Booze, bribes and blood.
Part 1 - Arrival
Caution, in a word, was the theme of the short break. We'd deliberated and debated for years about a trip to Moscow, the good ol' USSR, and though neither of us were willing to admit it, we both felt that such a trip might herald a level of fear and destruction previously unexperienced in our duel engagement and observations on human behaviour.
So, in somewhat of a compromise between my personal wish to head to Amsterdam and consume a wheelbarrow load of natural halucinagens, and his new found hope in the prospect of Russia, we began devising a plan to head to Ukraine. A mini adventure of three days which would put to rest the unvoiced concerns around Russia, at the same time giving us a taste of its ever intertwining brute ugliness and tempestuous beauty.
Such previous journeys had seen us rove drunkenly around Europe at once disguising ourselves as transatlantic gold merchants, magicians and inventors. Previous reactions by the locals had been mixed, ranging from being chased out of English villages by armed gangs to the embrace of leather skinned old fishmen off the coast of Malta. Once, we rained confusion down on the new avant-garde of Montmartre, 'let me paint your nose' one shouted at me, 'no fucking hipster is changing the colour of my nose,' I rebutted pushing the swine away. We were ambivalent when it came to our predictions of how exactly we would be treated when arriving in Kiev in a February winter, the year of our lord, 2012, but, as mentioned, caution was a priority.
This notion was inadvertently bestowed upon the trip by a man called Yuri. Our aptly named booking agent for our day long tour of Chernobyl, the area of the world's largest peace time nuclear disaster, decided it appropriate to sign off his final email, confirming the tour, with the ever foreboding words; 'Good luck'.
"What the fuck does he mean 'good luck?'" was our initial reaction, only much later, whilst we were in the depths of the highly radiated Pripyat within sight of the debilitated and crumbling sarcophagus would we truly understand.
No sooner had we booked the trip than had the day come. After a cursory discussion of the events to proceed followed by a home cooked meal, the last full meal we would eat in three days, and a few drams of Balvenie 12yrs we were on our way.
Unless your journey is indeed, forbearing of great peril or otherwise inexorably tied with misery of some sort, whether a death in the family or the urgent requirement to have a tumorous mass in excess of 150 lb. removed from your stomach, the airport is always a play of exuberant joy. This was no different for us and without hesitation the consumption of every possible liquor sample available at the duty free stands began to take place. Sláinte! Slange Var! Cheers! Prost! Kanpai! "Wait, what the fuck is it in Ukrainian?" "Who knows? Such details we'll figure out when we're there," smiles all round.
Now it has to be said, having flown across the globe on various national airlines in my time, some stereotypes die hard. The precise reasons continue to elude me, though, as much as air travel has lost its air of romance in the last few decades, it would seem national airlines continue to grasp at an element of this forgotten passion, and continue with ardor to not only represent the majesty of the sky, but also their given country. British Airways will always remain a stoic, bushy mustachioed, reliable leviathan. I swear I once saw a live chicken flying around the cabin whilst journeying to Hong Kong on an Air China flight. Ukrainian Airways was certainly no disappointment, an entirely female host crew whose handsome faces, with such powerful mandibles, couldn't help but retain their Eastern European beauty despite being engulfed in an avalanche of orange makeup. As beautiful the as the air hostess' were, the stark contrast of the Captain and officers was one which would be set for the duration of the trip. Impossibly angled foreheads fed down into a vast ridge of an eyebrow, nay a mountain that would prove a challenge for any droplet of sweat to run over if it were not for the sharp declining angle already mentioned in the forehead. Underneath this mound of flesh lay such dark eyes, met in the middle by an abrupt nose that lead down further to jawlines only possibly through the detonation of vast quantities of TNT by goldminers of the New World. Brutes.
"I feel like I'm on the flight in Con Air, only this one is much scarier." Perhaps such an omen should have been heeded? Fuck this, pull the fire escape, parachutes all round! But we've not left the runway yet? Well, fuck man, inflate the big bouncy slide and get those fucking life rafts on the go, we're all gonners otherwise!
More whiskey on the plane helped settle our nerves and so we landed to a joyous round of applause by the Eastern European contingent of the flight, which as it happened, was everyone other than my friend and I. Me, the an alabaster white, mock hipster with a shit side parting and stupid glasses, and him, a six foot seven giant with an even worse haircut and a penchant for catching his thumbs on everything he brushed against.
Mere moments passed before it was abundantly clear that the infrastructure of Motherland Ukrainia - as we had Christened it - was lacking in almost every department. As the charred remains of a suitcase sailed passed, that had evidently been run over by an airplane, the friction between the huge rubber tyre's and the compact polyester of its contents apparently making it instantly combust, we made our way out of arrivals and onto the concourse.
