Europe: Poland.

 Auschwitz was actually near the headwaters of the Vistula river: the course of which runs across the Polish plains like a story of Poland, from Auschwitz through Krakow – once the Polish capital – Warsaw and eventually to the Baltic near Gdansk or what was Danzig, the flashpoint that started the Nazi invasion of Poland.

After going through Auschwitz I was hoping things could lighten up with the tour of Krakow. We had the ideal guide for that: a beautiful young Polish lady who was an enthusiastic not to mention voluble guide; to the point of being comical I was to learn. It was the inner city or ‘Krakow Old Town’ we were to see; surrounded by fortifications that were now mostly a ribbon of parkland encircling – in the shape of a bloated tadpole – what was Poland’s capital from 1038 to 1569.

Starting from the ‘head’ on the northern edge. At the round fort of the Krakow Barbican, guarding St. Florians Gate, the main entrance to the city. Then down the ‘Florianska'; a main thoroughfare flanked by ornate architecture and running commentary to the cathedral like St. Mary’s Basilica.

This had two towers at the front but only one had a spire. There was a trumpet signal on every hour from this religious edifice that was cut short. The explanation being that the trumpeter had an arrow in the throat when warning of a Mongol attack: there were 3 Mongol attacks during the 11th century, the 1st virtually destroying the city.

Now for the comedy. Our charming guide showed us how miscreants – in the view of religion – were punished in the middle ages. By a large side door I was invited to kneel so a collar and short chain attached to the wall could be clipped around my neck. Then Jocelyn took a photo of what some might describe as a middle aged male fantasy: me looking as though I was enjoying it – the humour anyway – while our guide kept me in my place with a hand on my shoulder and a radiant beam of achievement for the camera.

Inside St. Mary’s the enthusiasm continued unabated. Amidst the shadowy gloom and reverent splendour it dawned on me that our lady’s lecture on Polish culture was audible enough for most in this cathedral sized church to overhear it. It did occur to me to ask her to soften the volume a bit but somehow it was like thinking ‘I’ll swim against that overwhelming current in just a bit.’ A priest beat me to it, sidling up to her and murmuring in her ear. Profuse apologies to everyone.

Comedy aside it’s worth mentioning the role the Catholic church has played in Poland. What our guide had put around my neck was an example of how repressive this church could be and its intolerance is well known. However: given that Poland didn’t exist as a country for over 100 years and given its domination by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for half of the 20th century the Catholic church became a source of solace, strength and resistance for this country.

St Mary’s was on a corner of the largest medieval town square in Europe. Big enough to surround the ‘Sukennice’ or Cloth Hall in the centre. Once a centre of international trade, now a market and a centre for museums and restaurants. Museums were also housed in the Town Hall Tower;- an outsize Gothic tower near a corner of the Sukennice. Other attractions included a statue of Adama Mickiwiecza, a famous Polish poet, destroyed by the Nazi’s then rebuilt. Also a flower market where I photographed the girls and a great hollow sculpture of the head of Eros – incongruous in this setting – that kiddies inconguously played around in.

Next was the University quarter. Most memorably the garden sandwiched between buildings housing the oldest University in Poland. It was a cultural garden with statues on plinths of the great and good. Polish culture embraced the extremes of Pope John Paul 2nd and the Astronomer Copernicus who both graduated from this University; also a heavy metal trend – I’ve learned since – called ‘death metal.’ At least one of its bands by the name ‘Vader’ had gone international.

 University garden_8645

In fact Poles who’d become famous or trailblazed anyway included Marie Curie or Curie-Sklodowska, Aleksander Wolszczan who actually discovered the 1st extrasolar planets, Joseph Conrad no less, or rather Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, Stanislaw Lem, Roman Polanski, Max Factor and Michael Marks. The latter 2 founding business empires, Marks and Spencer in the case of Michael Marks. Then as if that isn’t enough Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz was the 1st woman to sail round the world single handedly.

Last but not least was the famous composer Frederyk Chopin who had a sculpture in a park beyond the University. Along with other dedications throughout Poland and the airport near Warsaw.

By then we were in the greened over fortified belt. A long walk down that brought us to the end of Krakow Old Town. It was a hill occupied by the massive walled citadel of the Wawel Royal Castle, built by Casimir III the Great who reigned from 1333 to 1370, on the site of a settlement and trade centre that has a history stretching as far back as 50,000 years ago.

It has been called Gothic. However in the early 16th century it became something of an ‘arts centre’ when Italian architects and sculptors, German decorators and others native and foreign were brought in create a Renaissance palace.

Wawel Royal  Castle entrance Castle_8666

After this though the place fell into neglect when the capital was moved to Warsaw and the Swedes invaded Poland in 1655-57 and 1702. Royal insignia were stolen by the Prussian Army in 1794 too.

After 1795 the Austrians recognised its defensive advantages, strenthening its position by adding some of the walls, but not its aesthetic qualities, pulling some of its buildings down. Restoration began after they pulled out in 1905 and after surviving the 20th century it is now a preserved landmark.

Vistula at Krakow_8664

It still offered a good view of the Vistula.

One thing I’d seen now and then and would see again in Warsaw were girls in wedding gowns. They were having their photos taken with their grooms. A charming custom. The sight of a girl in a sensuous white gown amidst normally dressed passers by was ethereal, enigmatic, dreamlike.

Finally the Jewish quarter on the same side of the river but beyond Krakow Old Town. Not much time here but enough to spot the oldest synagogue in Poland and a Jewish memorial for a community the suffered the Holocaust after living there since the 1400’s.

I realise now though that Jocelyn and I were neglecting Polands’ natural attractions. Within the railways of Katowice and Krakow to Warsaw lay not only the ‘Polish Jura’ but a desert! The Polish Jura is an upland that has hills rather than mountains; nevertheless there are caves and rock formations, some surprisingly spectacular. As for the ‘desert’…well it’s more a particularly sparsely vegetated heathland with an unusual amount of sand deposited during the Ice Age. It’s surrounded by forest but is pale enough to show up on satellite imagery and the Germans took the desert definition seriously. The Afrika Korps trained there during the war.

Warsaw tram_8671

Warsaw with its modern buildings and more being built was in contrast to Krakow. There were also futuristic looking trams. They were a real feature of central Europe; I’d seen them in Krakow and Brno.

Most of Warsaw was a modern city because 90% of it was destroyed in World War 2. The day after Auschwitz and Krakow was a free day to explore but we got off to a shaky start when I fell over on a wide street crossing, luckily with no traffic near. Also – construction being a feature of modern cities – there was that block sized area excavated for a metro line we had to find our way round before we got to the museum for the Warsaw uprising. A former tram power station.

This took place at the beginning of August 1944 when the Russian army was in the eastern suburbs. The Poles soon liberated 3/5ths of Warsaw often isolating the Germans in pockets. Stalin though didn’t want an independent Poland so the Russian army didn’t help the Poles though it was by now so close. Also Soviet airfields were denied to the Western Allies, making supply drops a hazardous business. The result was a slowly losing battle for the Poles as they were forced into smaller pockets and away from the river. An orgy of atrocity and destruction. German forces included a brigade composed of criminals, massive siege guns and flame throwers. At the beginning of October the Poles surrendered.

On the other side of Germany the liberation of Paris was also taking place during August. Hitler had ordered the general commanding the Paris garrison to destroy the city. Had the US army halted outside Paris like the Soviet army and the German general obeyed Hitler’s orders Paris could have suffered the same fate as Warsaw.

The first thing we saw when we entered the museum was a glassed over hole in the floor which appeared to reveal part of a sewer people were walking along. We went looking for that and found a sewer mock up but it wasn’t under reception. Eventually we realised that what we’d seen under reception didn’t exist but was a clever deception highlighting 2 factors of the Warsaw Uprising: sewers and confusion.

The sewers were used to link up areas of the city and suburbs captured by the Poles. Communications, supplies, reinforcements and withdrawals were effected in this way. This added to the confusion of the Germans, initially at least. Also – apart from districts taken over by the Poles – large parts of the city were contested with the outcome in confusion for some time.

Signs through several levels guided one through the course of the Uprising. This museum was stuffed with exhibits and overall had a similar gritty grim realism to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kiev. Brilliantly done, from the sewers, simulated rubble of wrecked buildings, clandestine radio station and printing press to the names of those who took part, weapons, sounds of destruction and the biggest exhibit: a B24 plane used in supply drops.

We were – without realising it – on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto. Scene of another uprising in April 1943. A smaller version of the Warsaw Uprising with a similar result. Ghetto liquidation and rumours of death camps – all too correct! – sparked this Jewish uprising. The survivors were likely to wind up in places like Auschwitz.

On the other side of that was the Saxon Garden; one of the oldest parks anywhere. Inspired by Versailles it was largely wooded but under the trees were formal flowerbeds and walks. Together with a magnificent fountain and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the far side. Dedicated to unknown soldiers who fought for Poland in World War 1 apparently. That meant they were doing this before Poland became a nation again. Albeit briefly.

Pilsudski Square – the largest square in Warsaw – was named after the Marshall who achieved this. He also achieved the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ in 1920. This was a battle similar to the Marne outside Paris: a turning of the tide against an invasion on the point of enveloping a country. It’s a very little known battle in the UK but the Poles split the Red army which retreated from the edge of Warsaw into what Lenin called “an enormous defeat.” It was truly decisive in stopping Communism in early years of success from entering and very likely taking over central Europe.

Then it was the Old Town by the Vistula. Completely reconstructed after the war with another huge square, on the other side of which was The Royal Castle, complete with carriage rides. Past that and an open air restaurant were the narrow streets of the Old Town where a girl blew huge bubbles for the tourists. It was that kind of place. It all appealed to me but not to Jocelyn whose mood didn’t improve when some food we were eating dropped on her. Not mine by the way.

A calming influence was another square in the centre of the Old Town, a walk around the ramparts there and a view of the Vistula. Across the river was a stadium with a balloon nearby. One could just make out the huge flat horizons of the eastern European plain beyond the suburbs.

The western bank of the Vistula was higher than the eastern suburbs. That meant a pattern was building up because the same thing existed with 2 other cities in this overall geographical region: where the northern European plain broadened into eastern Europe west of the Urals. Kiev on the Dneipr was also sited on the higher western bank. Same thing with what was Stalingrad on the Volga. 3 cities sited on the western banks of 3 major rivers where the western bank was higher. Why? I wonder if there’s a geological reason?

Warsaw from Old Town_8716_edited-1

From our viewpoint there was also a panorama of the city centre to the south. Another day, another part of Warsaw to the south of that.

The Old Town was still a central part of Warsaw. The science fiction convention we were to attend south on the other side of the city centre in the University quarter wasn’t far to walk. Just as well. The registration process had been even worse than the Kiev Eurocon. To the point where it still had to be sorted out in fact, for despite all efforts there was no communication from the Polish contact.

At least the convention was in progress judging by the queue outside the ‘Politechnika Warsawska’ or Warsaw Polytechnic. In effect the University of Warsaw. Fortunately an Irish fan friend of ours was well known here so a bit of name dropping ensured we got in.

Once inside though it wasn’t long before we found there was no English program and Jocelyn was disappointed. I was just relieved to get in and felt it was fair enough to lose the gamble on English being available here. After all it can’t be spoken everywhere and this was the Polish National SF convention in the middle of Warsaw so one couldn’t get much more Polish than that! ‘Cept Krakow which might have a certain edge perhaps, what with our guide there.

Polytechnic_8725

The convention was to me another aspect of young Poland growing out of old Poland. Most of the people there were young with a large fancy dress contingent, some gathering on the lawn under the trees outside the main convention building: a modern tech college affair. A short walk to another part of the convention led us to a new building with lecture theatres and a glass wall offering a view of older or reconstructed Warsaw University.

To me there seemed an air of youthful enthusiasm in Poland. Not only in promoting the talents of its culture but getting on with the business of embracing change and progressing; economically and otherwise. I felt that some would call the enthusiasm naïve. Well frankly I don’t like that word. It’s a patronising put down word used by those who assume too much in the way of intellectual superiority.

No. Given that much of Poland is finally free to go its own way after a history bad enough for the Catholic church to become a liberating force I say jolly good luck to them! From the middle of the 17th century there have been invasions and the country ceased to exist from 1795 to 1918. The Poles had only just gained their independence when they had to fight and win an epic battle against the odds to save their capital and the country. Only to be crushed less than 20 years later by a genocidal regime. The regime that got rid of that was still notoriously repressive, shifted the whole country westwards away from Belorus as far as the Oder near Berlin and stayed for the next 44 years.

We wandered around just looking most of the time. We found someone who spoke English in a hall used for games though. She was promoting ‘Westerplatte:’ a game dealing with a battle fought at Danzig on the outbreak of World War 2. It was an inspirational battle for the Poles for a garrison of a few hundred held 3,400 Germans at bay for a week. History repeated itself as the British – Jocelyn and I – attempted without success to help the Poles. The rules were intiguing but by the 2nd game we had a better idea and I really thought we were going to win. Except we didn’t.

In the evening we tried to find an ethnic meal out and found a place that left us at an outside table without serving us but the menu didn’t appeal to me anyway. After sneaking out of there we found what we wanted in the University quarter restaurant set in a cellar.

Near the end of our stay in Warsaw Jocelyn revealed – probably over a beer – that she was disillusioned with Auschwitz. ‘Disillusioned’ was probably not the right word but it was something similar for I didn’t question why so much as understood. If you see a lot of something on documentaries, news or whatever, the reality is rarely quite what one expects. Besides which it had been turned over to the tourists now. She wasn’t sorry about going though so it wasn’t a wasted trip.

a plane home_8735

At the airport the weather was clearing like a brighter future for Poland.

We were encouraged by the air hostess to have enough wine on the flight home.

Which might have helped my idiot abroad comes home act when the alarm clock went off in my luggage on the carousel at Heathrow. “Shut up!” and a frantic grapple to open the bag to the amusement of passengers. I was afraid security might think it was a bomb.

A coach ride home while I sat at the front, the road unfurling through the night in front of me.

Down in Southampton teenagers and 20 somethings were still up clubbing, some playing chicken with the coach.

At Fareham I got off and left Jocelyn to travel solo the last few miles in the early hours. So what if I was hiking home with backpack and heavy camera through the night for 3 miles when I was 63? It was a chance to exercise and a one off hike to a comfortable place I could call my own where I could lie in tomorrow instead of walking further twice a day to and from crushing workloads and filthy conditions, starving all the time. So much for Auschwitz; what about Polish history transposed here? There wouldn’t have been an England from the Napoleonic wars to World War 1. The Battle of Britain would have been fought just after that. The Nazi’s would still have conquered us in 1939, set up something like Auschwitz in southern England probably near Fareham and 90% of London would have been destroyed. We would have gained Ireland and lost East Anglia and the North East under the Russians who would have let us go our own way a mere 25 years ago.

Shouldn’t be walking 3 miles home at my age at this time of night? C’mon get real it’s a piece of cake when I think of where I’ve just been. We don’t know how lucky we are. © D Angus 03 14

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Grand Canyon of Evil

Up before dawn half asleep. A wait for a taxi at the hotel entrance.

There it is! We’re off! But in the taxi it’s “Oh no I’ve forgotten my bag!” from Jocelyn who dashes back into the hotel. The taxi driver insists on driving off anyway! Then I realise that he simply can’t stay parked there and is only driving round the block, which takes time for it’s a tortuous ‘block,’ so I hope Jocelyn can cotton on to why we’ve deserted her, or just stay put for long enough!

She has. We pick her up on completing the circuit. Still got to make the station though.

When we get there we’re handed over to a man and a middle aged woman with Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science towering over us like some colossal stark icon of the cold war. Another link in the chain of this adventure.

The man makes sure we get on the right train and the woman is travelling with us. Somebody will pick us up down the line in Krakow. It all feels like a spy thriller film involving a series of obscure clandestine contacts. Whatever I’ve missed out on in my life it’s not adventure!

The woman wryly admits to being not only American but also “in real estate.” I wonder about Jocelyn who if anything is even more anti property than I am, which is saying something! Things remain not only civilised but cordial enough. After awhile we start to explore the train.

