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No Holiday: Chernobyl, Ukraine
Travel back in time to a concrete memorial to the heroic dreams of the USSR
How to get there
According to the London Daily Telegraph, Chernobyl has become "an unlikely tourist destination." But why so unlikely? After all, as the home of the world's worst nuclear disaster, surely it deserves a visit.
And these days, visitors have ready access. Scheduled flights to the capital of the Ukraine can be combined with competitively priced $190 packages specially tailored to visiting the infamous reactor.
What to see
Travel companies in Kiev line up to take day-trippers on guided tours around the Chernobyl power plant and its poisonous environs.
One typical tour offers to let you "Experience the peace and quiet of the ghost-town Prypyat" (where "all 47,500 inhabitants had to abandon their homes the day after the accident"!) "Explore the deserted apartment blocks, schools, hotels, kinder gardens [sic]."
This is followed by lunch. We are reassured that "the quality of food is guaranteed" though its radioactivity levels are not. In the afternoon, a briefing is conducted by a specialist of a governmental agency to provide you with "answers to your questions about the current ecological situation and the future of the exclusion zone."
Lucky tourists, armed with Geiger counters, can even find their way into the radiation zone, where they will be shown family homes, abandoned "Pompeii-style" (the unfortunate Roman City buried in poisonous ash after the eruption of Vesuvius) and unchanged since they were evacuated at a few minutes' notice.
The zone is also a strange time capsule of the vanished Soviet era. A bust of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin still greets the travelers at the plant's entrance. Prypyat, once the area's largest city, is now a ghost town whose melancholy concrete apartment blocks, still bedecked with uplifting communist slogans, offer pitiful reminders of the desperate evacuation. In an abandoned playground, a motionless Ferris wheel waits forever for the children to return. Family photographs, upturned furniture, shoes, clothes and other belongings lie where they fell as the shroud of plutonium settled over the city.
Clutching their radiation badges ever more earnestly, tourists can also see a graveyard of vehicles used in the heroic attempts to seal the broken reactor—hundreds of trucks, helicopters and armored personnel vehicles which, boast the brochures, are "so soaked with radiation that it is dangerous to approach too close."
For naturalists, there are also some interesting botanical effects, in the inaccurately named "dead zone" or exclusion area around the ruined power station. In fact, wildlife has flourished since the local population fled. Nowadays the forests are rich in berries, mushrooms and animals, including some exotic varieties like the special Przhevalsky horses, brought in to eat the lush (and highly radioactive) grass. [??] But the high point of the trip is the specially constructed viewing platform overlooking the concrete sarcophagus that encloses the remains of Chernobyl's Reactor Four ...
Ominously, debris stacked against the inside of the existing shell's southern wall is slowly shifting and fissures are spreading across its surface.
The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26, 1986 when a powerful explosion destroyed the reactor, expelling a huge plume of radioactive dust that drifted across Europe.
Firefighters who fought the blaze were quickly killed by massive doses of radiation, and thousands of civilians are thought to have since died from radiation-induced cancers. About 200 tons of concrete and other debris mixed with nuclear fuel are still trapped under the hastily constructed concrete shell. In a comical attempt at security, areas of high radioactivity are marked off with triangular yellow signs.
Tour guides say that there is no health risk from taking the trips. Indeed, about 600 people have returned to live inside the dead zone, including Maria Dika, a security guard at Reactor Four on the night of the disaster, who had to have three months of treatment for acute radiation sickness. Now she reassures visitors that there are "no health problems. The radiation has got used to us."
Even if eighty-five percent of the children in Belarus are born unhealthy, as governments know very well, links between radiation and illness are hard to prove, as few studies are conclusive. Illnesses induced by radiation exposure have a long latency period.
By Eastern European standards, the site is safe. By Western standards, the trip is probably more suitable for senior citizens who can benefit from the typically long latency period for aftereffects of radiation.CHAPTER 2
No Holiday: The Aral Sea, Uzbekistan
Sunbathe on the extensive shores of the world's fastest shrinking sea
How to get there
Fly to Tashkent and catch a daily train to Nukus. Moynaq itself is 130 miles (210 kilometers) north of Nukus; occasionally buses run between the two, otherwise it's a taxi ride. Don't try walking as the temperature can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit (54 degrees Celsius).
What to see
Moynaq is one of the two major fishing ports of the Aral Sea, which was the world's fourth largest lake up until the 1970s. Today though, the waters are much further away, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) distant. Although, to be more positive, that means there's plenty of beach. The rusted hulks of its fishing boats—once floating at anchor there—now lie on their sides, stranded in a sandy graveyard far from the shoreline. For tourists, they serve as monuments to one of the worst man-made environmental disasters.
Only some 2,000 or so people remain in the once thriving port, faces wrinkled up against the sand, salt and dust storms (all bearing toxic residues) that are another of its legacies.
Uzbekistan is mostly comprised of steppe and desert. The exception is the river delta where the Amu Darya, Central Asia's greatest waterway, empties into what remains of the Aral Sea. The richest farmland is to the east. It is nestled in the valleys of the mountains from which descend the life-giving waters, and in the alluvial flood plains at their base.
However, the United Nations predicts that the Aral Sea will disappear completely by about 2020. The only good thing (for No Holidaymakers) is that while the sea shrinks, it Is leaving behind a toxic desert and—at its center, like the jewel in the crown—lies Vozrozhdeniye, site of a former Soviet germ warfare center and waste dump. [??] Now this formerly isolated island is reconnected to the world by a land bridge ...
The Soviets used Vozrozhdeniye Island as an open-air test site for biological weapons, including anthrax, plague, tularemia and smallpox. Additionally, large quantities of spores, partially decontaminated with bleach, were buried in pits on the island in 1988.
