The trip from Lviv to the Crimean Peninsula seemed like it would be a direct train ride from Lviv to Sevastopol, and originally that was my plan, but my Lonely Planet guidebook advised against it. According to LP, the train route passed through Moldova, and sometimes the Moldovan immigration authorities decided to check the trains. Anyone without a visa for Moldova (i.e., me) could be left at the border. (This was in 2006, so the train route or Moldova may have changed by now.) Since this would be an overnight train, that would be “left at the border in the middle of the night.” No, thanks.
The new plan was to take the night train back to Kyiv, spend the day there, and then board the night train to Sevastopol, on the shore of the Black Sea. I bought my 2nd class ticket and then headed for my day’s objective – the Chernobyl Museum.
THE CHERNOBYL MUSEUM, KYIV
The nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, near the city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine, exploded in April 26, 1986, and burned until May 4, 1986. Ironically, the accident was precipitated by a safety test that went awry. There were steam explosions and the reactor core melted, which destroyed the reactor building. It was the first nuclear accident of this magnitude, given the highest rating of 7, indicating maximum severity. (The next, and thankfully so far, the only other, rating of 7, was the Fukushima disaster of 2011 in Japan.)
Within hours of the explosion, two workers were killed from non-radiological causes. Twenty-six of 600 workers died by radiation effects within four months, and 106 workers suffered acute radiation sickness, but did not die. During 1986-87, another 200,000 workers were exposed to elevated levels of radiation. Ultimately, about 600,000 workers were involved in the clean-up. Most of the later workers were not exposed to elevated levels of radiation.
The explosion contaminated wide areas of Belarus, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine. The area was home to millions of residents, but the majority received only small radiation doses. Ultimately, about 335,000 people were displaced by the disaster.
The area of the Chernobyl plant was covered by the USSR’s temporary sarcophagus. A permanent sarcophagus, funded by the G-7, the European Commission, and Ukraine, was completed by 2018: “The New Safe Confinement.” Around the area is “the exclusion zone.” During the OSCE mission, some observers were sent near the exclusion zone – not happy people, but they went.
(To read more about the disaster, you can consult the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation report, UNSCEAR 2008, or the International Atomic Energy Agency, http://www.iaea.org.)
After a couple of hours in the Chernobyl Museum, I was ready to think of something else, so I found a cafe, and spent some time drinking coffee and reading. The weather was warming and people were enjoying the sunshine.
The overnight train ride from Kyiv to Sevastopol is about thirteen hours, much of it in darkness. And, it was on this train ride that I learned 2nd Class compartments were NOT sorted by gender. I had just been lucky those first two times. This time, there were two women and two men and none of us knew each other.
The clothes to wear at night on the train were what we used to call “jogging suits,” those matching loose jackets and long pants with knit cuffs around the ankles, sewn out of that velvety, velour fabric or jersey that was popular back then. These worked for all genders. As darkness came, the men and women each took their turn standing in the hallway of the train car while the others changed into their jogging suits. Once again, I made do with my jeans and t-shirt, and I was comfortable enough.
We introduced ourselves, and the woman riding with us was fascinated that I was 1) from America, and 2) traveling alone. That is an ongoing theme in my travels, even now. I don’t remember her name, but she was Russian and didn’t speak English. We discovered that we both spoke a bit of French. She called me, “la seule femme,” meaning literally “the only woman.” I think she was trying to say, “woman alone.” I’m not criticizing her effort – she was close: “woman alone” is “une femme seule.” I doubt that I’d have done better off the top of my head. The men spoke only when necessary or when spoken to, and even then it was not in English. I think they didn’t know very much English, and were not interested in talking anyway.
We were all on our own “mission,” and after disembarking we all went our ways, which meant I headed to my hotel.
While in Sevastopol, I wanted to visit Bakhchysarai. The town’s name means “Garden-Palace” and it is the home of the Khan’s Palace, dating from the 16th century.
Thanks to my map from Lviv, I could decode street signs and the occasional English word written in Cyrillic, but I still didn’t speak Ukrainian, nor could I read it or understand public announcements. This caused some angst when it came to transportation because I worried about catching the wrong bus or train and ending up in the wrong place.
