Catching some rays…

Seven months ago eight of us went in search of adventure in Kazakhstan. Courtesy of our Kazakh friend’s willingness to be a translator again, this month the group took a trip to another former soviet nation. Two Iranians, a Kazakh, an Indian, a Kiwi, an Aussie and two Brits flew to the Ukraine, to learn a bit about the city of Kiev and the site of Chernobyl, one of the world’s biggest Nuclear disasters to date.

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It’s important to stress here – a trip to Chernobyl is not out of morbid fascination with something dark or for the sake of our Instagram feeds. A visit to Auschwitz or the Somme is about paying respect to an element of the incredible tapestry of what humans are capable of. Chernobyl is not the site of a battle, but a deadly accident borne out of bold ambition. It was not horrific immediately, but the processes of its cover up, the sheer power of nuclear radiation and the fact that we still cant fathom its affects – all of this is worth seeing and attempting to understand. The Ukraine is a fascinating, inviting country that hosts Chernobyl, not proudly, but stoically and honestly, as a major part of its past.

Like much of the Eastern block, the Ukraine is profoundly affected by its Soviet history. But pre-Berlin Wall, contrary to glimpses shaped by Hollywood and bombastic Presidents and Prime Ministers – Ukranians, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, Tajikhs, Georgians, Slovenians and Belarussians were not brought up to feel like they were ‘the bad guys.’

Kiev Figures

Photo by Drina Cabral

 

Kiev Architecture

Whatever ways history may interpret the soviet era, the Ukraine is a country that flits between centuries of European kingdoms, the odd Viking or Mongolian invasion, and the brutalist architecture of soviet determination. In the mix is Kiev, a dignified city of wide gridded streets, between rolling hills and a large river. It reaches from high-rise concrete estates littered with monumental street art, to neo classical and baroque columns around grandiose empirical buildings that are now home to Sushi and Starbucks.

The capital is full of contrasts: fashionable monochrome ladies in red lipstick beside ex-soldier-boys with severe 90s haircuts; hipster bars and vintage speak-easies next to brutalist institutions; swirling art-nouveau facades of naked ladies flanked by political busts of serious men; ornate orthdodox cathedrals beside confiscated Russian tanks; bowls of Borsch and dumplings, and fusion restaurants that deserve all the Michelin stars; gypsies holding prize-chickens for photographs, and Putin’s face on toilet-roll; many, many men called Vladimir and cats with biological-weapon-breath.

There were also a lot of directional arm gestures. We needed to calm down.

 

We got a guide and a mini bus, and made a very big day-trip.

Chernobyl is a 2.5 hour ride out of town. It wasn’t the main reason for the trip to Kiev, but a destination none of us could argue against. We expected an abandoned city, two-headed mice, maybe some yellow smoke, men in gas masks, craters in the ground and apocalyptic signs – basically a 90s music video.

On the bus, our cheery guide described a time when the whole of Europe teetered on the brink of annihilation, and events that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a massive smile on his face.

In 1986 the Chernobyl disaster started as a fire in reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Power Plant. Along with Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, it ranks as one of only two “Level 9” events – the maximum classification.

Chernobyl began as a nuclear power station built from 1970 onwards, in use from 77 to 2000, well after 86. Contrary to popular belief or selective memory, the accident was not the equivalent of one sudden nuclear bomb, but about thirty Hiroshimas, and not sudden at all, but a week-long disaster that affects a much broader expanse of Europe than the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl.

Pripyat Nursery 2

The slow release of radiation; triggered by a fire – triggered by an overnight safety-test; released a plume of radioactivity into European air for several days. The world had never experienced anything like this, so Mikhail Gorbachev’s all-seeing government would not have known where to start. It was the civilian emergency services that would bare the brunt, and pay with their lives, from firefighters to helicopter pilots and hospital staff.

Pripyat Piano

A bit like the Ghostbusters scene when the fire-station reactor is shut down, radioactive fumes flowed into the atmosphere, drifting over Europe, – only these took an entire week, and were invisible, with up to 60% settling in Belarus. Local authorities didn’t notice the fire was blazing within the reactor until a journalist & photographer flew over it in a helicopter the following day. Russia failed to alert the international community until Swedish Nuclear Power-station workers across the sea triggered their radiation detectors upon entering their workplace, rather than exiting. Sweden contacted Denmark, Norway and Finland, and the Russian Government now had to put its hands up.

Pripyat entrance

Pripyat was built as Nuclear town from 1970 onwards, close to the plant, to house workers and their families. Its 50,000 residents had 16 years to get used to their burgeoning community: its supermarkets, restaurants, schools, nurseries, sports stadium, fairground, before being calmly uprooted without explanation.