Now, there are those of you among us that would perhaps be irritated by an hour long wait on an aging communist-era bus whilst its driver blared out hit after hit of 60's Ukrainian folk music. Some may even be intimidated by the fact that during the course of that hour, not another Anglo, Franco or otherwise Western individual got onto said bus. Not us though, as the Good Doctor once said; when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Another hour from the airport and the ailing vehicle drops us off at what we assume is the central train station, though any natural indicator of this fact was either unseen or simply not there. Venturing inside regardless, a more stereotypical sight could not have been rendered if a picture had been directly transmitted from our own premonitions. Wide crumbling arches, bad ambient lighting, broken marble flooring, all indicative of a bygone age of communism thrust us into the reality of now. All this further expounded by the dominant mode of civilian dress, outdated by perhaps two decades compared with our hip East London threads, and even further by the simply peasant, almost nomadic looking aged ladies and men who hobbled around this hole in time. Aside from the abundant visual information to correlate and assess, everything was, of course, in their own form of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Spotting a kiosk that bore the internationally recognised 'i' for information adjacent to our gawping, we hastily made our way over. A smile and the mispronunciation of the underground station that we were looking for to the lady behind the plexiglass screen of course prompted the arrival of an armed policeman. With a military blue, urban camouflage puffer jacket that housed enormous shoulders and tree trunk like arms, topped with a deer stalker hat under which a face with a pronounced cleft lip and penetrating blue eyes looked on at us with a grimace of such power it almost unravelled us right there.
"I think I'm the most scarred I've ever been," I recollect saying as we moved in the direction the policeman had ordered us, whether or not it was the right direction failed to matter, that was the direction we were to go, and quickly. Walking along the concourse of the vast train station was simply intimidating, we were clearly not of this time or place. We descended into the subway on perhaps the longest escalator journey I had ever been on, not only because of its impossible length, the likes of which I'm sure Jimmy Page had in mind when he wrote Stairway, but also because of the prolonged stares that this permitted from the commuters journeying on the opposite, ascending escalator. Was it his abominable height? Perhaps my fucking stupid haircut? It became quickly apparent that as the Ukranian women had one setting for their makeup; 'FUCKLOADS,' the Ukrainian men had one permitted haircut; shaved. Anything above a grade three would perhaps see your summary execution, so my oiled side parting that sat on top of thick rimmed glasses drew many a stare from underneath those mountainous ridged eyebrows on that never ending escalator journey.
It appeared that any logical thought had been dispensed with when constructing this particular underground system. From London to Hong Kong, Paris to New York, Tokyo to San Fransciso, I've navigated them all with haste and precision. Kiev on the other hand was a problem, though despite the severe language barrier and outsider status, we resurfaced unharmed and relatively unscathed a mere hour later.
A short walk and the whiskey from the airport and airplane had long worn off, overridden by adrenaline, we were on the way to our youth hostel, making sure to keep to the main streets. Upon our arrival we were greeted by two sights and two sentences. The first, the owner of the hostel and our host for three days, a slightly disheveled looking German, though his gaunt face with a three day old beard was not without its own element of charm. The second was the par which was set for the next three days, a stunning young Ukrainian girl. In her early twenties and perhaps through working at the hostel and being around a large contingent of foreign nationals, failed to wear the thick layer of makeup adorned by so many others, only adding to hear glow. It was she who spoke the first sentence; "Passports please." the second came from the German, "You want to get drunk? We leave in five minutes, hurry up."
Bags thrown, antiperspirant sprayed, essentials gathered; spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch, mobile, cigs and keys, a cab ride with the German and we were in a badly lit gravel car park 30 minutes into central Kiev. "I think they're after our organs," I whispered. "Just where are we, man?" My friend asked the German. "Best bar in Kiev, it's in Lonely Planet!" he enthused. "It's themed like a psychiatric ward, it's great." Kickbacks galore we assumed, but proceeded into the bar, apparently called Palata No. 6, or 'Ward number 6' after after the 1892 play by Anton Chekhov.
I sat at the head of a table, perhaps 8 feet long and 3 feet wide, to my behind and to my left and right I was surrounded by padded walling. My friend sat beside me, and to my right was the German and a small Frenchman who was apparently 23 but looked no older than 14, a mass of frizzy hair atop of his head, he was quickly christened 'Einstein-chen'. An Indian in a well cut black suit with a crimson shirt and pocket watch also accompanied us, he insisted he was waiting on a phone call about a job interview and may have to leave any time, and finally an American with a wide smile who was called Stevil by the German, the two clearly friends. And so the exhibition began; "Can't get too drunk tonight, sorry, up early for sight seeing tomorrow, want to cram in as much as possible, we're only here a few nights you see."
"Hush." The German responded, ordering a 'rack' of vodka, which was simply 30 test tubes filled with the drink for us to share as we drank beers, as is the way when in a psychiatric ward themed bar in the middle of Kiev. "Okay, one rack, can't get too drunk."
Hours pass and the haze grows, racks and racks of vodka are consumed on a conveyer belt of self destruction, test tubes are smashed against the table, the floor, each other, beer is spilled, songs are sung, the small Frenchman passed out and the Indian left, presumably for his interview, and the German took it all in his stride.
"Richard! You need to have an injection!" He wailed.
"Fuck this bad noise," I got up to leave.