Sunrise Poland_8598 

So how come I’m speeding back down the track I came up to Warsaw yesterday on, at an hour that’s uncivilised enough to try a few Nikon shots of a dawn mysterious with mist coming up over the forests and fields of Poland?

When my sister learned of my Chernobyl adventure she – among a good few others – thought I was mad and morosely added “I suppose you’ll be going to Auschwitz next.”

“Oh no not a chance of that.” was my flippant dismissal, being sure I wouldn’t; but if it’s possible to make a joke involving such a subject that had to be it for it turned out that Jocelyn wanted to go to none other than Auschwitz of all places! That was where we were headed. I just have this knack of confirming my sister’s worst suspicions.

I had mixed feelings about Auschwitz. It was outside my normal sphere of operations which involved adventures in the world’s wild or scenic places or long walks or science fiction conventions. There were exceptions like military history and Chernobyl thrown in; but I have an inexplicable fascination with military history and Chernobyl was linked to science fiction anyway. Auschwitz though involved depths of gruesomeness and morbidity I wasn’t sure I could cope with, understand properly or write about well enough.

It was undeniable though that Jocelyn had been good company and a great help on both trips to Poland and Ukraine, handling the hotels among other things. There should be some give and take with any successful friendship or partnership so this was clearly a time for Jocelyn to call in her favours, or some of them. Besides, it was all part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’ and I’d already made a point of making my life some tapestry! There was no escape.

So I’d started to plan by looking at the map. Auschwitz was a lot further from Warsaw than Chernobyl was from Kiev, being down near the southern border in an area crawling with railway lines. It was going to be a long day going there and getting back to Warsaw.

I’d consulted a Jewish friend of ours – Ric – who’d actually had relatives at Auschwitz. The railway lines were why it was there he told me. It was basically an industrial region so it was easy to transport people there from all points of the compass. He approved of us going. It was the centre of an evil scheme involving his people that shouldn’t be forgotten so the more people who went there the better. That struck a chord with me for there was a book I’d read dealing with the subject of evil. A good way to fight it was to record it and report it; which was more or less what we were talking about.

Another thing he said stuck in my mind. He compared the Brady/Hindley child murders to Auschwitz as a ‘Cheddar Gorge’ to a ‘Grand Canyon of evil.’ Although this was questionable in that what Brady and Hindley did was dreadful Ric was talking about the scale of the crimes in terms of numbers: vast numbers of people had been involved in what had happened at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. I chose his phrase for the title here.

So now here we were on our way back across Poland to the Grand Canyon of evil. There was still that spy thriller feeling because the train we were on had that old world charm of seperate compartments with well upholstered seats connected by a narrow corridor running down one side of the carriage.

Breakfast had style too. The design of the service area was more or less the same as British trains but the food was prepared more carefully, was more varied and the guy who prepared it even wore a chefs uniform. This used to be more like how it was in Britain in the 50’s maybe, but not bothered with on railways there now. I was becoming impressed with Polish railways.

Krakow. Immediately we’re picked up on the platform, driven through glimpses of a more historical looking city than Warsaw to a rendevous point where a minibus taking us and others to Auschwitz is waiting.

Outside Krakow I get this disjointed feeling as we’re driven along tree lined country roads while an onboard television lectures us with a monologue and images of Auschwitz. Outside our vehicle the weather is perversely pleasant with light cloud and even sunshine as opposed to the gloom I went through in the Alps, which would have been far more appropriate for this journey. The weather compliments the area which again is pleasant: gently rolling fields of – I think – maize, small woods and a hint of bigger hills on the horizon.

We reached the small Polish town of Oświęcim. A nice enough place. One establishment had made a feature out of the tyres they were selling. Oświęcim was renamed Auschwitz by the Nazis. We reached our destination, arriving at an old barracks complex.

This was the Auschwitz concentration camp, or part of it. Again I had that disjointed feeling. The buildings looked solid, regimented and grim enough but there were crowds of relaxed tourists amidst green trees and grass, casually being assigned guides and even offered food. There was a cafeteria here which didn’t feel right. It’s not that one could reasonably expect to be shouted at and marched around the holocaust but this wasn’t a place I would associate with a meal.

  Arbeit Macht Frei_8601_edited-2

Where was that sign to convince me I was here? ‘Arbeit Macht Frei.’ That German ‘work makes you free’ was there above the entrance in metal letters if one looked for it. It might have some truth elsewhere but in a place like this it was a cynical lie of a philosophy, unless death was freedom.

Our guide was the most reliable link. A blonde Polish lady who would have been attractive but for a pinched look to her face. Her voice was what was memorable: one might call it commanding and Jocelyn ragged me about her making a good ‘dominatrix.’ Well perhaps, but that was far from being the whole story here. No, it was the rythmic hypnotic quality of the tone of this lady’s voice. If there’s an afterlife I might expect to meet an angel of judgement like her there decreeing in that voice whether one was destined to scrape into Heaven or a circle of Hell. That was the best way I could put it. She was a teacher and I think she was a good one.

I suspected this barracks wasn’t all there was to Auschwitz and that there was another bigger camp somewhere. She said there were 3: the one we were at. Auschwitz-Birkenau which was the other one I thought existed, and IG Farben.

Our guide probably stressed the existence of this 3rd Auschwitz because the local Poles were forced to build this IG Farben industrial complex. Google Maps shows it as being massive: 2 miles across!

IG Farben was a German chemical industry conglomerate – once the largest chemical company in the world – that played a key role here. It chose a site on the other side of Oświęcim – I dimly remembered an industrial complex coming in – because of tax incentives after the invasion of Poland, good rail communications and cheap labor.

The ‘cheap labor’ organised by IG Farben involved thousands of concentration camp prisoners, many walking 4 to 5 miles there and the same back. Others were actually held at a camp called ‘Monowitz-Buna’ or ‘Auschwitz III.’ One estimate of the total numbers of Auschwitz inmates working at IG Farben is 35,000. Most died because of the conditions they had to live in, walking there and back day in day out, or the workload; though apparently the excessive workload organised by IG Farben is what killed most of them!

Thousands of deaths was actually small beer in the general scheme of things at Auschwitz. IG Farben’s main claim to evil infamy was not merely manufacturing synthetic rubber for the German war effort – which probably was a reason for the existence of the tyre establishment I’d seen nearby – but the infamous Zyklon B: the pesticide that exterminated so many victims in the gas chambers at Auschwitz; let alone the other camps. The cruel irony here is that prisoners at IG Farben were working on this poison that was killing them.

After the war IG Farben was justly reviled, tried at Nuremberg and kept in being only to earn compensation for its victims. 13 IG Farben directors were sentenced to – in my view – lenient terms of 1 to 8 years. Even then some went on to become leaders of post war companies.

Our guide led us round the barracks. The ghoulish aspect of walking round a place like this was obvious and I was determined not to take tourist type photos. My solution was to doctor each one I did take here with Adobe Photoshop in an attempt to convey something of the sinister infernal horror of the place.

 Halt! Stoj!_8605_edited-1 

Past the barbed wire fences that had been electrified. Past interior displays involving photographs of inmates. Many of them women. Jocelyn thought some of them were attractive: a miracle given their situation.

Past photos of the selection process the Jews were put through on arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Dr. Mengele was there. ‘The Angel of Death.’ A slight, almost boyish figure in uniform, looking cheerful. This was a character notorious for his experiments on children. Talk about child abuse with a difference! And he was never actually brought to justice for his crimes, inexplicably telling his son after the war in South America that “he had never personally harmed anyone in his whole life” before finally dying on a Brazilian beach.

Past sections of large rooms walled off by glass, almost like a larger version of those secure glass fronted enclosures in a reptile house inhabited by pythons and alligators. Only here it was exhibits. Anything from artificial limbs to suitcases and other hand luggage. One could see the names of the people involved on this luggage. Many looked Jewish and by far the majority of them were. They were told these items would be sent on to them. A lie involving a whole race.

It got to me when a crowd of us were shuffling past the shoes. I felt claustrophobic and didn’t realise there were shoes and other footwear on my left behind the glass initially. It looked like a dark brown landscape in there before it became clear it was made up of mounds of shoes: a bizarrely creative landscape of Hell. I began to feel overwhelmed and trapped.

Ric had already been here when the Russians were in control, when it retained much of its earlier grimness. He told me he’d felt overwhelmed when he realised the belongings on display – representing the many who were murdered – were only a tiny fraction of what passed through here: a tiny representation of the true scale of state induced murder. It’s difficult to come to an accurate figure but according to the information here roughly 1,100,000 people died here, 90% of which were Jews. Other groups of fatalities in descending order of size were Poles, gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, then other prisoners.

Christ there was a kid in here! What the Hell was the mother thinking of? She was carrying a little girl who was protesting and had a small son in tow too, who was quiet and glum. Most likely the infant girl felt frustrated at being carried at snails pace through here, without realising what this place was about and wasn’t prepared to be quiet about it; but I wouldn’t rule out her sensing more. Children were murdered en masse here too. She was giving her mother a lot of stick, entirely justifiably in my opinion.

Another child was to figure in what the guide told us after we’d visited a barrack block that was a prison within a prison for those violating the numerous rules and those hauled in from the local neighbourhood. This included cells so constricted that inmates could only stand up in them.

Outside was an ominous grey wall with stakes. Where prisoners were shot. Our guide gave us 2 examples at opposite ends of the scale. There was a priest of high principles who’d spoken out against this evil regardless of how futile it seemed or how dangerous it was to do this. If one had the mindset of the SS the only way to stop someone like that was to shoot them. On the other hand there was a 9 year old boy who threw an apple at prisoners in an attempt to feed them on the march to or from IG Farben. He was also shot for this act!

At least it was portrayed as a charitable act but I’m not sure it was even that. An apple is a very handy thing for a boy to bung in a spirit of mischievousness, knowing that it’s pretty unlikely to cause injury but hard enough for the target to know all about it if it hits them. The sort of thing that would have earned him a clip round the ear when I was a boy or a disagreeable lecture now; not a bullet. Either way the mentality of those who shot him seems beyond comprehension.

Finally there was a gas chamber. Bunker like. Built that way to retain and build body heat from those who were packed in there. That would help to vaporise the Zyklon B into a poison gas.

The SS lived nearby in homes they’d chucked the local Poles out of. Some of these were near idyllic despite what was down the road. One of the most astronomically vacuous comments of all time was uttered by the wife of an SS officer: her sentiment being why bother with Heaven when it’s here at Auschwitz?

None but the terminally stupid or insane could fail to suspect that what was here was not Heaven but an attempt to create it’s opposite. This became more apparent at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was set up at the end of 1941 to ease overcrowding at Auschwitz I; destroying most of a Polish village named after a birch tree in the process. ‘Birkenau’ is German for birch tree. It was converted for extermination big time in early 1943.

 Auschwitz Birkenau_8611_edited-2

 

We were taken to the main gate: that long building with a central watchtower under which was an arch over a railway line, going straight through the building in fact. Many must have seen it on documentaries as I had. Also in a war film and even as the entrance to a city in Dantes Inferno on one occasion. In the film and the Inferno a searchlight on top of the tower was swept to and fro. Ignoring the weather which remained pleasant I’ve tried to simulate this with Adobe Photoshop.

I had thought that the Jews were unloaded from the cattle trucks outside the main gate but in actual fact the trains simply rolled along the single track through the arch into the middle of the camp where the railway split into several tracks. The unloading and selection process took place there.

 Auschwitz Birkenau_8616_edited-2

 

The railway inside the camp was a kilometre long I was told, but Google Earth shows it as being more like 3/4s. The camp was more than a kilometre across the other way and there was an extension to that under construction later. This was where the scale of what’s called the Holocaust became more apparent. Auschwitz Birkenau was bordered by trees which weren’t absent in the 40’s but the present ones – still distant – would have been small or non existent then; if the woods invading Pripyat near Chernobyl were anything to go by. Somehow I doubt there was as much grass too, which grew here plentifully now. Add to that the views of regimented blocks of single story huts everywhere and it would have been easy to feel that this dismal vista had taken over infinity. In other words: a man made circle of Hell.

It might as well have stretched to infinity as far as the prisoners were concerned. Those that weren’t sent to the gas chambers were crammed into what were more like deep shelves rather than bunks in those blocks. At least the ones that were brick built rather than wooden. When one turned over asleep or otherwise everyone else had to. It was also a race to get to the top communal bunk after enduring evening roll call, or at least the middle rather than the bottom; because sanitary facilities were non existent in the blocks and communal toilets were only available at set times under supervision. The further down one was the more crap one had to cope with. Literally.

That and there being no clean water for 2 years meant that just existing there made one a candidate for disease.

There was also winter. Despite there being chimney flues in each block there was no fuel for heating and most of the blocks were wooden, which provided little protection from the intense cold. It was summer now and I felt guilty feeling comfortable in a place like this.

The brick blocks were on one side of the railway; mostly they’d housed female prisoners. Most of the camp where the wooden dwellings were was on the other side. There were built that way because the Nazis realised it was cheaper. All the wood was now gone. What remained were the foundations and the flues; which stuck up everywhere like a huge field of outsized tombstones, a sinister mute message about everyone who had died here.

Auschwitz crematorium_8624_edited-1 

 

Then there were the gas chambers and the crematoria. Destroyed by the SS before Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians. Their ruins looked like Hell had regurgitated some of its contents here. This was where many of the women and children were sent and where the Sonderkommandos did most of their work. Our guide remarked that the killing was the easy part. Disposal of bodies on the scale of thousands was a much harder task. The crematoria worked around the clock at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The ‘Sonderkommando’ was the ‘special unit’ recruited from Jews. Most of their work involved the appalling task of body disposal at the crematoria. They had a special barracks and were more able to obtain food and clothing. Not that it did them much good, for every 4 months or so the Nazis disposed and replaced them.

One other class of ‘worker’ was favoured in the camp. We could still see that just inside the entrances to the brick built blocks was a small room. These were better lodgings for ‘kapos:’ the head of each block who held absolute power here and received better rations.

There was a memorial near the ruins. The sentiment I remember here is that of utter loss of hope. One reason why it should never happen again.

The question is of course why did it happen? ‘We all have our dark side.’ One can feel hatred with some cause or on the other hand, unreason. I hated a major American transport company not only for having a luggage policy that was a thieves charter but for employing every piece of company crap and obfuscation in thwarting my efforts to retrieve my lost/stolen suitcase. So I did want to – like the Germans – send those responsible on a long journey without their luggage: before explaining at the other end why it might not be returned to them and ensuring that they understood why; but I wouldn’t transport them in cattle trucks and though bereft of belongings they would still be free afterwards.

Here though the most worthy candidates for an Auschwitz type fate – apart from the Nazi party – were perhaps the business leaders of IG Farben. Subject them to grueling hikes and crushing workloads after sleeping in their own shit; not until they died – which would be revenge – but until they were hospitalised. By then they might understand the error of their ways. IG Farben was to me a clue to the kind of evil at work here: its extreme industrial nature.

There have been unholy marriages of government policy and religion such as the Spanish Inquisition and idealism such as communism under Stalins regime: wiping out vast numbers of people in remote Siberian Gulags. Not as easy to inspect as camps in the middle of Europe.

Stalin’s regime had been ‘an equal opportunities exterminator’ Ric had said with some accuracy. Here though was a marriage of industry to government policy normally limited to the mentality of serial killers: the resentment and anger of a nation funneled and dedicated to a terrible degree into the scapegoating and wiping out of an entire people: the Jews. Not only was IG Farben involved to the hilt but once wedded to government policy the genocide was carried out with commercial calculation taken to the extremes of nightmare. There has been state induced mass murder in Rwanda and Cambodia but here it was run on an industrial scale. The result was so many disappearing at Auschwitz that it seemed more a black hole of evil than a Grand Canyon.

 remembering_8626

 

Walking back parallel to the railway line I saw a small group of people with the blue star Israeli flags. Jewish pilgrimage I guess. The photo of them I took was the only photo of Auschwitz I took that I didn’t alter with Adobe Photoshop. I found out later from Ric that what I’d witnessed was ‘The March of the Living:’ very much a part of Israeli education. In his words; ‘a physical hammering home of the phrase ‘Never Again!”

