Stop! Corona Time!
It was late June of 2020 when I said I’d had just about enough of “sheltering in place.” I was ready to travel again. You might want to start HERE: I tell the story of traveling during this pandemic in great detail, including how I managed to weasel my way into the E.U. during the time all Americans were banned from coming. It’s a crazy tale that you can read about in my Corona travel piece, HERE. Kyiv, Ukraine would be my second stop on this insane pandemic tour, and things were about to get real.
I started in Budapest, only able to enter because I’d applied for and received a special exception from the Hungarian Police (Thank you, guys!) As you might expect, Budapest was awesome. Three absolutely incredible days in the city, almost to myself, made for a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was also relieved that the hardest part was over, (getting into the EU), or so I thought. It was during day two in Budapest, when I received an email alert from the American Embassy in Kiev.
Bad News Bears
So far, Ukraine had been open for business, free and clear for even an American like me. I’d been tirelessly researching every one of the complicated entry qualifications for all the countries on this trip, and Ukraine was one of the easier ones – a-Ok for entry! But the rules had been changing, almost everywhere, day-by-day and even hour-by-hour. My heart dropped to the bottom of my stomach when I read the new details on what my arrival and stay would look like two days from now in Ukraine. The email from the US Embassy in Kyiv read:
U.S. citizens will be allowed to enter Ukraine if they can demonstrate that they have medical insurance covering all expenses related to COVID-19 treatment while on the territory of Ukraine.
(NEW) The policy must include reimbursement of expenses related to the treatment of COVID-19 and be valid for the duration of the visit to Ukraine. It must be issued by an insurance company registered in Ukraine, a foreign insurance company with a representative office in Ukraine, or a foreign insurance company with a contractual relationship with a partner insurance company on the territory of Ukraine.
(NEW) Currently, all U.S. citizens must self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. When they enter Ukraine, they must have a mobile phone that will work on arrival and download a smartphone application “Diy Vdoma,” through which the Ukrainian authorities will track whether they are complying with the quarantine. The Ukrainian government has stated that foreigners entering the country may also choose to take a COVID-19 test after they arrive in Ukraine, and if the result is negative, they would not be required to continue to self-isolate. Details on where the test may be taken and where the results must be submitted have not yet been published.
Well crap. Not only does it say I must “self-isolate” for 14 days, but I have to download a Ukrainian app to my phone so the feds can keep tabs on me? My entire stop in Ukraine is only 24 hours! How is this even going to work?
To add insult to injury, I’ll now have to buy a third travel insurance policy just for this one 24-hour stop. My regular health insurance covers travel, but before I left I read that Ukraine will only let you in if you have a special travel policy that included Covid-19, so I got that. But now I’m reading that it has to be a policy from a Ukrainian insurance company. Good grief! I jumped online to try and find some “Ukranian”-specific insurance, which I did. Now I have to figure out the whole app and self-isolating thing. How was I going to swing that? So complicated!
I spent my third full day in Budapest living like a local: learning the metro system and running errands – first, to a print and copy shop to print up some new documents I now needed for Ukraine (my new insurance policy, etc.), and then to buy a burner phone. I thought only criminals and spies used “burner phones” – in fact, I only know that term from watching crime shows. But now, here I was, buying my own. I wasn’t sure how my visit to Ukraine was going to play out, but I didn’t feel comfortable putting a Ukrainian government app on my personal iPhone. That’s a negative. I hated wasting $150 on a phone I didn’t need, but desperate times call for measures.
I didn’t get much sleep that last night in Budapest. I took a pill and was out by 10PM but wide awake by midnight and I wasn’t able to get back to sleep. I had a lot on my mind. My 4AM taxi was on time and I was at the airport by 4:20 for my 6:15 flight to Frankfurt, where I would connect for Kyiv.
I had a lot to consider. Do I go into quarantine and miss my tour of Chernobyl? Basically just sit at a hotel for 24 hours? Do I risk it and take the tour…leave the burner phone with the app at the hotel, so when the soldiers kick down the door, I’m long gone? Do I tell immigration that I haven’t been in a “Red Zone” (USA) in the last 24 days, which is a lie? Honestly, I’m weighing all the options, but I don’t think it’s smart to fib to officials, especially in a foreign country. I’m picturing myself in an interrogation room with guys yelling at me before they cart me off to jail…having to get the embassy involved and have my family post my bail…starring in my own episode of Locked Up Abroad. Ugh.