"It's from a horse syringe, full with an absynthe cocktail, they force it down your throat and let rip."
"This is failing to pursued me," I paused.
"It's administered by one of the waitresses." Now, I have failed to mention, whilst the bartenders were dressed as doctors in full scrubs, the waitresses were clad, typically, in tiny nurses uniforms, and beautiful they were. "You put your head in her lap, and take the injection down your throat, gulp it all down..." Not without understanding the sexual connotations to this reversal of roles, I immediately accepted.
The haze continued, when we left in the early hours I saw a man in a suit with a red shirt wearing a WW2 military issued bell helmet that was on fire, as the barman attempted to put it out with a brick, he did shots off the bar.
Part 2 - Communism
"Gentlemen, you asked me to wake you" The German stood in the dorm of the hostel, bare chested, his voice appreciated the situation, remaining not too loud and not too soft. "We're going for a businessman's lunch, Stevil and I, we'll be meeting our friend Roger too, he's an Englishman, you should come, the food is good."
Up, showered and still a little drunk, we were back in the taxi with the German and this time accompanied by Stevil. "Where are we going?" "We'd like to see some sights, do you know of any?" we quizzed.
"Businessman's lunch," the German turned to say from the front seat with a his best proper face, Stevil nodded reassuringly.
The familiarity of the car park was slightly unsettling, we stepped out of the taxi and the though there was a freshness to the air, it failed to agitate our collective hangover. "I think this is the psychiatric bar," my friend murmured as memories came flooding instantly back.
"A rack of vodka!" The German cried within seconds of being sat at the table. We were the only people in there, it was 11:30am.
"We'd really like to see some of Kiev today," I shook my head.
"The vodka will help," he responded.
A cautionary note for those uneducated reading this. If a German, in Ukraine, ever invites you for a 'Businessman's lunch' in fact, if anyone in Ukraine ever invites you for a 'Businessman's lunch,' said lunch has one key ingredient, Vodka, and lots of it. Beer is also present, coffee if you need it and cigarettes if you partake, there is however, very little food actually involved in this lunch.
The other Englishman soon arrived, Roger, a short stocky fellow with a very prim accent, he was on his lunch break from teaching at a local school and quickly got stuck into the vodka test tubes. More stories were told and laughs were had, we were in good company and although the German had given us his mobile phone number with the ominous precursor of, 'if anything happens, just call me,' we felt quite secure now, high on drunken confidence, 2pm rolled around and we were ready to do some sightseeing.
We shared a taxi with a well oiled Roger who was heading back to his school and was kind enough to drop us off at the Motherland Russia statue. We were here, we'd made it, despite being quite drunk, really rather hungry and running on about four hours sleep, the sun was shining there was a bite in the air that kept us on our toes.
"Howitzers!" "Tanks!" "A fucking Hind!" we were in a playground of decommissioned soviet arms and fun was being had. I'd no sooner rolled and lit a cigarette than I felt a big hand on my shoulder. Turning revealed two massive military police.
"Sir, you come with us," one said in a thick Russian accent, his Himalayan face quickly instilling a type of ridged fear in me.
Think fast fuckhead, my fuzzy vodka fueled mind shook and my adrenaline shot, my guts tightened and I remembered the German wailing the night before; "the police, they get paid about 30 of your english pounds per week, if you get any hassle from them, just shout at them 'TAKE ME TO FUCKING PRISON' they'll soon leave you alone, they know they can't do anything, they just after money."
Fuck. My mind recoiled.
A few seconds more.
My leg moved and they knew they had me, I capitulated, I wasn't sharp enough, I didn't have the wit retort, and though the adrenaline pumped, there was clearly no running. I caught my friends eye and in a quick glance, the likes of which only the closest of friends can understand, he backed off, no use both of us being hauled away, one of us will need to call the embassy, the consulate, the fucking United Nations.
I was frogmarched into a small cabin like police hut.
"No smoking at monument, 1000 hryvnia (about £100), you need to pay, or we take you to prison. Give me your passport."
The short walk had given me a moment to compose myself, I looked at the other, younger of my two captors who sat and spoke to me. He failed to carry the same air of intimidation his gargantuan comrade held so well. "I don't have that much." I responded after a moment, shrugging, the fear had subsided somewhat.
"I'll need that back"
"How much, you have?"
"I know what you're doing."
He looked down and started writing my passport details in a small notebook.
"I know what you're doing." I repeated.
Looking up, he shrugged, "I have a family, I must feed them."
The failure of my heart to bleed for this corrupt cop who was essentially giving me the ultimatum of either Ukrainian jail or a bribe worth almost an entire month of his wage, was perhaps not unsurprising.
"This is all I have." I'd left the bulk of my cash reserves at the hostel as I had predicted only the need for some lunch whilst sightseeing, it was about a third of what he was asking for.
"Right," he nodded, clearly unhappy at the payoff, but now he had nowhere to turn, I'd failed to call his bluff and given him the money, he couldn't now also take me away to the local police station, he'd be out of pocket and soon a job and he knew it.
"You go, don't smoke here."
