Опасная зона

Опасная зона

Friday, July 4, 2014

No Visa Required - Part 1: Kiev

During easter, Gilbère and I went for a little round trip in eastern Europe, covering Ukraine (Kiev, Chernobyl, Chernivtsi and Lviv), Moldova (Chişinău) and the rouge nation Transnistria (Tiraspol).

This will be the first post in the series, covering impressions from Kiev.

Flying from Warsaw, I arrived at the Boryspil airport in Kiev, where Artem (PhD student at a laboratory) picked me up. The ride to Kiev central station took us past an enormously large area of commie blocks, of which I unfortunately do not have any picture of, only some video footage. (Gilbère and I work on a full movie of the trip btw.)

The main railway station is truly a massive sight as well. Overwhelmingly, both from the inside as well as from the outside.
Kiev railway station
Subway system is build in the usual communistic neoclassicism, Kiev also features one of the deepest of the subways world wide, possibly only surpassed by Pyongyang in North Korea. However no official records exist of that, surprisingly...

Entrance to the subways are equipped with blast doors in case of nuclear attacks. This way the subway system also serves as a bomb shelter.

Blast door, not sure if door is sliding in from the side, or raised from the ground.

We moved down to the Maidan square, to take a look at the barricades. The transition is quite sudden. Kiev is a beautiful city, and looks totally normal, and suddenly you round a corner and run into a war zone full of barricades...

"I will not move, nor will I be moved."

Gilbère noted that most of the tents, represent various villages all around Ukraine.

Euro trash, possibly.

The building of the labour union. Employees have a day off, it seems.

The feeling at the square was very peaceful, felt more like some weird festival going on, where some people were wearing camouflaged clothing. The only real threat where people with tame pigeons and those guys dressed up as bunnies approaching you, trying to convince you to give them money. You must stay clear of them, no matter how sorry you feel for them walking around in silly costumes.

Gilbère prefers (just like me, most of the times) to what we call "minimize cross sections", meaning, trying to act locally and reduce possible vectors of approach for people targeting tourists.
This means, for instance, Gilbère takes pride in not to run around with a tourist camera and a sky blue jacket, but with a polyethylene shopping bag and dressing shabbily.

This time, though, he sticks out:

Hey Gilbère, recheck your cross section... 

Not surprisingly, the Sberbank Russia has a hard time.

On the entrance only a very laconic message was put up:
Handwriting says "Putin - fart"

Leaving the Maidan square, things got very civilized again. A few of my best pictures:
Governmental building. Note guard to the lower left.

Hotel Kiev, not sure if it was still being used.

During the grey spring time, a coffee franchise stuck out with their "space-cake" pink snails, forming obvious targets for hostile missiles from abroad. Someone should warn those people.

Most of the trip was just usual sightseeing. Going a bit further outside the most touristic parts, you can still find very beautiful houses, most of them in good state. Also (at least seen with Danish eyes) astonishing little trash is lying around. My hometown Aarhus is a filthy mess compared to the general cleanliness of Kiev.

Random corner somewhere just north east of the city center of Kiev.

At the end of the day we went to a faboulous Geogian restaurant Gilbère recommended, the НІКАЛА РЕСТОРАН. Place was deserted, yet the food was great indeed, and we got our personal live musician.

Those where ხინკალი, a famous Georgian dish. In order not to offend people, you must eat them in a special way, not spilling the liquid phase inside, Gilbère insisted.


We went back to our commie style hotel "Експрес", after a detour to the railway station and a strange posh karaoke bar. Hotel was great, I give it three hammer and sickles out of five.

Not much to be told, next day we had to get up early for the trip to Chernobyl. Stay tuned...

Full picture album available on picasa and google+..

Friday, June 13, 2014

Tripoint Borders IV: Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine

During my two-month stay in Kraków, Leszek Grzanka helped me to make it to the south-eastern tripoint of Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine.

(And if you do not feel like reading all this, you might watch this little video instead, basically conveying the same information. :)

So, first things first, let's take a look at the map where it is:

View Larger Map

If you zoom in on google maps, you might notice that the borders are not really matching the overlays.

Uhh... nope... lines all messed up, the tripoint is where the green arrow is.
Yes, I've checked it.

Normally I try to reach these points by public transportation, this time however, Leszek drove us from Krakow by car. He reserved a sleeping place in a small hut for hikers, where the border control also stops by for coffee.

The hostel is also at the shortest hiking path to the tripoint. Coming from the Slovakian side is harder technically, but possible. Naturally I would not even try to reach it from the Ukrainian side.

