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10 countries and 9000 km in a Dacia Duster – Part 2/7: Chernobyl, Ukraine

Wolodymyr the Dacia Duster with in the background the New Safe Confinement covering Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 building.

This is Part 2 of our Dacia Duster adventure through 10 countries and 9000 km around the Black Sea, you can read Part 1: the road to Transnistria here. We now leave the unrecognised country of Transnistria eastwards to cross the border into Ukraine, then heading north for 408 km / 250 mi to reach Kiev, the country’s capital. After that, it’s a further 135 km / 85 mi north to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone where I got to spend one of the most eye-opening, poignant and fascinating days of my life. Before we start, there are two important clarifications I want to make about this Part 2 of our Dacia Duster Test Drive. The entire Test Drive happened in September 2019 when COVID-19 travel restrictions were not in place. All mandatory legal and safety requirements were adhered to in order to be allowed to enter the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Never attempt to enter the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone by yourself and without a government-verified guide.

Wolodymyr and I are now in Ukraine.

Upon arriving at the no man’s land between Transnistria and Ukraine, I am asked whether I am a diplomat with a nod to the car. This will make all Duster die hards smile, as it is true that the front of the SUV, especially when spanking new and impeccably clean, can look impressive and expensive to the (untrained?) eye, as we slowly creep towards Central Europe. I sadly inform the border officer that I am not a VIP but despite that the border crossing is expressed, including a puzzled look at my French passport coupled with a surprised “You are coming to Ukraine for holiday??” I sure am my friend. Why a French citizen would want to drive into Ukraine with a Romania-plated car for a holiday does seem like an enigma to him, and this exact questioning will grow more and more suspicious as we progress into this expedition… Stay very tuned on that one. Like in Transnistria, all road signs in Ukraine are written in Cyrillic characters (see above) and despite a six-month attempt at learning Russian in my university years (1998), this doesn’t ring any bells and I can thank my English-speaking TomTom GPS for faithfully directing my to my Kiev hotel.

The Duster is a Renault in Ukraine. Renault (top) and Dacia (bottom) dashes.

Puzzled looks at my Duster may also be explained by the fact that Ukraine was the first market in the world to crown the 2nd generation Duster best-seller annually in 2018 for its first full year in market… but as a Renault. The Dacia brand is indeed unavailable in Ukraine, and as we recently described in our Renault failure in China analysis, the Duster is also sold in many countries with a Renault badge and some improvements to try and shed low-cost feels. You can see above that it only takes sexy-looking a/c vents to give the Renault Duster dash a much classier and more polished look. But from the outside, only the badges differ. An interesting observation is that even though it has been available in Ukraine since early 2018, the 2nd generation Duster still hasn’t reached Russian shores, neither at the time of the test drive (September 2019) nor when writing this article (May 2020). We’ll have another opportunity to compare the Renault and Dacia Duster aboard the cargo ship ferry taking us across the Black Sea, so stay tune for that one also…

Kiev

If in Moldova and Transnistria I had to pay two road tax “vignettes” only to drive onto badly unmaintained and barely sealed trails, in Ukraine the Odessa-Kiev highway is free and the speed limit is 130 km/h or 80mph. So in less time than it takes to write these lines (almost), we are now in Ukraine’s capital Kiev, population 2.9 million. During the first evening I got admire the gold and blue St Andrew’s Church and St Sophia’s Cathedral (nighttime photos above), but the Kiev highlight for me was the Caves monastery (Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra) pictured in all daytime photos above. The cluster of gold-domed churches rivals the Hermitage of St Petersburg which we visited almost 7 years ago now. For Orthodox pilgrims, the Caves monastery is the holiest ground in three East Slavic countries: Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, and the most intriguing feature of this monastery set on 28 hectares is the caves after which it is named, an underground labyrinth lined with mummified monks so dark you need a candle (sold at the entrance) or your mobile phone to see where you walk – it is pictured above on the bottom photo. Kiev’s centre has cobblestone streets that gives it a sophisticated atmosphere, and the Ukrainians and I are on the same wavelength – all my contacts speak perfect English, restaurant and hotel staff are all friendly and everything seems easygoing, standing distinctly apart from my Russian experience. It is in Kiev that I got to finally meet in person with BSCB’s contact for Ukrainian data, Igor, who has been providing us invaluable insights into the Ukrainian car market for the past 7 years. It is always a heart-warming experience to meet with the very people that make BSCB the site it is today.