There were tourists wandering around like ants compared to the scale of things here. One of these was a Japanese girl who wanted me to take her photo. The kind of photo I wanted to avoid but if she wanted that I was happy to oblige. We got chatting and she laughed when I remarked that “next week I’ll be back at school with all the other kiddies.” For me it was surreal saying that in a place that so many had no hope of escaping from. Maybe I was saying that to reassure myself that I could just walk out of here and be back in my normal existence soon.

Our Polish guide wound things up and asked me how I’d found it?

“Harrowing.” was my reply. “I was in some personal danger at Chernobyl but this to me was more challenging.”

“You should have been here when there was snow on the ground.” Just like it was at Chernobyl. She would have preferred that and felt that summer had taken some of the edge off this place.

“Yes. And you were here to welcome us instead of SS guards.”

That really got through to her and to my surprise this somewhat forbidding lady became physical, chuckling and clasping me on the arm in affection.

It was a good way to end a venture I was relieved to be at the end of. Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it but I felt there was a danger – like my sister did – in the other extreme: getting sucked into the morbid depths of of something like this. Best strike a balance between not letting it affect the happiness one could find in life and remembering enough to be wary if one came across signs of anything like it emerging in future.

 

 © D. Angus 02 14.

 

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Europe. Portsmouth to Warsaw by train: Part 2.

The rain had stopped by morning but there was still solid cloud above. It might be low enough to get above it by cablecar in which case the results would be literally brilliant.

What I remember is the result at the top being like the Stephen King horror film ‘The Mist.’ The cloud looked as thick as that fog! Bad enough to enforce an hours waste of time in the restaurant under seige by the weather though at least there weren’t giant spiders and wasps. The only photos I got were a few of cablecar apparatus rendered into alien shapes by the murk I’d ascended into. 

 cloudy mountain_8412

The silver lining to all this cloud was what was under it. Fewer though the photo opportunities were those that did occur were opportunities to capture the awe and mystery of these places. Less jagged perhaps than the French and Swiss Alps these mountains were still soaring with great sweeps of scree and dark forest. They probably hinted more at Castle Dracula and Middle Earth than picture postcard stuff, a potential weakness of brilliantly sunny images. Misty Mountains indeed.

 Cablecar view_8420_edited-1

Then there was the valley below. One could see how a chasm of a gorge at the edge of town dwarfed it in a way one couldn’t when down there. I’d seen this landform further west: how rivers in upper valleys could erode like a knife through a cake to lower areas on the other side of high ground.

Zams was of course laid out like a model village and one oddity I’d noticed in the Alps was graveyards not being grassy areas but paved over. There was one of those here.

The train onwards went all the way to Vienna and sitting opposite me was a young Austrian who spoke some English and was returning there from a wedding he’d attended in Zams. It was a weekend break for him. We chatted about travel and photography and how I could get the odd good shot from a train window if I was lucky.

There was no lack of good shots of mountainsides dissapearing into ragged swathes of cloud anyway. Moody and atmospheric. All the way to the other side of Innsbruck.

Beyond there the valley and route swung north into Bavaria and crossed part of southern Germany before going back into Austria at Salzburg. Again – like at Lake Lucerne – I was getting close to personal history. Munich was just to the north and that was the furthest point I’d reached by BSA Bantam motorbike when I was 21 after an epic ride across France from Le Havre through Paris, Nancy, Strasbourg, the Black Forest and down the Autobahn. It was that trip that made up my mind that I should lead a life of travel.

Stormcloud over hill_8503_edited-1 

The clouds were breaking up. Into lighter and darker clouds. Actually it was more the kind of sky I wanted; stormy and dramatic. Especially at one place where a dark cloud reached down to a hill in a sychronicity of shapes, looking like a tornado forming up. Salzburg too had a dramatic sky with a hint of something similar.

The countryside meadows were enclosed by woods rather than hedgerows as in England, now and then opening up to a vista of hills or in one place another lake set in country like a huge park. Houses were all detached and bigger than those in the UK, apart from villages where there was a cosy huddle seemingly unnaffected by the cancer of housing estates.

That was the way it was across the rest of Austria too. We’d seen the last of the Alps at Innsbruck.

Austrian church_8501_edited-1

One other thing. Once in awhile a church sported a domed spire structure like the top of a queen chess piece. Like the churches I’d seen in Kiev. Less colourful here but the link was definitely there.

We were approaching Vienna. I’d made a difficult choice having a day to play with. Vienna is one of those cities that one should see but I was going on to Brno in the Czech republic. Why? What used to be Czeckoslovakia was a part of the world that intrigued me and it wasn’t just because there were new countries there.

An invalid friend in London had a pen friend living in Bratislava who’d sent him a box of presents. It wasn’t only the quantity but the quality. Each one was wrapped in such a way that the care and artistry taken was utterly extraordinary. All this although they never met!

Also In London I’d found a natural friendliness in a beautiful Czech girl (spoken for) that was somehow hard to find in Britain these days.

Then there were the ‘love trains’ of Prague: carriages designated for single people to link up if they liked. This to me was not only a creative interesting idea but a dam sight more preferable to the swarm of computer dating agencies making a nice living out of loneliness in the UK.

What the hell was going on there in the positive sense? It all hinted at something more, something cultural that could be well worth exploring, not far in global terms from Britain.

Of course you need more than a day, much more maybe; but I’d only been in Normandy for a day and learned while still on the boat getting there that French house prices are cheaper than British because there’s a tax on house price increases. So maybe I could pick up a clue.

That meant snubbing Vienna even though it was so close. That’s the trouble with the blitzkreig I’d planned across Europe to Warsaw: hard choices and not enough time anyway.

 Vienna station_8508 

Vienna seemed to take it to heart. The cloud had degenerated back into the uniform grey gloom as I emerged from the main station only to descend into its underground system to get to the terminus I needed to continue, seeing precious little of the city. The grey gloom was with me for the long wait at the other station.

As for the blue Danube it was dismal with what passed for the evening light under all this crap cloud. The name of a suburb nearby probably summed up the mood Vienna seemed to have for me: ‘Simmering.’ That’s what the name was and I think I deserved it, having only myself to blame.

Night had fallen by the time I reached Brno. I had to cross a major thoroughfare then navigate a maze of minor streets to get to the hostel. I was taking a chance coming this far. Finding ones way after a journey through an unknown city in an unknown land after nightfall demands ones reserves of alertness despite travel fatigue. It’s potentially a time when things can go wrong. Besides, I could also have the added hurdle of finding somewhere if the hostel is full.

A subway led under the thoroughfare. On the other side was a flight of steps going uphill. The street map had hinted at higher ground. I hesitated because a gang of young guys were ascending the steps, one of whom incongruously had what looked like Muslim headgear. They were most likely harmless but there had been tales of robbery in these parts. Then a girl with a dog as big as she was started doing likewise so I decided to tag along near her. She went a different way to the one I wanted at the top of the steps, while the gang seemed undecided about which way to go, while I stayed out of sight around a corner.

It all reminded me of ‘The 3rd Man.’ I could hear that zither playing while I was avoiding potential trouble in a muddle of rain glistened streets and cobbles amongst ornate architecture silver in lamplight, like the Vienna of that film. Like the lead character in that film I was on a difficult mission in a place I’d never been to before. The gang moved on and I was able to take a stab at navigating the streets in a zigzag fashion, the zither staying with me. This theme music to ‘The 3rd Man’ had topped the international music charts the year I was born.

I reached the hostel almost by accident and felt surprised it was as easy as it was. There was also room at this inn. I’d drawn the short straw here though. The place was tiny compared to the others: a hole in the wall with a mini bar thrown in and sleeping quarters stacked above. It looked like a firetrap and there were notices threatening people smoking with 1.000 Euro fines; so maybe the management felt the risk was real. Only a dormitory was available for me on the 2nd floor up a narrow staircase. And only a top bunk at that in what looked like a large den of down and outs. The tallest down and out being in the bunk below me. The guarded welcome I got reminded me of the hostel in Alice Springs where I’d had my camera and mobile phone stolen.

It was going to be a hard night. Without washing or undressing I arranged my backpack and boots in my line of sight from above where no one could make off with it without everyone else knowing and took the Nikon up to bunk with me, guarding it with my body.

 

 

In the morning everybody seemed to get up and go but the guy below me. I tried waiting until he’d done likewise but he seemed a permanent resident so I gave up and got up.

Once I’d sorted myself out – managing to book a single room and having something to eat – life seemed easier, although there was still a variety of cloud to chose from, which would remain for the day. At least there wasn’t much rain and I was going to get some good shots of this town.

I tried to text Jocelyn on the mobile. I was very hit and miss when it came to gadgets and tech but she’d been nervous about linking up with me and nothing ventured nothing gained, so let’s see if I’m capable of being a cool texter and if ‘r u getting this’ gets a result?

The descriptions of some of the clubs here were interesting but later I found similarly entertaining descriptions in Poland so it could have been a translation thing. The youth who ran the hostel were open enough but didn’t seem that different from youth anywhere. That was about all regarding clues as to the state of hospitality and creativity here but Brno was an interesting enough place anyway.

The hostel was more or less at the geographical centre of Brno. Apart from the capital Prague to the north west Brno seemed the only other city of any size in the country. I’d known of its existence since learning that the name ‘Bren’ was derived from Brno. The Bren gun with its distinctive curved magazine was originally manufactured here. Adopted by Britain in the 1930’s it became the standard British light machine gun through World War 2 and continued to be used until 1991.

Brno itself is a centre of judicial authority and administration reflected in 2 of it’s main sights: the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the Spilberk castle.

The cathedral I could spot from the castle. A black looking Gothic mass of a building dwarfing neighbouring ones, sinister with dark stone and spires looking as sharp as needles.

The castle was of lighter stone up a nearby hill through a park. Built in the 13th century as a royal castle it became into a citadel. A fortress which together other city fortifications withstood 5 sieges. If the other fortifications were like the Spilberk castle I’m not surprised: ramparts which looked as massive as a geological formation, arrowhead fortifications to give enfilade fire, an interior moat for a fortress within a fortress. Above were chambers fit for royalty. Below were dark passages, prison quarters and torture chambers brought back to life with authentic equipment and mannequins.

Predictably, the Nazis took it over when they invaded Czechoslovakia. To continue this honourable tradition.

Brno from Stara Radnice_8550 

It was a good place for photographs of the city. Another good place though was actually in the same block the hostel was in: the StaraRadnice tower, which was part of the old city hall, over the gate. There was a legend of a dragon there and there really was a stuffed crocodile over the gate passageway, to back up the legend it seems. The staircase up the interior? If you could get up that you’d knew you’d passed the test for the able bodied. And for not being overweight if you could get round the narrow balcony around the top of the tower when others were there. One could see the Spilberk from up there and also the compact nature of Brno despite its size.

I could see the tower from the single room I’d booked. After dark it would be lit up. The room was really snug with a drop on to another roof that might be survivable – as opposed to certain death in that dormitory – should I have to jump out of the window to escape a fire.

I was failing in my original social objective though. Maybe I was being feeble for not visiting a club and lacking in energy after last night but if I wasn’t staying for longer anything I’d learn would be limited in value and probably drowned out in the music anyway; so I caught up on my sleep. Unlike the last few days there would be no margin for error tomorrow which was crucial.

 

 

The final day of the journey from Portsmouth to Warsaw by rail. A packed breakfast was supposed to be ready in the dining room at the top of the hostel but I couldn’t find it. Didn’t care anyway. What mattered was to crack on down to the station in plenty of time for the train, depositing my key in the hostel box outside because it was too early for anyone to be at work.

Down at the station there was enough time for something to eat but there was a complication I knew I was trusting to some luck to overcome. I’d learned coming up to Brno that this city was actually on a branch line to the one I wanted for Warsaw. So I had to get back to a place called Breclav on the Austrian border to get the right train. I’d checked the train times. Hopefully the train getting me there wouldn’t be late.

Needless to say that train was late.

How late? There was some nail biting but thank God it wasn’t a repetition of that waiting game I’d been obliged to play with that detestable woman back in France. The train arrived in time for the short journey back to Breclav. Not that there was much time to spare I thought staring out at countryside immersed in early morning gloom. Another cloudy day.

But the train reached the station in time, there was a smooth changeover and I was on track and on time for Warsaw. It headed up through the fields and villages of the Czech Republic towards the Carpathians and Poland amidst weather that was clearing more than it had at any time since mid Switzerland.

The Carpathians actually began to the east with the high lump of mountains known as the Tatras. There was a something of a gap between there and the hills surrounding the Czech republic. All the same I expected hillier terrain, maybe verging on mountainous. All there was though was country closed in with fields, villages and more woods maybe, with a hint of more hills.

I realised we were in Poland when we got to Katowice near the border. Katowice was the centre of a heavy industrial region and this place looked as though it wanted to become like Chernobyl. Some spectacular dereliction was near the railway along with a lot of graffiti. I’d seen a bit a month ago in the Ruhr but it seemed more the thing here.

North of there was a line that seemed as straight as an arrow across the Polish plain all the way up to Warsaw, up which the train headed at speed.

I forget whether it was here or further south I checked the mobile. My text had got through to Joceyln! She was asking if things were going according to plan? They sure were, was the spirit of my next text: A OK and All Systems Go: my plan was a winner! This text might or might not reach her before she got to Poland. Either way though I felt not only flushed with success but relieved and it was time for a celebratory beer. Even the weather was behaving itself.

Warsaw graffiti from train_8592_edited-1 

A graffiti creation spelling Warsaw the Polish way announced the approach to the capital.

Then it was all change at Warsaw’s modern central station. The suburban train to Warsaw’s ‘Frederick Chopin Airport’ was going back the way I’d come but it wasn’t far. Once there I found myself ascending to the far corner of a car park. Once I’d got out of that it looked like this airport was very much part of the new Poland, half of it looked as though it was being built. There was a wait of course but her flight came in and I was able to position myself well, where the passengers came out.

A good hug when she arrived. She was relieved to see me.

Coming out of the airport she found a closer entrance to the station that had been hidden from me by a column. After that though we had a run of dodgy luck. Jocelyn had trouble with a ticket machine on the train back and there were warnings of a fine for not using it, so she couldn’t relax until we’d sorted that.

Then we found that the map was deceptive and the hotel that looked as though it was across the street from the central station was in fact several blocks away. I knew we were in for an adventure when we ascended from the station to see a great open space overlooked by a towering palacial pile, that reminded me of the University of Moscow. It was indeed the Palace of Culture and Science, a building decreed by Stalin to be a gift from him to Poland in the early 1950’s. Many Poles didn’t like it. It was still the tallest building in Poland and didn’t look like our hotel.

Our adventure took us west through the gathering dusk along a major main road across another major thoroughfare with the railway partially submerged to the right.

When we got to the hotel it wasn’t our hotel. After much wandering about and questions in the wrong hotel we eventually found it tucked around the rear of its bigger brother.

When I got to my room I found the key didn’t work and descended to the lobby to be told it might be something to do with the new computer system. Computers.

Meanwhile Jocelyn found herself in the lift from Hell. It looked half built and was actually being refurbished. She’d overlooked the notice asking her to use the other one.

Meanwhile I was offered a new room just around the corner from Jocelyn. When I got there I encountered a coloured gentleman with the problem I’d just had but this time my key worked. My troubles were over.

Or so I thought when we met up and went to a classy restaurant in the next hotel. I had a tall glass of beer and – as is my wont with alcohol in the early stages – became animated. Too animated for one of my hands caught the glass and SMASH it shattered on the table and shot out on to the floor, along with the beer! And Jocelyn happens to be a lady who hates food or drink getting on to her – I was to find out the hard way later – though it more or less missed her this time. And of course it just happened to be one of those restaurants which is big and open and echoing with stone floors, so that everyone far and wide could experience what sort of cock up I was perpetrating. “I’ve travelled for most of my life and that is the first time I have ever smashed a beer glass,” I kept repeating to Jocelyn and the waiters ushuring us to another table.

Get a grip. We’re up before dawn tomorrow on a mission which in its own way would be as challenging as Chernobyl.

