Saturday, 22 November 2014

Cows cows everywhere

India a country of contrast. Rich and poor, splendor and slums. A glorious mix of ethnicities and peoples and languages.

Basically it is a melting pot.
Holy cow, Jaipur, Rajestan


A country that recently I had the delight to explore a small slice of that delicious cake that is India.
Apart from seeing the wonders of Jaipur and the majesty of Agra and the Taj Mahal along with the Holy sereneness of Varanasi the lasting image I will take home with me from my time there is..........cows!

Cows done alleyways, cows in the river, cows sitting nonplussed in the middle of a busy road and cows drinking from a restaurants washing bowl while a man cleans the dishes in the same water.

Cows are sacred to Hindus and wander freely roaming the streets, back alleys and generally plonking themselves down where they feel like it.


A cow just chilling in Agra's back streets
Sometimes more often than not blocking alleyways completely where you have to literally clamber over them to get past.

Some times a bull will sit looking at you as you try and squeeze by. In a moment you think he could swish his head and cause you some damage with those horns. Instead they simply sit and stare, have a little chew, contemplate defecating again and eventually wander off to block another even smaller alley.

I traveled to India in October 2014 with one of my oldest friends Alsitair Kerr. We had previously traveled to Kenya and Tanzania together and five long years later were embarking on another adventure. When he has a drink or five he does get a little touchy hence his nickname 'Captain touch'!

By the time we left India we were so used to cows that we would try and out cow spot each other.

Sitting on a balcony of a Delhi bar in Parahganj area we would look at the markets below. A crowded mass of humanity, rickshaws, cycle cabs and cars all beeping away. Stalls of colourful fruits lined the streets while tourist aimed stalls sold carvings and bright t shirts with Gandhi's image on them.

Excuse me. Cow blocks the way in Varanasi.
Sitting there we would play spot the cow. Because at first you may only see one or two standing quietly as the hustle and bustle went round them. But the deeper you looked you could always find six or seven or even more. They would be hidden, blending in or in the shadows.

The late Mahatma Ghandi said : "I worship it and I shall defend its worship against the whole world," and that, "The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection."He regarded her better than the earthly mother and called her "the mother to millions of Indian mankind."

In Hinduism, the cow is a symbol of wealth, strength, abundance, selfless giving and a full Earthly life.

The cow is so revered by Hindus that it played a part in the Indian rebellion of 1857. We know it as the Indian Mutiny. It all started when the Sepoy's (Indian soldiers) were given new powder bags for their muskets. These bags were ripped open using their teeth. Therefore they believed along with their fellow Islamic Sepoy's that the British were forcing them to brake their holy edicts of their religion as the papers were greased using cow and pig fat.

Cows are so revered that some are holier than others. Many are decorated and painted, especially using orange and blue.

Alistair and I while in the outskirts of Jaipur walked up a hill to visit the Sun temple. 

This temple is also known as the monkey temple because of the abundance of apes everywhere. Swinging from lampposts and trees and generally causing mayhem.  

They line the hill as you walk up. Many looking at you, others squeaking and an occasional few plucking fleas off others.

Once you have dodged the locals offering guide services it is a nice yet warm walk along a worn road.

This little walk that led winding up the hill that over looked the pink city of Jaipur would be the only place ever that I would see a wild monkey riding on the back of a pig. Not because anyone had put hi there, just because he wanted to!

I sadly couldn't get my camera out of my pocket quick enough to get a photo!
The sun temple overlooking Jaipur

Five legged cow en route to the Sun temple, Jaipur, Rajestan
Before we reached the temple where a small girl put a dollop of henna in the centre of my forehead we saw a decorated cow.

This cow was white and seemed to shine in the sun and had red ribbons wound round his horns with gold braid. He was tethered and just stood gazing over the city.

Further up the hill however I saw another first. This time in the form of a five legged cow

Low and behold a genuine cow with five legs was coming down the hill on a lead led by her owner. The fifth leg was protruding from further up the cows front left shoulder and was completely lifeless and limp. So much so that the hoof was pointed and unworn in anyway.

Obviously this cow was a little bit more sacred than others and was used as a means of income.

It didn't matter where you went in India cows were everywhere.

Alistair and myself wandered the streets of Jaipur one night in a vain search for a bar; (we eventually found one). On the way back Alistair literally bumped into one as it hunkered down for the night.

