Crimea is a beach holiday destination for many from the former USSR, but it’s the site of a former nuclear power plant that most captured K Johnson’s attention — and frustration.
The line of police cars was right behind Marty and I. There was a crackle of something inaudible in Russian over loudspeakers interspersed by sirens. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing but if their lights are blazing and they are bearing down on you with great speed then the list of viable options is as follows: pull over. That is all.
So I stopped on the ever-so-narrow bit of dirt at the edge of the road and shiny white police car after shiny white police car, all identical, all newer than the dishevelled looking beat busters that most Ukrainian cops had, sped by, their sirens dropping in pitch as they passed.
I pressed the talk button on my tank bag.
“Have you seen Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow?”
“Yeah well me neither”
Marty and I had a pair of CB radios which were rigged up through headsets in our helmets. They allowed communication of a sort provided the wind noise, and the music from the iPods did not drown them out.
** Crackle ** “They’re going the wrong way” Marty said.
Of course, Mahoney had long since left the franchise having been shot into the centre of the sun on the New Year’s Eve 1989. And you thought they were fireworks?
We continued on and sped past the sign saying that we had entered Crimea. It was a large sand coloured concrete number sporting an immense griffin with a pair of proud breasts.
You have to wonder if the sculptor takes artistic license there. Now the griffin (a creature with the body and head of a lion, the wings of an Eagle and, it would seem, the breast of Dolly Parton) is the defender of the region to the North of the Black Sea. Luckily she had the help of two guards with AK-47s at the gate, so when I passed into the border town of Armyansk I felt pretty safe.
View Crimea in a larger map
I don’t know what I was expecting once I crossed the border into Crimea but for hundreds of kilometres it was the same Ukrainian countryside that I had travelled through on the mainland. I had grown so bored of it that it began to grate — initially like sandpaper, then like the fine setting on the cheese grater and finally the coarse one. Now looking out of my gnat speckled helmet, onto the same very slight undulation of ploughed field after ploughed field it moved to the final setting and began to take slices off me.
I needed the beach. My experience as an Australian is if you’re going overseas looking for a nice beach — that’s right, like the one in the brochure — just don’t. You might get lucky but the vast majority of the time beaches overseas pale by comparison. You will find yourself asking: why are there stingrays everywhere? What did my hand just brush against? Is that a tissue or toilet paper floating past? This is a series of jagged rocks — “where is la beacha, you fool. I said ‘La BEACHA!?'”
But we found a beach at a place called Olentivka, which is at the Western most point of Crimea. It was a thin strip of land sandwiched between the ocean and a lagoon which joined two points. Along one of the points was a series of gangster mansions, one of which we had passed on our way to camp, can only be described as some sort of grotesque wonderland. Two statues of snarling warthogs the size of small cars guarded the gate out the front. The concrete fence was built to look like a series of intertwined roots behind which were more statues of beasts, contorted in aggressive and furious poses with the sun shining off their high gloss finish.
On the beach we found a fine campsite. To one side was a Belarusian family that by the looks of things had been dug in there quite a while, and, to the other, a group of Russian scuba divers. This is common for Crimea to be surrounded by such a cross-section of ex-Soviet comrades. With the ferry from Russia to Crimea crossing only a few kilometres of sea and the set of available options increasingly shrinking as Bulgaria, Romania are now in the European Union, it’s not surprising that Crimea is the go-to place for these folk.
We watched the sun get swallowed into the Black Sea. Marty said that he heard there was a flicker of green just before the sun disappears beyond the horizon. I can say categorically, having watched the sun till it burnt holes in my retina, that this is baloney.
The plan for the next morning was to make it to the south. Eventually we would end up in Yalta but we had been travelling for seven days straight on motorcycles which was as taxing as hell. I had not cottoned on to the fact that you could put in earbuds connected to your iPod while you ride. This is in addition to these pads with speakers on them that you stick on the inside of your helmet for the CB radio transmissions to come through. This meant that my entire soundtrack for the last seven days was non-stop woosh of wind noise, the water torture of the audio world, with a distant muffled beat of whatever song I was trying to play through the same sound system.
Riding through an Eastern European country takes a special kind of concentration. I’d had a few near misses caused by cars coming from directions that they just would not come from in Australia. So a sort of psychologically threadbare maniacal attention had set in where I checked and rechecked my side mirrors looking for that black car (more like hearse) that had my number on it. It was exhausting.