Ukrainian car park: Renault Logan, Lada 2103, RAF 2203, ZAZ Tavria, Slavuta and Dana. Bottom two pictures by auto.ru and kolesa.ru

The Ukrainian car park is proving to be a very unique one. We’ve only been able to secure detailed Historical Sales data for this market since 2006, and driving around the country has given me a better insight into what were the best-sellers before then. Over the countryside south of Kiev as well as up north between Chernobyl, Chernihiv and the Belorussian border, the 1972 Lada 2103 sedan, 1978 Lada 2105 sedan and 1986 ZAZ Tavria are by far the most common, including a lot of Tavria sedans (1989 Slavuta) and a handful of station wagons (1994 Dana). The 2005 ZAZ Lanos, #1 for 6 consecutive years from 2006 to 2011 and 2006 ZAZ Sens (a Lanos twin), #1 in 2013, logically are still very frequent on Ukrainian roads, as well as the 2012 ZAZ Vida sedan, a rebadged Chevrolet Aveo. Finally, in Kiev I spotted a rare – but abandoned – 1976 RAF 2203 van (third picture from top above). RAF stands for Rīgas Autobusu Fabrika, a Latvian manufacturer, and the 2203 is also called Latvija and nicknamed Rafik. It was widely used throughout the USSR as fixed-run taxis aka Marshrutkas. A Soviet remnant right there.

Chernobyl HBO series, Chernobyl, Ukrainian and Belorussian Exclusion Zones, Radiation levels, 20.000 year-old pottery.

But the most significant Soviet remnant in this entire adventure is without a doubt Chernobyl. The worst nuclear disaster in history means the destroyed reactor site will be uninhabitable for at least 20.000 years. Let’s backtrack 20.000 years ago which is thought to be humans’ earliest pottery use, in Xianren Cave China (pictured above). Imagine if these guys did something so grave to the earth back then, that no one has been able to safely live in that area until… today. This is what humans have done in Chernobyl. I will answer the burning question I’m sure you all have: but is it safe to visit? The answer is yes, because you obviously aren’t allowed to visit the most contaminated areas (ie the destroyed reactor mentioned above). Contrary to the assumption that there is “toxic air” in the entire region, radiation can go from 100 to 1 in a matter of metres, so all areas open to the public have very low levels of radiation. In fact, even if you opt for a two-day tour of Chernobyl where you overnight in a hotel inside the Exclusion Zone, you will be exposed to a lower level of radiation than on a long-haul flight (see above). There are also many safety checks in place: you (and your car if you bring your own as I did) are subject to multiple radiation checks when entering and leaving both the outer and inner Exclusion Zones to ensure no one is above a safe level. No Chernobyl tourist has ever read above safe level. Still, before the day of your visit you are asked to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, no shorts, and are warned you cannot touch anything on the day. April 2020 fires in the region are one of the more dangerous situations as they tend to “unearth” ground radioactivity, and of course no tourists were allowed in during the time they were active. Lonely Planet describes Chernobyl as “one of dark tourism’s most sinister days out”. I completely disagree, and rather see it as essential tourism. The Giza Pyramids, Burj Khalifa or watching a rocket launch show us what humanity can do at its best. Auschwitz, Phnom Penh and Kigali show us what we are capable of at our worst, and in my view Chernobyl shows us what human error can do to the planet. All these places are pieces of the big puzzle of the human mark on earth, all necessary to understand and mould our future interactions with this planet.

Welcome to Chernobyl. Bottom: radiation spot on the ground (normal level is 0.15).