Until now our cow experiences had been not too close, that was until we arrived in Varanasi.

Alistair and a cow friend in Jaipur


The ancient Holy city of Varanasi is located on the banks of the Ganges river. The new town by the station is a mass of buildings and cars beeping horns. But the old town where we stayed is a maze of alleyways and arches and stairs leading to markets, temple and Ghats by the river.

This is where you at times had to breathe in to squeeze pasta cow blocking an alley. Mopeds were carried around the cows and Brahims would also squeeze by to try and undisturb them.

It didn't matter where you went you would step in cow poo and at some point would come face to face with a cow wandering in your direction.
On the banks of the Ganges cows would bathe in the waters and sift through the funeral pyres ash piles for food.

They were literally all over the city.

Only once did I see one agitated. All the other time they were a symbol of tranquility.

I can imagine being in India for years and returning to the UK to be perplexed by the lack of cows. 

The only mystery is how none ever seem to be hit by traffic when they decide that the main road is the best place to rest.

Indians simply avoid them with careless ease.

I will miss the hypnotic noise of their hooves on cobbled pavements going through a tunnel towards the Ganges.



Watch out for the horns as you try to pass


On the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi
 





Saturday, 1 November 2014

Transfixed by the flames




I sat in the fading light transfixed by what was happening in front of me.

My eyes must have shone with the reflective powers of the burning fires.


The heat from the blaze kept the flies away but not the stray dogs, goats and lumbering bony cows that wander past or deposit themselves on the ground haphazardly next to you.



What I was watching was a melting pot of emotions and reasoning. The fact of the matter was though that I could not turn my eyes from the fires or even contemplate leaving.

I sat on a concrete step next to a quizzical looking goat and stared into the flames.

These flames in particular were on the banks of the sacred Ganges River in the city of Varanasi.
Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh is the Holiest city on the Ganges and also possibly one of the most polluted.

Woman ready for the depth of the Ganges. Harishchandra Ghat
Once you are away from the city centre and the madness that are Indian roads you are struck by a relative serenity by the banks of the sacred river.

The Ganges flow along and every inch of the way stone steps lead down into its waters so that Hindu’s can perform a Puju where they rinse themselves and carry out early morning ablutions.




I on the other hand dipped a hand and feet into the waters as in many places it is riddled with excrement, rubbish and floating goats corpses. This however does not perturb many from drinking the waters as they are said to have healing powers.

The stone ghats look in places majestic, rustic and almost quintessentially like a piece of Victorian England with an added Eastern feel.

Manikarnika Ghat
However two Ghats stand out from the others. For one striking reason.

These are funeral Ghats. Harishchandra and Manikarnika Ghats are the two places in the city where bodies are cremated on the banks of the river 24 hours a day.

They are easy to spot with the constant stream of smoke rising and the gaggle of people milling around.








You at first cannot stand and watch without people claiming to own the place or work there and demanding money. After a while of stern ‘bugger offs’ you are left in peace and can sit with the locals and watch the funerals.

It may sound morbid and even disgusting to some but I was lost in the flames of death.

Manikarnika Ghat is the larger of the two with several funeral pyres burning all at once. This is exclusively for Hindu’s and is incredibly crowded with people, cows, dogs and boats galore.

Harishchandra Ghat is a little smaller and there you can sit without too much hassle and watch the proceedings.

What I learnt was interesting and eye opening on Indian culture.

Harishchandra Ghat is not only for Hindu’s but anyone who wants to be cremated here. Of course you have had to die in the city to be cremated here. Normally it is 7 hours after death that you are cremated.
Anyone can be cremated here publically unless you are one of the following:

A leprosy sufferer (you have suffered enough and are therefore pure)

·         A pregnant lady

·         A child

·         A Brahmin holy man

·         Died by a snake bite

These people are considered pure and are therefore not burnt.

They are wrapped in cloth, tied to a stone and taken out into the Ganges in front of the Ghat and dumped into the river.

Funeral pyres at night. Harichchandra Ghat
I watched as a woman wrapped in orange and gold was rowed out about 100 yards where she was tipped head first with a plop into the river. I also saw a small baby wrapped in white (white for males) then covered in red henna.