Closest hostel located 2 hour walk north from the tripoint. http://www.rawki.pl
And the border police parking, probably having coffee.
This is the first tripoint of this series which is to a non-EU country, so I expected all kinds of border control and fences. However that turned out to be a "disappointment" in the end...

First views of Ukraine to the left. The border between Poland and Ukraine is clearly visible as a line with a little kink. The remote hills at the horizon are partially Slovakia.
After around 300 meters up (at 1270 meters), you reach a very nice plateau, terrific landscape.

Leszek and first signs of the Polish-Ukrainian border at the end of the road.
Leszek mentioned a story where the Ukrainian border guards hid in the bushes, waiting for trespassers. They cached some poor fellow who wanted to take pictures from the Ukrainian side: "This picture will cost you 100 €!"

Stay on the path, don't cross the railings.
Signs warn you to stay on the path and not cross the border. In order to reach the tripoint you follow the Polish-Ukrainian border for another few kilometers.

I was surprised to see some of the border stones ... displaced...?

The closer you get to the tripoint, the less organized it gets. You encounter displaced border stones and the path takes you quite a few times on Ukrainian territory, at least technically.

Stay on the paths, right. But when the path crosses the border, what can you do?
During the the way to the tripoint we did not encounter any other hikers and did not see any border patrol anywhere. Finally we arrived. A nice monolith marks the tripoint:

And already after a few minutes, we could hear border guards coming on power bikes from the path going along the Polish-Slovakian border. The guards were Polish, and passed us first without stopping, continuing along the Polish-Ukrainian border where we came from. Some 5-10 minutes later they came back and stopped for a chat, asking Leszek, whether he has seen any foreigners. (Not sure why they did not count me as a foreigner.)

Friendly people, they let me take pictures of their quads. I didn't dare to ask whether I could also take pictures of them - after two weeks in Ukraine with Gilbére (some posts are coming up), I somehow became more reluctant in these matters, unfortunately.

Anyway, their power bikes were sponsored by Norwegian funds. Found that puzzling, after all it is a EU border, and Norway is not a member of the EU.

Norway grants?!
The Slovakian side is also interesting because it also marks the most eastern point of Slovakia (and former Czechoslovakia).

The most eastern point of Slovakia!

From the tripoint there was a small path following the Polish-Slovakian border:

Leszek doing genuine efforts for Polish-Slovakian friendship.
Polish-Slovakian border, facing in the direction of the tripoint which is some 30 meters ahead from here.

And another path followed the Ukrainian-Slovakian border. Was really tempting to continue that direction.

Ukraine - Slovakia
Nonetheless, very peaceful area, and the landscape is very beautiful. So far it was clearly the most beautiful of the four tripoints I have covered in this blog.


Don't be fooled by the voidness. It got quite crowded at the end of the day, large groups of hikers (all ages) passed by. I am quite happy we left early from the hostel that day, so we could get those undisturbed photos of the tripoint.

Most astonishingly, I did not see any surveillance equipment anywhere, no cameras, no photocells, no infrared lamps. There were also no fences, nothing at all. However, the vegetation looked very dense on the Ukrainian side, not easy to walk off the paths.

Thanks to Leszek for taking me here, and special greetings to Gio Ve and his community... (Hey Gio, feel free to draw the lines or use any of these pics. Full album here. :-)

And here is the aforementioned little video covering the trip, in its embedded version.

Not sure which tripoint I will do next, there still plenty of them. :-)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Light

At Amazon you can buy tritium. Really.

Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen, the nucleus consists of 2 neutrons in addition to the positively charged proton. That makes it unstable, and tritium decays converting one of its neutrons into a proton and an electron i.e. beta-minus decay.

In other words, tritium is radioactive.

To my knowledge, tritium is rather expensive and in fact even in laboratories a rare sight. Most prominent uses is for thermonuclear weapons and fusion reactors, as it is the easiest reaction to fuse tritium with another hydrogen isotope called deuterium (one proton and one neutron) while releasing energy.

So, at Amazon you can buy tritium gas lights which are small glass ampules filled with tritium gas and a radioluminescent material.
Medium sized tritium gas light from FireFly.

The electrons released from the beta decay are stopped in the radioluminescent material which in turn will release the energy in form of photons in the visible spectrum (...what a fancy way of saying "to shine").
This is similar to an old-fashioned TV-tube, where an electron beam (electronically accelerated to about 15 keV) hits the screen coated with radioluminescent colors and makes it shine. The electron energy released by decaying tritium is lower, only 5.7 keV, which is so low they are easily stopped even in air.

