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.
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.

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

My first bull fight

Bull fighting, is it a sport or is it a tragedy acted out through stages from entrance to exit and ultimately death?
Hemingway said “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honour".
After four years of visiting Pamplona and seeing the festival of San Fermin first hand which culminates each day at 8am with the infamous running of the bulls; I decided it was time to see a bull fight for myself.
I wanted to see how I would feel seeing an animal die in front of cheering thousands. I wanted to know how I would react. Would I see it as a sport, an art or even a pantomime?
We entered the famous Bull ring in the centre of Pamplona on the 7th of July. That morning we had already run with the bulls and been in that very ring dodging steers with taped horns.
Our seats were the very last ones, row z with our backs to the wall. However the view was stunning and you could see everything.
Then it started. Not one but six bull fights which all culminated with everyone invading the bull ring in the end and many clutching the blood stained sand.
The music blares and everyone cheers, flags and neckerchiefs are waved and the sun shines down on each person who looks fantastic all in white.
The procession enters, armoured horses, people on foot and the colours on display are dazzling. This is all sounded by the blast of a trumpet.
The three stages are:
Stage 1 - Tercio de Varas ("third of lances")
The bull enters the ring and is tested by the matador and banderilleros.
Next, two picadores enter the arena armed with a long lance or varas and mounted on large heavily padded and blindfolded horses.
The bull sees these horses and makes a massive charge at them. The poor horse suddenly jolts as the bull blows in to the padding, the picadore simply moves his legs out of the way and slams a lance into the bulls back to weaken it. The picadore stabs at a mound of muscle behind the bulls neck.
At the time the matador, the star of the show is observing the bull and seeing what the bulls caging preferences are and he starts to make a game plan as it were.
The bull should in effect be weakened by the exertion of charging and lifting the horse and the lance. This will make the bull have a lower charging position as its neck is weakened.
I watched as the bull charges full throttle into the unsuspecting horse which judders violently before a lance is plunged into the bull.
The crowd cheers and cerveza sellers come up to us to offer cheap local beers.
The atmosphere is one of jubilation and not a single protest can be seen.
In my previous years in Pamplona I have seen many animal cruelty protests but not this year. Not a single one was I able to spot.
Stage 2 - Tercio de banderillas (“third of flags”)
This stage the three banderilleros each attempt to plant two banderillas, Which is a sharp stick, into the bull's shoulders.
This will weaken the bull but it also angers it and makes the charges more furious. You can see the bull trying to decide which banderillos to charge. Soon the blood starts to pour down the bulls shoulders.
Stage 3 - Tercio de Muerte ("third of death")
The matador enters looking resplendent in his shining attire. We saw some in white, some blue, some pink and many variation of clashing colours. He enters strutting jaw thrusting out into the sky and  a look of arrogance on his face.
His cocksure manliness and arrogance can be seen by all but at the same time he struts and doesn’t walk. Bull fighting is incredibly manly and masculine and ridiculously brave, but it is also incredibly camp. The costumes and the strutting and the hand gestures are so dramatic and thespian that it adds an air of showmanship and pantomime to the whole experience.
The red cape which the matador carries is called a Muleta and it is carried over a wooden stick or a dowel.
What I didn’t realise is that from the moment the matador is first charged by the bloodied, angry and weakened bull he has only 15 minutes to kill it.
If he does not successfully kill it or cleanly kill it the crowd whistle their discontent.
This happened on more than one occasion as the bull finally collapsed but was still sitting up right. Soon a knife was smashed repeatedly into the dying bulls skull until its massive bulky frame lay motionless bleeding out onto the sand ready to be pulled away by the team of horses.
After a series of passes where the matador agile and nimbly darts away from the horns in an effortless motion he gets ready to kill the tiring bull.
The horns whistle by his body as he in one swift motion seems to swerve through time and effortlessly receives a huge cheer and applause from the crowd.
The bull is lumbering and tiring from blood loss, the crowd sense a kill and the matador draws his sword.
His sword is called a estocada and to end the esctocada the sword is thrust between the shoulders of the bull and severing the spine and ultimately the aim is through the heart.
While we sat here open mouthed thinking what we were seeing was art yet brutal art the faena which is the entire 15 minutes to kill process ended roughly and the crowd whistled and booed.
One matador did it with one blow. The sword was thrust as he leapt into the air as the bull charged and it came down slicing through the bulls shoulders.
The bull staggered and in one breath hit the sand with a thud. Other attempts were not as successful as the bull seemed to carry on and the matador had to have another go to the annoyance of the crowd.
To the Spanish this is more than a sport; it is a part of their lives, culture, heritage and soul.
One matador was the epitome of a showman. The bull was tired, panting heavily and bleeding profusely. He looked beaten, his horns aimed down. The matador walked up to  the bull and in a display of arrogance, bravery, showmanship and art slapped his chest with his fist, raised his palm to the bull and turned his back on it and strutted off.
The bull tired just stared at him and didn’t move. The matador; a good matador knew the bull wouldn’t charge, he was too tired and that he was defeated.
The unsuccessful kill with the sword leads to a thing called a descabell. This is where the sword is used to sever the spine rather than piece the heart.
If the bull is still going then the dagger to the head which we brutally saw is called puntillero.
The last of the bulls lay motionless on the sand, blood seeping from his wounds. The team of horses attached ropes and unceremoniously drags him out. His life over, bred to run and fight, bred not for entertainment but for a battle between man and animal and a battle where so many times pictures of matadors coming second best have been seen but wasn’t seen today.
Today the bull ring at Pamplona exploded in cheers, applause and singing. People climbed down over the seats and threw the seat covers into the air as they invaded the ring. They ran and cheered and were joined by brass bands from the seats. The scene was of pure celebration.
The Spanish don’t hate bulls and don't fight them for torture. A bull’s death should be with honour and quick. That’s why the whistles sound if a death is slow and clumsy. They regard the animals with admiration and the local papers are full of pictures of the bulls with their vital statistics.
They regard the bulls with honour.
While we were there the bull was paraded around the ring twice or three times and I later learnt that this meant that bull was a good fight and the dignitaries were impressed with it.
The crowds were surging forward and we joined them in the ring. The scene wasn’t chaos but fun, people were chatting and laughing and you suddenly forget that you just saw six bulls die.
It is strange to watch it and I have to be honest and say that even though I am an animal lover I enjoyed the whole experience. The pomp and splendour and the utter camp heroic machismo of the event was stunning.
You forget that you have seen death and drank several beers throughout because they are so cheap, you forget you need the toilet; you just are in the moment.
You are in the ring dancing with people you have never met before chatting to your new Australian friends who you only met on the bus over and are at the same camp site.
The bull fight was an experience, one I will never forget and with the way the world is going may soon be a thing of the past. Therefore I am glad I have seen, no not seen one;  experienced one.
Because the experience is not like anything else at all.