He was rowed out a little way where two children unceremoniously dropped him over the side. No prayers, no ritual, just another part of life.

I sat looking at the flames as five bodies burnt at the Harishchandra Ghat. My mind was blank as I soaked up the atmosphere like a sponge. 

I watched as bodies were carried out and placed on the pyres.



Before they are put on the pyre they are placed in the Ganges and given one last drink.

Then it’s on the pyre where logs are piled up high on top.

India has a caste system where you are born into your class. This can dictate what jobs and place in society you have.

Therefore the higher up the ladder you are the further from the river bank you are. If you are a Maharaja for example you can be cremated on a giant plinth that remained at this time empty.

One pyre was so close to the river that the little ripples lapped at the logs.

The one I sat directly looking at was further up and therefore this person was from a higher caste.

The man wrapped in white cloth was covered in logs and a fire was set underneath.

The twigs and kindling crackles and soon the fire had set hold.

I was mesmerised watching it. In a morbid fascination sort of way but also in a cultural understanding way.
I sat for ages watching as at first the cloth burnt away revealing a hollow face where the skin had melted. A skeletal arm fell from the fire and was soon prodded back by a stick and soon you heard a pop and guts fell from the side into the fire and instantly changed colour.

All the while the feet remained intact and unaffected. Protruding out of the pyre. As the body started to collapse into itself the feet became blistered and blackened and then disappeared into the flames.

All the while goats wandered and nibbled at rubbish and the embers of pyres that had burnt out.
People sifted through the ashes looking for gold teeth or jewellery.


Baby ready for his Ganges burial
The entire experience was emotionless. Only once did I see one can start to cry and we was swiftly taken away.

It is a part of life. One that may make people’s eye open wider and other hurry away from the scene.
But for me I felt I had seen a part of Indian culture and life that many people who pass through would never see.

I sat until the embers were black and the smoke from the other pyres hurt my eyes.


I left feeling peaceful and having a new perspective on mortality.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Pistol squatting all over the world

Pistol on Koh Nang Yuan, Thailand

Crossfit. I am obsessed. For me it is not a fad, it has become a calling and one that I love to pieces and wish I had discovered many years ago.
 
One of the most easily recognisable crossfit exercises is the pistol squat. A one legged squat with the other leg shooting out like a pistol's barrel. Hense the name!
 
Recognisable in almost any attire and even in silhouette. It is also an easy exercise to do while travelling as you need no equipment whatsoever.
 
I am not sure why but it seems to be a great one to take a photo of when you are overseas or in a random location.
 
This is what I have been doing over the past few months and finally have enough to write a little piece about it.
 
 

Festival of San Fermin pistol. Just after the bull run, Spain.
I am not too sure where I was when I did my first overseas pistol. But that one suddenly opened the flood gates and many photos followed.
After running with the Bulls in the Festival of San Fermin I managed to get a cheeky pistol in the arena just before a young steer was released. I was utterly buzzing by this point and am quite amazed I remembered at all to get this photo. It’s amazing how much adrenaline courses through your veins when you do something incredibly dangerous.

 


Riot battered and edgy Kiev was the next pistol location. What made this one harder was it was in jeans.
Pistol at Maidan Square, Kiev, Ukraine

Banners were draped over Maidan Square and the campsite or freedom fighters were noisily singing and chanting and smoking and generally looking menacing just in front of me.

However I managed to pull a pistol squat off at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant the next day.
In the background you can see the reactor number 4 hidden underneath its aging and crumbling sarcophagus and the new one being painfully slowly built.


Away from danger and places of dark tourism the pistols squats have come out at places of utter beauty.

Koh Tao in Thailand up the top of a hill overlooking the waves hit the rocky shore and also in front of one of the most beautiful mind blowing things I have ever seen. The Taj Mahal in Agra, India.
Pistol at Chernobyl powerplant, Ukraine. Reactor number 4 can be seen int he background

 

In India I may have become a little pistol carried away and got photos at Fatepur Sikri. The abandoned city, many are not sure why it was abandoned but Akbar the Magnificent who built it was rumoured to have 500 concubines!

A pistol was seen at the Holiest city on the River Ganges, Varanasi. Although It had to be done quickly before another person tried to sell me a boat trip.

Pistols even popped up in Delhi and at tombs.