© D Angus 12 13

 

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Europe. Portsmouth to Warsaw by Train: Part 1.

For the 2nd time in a month I’d got the train from Portsmouth to London, left Britain at St. Pancras what with passport control, boarded the Eurostar for the Channel Tunnel and Europe.

The 3rd trip was going according to plan. Much more ambitious this time. Instead of heading for Brussels it would be Paris, beginning a railway blitzkreig being on the move almost every day across 6 countries, 3 of which I hadn’t seen before: across France, the Alps to Vienna, then up through the Czech Republic to Poland and Warsaw, where I would link up with Jocelyn, who’d accompanied me to Kiev. This time I had my camera too.

I didn’t see much of what was left of the UK and northern France for there was a window partition where I sat. In Paris I would be staying at a youth hostel for a night near the city terminus station, the Gare du Nord, before departing onwards from the Gare de Lyon without seeing the sights. I’d seen Paris on a school trip and stayed at a youth hostel on the other side of the city when I was 21, but hadn’t seen Paris since 1973 and that was from one airport to another.

Once outside the Gare du Nord Paris was unmistakeable: its architecture with that look of fading but enduring elegance. I had a flat hike of 1 kilometre through narrow streets with the odd bistro and groups of coloured men, maybe Algerians, while watching my camera, to a modern Youth Hostel between the railways ending at the Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est. Half way there was a broader boulevard to cross, with an elevated railway structure running down the centre like in Chicago, but there was no sign of a Metro station which would be my link to the train running through France tomorrow.

The elevated railway was the Metro! I made a joke of it when I found the Youth Hostel when I found it, by mimicking looking down then looking up. I’d booked a room there for the night. Echoing corridors in a slab like building led me to it. Comfortable enough with a shower and lockable windows. Just as well, there was a balcony running the length of the building I didn’t trust. There was also no toilet which was down the corridor. A diagrammatic notice told one that the sink was not to be used to take a leak. I doubt if many took notice of that.

Europe could be seen as an obstacle course of languages. I knew slightly less French than my random German words. It’s surprising how one could often get by with a vague understanding brought about by inflexion and gesture. Also if one could understand one word one might make a stab at an educated guess about the rest of it. Anyway the British are privileged if not spoilt. English is the most widely spoken language on this planet so many on the European continent know a few words and some can speak it fluently.

That’s the way it was at the bar next to reception and a handy barbecue on a terrace; where one overlooked the main line coming up from the Gare de l’Est. I’d always been in Paris in summer and the weather always seemed to be hot or at least seriously summer, with mellow evenings. The local beer went down well, relaxing me into the summer dusk. It might have helped me take a few good shots with the Nikon.

An early breakfast and off to the Metro on a sunny morning. Wasn’t easy to find the station entrance but once it was found and a train caught I had a nice ride on ‘Line 2′ that happened to be above ground on that section, taking me through the rooftops of Paris and treating me to an intriguing view of an unexpected formal lake or big canal – it turned out to be a canal – stretching through the cityscape, before going back underground for most of the ride.

I got lost further down the line when I had to change near the Gare de Lyon. Despite that though and the proverbial little old lady that the ticket office staff seemed unable to handle I got a place on the train I was aiming for that would arrive at my destination in mid afternoon. This felt improbable because it would be crossing a huge part of France, all the way to the French Alps in fact. Trouble was, the European rail pass I’d spent a lot of money on didn’t cover me for this train, the woman dispensing the ticket charmlessly told me. Also I was to change twice at;- where? I’d never heard of these places but I ascertained they were near the French Alps.

The rail pass must have helped though for the money I was paying must be cheap for the French fast train – ‘TGV’ – I was on; the fastest train anywhere in 2011 travelling at 200 mph. Also this expense was nothing remotely like a rail fare in England for a similar distance.

Once out of central Paris one could feel the acceleration powering the train around the curves on the track through the suburbs. Hoped the driver knew what he was doing after that Spanish train disaster on a curve last month.

There was a tunnel. No more Paris on the other side! Open country, not as many curves. Now the TGV was fairly flying across a broad river valley. Onward through France at maximum speed and it didn’t feel as though the train was straining itself.

What should have been a great trip though was marred by petty infuriations. A wait for the loo was followed by a persistent rattling of the door handle while I was in there. Not a place to spend long in or have this sort of thing to deal with, but ignoring it was a mistake for I was drying my hands when the door opened and I had to confront the railway official unlocking it with my partially dried hands while the woman causing the trouble and too many in 2 carriages looked on! He tried to justify himself and the woman in English saying they didn’t know what was happening behind a closed door. Disgusted that I was in the spotlight because they couldn’t wait at all while I and others were obliged to, I made my point about being intruded upon when I’d almost finished anyway, without bothering with any French!

Then there was probably revenge in the form of covert harrassment later when a female official insisted on me getting the paperwork from my backpack in the rack above when she saw my Eurorail pass. Disturbing all around me.

 France from the train_7998

Look at the scenery, that’s a good antidote for stress. France comes close to being a mirror image of Britain with its scenery. The geology of southern England is also that of northern France with the chalk of Salisbury Plain forming the Somme uplands and the older rock of Cornwall cropping up in Brittany. Paris is like London, in a syncline; a dip of strata. The further away one gets from both capitals the older the rock is. Often the higher it is too. In Britain there’s Wales and the Pennines. In France the Massif Central and Jura, though Britain has nothing like the Alps.

The terrain was generally gaining in height and hills. There was a slightly drier look to the land as one got well to the south of the Paris basin. The architecture of the occasional village, hilltop farm and chateau seemed older and more substantial than what was to the north. I tried a few shots with my Nikon.

The hills were developing into a scale that was interesting when I noticed that part of one was missing: the sudden vertical profile I’d not seen so far of a considerable cliff. Just beyond here the country dropped into a broad valley or plain and we crossed a big river. Possibly the Rhone I thought, but it turned out to be the Saone, which continues the Rhone valley further north, the Rhone coming in from Lake Geneva.

The first changeover was probably approaching. Before that though were the Jura Mountains: rank upon rank of forested ridge with limestone cliffs. The Jurassic period – famous for Dinosaurs – is named after this region, but the rock forming these mountains was laid down in a shallow tropical sea so plesiosaurs would be more likely to be found here.

Bellegarde-sur-Valserine. That was the first change of trains and the TGV was just arriving there. Almost immediately I noticed that there were actually 2 stations here but there was a dome of a building in between where I should be able to check what platform my next train was leaving from and the Eurorail pass procedure. Plenty of time as long as I didn’t muck around too much. In theory.

There were only 2 people in front of me but the only person on duty was occupied by a tall woman, whose casually crossed ankles formed an X sending a signal that barred all progress and said it all.

‘You are subtly forbidden to proceed with your adventure for as long as I chose. I’ve plenty of time and am too nonchalant to care about how long you wait. Will I go soon or will I stay? Who can say? You will wait anyway. Your affair may be urgent, it may not, unless I stay, but you will wait. Patiently and politely while dangling in frustrating indecision about how long you will wait. Please relax. Just as I have done in my controlling position. There is nothing you can do.’

Well her stance is certainly irritating but I have a quarter of an hour to 20 minutes to play with so there’s a good chance she’ll…. words fail me for this blog.

I also had an ally. A Frenchman behind me who was clearly less patient than I was. Despite not being able to understand each other’s language we had common cause. Before long he’d interrupted the women’s meeting to politely ask them not to keep us waiting much longer. I say politely because I definitely heard him try diplomacy in the form of “s’il vous plait.”

They must have fobbed him off for it didn’t work. Nothing changed.

At noon another female member of staff arrived to sit next to the woman engrossed in the chat with the crossed ankles, who was intent on a leisurely examination of every minutia of the many tickets spread like a smorgasbord before her. Now we’ll get moving I thought, but no: the girl did her nails and anything else she could think of before deigning to open up and help anyone.

Time was getting truly tight but at least people were moving forward. But my turn looked like coming just too late for me to hang around.

The midday girl was occupied for the immediate future too. The crossed ankles looked like leaving. Then she changed her mind and stayed put as the clock reached the deadline I’d set. That’s it I’m out of here! But my ally called me back, she was leaving. Then she changed her mind again “OH COME ON!” I blasted her in English. I’ve got 4 minutes to my train!

They were stupid enough to look as though they’d been mildly surprised from a trance. My approach didn’t work immediately but nobody challenged me; the queue behind feeling I was speaking for them maybe. Then I was at the desk sorting the Europass as fast as possible bearing in mind that thanks to one nonchalant cow I was not only cutting it perilously close but the guy behind who’d tried earlier looked like having even less time than I did!

“That’s it. All yours!” I said to him hoping the spirit of the message would get through. Just after he got to the desk I realised I’d forgotten my most urgent mission: finding the platform my train was leaving from. Too late now and I was out of there.

I made the right train. I’ve actually lost my memory as to how I achieved that!

France near Geneva_8008_edited-1 

Scenery soothed me again. Especially an out of this world view from a height it seems of a forested mountain ridge as regular as a wall fading down into distant blue, vaporising into distant summer haze. It looked a beautiful place to live and many seemed to have that idea for it was well populated in that direction too. It was the other side of the Jura range, we were running along the southern edge of the Swiss border and the suburbs of Geneva.

I was chatting with an American family who were on the same journey as me, saving their bacon when I noticed the son had got off the train at the wrong station for the 2nd change. A large family were held up in this confusion though and I had to block the door to stop the train leaving while they were getting off.

Mountains or foothills again. Behind them though, bigger mountains, then mountains beyond emerging out of the faraway haze like a range of legend, dwarfing the nearer ones again. The Jura was regular and green with forest, shaped like oversize ridges and hills with some cliffs thrown in; these others were developing up out of their forest cloak into towering rock masses, some snow capped. Soaring higher and higher the further they were. Awesomely out of scale with any landscape I’d seen for a long time. Opening up new realms of fantastic scenery for the imagination. An uplifting sight. We’d made the Alps.

I helped the American family to the right platform at the right station.

Now it was the final valley to Chamonix where I was staying for the night and what a valley! The Alps as a mountain range is nothing much at all in terms of land area covered, but it’s extremely high for that area. That and the very deep valleys make it one of the most spectacularly jagged mountain ranges on this planet. It’s also young like the Himalayas, so less likely to be worn down. Both didn’t really get going until after the Dinosaurs and both mountain ranges were still growing! About as fast as ones fingernails I’ve heard.

One gets used to thinking of landscape being more or less level with one’s eyes, not at 45° upwards or thereabouts all the time unless it’s a similar angle down. It brings on a whole new perspective on reality and thereby life.

 

Mt Blanc_8083

One could actually see Mt. Blanc and that was one Mother of a mountain! What I thought was the summit was a great dome of snow to the right but the real summit was still just visible looking like part of the ridge further back from the dome at this angle. The general mountain mass was unmistakeable because there was a glacier from the Mt. Blanc massif draping down into the Chamonix valley with its snout above the Youth Hostel I’d booked a place at. I could see the glacier from the train and the belt of bare rock around it was a measure of how far it had recently melted, good evidence for global warming.

We were there and I had a longish walk uphill from the town centre to the hostel but I considered myself lucky. Once in awhile I’d discovered fragments of Heaven on Earth and this was one of them. Once out of the well kept Swiss Chalet style centre the straight road I was to follow was more of a lane with a gentle gradient slanting away from the valley centre up a lower slope. All around were beautifully maintained places with flowers everywhere soaking up the sunshine of a serenely sunny day with white puffs of cloud far above. Up where there were awesomely high and huge exhibitions of stunning scenery cloaked in dazzling snowfields. There were cablecars up there; the cables going up the valley sides looking as insubstantial as a few strands of spiders web. People were enjoying themselves up there. I’d seen a paraglider back at the last changeover flying along the collosal vertical rock face of a mountain. There were many more here drifting so far above the valley they reminded me of dandelion seeds or thistledown. Meanwhile back on the ground there were even roadside stone troughs thoughtfully provided where somehow I just knew I could drink the crystal clear water. I’d taken a train ride to Heaven. Didn’t suffer any ill effects from the water either.

It got a lot steeper across a motorway below the glacier but the Youth Hostel was not far and there was another water trough there. It was 4 o’ clock and the reception desk did not open up for another hour. Not that I cared for it was hard to find a nicer place to wait and I could explore a bit and clean up. Odd to think I was in Paris this morning when was here this early.

I wasn’t even annoyed when reception opened up and the jovial young Frenchman there tried to overcharge me by 10 Euros. I had a bunk in a dormitory so I was to leave the camera in the office for safe keeping. Despite the money I decided to trust him.

The hostel itself was the best one I stayed in on this trip. The main floor had a giant chessboard and chess pieces on the side of the room with a valley view. There was also a small library and – to my delight – a vacuum formed relief model of the Chamonix region on the other side. In the centre was a hexagonal hole in the floor with a broad stairway going down to a bar and TV area, for the hostel was built on a sloping site. Outside below was a games area with French bowls and table tennis. The other way was a nice courtyard with a view of Mt. Blanc and access to sleeping quarters. The lights going out in the corridors to save power was more of an adventure than anything. My dormitory was small and cosy with a view of the valley.

The only thing wrong was the optional evening meal. Hardly French cordon bleu cooking. The best I can say of it was that there were plenty of vegetables. Meanwhile though there was still the view. Earlier it was the snow expanses pocked with random chunks of shadow; of seracs, crevasses, cornices, outcrops and cliffs. Now in the evening cloud was drifting across rock faces and snowfields making what was beyond appear to hang in space. It all reminded me of photos I’d seen as a child in my Dad’s Himalayan mountain books.

People seemed healthier in the French Alps. Mine was good for my age in south Hampshire but here it was mediocre. I’d be well up for a hike up to the glacier but higher up and Mt. Blanc itself? That would really be rolling the dice, but I got the impression people here seemed to look upon that the way we regarded a hike on the South Downs at home. As for running 100 kilometres in this kind of terrain? Absolutely no chance! That was what a Japanese man sitting next to me did and was about to do and he was only one year younger! Heaven is good for your health it seems.

Anyway I helped ensure I never would by a good drinking session into the evening at the bar.

 

 

Chamonix sunrise_8116

Morning. The camera was fine and could take photos of the sun behind the mountains casting vast shadows of them overhead, miles long, during the downhill hike to the station. There was no trouble this time with the Eurorail pass either. Now to venture into the unknown for although I knew roughly where hostels were I had nothing booked with accomodation and wasn’t familiar with any train timetables.

I did however have a good idea of the route. The train I caught pulled out of Chamonix to the valley’s end and through a knot of towering jagged rockpiles of mountains. This was one of the mountain masses interrupting a trend of valleys I’d noticed running the length of the Alps through most of the spectacular parts of them. It could be a major geological feature and research on Google Earth seemed to show that there were railways making use of it, through its length it appeared. In theory it should be possible to cover ground quickly that way for one could take photos while on the move since the mountains would be all around one and it would be hard to avoid spectacular views of them.

That would be my route then, that would take me across Switzerland and well into Austria, to Innsbruck and beyond.

Certainly was a scenic route! Surprisingly most of that mountain section was tunnel free though by now the track was protected by avalanche shelters here and there. An interesting challenge for photography but I got a some of those jagged rocky mountains heaving up of out precipitous pine forest, deep valleys too and a small town squeezing into whatever land it was possible to build on.

It was hard to tell where the border was, probably that town or one of the few other settlements. Anyway, it was definitely Switzerland when the line – avoiding a gorge – came out far above a broad cultivated flat bottomed valley with some of the higher mountains on this planet on both sides, like a geological version of a colossal trench: a typical Alpine valley. The railway zigzagged down into it through the forest; much as roads do when crossing the Alps. This valley actually led from the upper end of Lake Geneva and did a dog leg into the valley system along the Alps I’ve described.

That was at a town called Martigny. From there the valley led east. From the train one could see a lot of cultivation that looked like vineyards. The drawback though was the upper mountains tending to be hidden by steep valley sides of rock strewn grassy moorland and forest, but I got some good shots.

