Vacations in the mountains or on the beach?  This is last season’s fashion! Follow the path of true adventure, and visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – a 30-km exclusion area around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster.

33 years ago, at 01:23 in the morning on April 26, 1986 reactor #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant blew up as a result of an incorrectly conducted safety test, causing the meltdown of the nuclear core, and releasing huge amounts of highly radioactive materials into the air.  This created one of only 2 nuclear energy disasters rated at the maximum severity classification level 7 (the other one was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster).  The Soviet authorities at the time denied the accident not only to the rest of the world, but to its own citizens.  More than a 100,000 people in the nearest towns and villages remained in the highly contaminated area for over 36 hours after the accident, and were exposed to lethal doses of radiation before the evacuation started.  When it did, people were told this was a temporary measure and were instructed to take only documents and basic necessities, leaving all their belonging behind. They were never allowed back.

Next came the “liquidators” – firemen, army soldiers, reservists and regular power plant workers, who were thrown into the midst of the nuclear inferno, where electronics and machines broke down due to high level of radiation.  They were not informed about the nature of the disaster they were called to fight, nor were they equipped for doing so.  Nicknamed “biorobots“, most of them died either right away, or over the period of the following years due to all sorts of health problems caused by exposure to inconceivably high doses of radiation.

The sargofagos structure, covering the infamous Reactor #4 today
The monument to liquidators at the main gate of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant

Now, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone remains a time-capsule of the Soviet era – a haunting amusement park, a monument to the people who left, and an environmental recovery zone, where nature is reclaiming its space.  The 30-kim Zone covers an area of about 2,600 km2, and visitors are allowed in the Zone only if accompanied by guides of several tour companies accredited with the Zone administration, who also arrange for entrance permits and transportation. Before you ask – it is relatively safe. During a 2-day trip to the Zone, one receives the amount of radiation equivalent to a one-way transatlantic flight. The visitors are also provided with a Geiger counter that shows level of radiation, and are screened for radiation when exiting both at the 10 km checkpoint and at the 30 km checkpoint. If you respect the rules and don’t do anything stupid, like roll on the ground (which still remains highly contaminated), or pick up souvenirs to take home, you will be safe and won’t glow in the dark upon return.

Welcome to Pripyat
View over Pripyat from the multi-storey building

I can honestly say, that the 2-day trip to the Zone was one of the most bizarre, and most memorable trips I have ever done.  We went to Chernobyl in a small, 6-people group of friends, and had a chance to see the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant per se (with the sarcophagus, covering the infamous Reactor #4), visit the ghost town of Pripyat (once a model Soviet city, built to house 50,000 people supporting the operations of the power plant), and come up close to the gigantic and super-secret Duga Radar facility (an over-the-horizon radar (OTH) system which was part of the Soviet missile defense early-warning radar network). It was the Radar facility and the Pripyat ghost town that made the most unforgettable impressions.

An apartment building basement, full of gas masks

The first thing you realize in the Zone in general is how quiet everything is. You hear nothing, but the wind and the birds. No traffic noise, no people, none of the sounds you normally associate with human habitat.  When you enter Pripyat, at first you don’t even realize you are actually in a town. We were there in June, and with all the trees and leaves around, we had a complete sensation of being in a middle of a very dense forest. Only when our guide pointed out the multistoried apartment blocks hidden by the nature happily re-claiming the area, did we notice them.

Inside one of Pripyat’s kindergartens

Getting inside the buildings is not exactly legal, but still possible, and facilities like School #2, or the Hospital Complex #126 give you a glimpse into the Soviet life, forever frozen in time in this ghost town. I even found one of my history shool books from the 80-es on the floor of one of the classrooms in the school.

Operating room of Hospital Complex #126
Nursery in Hospital Complex #126

The left-over personal belonging of residents were collected and buried in the aftermath of the disaster, to prevent looting and further contamination spread. Without people or their personal items, the place looks empty and spooky, but the spirit of the 80-ies is still there.

The Duga Radar

The Duga Radar was impressive due to its sheer size. A huge steel mega-structure with the two out of the original three antennas still standing: 1st 150 meters high, and 550 meters long, 2nd 80 meters high and 220 meters long. The third, a much smaller circle antenna was dismantled and looted years earlier. The radar system used to broadcast a sharp tapping sound, which earned it the nickname “Woodpecker,” and was so powerful, that the sounds disrupted legitimate radio broadcasts and communications all over the world. Ultra-high-tech when it was built back in the 70-es, it is now horribly outdated (an average iPhone contains more technology than this gigantic structure), and stands abandoned as a remnant of the long-gone era.

