Off the Beaten Track

24 Sep

Tomohiro Harada

1) Zone of Alienation: The city of Prypiat in UKRAINE

In 2008, I visited a ghost city of Prypiat. It was a thriving city in northern Ukraine until Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster turned it into one of the largest ghost towns in the world. Now it is in the Zone of Alienation, where it is still radio-active and nobody can therefore live there… Very creepy experience, although it is indeed a forgotten town…

The tour group all met on Maidan Nazalezhnosti (Independence Square) where we met our tour guide, who strangely had one of his eyes missing. It was just me, an Irish guy, an American guy and a German guy. We went out, joking about imagining how we might come back with a super-power, but when we passed the first checkpoint before the zone of alienation, our smiles had worn off. Every minute from here, the Geiger counter increased its rate of the beep… Assuming that a Soviet-made Geiger doesn’t lie, we weren’t far from dangerous levels of radiation.

When we got to the checkpoint where we were explicitly explained about what to do and not to do (like don’t touch plants), we were taken to a machine that looked like weighing scales, but with handles attached to the both sides. On the monitor, there were three lights: green, red and yellow. People, after visiting the zone of alienation, are obliged to get on this scale with both hands on the handle to measure radioactivity on their body. Green is normal, yellow is try again, and red is a ‘no no,’ when your shoes will be taken away and disposed, along with other nuclear wastes. It happens once a week, the tour guide said…

Then we were driven further into the zone of alienation, passing a forest dyed in red, covered by radioactive moss. Geiger Counter was screaming, but we absolutely ignored the numbers… We had to trust the guide who kept saying: it’s ok.

We then reached the nuclear reactor where everything had started. From the 100m radius, we stared at this giant metal scrap that killed and affected people as far as in Sweden. From here, every step towards the reactor meant a significant increase in Geiger count. We were told to go no further.

Prypiat is a town which lies couple of kilometres from the nuclear reactor. Of course, only few souls survived and are able to tell us their experiences, but they don’t live here. It’s a ghost town: population zero. What makes this place so surreal is the modernity of the communist architectures. We were able to go into an abandoned hotel where we climbed up few staircases and see the overview of the town, which once thrived with people then became radioactive and then now, a ghost town. Every window was smashed, beds turned upside down, rust, cracks, grass…. Being surrounded by the forest, I felt that nature was closing in very fast.

2) Nykoping, SWEDEN

In the heart of Soedermanland, one hour south of Stockholm lays a small town, where I sometimes spend my vacation, irrespective of seasons. It is indeed a forgotten place, because people who travel to Stockholm on a low cost flights land in Skavsta Flygplats, right next to Nykoping, but they all go directly to Stockholm without taking a peek. In fact, here I took a real go at living with the Swedes. It was a fantastic experience. I have my relaxed holidays here.

3) Werrengarn Straat in Ghent, BELGIUM

Werrengaren Straat

Technically, this is one of the few streets in the world where you are legally allowed to graffiti. I left my little painting there, but when I went back in 3 days, it was all painted over. It’s almost like a contemporary art museum, where you can freely release your feelings using a spray can. The wall gets sprayed over so many times that you can actually pick it with a hammer and get a big chunk of sprayed layers.

4) Nothing to do: a tree house in MISSION BEACH, AUSTRALIA

This is a great experience I had in the middle of nowhere. A bus from Cairns took me there and left me there. I spent three long days in a tree house with one first generation Computer, lots of giant moths, and even with few nasty looking cassowaries. For the entire day people marinated like a sloth and lived their own lives that are so far from ordinary… In fact living lives like who we used to be… without the hunting part.

5. Aquadom in Berlin, GERMANY


No Berliner I’ve met so far knows that one of the hotels in Berlin has the world’s biggest cylindrical acrylic water tank. With an elevator running through the middle of the tank, the inside consists of many tropical fish and clear blue water. It is located in Radisson Blu at Alexanderplatz.