Taj Mahal Pistol
The lesser known Humayun’s tomb in Delhi was one such place. A beautiful tomb which inspired the Taj Mahal.
Pistol outside Humayuns tomb, Delhi

After posing for that photo I turned round to look at the tomb. There standing maybe 200 meters from me was a guy with a long beard. We wore robes and a head scarf but was in a t shirt. He looked local but also traveller and I couldn’t tell where we was from. What made me look at him was he was busting out a couple of pistols and waving at me. Then he simply stopped and disappeared, so I will never know who the tomb pistol photo bomber ever was.

 

I look back at my travels and wish I had known this move so I could have done it at places such as Petra, the Serengeti, Victoria Falls, Stonehenge, Uluru, Table Mountain, Angkor Wat, and On the River Nile or in front of the Sphinx and the Pyramids.

Although maybe if I had would the novelty have worn off?Maybe it has and may I have pistol squatted the novelty photo to death. I recently went to Milan and didn’t do one there. So maybe I am all pistol squatted out?

Only time will tell.

In the meantime it back to crossfit……….
Pistol on the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi, India


Pistol at Fatepur Sikri abandoned city, Uttar Pradesh, India
 


Cheeky work pistol
 





















Monday, 20 October 2014

A monument to love

Can you imagine loving someone so much that grief inspired you to build something so monumental, timeless, beautiful and lasting.

Imagine if your grief inspired a wonder of the world.

Well the Taj Mahal is evidence that true love has existed in this world.


In 1631 third wife of Mughal Emperor Shan Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal passed away giving birth to her 14th child.

Her husband was so grief stricken that he was inspired to build a monument to true love.

This 240 foot tall monument took 20,000 people to build over a period of 21 years. It was a monument and mausoleum of love to his wife.

A dedication of love that would see him deposed from power.


Shan Jahan was obsessed with this monument and historians argue how much it would have costs all those years ago in today's money. Obviously it was a monumental amount which was one of the factors leading to the Shan being deposed by his son Aurangzeb.

Aurangzeb put the Shan basically under house arrest across the Yamuna river in the Agra Fort. There everyday he could view his monument to love and loss.

Looking at the Taj now from Agra Fort the view is ruined by roads, pollution and rubbish strewn on the floor. But back then it would have been a majestic sight without the honking of car horns.

Even now the car horns seem to dull a little when you look across at it. It really does look otherworldly from afar and as if it has somehow descended from the stars.

When the Shah finally died his son moved his body to the Taj and buried him beside his wife where love can be reunited after looking on her from afar for many years.


Today millions visit this world heritage site every year.

Hundreds queue for a bench where Diana Princess of Wales once sat while others try and pose with their finger looking like it is on the top of the dome.

We arrived at 5.30am, the darkness still covered the city of Agra. Dogs barked and the occasional cock crowed and cows sat sleepily on the road.

We managed to get there just in time and get to the front of the queue. At six am the sun rose and we were in.

It was relatively uncrowded and we walked to the main gates and walls that surround the Taj Mahal.

These obscure your view until you go through the large gateway.

There in front of you shining in the early morning light; as the mist is starting to burn off stands one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I have ever seen.

A monument to love and a shrine to beauty.

A sight that will live in my mind for many years to come.

The sounds of the bustling city beyond the walls fall away and birdsong fills your ears as you gaze open mouthed at what can only be described as a feast for the eyes.

My first thought was that it is much bigger than I ever thought. Much, much bigger. As I gazed for what seemed an eternity people started to file passe me so I knew it was time to get closer.

You can explore everywhere and I duly did. Every so often I would stand and stare taking it all in. It was as if I was basking in its beauty and refilling my batteries by absorbing the idyllic scene before me.


Its hard to imagine this amazing structure covered in protective scaffolding. This they did during the war and it is equally as hard to imagine the building process. It must have been on a monumental scale.

A truly epic scale.

Even when you think of the logistics about how they made it; it doesn't distract from how utter transfixed you are. You don't even notice you are breathing as you stare. Simply staring at the beauty in front of you.


I could have spent longer there as the sun rose and the heat intensified. But the tranquility is broken as you look behind you realising you have been there for two hours and the South gate entrance has opened. Hundreds upon hundreds of people pour through the gate.

There is only one thing for it. To retreat from the crowds and remember this monument to love as a peaceful and wondrous place.

