak-time in July 1982, it detailed the effects of a one megaton nuclear device detonating above St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Based on scientific assessments, it brought terrifying footage into the nation’s living rooms. Effects of the blast, miles from the epicentre, were illustrated by an exploding pane of glass lacerating a pumpkin, inter cut with the faces of kind, elderly ladies. This hazard would radiate out as far as Hornchurch, so I still had two miles grace, provided it was a solitary one megaton bomb, and it was on target. If it exploded over the Tower of London, there’d be no point drawing the curtains.
A couple of years later, once I’d leapfrogged Hornchurch to my Romford bed sit, I reasoned I’d only be slapped in the face by flying charred cardboard. On the downside I was closer to ‘Ground Zero’, so I’d most likely be entombed under ten thousand bricks decorated by a dozen Victorian chimney pots.
Watching the ‘QED” documentary again, thirty years on, there was clearly no escape, unless you contracted one of thirty UK companies, and paid them ten to twenty thousand pounds to install a fall out shelter in your back garden, providing had both the money and the garden. Hopefully, when the sirens came, you’d be close enough to access it, and keep your marauding neighbours out.
But once again such contingency was only postponing the inevitable; tinned peaches eventually run out. Even the Government’s ‘secret’ nuclear bunker in the bowels of Kelvedon Hatch, now a tourist attraction, carried a supply of cyanide capsules, to be used once ‘retaliation’ had been concluded.
Retrospectively the public consciousness of the time can now only be seen as embarrassing, irrational and illogical. I was there, and part of it, slavishly reading books on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and at no time did I ever stop to question why I was so obsessed in the first place.
Fascination with nuclear attack against the British Isles came from the Home Office publication of the pamphlet, ‘Protect and Survive’, (1976), which advised the householder of the precautions to take in the advent of impending mutually assured destruction, and was reprinted in May 1980 in response to a series of articles in The Times newspaper from January of that year.
Dated by simplistic language and illustrations, it was an exercise in keeping the ‘Gen Pop’ occupied with building shelters under the stairs, or digging a trench in the garden, which now looks exactly what it was; a convenient DIY grave and burial service in one.
The prospect of impending Armageddon terrified me, as well as the Swiss government, and clearly we weren’t the only ones. I still have my copy of ‘Protect and Survive’ within easy reach, and although I’m now too old to care about the sabre-rattling of nations, it does remind me of how governments, including my own, use fear as a means of control, and not to stress out over climate change. Back in the day, we only had four minutes. And the population surrounding Chernobyl didn’t even get that.
Nine board the the minibus in Kiev, all male. One assumes ladies opt for the day trip, rather than this Full-Blown Geek Weekender; whether that’s because ladies chose to avoid Chernobyl geeks, or because there’s a lack of facilities within the Exclusion Zone, I’m unsure. We’ll be using the bushes.
Before we start, Igor, our driver, guide and radiologist, presents his geiger counter, which registers 0.13 microsierverts. He assures us this is lower than in his apartment. In the UK, 0.15 is considered an acceptable level for background radiation, but we’re all aware we’re going well beyond that.
Once underway on the two hour drive north, we’re entertained by an onboard documentary, ‘The Battle of Chernobyl’. I’d seen it before; in fact I’d watched it the night before I flew to Kiev, as a refresher on the salient facts. I watch it again. It’s the remarkable story of the men, who not only responded to the crisis, but prevented a second explosion that had the potential to remove Europe from the map.
As we approach our destination, built up areas give way to roadside markets, then the people and the traffic thin, then are replaced by an empty road and endless trees.
It’s a beautiful day, with 9/11 sky. Once we’re processed at the military checkpoint, we head to an abandoned village that still stands amongst the undergrowth. Many such communities were razed by bulldozers, buried underground as a means of containment, the only sign of their passing the ubiquitous staked atomic markers. Fanning out, we enthusiastically weave between the saplings, creeping through interiors where possible, peering through windows when not.
Down the track that was once a street, through the undergrowth, sits the old cultural centre, the hub of the community. Inside the reliefs are falling from the walls and the stage lies forlorn. But I’m mesmerised by a faded blue and yellow poster on the wall. I can’t understand Ukrainian, so cannot read the text, but I don’t have to, because I know the pictogram only too well. Expressionless people constructing a DIY fall out shelter, then sitting and waiting. It’s the Eastern version of ‘Protect and Survive’.
We check in to our accommodation in time for lunch. Food is brought in from outside the exclusion zone, although contamination has by now penetrated the topsoil to the depth of a foot, and I remember the lambs of England’s infected pastures. But the ‘locals’ are probably still eating root crop from their kitchen gardens and apples from their orchards, and besides, I’m famished, the meal is tasty, so I clear my plate. Adopting the resolve and pragmatism of the bio-robots, conscripted to clean up the aftermath, I too will drink vodka and smoke cigarettes.
The hotel is a two storey prefab with shared bathrooms, set on the edge of the village of Chernobyl. A few long term residents sought permission to return, so the odd renovated cottage stands out amongst its ruined neighbours. The functioning church and the memorials, including the recent one to Fukushima, are also beautifully maintained.