I did see one option that might work for me, listed on a special Facebook group regarding the topic: One professional from Ukraine said if you bring results (negative) of a recent Covid test (taken in the last 72 hours), you can bypass all this nonsense. I just happen to have such a piece of paper. Another blurb said that after you download the app, you have 24-hours to get to your residence and “get situated.” Well that might work for me…it would give me those 24 hours to bop around town, then head back to the airport for my flight home: I only had a total of 28 hours in Ukraine anyway. Geeze, I don’t know…I was just super stressed over the whole thing.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Kyiv
I was first off the plane. Like, the very first person off. I wasn’t sure if that would be my blessing or my curse. My heart was pounding…so many scenarios could unfold and I had no idea what I was about to get myself into. Maybe all this traveling has made me too bold, given me too much confidence? Immediately after stepping out of the airplane door onto the jet bridge I was rushed by four frantic officials in uniform. Crap! They were waiting for me – somebody must have tipped them off! Oh wait; it’s just a temperature check. Whew! Okay, breathe…
I was also first in line at the immigration queue. It’s now or never, let’s pull off the Band-Aid and get this thing over with. I stepped up and smiled at the officer, forgetting my grin wouldn’t work under this damn mask. I handed over my passport. Anna Nicitchencko looked like she was in her thirties and when she asked me to pull my mask down to verify my passport picture – that’s when I hit her with the smile. It worked and she smiled back. Before she could give me the third degree about having a passport from a “Red Zone,” I enthusiastically announced to her that it was my first time here, that I was so excited to be in Ukraine, and that I had brought her tons of documents! She asked for my insurance first, to which I replied I had three separate policies, including the Ukrainian policy that I’d just purchased. Then she asked where I came from: “Transfer in Germany?” I said yes, but that my flight originated in Hungary, “not America…I was in Hungary,” I insisted. It was not a lie. I had all of my other documents ready to go: my Corona test, hotel reservations, and onward flight itinerary. And of course that burner phone. It was like I was an attorney with my big box of files, ready to present the evidence. Or a better example would be the guy who overwhelms the IRS auditor with ten boxes of receipts, so the agent will just concede in fear of being buried in all the paperwork. What happened next I did not expect.
“Ker-PLUNK!” went the passport stamper. “Have a nice time,” said Anna, as she handed me back my passport. This could not really be happening? She did not ask where I was staying, how long I was staying, or mention anything about the app nor quarantine. I thanked her and got the hell outta Dodge before she changed her mind, still in disbelief. It seemed too good to be true. Surely around the next corridor would be where the “Quarantine” officers were waiting for me, right? I kept walking, still in disbelief the whole time…through baggage claim…passing customs in the “nothing to declare lane,” and finally out to the main hall where I saw windows and the front door. I marched right outside like I lived in Kyiv, jumped into a taxi and enjoyed the sweet taste of freedom as we barreled down the highway towards downtown. I can’t remember a time I was this happy. I don’t how this happened, but it did, and I was sooooo grateful!
Ready, Set, Go!
I received such a warm welcome at my hotel as I dropped my bags off in my room on the top (25th) floor. This city looked amazing from this high up but I could never expect it to be so incredible on the ground. As I dashed out the door onto Baseina Street, it only took me about 30 seconds for the vibe of the city infiltrate my bloodstream. Sometimes you just fall in love with a town, instantly – sometimes just walking half a block you feel it in your heart. It’s not the norm, and actually doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it just gives you wings, delivering a powerful dose of dopamine to your brain that seems not to wear off until you leave. Only a few cities have been like this for me; those instant connections have happened in Bogota, Buenos Aires, and Cotonou, Benin. And now add Kyiv to that short list of thrilling metros. I made my way to the first stop, the Besarabsky Market, which was beginning to close down, but luckily I snuck in just in time, as the little craft beer shack was still serving. I felt like a celebratory drink.