The Duga Radar
The main control room of the Duga Radar

We also went inside the huge concrete dome of the un-finished cooling tower of reactor #5 – it was being built when the neighboring reactor #4 blew up, and any further construction works stopped. The echo inside was unreal – bouncing off the slopes of the cooling tower several times before dying out, it sure added to the surrealistic magic of the place.

Inside the unfinished cooling tower of Reactor #5
Inside the unfinished cooling tower

Several tour companies specialize on the trips to the Zone, with the oldest one being “SoloEast Travel“. The 2-day trip organized by them, and our guide Igor was a truly amazing, heartbreaking and unforgettable experience.

The Zone is a one of a kind place, and if you want to visit – do it soon! The buildings in Pripyat, initially designed to last for 25 years won’t last long, and will soon either fall apart, or will get swallowed by the surrounding forest.

Part 6: Around & About the Witch Island

Siqujor was so much more than just party, though.  Even though we happened to be on the island in the peak of the “party” season with every village and island district having their own Christmas and New Year “fiestas”, over the 4.5 days we stayed on the Witch Island, we did have a chance to experience a lot of other things it had to offer.

I have to say a couple of words here about the Philippines in general, which were well represented and well-observable on Siquijor in particular.  When getting ready for the trip, and reading up on all the places we were thinking of visiting, a sentiment from Jody of Legal Nomads got stuck in my head: “Philippines is a Latin American country, that by accident got plopped up in the middle of South East Asia”.  Having visited it now, I can only second this opinion.  There are way too many Latin American, or Hispanic (if you wish) things there, for it to be considered “true Asia”.

Starting with the Catholic religion, brought in by the Spanish invaders in the 16th century.  It sprouted serious and deep roots in the country, and today Philippines are probably more Catholic than the “old world” Catholics themselves.  Churches are everywhere.  They are grand, richly adorned, and revered.  God is even more ubiquitous – Bible quotes decorate every tricycle and jeepney all over the country; Jesus, Mary and the saints are looking at you from buses, buildings, and street food carts.  Catholic holidays paralyze the cities and villages, and turn into a frenzy of celebrations, commonly called “fiestas”.  The signs with “Happy Fiesta!” were all over Siquijor during the time of our visit, and each island district appointed a dedicated day for celebrations, so that the islanders and visitors could party all over the island every day over a period of several weeks.  Each fiesta started with a big prayer, followed by an even bigger feast (with food, chairs and tables brought in by the neighbors), and then a huge party/disco/mayhem of hard-to-believe proportions.

Christmas decorations were another thing worth mentioning – simply because they were in you face literary everywhere.  Imagine all the glitter and bling-bling you have ever seen anywhere, and double it.  Philippine Christmas decorations, just like celebrations were over the top.  Humongous Christmas trees were all over Manila, and it seemed that hotels and official buildings were competing with one another for the biggest, brightest, and shiniest Christmas tree.  On the islands, the decorations were not so grand, but no less shiny, and much more imaginative: we’ve seen Christmas trees made out of old polished CD disks, color-coordinated plastic bottles, coconuts, washed and shiny glass bottles, and everything you can imagine.  Philippines do take their Christmas seriously, and so far beat every other country we’ve ever visited in the scale of decorations and celebrations.

Cemeteries in the Philippines also have a very Latin American look and feel – they are stacked up, with vaults sitting on top of one another.  There was a very picturesque one not far from Sunny Side on the main road of Siquijor, and though much smaller in size and much more modest in look, it definitely brought up the memories of the famous Recoletta Cemetery in Buenos Aires we spent hours exploring several years earlier.

I don’t know if love of pork can be attributed to Catholicism or not (there are definitely parallels with Catholic Bavaria here, but I won’t stretch my imagination that far), but this was another big thing on the Philippines.  Pork was everywhere – every menu, every dish, every local delicacy screamed “pork!”  The food wasn’t particularly imaginative, and compared to other cuisines in the region would lose every time.  Not because of pork per se, but because of absence of spices, or any elaborate art of preparation – it was hearty, heavy, and dropped into your stomach like a brick to sit there for hours to come.