Sion, Sierre, Salgesh, Leuk, Varen, Raron and Visp. These were the small towns cum villages with short and often strange sounding names, going up this valley. Near Visp I chatted to a friendly railway official who was gome home to Visp and would show me the station layout there. Maybe she liked it when I said I just loved mountains.

Visp actually had 2 stations: the main one and one that was more of a mountain railway just outside that with the pleasant neat main street of a provincial Swiss town stretching beyond.

Things started to go wrong here when I got on the wrong train. I’d got my sense of direction all wrong and the right one pulled out at the right time on the next platform while mine stayed still. I used the time to buy some lunch and a drink but by that stage I was grappling with problems found in Switzerland. They still had their own currency here although Euros were often accepted, probably at a higher rate. Also one wasn’t sure what language to attempt. I thought it was French in the west, German in the north and east, Italian in the south. Later I was told that French was for the sophisticates in the cities and bigger towns whereas German was the language to use in the countryside and villages.

An hour later I got the right train but the bad luck continued. Near the next town, Brig, I confidently flourished my Europass to the official doing the rounds only to be told it wasn’t valid for this train. The price was more than the TGV and it was only for a fraction of this railway’s network covering my route. The company was exempt or didn’t want to know about Europasses this tight lipped man told me, probably prematurely old with the unpopularity gained from dedication to this commercial concern.

Commercial concerns can overdo their cause of course and just after this vistation I had another: this time a woman official all set to needlessly repeat her colleague’s infliction. Luckily she spoke English too so I was able to give the devil in me some leeway in the form of being chatty.

“This reminds me of my country.”

“Oh. Yes?” That brought out a smile.

“Yes. The railways are run by companies, they’re run commercially there too.”

“Oh, good.”

Now be sure to assure her cheerfully with a big happy smile:- “No. Bad. Very bad!” That forced a matching smile from her and ought to add that .999 % recurring irritation percentage. Just enough to be irritating in the lingering sense.

So a geographical opposite – a landlocked mountainous country as opposed to an island – had led to a similar result: insularity from what was happening in neighbouring countries leading to a different currency and commercial excesses.

There was a Youth Hostel ahead. That would mean another early stop in the afternoon but the next one would risk late evening. The train was climbing up the long valley to a kind of pass and that should be it.

There was a halt at the top of the pass. Well the village was supposed to be small but where was it’s name? All I could see was a sign called ‘Lax.’ Nobody was around.

One advantage of Switzerland was lack of fences. One could just wander across fields so I made my way acrosss one towards a big building on a road in the right direction. Sometimes I worry about my brain though for I was on the road before I realised that ‘Lax’ was the name of the place I was in and it was very lax of me not to notice that.

Another wait for an hour in weather that had closed in and was trying to forget about summer it seems.

Feisch, the village with the hostel was not much further on. All I had to do there was cross under a bridge, go up a wooded slope and I was there basically. I say basically because the hostel was incorporated within a massive sports centre and it took some time to navigate the layout. After a spell at reception I managed to get a single room.

When I found it the room was massive with minimalist modern design, a double bed and balcony. Part of the fun of staying at Youth Hostels as opposed to hotels is that one was less sure what one would find. Here it seemed as though I’d wound up in a place that seemed to be a Swiss attempt to resurrect the traditions of the Nuremberg Rallies and Hitler Youth. The architecture was monumental concrete and the emphasis was dedication to youth and fitness. Later I would encounter sizeable parties of well organised youth. Perhaps I’d wound up in the kind of room that had been used by Obersturmbahnfuhrers and their mistresses: although its facilities were the same as Paris.

My Nikon batteries often needed recharging I’d learned. I’d bought 2 adapters before the trip so there ought to be a powerpoint somewhere in this room that would do.

There wasn’t. I eventually found. The sockets were a 3rd variety. Another advantage of being in Switzerland.

A trip back down to reception produced a box full of adapters to dig through. One of them must be okay.

None were. It was turning out to be one frustrating afternoon. I had to walk down into Feish itself to eventually find an electrician to find this unique adapter I would never need again and probably got ripped off. There was a cafe overlooking a rocky river and a few cows nearby where I tried to relax but going there led to a muddle over cheesecake. The woman running it seemed to contradict herself. And I didn’t want to hang around too long for it looked as though it was going to rain.

It started on the way back. I still checked the train times at the station. Yesterday I’d just about crossed the whole of France. Today I was only half way through Switzerland. I organised a packed lunch in the modernistic cavern of a dining hall. I was getting up too early for the early breakfast being determined to get my journey going again that was running out of steam.

 

 

Up early for a lovely dawn at the station then onward. I had a few ideas for how to improve on yesterday. There might be a concession for me being over 60. If there wasn’t, a branch line led to a northern terminus that should be cheaper. Although this was abandoning my plan of following the valleys the railways I could link up with could take me to Zurich. Zurich meant faster trains. Intercities. Just what was needed to regain the time lost. Zurich could in fact line me up for Vienna and get me back into those valleys before Innsbruck, which meant more mountains. Vienna was the crucial objective. Warsaw was a day from there by rail.

The official seemed a clone of the first, another old thin lipped wonder. Hell he might even be the same man! No there was no concession and the price if I was following the valleys dwarfed the French TGV. He agreed that going north would be better for me. Especially as his bloody company could hardly lose since the price going there wasn’t much less.

The valley ahead though level bottomed and cultivated was getting narrower all the time and eventually ended at another knot of mountains. A side valley led to a tunnel.

Tunnels, wild valleys, slopes of scree and rock, grassy slopes, forested slopes, views of distant mountains, then Andermatt. This was the junction for the line going north.

Gotthard Tunnel_8240

Not far to the north through similar terrain and a steep descent was Goschenen. Change here for trains north. Just south of the station was a double tunnel entrance. The St. Gotthard Tunnel through the Gotthard massif which was the knot of mountains I’d just come through. It seemed to be a tunnel of fame in train books I’d read when I child. No wonder. 9 miles long. Took 10 years to build. Opened in 1882 after the deaths of 200 workers and the Swiss engineer who surveyed the construction, who had a heart attack inside the tunnel.

This time the Europass worked and I continued north. Google Earth shows a long tunnel following a rocky wild pine wooded valley cum gorge. Also there were views through the valleyside columns of avalanche shelters. The more one continued the more cultivation clung to any slope that wasn’t too steep. It was difficult to see the upper mountains far above because of the steepness of the valley sides in Switzerland. ‘U’ shaped valleys is what they were, carved by glaciers long since melted away, which I learned long ago in geography lessons. This meant the slopes further up were less extreme, sometimes enough to allow pastureland and houses. This is actually where the name ‘alp’ came from: a local name describing this geographical feature.

I was actually going around the eastern side of a mountain mass in which there was a valley where I’d taken my first holiday abroad: when I was 13 on a school ski holiday. I remembered seeing spectacular mountains for the first time in my life, along with my first cablecar ride and walk along one of those ‘alps’ with a friend; where it was sunny and much warmer than the town below which didn’t see the sun in January and was freezing. We even chatted with with the PE teacher up there as though we were equals instead of teacher and pupils. Now it was like seeing the dark side of the moon;- travelling up the far side of those mountains and the other end of Lake Lucerne just to the north. We’d crossed Lake Lucerne on the school trip to get to the valley.

lake and mountain_8282_edited-1

Lake Lucerne is actually a series of lakes joined up. This part of it looked deep and mysterious as the mountains on the other side plunged into it and the habitations over there looked cut off from elsewhere. Trouble was the weather had closed in again making the images photographed through a train window look rather flat. Taking photos through a train window is not easy to do anyway and I’d made a mistake in not bringing a polarising lens: that would have cut down on reflection.

I like stormy skies for photography but not uniform grey shit. The blue skies in France were a memory and it looked more like November than summer, except for the deciduous trees being green with leaves.

Progress was good going north though. A change without waiting too long at Schwyz, another lake which led out of the mountains to Zug and so on to Zurich.

A longer wait and lunch here at the cavernous station. The weather was still grey and would continue to be so. The good news though was that not only could I get a train through to Innsbruck and Vienna but my Europass remained valid. I didn’t know it then but it would continue to be so all the way to Warsaw.

Zurich was at the northern end of the ‘Zurichsee;’ a very long narrow lake curving round to the east, the northern flank of the Alps being a regular lake district. The railway and train threaded its way down the western bank of this one and out along the southern end through a suburb of houses with spacious gardens and the odd satellite town, that stretched down both sides of the lake over gentle hills. It would have been a good place for photos but for the murk.

A stretch of pastoral countryside then back into the mountains again along yet another lake like Lake Lucerne. Once past that though there was a broad flat bottomed valley which carved its way through the Alps in a ‘U’ up to the north past Leichenstein. Borders seemed non existent so I wasn’t sure which country I was in around here and have had to create computer files like Switzerland/Leicenstein for the photos I took.

There was also Austria. I was seeing Leichenstein, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland for the first time in my life. I was now in Austria and back in that Alpine valley system I wanted to follow, heading up a long ascent to a pass. The valley continued on the other side to Innsbruck.

It seemed that the further east one went the less spectacular the mountains were; or was I just getting used to them? They were still awesome enough for me to get some excellent shots of a fold mountain range.

If I could find a cablecar to get up above the valleys and if I was lucky with the weather.

I could reach Vienna by nightfall or at least Innsbruck earlier but I chose this route for mountain photographs so I started looking for cablecars to get out of the valleys for some panoramic views. The first station beyond the pass was hopeless: virtually roofed in without a clue as to what was outside. Much further down the valley was a station that didn’t seem to offer a view of a cablecar… until just before the train pulled out! This was where I would stay for the night and go up tomorrow. I could still reach Vienna and the Czech republic by tomorrow evening.

The station served 2 small towns or large villages: Landeck and Zams. There was no hostel which didn’t bother me as I felt like a bit of luxury. After a footslogging reconnaisance to find that a cheap place didn’t seem to exist I chose the Hotel Jagerhof which was actually right by the cablecar. A good hotel for luxury with female staff in ethnic dress and a stuffed bear just inside the entrance. Maybe they wanted one because a translation of ‘jagerhof’ could be ‘hunter house’ or ‘farm.’ On asking if the bear was local I was told it actually came from Alaska.

Google Earth though shows a World Wildlife Fund project re-introducing brown bears into Switzerland, along with the wolf and lynx.

Zams hostelry_8394

I went out for a meal, into the centre of Zams, finding a substantial hostelry under one of the broad roofs one finds in this region. ‘Gastov Schwarzer Adler.’ I found all I needed there including waitresses who were friendly enough to be flirtatious.

Also a bicycle was parked against a boulder in front of the building which had been converted into a monument. It wasn’t only the statue on top with rifle and forage cap but the gaunt head with the German helmet arising out of the rock itself that hinted at a dark past here.

Back at the Jagerhof I’d checked the weather on TV. Only the British could have found that peculiarly apt name ‘depression’ for those low pressure weather systems of cloud and rain that plague our green and pleasant land. They seemed to have come down from the UK for a convention in central Europe, depositing all the crud weatherwise up against the Alps and Carpathians. It would rain tonight but with luck this would all start to clear by tomorrow morning.

Outside it started to rain.

© D. Angus 12 13

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The 2nd trip.

I didn’t take a camera on this trip.

I’d got drunk and sleepy enough at a school reunion to leave my camera on a train – or maybe it the minibus round some engineering works – going home. Along with photos of the booze cruise we had on the Thames; also Isle of Wight, New Forest and Solent photos I’d taken when I walked through that at Whitsun. The trouble with something like this is not just the loss itself but the hassle afterwards and the people you meet.

My route home crossed several train company routes so that meant having to contact every crappy company involved and some people less than desirable. The worst specimen being a creep at Basingstoke station who interrupted me with negative questions until he’d decided he was going to drop the call centre in it who’d given me his number. For once a call centre had been helpful.

The silver lining to this cloud was the lost camera having its problems and the replacement camera being a top of the range Nikon. I’d liked the idea of owning one for some time. The insurance though was a problem. I’d decreed it was absolutely verboten for it to leave the room it was in – let alone the house – before the insurance for it was sorted, because of previous experiences. It wasn’t by the time I departed. So I travelled without it.

The 2nd trip wasn’t much of a loss in terms of photography since it was across Belgium by train to Essen in Germany, then up to Amsterdam then home again. About a week of limited travel mostly across well populated plains and urban areas. I like taking photos of scenery and nature.

 

Preperations, departure, the Eurostar, the connection at Brussels, the run through hilly country around Liege all went well enough. Beyond Aachen the approach to the Ruhr looked just that: half a hill removed by a pale waste of open cast mining with an apocalyptic horizon of cooling towers belching out towering storm clouds of global warming.

At Cologne station I decided to celebrate with a beer and tried out my very limited knowledge of German. “Ein Becks bitte.” Well my plan was going well so why not?

Funny how things can go awry at such a time. It wasn’t the beer, though that didn’t help me stay on my toes. There was an accident forcing a detour and a late arrival at Essen by an hour. Not another rail disaster I thought? This was just after one in Spain that had killed over 70 people.

The delay wasn’t serious and neither was the accident for I never learned more, but at Essen station I learned that the line down to the village near the youth hostel I was staying at was closed too. Apparently one couldn’t escape the blight of British railways – engineerng works – in Germany. Resigning myself to a bus I had to hope the bus driver I encountered could ‘sprechen sie Englisch.’

“Nein! Nein!” Plus a rant that didn’t include ‘schweinhund’ but probably had a similar sentiment.

That was what I got from the bus driver I found. I can be good at irritating people so I did that by putting my satellite image of the area under his nose; hoping it might prompt a clue. It didn’t but the Hitlerian development of the rant was strangely entertaining. Had I discovered an ex Nazi? He looked old enough but more realistically his father might have been one, exerting this kind of influence on his brain.

Giving up on him before I began another war I retreated back into the station and realised there was a ticket office off to the side which could well give me the information I needed. I approached a blond guy behind the counter who looked free. He could ‘sprechen sie Englisch’ so my luck was in!

No it wasn’t, he was insisting I get a ticket. I didn’t want a bloody ticket there was no train to where I was going! When I tried to explain though this only brought about another rant by this young Aryan concluding with a high pitched “It is the only way!” Fed up by now and feeling farcical I nearly did a ‘Sieg Heil’ which would have got me into a lot of trouble in today’s Germany, I was assured when I returned home.

Then I realised the ‘ticket’ he wanted me to take was the same as those one takes in Job Centres and the like at home. It was a queuing system and the man was irate because I was jumping a queue – a sin against German thoroughness – unwittingly coming into the office just between customers.

The last time I’d been in this country was my first time, when I was 21. My return this time would be looked on fondly by some bigots in Britain. 2 Germans offended by yours truly in 10 minutes after arriving at my German destination! Not bad.

At least there were only a few people and after I’d waited my turn, apologised and explained my situation he was able to help me with a bus number.

Which got me to more misunderstanding and a bus with the right number going the wrong way and another wait before it eventually went where I was told it would.

The hostel I was heading for was 4 or 5 miles south across the Ruhr River and up a hill. The Ruhr River conjures up an image of a polluted stream in an industrial heartland. The reality was opposite. The well to do southern suburbs of Essen rose from the town centre and the north German plain into wooded hills surrounding a narrow valley the Ruhr wound through. Its purpose looked recreational instead of industrial. Upstream from the village it was dammed into an elongated lake with pleasure craft here and there.

The weather was hot but I welcomed the exercise hiking up the hill, even though I had to stop several times. Germany’s got plenty of high stuff which – not actually mountainous – can be classed as big hills.

As soon as I got to the hostel I felt correctly that my troubles were over. People were eating pizzas and drinking beer at trestle tables by a lawn, there was a relaxed atmosphere, the staff were young and helpful in contrast to Essen. We cobbled together a conversation of pidgin English/German and sorted out my room.

After a shower I was able to have enough to eat and totally relax with beer again. Local stuff superior to commercial brands. Instead of a journey still ahead the only journey I had now at dusk was upstairs to my bed. One oddity I discovered on the way was a pinball machine featuring The Addams Family. A favourite I hadn’t seen for many years.

 

Morning. A window designed to only open slightly at the bottom had led to a warm night but I felt up to a hike or a partial one anyway.