"Gotcha," I exited the hut into the cold air, my friend a hundred or so yards away continued to drunkenly take pictures, badly impersonating a legitimate sightseer.
"Come on dickhead, let's have a look here." We proceeded deeper into the grounds of the monument, a vast collection of military hardware alongside brutally tragic and imposing reminders of the fallen dead. The vast bronze and iron dioramas were deeply depressing. Depicting the countless men and women who had run into battle for the Motherland, only to fall so quickly, to perish under a never ending hail of bullets and drown in the oceans of their comrades blood, their impact was hard. If we had been sober, the dismal arena that piped through old soviet war chants may have been more upsetting. We recognized and respected the pain and suffering these immense scenes depicted, but still, we were drunk, so a series of ridiculous pictures later, and one passing of the young policeman who had I had payed off only an hour earlier who waved enthusiastically at me, and we arrived at the centre piece.
The Mother Motherland statue is immense. As awe inspiring as it is fear inducing, the colossal statue rose above us, out of the scenes of senseless war and death, like a phoenix from the flames. We were silenced as we emerged from the tunnels of death and into the open space high above Ukraine on which this majestic woman stood.
"I need a piss." A simple enough task, until the terrifying realisation that the tourism centre at the base of the statue was closed, perhaps they were having a businessman's lunch too?
"Seriously, I'm about to piss myself," the situation quickly escalated as often happens with a drunk piss. A moment is all it takes, to go from a slight twinge in the bladder to the absolute need to let flow a vast steaming torrent in any direction available.
"I'll go around the back of the statue, follow me, shout if anyone comes." Going around the back of the statue wasn't as simple as initially predicted, approaching the giant thing, it was clear a run was going to be needed to get to an 'out of sight' position. Though, as you'd imagine, on at a national monument of such significance, commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad, there isn't really anywhere that's out of sight.
"They're coming!" My friend roared.
"Fuck off, dickhead" I shouted back, mid flow.
I heard the footsteps and hastily shook and repackaged myself before running like I'd never run before. My friend had an advance on me, and we knew it was about 400/500 meters to the exit of the monument grounds through a maze of war memorials and obsolete soviet tanks. To add to this, the small police hut where I had just been fleeced was at the exit. I could hear it in my mind, I could see the radio signals shooting past me, 'That fucker with the ridiculous haircut, he pissed on Mother Motherland! He's coming your way, shoot on sight comrade!'
The leather soles of my brogues had never seen such action and as my heart felt as though it was about to explode from my chest, we shot passed the empty cabin and onto the street.
"Quick, that cathedral, they can't arrest us in a cathedral." My drunk logic was at its pinnacle as we spotted the huge Russian orthodox cathedral another 50 meters down from where we had just exited.
Dropping into a light jog, we kept on until we were deep inside the epic building, that, given the way things were unfolding, was unsurprisingly in the middle of an Orthodox mass.
"Fucking look normal, blend in," my friend said as we panted and coughed our way into epic building.
"I'm not sure I can deal with this." My chest was on fire, my blood thrust through my veins with unrelenting fury, my heart pulsed, expanding and contracting, firing off like pistons in a ruined engine. A Russian Othodox priest of some sort sauntered passed our position swinging a ball of burning frankincense from a chain, closely followed by a congregation of at least four more. Their huge beards, their tall hats, their robes, the glisten of the afternoon sun through the stained glass windows, the flicker of candles, the rolling hum of the patrons praying quietly, it all shook and reverberated in my drunken, sleep withdrawn vision.
"I need to leave."
"Me too. I think we've lost them anyway."
We shuffled through the crowd and exited onto a street where we hailed 'the oldest cab in the world'. Of soviet construction and design, the thing and its driver were amusing relics. I lit a cigarette as the car noisily shot through the traffic of the city and we sat quietly, trying to compose ourselves.
A disco nap and a shower later and we were back with a bottle of vodka in front of us, this time in another bar without a theme and without the German. Instead the Ukrainian co-owner of the hostel had taken us out, together, we were with Einstein-chen and another German, though he never spoke. If you are ever presented with a Ukrainian with a thick accent, ask them to say 'Okey-dokey-pickety-pokey'. Along with the Japanese, they are one race which fails every time to get their tongue around the extended adverb, and it's fucking hilarious.
The following hours are a massive blur, my friend left me, as it transpired to eat McDonalds, whilst I continued to drink by myself in this strange bar. Peculiar memories of that night, I seem to remember ingratiating myself with a group of girls, whom I have no doubt were utterly charmed by my incoherent growls and troglodyte like grunts, after a short time there was a lot of pushing and bad noise with some local youths and I was jeered out of the bar.
Part 3 - Radiation
"Wake up, you fuck! We're going to Chernobyl." My friend shook me as I peeled my face of the floor of the corridor outside the dorm room we were staying in.
"We need to leave, right fucking now, dickhead!"
"What? Where am I?" It was evident to my friend that whilst I had successfully made it back to the youth hostel, I had failed at the final hurdle of untying my brogues, falling over during the process and promptly falling asleep where I landed.