You can still see the facility today, covered in telephone poles spaced one kilometer apart. Sensors used to measure agent concentration were placed on the poles, which were also used to tether test animals including monkeys, horses, sheep and donkeys. The animals were then incinerated and their ashes are buried in the Voz Island cemetery. No memorial.
One intriguing scenario envisions the island's rats becoming infected with a strain of plague bacteria and, now that the waters have receded, scampering towards the mainland. Mysteriously, in 1988, almost 500,000 antelope died on the nearby Turgay steppes in a matter of hours.
The Aral Sea became geologically separated from the Caspian Sea sometime after the last Ice Age. Arabic geographers refer to it as early as the 10th century as the Khwarazm Sea. In the 17th century Russian travelers reached it and called it the Blue Sea.
Funnily enough, the Aral Sea's dissipation can be traced back to the US. This is because prior to the American Civil War, the US exported much of its cotton production to Russia; but the war stopped all shipments, forcing the Czar to look elsewhere. His solution was to divert the rivers of Uzbekistan for cotton production. The Soviets went even further, ensuring that today no water at all gets to the Aral Sea and since the early 1960s the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers have been used for large-scale irrigation, causing a drop in the flow of freshwater into the sea. Programs put in place in the Soviet era are still wreaking havoc on the country. As a result, the sea has dwindled to a quarter of its original area, the fishing industry has been destroyed, there are four times as many rainless days as there were in the 1950s and the salination of soil and water as well as chemical residues from cotton farming have caused widespread health problems in the population. An estimated 75 million tons of salts and toxic dusts have been spread across Central Asia, according to France-based medical aid group Doctors Without Borders.
In 1997, the local government in the town of Aralsk took matters into its own hands. It deployed residents and earth-moving equipment to scoop sand from the seabed and build a dike 12 miles (20 km) long and 85 feet (25 m) wide between the two lakes.
Protected from the larger, contaminated body, the smaller lake's shoreline began to stretch again toward the ships' cemetery. Birds reappeared, including gulls, swans, and pheasants. Danish scientists analyzed fresh fish from its waters and declared them clean enough to eat.
Some risk of airborne particles poisoning you. Little risk of drowning.CHAPTER 3
No Holiday: Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan
Deep in the Central Asian Steppe, perhaps the most heavily bombed spot on earth
How to get there
After seeing what's left of the Aral Sea, in the West of Kazakhstan, the No Holidaymaker will be eager to continue by taxi or rental car to the remote town of Kurchatov, once so secret it was not even on the maps. The explanation for that is nearby: the Semipalatinsk Test Site, where Stalin tested his first nuclear bomb.
What to see
And he liked it so much that he tried out another four hundred or so more on that same spot, making the Semipalatinsk test range one of the most radioactive spots on earth. Even so, there are no fences or warning signs announcing that you have arrived. The windswept grasses of the steppe look much the same, if amongst them are ruined concrete bunkers and twisted remains of observation towers. It is only at closer inspection that the melted rock can be seen to have been splashed here and there onto the steel and concrete, where it cooled, forming a dark lacquer. [??] And don't miss the unusual rock collection: marble-sized balls of soil turned into glass, which crunch underfoot.
As part of the experiments, tanks, aircraft and artillery pieces were bombed. The highly radioactive remnants were never cleaned up. Yet now they have disappeared, adopting a new life innocuously (but lethally) as scrap metal. Likewise, cattle and sheep are free to roam the radioactive plains, and the meat and milk find their way to the local markets.
The land itself is "still hot" and even reckless visitors should take a Geiger counter and avoid touching any rocks.CHAPTER 4
No Holiday: Tora Bora, Afghanistan
Travel by mule train to hideouts high in the mountains of Tora Bora
How to get there
Fly to Kabul and charter a horse and cart to take you into the mountains. (Clear the better part of a year for this endeavor.) Tora Bora, or "land of black dust," is one of many hideouts tucked away between jagged peaks perennially covered in snow and ice. Strategically located between two mountain ridges in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan, southeast of Kabul and southwest of Jalalabad, near the Pakistan border, it is only reachable by mule train.
The Tora Bora complex was originally built by extending natural caves, with the assistance of the CIA in the early 1980s. After the destruction of the World Trade Center, it became famous in newspapers as the supposed center of a global terrorist network—al-Qaeda. Diagrams of the caves were printed showing hotel-like corridors capable of sheltering more than 1,000 soldiers, equipped (unlike the rest of Afghanistan) with food, water and electricity. It also supposedly contained a large cache of ammunition, such as anti-aircraft missiles left over from the 1980s. The tunnels were said to be miles long, with exits over the border in Pakistan.
These caves are Osama Bin Laden's last known whereabouts.
What to see
The battle of Tora Bora took place in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan in late November and early December of 2001. Kabul had just fallen and a thousand or more al-Qaeda leaders were thought to have fled to Tora Bora, and to be "holed up" (as the US President liked to put it) in the mountains' vast network of caves.
Alas, none of the cave entrances visible today lead to the vast, underground complexes bin Laden was said to have resided in. Although a sniper's post on the ridge above might have commanded a field of fire of from two to three miles (3-4 km), these caves really are just caves. At best, perhaps they are where Mujahideen fighters sheltered or kept ammunition.
Anyway, American planes have been along and dropped scores of bombs, creating strings of craters [??] in the terrain as well as killing, according to the newspapers, hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters. Today however, the caves themselves appear to be largely untouched by all those air strikes, other than some rocky debris over the entrances.
Excerpted from No Holiday by Martin Cohen. Copyright © 2006 Martin Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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