I got off a bus at the top of a hill. Navigation through the suburbs was an interesting exercise. The houses and verdant gardens were mostly on the higher ground, the woods – mostly pine – were in between with well marked tracks leading through them. If there had been heavy industry here all trace of it was gone. They’d really greened this place up; good for hiking and there was plenty of it in hot summer weather remaining that way for my stay. I’d be working off a lot of fat here so the local railway being down was now working in my favour.

Half way between the Ruhr River and Essen centre was the exhibition centre on the far side of a motorway, with a local subway train system. The Star Wars convention there turned out to be enormous. The spaces were cavernous, especially a main programme hall which was as vast and impressive as the hall on Yavin 4 where Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were honoured by Princess Leia. I saw plenty of them because the convention was packed with people, half of whom were dressed as those heroes and many other Star Wars characters and aliens.

It wasn’t a success for me though. I’d underestimated the difficulty of finding a friend and his German wife I knew were going there, not bothering to find out where they’d be. So they were lost in the crowds and I never found them. The only other people I knew were an outfit who’d let me down by not turning up at a Carnival I was involved with so I didn’t want to socialise with them. Of course it wasn’t long before I found them. Also being a media convention with a vengeance it was heavy on promotion and light on thought provoking programme meetings. The best one occurred on a Sunday morning I discovered, just after it had finished.

I took solace in a neighbouring botanical garden which was a glorified park with interesting follies, features, sculptures and a miniature railway thrown in.

Back below the youth hostel I discovered an ascent through woodland paths up there and to some beautiful views of this part of Germany. Strange how despite being as high and steep it was never as exhausting as hiking up the road. Also some allotments with cosy looking abodes. I couldn’t ascertain whether they were sheds or getaways for the weekend. One of them had a roof covered in plants and a hostel roof was covered with a cross between a lawn and a mosspatch.

Back at the hostel I played a lot of Addams Family pinball.

On my last night there was a surprise. I spoke good German a young German told me. Surely there was some mistake in his generosity. No way could I read German text or speak it anywhere near fluently. What I did know was a random scattering of odd German words and phrases, some of which are not unlike English. So if I was lucky and thinking quickly enough at the time I could come out with a phrase or some such thing that would do. Also I had a good accent he told me. Things must have changed since school when I was arrogantly told it was bad.

We finished the alcoholic evening amicably when he asked if I wanted more beer and my response was “Uh uh, tired, guten nacht.”

 

On to the next stage of this trip: Amsterdam. Up for early breakfast and morning walk down through the woods, though the village to the wide bridge across the Ruhr River and the bus stop on the other side. The defunct railway complete with train just across the road. I was told it was unavailable for the summer hols. Not only could one not escape engineering works here but their rotten sense of timing.

Everything went according to plan though and I was soon on the train heading through the Ruhr towards the Dutch border. The Ruhr was built up but did not look as industrialised as the view I saw on the approaches to Cologne. It was probably a similar story to northern England now. The scars of heavy industry re-landscaped and the factories either derelict, demolished or refurbished into something else.

I encountered one of those meetings that made me realise how lucky I am. It turned out an old couple I was talking to were trying to put their dream trip back together again after a taxi driver had just made off with their luggage. All it took was for them to get out of the car at the destination with the luggage in the boot and instead of getting it or waiting until they could open the boot up the s**t just drove off! He was eastern European it seemed but since I’d endured a major transport company stealing a suitcase in the US one had to take precautions anywhere until one knew the score. The couple were now heading for a Rhine cruise and I think they needed it.

I had one stop to make before Amsterdam. Arnhem. This town was right on the railway I was taking and exactly half way. Where the Western Allies had attempted to win World War 2 in 1944 by jumping the Rhine with the help of paratroops. ‘Unfortunately’ 2 SS Panzer divisions were refitting at Arnhem. That combined with landing zones being a long way from Arnhem bridge, radios not working, fog in England holding up reinforcements and just one road being available for the armoured advance through terrain unsuitable for tanks doomed the operation.

Arnhem station was not near the bridge, didn’t feature in the battle and its design looked a future age away from 1944. Which is more or less what it was, being 2013. There was a pleasant walk through the back streets of Arnhem centre with plenty of places to eat and drink at before one got to the Rhine.

There was the bridge, named after John Frost, commander of the battalion that had reached it and defended it in 1944. It’s curved span didn’t look that different from then but the buildings on the approach to it were modern. The river didn’t look that wide for the Rhine, about 120 metres across. That’s because the Rhine had split into 2 upstream with the wider part of it flowing through Nijmegen to the south.

There was a tree shaded monument and a small museum open with an interactive map of the course of the battle complete with sound effects, also comments and accounts from many who took part or endured it.

In the comments section of the book I wrote that my father – not in the battle itself – was in the follow up forces advancing from the south. A lieutenant in the Royal Survey Regiment he was on reconnaisance for 25 pounders. He told me he remembered places like Eindhoven – the first major town to be liberated in this operation – Nijmegen and a village called Boxmeer near there, where they were called upon to help the Dutch underground liberate the place from a Tiger tank. Since they had one jeep and not much else they declined. He also remembers being involved in operations against German self propelled guns beyond the Maas River near another Dutch town, Venlo, during the freezing winter that followed . The Allied defeat at the battle of Arnhem condemmed most of Holland to near or actual starvation during that winter.

There was much more at Osterbeek where most of the British Airborne Division had held on and were eventually withdrawn. Another co-operative bus driver managed to pull out of the station just as I realised that was the bus I needed.

 

Roll on Amsterdam! That was where Cris lived now with his Dutch wife. Cris had played the lead part in organising school reunions. We hadn’t known each other well at school but that had changed when he invited me to one in 2003 and the one this year.

The first time I saw Amsterdam the whole city appeared to be having one huge party! More people were flooding into the crowds from the Central Station all the time, what was going on? By an incredible stroke of luck I’d arrived on the Dutch queen’s birthday! It was a great if exhausting experience and I’d never seen anything like it on that scale. I’d been to Amsterdam in fact a few times by this trip and well after I went to Germany when I was 21, so was basically familiar with the semi circular pattern of streets and canals radiating from the Central Station.

I wasn’t so familiar with Cris’s neighbourhood, still central but going west. It didn’t help that the only lead I had with the number bore no relation to the place he was at. I sorted things out at a clothing shop by the canal he was on and managed to get in touch by mobile phone. He was waving to me from an upper floor of his building.

He had a spacious well furnished home on the top 2 floors of a converted warehouse, with a rooftop terrace too. A good place for barbecues but the weather got overcast in Amsterdam so on the final night we went out for a meal instead which I paid just over half of.

I could afford it and if I go back I should buy the whole thing next time because at Cris’s invitation I was able to stay at his studio for nothing. It looked like corner shop had been converted into a ground floor flat but the main room had an artists easel with art materials. He’d taken up painting in retirement and at least one woman I met in the neighbourhood referred to him as ‘the painter.’

His studio also had a television, computer, double bed, was well stocked with food with a shop for more across the street. The coffee machine made a alarming crunching noise as though it was mangling itself so I used that with caution but it was okay, I didn’t break it.

Cris took me out the first night for some very strong beer. We realised we were in an odd way well matched through having opposite talents and aims. When we were at school his interests were in the arts – hence the painting – but his talents were in the sciences. He’d done very well for himself with those talents. On the other hand my interests were in the sciences but my talents were artistic. I’d done very poorly financially but the consensus at the first reunion was that I’d had a very interesting life. Now I was combining my talents with my interests.

He was working on replacing the main door to his building so left me to my own devices for a lot of the time I was in Amsterdam. The studio was further west still and I got lost the day after the initial heavy beer session. The streets and canals could skew one well off course. Cris said it often happened. I enjoyed getting lost though as long as I had the time and I did. When I’d sorted myself out I wandered through the city and the sights having the odd snack or drink.

There was the famous or infamous red light district, but I didn’t realise there were 2 sex museums rather than one. With enough of interest in them to titillate, amuse or offend one, depending on one’s point of view. My view is that some in Britain need to be offended and adapt themselves to freer spirits rather than the other way round.

There was of course the Anne Frank house. I’d not only already seen it though but now there was a modern museum one had to pass through next door it seemed, though apparently the facade of the original building had been altered. A huge queue cancelled out a 2nd visit.

I did however go to a Van Gogh exhibition in the old Stock Exchange where one could still make out those bank vault doorways in a few parts of the basement where the famous penniless artist’s works were displayed. Some of the paintings were interactive such as ‘The Starry Night.’ I particularly enjoyed creating variations on those swirls of colour in that night sky.

Cris drove me north of Amsterdam. There were 2 places. One being a seaside village, except that it wasn’t exactly seaside, more a man-made lakeside: Markemeer. It was like the Ijsselmeer further north, an area of sea sealed off for flood control and possible reclamation. The sea had extended to Amsterdam the northern edge of which still looked like a port. The other village was notable for the spotting of a heron. Cris said people put ornamental ones in their gardens and it could be hard to tell which was which. The other thing was so many of the older multistory buildings not being perpendicular but actually tilting because of the swampy nature of the ground and their age. It was easy enough to stop this Cris said, by a process involving pouring concrete into the foundations; but they couldn’t be moved upright again.

He also took me on a grand tour of the Amsterdam canals. Past the endless queue for the Anne Frank House, the rich old merchant houses and warehouses, open air restaurants and bars. I acted as lookout perched on the prow of the small boat we were in, because it was hard to see what was coming where one canal crossed another.

Later over more strong beer I noticed more leaning buildings. It was pretty cool I thought and comical to see drunken buildings when one was in that state too. Cris told me his leaned out over the canal. My God so it did.

 

Thus was my last night spent in Amsterdam. I had plenty of time the following morning but lost most of it failing to track down a smaller version of a big liquour bottle seen in Arnhem requested by a friend. I’d assumed it would be easy in Amsterdam but had to settle for strong beer instead.

My route home went through Rotterdam, Dordrecht, another wait at Brussels, then the Eurostar to the UK. At Dordrecht there was a change of trains and a meeting against the odds. My reserved seat happened to be one row away from another friend: a Dutch lady who liked a planet I took to an SF convention. She lived at Dordrecht but a planned meeting had fallen through because she was in the process of moving to the south of England.

Delighted we chatted all the way back to London. There was a problem though at Waterloo. I wasn’t sure the tickets we’d bought just before 5pm would be valid after that time – because of our commercial wonderland of a railway system – so things got a bit rushed. Then I forgot the train we were on to Portsmouth wasn’t the right one for her past Woking, reassured her it was okay, then had to surprise her with that news at Woking.

I can’t explain my mistake but we’re still in touch by Facebook. I’ll apologise next time I see her.

© D Angus 11 13

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War and Peace and Convention Chaos.

Motherland statue3209

Rodina Mat. Ukrainian for Mother of the Motherland, held a 12 ton sword and shield aloft. 62 metres tall she towered over the trees from the top of the high ground that continued from the west bank of Kiev down much of the Dnieper River, gazing out over that and the suburbs to the flat horizons of what was Russia. Since she consisted of titanium it was as though the sky of grey cloud above and mist across the Dnieper had solidified to create this martial robed giantess; a deity on permanent vigil commanding forces too vast to defeat. She stood on a truncated cone and circular layered dias of another 40 metres. There was a war museum there. I’d set out to find it with Jocelyn for that was the first part my original plan for exploring Kiev: get to the museum then work our way up the length of the heights overlooking the Dnieper before going back into Kiev city.

It wasn’t easy to find the entrance. Ascending a breathless winding path up a wooded slope we seemed to arrive at the rear of the dias structure where there was a closed service entrance and vehicle park. Circumnavigating the whole thing led us towards what sounded like the patriotic music of heroes on a never ending loop. The view on the other side was of a big open space of square patterned concrete. The heroic music came from the left where monolithic sculptures flanked a huge bunker like entrance with another big circular structure towards the river, saucer like to hold a symbolic flame. Further up the ridge over the river were the gold spheres and spires of a monastic or cathedral complex. In front of us, before the slopes down to the Dnieper and suburbs gloomy with mist, were 2 postwar tanks with their barrels crossed.

These tanks though had no camouflage pattern but floral designs, one blue, one yellow. On Google they’re referred to as ‘peace tanks’ and ‘hippy tanks’ on the internet. How groovy. It was likely to be some sort of gesture of independence by the newly formed Ukraine. Not just children were climbing over them but boyfriends and husbands too; so getting into the heroic spirit of the unavoidable music I clambered up there too.

On a tank3227

There was none of that frivolity in the war museum, the entrance and foyer of which formed the base of the platform we’d been standing on when we’d got around the base of the giant statue. The Museum of the Great Patriotic War; its windowless spaces and subdued lighting seemed to hold something of the weight of history. A reality with the colossal statue above. Grandiose? Gloomy? Overdone? If any of that’s true it’s hardly surprising. Particularly in view of what happened in the Kiev region and in what was the Soviet Union at that time.

The D Day Normandy landings were the biggest amphibious operation in history and more people were killed when Dresden was bombed than at Hiroshima. Otherwise though the Great Patriotic War or German invasion of Russia in World War 2 seemed to dwarf what happened elsewhere.

America lost about 405,000 troops in WWII; Russia lost over 10 million. The German armed forces suffered 80% of its military deaths on the Eastern Front but initially the Germans won huge encirclement battles such as killing and taking prisoner ½ a million Russians around Kiev. Kiev was also where the biggest massacre of Jews took place in the Babi Yar ravine before the concentration camps continued the genocide on an industrial scale. The siege of Leningrad lasted for 872 days – over 2 years – during which 1 ½ million soldiers and civilians died. That’s apart from those who died from starvation during evacuation. The German attempt to seize Moscow and the Russian counter-offensive there took place on a front of a similar length to England. Then there is the turning point of the war at Stalingrad. After that the Germans couldn’t win. But the biggest tank battle in history – another record – at Kursk condemned the German Army to certain defeat in a gigantic delaying action, ending at Berlin. The first stage of that was the belated German attempt to hold the Red Army along the natural defensive ramparts of the Dnieper and Kiev; impossible without the armoured reserves squandered at Kursk.

One armchair general I encountered on Skype when I was in Texas was sure the Americans and British should have attacked and beaten Soviet forces in 1945. They would have been lucky not to get far, rather than being rolled back. Although the Russians had had enormous losses they still had – apart from entire divisions of artillery – enormous numbers of tanks. Many were upgunned versions of the T34; the best tank in the world in 1941 that the famous German Tiger and Panther tanks were designed to counter. Dealing with the Tiger tank had been bad enough for the Americans and British but if they had continued the war they would have been up against greater numbers of Stalin tanks in 1945: 1,300 heavy tanks bigger and better than the T34. Just over 1,300 Tiger tanks were produced during the entire war. The western allies had no tanks as powerful as the Stalin tanks in 1945.

The museum began with a 76mm artillery piece placed centrally in the large foyer. A weapon that could double as an anti tank gun. Then one was well directed around the various chambers on ‘the road of the war:’ The defence of Sevastopol, occupation regime, partisan movement in Ukraine, Stalingrad and Kursk battles, forcing the Dnieper with it’s heroic wall length painting. Even concentration camps were represented with – among other things – a machine for crushing body parts. Symbolic somehow of the brutal crushing nature of the war in this part of the world. The culmination was a Memory chamber with 27 meter funeral table where personal belongings, embroidered towels and notices of those killed in battle were displayed, emphasizing the Ukrainian contribution to the victory over Nazism. 16 museum chambers held over 15,000 museum objects on anything war related:— papers, personal belongings, weapons, photos, banners, awards, letters, diaries, military hardware such as machine guns and small arms.

Nor was that all to the museum. The monolithic sculptures near the wide bunker- like entrance were actually a single block of Soviet soldiers brandishing sub-machine guns, one hurling a grenade, all supported by a stubby field gun, racks of rockets and the heroic music of course.

War sculpture3229

Within the bunker entrance the covered way was populated by more sculpted comrades along the walls. A group including rifles and bayonets were perpetually charging towards the entrance with granite resolve. Further along were more gaunt figures bearing weapons, or bearing industrial and agricultural implements like weapons. Those who weren’t seemed in a mood of religious gloom.