Pripyat Nursery 1

Today, two of the most radioactive parts of the town are the middle of the playground and the hospital; two points where the first respondents were first brought to; helicopter pilots and firefighters. As human carriers of unprecedented levels of radiation, their presence in the hospital endangered the lives of hospital staff too. At first they showed what looked like burns, then vomiting, and were each given hours… The hospital staff would have months, and often years before they would feel the effects, but they would feel them. These were areas we could not access.

Pripyat Dodgems

In the first days, residents had been advised to stay indoors, as shelter was better, and wind initially led the fallout away from the town, but as the wind changed, thousands of families and their animals were quietly led away from their homes. People came back over the months and years to collect precious items, but what is left now, among the decaying wall-paper, dusty children’s toys, jars in cupboards, broken pianos and decomposing sofas, is a memorial to our precarious life on this planet – the life we’ve built for ourselves, with its invisible, but invincible threats around us.

A thin but established forest now dances over Pripyat. Shrubs scribble over its once-busy tarmac’d streets, with strange red beetles zagging between fag-butts and rotting wood. Street lamps stand quietly in clusters of trees the same height, and there’s a reverence to the place, but as we run around it, absorbing signs of 1986 soviet life, a sense of pride. I don’t know whether it was the blue sky, or our collective quiet wonder, but Pripyat is not macabre, or even sombre.

It’s not a place of death, torture or violence. It’s the centre of a much wider place that was exposed, betrayed by a lack of honesty, but that still shows its heart and faces. Forced to react, with thousands of lives uprooted and transplanted, the place is a monument of truths, and of transience. Just as Pompei is a glimpse into a distant, deadly past, Pripyat is a frame of nearer catastrophic times, but still very human and very real. As the trees take over the schoolyards, and vines creep into the supermarket, it’s eerily beautiful, a poignant reminder that humans are not permanent, infallible, or gods.

Pripyat Nursery 3

For now, a second “Sarcophagus” sits over the reactor, said to be able to last 100 years. The site is teaming with industrial workers and soldiers, who look nonchalantly at the wide-eyed tourists. Down the road is ‘the red forest’ – where much of the most radioactive land was exposed shallowly, – a large expanse where much of the initial airborne radioactivity landed, where the hand-held scanner in our guide’s hand bleeped ferociously.. The bottoms of the trees are black – and birds freely land, nest, and fly away to other areas. For now, it costs billions to take care of the sarcophagus – generations of Ukrainians will have to worry about the forest later. So for that reason, tourist dollars directly contribute to the upkeep of the site.

31 deaths are attributed to Chernobyl, among the emergency workers and reactor staff. A UN report attributes 64 deaths as of 2008, although the toll is expected to reach 4000 among those exposed to the highest levels; 200,000 emergency workers; 116,000 evacuees and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas.

Pripyat Nursery 4.JPG

But here’s the kicker. The fateful reactor was number 4, with reactors 5 and 6 under construction, and another 6 planned. The reactors powered nearby cities and towns, yes, but that kind of power would need a very maximum of two reactors – not twelve. About a 45-minute drive from the plant, we were taken to a huge construction of space-age rows of telegraph wires, some 150m in height, by 300m in length – a rigid series of conical cages, ladders, platforms and wires, pointed unashamedly towards the United States. In full view, NATO would have been aware, but people are still confused over its purpose, if it is purely a colossal listening device, or the potential to be much more.

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Known as “The Russian Woodpecker”, the structure was in action, interfering with radio waves and airwaves for decades, right up until 1989 and the end of the Cold War.. Popular local belief is that, with a possible six more reactors, the intention was to do much, much more than simply listen, (and here I picture Alan Moore’s ending of “The Watchmen”). The guide explained the amount of power that would be needed to create a weapon that could control the weather – and with incredible amounts of nuclear power under your control – why not?

It was by reaching so far, and literally to the sky, that one of the biggest, and most powerful empires the world has seen, collapsed. One crack – one accidental fire, that cost 16 billion dollars to address, and then fix, back in 1986. Its expense was crippling, and that in turn, transformed the lives of millions across the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Estonia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and many more.

Pripyat Supermarket 2

Today, the Ukraine relies on Nuclear power for 60% of its energy supplies, and with it’s ability to take away dependency of fossil fuels and natural resources, and to power entire cities fast, without a viable sustainable alternative, nuclear power is going nowhere. As a global populace, its up to us to understand how to take care of it, harness it, and live with the consequences if we can’t.

Heading back to the city, the combination of Kiev and Chernobyl was a mind-opening trip that hadn’t been what any of us expected. We expected a pretty European city with a smattering of communism and a clash of cultures, with Vodkas in our hands. We expected a bomb site full of horror stories and post apocalyptic film sets.