Back in the bus we clear a second checkpoint, and enter the town of Pripyat, for the sights the internet made famous. The cultural centre, the police station, the swimming pool, the gymnasium, the amusement park, dominated by the iconic ferris wheel that never turned.
Officially these days you are not allowed to enter buildings, and with good reason; three years ago the sides of a four storey school sheared away, creating a giant doll’s house amongst the rubble. And at some point the lighting rig in the theatre smashed to the floor. But today there’s no patrolling guards to stop you entering, although you do so at your own risk.
Over the years roofs have developed leaks, so any wooden floors below are now soft and spongy with moss and rot. It’s a case of eyes everywhere, especially to the ceiling and floor before you enter any doorway, and tread warily, because the integrity of the buildings is only going to deteriorate.
The sleeves of my jacket chalk as I lean against walls to photograph the scrolls of peeling paint and the Urbex treasures within, although I was cute enough to bring disposable latex gloves to brush the traces off.
Inside the foyer of the hospital, Igor gathers us around a piece of cloth that came from one of the fireman’s uniforms. His geiger counter shrieks as he waves it towards the fabric. We take a collective step back, as if confronted by a spitting cobra, then cautiously edge forward. Over someone shoulder I can see the read out above the wail, as the counter monitors the hot cloth again. It’s past 0.15 - it’s registering 1666 point something, and it will remain like that for centuries.
The value of an experienced guide and a geiger counter is clear. He’s able to show us the best bits while protecting us from our curiosity that might lead us into basements, or picking anything up off the floor. Pripyat may well be the ultimate Urbex destination, but it contains hazards like no other.
Igor leads us safely through the maze to the rooftop of a sixteen story apartment block. Naturally there’s no working lift, so it’s thirty two flights up stone stairs, and clamber up a short iron ladder. But the panorama is like nothing else on earth. The buildings meshed within trees, the forest stretching beyond, sections still rust red from the fall out.
In the distance the sarcophagus housing the wrecked reactor and the glinting silver shield being built to encase it. On the horizon, the mysterious cat’s cradle structure, Duga-3, the so-called ‘Russian Woodpecker’, radar system. The advantage of taking the weekender is the additional time, which affords us the opportunity to explore this vast complex, a luxury denied to day trippers.
From here you can see Pripyat is truly lost. It just takes Nature time. It’s had thirty years, so there’s the best part of twenty thousand years to go. It is way beyond Biblical and our own recorded history, past, and probably future. Weeds and saplings puncture the asphalt, steps crumble, and without Igor’s local knowledge, and pointing out the stadium floodlights, I’d be oblivious that the fledgling wood we cross through was once the town’s football pitch.
We visit the floor of gas masks, and note the dolls, strategically positioned by other tourists to photograph. It is forbidden to remove anything from the area, and considering the highly radioactive piece of cloth inside the hospital, why would you? Yet Pripyat has the feel of having been picked over. Some residents returned to retrieve possessions after their hasty evacuation, but few had the necessary transport to reclaim furniture. The army eventually smashed the windows, and took axes to the pianos, ensuring they didn’t follow the looted, contaminated television sets to the shops in Kiev.
We stop on the road to view the silhouette of the sarcophagus, hastily constructed at great risk to contain the damaged reactor. Even by 1991, five years after the explosion, there were birds roosting inside. Indeed it was reported there were holes large enough to drive a car through. Alongside, the new shield that will encase the old structure gleams in the afternoon sunshine. It’s projected to have a life span of a century, so it will put the problem off for a while, until Chernobyl’s eternal sentence catches up again.
Then Igor utters the immortal line
“Let us go closer to the nuclear reactor.”
Five minutes later we troop off the bus under the watchful eye of camouflaged personnel to see the monument in the shadow of reactor number 4. Standing at a tangent, we have just 8 minutes allocated to take our pictures. Construction on the new shield takes place behind a protective wall. Workers carry out shifts of five hours a day for a month, then have 15 days off. When completed in 2017, the ‘New Safe Confinement’, the largest movable structure ever created, will run on rails over the the original sarcophagus. Robotic arms inside the new shield can then dismantle the original structure.
Chernobyl is the opportunity to time travel. From the 26th April 1986, the clocks began to run down. It hasn’t been frozen in time, because Nature has taken over, and the evidence of what it can do in thirty years is plain to see, as it will be in the decades, centuries, and millennia to come.
The trip afforded me the chance to revisit my youth, and evaluate the times I lived in. Chernobyl is one of those, “I remember where I was when I heard’ moments. Yet it also provides the portal to our collective future, to a time when humanity is no longer here. It’s not the film set of apocalyptic imagination, although that’s the only thing that is comparable. But Chernobyl is real; it doesn’t require Will Smith, and I recommend it without reservation.
You don’t have to go this minute. You’ve got all the time in the world.
