Archive | December, 2010
December 21, 2010

POTD: I’m on a boat, on a boat in the OBX

Yeah, stupid joke. Just thought it was kind of amusing to see a boat being transported by boat. This is the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry down in the Outer Banks, which we took during our September 2010 trip to the Outer Banks.

December 20, 2010

POTD: Gloucester Cathedral

gloucester cathedral

gloucester cathedral

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’d appreciate this cathedral. The cloisters here were transformed into the halls of Hogwarts for several of the movies. Built in 1089, this is probably one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve seen, especially with a blanket of snow covering the grounds. I stopped in to the cathedral when I was visiting a longtime friend, Janet, who moved to Gloucester, England several years ago.

December 19, 2010

POTD: Overlooking Tbilisi at the Narikala Fortress

Narikala fortress

Narikala fortress

This is my friend, Laura, taking photos of Tbilisi from Narikala, a fortress established in the 4th century. It’s a steep climb up to the fortress (especially when you are, uh, hungover) but the view makes it worth it.

December 18, 2010

POTD: Pansanggi in Kaesong, North Korea

traditional Korean meal

traditional Korean meal

This is pansanggi, a traditional Korean meal that consist of several small bowls filled with kimchi, fish, and other assorted foods. Pansanggi was traditionally eaten by the Korean royalty, but we had an opportunity to try it at the Tongil restaurant in Kaesong, North Korea. I have previously posted about North Korean food here.

December 17, 2010

POTD: The largest stadium in the world

Rungrado May Day Stadium

Rungrado May Day Stadium

By capacity, anyways. This is the Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. It has a seating capacity of 150,000 and is primarily used for soccer matches and the infamous Arirang Festival Mass Games.

December 16, 2010

POTD: Colossi of Memnon

Colossi of Memnon

Colossi of Memnon

Located across the River Nile from the modern city of Luxor, the Colossi of Memnon were erected nearly 3,400 years ago in 1350 BC. They were carved from large blocks of quartzite sandstone that were transported (by slaves, no doubt) 420 miles overland from the quarry site to their present location. They originally stood guard at the entrance to Amenhotep’s memorial temple, of which little remains today. If you have an interest in ancient Egyptian history, there are many cheap holidays to Egypt that are available, especially if you are based in Western Europe.

December 15, 2010

FAQ: I want to tour Chernobyl. How do I get there?

Chernobyl nuclear power plant

Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, July 2007

Since the Ukrainian government recently announced that the exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl disaster site will be open for tours beginning in 2011, interest in touring the region has exploded (along with traffic to my blog). Media reports have been rather erroneous, however, as private companies have actually been leading tours of the exclusion zone for many years. I traveled there in 2007 and since then I have received a substantial number of emails from people who are interested in making the trip themselves. I’ve been meaning to put together a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page to address most of the common questions but have kept putting it off. Well, no longer…here is the list of frequently asked questions posed to me by readers, and my answers.

How did you get there?
As strange as it sounds, a Chernobyl tour was actually quite easy to arrange. We booked our tour through the travel agency SoloEast. You have to let them know ahead of time so that they can submit your details (i.e., passport number) to the Ukrainian government for clearance. Also, if you do this far enough ahead of time there is an opportunity for others interested in touring on that day to sign up for your tour, which will lower the cost. SoloEast will pick you up in Kiev and take you to Chernobyl, and then bring you back to Kiev. Yes, it’s really that easy.

Another option you might want to consider is taking one of the tours that is led by former Pripyat residents. I’d really like to visit Chernobyl again, and if I were to return to Ukraine, I would definitely look into doing this. You can find out tour dates and more info at chernobylzone.com.


Amusement park in Pripyat, a city of 50,000 abandoned shortly after the Chernobyl disaster

How much was the tour?
At the time we went, our tour cost approximately $115 per person. Prices have risen over the years, however. A solo tour will cost you $490, but if you round up a few others the price drops to $100-205 depending on the number of participants.