Instead we found quiet, inspired stories from strong people full of contrasts; a task to attempt to understand even just a tiny bit, a myriad of different types of beauty, different sides of history, solid handshakes with hidden attentiveness. And of course, a trip across a planet that can perfectly cover our steps if it needs to, and we could so easily force its hand.

Pripyat Apartment


30. In Numbers.

One of a series of Quote pieces by designer Julian Bialowas

One of a series of Quote pieces by designer Julian Bialowas

Fretting about bad things that could or have not yet happened is not the wisest use of your time. It stops you sleeping, gives you spots, makes you eat more and even stops orgasms. Get insurance, a pension scheme and a Will. Try some of that Saving-up malarkey. Google potential employers or love interests. Don’t walk around barefoot in a carpentry workshop. Don’t chop onions with a blindfold. (Do watch THIS). Do call your mother. And the big 3-0 is not an entity you should give a toss about in your 20s.

Then it hits. This wet turdpat flung into your Partytastic Chi like a Dyson Airblade of shitspray aimed at your face. The Shizzle for your nizzle. (Going to add more brands and Snoopisms to my pieces as it makes them come up in amusing search engine queries: “Hangover Cure Cheese Banana” “Taylor Swift Yeti Harpoon Gun” “Justin Bieber makes Guacamole for Rihanna”).

Right. Grown up speak. I’m not the first to do turn 30, and seem to share this predicament with a few buddies this year. 3 months in, please find below a statistical ‘summary’ of what’s been taking up my entire life so far, according to an iphone calculator and the Madeleine-Butcher-Law-of-Averages.

(And thoughts like “What about Leap Years?” or “not every month has 30 days”, are appropriate to you, these are approximations. I hate you).

30 years = 10,950 days.  262,800 hours.

If I slept 7.5 hours a day until 23, then an average 6.5 hours a day from then until now, I will have slept 79,570 hours:

30.2% of life asleep.

I give an average 3 hugs a day, for roughly 3 seconds each. Cumulatively I’ve been:

Hugging for 22 days.

I spend 8 minutes every day nomming on a packet of Monstermunch, and usually at least a full hour eating actual stuff divided across the rest of the day, normally paired with other activities. That’s 517 days ingesting the good produce of this planet:

17 months Eating.

No idea how much that would weigh, but probably at least as much as 2 5-bedroom houses in Solihull. Accordingly, if I spend approximately 11 minutes on the toilet each day, (being realistic) that’s a grand total of:

83.65 days on the Throne.

Often on the phone. Often reading. I won’t guess at the weight of the outcome. Actually I will – I think I’ve shat at least a Semi Detached in Milton Keynes.

If I spend at least 25 minutes of every day laughing, (which is realistic) that’s:

190 days Laughing.

No sleep. Just happy diaphram exercise. Good times.

Now factoring in public/bar toilets, supermarket check outs, Dubai Airport’s Passport desks, standing at the bar, the post office, Banks, taxi ranks etc… realistically:

418 days standing in Queues.

Now this one was a bastard: how long on my way somewhere, including the daily commute to school and then work, and every trip across the UK, on planes while living abroad… (This doesn’t even factor waiting times and took about an hour to work out).

106.09 days sitting on Transport.

Let’s cheer it up a bit:

(thinking about how lovely an acquaintance is, how happy I’d make them and what they’d look like with less clothes on etc). …roughly 1 hour of every day, including weekends…

 

…174.75 days having Crushes.

907 hours Frightening Strangers…

…at weekends, with an inebriated verbal Maddy-Barage when all they wanted to do was drink and dance with people they actually know.

At least 162 days listening to Boring People…

…without hurting their feelings (Non-Work related). This does not include having to read their statuses/comments on Facebook.

950 days reading ‘Stuffs’  (books/web or newspapers).

27 days watching films with Bill Murray in.

4 months working in two thankless jobs, getting out before either could do any permanent damage. (This was written at the last one)

Another of a series of Quote pieces by designer Julian Bialowas

Another of a series of Quote pieces by designer Julian Bialowas


Video & Ting.

I don’t make animations. This isn’t one. It’s more of a Slideshow Musickness-Accompaniment-ism. But an MC in Dubai gave me his CD, and I wanted to give it a try.

THIS LINK RIGHT HERE is the article I wrote about the same artist and two more that inspire me for Uprising, the brainchild of Scott Goodson, rather clever founder of Strawberry Frog, an agency made up of individuals creating things they and their clients can feel proud of, that people can enjoy seeing.

UAE HipHop and R&B in Uprising

I’m going to make another Hypermental-Slideshow Musickness-Accompaniment-ism, but for the next one I’ll be learning some proper editing packages and make some actual footage and actual stuff.

And for a chuckle at my expense, this here is the first animation I ever made back in 2003. It’s Medium-Rare Crappola, but made me laugh today by how perfectly terrible it actually is.