That evening sipping a kingfisher beer on the roof of a bar looking out over the city and the Taj it was a fitting end to my stay in Agra.

The sun slowly retreated and the shadows swallowed up her white dome for the night.

I raised my bottle to her beauty and took a long cold sip of Indian Kingfisher beer.

Would I ever see this sight again I wondered and that is a thought that is still rattling around my brain.









Sunday, 5 October 2014

I bloody love Bangkok

 

 

Bangkok. The city that never sleeps; or even seems to rest at all.

 

 

 

A place where you can be excited, scared, amazed, surprised and party all night and not realise the sun has come up.
The sun raises its head over the skyscrapers and you feel its warmth caress your skin that is sticky and wet from the sweat that has accumulated during the night.

 

In your hand is a drink you have been sipping or a bucket full of Thai whiskey you have been stirring the ice with a straw.


The first time I visited was in 2007, then again in 2009. Not much had changed and it was still a hotbed of silliness, filth and fun.

 
Then five long years passed and I recently returned.

 

 

Oh Bangkok, how I have missed you and your hot sweaty embrace.

 

 

 

As soon as I arrived in the fabled backpacker Ghetto of Khoa San Road I knew I would have fun again.

 
Street raves, all night party’s huge stereos on the street right next to chilled out massages on the road. Places selling very strong buckets of Thai whiskey and Red Bull that pumps your heart up to level 11.


A warm smile crept across my sweaty face as I arrived after some island hopping with the little lady.

 

I arrived and immediately knew that I  would party and drink and be silly and shop, as everything here was dirt cheap and really good.
 
The t shirts seemed to fit like a glove and the vests were the same. Colour prints and fake sunglasses and even shoes were of great quality. I remember back in 2007 buying some fake levi jeans. They lasted for years until I out grew them in my old age!
 
Fake Haviana's flip flops are hard wearing and I still own a few pairs.
 
When arriving I literally travel with an almost empty bag and fill it wiht Bangkok goodies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting away from the mentalness of Khoa san road there is so much more to see.
 
Explore ina  tuk tuk and take in the sights. Or visit the famous  temples of Wat Arun and Wat Pho.

 

 

During previous visit I think I must have visited them all but really wanted to return to Wat Pho to see the beautiful golden giant reclining Buddha. His golden body shines in the light that creeps through the windows as he ascends in to Nirvana.
 
I stood staring at his mother of pearl feet and there is always soenthing appealing to me about a Buddha. His eyes seem to relax you and calms the soul. Msaybe that is why I have so many dotted around my house.
 
Bnagkok has so much to offer. If it is your first time take in the sights. If you have been there many times do your favourite things like sip a drinka nd watch the world go by.
 
BUt as this was probably the 7th or so time back in the Thai capital I wanted to experience soething new.
 
This I found in the form of a roof top pool and bar over lookign the city.
I could dip my feet in the cool waters and hear all the noises of life.
The beeps or taxis, the wooden clickign nises of carved frog sellers and the shouts of tuk tuk.
Also from this vantage point you can laugh more freely at sex tourists who prowl the street looking for trade!
I know its harsh to laugh at them but I just cant help it.
 
As I watched the sun set over the towering skyline of Bangkok I wondered if it is this city that I am in love with or the fact that this city for me is the gateway and entry point to Asia and another travellign experience?
 

 

 

 










Saturday, 4 October 2014

Mud, mud glorius mud!

The return of the muddy run season is upon us. Dirty, Dozen, Survival of the fittest, Rat Race, Spartan race, Nuclear races you name it there is a race for it.

I think I did my first one of these way back in 2007 or 2008. It was in Nottingham and the trend of these races was just beginning to start.

Splashing through rivers, crawling chest deep in  mud and under barbed wire is great fun and you can really push yourself.





The first ones I did ranged from 10 km to 12 miles and I always ended up running on my own after losing who ever I was running with or setting off by myself in the first place.

I enjoyed pushing myself and trying to get around in as fastest a possible time as I could.

Then one year came the Spartan beast at Brands hatch and I ran with four other people. We kept up with each other and really pushed ourselves. My competitive nature took hold and I wanted to finish higher and higher up the field.

I even did one such race with my hand heavily strapped and in a plastic bags I had broken fingers at the time. Ironically that race is still my highest finish!

