After another day mooching around Kyiv it was time to leave the capital and head off back to the airport to meet up with the rest of the 28dl people and to officially start the trip. In total there were going to be 40 people in attendance, I had met two of them previously, so it was going to be rather interesting playing the ‘spot the explorer’ game. After about an hour of waiting in the only cafe in the airport, where my attempts to order a bottle of cider had resulted in me being presented with a plate of fish (I gave up in the end and went for Becks) we spotted the organiser of the Trip – Ric ‘Carbon Angel’ who was sat enjoying a beer and hoping that everyone had made it through passport control with the payments for the trip.
After everyone was through and reunited with the bags we all got on the coach and began our journey to our accommodation for the night – a hotel in the town of Bila Cerkov.
As we entered the hotel, the main thought I was having was that the hotel was somewhere between an episode of an idiot abroad and Borat, it was very basic. We quickly organised ourselves into rooms and headed off upstairs to find our sleeping quarters.
Now, rather than being given a key at reception, the idea here seemed to be that the person on reception would hand over a piece of paper which you took upstairs and handed over to the cleaner who would then grant you access to the room. For some reason though, the bits of paper we were given did not seem to be correct and we were not allowed access, the hallway quickly turned into a refuge for tired looking explorers. A few words later with one of our Ukranian speaking guides and we were into the rooms.
Now I have heard of hotels which have a theme to a each room, which this hotel also seemed to have, but the themes here seemed to be to put whatever random bit of furniture they had left into a room to make it a bit more homely looking, some people got a TV (one of those big old type TVs which lived in a big wooden box which you would open when you wanted to watch the TV) to sideboards and even a fridge!
Some of us went down to the bar area to have a few drinks to get to know each other better, to get to our area of the bar, we had to walk right though the middle of a private family party, with loud Ukranian party music and loads of people ‘drunk dancing’. After an hour or so, the party died down, the bar closed and we had to go back and forth to reception to buy the beer, which worked out at somewhere around 50p per bottle.
Before we knew it, several more hours passed and we were joined by a rather serious looking military person who seemed to want us to leave so that they could lock up, no arguments from us and off we went for a couple of hours sleep.
7am rolled round as we all gathered in the hotel restaurant, ready to tuck into a hearty breakfast to set us up for the day, sadly that was not to be.
We were introduced to our first taste of the standard Ukranian breakfast which consisted of a variety of sliced cold meats a simple cheese board, sliced tomatoes and cucumber, all washed down with lemon tea. To be honest though, it was not too bad once we got over it not being what we had expected.
After breakfast it was quickly off back to the rooms to pack then back down to the coach (which would later be christened the coach of death – but more on that later) to head off on the first official stop of the trip, to Pervomaysk to see the Strategic Rocket museum.
It was dark when we arrived at the hotel the night before, so we did not really get to see what the ‘unseen’ side of the Ukraine looked like, I think in all honesty its probably what I was expecting – quite rundown looking and full of the ‘stereotypical’ looking Ukranian people who look like they have lead a hard life where nothing has come easy – there is none of your expensive looking buildings or people with the latest and most expensive clothes and trainers. As the coach went through Bila Cerkov, we seemed to be getting quite a lot of attention, people would stop to watch the coach go by, I guess this place was not the sort of place where a bus-load of ‘tourists’ generally stop – certainly not the place that will be shown off to the world through the upcoming European Football Championships.
We left the small town and headed off on what turned out to be a 3+ hour trip over to Pervomaysk to visit the Strategic Rocket Museum, which was one of the last operational nuclear rocket launch sites from the Cold War Era.
En route to the rocket museum, I noticed that the Ukranian’s like decorating their bus stops, each one we passed seemed to have its own design, with what (to me) appeared to be random symbols, much more interesting than the bus stops here in the UK.
I did not know what to expect from the rocket museum, but when we arrived, there was very little there to indicate its former life, which i guess is to be expected, if it was not for the random rockets dotted around you would be forgiven for thinking this was just some sort of farm based set up.
It was quite bleak there too, the wind was howling and there was a constant drizzle which was soaking us all to the skin, so standing outside whilst we had a 15-20 minute talk from the former commander who used run the base, was not the most popular event.
After the introduction, we were split into two groups, my group went into the main building to see the base and how it was ran, whilst the other group were taken off to see the rocket launch area.
We headed off into the building, which was basically a large ‘hall way’ which was filled with maps of how the building was set up, random bits of war memorabilia and a model of how the living quarters looked like in the ‘launch pad’ which as about 8-9 levels underground. The one thing that was very clear, coming from the commander is that he was very proud to be Ukranian and very quick to say how much better the USSR were compared to the USA and how the USA spent millions trying to track down the USSR warheads (which they never did) because they were constantly on the move.
It was quite an interesting experience in the museum, but was quite hard to concentrate on things at times as the commander only spoke Russian, which was then translated by one of our guides into Polish to then be translated into English for us to understand. The last part of museum section was a video which appeared to be some sort of propaganda video displaying the USSR’s nuclear capabilities whilst they test fired rockets in various conditions, it was all in Russian so to be honest I could not really work out what was happening!
We then moved into the other half of the museum, which was the actual ‘launch pad’ area of the site. This was basically a deep chamber in the ground which went down 8-9 flights and housed the nuclear war head, the chamber had a large metal opening lid, which we were told would have taken 30 seconds to open and launch the rockets if needed (thankfully this never happened or the world today would have been very different).
We then walked across a field, past a number of large vehicles which were used to transport the warheads across the country from base to base into what looked like a small shed-come-out building which housed a trap door and some sort of power generators. We headed down the trap door and ended up in a long passage way, which i believe ran from this building, under the ground towards the warhead launch chamber.
At the end of this long passage way there was a lift, which descended down to the bottom of the chamber, the lift, which by the look of it was designed to hold two people maximum, but due to the numbers of people waiting to go down, there were up to five people being crammed into the narrow space, its actually nice to see not everywhere in the world is confined to health and safety restrictions because if this site was in the UK, there would be no way anyone would be able to experience the trip into the bowels of the base.
bottom of the chamber was the central hub, where two soldiers would live for possibly weeks on end switching between the living quarters, which were probably no bigger than a small bathroom and the main control room below where the warheads could have been launched.
After spending 5 or so minutes down there we returned to the surface of the base and boarded the coach for the long trip over to our home for the next three days, the town of Slavutich, which is Europe’s newest town as it was build in 1986 to house the refugees of the Chernobyl disaster.
It was on this journey that the coach was renamed as the coach of death by some people for a number of reasons, firstly half way through the journey rain water started leaking through the roof and was running into the coach via the overhead lights above some of the seats, added to this there was a constant smell of burning coming from the front of the coach as it appeared the driver was riding the clutch each time we went through one of the many puddles appearing on the roads which did not seem to have any drainage capacity for all the rain.
After about four to five hours we arrived in Slavutich where we were allocated rooms in peoples flats (it is common for residents to move out for the period of visitors stays as they make more money doing that for three days than they do for a weeks work), where we headed to bed as we were up early the next day for our first day proper in ‘The Zone’.