I don’t drink much at all anymore. Now and then I’ll partake in some local suds in a new city just to say I did, and take a photo of the label for Instagram. But I’d earned this drink! A toast to Anna at immigration! I don’t know what exactly I was drinking, but it was good…a whole liter’s worth. With my low tolerance, it was enough get me pretty buzzed – not a great idea when you’re in a foreign city but I was able to walk off the effects over the next 20 minutes or so.
I’m So Excited (And I Just Can’t Hide It)
I was feeling so good as I headed up Khreschatyk Street towards Independence Square. It was one of the more beautiful monuments/plazas I’d ever been to and brimming with life. That tall pillar with the golden and copper angel on top, climbing into the deep blue sky…flowers and waterfalls all around and so many people, mostly young – talking, playing, connecting. Maybe it was the beer talking, but this city was special. I met three girls from Africa – they were in Kyiv working. They were from Ghana and Uganda and were excited to hear that I’d been to both their homelands. Again, it was probably the beer that gave me the courage to roll up on three young strangers, but they were very nice and we had a very pleasant, quick conversation before I marched on.
Up the hill I went to get a glimpse of some of Kyiv’s most ornate churches, adorned with golden tops, glistening as the evening sun was beginning to set. Next, a park, with stunning views of the city and the river down below. By the way, no map or planned route: this perfect path was sheer luck. I was bummed the funicular was closed in Budapest, but in Kyiv? The Fun(incular) never ends! There was no hesitation as I bought the little plastic token that gave me access to the ride down.
The River of Dreams
At the bottom I ran into a young boy selling flowers displayed in McDonald’s cups. I was so moved at the scene. I slipped him ten Euros before crossing the street towards the banks of the Dnieper River, flowing towards the water in a massive crowd like a school of fish. I passed a half-dozen skateboarders doing tricks on steps that led down to restaurants and bars facing the water. This entire walk felt like a well-choreographed music video, something to the tune of Janet Jackson’s Alright, where she effortlessly glides down the street while an animated cast of characters act out dance scenes in perfect sequence. Kyiv was alive!
I could have stayed out for hours more, but I desperately needed a decent night’s sleep after running all around not one, but two major cities in one day: Frankfurt (during my midday connection) and now, Kyiv…and doing it all on just two hours of sleep. How I hadn’t collapsed by now, I don’t know – I was done.
On the way back to my hotel I stopped at a kiosk to try a Coca-Cola with Coffee – I’d never seen this anywhere else. And I didn’t have the energy nor time to search for a traditional Ukrainian dish for dinner, so I opted for some kind of delicious Arabian lamb wrap at a small stand near my hotel called Turkish Cucumber. I ate it on the go, during my final steps back to the hotel, licking the sauce and juices off my fingers just as I arrived. It was delicious and a great choice.
Kyiv was the one big surprise on this journey – the place that blew me away and exceeded all expectations. The vibe, the energy, the people, the parks, the monuments, the views, the river…I even rode the funicular. Kyiv has so much to offer, and I did as much I could before sundown. 25,000 steps later I was back at the room. Lights out for another big day tomorrow.
Barnes and Chernobyl
7:30 a.m. and we were off! My guide plus driver was named Max and he was cool as hell. Normally I’d hate for someone to play me their band’s music, but Max’s sound was actually really, really good. He was in a band and we listened to his new EP on the way – loved it! We got along well and had great conversation as we left the city for Chernobyl, switching back and forth between small talk and Ukrainian history and culture lessons. I did enjoy the drive into to Chernobyl, almost as much as the tour itself.
Listen to Max’s band HERE. They’re really good!
The entire contamination zone/containment area was almost as locked down as an international border – I found that interesting but not surprising. Only approved tour guides and their clients are allowed inside the 30km “exclusion zone.” It took about ten minutes for Max to complete the paperwork and then we were waved through the gates. Max explained that it’s not uncommon for daring young people to even sneak in, without authorization. They face arrest, but even more scary, radiation. Guides like Max are trained to keep people like me safe. He carried a geiger counter with him and would show me various “hot spots” throughout our trip, moving the electronic instrument near certain things (usually close to the ground) that would make it go berserk. A loud and furious alarm would sound while the digital readout on the screen shot up exponentially. We were walking through a maze of invisible danger. Later that day he counted down from five as we drove past in-between two patches of radioactive trees. With expert timing, just as Max arrived at “one,” his detector lit up and sounded off like a Vegas slot machine that had just hit the big one. Creepy stuff!