I travelled to Chernobyl with Lupine Travel, (www.lupinetravel.co.uk), who can arrange day trips, weekenders, or customised packages. I was so impressed with Lupine they’ve become my tour operator of choice for exploring the world of the weird and wonderful.
We recently returned from our inaugural Ethiopia and Somaliland tour. The trip didn't get off to the best start when the hotel we were staying in burned down on the first morning! The historic Taitu Hotel in Addis Ababa was the oldest hotel in Ethiopia and it was terribly sad to see a piece of history up in flames. Luckily no one was injured and one of our clients 'Clem' Clemson was on hand to give a first hand witness report to the Daily Mail.
The highlight of our trip was undoubtedly the extension to the other worldly Danakil Depression where we witnessed everything from live lava lakes, volcanic roads, camel caravans, salt lakes and amazingly colorful hydrothermal field at Dallol.
In Harar we fed wild hyenas and kites whilst in Somaliland many of the group became genuine Somalian citizens after picking up passports on the black market in Hargeisa!
Our 2016 trip will run in January 2016. Half of the 16 available polaces have ben booked up already so get in touch soon if you'd like to join us. We will also be offering the chance to do extension trips to Djibouti, Eritrea and Sudan. Details will follow soon.
You can find photos and videos from the trip at the links below:
Danakil/Ethiopia/Somaliland photos (by Tonis Hobejogi)
Ethiopia and Somaliland highlights video (by Tom Sanderson)
Welcome to our new blog page! We will be updating this page regularly with details of our upcoming tours, new destinations, tour blogs and general musings. To start with, here is an article that caught our eye in an edition of the Tehran Times:
Forty five years ago, the United States sold my country a research reactor as well as weapons grade uranium as its fuel. Not long afterward, America agreed to help Iran set up the full nuclear fuel cycle along with atomic power plants. The U.S argument was that nuclear power would provide for the growing needs of our economy and free our remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.
That rationale has not changes. Still, after the Islamic Revolution in our country in 1979, all understandings with the United States in the nuclear field unravelled. Washington even cut off fuel deliveries to the very facility it supplied. To secure fuel from other sources, Iran was forced to modify the reactor to run on uranium enriched to around 20 percent. The Tehran research Reactor still operates, supplying isotopes used in the medical treatment of 800,000 of my fellow Iranians every year.
But getting to this point wasn't easy. In 2009, we put forward a request to the International Atomic Energy Agency for fuel for the reactor as its supply was running out, threatening the lives of many Iranians. When we agreed to exchange a major portion of our stock of lower enriched uranium for reactor fuel in 2010 - a proposal by the Obama administration - the response we got from the White House was a push for more U.N Security Council sanctions.
Again, we did what every government is obliged to do: protect and ensure the well-being of our citizens. Thanks to the grace of God and the hard work of our committed and growing cadre of scientists, we managed to do something we have never done before: enrich uranium to the needed 20 percent and mold it into fuel plates for the reactor We have never failed when faced with no option but to provide for our own needs.
All relationships - whether between parents and children, spouses or even nation-states - are based on trust. The example of the Tehran Research Reactor vividly illustrates the key issue between Iran and the United States: lack of trust.
We have strongly marked our opposition to weapons of mass destruction on many occasions. Almost seven years ago, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a binding commitment. He issued a religious edict - a fatwa - forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. Our stance against weapons of mass destruction, which is far from new, has been put to the test. When Saddam Hussein attacked us with chemical weapons in the 1980's, we did not retaliate with the same means. And when it comes to our nuclear energy program, the IAEA has failed to find and military dimension, despite an unprecedented number of man hours in intrusive inspections.
Being sovereign and independent does not mean that there is no room for dialogue or diplomacy. It means that one enters and debate as an equal, based on mutual respect and justice. To reestablish trust, all sides must assume an honest approach with a view toward moving past the barriers to sincere dialogue.
A key aspect of entering a conversation based on mutual respect is recognizing the other side’s concerns as equal to one’s own. To solve the nuclear issue, the scope of the upcoming talks among Iran and the “P5+1” (the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany) must be comprehensive. The concerns of all sides must be addressed. Complex matters that have been left unaddressed for decades cannot be solved overnight. Another sign of mutual respect is a willingness and readiness to both give and take, without preconditions. This form of reciprocity is distinct from approaches that involve only taking. Most important, and this cannot be stressed enough, is that dialogue must be seen as a process rather than an event. A house can burn to the ground in minutes but takes a long time to build. Similarly, trust can easily and rapidly be broken, but it takes a long time to build.
If the intention of dialogue is merely to prevent cold conflict from
turning hot, rather than to resolve differences, suspicion will
linger. Trust will not be established. Despite sanctions, threats of
war, assassinations of several of our scientists and other forms of
terrorism, we have chosen to remain committed to dialogue.
In the upcoming talks, we hope that all sides will return to the negotiating table as equals with mutual respect; that all sides will be committed to comprehensive, long-term dialogue aimed at resolving all parties’ outstanding concerns; and, most important, that all sides make genuine efforts to reestablish confidence and trust.