The half-live of tritium is about 12.3 years, so in 12.3 years the source will be half as bright. This is rather amazing, the gas light shines and shines and keeps shining... no batteries, no recharging.

Several different radioluminescent materials can be added to produce different colors.


I bought a couple of green ones, as well as blue, white and something in between white and blue. The green ones clearly have the best yield, probably also because the eye is most sensitive in the green region.

How bright are they? Well, clearly in normal ambient light, they are not noticeable. In the picture below I have three tritium gas lights in three sizes. The two smaller ones are green, the largest one is white.

Three tritium gas lights.
Wie Sie sehen, sehen Sie nichts.
But as the lights are dimmed and the eye adapts...

This is pretty much how the human eye sees them whey you are in complete darkness.

More or less as the adapted eye sees them. Light parts a bit weaker, and the dark parts brighter, the dynamic range of the camera is a bit narrow.
The gas lights are bright enough that you can recognize things in a complete dark room, like position of a bed, cupboard etc. The white one is not bright enough to see colors when the eye is in night vision mode, but still bright enough to read texts a few cm from the light.

Just to brighten it up, I made a long-term exposure (5 mins, iso 100) of the set.

Shine bright like a diamond.
It should be added that some of the sources which are sold on Amazon may be illegal to posses without a permit. The smallest one has < 1 GBq. The white large one has < 15 GBq.
In Germany rules are that closed tritium sources below < 1 GBq are allowed without any permit. Any sources above 1 GBq can be fined with up to 50.000 €. Similar rules are in Denmark, so these sources are kept at my University which has the necessary permits. (Used for teaching BTW, I am surprised how many students never have heard about tritium.)

Nonetheless, there is no way any dangerous radiation can escape the glass ampule within the perspex holder in normal operating conditions. Tritium behaves as hydrogen, so if one would break them open, burn the gas, condensate the resulting super heavy water vapor, and be silly enough to drink that super heavy water, you might receive a dose, possibly in the mSv region. (Most likely it will be automatically diluted before any intake can happen, so one really has to be very dedicated to be that foolish.)

Tritium is a waste product from water moderated nuclear reactors when in normal operation. Following the wikipedia article on tritium, over 41000 curies of tritium was released in 2003 which would be enough to make 1.5 million of the smallest tritium gas light shown above.

Anyway, I can recommend the small ones as geeky gifts for geeky physicists. There is some strange fascination in seeing this light with no batteries, or phosphorescence pre-activation - just radioactive decay and radioluminescense. One cannot help but getting philosophical contemplating the light. Where does the energy come from... and 1 billion beta decays per second (for a fresh 1 GBq source ). Think 1 - 0.5 billion decays per second for 12.3 years and then you have used up half of the tritium. Amazing.

Oh, and I submerged one into the bottom of my little aquarium. Green light shining on the ocean floor at night. :-)

[link to photo album]


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tripoint Borders III: Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia

Continuing my Tripoint in Europe project, I once again ventured into the depths of central Europe. After escaping the office, I went by train to Poland, where my secondary objectives were to visit GdańskWrocław and Krakow. The primary objective was to reach the tripoint between Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Accessing the actual tripoint is easy by car if you come from the Polish side, however if you use public transportation things may need a little planning.

View Larger Map

Initially my plan was to leave Krakow early, and go by train to the Slovakian village Skalite, which apparently is the closest spot with some sort of accommodation - I thought it would be too stressful to attempt to do it in one day.

Just in case, I attempted to reserve a room at Hotel Kolonial. I was a bit worried I might end up in Skalite with no trains, no taxis and no place to stay. Tried to call them:

- "English?"
- "No."
- "Deutsch?"
- "No."
- "Po Russki?"
- "No."
- "Uhh...."
- "Iba slovenské alebo poľské."
- "Alright...."
- "Send email, ok?"
- "Ok, right. Dakujem."

Which I did, but no response came. Then I had a polish friend calling him, all seemed ok, had to SMS the details. Ok. No reply. Guess it's ok then, I'm just stressing out.

Next thing was to arrange travels to Skalite. Idea was to go from Krakow to Zwardon (a small Polish village just at the border to Slovakia). Now, In Wrocław there was a beautiful new renovated train station, so I might just get the tickets right away, again with some help from friends.