War museum and motherland statue3237

Then even beyond that was a vehicle park with a difference. Well weapons park really. Everything from planes and missile carriers to amphibious vehicles and World War 2 – Great Patriotic War – tanks. Including the Stalin tanks. Plus a sampling of the artillery used in those artillery divisons.

War museum and monastery3244

Beyond the war was peace. Kiev Pechersk Lavra reared its golden domes and spires beyond a battery of artillery. What I didn’t realise then was that ‘pechersk’ means ‘cave.’ The monastery name really meant Kiev Monastery of the Caves.

It was founded in 1051 and became a centre of Eastern Orthodox Christianity; the second largest Christian church in the world. It also became an UNESCO World Heritage Site and later one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Ukraine’ in 2007.

Refectory church of the Pechersk3248

The monastery complex was on the slopes above the Dnieper River. We descended a steep lane on the outside of the fortified wall, then after some enquiries another cobbled way led further down to the caves, outside the monastery itself.

Another name for this phenomenon would be ‘catacombs:’ an unexpected bonus for me since I’ve wanted to sample some. 79 surviving burials were here. It wasn’t the dusty dark labyrinth with shelves of mummified corpses I was expecting though. A door in a wall led to a place where we could pick up little candles which we declined, assuming they were for purposes of worship. A descent into the caves revealed their practical purpose: they were the only light source.

Luckily there were enough people with us so – as long as we were near some of the many who were there – we could see that the narrow winding arched passages were not only whitewashed but impeccably maintained: apart from one spot where I fell behind Jocelyn and anyone with a candle and had to venture downwards into a black hole without a clue of what was inches from me.

“Bloody Hell!” Not the sort of oath to utter in such a place and my idiot abroad impressions earned a “Sshh!” from Jocelyn. Quite right too.

The narrow passages were like the catacombs I’d imagined in that they were a labyrinth, in which we finally realised we’d gone around in a circle. Mostly narrow and claustrophobic they occasionally broadened or gave access to small roomlike areas or monks cells. There were no dusty bones and cadavers of my imagination there or along the way though, but beautifully maintained embroidered and jewelled caskets, coffins, all sorts of religious icons and items. A veritable Aladdin’s maze – if not cave – of treasures.

It affected one young man in front who was such a devotee that he was flamboyantly weaving his hands and even body around making the sign of the cross all the time, without making much progress, holding us up and children behind us, who probably preferred exploring caves to religious fervour! Luckily for them he forgot himself enough to bang his head on the ceiling and progress became normal. Maybe God was trying to tell him something.

After emerging from this hole in the wall with a difference we descended into another hole later: the Metro. Actually it was supposed to be the deepest station in the world and I can believe it. There are geographical reasons. The combination of the entrance being on top of that escarpment by the river and the line going under that led to a long way down to the trains. There was the longest escalator I’d seen; dropping until the lines of it were approaching vanishing point with people looking like ants down there. At last we reached the bottom; but it wasn’t for around a corner was the same thing again! This second escalator to the centre of the Earth was what convinced me.

It was rush hour down there and after we got on the trains became packed. Maybe I should have removed my small backpack though it would have been difficult on the train. An old man got on and the only place he could hold on to was on the wrong side of me. It took him awhile while grimacing to make it; where he met another old but well built Ukrainian. Then it was clear they were making the odd desultory disparaging comment about me in Ukrainian. When the well built one got off he told me – inches from my face because of the crush – that he wasn’t happy about my backpack in Ukrainian, not realising I couldn’t understand the lingo. I said nothing; feeling they had something of a case though the circumstances were unfortunate. Best let the aggrieved let off steam. No hard feelings.

There was a respite from this well on the way to the hotel. We were breaking the journey to find the European SF convention which – being Thursday afternoon – should just be really getting underway. After which the trains would be less crowded.

It wasn’t an auspicious beginning. We emerged into a confusion of hovel shops come kiosks selling anything and the only other thing we could see was a flyover. It looked like Europe had suffered a holocaust since we went underground. When we succeeded in getting out of that we were on a long straight road through what looked like a Kiev version of Harlem.

The convention was being held at an exhibition centre. The area somehow looked like the site of a supermarket that had gone bust. The doors with the Eurocon sign were ahead though which was just as well for I could do with a loo. “We’ve made it!” I exclaimed cheerfully – or words to that effect – to a young official when we got there. No we hadn’t, he told us just as cheerfully: the convention had closed for the night! Not at all normal for a convention of that size I thought. Also what lay beyond looked less like a convention and more like the previous exhibitors not removing their exhibits.

Quite a disappointment but I assured Jocelyn that I could hold on as far as the hotel; we retraced our steps through downmarket Kiev without incident and the next train was less crowded.

Back at the hotel I had more luck: a chance meeting at the lift with Bridget: SF fan and friend to both of us. She’d specialised in European SF cons and was the ideal contact who started filling us in on the situation. The convention closed each evening and would do so at midday on Sunday, so at least there wouldn’t be a problem with leaving something interesting to catch the plane. The convention was actually in 2 places: tomorrow it would be at Kiev Polytechnic which was really the University, near the Zoo. After that it would be at the exhibition centre and the convention only had some of it.

Bridget confirmed my educated guesses. Yes, loess was the reason Kiev seemed dustier than the norm, there were a lot of glacial deposits of it too. Yes those random balls of plant matter in the trees I’d seen were mistletoe. It used to be like that across Europe including Britain and the fact it still existed here indicated a less disturbed balance of nature. Nice to feel I had that feel for the natural world.

She also revealed that the noise Jocelyn heard of something heavy being lugged around above our rooms was none other than Bridget positioning a table to support some heavy duty computer she owned. I’d heard it too but noises at night seemed to affect Jocelyn more; who’d complained about dogs howling to the extent that I wondered if she thought they were packs of wolves coming to get us if we dare step outside? Lucky there wasn’t a scraping on the outside wall. (Dracula!) We all have our weaknesses I guess.

The only time it got bad enough to make me look outside the window was when a huge party of orientals turned up on a night flight. That’s what it seemed because they all had cases with little wheels and all of them rolling made a real roar.

Later we found another friend – our British contact for this convention and well known at European conventions – had found nothing available when he arrived at his hotel after dark. I believe he ended up at ours. He told us that same hotel was turning fans away when there was still room.

The best part of this convention was at the University. A pleasant walk through a park led us to a grand old building not far from the Metro that fronted the campus.

Beyond was a concrete building not too dissimilar to ones found on London’s South Bank – the Hayward Gallery and so on – but more of a solid block. Within was a central well surrounded by galleries and sculpted circular staircases. Nice surreal touches were added by a fair number of plants and whole walls of painted portraits of former students, including an astronaut!

Polytechnic interior3255

A drawback seemed to be the structure of the building holding a residue of the cold that had built up through winter but otherwise there was room to mix and hold functions and programme events. Plenty of rooms in fact although the convention itself was only on one level. More plants lived in some of these rooms, research rooms, labs cum libraries. That’s the impression I’m left with: a interesting and informal place for great and creative minds to;- well maybe not exactly party but meet, mingle and exchange ideas. I feel a place like a University is a good place to hold this kind of thing and certainly there were some good programme sessions.

What a pity we couldn’t have stayed there.

For the exhibition hall was an exhibition of the way the commercial world can work. By that I mean a process whereby you listen and accommodate yourself to their point of view because they couldn’t give a toss about yours. It came to light that the convention organisers only got part of the exhibition centre by agreeing to a deal with sponsors that brought about the following situation:-

The exhibits I felt shouldn’t be there yesterday still were, and would remain. Although some were actually artworks that could have fitted in with an SF convention the show going on at what was supposed to be the centre of the convention area was definitely not science fiction but ethnic. Hordes of people who had nothing to do with the convention wandered through that area anyway. The convention was small for a European one and what I’ve just described not only displayed this weakness that I preferred to forget but effectively overran the convention. It had no space of its own apart from rooms that looked like classrooms on an upper level.

I suppose the organisers were responsible but I’m loathe to blame them wholly. Apart from SF con organisers being volunteers and this being their first attempt at a Eurocon I’ve come to the conclusion that those representing commercial interests and especially market forces often need a Stalinist approach if one is to strike a reasonable bargain. Any attempt to be reasonable in fact is often exploited as a sign of weakness.

I freely admit that my attitude may make me an unrealistic bigoted bastard and may have led to me being no longer ‘in business’ really. I’m unrepentant and I’m working on it. Due to some happy accidents I’m largely free of the commercial world. That’s a load off my mind and I’m not sorry about any time I stood up to them.

At least there was an ice cream vendor with those varied ices where I like tossing a coin to decide which one I’ll have. Here though I unwittingly struck a blow for the convention against a member of the commercial world who was least deserving of it; for I couldn’t explain what I was doing and unfortunately kept dropping the coin. The poor man decided I was a lunatic and abandoned his post stalking off to the gents to take refuge there.

The best part of this part of the convention for me was a charming lady from Poltava who interpreted for a British SF author and who needed to be reassured about doing well.

There was a party that evening at the hotel that had mucked up our contact’s booking. Continue out of town from the flyover junction where the ring road our hotel’s on meets the west road out of Kiev. For the same distance one would to our hotel. Then it’s just off in the pine woods to the left.

The party was fun with plenty of strong stuff to drink although it was in a room small for this size of party. There was a large foyer to cool off in though if one needed it. I chatted with the SF author there who said the convention was an “experience.”

“Oh. Glad you had fun then.”

“I didn’t say it was a good experience. I said it was an experience.

“Ah. Right.”

Jocelyn and I weren’t going to bother with the exhibition centre tomorrow morning but get up late and take it easy. The sort of thing one does on Sunday. Plenty of time to get to the airport in the late afternoon.

We still had to get back to our hotel from the party though and it’s no fun when you’re drunk – enough to feel like crashing in the lobby and just want to get to bed – to be told there’s a problem with transport.

The taxi drivers had discovered a problem with us being outside the city limits. Nobody could be more dogmatic than taxi drivers I felt and in the state I was in I had zero tolerance for this bullshit, especially as I was still capable of making it there on foot.

It was also extremely irritating to watch Bridget negotiate with coach drivers only to witness them majestically sweeping away into the night deserting her.

I broached my plan to the girls. Jocelyn might have been up for it but Bridget had health problems. Also somebody – I think it was Dave the Irish SF fan – said we might get mugged. I explained that the way I felt I’d just tell them to F*** off!

It was the drink talking of course and I started swearing, mostly referring to taxi drivers, repeatedly and consistently, even to friends just by way of explanation. I needed the stamina for the situation continued; with Bridget negotiating with taxi drivers only to get the same treatment the coach drivers had given her. I’m most likely innacurate but it seemed it was only my swearing in the lobby spurring others into action with persistent negotiations outside that eventually broke the deadlock. I think Bridget and Dave were inspired in this way but my memory isn’t clear on that. The times in my life I’ve had to break the rules of polite society and rely on anger to get things done.

This went on long enough for me to think I could have got through enemy lines on foot and returned with the cavalry by now. Then one taxi driver finally condescended to take us back. He drove straight up the centre of the multilane highway as though he’d set the controls for the heart of Kiev, only swinging off into the right access road at the last moment. That’s the way it seemed to me but maybe – what with all I’d had – I was just drunk and incapable of trusting any taxi driver.

I couldn’t believe I’d actually come close to risking my job for an event that turned out like this.

The last day we recovered and chilled out. The early afternoon lift to the airport, flight and journey home was so uneventful I’ve nothing to report as far as I can remember. So ended the first of 3 trips I made to Europe in 2013.

© D Angus 10 13

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Chernobyl in the Springtime.

Why Chernobyl?

Good question. Not easy to answer. Couldn’t resist the title though.

Seriously though…Although the main reason for going to Kiev was the SF convention Chernobyl was close. About as far from Kiev as London is from Portsmouth. Within easy reach. I’m not only into science fiction but have a lust for adventure. The adventure is fueled partially by natural curiosity and by my inability to lead a ‘normal’ life, so having a ‘regimental history’ of adventures I might as well make the most of the adventurous side of my nature and experiences while I’m still able. Chernobyl poses an obvious adventure; but it’s also a unique environment appealing to those into science fiction. Another reason for going. In 1986 I’d just began working on an atlas where all the maps were the same scale, when there was a science fiction doomsday scenario for real at Chernobyl. The maps helped me understand the scale of what was happening there: had it happened in England half the country would have been rendered uninhabitable! Russia or the Ukraine had more of the kind of space needed to cope with that kind of event; though those living there could hardly have thought so.

Despite all that it was now feasible to go there if still dangerous: people in organised groups had been going for some time.

So Chernobyl was what our trip today was all about. Getting to the rendevous point went flawlessly. Up early with an early breakfast. A trouble free journey into the city centre and arrival ahead of schedule thanks to the subway short cut I’d found last night and the rest of the route being well reconnoitred. One advantage of old age is that although one’s not so physically able one’s experience can lead to better organisational skills.

So we’d done all we could and were sporting the notice with my name on it sitting on a bench by the defunct tourist information kiosk. Now was it going to be a no show?

A girl approached. We had the link up! She was the girl I’d been corresponding with by email and had noticed my name on our notice. Our transport was waiting up a back street. Jocelyn asked why was tourist information closed? The answer was that all tourist information points in Kiev were closed and not because it was a public holiday. A strange situation brought about probably by budget related reasons or maybe because it was that time of year.

I was expecting a minibus or 4 wheel drive but transport to my surprise turned out to be a private car, because our party was small. Jocelyn and I sat in the back while the only other participant sat with the young driver. He was a young Canadian, had a Korean girlfriend and had turned up at the last moment from Moscow.

We drove north through outlying muddy villages and into open country with more forest the further one went. The skies were cloudy with an occasional lighter patch allowing weak sunlight; in contrast to yesterday. The weather seemed to catch the mood of each day’s adventure. It looked more like November than Spring. The car had to avoid the odd flood from melting snow and occasional potholes in the road. Moscow was worse apparently.

I was adventurous enough to get into hazardous places but took what precautions I could while there, following the advice about wearing substantial clothing by donning not just my boots, parka and woolly hat but even mittens which I wasn’t going to remove even for photography. Airborne radiation wasn’t a problem, there being less of it where we were going than there is at 30,000 feet in an aircraft, unless one was sticking around for much longer than a day in some parts. No the danger came from ground particles. For that reason it was not a good idea to walk through vegetation or put anything on the ground and pick it up again. “This is a hazardous operation” I’d told Jocelyn. Maybe it really was and anyway it sounded good! It hadn’t put her off though and she was fatalistic about it saying that when her number was up it was up. She was the average between my caution and the Canadian who would be the group nutter. He would be taking needless risks in the zone and after jabbering away to the driver on the journey up there he wouldn’t listen to the driver’s warning about flourishing his camera at a checkpoint. I’d learned as long ago as Africa that to do that with anything official outside western Europe was courting trouble and became afraid he was about to f**k up the expedition before it got properly going!

Luckily none of the army or police here took offence and we met the guide: a bald headed guy with earings and camouflaged trousers.

The danger zone has been or is known as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, or the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 30 Kilometre Zone and just ‘The Zone.’ The most reliable guide is a map I found on the internet which looks like the same one used in the University Lecture I attended on the subject.

It’s a map of radioactivity mirroring the fallout I saw at the University lecture. It displays the distribution of the most deadly particles – Cesium-137 – in 4 zones: red patches on the map being closed or lethal zones, dark pink permanent control zones, light pink the periodic control zone, and light brown the ‘unnamed zone,’ which extended a broad tongue south down the Dneiper River to just 10 miles north of Kiev.

It taught me how important wind direction and rain can be in any sort of nuclear disaster. The country at Chernobyl Power Station and to the north was uninhabitable but further north was a semi habitable zone. Then there was another dumping ground of radioactive contamination in the Gomel region further north still, rendering country north of that town uninhabitable again.

Kiev in fact was very lucky for it’s slightly closer to Chernobyl power station than Gomel. So had weather conditions been different what was the Soviet Union’s third city might have been rendered a citywide version of Pripyat, the closest town to the power station. A dead abandoned ghost town to this day!