In the Philippines, pigs are kings! That is, untill they are eaten…

Another definitely Latino thing was children.  They were worshipped, and like in Spain or Italy could do nothing wrong.  Unlike Spain or Italy, though, Philippine children did not really abuse their status, and were very well behaved.  Kids were everywhere – curious, exceptionally smiley and friendly, they would wave you off from the side of the road, would gladly engage in conversation, and give you the warmest and heartiest smile you can imagine, that would melt your heart on the spot.  During our trip around the island we saw numerous school and family parties with dozens of children screaming their lungs out at karaoke, and adoring parents gushing at them from the sides.  Schools were everywhere – every island district had at least one, and judging by the school parties they were all full.  Absence of TV entertainment paired up with Catholic beliefs works miracles!…

What definitely made Siquijor stand out from Manila, and many other places we visited on this trip, was its cleanness.  There was no garbage on the side of the roads, and on more than one occasion we even saw locals sweeping the streets in front of their houses or shops.  This did not look like the “holiday special”, and definitely made the island look neat, tidy, and festive.

By the New Year’s Eve we were all partied out.  The “fiesta” that day was happening somewhere else, far from Sunny Side, and in the morning of December 31st our part of the island seemed unusually quiet.  We started the day by a long and lazy brunch with Chris in Marco Polo.  Sun, prosecco, good company, great ocean views – what else does one need for a happy morning?…

Morning view from Marco Polo
Prozecco breakfast!

It turned out that on the island menu a waterfall was an essential ingredient of happiness, and we were ready to throw that into the mix!  Lugnazon Falls were only a quick scooter ride away, and after parking our mighty steeds and trekking through the jungle for just 10 minutes or so we had them all to ourselves!  Being there all alone, just us with no other people had a surreal feeling about it.  All we could hear was the water, the birds, crickets, and the lazy wind ruffling the tree leaves.  The boys took a dip and splashed around in the turquoise waters of the falls.  I was not quite ready for the swim just yet, and consoled myself with taking photos.  When we were ready to leave, a bunch of local kids showed up, and immediately started making crazy jumps from the top of the falls, and from the rope swing on one of the nearby palm-trees.  The boys were looking jealously at these acrobatics, but were quite a bit smarter (and heavier) than the skinny Philippine teenagers, and wisely stayed away from the jumps.

After the waterfall swim Chris went back to Sunny Side following the call of duty, cold beer, Lyka, or all of the above.  We decided to continue with the tourist program, and went to see the Century Old Balete Tree, also known among the locals as The Tree Where The Witch Lives.  The balete tree belongs to the fig tree family that includes about 800 species.  It is a type of ficus, also known as the banyan in other parts of the world, and has prominent air roots that makes it easily recognizable all over the world.

The Tree Where The Witch Lives

In addition to The Witch (which was nowhere to be seen), the tree had a fish spa pond, organized by the enterpreneurial locals from the spring originating from the tree’s base and stocked with garra rufa, or Doctor Fish who happily nibble at the dead skin on visitors’ feet.  This sounds gross, but together with the cooling sensations of the spring water is, in fact, is a pleasant experience.  Entrance to the tiny grounds of the tree used to be free, but now visitors are required to pay a nominal sum of a couple of cents for maintenance of the pool.  When we arrived, about a dozen tired travellers were already splashing their feet in the pool, to the joy of the doctor fishes, hungrily circling around.  I experienced the “fish massage” a couple of years earlier in Cambodia, and while not totally unpleasant, it was definitely a weird and quite ticklish sensation. 

The water was cool, and sitting on the side of the pool was a good opportunity to relax and admire the Witch Tree.  One had to be careful, though – some of the garras in the pond were quite huge, and looked like they could swallow a human toe whole.  We spent a relaxing half hour by the pool, watching the tree, giggling from the little fishes’ nibbles, and shushing the really big fuckers away from our feet.

The New Year celebrations were relatively tame, compared to the mayhem of the two previous days.  Lyka fished out two vuvuzela from the depths of the kitchen, and together with one of the neighbors set everybody within the 500-meter radius in the mood with the mental squeaks of these horrible devices.  

Vuvuzela madness

There was the obligatory end of the year fireworks, which I believe happen everywhere around the world, regardless of the culture, religion or general energy levels of the local population.  There is something about the New Year that seriously affects people’s pyrotechnical inclinations, and makes even the most peaceful representatives of our species want to blow shit up.  I’ve observed this phenomenon in the US, Russia, Cambodia, Germany, and was yet to find an exception to this rule.  Philippines happily followed suit – Chris stocked up on cheap Chinese fireworks and petards a week ago, yet with every day closing in on New Year’s Eve he got progressively more worried that what he had would not be enough, and would buy up additional pyrotechnics.  They weren’t especially safe or reliable, and I am to this day amazed that nobody managed to blow up a hand or a head when the time for the fireworks came. 