"We're going to Chernobyl, the bus leaves in 45 minutes,"
"I'm not sure that's a very good idea."
"It's a 30 minute walk and they said get there early,"
I stood and left, in the same clothes as the night before, without any prior preparation, and almost terminally drunk, to go to the location of the world's largest peace time nuclear disaster.
The walk was brisk, my friend was clearly angry with me, but also knew I was teetering on the brink of complete physical and mental shutdown, the next hour or so would be vital, if I got through this and had a sugary drink my metabolism might realign and I'd be somewhat normal for the rest of the day. So, he kept the pace up and I followed, eventually reaching our destination and the mini-bus that was about to take us on this worrying journey, the one for which Yuri had wished us luck only a few weeks prior.
The party consisted of; me, drunk as fuck, still growling slightly and generally kicking up a real stink. My friend, slightly angered but having taken the opportunity to slap me, his spirits were rising. Three other English, two men and one woman. One a posh, rugby jersey all the time wearing type and his fiance, a rather plain looking girl with a face which made you think, 'has she got sand in her vagina?' and their third wheel friend, John, who seemed just as confused as me but was very amiable and clearly on our wave length. There was also healthy and smily Australian couple who were making a film about traveling around Eastern Europe and asked if they could interview us throughout the day, my friend suggested they wait a few hours, at least until I had stopped growling. Then there was the bus driver, who looked distinctly like someone who had driven a tour bus around Chernobyl for the past decade, that should paint a sufficient picture, and finally our utterly charming and quite stunning tour guide, a lady in her late 20's, it would be her smile and general enthusiasm that would carry me, and I suspect all of us, through the day.
Sat in the back of the mini-bus, between John and my friend. It seemed as though it had worked, a few bottles of Orengina, the cold morning air, a solid slap and the hint of adrenaline produced at the thought of our destination had steadied me. John, it turned out, was extremely funny, his confusion at the situation was only exacerbated by mine, feeding into and off of each other he pulled a hip flask from his rucksack.
"Ah, a man who speaks my language."
And so we continued, the two hour drive saw the consumption of the well sized hip flask between the three of us in the back as we bounced around and the Australians tried to perform their interview. The conversation itself is hazy, in fact, I have no recollection what we talked about, but it remember laughing at a lot. Perhaps a hint of hysteria had overcome us? The landscape was becoming increasingly desolate the further we drove and considering how bleak Ukraine had been to this point, this did not bode well. Never ending fern-less forest with a light smattering of snow surrounded us, it seemed that was all there was of Ukraine for some time. Our tour guide told us stories of roaming peasants that still lived in this surrounding forest, women that were pregnant at the time of the disaster escaping into the dark woods to avoid forced abortion of their unborn children. Scraping an existence together by hunting wild game, slowly succumbing to the radiation, few were left.
"Are we in Mad Max?" John asked shuffling his glasses on his face and nervously scratching his light beard.
Finally the grey forest gave way to the hopeless view of Pripyat. The town that had been purpose built for the nuclear power station of Chernobyl. The empty roads that we navigated around the town were locked in a terrifying silence which overwhelmed us. We sat quietly, slightly awed by the vast size of this complex and just how much land had been captured by the spilled radiation upon the meltdown of reactor number four.
Our tour guide finally broke the silence as we came to a stop, got out and entered a small temporary looking building made up of a series of cabins that was the tourist centre for Chernobyl and Pripyat. I couldn't walk, my legs were like jelly, my breathing heavy, I'd essentially not eaten in two days and my body was not doing well, in one of the worst places on earth.
I stumbled into the building, sat down and paid little attention during quick briefing about the disaster and what the procedure was for the day's tour, after which we took another short drive to the first of many utterly depressing memorials for the fallen dead. The initial one was for the soldiers that had been sent in immediately after the meltdown and first explosions. These men were made to collect highly irradiated material with their bare hands and bring it to storage units. As you can imagine, they died slow, painful and cancer ridden deaths for many years after the initial incident. Their memorial was a retired armored personnel carrier raised about three feet off the ground on a stilt.
As our tour guide talked to the group about how these men had sacrificed themselves, I decided I wanted a closer look at this huge vehicle.
"Look, guys! The tires still spin!" I joyfully whirled one of its massive wheels, shouting to our small party and smiling wildly.
"Please! Don't do that! Stop!" Our tour guide waved frantically, "Radiation! Come back! Please!"
I wasn't sure what all the fuss was about, surely enough time had passed by now to be able to give a tyre a bit of a spin? Apparently not. Rubber, it would seem, as with moss and any other type of porous material, is very good at soaking up and retaining radioactive particles. She ran an electronic geiger counter over me which released a series of worrying clicks. "Please, stay with group," she asked whilst shaking her head.
The tour continued and became increasingly depressing and dangerous. I had brought boots with me to Ukraine, and appropriate warm clothes for this day, however, given the immediacy with which we had to leave the hostel, putting these items to use was out of the question. Dressed in skinny fit jeans, leather soled brogues, a thin checked shirt and light jacket, I looked and felt utterly fucking ridiculous amongst the group who were wrapped up with hiking boots, scarfs, gloves, good jackets and other weather resistant clothing.