Then one day a guy from my crossfit box suggested that we all enter a team into our local muddy race. Little did he know that that suggestion would start a trend.

For the first time in one of these races we ran together, every step of the way. I didn't run off like I have in the past and we each helped one another over and under obstacles and encouraged each other on. We did this with the intention of finishing as a team and not going for a time to beat.

The camaraderie and silliness was at breaking point and each one ran with smile.

I thought I wouldn't like running as a team and would want to tear off into the distance and better my time.

I was proved wrong as we ran together giggling and being silly all the way.

Any excess energy that I still had I spent launching into obstacles and muddy pits full of water. Splashing about and being silly.

Basically  was making a nuisance of my self. I am sure to the utter horror of most of the girls in our team.

To be honest if you run as a team chatting and laughing the entire experience is far more rewarding and much better. Yes time and podium places are important but enjoyment and fun and finishing with a smile on your face tops that.

Running as a team which is a mixture of all sorts of people is the best way forward and how I aim to continue running all of these.

Next up was the electro Dash and a music filled laser bean infested disco run! No mud this time but we had an even bigger obstacle to over come. Running drunk!

Long may these runs continue.......




Thursday, 25 September 2014

Returning to Koh Tao


Recently Koh Tao has been in the news for all the wrong reasons.
The brutal murder of the two young British backpackers shocked the world and sent repercussions through the Thai Tourist industry.
 
The Lotus bar on Sairee beach
This idyllic island known affectionately as Turtle Island should be famous for relaxing, beach parties and scuba diving. Not what has happened recently?
It is a terrible state of affairs and one where many suspects and theories and accusations have been thrown about. What we must remember is that two young people lost their lives on an adventure. This makes it more sad and poignant.
 
Koh Tao lies not far from her two larger sisters; the party island of Koh Phangan famous for her full moon parties and Koh Samui with its palm tree lined airport.
 

The first time I visited Thailand I went to her two bigger sister islands, sadly way back in 2007 I missed out on the little gem.
Then in 2009 I went back with friends and we hit that island hard. We had a brilliant time and stayed in a fantastic little bungalow on the beach.

The sea breeze rattled the windows and the rickety fan overhead jigged about at all angles.
 
We sat on the beach looking at the sun set sipping cool chang beers and occasionally patting a stray dog that would wander up.
 

The locals were fun and friendly and the other backpackers fantastic to be around.

Long tail boast bobbed on the sea and the rectangular famous palm trees twinkles with the lights from the lotus bar.

It was a place I swore to go back to. Koh Tao tourist site

 
Fast forward to 2014.
I was a little older, a little greyer but certainly not wiser and  I found myself standing on Sairee beach. Looking down at the giant bungalows, swimming pools, scuba centres and hotels and resorts.
Where was the Koh Tao that I had left behind? Where were the little bungalows that we once stayed? If it hadn’t been for the palm trees of such striking rectangular fame I wouldn’t have realised where I was. I stood with the cool se lapping at my feet looking at giant buildings that had somehow stolen the soul of this little Royal Thai Island.
 

Koh Tao was becoming like a lot of Thailand is sadly becoming. Fra too built up and commercial.
The spirit of backpacking still lived on however as the Lotus bar survives and still thrives.
People swim drunkenly out to the pontoon to have sex, drink, and vomit or go wild. Watching them while sipping what was possibly my 3rd Thai whiskey bucket I though how mild it was having just come from Koh Phangan.
 
Koh Phangan. A place I had experienced at the ages of 25, 27 and now 31. Each time it seems to have gotten wilder and more debauched.
 
Here on Sairee beach at 3am there was a younger more subtle crowd trying hard to have fun and be silly.
I looked on as the fire rope came out and then the flame throwers, spitting fire into the air.
By this time I thought to myself someone on Koh Phangan would have set themselves on fire. Not here though. Koh Tao is a little more laid back.
 
Koh Nang Yuan
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Koh Nang Yaun Island hasn’t changed at all. After getting a boat there and climbing to the top of the large rocks the view was exactly the same as it had been 5 years ago. At least this resort hadn’t changed much and still offered a relatively unspoilt view.
 