The "administrative system" inside the nicely renovated train station clearly has not been renovated: going to the domestic ticket booths, there were three queues to choose from. The first one I took, was wrong: "This company does not service Zwardon. Go to next booth."
Re-queue in another line. I earlier wrote down the connection details which I found on www.bahn.de.

- (Showing paper saying my destination.) "Zwardon."
- "Gdzie?"
- Oh, sorry, I spelled it wrong, "d" was missing. (I could swear I thought I got it right.)
- Aha. (Pause.) No.
- No?
- That connection is not possible.
- Uh-um...

Anyway, after retrying in Krakow, it turned out my idea to go all the way by train (yeah, I love trains ) seemed to be a stupid idea. Instead of a 6-hour ride, one can take a 1-hour ride with bus from Krakow to Żywiec (which hosts a major Brewery, therefore known by all locals and beyond). In Żywiec then there is a local train to Zwardon and from there ...  well if all fails, my destination for the night Skalite is just 5-7 km further, so I might just walk.

I left Krakow by bus departing from the bus terminal behind the main train station around noon. The weird thing about that ride was the crazy amount of furniture shops in the villages. It was like 60% of all shops specialized in selling furniture, very surreal.

Arriving in Żywiec there was again plenty of time to get the ticket for the next part. "Do Zwardon." "Dwe?" "Tolka odin". Languages are kind of weird. Young people are good at English, elderly more into German, and then there is a group of people who know neither. The five words of Russian I know come in very handy here, even though I was told that some people may be a annoyed if you approach them with Russian. But what else could I do.

In Zywiec (Poland), waiting for my train connection to Zwardon, which is located just at the Polish-Slovakian border.
The train ride to Zwardon was another 1-2 hours, partially nice landscapes and cute small villages. The amount of furniture shops seemed to reduce again to normal levels.

Somewhere halfway between Zywiec and Zwardon in Poland.
The train ended in Zwardon, and then I was faced with the questions on how to get to the village Skalite. A Slovak train was standing ready on the next platform in Zwardon, going to Zilina, however I could not figure out when it was supposed to leave. It was already 15:30, and I was worried it might get dark before I can reach the triplex point, which is another 5 km from Skalite. This would be my only chance to do it, next day I must leave early in order to catch my flight home from Vienna.

Zwardon, just 200 m from Slovakian border.
This brought me into a dilemma, either walk fast those 7 km, (not sure if there is a path all the way), or take the train whenever that leaves. A very friendly Slovakian train conductor was at the site, me trying to communicate in numerous languages with assisted/augmented hand waving. She knew some words in German - "Langsam, bitte!" (same thing I say when someone races off in one of the Slavic languages "Ne bistra!"). A pen and piece of paper did it - train would leave in 30 min.
- "Setzen Sie sich."
- "Ja ja."

View Larger Map

In these small villages there are no places where train tickets can be bought, at least none which are open. Train tickets can instead be bought on the train. I paid 0.48 € for Zwardon - Skalite. On the ~6 km ride, the train stopped 3 times before reaching Skalite. Felt strange.

Arriving at Hotel Kolonial - it was open indeed and I was the only guest it seemed. I quickly checked in, paid 20 € and grabbed my gear for the hike to the tripoint. It was raining cats and dogs, but then quickly cleared.

Skalite. Facing north, Poland is just behind those hills.

One of the countless train stations named Skalite-something. The train stops every 1 km it seems.
The first km you just follow the train tracks to the west. A small tunnel will then take you to the northern side of the road, follow this and you will pass some housing while you leave the train tracks behind you.

Entering Čierne-Polesie‎.
As you exit the village, the road will take you over a small hill and then bring you past a piggery. There might be some signs saying no trespassing, I was not too sure. The gate was open and no one was bothered by my presence. Just after it, you cross a bridge over a small river Čierňanka, and then you are on a marked hiking path. The marks are deceptive though, if you want to reach the tripoint area you must at some point leave the marked path.

You will cross some open terrain and bits of forest, and soon the path follows more or less the Slovak-Polish border. I used the MapDroyd app on my mobile for navigation. Several paths are missing in open street maps, but it is still easy to navigate by just following the general direction.

The crappy GPS antenna of my HTC Desire S was driving me nuts. Could only get a lock in open terrain with no clouds. Got myself a Nexus 4 now. Heaps better, and includes russian GLONASS. Works even inside my flat, so I won't get lost at home any more.
This side: Slovakia. Other side: Poland.
The path took me back to the Polish side. Now outside the forest, I was rewarded with a wonderful view.