A white brick erection with a bas relief of the power station and blue Cyrillic lettering topped by an atom announced Chernobyl itself. The thing to remember about the geography of the Chernobyl region is that the town or large village of Chernobyl is south of the southern end of a man made lake whereas the power station of Chernobyl is about 10 miles away at the northern end, along with Pripyat a few miles further. I have my doubts about the habitability of Chernobyl town because the map showed radiation seriously increasing here, marked by checkpoints in and around the town where roads crossed into the zones mentioned. There were some people around though so although it was evacuated when the disaster occurred it seemed to be just about habitable for those who chose to be here now.

Chernobyl looked a little strange with pipes here and there constructed gantry fashion up and over the road. That was because ground radiation was already serious enough to make laying them underground or drinking water from them there a dodgy proposition. The place was predictably quiet and unkempt too, with plenty of bare trees showing little evidence of spring around detached buildings, residential and otherwise, spacious but none of the more substantial sort usually forming town centres. At least where we went. It turned out there was plenty to see here.

A building with a symbolic mural on two adjoining walls: an exploding view of red reactor cores, fuel rods and – surprisingly – birds. A favourite spot to have ones photo taken.

Village graveyard3057

A graveyard of crosses bearing names of villages abandoned in the nuclear disaster. More a field of them actually.

Memorial3059

A memorial where I promptly removed my hat when I learned what it and the sculpted statues in the throes of action below were about: those emergency firemen and workers who sacrificed their lives through lethal doses of radiation while bringing the catastrophe under control. Had they not done so places like Kiev might have suffered the same fate as Pripyat. Life over much of Europe might have become more problematical too. The thought of firemen being involved made me think of 9/11. Totally different circumstances: same result for the firemen.

A vehicle park of irradiated armoured personnel carriers and remote control vehicles. Safe enough to view at a distance. The remote control vehicles sported red and yellow colouring that reminded me of Tonka Toys. Even the remote control robotic vehicles though were affected by radiation where it was high enough; their electronics were fried by it.

A dog wandering around aimlessly without any apparent control. Notable because we saw various solitary dogs doing likewise throughout the day. It was a clue as to the state of the wildlife in this region. Animals seemed to flourish here. Radioactive dogs or otherwise. What a damming indictment of mankind! Despite the nuclear disaster affecting animals as much as us it was of benefit to them compared to country under the control of homo sapiens.

We were scanned at Chernobyl town in a large bare room with a contraption that looked like several metallic phone booths lined end to end without doors. You stepped up into one of them, put your hands on pads and readings were taken.

Just before this adventure I’d come across a book in Gosport listing places in the world one would never visit. Chernobyl and its ‘zone’ was one and now we were heading into ‘The Zone’ up a broad empty road straight into dangerous pine forest and wilderness. There’s a Russian SF novel called ‘Roadside Picnic’ in which there’s an abandoned ‘zone’ of dereliction and unseen dangers created by aliens leaving artifacts: some beneficial, some deadly, but all incomprehensible. It captured imagination to the extent that a film called ‘Stalker’ was derived from it, computer games too. This was the closest we would get on this planet to that fantasy: a derelict zone of unseen dangers left by something awesome and not always easy to understand.

Now we were playing the part of the adventurers, guides and outlaws in Roadside Picnic who entered the zone at their own risk. The guide tried to point out an abandoned village. We were hard put to it to make out the shapes of what had been small buildings, peoples former homes amidst deciduous thickets by the road. Must be one of those graveyard villages at Chernobyl town. Completely overgrown. There were tales of criminals chosing The Zone as a refuge and probably living in places like that since few if any would dare follow them in.

Not far from Chernobyl Power Station was a kindergarten. The building itself wasn’t overgrown and although colours had become close to monotone with the bare vegetation and grey skies the kindergarten could be made out clearly from the road. There was a statue at its roadside entrance of a young man with helmet in hand. A memorial to World War 2 in Russia it could have been one to the disaster that had ended the purpose of this place half a century later.

The guide took a reading of ground radiation with a handheld dosimeter about the size of a smallish torch. Airborne it was something like .14 microieverts. On the ground it was 24. A lot of snow still lay around under the trees – which were growing in most places – and the guide demonstrated by further readings what an effective shield snow was against ground radiation. Let’s test this I thought, managing to get the guide to take further readings of snow with brown spots of dirt. No increase at all. Then I picked the filthiest pile of slush I could see that could still barely be called ice. Must be real radioactivity there but there was only a small increase! Effective shield indeed and a valuable lesson in a place like this. It determined where I would walk through much of this adventure.

A radioactive sign was in front of the kindergarten. To venture inside was to do so at ones risk, the Canadian did anyway.

Not much further we came to Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station itself. Pylons proliferated like a weird stark forest over the trees. Water stretched in a wide moat down the right hand side of the road, between us and 2 cooling towers, an icon of power stations; but one was only partially built. Another partially built structure beyond the moat were number 5 and 6 Reactors; still bristling with cranes but abandoned since the 1986 disaster. The reddish rusty hues of the central blocks suggested radiation scarred surfaces and unseen dangers made visible.

There was a curve in the moat and number 4 reactor was before us, instead of on the news footage everyone had so often seen. The double steel latticed ventilation chimney, the hump of the building with its concrete sarcophagus. That word gave a sinister religious feel to the place. Cathedral of doom might be one way of describing it.

The closest point we could get to the reactor was round the other side. On our way there was a sight no less amazing and more bizarre. A line of old people – women I think – sweeping the road in front of us free of dust. Maybe it was loess but I couldn’t imagine a more dangerous thing to do here! This never ending job looked absurd but there was some logic linked in with the age of these people. Life expectancy is shorter here and older people had stayed in affected villages when others had fled, not only because it was what they were used to but because there was not much of life left for them anyway.

Number 4 reactor was half of the whole lengthy building. Number 3 was the other half; a mirror design of number 4. At 1.23 am. on April 16th 1986 an experiment led to a catastrophic power increase, explosions and fires of a ‘Roman Candle’ fashion according to one account! The result was the release of radioactive fuel and core materials such as caesium-137, iodine-131 and strontium-90 into the atmosphere.

Now it had spawned 2 new things in its interior; where radiation levels were estimated to be as high as 10,000 rontgens per hour. 500 over 5 hours is a fatal dose.

The core material had melted into a glassy crystalline lava breaking through concrete in formations such as ‘The Elephants Foot.’ Highly radioactive with uranium and fission products and previously unknown it had become known as ‘Chernobylite.’

A melanin rich ‘radiotropic’ fungi had been observed too. How it had come about and what those with imagination might think it would evolve into were the stuff of science fiction.

The viewing point was 300 metres from the reactor, marked by a stark sculpture of hands cupping the reactor and a lightning bolt. Now it was closer to us than my neighbourhood community centre. Airborne radiation was higher here – 9.574 microseiverts – though much less than that shown on the ground at the kindergarten. We could only point our cameras at this and the reactor, not at the new sarcophagus or ‘safe confinement’ under construction nearby. Like a colossal broad steel arch it was nearly 350 feet high, over 800 feet across and 492 feet from side to side. It was necessary to slide this over no. 4 reactor on parallel railway tracks then wall it up because in 2013 some of the sarcophagus already erected had collapsed. There could be more of this – along with radioactive dust being released – at any time. Such as when we were there.

Myself and Jocelyn at No. 4 Reactor3089

We had our photos taken. Jocelyn in a playful mood pointed at my head and I did likewise. I felt she had our SF group in mind. At some point we discussed ways of freaking out the guy who ran it. Behaving in a strange diseased fashion was one idea. Another I had was buying a packet of Ukrainian crisps as a gift and trying to con him I’d bought it at Chernobyl. I think the person we annoyed though was a fellow who claimed we were mad, probably because he would always pooh pooh or gainsay any adventure or achievement. He had to resort to sour grapes this time because once he was up against the worlds worst nuclear accident he had ‘absolutely no chance.’

While all this was going on workers strolled past, just as though this was any ordinary power station. Like the ladies sweeping dust on the road the juxtaposition in this zone of lack of concern with the horrific need for that was surreal.

Another example of that was the railway nearby that was still operational. The workers used it.

And again at a crossroads between the power station and Pripyat where an anvil shaped monument flattened into a half arrow gave the name and pointed the way to that town. Along with ‘1970’ and flowers underneath, laid as they are on a grave. In the distance was a pole shaped construction down a road through heath and forest. It looked like a warning for the guide told me one could pick up as much radiation there in an hour as one would normally in a year. Must be one of those red lethal zones in that direction anyway. Just after I was told this a car happily sped across the crossroads and down that road!

Whether what I’d been told was true or whether it was heading into death or not radiation levels in the Red Forest can be as high as one Roentgen per hour; or 10,000 microseiverts per hour. The Red Forest was down that road. So named because it had taken so much radiation when the disaster happened that the trees turned red! It was a place I’d been interested in. Most SF tales of radiation mutations concentrate on giant dangerous animals but a few described plants as well. I’d heard rumours of dandelion leaves a metre long at 3 Mile Island and ‘The Forest of Miracles’ at Chernobyl; where conifers grew weird branching patterns and oak leaves grew to eighteen inches across! All rumours and nothing more though it seemed. My research has come up with nothing on that since. The closest I’ve seen to that is a picture of a sunflower on Google where the dark circular centre is elongated so it looks like a huge furry caterpillar.

Never mind. Maybe there were no 2 headed monsters or monsters period. There were plenty of wild boar, wolves and sizeable wildlife in these parts, some with deformities. Maybe there were no vegetable monstrosities but there were many random areas of forest and deserted landscape where the radiation could still kill one.

Pripyat was about a mile across which is the length of the estate I live in. It was a modern town built in 1970 for the power station workers. Self contained to the point of having its own amusement park. In 1986 the population there was 49,000.

Within a few hours of the explosion, dozens of people fell ill. Later, they reported severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting.

At 2pm April 17th the evacuation of Pripyat began with the following announcement:

For the attention of the residents of Pripyat!
The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.

‘Short term’ proved to be for however long the radioactive particles there would last for. Pripyat has been abandoned since and became an uncontrolled experiment showing what one possible future of mankind would look like; if nuclear radiation or fatal disease crashed the population of mankind so that most if not all of the planet would be abandoned. It was like time travelling to a post holocaust world.

Or to where 2 parallel worlds had met in the same place: a forest with a city. In 26 years deciduous trees had had the time to grow from seedlings to saplings verging on mature woodland. Pripyat’s broad boulevards flanked by modern apartment blocks had become tracks through gloomy woodland thickets flanked by the grey shells of those apartment blocks. That was our entrance to the town. Spooky.

Pryp'yat'3131

A ground radiation reading here showed 68.54 microseiverts. It seemed unwise to stay here for longer than a day. There was plenty of snow lying around which I made use of while exploring Pripyat, hoping there were no hidden holes where I was walking and watching my step. This wasn’t a good place to fall over.

It was supposed to be unsafe to venture into buildings here because they’d been abandoned long enough to become structurally unstable. There were also also spattering waterfalls in and off the buildings here and there caused by melting snow, perhaps picking up dangerous particles on the way down.

That didn’t stop the Canadian inspecting what remained of a supermarket. Easy to enter because the glass front had gone. Later he did the same with part of a theatre exposed to the outside, where there were big paintings of Soviet leaders including a stylised one of Lenin, strangely well preserved. Could have been stage managed for tourists we concluded.

He also had his photo taken sitting in one of the carousel rides at the amusement park. Metal can hold radiation quite well apparently since there’s more than one vehicle park around Chernobyl of ‘hot’ vehicles. Elsewhere the dodgem cars retained much of their colour, as did the orange yellow carriages on the big wheel; standing out from sombre hues of woodland and sky in much the same way as that child in red in Schindlers List contrasted starkly with the black and white and often brutal surroundings of the film.

Pryp'yat' amusement parkF3114

The guide took us to the football field. Not recognisable as such because of the wood growing there. The give away was on the far side. Seating structures and a stadium which could be made out between the tree trunks and their bare branches. In summer that would be hidden.

Pryp'yat' football field3121

After the stadium was a school, then a leisure centre. We learned that one bizarre example of cold war paranoia was within the school: a floor full of abandoned gas masks issued to the children. When one’s in that paranoia the state of fear on the other side is the first thing that’s overlooked. The manifestation of this within the school reminds me of one of ‘Sting’s’ tracks called ‘Russians’ which put this sort of thing exceptionally well.

“We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too.”

Seems they did, enough to provide each child here with this evidence of misguided protection.

Pryp'yat'3162

Back where we started a tower block topped by a metal rosette design overlooked the natural reclamation of man’s desolation, despite it being nuclear. It had been neon lit when this town was young with a ‘glowing’ future and centred on a blue circle indicating our world, which featured the hammer and sickle icon of what was now the old Soviet Union. So potent politically when I was young. It was history now. Now it looked like ideological folly; up there on top of a block darkened by the sun failing to break through an unhealthy looking post holocaust sky of mottled clouds.

Words are inadequate to describe everything I found here so I’m ending our experience of Pripyat with a comment from the guide. He preferred this place to Kiev. I felt it was stretching a rural idyll opposed to a big city too far. But then I don’t live in this land.

Back out of this holocaust town, past the crossroads to catastrophe, past the gantries near the railway station towering over us like the giant insects of science fiction mutant monsters, past no. 4 reactor, cathedral of doom with its everyday workers, past where the sweeping women were engaged in what must be the most hopeless tidying up job ever! Back along the moat past the relics of unfinished reactors and forest of pylons and then back down the road through ‘The Zone’ to Chernobyl town. Where the telephone booths awaited one with their verdict, like a scientific judgement.

That brought it home to me. What would happen if the alarm sounded and would I live a normal life from then on?…………..

Clean.

Then there was a meal inside a workers cafeteria. One was advised against eating anything outside.
It was mostly salad. I hoped it hadn’t been grown locally.

Aisles of dark forest, huge plain sized fields and dodging potholes. That was the journey back to Kiev. Nothing else to report. Apart from one young lady waiting at what might have been a bus stop in the middle of nowhere on a mobile phone in a shiny designer brown suit who looked very cheerful. Jocelyn and I wondered what the story there was? ‘Professional’ perhaps?

To lighten the tedium of the rest of the journey here are a few Chernobyl jokes:

An old woman stands in the market with a “Chernobyl mushrooms for sale” sign. A man goes up to her and asks, “Hey, what are you doing? Who’s going to buy Chernobyl mushrooms?” And she tells him, “Why, lots of people. Some for their boss, others for their mother-in-law…”
A grandson asks his grandfather: “Grandpa, is it true that in 1986 there was an accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant?” “Yes, there was.” — answered the Grandpa and patted the grandson’s head. “Grandpa, is it true that it had absolutely no consequences?” “Yes, absolutely” — answered the Grandpa and patted the grandson’s second head. (Often added “And they strolled off together, wagging their tails”).
A Soviet newspaper reports: “Last night the Chernobyl Nuclear Powerstation fulfilled the Five Year Plan of heat energy generation in 4 microseconds.”
“Is it true, that you may eat meat from Chernobyl?” – “Yes, you may. But your feces would need to be buried in concrete 5 ft deep in the earth.”

In a village just north of Kiev we caught up with civilisation and rush hour traffic while cats eyed us from the top of a wall.

One aspect of civilisation in Kiev itself was cars being allowed to drive on the pavement, although slowly. We did this and then the driver left for awhile with the Canadian while Jocelyn and I waited in the car, despite our destination being just down the street.

Eventually it was goodbye to the driver too and back to the hotel.

Where I carried out my own decontamination procedure. Off and into bags with everything including the parka, a thorough shower for myself, put boots in shower clear of mat with soles facing other way from me, detach shower head and holding it close put it on maximum pressure to spray blast the boot soles while avoiding spray, do likewise with anything that comes off the soles washing anything that does down the hole, then lastly take bags and boots down to hotel washing and get the lot done! Yes, even and especially the boots.

It’s the only way to be sure. It made me feel better anyway.

© D. Angus 06 13

ILDING BLUES: Chernobyl in the Springtime.

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