We are gonna blow these babies up!

Some were more skillful in operating the pyrotechnics than the others, though…  One of Chris’ tenants, a tall Dutch guy, who just arrived on the island that morning, managed to shoot a firework into one of the tents in back, and set fire to it, to the horror and joy of the two English girls who happened to be the unfortunate owners of said tent.  The fire was extinguished quickly, the tent survived, and the girls continued giggling throughout the evening, at the same time trying to stay as far away from the Dutch guy as possible.  The hit of the evening was not the burning tent, though – Chris won the “most memorable firework of the night” competition with a huge firework garland he hung on the big palm tree in front of the Sunny Side.  When he set it off a couple of minutes before midnight, the garland spewed fire around for a bit, after which dis-attached from the palm tree, and fell on top of Chris’ motorbike (with a full tank of gas), continuing to burn and ready to explode.  The Dutch guy redeemed himself by jumping up to the bike, picking the garland up and throwing it into the nearby bushes, where it happily exploded, setting a minor fire to the bushes.

Happy New Year!

The New Year was officially in!  The pyrotechnics stopped (we simply ran out of shit to blow up), Chris and Lyka danced a slow Viennese Waltz on the deck of Sunny Side in celebration of the new 365 days, friends and neighbors joined in with songs and dances.  The New Year definitely started on a positive note – one of the bayots who left without saying good-bye the night before, came back, and offered tearful apologies and hugs to his former employer.  Chris was generous and soon the staff of Sunny Side was complete, and re-united, and everybody joined in on the celebrations.  We did not go mental, and were back at Stella’z in bed about an hour into the New Year.

The next day, we continued with the tourist program, and went around the island, to experience everything it had to offer.  The main drag, the Siquijor Circumferential Road, had tarmac, and was relatively good to ride.  We saw nice beaches (deserted due to low tide), numerous kiddies’ karaoke parties all around the island, a couple of big-ass churches, and bright green rice fields on the East side of the island. 

Somewhere on Siquijor

The best experience of the day was another waterfall – the three-tiered Cambugahay Falls were nowhere near as deserted or remote as Lugnazon, but the waters were so clear, so blue and refreshing, that even I ventured a dip.  It was amazing!  Every New Year should start with waking up on the beach, and after enjoying picturesque islands, taking a refreshing swim in the clearest waters of a waterfall!  The place was packed – families with little kids, groups of teenagers, young and old couples were all there, and all shared my newly-found belief about the proper start for the year.  The waterfalls were big, and nobody seemed to mind others – people were enjoying the fresh water, each other’s company, and were just having fun.  Siquijor was definitely good for that!

Cambugahay Falls – the upper level

What the island was not too good with, was ATMs.  Our round the island trip was partially driven by a desire to get some cash.  Honourable plan, which failed miserably.  The only ATM that was not disgusted with our Maestro cards was in the town of Siquijor, and was out of cash.  We found two more ATMs on the island, but they wanted nothing to do with our cards, and just spit them out without offering any other options.  We did know that getting cash would be a problem on the island, and came prepared.  Local prices were low even by Philippine standards, and we still had enough left to buy us two ferry tickets to Bohol for the next day, and even for another nice dinner at Marco Polo.

Las dinner at Marco Polo with Maestro Giulio!

We came back to Chris’ and to our horror realized that January 1st was a dedicated day for the local fiesta in the San Juan province, and the party was being set up right opposite the Sunny Side. Fuck!…. More party… Well, looked like it was inevitable, so we decided to just relax and enjoy. Chris also donated some food and drinks to the party, so we joined in as almost celebrities. We skipped the starting prayer and the meal, and walked in when the disco part of the fiesta was kicking in. It was absolutely mental – the music was blasting from the speakers, everybody was singing and dancing at the same time, blowing up remaining fireworks and drinking. We joined in, dancing our assess off, and singing our hearts out (luckily nobody could hear us in the cacophony of music and noise around!), and in the end of the evening had to partake in some un-identifiable shots of local palm moonshine. This was the end of it – the next thing I knew was waiking up the next morning. Luckily at Stella’z, and with Nic snoring by my side.

Every celebration comes to an end, and so did our never-ending Siquijor party.  We did not meet any witches or sorcerers on Witch Island, but reunited with a good friend, made some new ones, partied our asses out, and were not ready to see more of this beautiful country and continue with our trip.

Next stop – tiny little monkeys and the Chocolate Hills of Bohol!

New Year sunset on Siquijor