Soviet crest atop a Pripyat apartment building

Where do you go? What do you see?
Everywhere. A lot. You’ll visit the Memorial to the Liquidators who literally saved the world. You’ll visit Kopachi, a village so contaminated with radiation that the government bulldozed it and buried its remains. All that remains of it are mounds of dirt skewered by the occasional radiation sign. You’ll stand 100 meters from the infamous reactor #4, where the explosion occurred, and feed the giant catfish in the nearby cooling pond. The highlight of the tour is Pripyat, a city that 50,000 residents called home until they were evacuated following the explosion at reactor #4. Today, Pripyat remains as a Soviet city frozen in time, visited by curious tour groups, vandals, and looters. You’ll visit the graveyard of ships and a collection of vehicles that were used in the cleanup of Chernobyl. And then you will be provided with a hearty lunch back at the Chornobylinterinform office.

chernobyl ship graveyard

Where do you fly to?
Boryspil International Airport (KBP) in Kiev. If you go in the summer (I went in July 2007), like I did, roundtrip to Kiev from the USA will run about $1000+. If you’re coming from Europe, or going to Kiev in the winter, it will be substantially cheaper.

Where do you stay?
SoloEast now gives you the option of spending a night at a hotel within the exclusion zone area itself (it is primarily for visiting scientists and researchers) so you can ask them about that. But in general since tours are only for a day you will stay in Kiev, which is 2.5 hours from the zone. As for accommodation in Kiev, skip the overpriced hotels and rent an apartment. We used KievApts.com and rented a place in the city center near Independence Square. Can’t beat that location. KievApts will also arrange to pick you up at the airport if you’d like.

kiev apartment bedspread
You know you want to stay in an apartment that features this bedspread!

Is it safe to visit Chernobyl? Were there any protective measures?
Is it safe? Well, they say it is, and obviously it wasn’t a huge concern of mine, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone. One of my friends used to work in the nuclear industry and thought I was nuts for going there, though. There are a lot of rules you have to follow there and they go over them once you get to the zone (i.e, stick to the asphalt and don’t step on the radioactive moss). When you book your tour, SoloEast will advise you of the proper clothing and shoes to wear, but other than that, you won’t be walking around the zone in white suits. At the end of the tour, you’ll pass through a checkpoint that will scan you for any stray radioactive particles you might have picked up. Our group cleared the checkpoint with no problems, but if you don’t then you might be subject to a chemical shower.

radiation checkpoint near chernobyl
All clear

Was the tour in English?
Yep.

Do they speak English in Ukraine?
From my own experience, many of the younger Ukrainians spoke English. I speak horrible Russian and managed quite well over there, but I think you will be fine if you don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. Just think of it as an adventure. I would recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet if you are not already familiar with it because all street/metro signs in Kiev are in Cyrillic. It’s not that hard and will only take a few hours to master it. Trust me.

If you have any further questions that haven’t been addressed here, shoot me an e-mail or leave them in the comments section and I will answer them.

December 15, 2010

POTD: Manneken Pis sculpture in Brussels

Manneken Pis

Manneken Pis

This is one of Brussels’ most famous landmarks. No, I am not joking. Sometimes the locals dress this sculpture of a urinating little boy in funny costumes, but unfortunately it was costume-less on the day we visited. The statue dates from 1619, which is pretty impressive. The statue isn’t too far from the Grand Place…just follow the large crowds. Like most Western European destinations, flights to Brussels via RyanAir and EasyJet are quite cheap from London.

December 14, 2010

Shenandoah National Park & Skyline Drive

Every fall, thousands of Washingtonians hop in their cars and drive the two hours to Shenandoah National Park to view the colorful trees that envelope Skyline Drive, the 105 mile road that runs the entire length of the park. Most of these visitors rarely venture out of their cars, only stopping to snap the occasional photo, so the park’s trails remain relatively quiet. We arrived at the park one Saturday afternoon in October, and since we only had a few hours left until sunset, we settled on hiking the Snead Farm Trail, an easy 3.2 miles that loops through the forest and abandoned farmland. Below are some photos from the hike as well as Skyline Drive.


American pose ;)


The barn on Snead farm

More photos of Skyline Drive.

December 14, 2010

POTD: Chernobyl exclusion zone checkpoint

chernobyl exclusion zone checkpoint

chernobyl exclusion zone checkpoint

Yesterday, news outlets reported that you would be allowed to tour the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant beginning in 2011. I was a bit surprised by this, considering I had done just that in 2006. According to the Ukrainian government, however, the tour I went on was “illegal” and a “threat to my safety”. If that was the case then, I have to wonder how our bus got through Checkpoint “Dytyatky” (as seen in the above photo), the entrance to the 30km exclusion zone, which was staffed by Ukrainian soldiers who checked our passports against a list of names they had been given. That doesn’t sound too illegal to me…