The baron landscape gnawed at me throughout the day as we climbed through derelict building after derelict building. The weather seemed all the more bitter there, the snow that had fallen the night before was melting slowly in the midday sun, its water running down through the buildings in which we explored. Exposed concrete jutted and leapt from all angles, a ruined theatre, its once plush seats now swelling with rot and decay. An abandoned school, its library ransacked by time, a swarm of puffy books scattered all around, left behind, given up on, their contained knowledge forgone in favour of surviving such a senseless tragedy. A crumbling gymnasium, not too dissimilar from one you and I grew up playing in, now ran out on, left to deal with time and radiation on its own, buckled and piercing wooden flooring, reaching up as if crying for its own escape from this deserted place, crumbling tiles pilled by bare walls.
It stank of death, it wreaked of fear in a way that I had never previously experienced, it was so uncompromising in its stark, biting hopelessness. Then we emerged at the ferris wheel, the rusted hulk of bare metal, at its foot a haggle of stranded bumper cars. None of this was ever used, none of this was ever even switched on, such was the speed at which Chernobyl as nuclear utopia had failed. This place was barely given a chance, purpose built to house the nuclear power plant's thousands of workers and their families, its people had to flee with reckless fear as the worst of all nightmares became a terrifying reality. I looked up at the wheel, around at the idle fairground that never had a chance to see the joyous smiles of children, quickly swamped by death and decay and shuddered.
"This place would be fucking awesome for a rave," John walked passed giggling to himself, I couldn't help but agree.
We came to a tourist centre which resembled a prison and ate some gruel. My friend's height prevented him from fitting inside the radiation measuring arch that gave you a quick scan having returned from the site, much to our amusement. Then we moved on to the sarcophagus, the crumbling mass that housed the melted down nuclear reactor, just as desolate and depressing as the rest of the site, I had almost sobered up by this point and wished to get the fuck out of there, luckily this was the last stop on the tour and we were soon on the two hour journey back to Kiev.
After a brief exchange of details with the English we had become surprisingly close to over the course of a single day at what has to be one of the worlds most depressing venues, we were off back to the hostel. Another power nap and a very long and very hot shower later and I had leveled out, I'd come to a rest somewhere between total depression at the day that had just happened, and slight hysteria based on lack of sleep and food and the amount of strong liquor consumed.
"A different bar tonight, gentlemen, if you would like to join us?" The German quizzed, I wasn't sure how much more I could take, but I could see the smile creeping across my friends face.
"Revenge drunk, tonight I'm getting revenge drunk," he said.
"What the fuck did I do?"
"For last night and this morning, you're in fucking trouble tonight."
I didn't like this but there was little I could do, and so the night proceeded, the German, his girlfriend, Roger, my friend and I. The first venue was odd, a large bar where the owner, or who I presumed was the owner, had photoshopped himself into hundreds and hundreds of images with celebrities, all of which adorned the walls of said bar. A couple of beers later and we moved on, another large underground bar where the wallpaper made the venue look like a library. The German ordered a litre bottle of vodka and after much persuasion I began to partake. My friend was hastily getting drunk and I knew this might spell hardship later in the night, the German was taking it all in his stride as usual, Roger had lost hope in something and was drunkenly sliding down his seat into a hazy stupor. Again the conversation was fun, and more stories were told, we finished the bottle and decided to move on again. The German, his girlfriend and Roger were ready to go, as was I, though this opinion was met with great hostility from my friend, who was in the middle of getting revenge drunk. He demanded more booze, and as we grabbed Turkish kebabs from a street vendor, he spotted a karaoke bar, why not, I thought?
Now, as coincidences go, this was one of the bigger ones. As we crossed the road to the karaoke bar, waving goodbye to the rest of the party, low and behold, but John, his friend and his fiance were entering the same venue at the same time. This sealed the deal, and we got stuck in. My friend became increasingly terrifying as the night drilled on, and after another vat of vodka combined with the worlds worst singing, we again parted ways with the English and headed back to the hostel. The rest is barely worth mentioning. My friend proceeded to get naked and run around waving all sorts of body parts all over the place before passing out, as I had done the night before, in the corridor leading to the dormitory at the hostel. I crawled into my bunk, leaving him to it and was never more thankful for a soft bed and a warm blanket.
Part 4 - Crash
"Gentlemen, I believe you're leaving today?" The German woke us, as always, bare chested and with a slightly manic grin, rubbing at his three day old stubble. I rolled over and groaned, my friend let out a wail and fell off the top bunk on which he had been sleeping, landing with a deep thud.
"I think my phone is broke," he said holding pieces of his mobile as I swung my legs around and jumped off my own bunk.
"Easy fix. Get ready, we're out of this god forsaken country in three hours," I grabbed my towel and went for a quick shower, on the way asking the German to order us a taxi to the airport, 30 minutes he replied.
