Another fun East European exploration by Darmon Richter this time brought us a interesting story from Kyiv, anciet city of Eastern Slavs, but also a urban capital of present day Ukrainians. So it is best we shut up and you read the rest of the story as told by Darmon as he explained on his travelogue website “The Bohemian Blog“: It was sometime around midnight, and we stood on the cracked plaza of the Kyiv Crematorium flashing spotlights up and down the building’s flaking, crusted flanks. It looked more grown, than built; there was nothing macabre about this temple of the dead, this literal terminus, but rather it bubbled and clawed out of the ground in a series of indecipherable gestures. The architecture of an alternate dimension.
Even with my tripod, my multiple lenses, shutter remote and a selection of torches, I had finished documenting the building in 30 minutes and then packed up my toolbox for the night. But I wasn’t alone. I was exploring with Beijing-based photo-sorceress Xiao Yang and she was still working an hour later – an extraordinary process to watch.
She chain-smoked her way through a pack of cigarettes while setting the crematorium alight with sun-bright beams… and lashing it with a fibre-optic whip that looked like some kind of sci-fi dueling weapon.
Sometimes, she had me pose in her pictures to create black silhouettes – a human form, for scale – but the rest of the time, I floated about the plaza and gazed out over the midnight cemetery. Stones and crosses rose from the falling hillside, barely discernible in the dark; beyond that the lights of the city, Kyiv’s palatial post-modernist towers, blazed as distant beacons outside the necropolis.
Across the empty spaces, dogs howled at one another. Then I heard a human voice: a shout, far off, from the other end of the cemetery.
“I think someone is coming,” I told Xiao. It was hardly surprising – Kyiv’s ‘Park of Memory’ is closed at night, off-limits to the public. For the last several hours we’d been creating vivid light displays across the bone-white monument at its heart. Security were bound to notice sooner or later.
Out of the darkness, two men in military-style uniforms marched suddenly onto the plaza. They wore camouflage fatigues and big boots, with batons dangling from their belts. One of them barked an order which neither Xiao nor myself understood; but the meaning, of course, was quite clear: it was time to leave.
I was visiting Kyiv that week to co-lead my first Ukrainian tour, but I had also allowed the time for some fresh adventures. My old friend General Kosmosa, a local urban explorer, was out of town – but his fellow digger Maxim was more than willing to show us around.
Disaster struck first, though – that night after the crematorium, I managed to get locked out of my apartment. I lost my keys, my SIM card and my dignity (that’s a long story in itself, but you can read it here)… so that by 12 the following day, when the three of us met for a 48-hour tour around and underneath the Ukrainian capital, I already felt dead on my feet. I dosed up on coffee; slammed a can of energy drink as I dragged myself to the rendezvous.
Before long, and certainly by the time we descended into the maze of ladders and dripping pipes beneath Kyiv, I knew the adrenaline would kick in – but I could only hope it’d last me through to the end of our two-day expedition.
Kyiv was built on hills. The Upper City area – ‘Old Kyiv’ – rises as a glittering citadel over the Lower City, ‘Podil’; and beneath those hills, the land tumbles down to the banks of the River Dnieper. When it rains, the water streams down the flanks of Old Kyiv – it forms rushing torrents the length of Andriivsky Descent – and the subsoil here, as a result, was historically prone to landslides and erosion.
For that reason, the ongoing survival of Old Kyiv owes much to an ingenious system of subterranean drainage.