Now I’m no doctor, but I believe fatigue comes in two forms: long-term and short-term. The short-term can be rectified with a bit of kip and manifests itself with all the usual suspects — lack of concentration and attention, etc. Now the long-term resides on a deeper level, in your character, so lack of concentration leads to vagueness, for example. This second type of fatigue cannot be merely slept off. It is there forever.
In the interest of isolating fatigue to the short-term category the idea was to spend a few days resting in the beach resort town of Sudak. To get there meant negotiating a mountain pass road which on the map looked like the ice-cream on the side of a Viennetta. The idea was to spend a day in the mountains then using that mountain pass break through to the beach where hopefully some modicum of sanity and silence awaited. That was a longshot of course.
As we approached the mountains the drivers became more and more erratic and finally (gods be praised) the scenery changed. It turned on a five cent piece! After rounding one corner we were suddenly at the top of a large valley which plunged down between a spectacular mountain range, all exposed rock highlighted with powder green pine trees. A harvester on the field below kicked up dust which held the afternoon light.
We stopped and took a couple of glamour shots of our bikes. I attached my action camera to the side of my bike (a vastly superior position that the top of my helmet which added weight, wind resistance, and always came back with an odd twitch). And then we were off.
On a good road, on a motorcycle, you achieve a psychological state called flow whereby you are so engaged (perhaps submerged is a better word) with a task your conscious mind or ego (that annoying guy who overthinks everything) vanishes, burnt off in the intensity of the activity. It is the purest state of being. And so it was. Now I sit here thinking about it I can just recall a series of images and notions without any logical continuity, which once written down (even without definite articles) become far more concrete than they ever were in my mind:
“Road ahead snakes between exposed rock. Like Colorado maybe?”
“The dappled light through trees seems very fast.”
“Centre line moves like a lava lamp?”
“Steep corner? SHIFT DOWN! BRAKE. Yes. Accelerate.”
And then stuck behind a white van that seems to be everywhere in this country. The infernal ego (and associated continuity) returns.
“This seems like a nice town. Is that car parked by the side of the road a police car?! I bet it is. I wonder if they got me. I wasn’t going that fast. But then how do I know. My first reaction is to press the brake then look at the speedo so I never know how fast I was actually going. Why do I always do that? Man would I have to bribe them or would I have to pay some sort of ticket? How would they follow that up?”
Then back to flow, through perhaps the most exciting roads I’ve ever ridden on. All the way to the top of the mountain where a lookout, manned by Tar-Tar salesman selling furs and Plov (a Russian pilaf), looked over the famous city of Yalta, the city where Churchill, Roosevelt and “Old Whiskers” Stalin performed Europe’s post mortem over half a century before. It was a stunning view, as the convex face of the mountain, encrusted with buildings which caught the afternoon sun, looked out over the Black Sea which captured a million lights, each burning and vying for attention.
In Yalta we spent an evening in “Happy Hotel” which is in the death throes of its tourist season (almost nothing on the menu available). The next day we rode east to Sudak. I spent my days lying on the beach, reading and, in between chapters, observing the incredible disparity in looks between the majority of men, fat, sweating, eyes porcine looking through rude surrounding features, and the women, taut but curvaceous bodies with pretty faces. Marty often ventured an explanation that always bordered on some pretty suspect genetic territory.
“There must be some gene which when in women makes them hot but with man makes them dog ugly,” he often said, as a prototypical example of either the former but more often the latter walked past.
The hot-vs-face-like-a-badly-cut-roast gene. OK Steinberg, I’ll let the boffins know.
We did a bit of a mini-service on our bikes. Marty had gotten a flat tire which gave him the opportunity to sweat and swear in the sun which I suspect he finds more relaxing than actual relaxing. Meanwhile I greased my motorcycle chain, rubbed the sweat off my brow with my forearm in slow motion and pretended to be the guy of the SOLO softdrink commercial, to me the embodiment of masculinity that I now clearly was.
The nights were spent drinking and watching the town gradually shutdown — one bordered window at a time. By the end of four nights the scene had transformed into a ghost town, a barely recognisable from its former self. The carnival was over.
We had one more stop in Crimea before we left. On the wast side of the peninsular is a town called Shcholkine which sports the site of a nuclear power plant that was nearly completed but reassessed and eventually abandoned in the wake of Chernobyl, the land deemed geologically too volatile.