Packing was easy, I'd barely used any of the items I'd brought with me over the three days, the good boots for Chernobyl sat resting and still tucked neatly away at the bottom of my bag along with a bunch of other items superfluous to requirements.
"Well, certainly an experience," I shook the German's hand.
"Welcome back any time gentlemen, you're good English," and with that we said adieu. My friend was considerably worse for wear, not quite on par with the utter devastation my body had suffered the previous day, when I had woken up and peeled my face off the floor of the corridor immediately prior to our trip to Chernobyl, but a very close second.
The taxi rolled up outside the hostel and as the driver stepped out it was apparent he was in one of two modes of dress that it would seem Ukrainian males have adopted. The first is that of a very retro looking gangster, think the Krays but with less style, shaved heads and more fake gold. The second is that of the gangsters goon, this look consists of a hand-me-down shell suit from the late 80's, wife-beater vest underneath the three-quarter way zipped up shell top, a rug like chest exposed, all decorated with even cheaper jewelry and quiffed hair that clearly requires the expulsion of enough CFC's to render a gaping hole in the ozone the size of Wales. Our driver was possibly the king of gangster goons, he was chief skivvy, the emperor of hired thugs.
"Planning on going fishing?" My friend asked as we threw our bags in the boot of the car and noticed some fishing rods. The driver gave us a rather puzzled expression before sauntering back around to his drivers seat with a bit of a stumble, and so our final journey from this place began.
I reminded my friend of his general debauchery the night before as we climbed into the back seats, he was having some difficulty, and whilst I was not nearly as hungover as the previous day, three days of no food and enormous amounts of vodka had taken its toll. I was reassuring myself as much as my friend when I issued encouraging words about being back at the airport soon, home free. He was a particular shade of grey that comes from a very large person with a very high metabolism, metabolizing any last goodness he or she has, to the point that they have simply ran out, they need of nutrients, electrolytes, good fatty acids and the rest, no more vodka. Every part of me ached and as happens when a particularly savage three or four day binge takes place, I now visibly wore my levels of dehydration through ugly chapped lips, even smiling was difficult.
I turned from my friend, facing forward and watched the cars zip passed on the adjacent side as we cruised at a good 60mph in the fast lane of the same motorway by which we had entered Kiev. Time began to slow, even before I realised what was taking place, long before my mind had time to react, my brain knew the deal and it braced itself. Signaling for the release of vast amounts of adrenaline, my heart sped and my hands clenched and before it had even begun, it was over. The car drifted right, across the lanes of the motorway, and whilst my friend remained in a stupor behind the driver, I saw it coming as the car increased speed and gently floated out of the fast lane. My mind, curious, decided that the driver must be getting ready to exit, not such a disagreeable thing, but my brain kicked and lashed and knew the maths, the physics of the situation was all wrong. A car around 50 feet ahead in the middle lane was trailed by a bus in the slow lane by about 20 feet, the gap between the two being the only possible route off the motorway given our current speed, line of sight and trajectory. An impossible gap, even the most skilled of drivers would have no chance at making it, everything about it was wrong, the speed of our car, the alignment between the back of the car in front and the front of the bus behind, the angle at which we approached. All very wrong.
I lived an eternity in that slow drift, sense is such a peculiar thing, consciousness, the way our brains and mind work in apparent unison, whilst in actual fact, the very notion of free will and the concept of 'I' is actually rather ridiculous. Sense, perception, on all fronts causes the simultaneous firing of billions of neurons across our brain every nanosecond of every day, the result of which is processed and utilised as necessary, the vast majority is then blocked out. The idea that as a species we're barely able to cope with the daily trauma that life inflicts on us is rather popular. Whilst we struggle on through life, the majority of sensory input that 'we' or 'I' actually understands and perceives is really pretty small. It is said that is with the purest of moments, the most shockingly violent that the doors of perception are truly opened, the perception of time slows because our brain is in overdrive, it is calculating and assimilating as much input as it possibly can with the primary concern of survival. Sometimes of course this is useless, other times it carries us on through such terribly dark moments and into brighter days.
The front left drivers side of our American built Chrysler smashed at approximately 80mph into the back right of the car in front, and I had seen it coming. I had leant forward in the moment that the car drifted across the motorway and unconsciously gripped onto the front passenger seat as I considered hitting the driver, whom had fallen asleep.