Mind Your Manners
There was also a list of very specific “rules” here, including mandatory long-sleeve shirts and you cannot “touch” anything! I didn’t realize there was a “no drinking / no eating” rule and Max had to stop me from sipping my bottled water outside the car. I thought the rule meant no eating or drinking anything from the exclusion zone – as in, “don’t pick berries off of bushes and eat them; don’t drink water from the rivers, etc;” But it actually meant don’t digest anything, including food and drink that you may have brought in. I assumed because radiation might contaminate the food/liquid…some serious X-Files stuff right here!
Max was extra excited to take me to the first stop: Since I am a radio personality, he figured I would enjoy seeing that massive radio antenna that was located in the exclusion zone, and he was right. This thing was incredible! The Duga Radar, a.k.a. The Russian Woodpecker was an absolutely gigantic (understatement) radio tower that was as long as it was tall – just an absolutely massive steel and wire “wall” that climbed to far up into the sky. No picture or video can ever do it justice, but when you’re standing there – underneath it – its size just blows you away!
And if I thought “The RussianWoodpecker” was neat, I was off-my-rocker when Max actually led me into the radio tower’s control center itself! We spent the next fifteen minutes walking around the antenna’s command center – a maze of concrete labyrinths, stairs, hatches and steel racks. This would be a cool experience for anybody, but was extra special for someone who works in radio like me. I couldn’t believe I was here. My radio friends were going to be so jelly.
I could’ve stayed and poked around radio tower and its surrounding buildings for hours, but there was still so much to see, and we had limited time.
It wasn’t until I returned home when I discovered someone made a movie all about this radio antenna…“Russian Woodpecker” – the movie looks awesome!
And there we were, standing in front of the infamous “reactor number four,” where it all went happen…where one mistake would change the world forever. Besides the photo in front of a small monument, the visit to reactor four was rather unceremonious – a quick photo and we were were on our way. You couldn’t get any closer to the reactor…I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to anyway. I felt I was pushing my luck hard enough already.
Greetings from Pripyat!
The town of Pripyat was constructed in 1970 to serve as the main residential area for the employees and administration of the Chernobyl plant. Max and I spent the next 90 minutes wandering this abandoned neighborhood. We explored the streets, the buildings, and that infamous amusement park. There wasn’t another tourist in sight. I was so lucky to get in right between Corona shutdowns. It was unbelievable timing.
Come for the Food – Stay for the Radiation!
I could spend all day here – in fact, you can actually spend the night at a hotel inside the exclusion zone, but sadly I had to run back to the airport for my next flight. We were required to exit through two different radiation “checkers”: big metal machines that scan your body for traces of radiation. It’s one reason why I was warned not to step in any moss. Step in the wrong “stuff,” or brush up against the wrong bush and you’ll be at risk for taking home a very unwanted souvenir (radiation!) These machines check your person for any radioactivity. Max told me stories of some of his guests returning to town in just their underwear – their shoes and clothes had been contaminated and confiscated. Crazy!
Never in a Million Years
Traveling is funny. Some places you expect to love and end up disliking (see Nepal)…while others you have very low expectations of and end up falling head over heels in love with. Such was the case with Ukraine. I don’t know what I expected, but I never imagined a place so full of life, energy and happiness overflowing onto the streets. Granted, I was only in the country for a day, and only saw the capital and Chernobyl…but what I experienced (mostly in Kyiv) had my heart singing. I never expected I’d ever love Ukraine as much as I did. It was a great surprise and I’m sure I will will return one day.
On to country #145. All reports read that Belarus is open for Americans and no quarantine, so I’m looking for a stress-free entrance…hopefully. Stay tuned.This entry was posted in Europe