In we go. I organised this Chernobyl visit with Solo East Travel who have been providing tours to the area since 1999. A one-day Private Tour (9:30am-5pm) filled with visits, lunch and in-depth conversations with a dedicated professional guide cost me USD365. Money well spent if you ask me, plus it’s a lot cheaper if you are part of a group. I thoroughly recommend these guys as the visit was absolutely sensational. The evening before, when asking the hotel reception how long it takes to drive from Kiev to Chernobyl I got tense looks. The truth is there is still a lot of stigma and mistrust about the place among the Ukrainian population, which is understandable given the amount of cover-up that went on back in 1986. My guide Vika, whose father volunteered back in the day to help clean the nuclear disaster, confirms her parents were shocked when she told them she got a job as Chernobyl Tour Guide. But even though she was born long after the explosion, it’s important for her to tell the story of what happened here so that it is not forgotten. I couldn’t agree more. I did my homework and avidly watched the 2019 Chernobyl HBO miniseries a few months before visiting so I was ready with many questions. And even though the show was heavily criticised, by and large she says it is very close to what actually happened. The main scientific error of the series was implying that people were radioactive themselves and that (spoiler alert) a baby’s death was caused by the foetus absorbing radiation. In fact, once victims were showered and out of their contaminated clothing, they did not pose a danger of radiation exposure to others.

Driving around with our tracker and lunch with our dosimeter.

After exploring a few small abandoned villages with a small tracker in the car that enables the authorities to monitor all visitors to the site, we stop for a lunch break while keeping our dosimeter close-by. For those who are looking in horror at the above picture, no, the food isn’t grown inside the Exclusion Zone (that’s illegal) and it’s definitely not contaminated! So what actually happened at the fateful time of 01:23:45 on 26 April 1986? The accident occurred during a safety test on a nuclear reactor, which was a simulation of an electrical power outage to aid the development of a safety procedure. During its planned decrease, the reactor power unexpectedly dropped to a near-zero level, which put the reactor in an unstable condition but operators weren’t informed of the danger and continued the test. Upon test completion, the operators triggered a reactor shutdown which instead caused an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction: the reactor core ruptured in a highly destructive steam explosion, followed by an open-air reactor core fire that released considerable airborne radioactive contamination for about 9 days. It has been estimated that about 400 times more radioactive material was released from Chernobyl than by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Approximately 100.000 km2 (39.000 sq mi) of land was significantly contaminated with fallout, with the worst hit regions being in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Lower levels of contamination were detected over all of Europe.

Pripyat, including the famous amusement park and “before” shots.

As radiation rose rapidly in the surrounding area, a 10-km (6.2 mi) radius Exclusion Zone was created 36 hours after the accident, and the 49.000 inhabitants of Pripyat were evacuated on 27 April between 2pm and 3pm, being told to only take essentials as they would be allowed to return in 3 days. They never did. This means evacuation (quietly) began long before the accident was publicly acknowledged by the Soviet Union. In fact, it wasn’t until the morning of 28 April, or 54 hours after the accident, when radiation levels set off alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, 1.100km away, that the world learnt about it. The Exclusion Zone was later increased to a 30-km (19 mi) radius, covering an area of 2.600km2 (the size of Luxembourg), and has remained like so ever since, with a total of 163.000 people resettled. The Soviet government had big plans for Pripyat, with many more apartment blocks scheduled for construction on top of the existing 160 and a brand new amusement park which was to be inaugurated five days after the accident. It never saw any visitor, although several sources report that the park was hurriedly opened for a short time on 27 April to distract Pripyat residents from the unfolding disaster nearby, before the announcement to evacuate the city was made. The amusement park has become a symbol of the Chernobyl disaster, and visiting Pripyat is an unforgettable experience: nature has reclaimed its territory, with vegetation cracking the road pavement to grow uncontrollably. My guide Vika had a series of 1986 “before” photos to compare them to today’s views and in some locations you can’t even see the buildings as they are completely hidden by overflowing trees. What were we even doing here in the first place?