In this moment everything became extremely clear. The impact of our car with that in front caused the instant release of vast amounts of kinetic energy, the bonnet and engine housing buckled as the front window smashed and sent a cascade of glass particles that resembled glistening snow into the back of the car. The velocity of the spin took me by surprise and as the nanoseconds ticked by, the incomparable surge of energy and light began to overwhelm me. A powerful mix of natural endorphins, adrenaline, and other stimulating natural chemicals swept through my system like a tsunami, compelling my senses as the car continued to spin and fill with smoke. The smell, the burning rubber and scorched fabric and ignited gasoline and scalding engine chemicals mixed and engulfed and choked the cabin of the car. The immense, irrepressible tornado of colour that I was now surrounded by, the dull grey of the car's interior took on an incandescent hue that swam with blood, glass particles and assorted car paraphernalia. There was no flash, no instant viewing of the life that I had lived, no begging for the mercy of some omnipotent sky wizard, no pleading for the help of some cruel God, just pure thought; survival. A list was instantly rendered, first; we can't afford to hit or be hit by another car, this would be terminal, but be aware it may happen and there may be more impacts to come. Second this car may be full of fuel and the moment we come to rest, we must exit the vehicle at extreme pace before said fuel ignites and we suffer life threatening burns. Third, if at all possible I must try and regain my glasses, the moments after this crash are going to be vital and though I can cope without, seeing clearly would be a major advantage. Fourth, assess injuries and regroup as quickly as possible, if nothing is apparent that will result in death or a limp, quickly move onto point five. Fifth, quickly reassess how to get to the airport and out of this fucking hellhole.
A lifetime of smoke and glass and screams passed before me as the car was caught by the fast lane barrier and came to a slamming halt. I still had a bear hug like hold on the front passenger seat which had held out during the crash. I knew I had not suffered any terminal or in any way life threatening injuries, quickly scanning the situation I saw the driver had been caught by his airbag but I was unsure if he was alive, turning to my friend, his face was streaming blood but his eyes were open and he was breathing heavily, looking down he seemed to be in tact, no parts were falling off or going limp, this was good. I assumed the only place for my glasses to go, unless they were flung clear of the car was the front seat foot well, they were there, thankfully, and I got out of the car quickly an continued to assess.
Survival instincts aren't something I've had to deal with too much in the past. For all the x-rays I've had and stitches I've required, I've never broken a bone, only ever split skin through drunken brawls and falls, and until now, had never been in a truly life threatening situation. After everything that had happened in the previous 72 hours, this was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened and I braced against my shaking limbs.
The motorway traffic had slowed down and rubberneckers were watching, all trying to get their glimpse of the crash. The occupants of the car we had hit were out and seemed uninjured, the driver a young man asked if I was okay, and I him, he was typically distraught, wondering what had happened and how he was going to remedy this situation. I quickly turned back to the car and helped my struggling friend out, looking him over, he had taken a wave of glass particles to the face and had sustained a solid hit to his left brow as it smashed off the door window during the spin into the central reservation barrier, but otherwise he seemed okay. I sat him on the barrier and after a couple of minutes making sure he wasn't going to pass out through hyperventilation combined with the world's worst hangover, I steadied him and started the process.
"The taxi has just crashed on the motorway, I need instructions," the requirement of that moment when the German had provided his number with the ominous 'if anything happens, call me,' was now abundantly clear.
"Are you okay?"
"We should be fine, we need to get to the airport."
"I can't send another taxi out, I don't know where you are, the best thing to do is wave some money around to the passing cars, someone will stop,"
"Thank you, I'll be in touch if I need anything else, please stay by the phone."
"No problem, good luck."
I hung up and turned to see our driver hobbling around holding his head, a plague on you and your fucking family was all I could think at that precise moment. The boot of the car had sprung open on its own accord, so I grabbed our bags, pulled out a towel and some water and began wiping the blood away from my friends face, the wounds were superficial, he might have a small scar here or there, but he'd keep his looks.
"All our stuff is here, I'm going to try and flag down a car to get us to the airport," the idea of the corrupt police getting involved in this situation and just how much that might cost us and how long we'd be stuck in the country was almost as terrifying as the crash itself. I moved over to the slow lane where the traffic had been funneled into and waved a note around worth about £50, within seconds a Mercedes pulled over.
"I know what's happened, you need to get to the airport?"
"Yes," I replied to the straight talking man.
"Get in, I'll get you there."
I grabbed my friend as an ancient looking ambulance arrived and started to look at his face, 'He'll be fine, he's been through worse,' I brushed them away with whatever politeness I could muster and we jumped in the car. The driver passed us some wet-wipes and I continued to try and clean the blood from my friends face.
"There, you just look like you've been in a bar brawl, we've got time, we should be okay, how are you doing?"
"There's something wrong with my leg, but I'll be alright to get back to England." He had received much harsher treatment from the crash than I. Whilst I had seen it coming and had a moment to brace, he was slumped in the back seat, luckily his vast size had meant that his knees were tight against the back of the drivers seat, and whilst neither of us were wearing seat belts, it's this which seems to have held him in place.
I paid, thanked our new driver and chain smoked five cigarettes before we entered the terminal building. We had enough cash left between us for a couple of bottles of much needed sugary drink and some chocolate. We checked in and went up to departures, holding ourselves together for the final few steps out of this place. Reaching the bag x-ray area, bloodied, bruised, battered, shaking, panting, sweating and stinking, behind us an unrecognisable western pop star in his early 20's signed autographs for Ukrainian schoolgirls caught in a time loop.
"Great man, you look great, just great, wow, they really love you here, great man, just great." His one man entourage swamped his master in an avalanche of praise.
"Fuck this noise," I motioned to my friend as the line moved forward, "Let's get the fuck out of here."