Poland, facing north.

Facing east, forest to the right is in Slovakia, everything else is in Poland.

In Poland, facing west. Forest to the left is in Slovakia, the distant hills are in the Czech republic.
Following the path on the Polish side, the actual tripoint area comes into view.

Poland. Hill to the left is in Slovakia. The little roof is already in the Czech republic. 
The area is void of people, but at the tripoint there are facilities to BBQ on either the Czech or Slovak side. Again some monoliths were placed at each country corner, however the actual tripoint is rather hidden.

The Czech and Polish side is on the same side of a small creek which separates Slovakia. A bridge was build where you can cross the creek and go to the Slovakian side.

Here they also got POZORs, beware of them! Do not try to feed them.

Ah! What is that to the right? Is that it? Is that it?! Yes?!

Huh? A cross, not a triangle? What is this? No...?! I got it all wrong!
Where is the real tripoint? In fact, I only realized after I crossed the bridge that something isn't right. There were plenty of these red and white landmark stones scattered around with more or less random marks on, something didn't make sense here.

On the Polish side, seeing the Skovak BBQ place.
The key is the bridge, if you stand on it and look down the western side you may find a small landmark in the middle of the shallow creek.

That's it! Climbing down....

There! The triplex point of Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Wonder if it can be moved?
In fact, it's kind of a dull place, didn't stay there too long.

Well then... Made it! Primary objective of my central Europe trip completed! :-) From the hotel in Skalite it took me roughly 1-2 hours to get here.


Extensive information on the area is provided by billboards in Polish, Czech ans Slovak.

Trojmezi alright!

Yes, this area is void indeed.

Didn't eat much this day, nearly starving, I could now go back to the hotel (went off the paths a few times on the way back: bad idea, I can assure you). At the hotel, the owner was gone and hotel was locked. My key didn't fit. while waiting, I met a friend of the owner, Fero, (who spoke some German) and a bit later the owner, Karol (who is fluent in Slovak and Polish), came back.

There are no restaurants in Skalite apart of the hotel, and that one is only open at noon. Karol offered to cook me a Schnitzel... perfect! What a Schnitzel! I cant remember I ever enjoyed one so much!

Best Schnitzel I've ever had. Period.
Rest of the evening went hanging out with Fero and Karol. Karol was a virtuoso on the Fujara, a Slovakian didgeridoo kind of thing.

Well... guess I am just as good as playing that instrument as Karol is taking photographs of me playing it. Other way round seems to work better.

Several people (and Slivka) from the neighborhood joined afterwards. Ended up singing a Slovak folk song (the only one I knew - V hlbokej doline - they all tuned in, impressed :-). Made good friends with Fero's son Juraj who took me early next morning to Zilina railway station. From here, the rest of the trip was trivial. I continued to Bratislava where the airport bus took me to Schwechat Vienna airport. Certainly, I got a favorite country in Europe, this place is highly recommended.

Album from the tripoint visit here.

Coming up soon: How to (re)claim small amounts of your country by secretly displacing landmarks in the wilderness.

Update: Lyrics and translation to V hlbokej doline, thanks again, Juraj!
[:V hlbokej doline srnka vodu pije,:]
[:horár na ňu mieri, horár na ňu mieri,
horár na ňu mieri, že si ju zastrelí.:]
[:Nestrieľaj ma horár, neni som ja srnka,:]
[:ale som ja, ale, ale som ja, ale,
ale som ja, ale, zakliata panenka.:]
[:Zakliala ma mamka v nedeľu za rána,:]
[:že som nechcela ísť že som nechcela ísť,
že som nechcela ísť, za pána horára.:]
[:Horári, horári, zle horárujete,:]
[:za každou jedličkou, za každou jedličkou,
za každou jedličkou dievča milujete.:]
[:Horárova žena bledá ako stena:]
[:a horár červený, a horár červený,
a horár červený, ľúbi iné ženy.:]
Approximate translation
In deep valley doe drinks water,
Hunter aims on her,----//----
Hunter aims on her, to shoot her 
Don't shoot me a hunter, I am not a doe
but I am, but i am, but
but I am, cursed young girl. 
My mother cursed me on Sunday morning.
because I didn´t want to marry, ----//----
because I didn´t want to marry, marry with hunter.
hunters, hunters, you are bad hunting
behind every tree,-------//-----------
behind every tree, you are loving a girl. 
hunters wife is pale as a sheet
and hunter is red in face, -----//--------
and hunter is red in face, cause he loves other women.