I thought I was in the right place for the right train, but I was looking for confirmation. I looked around the platform. “Does anyone here speak English?” I asked of anyone listening, and smiled. Smiling goes a long way nearly everywhere.
From about twenty feet away, a young man with light brown hair and crystalline blue eyes looked me in the eye and said very clearly, “I speak English.” And that’s how I met Sergei, who spoke English very well, and his friend, who apparently didn’t pay as much attention in English class. I’m sorry that I didn’t get the friend’s name, but he was smiling and cheerful and they were both very nice.
Using my guidebook, I explained where I wanted to go. Sergei said they were taking the train, too, and that stop was on their way. “Come with us.” I stepped onto the train behind them.
I don’t remember the train ride being very long – two or three stops – but it was long enough to find out that they were fourteen years old and went to school together. They were on their way home and it wasn’t at the same stop as Bakhchysarai. I thanked them again, and said goodbye.
Bakhchysarai was the palace of the Crimean Tatar Khans, who began building the sizeable complex in the early 1500s. They lived there for about two hundred fifty years, until the collapse of the Tatar state in 1783.
Muslims face Mecca when they pray. A “mihrab” is a niche in the wall of a mosque, and shows the proper direction of Mecca, which is on the Saudi Arabian peninsula, near the Red Sea. In the smaller mosque at Bakhchysarai, the mihrab has seven rows of tiles representing the seven levels of Heaven. Above the mihrab, is a stained glass window, symbolizing the seal of Suleiman, which is a hexagonal (six-pointed) star.
The Bakhchysarai Fountain was built at the order of Qirim Giray Khan to memorialize his grief at the death of his young wife, Maria, a Polish girl in his harem. It is believed that Maria was murdered by another wife who had lost the Khan’s favor to Maria. The fountain represents the eternal tears of the Khan for his lost wife.
In the photo below, there is a bust of Alexander Pushkin, a Russian poet, who visited the palace, and was moved to write a narrative poem, “The Fountain of Bakhchysarai,” to honor the story of the Khan and Maria.
I got back to my hotel by means of a “marshutra,” basically a large van providing regular transportation for shorter distances for one price and a regular route that seemed to repeat about every half hour or hour. By the time I was in Bakhchysarai, I had learned to signal the driver by holding my arm out, palm down, hand aligned, pointing slightly downward. I wasn’t always successful in crowded places, but as the sun was starting to fade, my determination to catch a ride must have been evident. The driver slammed on his brakes to pick me up!
Crimea in April is lovely and warm. In 2006, it was a popular place for vacationers from other parts of Ukraine, Russia, and Germany. I stayed someplace in the central part of Sevastopol and walked a lot.
To the west of Sevastopol is the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesus, the remains of a Greek city that prospered on the shore of the Black Sea from about 400 BCE until the beginning of the 15th century. The “Tauric” designated the region, “Chersonesus” is Greek for peninsula. It was used as a trading port, and exported locally-made wine.
Christianity came to Ukraine in fits and starts. St. Andrew was there in the 1st century, and there were a couple of church officials who tried to get a toehold during the several hundred years between St. Andrew and Volodymyr the Great, but it was not until Volodymyr was baptized around 988 AD that it was truly established.
Below is one of my all-time favorite photographs, taken in more hopeful, less stressful times. I was walking uphill through the park near the piers, and they were walking downhill toward the piers, where there were ships docked, grey and military-looking. As the group came closer, I realized they must be members of the Russian navy, apparently ashore to run errands (see the bags on the bench.) I thought it would be fun to have a photo, so I waved to the man who seemed to be in charge, who spoke English, and asked. He said yes, and spoke to the others. They gathered round and he took the photo. I thanked him and we parted ways. It was five or ten minutes of smiles and a couple of handshakes that demonstrated countries are made of human beings, not just governments.
NOTE: In the course of researching the Bakhchysarai palace, I discovered several articles from December, 2022, about the “restoration” of the palace by the Russian occupiers in Crimea. The palace was nominated several years ago to be a UNESCO World Heritage site, so there is great concern about the activity at the site. Ukrainians claim that the site is being stripped of its historic value by the Russian occupiers. These articles can be found by googling “Bakhchysarai Palace.” Apparently, there are also tours being conducted by someone, although the organizations offering such do not identify themselves as either Russian or Ukrainian, so they may be someone else altogether.