 
 
As I looked over to Koh Tao I saw that really the developments hadn’t touched the island. They were hugging the shore line and the few streets that ran behind them.
This island hadn’t changed as much as a little peninsula off the tip of Koh Phangan. In 2007 I went to Koh Ma island and there was a little bar that you could get an ice cold beer after walking along the causeway at low tide to get there.
I did that very walk not only a few days before and the island was a ruin. The bar was collapsed, the roof caved in. Debris strewn all over the grasses and the once nice benches were smashed and wrecked. What had happened here? Even the little bungalows had fallen in to disrepair and ruin.
With the commercialism and developments on Koh Tao there was one such new arrival that I could not resist.
While there I partook in one of my favourite past times.
Crossfit.
The KTC gang and little sweaty me
Forging elite fitness in paradise is Koh Tao Crossfit’s tag line and I joined them for the hottest WOD I had ever done.
 
When I left oh Tao for the second time on board the Lomprayah;  I gazed as she grew smaller and smaller.
When would I next see her I though? When will I return to this land of smiles.
 
I didn’t think nest time I would hear about her would be a tragic story on the news.








Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Chernobyl and Pripyat



The entrance to the 30 km exclusion zone

Why would anyone in their right mind want to spend 4 hours on a plane and then bus north up from Kiev towards the Belarus border.

Why would anyone risk being eaten in the heat by thousands of swarming mosquitos?

Why would anyone in the sweltering heat wear trousers and long sleeves?
 
Why would I do all of this and risk exposing myself to a dose of radiation?



Basically because I like to do things a little differently. For me a beach holiday is utterly boring and the epitome of dull.

Therefore when my mate Nick and I decided a trip to Ukraine and a visit to its most infamous sight was on the cards I could not refuse his invitation.

Welcome to Chernobyl!

Wearing long sleeves and long trousers to prevent any radioactive dust settling on your skin we travelling north on an organised  Kiev Chernobyl tour. Apparently this was the same company that Top Gear used.

The only way (legally) of getting into Chernobyl is by one of these such tours.

The illegally way which I only heard rumour about was a 40 km trek through the woods and a camp out. If you got caught you were fined and probably deported. Or as Nick put it 'put in a Russian gulag and beaten'.

Reading the leaflet on Chernobyl safety I had done all it asked. Closed toed shoes, long sleeves and trousers and no touching anything.

For the entire trip I was conscious not to touch anything. Then when I got back I realised that I had causally lent against a bridge when we fed the giant cat fish!



So here we were at the first checkpoint to enter the 30 km restriction zone. Passports ready to show the border/security guards.

On 26th April 1986 reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded while a test was being carried out.

That test was to see that if by doing some very complicated nuclear scientific process they could gain more energy. This of course went spectacularly wrong.

Human error and a poor Soviet safety record resulted in the automatic safety measure being turned off and explosions in the plant leaving the radioactive core open to the  elements.

In the aftermath a cloud of highly radioactive dust spread across Europe.

The Soviets at first denied anything had happened and it wasn’t until Sweden noticed radioactive measures going through the roof that the alarm was raised and the Russians went public.

The battle for Chernobyl had begun.


The battle for Chernobyl resulted in a 500,000 man assault on the plant to render it 'safe'. In the end thousands lost their lives including the firefighters who were the first on hand. Running in to a fire with little protection. Some were irradiated so badly that they died hours later, some even had brown eyes turn blue with the radiation.

The effects of the disaster didn’t just stop there. Thousands were born with birth defects and thousands more still suffer today.
The area around Chernobyl remains uninhabitable from 800 to 20,000 years due to the radiation. Although that hasn’t stop re-settlers returning to this cordoned off land.


In the end a giant sarcophagus was built over the plant to contain the threat. This has a 25-30 year lifespan.
Geiger counter outside (270 meters away) reactor number four

 Tour Kiev Chernobyl tour.




A rather nervous smile




















The battle for Chernobyl . For the full documentary with all the information which I highly recommend watching click this link.



When Nick and I visited in June 2014 that was over 28 years later.
Next to the plant is a giant construction site that consists of the new containment project that is scarily running behind schedule.
Imagine one of the most deadly things on earth that could have wiped out Europe if the secondary explosion had not been avoided and you are running behind schedule.
This is a job that all countries should unite together for and help out.
The giant unfinished dome glinting in the sun will one day cover the entire plant. To see it is to believe it. It is monumentally enormous!