I had my reservations that we could just rock on in and start looking at the place. Abandoned or not surely this was someone guarding the place or at least a fence. But Marten demurred.
As we approached the town of Shcholkine, I could see the hulking concrete brick of a power station, sitting like a giant cinderblock on the horizon. We turned off the main road and things began to get post-apocalyptic. Everything that was concrete was crumbling and everything that was metal was rusting. The buildings where walls and corners had disintegrated, exposed iron rebar like a skeleton.
We got closer and I could see there was some kind of salvage operation in progress. There was heavy industrial lifter on one of the neighbouring building with the jackhammer attachment, breaking down the concrete. I had thought a Saturday would be the best day to go, minimising the risk of any confrontation but there they were and there was nothing left to do but go on in. Just before the concrete finally gave way to complete dirt road, I saw a snake twisting in the sun, recently run over. A potent if ambiguous omen.
Two ten year old German motorcycles naturally get little attention in Germany. No one cares. Everywhere east of Czech republic however they get attention, a lot of it. Some of it is good, like kids on pushbikes in small Ukrainian towns giving the “very metal!” devil horns hand sign. Others, not so good. As we pulled up at the base of a crumbling nuclear power plant we were surrounded by ten or so Ukrainian labourers and I was wondering which category this attention would fall into.
The standard set of questions ensued: Where are you from? How many litres of petrol do the bikes hold? How old are they? How much do they cost? Looking around at their faces they looked like a group of men that would belong working on a modern day smuggling ship. Old fashioned words like “vagabonds” and “brigands” came to mind and I could see their toothless weather-beaten faces warp in the reflection of my bikes shiny gas tank and they closed in to block out the sun.
There is only one way to deal with such a situation and that’s a brash display of overconfidence. A smattering of Russian, some odd charades to get points across (they don’t even have to make sense) and you’re in. A man, the oldest and clearly in charge was put forward as the boss. Viktor. A firm handshake and a solid look eye-to-eye and I knew we would be alright. He would give us a tour.
Here is a question: Do you lock everything up like a paranoid maniac and risk offending those around who you, clearly implying they will rob you? Or do you leave your things there and risk them being stolen? We struck a balance and packed all our deal-breaker items (stuff that if got lost would mean the end) into my backpack and followed Viktor into the cave-like entrance of the nuclear power plant.
Viktor was a hell of a guide. He spoke unfalteringly and knew exactly what was what. We visited the control room, the reactor core, the roof. Standing in a reactor core of a nuclear facility you get the same chill as when you stand on the precipice of an immense cliff. It’s vertigo, it’s looking into the void, it’s contemplating a black hole. It’s not something as banal and ego-driven as “you realise just how insignificant you really are” but something far stronger. It’s the realisation that not just you but the entire technological progression of humankind is on some level accidental. That we have crossed the line and now one sure footed misstep could potentially end our existence as a species. Progress is not accompanied by an instructional booklet outlining all the consequences of each technological achievement before we chose to achieve it. The nuclear reactor in all this is the Rubicon and as we progress further the consequences of any misstep become more and more dire. What a downer.
Viktor knew exactly how much things weighed and how much they cost. The dome above the reactor core for example was so sturdy it could resist a direct terrorist attack. We tried to take a picture of him but he replied “*something* *something* Interpol” then laughed. Ah, OK so this was an illegal salvage operation.
I was worried about the bikes. I was sure Viktor was solid but I had the nagging awareness that he had taken us on every side of the building except one where we could see our bikes. We walked back down the unlit staircase to the bottom. Great, both our bikes were there. I began to unpack my stuff from my backpack into my topbox.
“Are your gloves missing?” Marty asked.
I looked and they were.
Viktor asked what was wrong. I told him. He began yelling at the half dozen or so men that remained sitting around us. He looked genuinely pissed off. If, reader, you may indulge me for a minute, let me pose a question to you:
What do you do when you are surrounded by Ukrainian labourers when one of them (you don’t know which one) has stolen your motorcycle gloves while they are illegally salvaging metal from a decommissioned nuclear facility?
First, you get your man Viktor on board to smoke a cigarette, make a few phone calls then angrily throw the cigarette butt on the ground. Second, you stand around awkwardly, throwing your hands up in the air. Third, you listen to Marty say “I’m not leaving here without my gloves” and nod. Then fourth, you ride out of there without your gloves and out of Crimea, watching your hands tan in the afternoon sun.
K Johnson is blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run.