6. Shkodër to Sukobin: A journey though Isolated Europe – ALBANIA and MONTENEGRO

The only border crossing in Europe I know of without public transport: the scenery between Albania and Montenegro impressed me as if I was travelling back in time. After paying 5 Euro to a local driver who drove me for one hour between the two towns across the border, the scenes that came through the windshield were almost like a movie. The car drove past the small clay alleyways in between houses, through a chaotic one way bridge – being careful not to hit a cow – and going through an informal and unclear border crossing on the middle of a vast paddock, and even some deep pot holes on the road. Places like this still exist in Europe.

7. Turning off: Sumiswald in SWITZERLAND

Sumiswald, Switzerland

My German didn’t work here – even after few drinks. Indeed, it took more effort to get here than taking a thrilling ride on ‘die Autobahn.’ You have to do far more than that by going through some winding road covered in snow and ice, and trying not to get distracted by the beauty of masculine mountains. Then perhaps you will reach here, if you don’t miss the final turn. It’s a very special hideout in Switzerland to pass time drinking hot chocolate and eating cheese, while taking a breathless glance at an ocean of Swiss Alps, including Jungfrau, Eiger and, Mönch (of course, without many tourists getting in your way).

8. Destroyed Bobsleigh Track in Sarajevo, BOSNIA & HERCEGOVINA

I’ve never seen an Olympic Games venue in ruins, perhaps because Sarajevo is the only city in the World, where their Olympic Games venue was destroyed by bombs and tanks. The remainder of bobsleigh track is hidden deep in the mountains now, surrounded by hundreds of active landmines that the Serbs left from the Bosnian War.

9. MAK VIENNA ‘Flowers for Kim Il-Sung’, AUSTRIA

One of the highlights of this year’s summer was the visit to the MAK Museum in Vienna where I saw an exhibition on the Art of North Korea, which was shown to the world for the first time. Everything from propaganda to naturalistic paintings was there, depicting Juche ideology, the world shaped around men and determined by men, and the personality cult of the ‘Kims.’

One of the very obvious features of North Korean Art is the use of very bold and strong colors. There were no fairy tales, nor abstract paintings. North Korean Art, I found (without any experience of art critique), depicts reality through strong sharpness and brightness that almost made the painting look like a photographic image. Of course, from the reality we know of North Korea, none of the painting here convinced me that what I see here is ‘real.’

Militarism is dominant in North Korean Art. The most striking one was a painting of children with guns surrounded by colorful blossom trees. From appraising the nature to the image of children with guns and sign of prosperity, I’ve experienced all sorts of perceptions. Seeing painting like these in real life was certainly a great opportunity.

10. Santa Claus lives here: The town of Rovaniemi in FINNISH LAPLAND

Rovaniemi, Lapland

In the winter of 2008, I visited the Santa Village on Arctic Circle. We forgot Santa Claus ever since our parents told us that he’s not real. At least in Rovaniemi, I felt like Santa was coming back to my life, creating all sort of illusion with ice sculptures and igloos. Only in the winter when Finland unleashes its tundra climate, Santa and his village will come back to life.

Santa Claus Express leaves every day from Helsinki main train station. It’s an overnight train which will take you right up to the heart of Scandinavian Lapland. Everything is exotically white here, because of heavy snow they get every year under the sun that nobody can see. Rovaniemi is a small town just under the Arctic Circle. This geographically means that Rovaniemi experiences just shy of 24 hours darkness that people can experience on and above the Circle.

The bus won’t get you to Santa Claus. I was dropped off somewhere in between and for the rest I walked through the Lapland forest that reminded me of winter wars in the Eastern Front. It was indeed unusually quiet and scary. I could have got lost in between. I was wearing the garments that can stand -5 degrees, but that was not enough. Lapland on that day was -15 degrees.

Santa Village was a heartwarming place. At least that’s exactly how I felt when I arrived to his house full of warm lights after spending couple of hours wandering around the darkness. Hot chocolate and Baumkuchen was my dinner for that day. Being served by a well-dressed elf reminded me of my younger days when I was indoctrinated by fairy tales. I wrote a letter to Santa and left for Igloos outside…


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