The Chernobyl New Safe Confinement and nuclear plant.

To reduce the spread of radioactive contamination from the wreckage, a protective sarcophagus was built by December 1986, but was only scheduled to last for 30 years. After part of a protective wall collapsed, it was further enclosed in 2017 by the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement, a larger dome-like enclosure that was built nearby and then railed in on top of the existing sarcophagus. It is designed to protect the area further from radiation, but also allow the reactor to be safely dismantled using remotely operated equipment. The removal of both the sarcophagus and the reactor debris, also called nuclear clean-up, is scheduled for completion by 2065. I was surprised to learn that almost 7.000 people are still working at the power plant to help decommission it. They are only allowed to work five hours a day for one month before taking 15 days of rest. And it turns out you can drive and park your car relatively close to the New Safe Confinement, as illustrated by the hero picture in this article and above. It’s probably here, more than in Pripyat, that the enormity of the disaster that occurred 33 years ago sank in for me. Apart from the odd security guard waving you in and some precise instructions from Vika not to photograph certain buildings, there is no sign of life here, but also no sign of danger. Radiation is invisible and after spending an entire day on site it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of complacency. Yet no one will be able to live in this exact spot for the next 20.000 years, and just as I kneel to find the right angle for a picture of the Duster on the road, Vika taps on my leg reminding me never to touch the floor, even with clothing. A stark reminder that sustained life here is just downright impossible.

The Russian Woodpecker and the ghost military town of Chernobyl-2.

We end this visit with the Chernobyl Duga-1 radar, more famously known as the Russian Woodpecker, including a sprawling abandoned secret military town and research facility with never-ending corridors (see above). The Duga-1 is one of three Soviet over-the-horizon radar stations, used from 1976 until the 1986 accident as part of the Soviet missile defence early-warning radar network. The Duga systems were extremely powerful and broadcast in the shortwave radio bands, sounding like a sharp, repetitive tapping noise at 10 Hz repetition rate, which led to it being nicknamed the Russian Woodpecker by shortwave listeners. The station and nearby military town Chernobyl-2 were founded in 1970, the same year as Pripyat, and held about 1.000 people. To keep the existence of this town a secret, civilians were barred from entering the 10-km road leading to the site and were told it was a youth holiday centre. It was named Chernobyl-2 so that kids of military personnel could still say they lived in Chernobyl without arousing suspicion. Duga-1 was the focus of the intriguing 2015 documentary film The Russian Woodpecker which I recommend. It features many interviews with high-ranking military personnel that were in charge of the station, and even captures the moment when the current Russian government pressured the crew to stop researching this sensitive subject. The film also proposes a wild conspiracy theory that the Chernobyl disaster was engineered to cover up failures in the radar’s design. Absolute nonsense according to my guide Vika.

Wolodymyr and I had to be checked for radiation in order to leave the site.

So how many people died as a result of the Chernobyl accident? This is still a highly controversial and disputed question. The official count by the Soviet government is 33, but likely much higher. A 2006 peer-reviewed paper in the International Journal of Cancer stated that by then, Chernobyl may have caused about 1.000 cases of thyroid cancer and 4.000 cases of other cancers in Europe. However, to me the most troubling element in this debate is that most fatalities linked with Chernobyl are likely to have come from an estimated excess of 150.000 elective abortions that may have been performed on otherwise healthy pregnancies across Europe in the weeks following the disaster out of fears of radiation. This is according to a 1987 article published by Linda E. Ketchum in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine, and even though there is no evidence of changes in the prevalence of human deformities/birth congenital anomalies that might be associated with the accident in Belarus or Ukraine, the two republics that had the highest exposure to fallout. It’s on this sobering note that we conclude this fascinating expedition as it is now time to exit the inner (10-km) and outer (30-km) Chernobyl Exclusion Zones, through multiple radiation checks for both myself and Wolodymyr the Dacia Duster.

We are both cleared to go on to the next adventure: Belarus!

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