Having passed the first checkpoint we headed down the deserted road towards Chernobyl. On the side of the roads where thick threes. Diseased trees with occasional clearings where you could see the remains of a derelict farm house. For this was a huge farming community.


The memorial to the 28 Firefighters who lost their lives at Chernobyl.
This is outside the 300 strong manned fire station in the exclusion zone.

In total 186 towns and settlings were evacuated after the blast and many bull dozed to the ground. Some have the odd building rotting away but many are full ghost towns that have succumbed to the elements and time.

As we drove further into the 30km zone an elderly lady stood by the side of the road.






'A re-settler' Boris our driver and guide said. (his name was Nicolai, but all Ukrainians were known a Boris to us) He explained he would have picked her up but there was no room, there was but he hurtled past as she thumbed for a lift.

Imagine being forced to leave everything you could not carry and leave for home forever.

No wonder the older generation have said a big collective no and have come back.
Welcome to Chernobyl the sign says

The memorial to the 28 Firefighetrs who lost their lives at Chernobyl.
This is outside the 300 strong manned fire station in the exclusion zone.







Imagine being forced to leave everything you could not carry and leave for home forever.
No wonder the older generation have said a big collective no and have come back.


Reactor number 4

Here we were now, the ten kilometer exclusion zone.

On our bus was the only other Brit who we encountered on our trip to Ukraine and he seemed nervous. But not as nervous as this Swiss guy who we christened John. He was bricking it. He was so scared at everything. He grasped Boris’ geiger counter and was terrified when I beeped faster and faster.





Pripyat
One of the nine Atomic cities built to house the workers of Chernobyl!

It was built in 1970 and abandoned in 1986. 16 years of live, families and laughter all gone. This leaves a ghost city open to the elements that has been used in computer games and many music videos.

I wandered around looking at the buildings, crumbling concrete structures still with communist propaganda on the walls.
The famous Ferris wheel and bumper cars stood still with the wind rustling through them. It was eerily quiet as all you could hear was the wind and the leaves rustling on the trees.

Once upon a time families would have been having fun days out here and now it is dark tourism that brings people to stare in the face of what could have destroyed Europe.

We explored abandoned schools with work still on the walls and books with Lenin's face strewn over the floor.

Bunsen burners still stood on the desks an gas masks littered the floor in case of a Cold War American attacks.

Pripyat,built 1970 evacuated 1986
The abandoned sports hall and swimming pool had the outside world creeping in.

Trees had taken root and branches came through where glass windows once were. The diving board looked lonely and seemed really out of place.

One thing I did notice was that looting had been strife. Even taps were gone and any marble wall furnishings or even decent furniture and metals had been plundered a long time ago. Where money can be made people will take risks I suppose.


After seeing utter isolation in a city that the woods has reclaimed we boarded Boris' bus and headed to the reactor number four.

The aging sarcophagus looked haggard and worn and the new one looked half built and in need of a hurry up.
The geiger counter went berserk and I noticed as I stood at a monument to the battle of Chernobyl that many workers were still here.

I looked at reactor number 4 and though how close we all came to oblivion. All of this was in my life time and I was 4 years old at the time.


Naturally we couldn't spend too long there and after a few photos and staring intently at the reactor it was time to explore some more.

When we returned to Kiev and the random normality of having a tented city in the main square it was time for reflection.

Sipping a beer from a road side bar I looked back on the derelict buildings and the lives people were torn away from.

Chernobyl is much more of a disaster than you would expect. Not only was it the environmental impact but the impact on lives and health. An impact that continues to this day and will continue if they do not hurry up and cover over that leaking ageing sarcophagus.

I would recommend you go to see it. It  will leave a mark on you forever.






Abandoned books litter the floor in the school

Famous image of the abandoned ferris wheel

Threes grow through the smashed windows of the pool
Once this doll made a child smile

Communist propaganda ready for the May 1986 celebrations

Gas masks litter the floor of this class room.
They were in anticiparion of an American cold war attack

Going through the radiation detector. These mashines were ancient

Bunper cars left to rot. All had been scavenged for their motors

Nick takes a photo in an abandoned sports hall

Once you could stay at the Pripyat hotel



The unfinished new confinement project

Abandoned cooling tower

This photo shows the size of the new confinement project


Memorial next to reactor number four