Saturday, 14 July 2012

Urban Exploration: The Drains of Kiev, Ukraine

Deep beneath the domes and spires of Kiev’s Old Town, and unbeknown to the crowds who flock to the monasteries, monuments and cathedrals above, there exists another world. While there are a number of widely celebrated sites for urbex in Ukraine – from the tragically abandoned city of Prypiat to the seemingly endless Odessa Catacombs – surprisingly little in comparison has been reported about the vast network of drains, tunnels and mines, which spread for many miles beneath the capital city of Kiev.

Urban Exploration | The Drains of Kiev, Ukraine

Up until now, The Bohemian Blog has been missing something. Over the past six months I’ve endeavoured to gather together a decent variety of urbex reports; now including schools, asylums, industrial facilities, political sites as well as high-rise buildings. However, one significant category remains conspicuous by its absence: drains.

Drains represent a uniquely popular subset of the urbex community. Often referred to as draining, and sometimes known as urban spelunking, the art of infiltrating and exploring storm drains, sewers and other underground waterways has both its own unique attractions, and dangers, attached.

Unlike hotels, hospitals, churches and schools – buildings ergonomically and aesthetically designed to accommodate human beings with their various tastes and needs – drains were never constructed with us in mind. This has the effect of making the exploration all the more authentic; rather than simply reclaiming forgotten spaces the explorer forges new ground, discovering paths that were not intended to be trodden. In this way draining has more in common with caving or potholing than it does with the exploration of abandoned buildings.

Urban Exploration | The Drains of Kiev, Ukraine

The rewards can often be magnificent, as these accidental subterranean landscapes hold for many a bizarre beauty all their own: underground waterways becoming alluring labyrinths; reservoirs resemble endless subterranean lakes; the meeting points of separate drains and their large overflow chambers form the vaulted interiors of otherworldly cathedrals beneath the earth.

There are of course, plenty of dangers lying in wait for the urban spelunker – down here in the bowels of cities, you’re unlikely to be heard if you should call for help, and you’ll be lucky to find phone signal. Add to that the risk of flash floods, sudden steep drops and the perpetual background threat of tainted air… draining is certainly not a pastime to be entered into lightly.

I was lucky enough to receive the guided tour of Kiev’s secret underworld, courtesy of General Kosmosa. It’s a good thing, too – the winding passages and restrictive tunnels that form this subterranean network seemed to branch off in all directions, some leading deeper into disused mines beneath the city, others culminating in abrupt dead-ends.

Urban Exploration | The Drains of Kiev, Ukraine

We entered the tunnels through a simple wooden hatch set in a concrete base, located in a stretch of rough ground near the city’s financial district. As I climbed carefully down the ladder and into the darkness, patches of rust and limescale came off the rungs in great, wet flakes – staining my palms a livid shade of orange.

The first trapezoid tunnel we entered into seemed to stretch on forever, a corrugated tube of concrete that faded to black in both directions. With the General leading the way, our party of three made our way upstream through the darkness, cold water rushing past our feet at ankle level. The uniform tunnels were roughly five foot in height, forcing us to hunch over as we trudged onwards.

Urban Exploration | The Drains of Kiev, Ukraine

From this main waterway a number of passages forked off at tangents, each one disappearing into dark spaces filled with the sound of running water. At one point I managed to loose sight of the others, while pausing briefly to take a photograph – running to catch up I took the wrong turning where the path divided neatly in two. It only took me a few minutes to realise I had gone the wrong way and find the rest of the group, but the experience brought home the very real danger of getting lost in this labyrinthine underworld.

After ten, maybe even twenty minutes of the same endless, corrugated tunnels (my awareness of time decreasing inversely to my developing night vision), we reached a vertical shaft. This narrow opening at the end of the tunnel had the appearance of a subterranean waterfall; a metal ladder set into the back wall, obscured behind a cascading torrent of cold water.

Urban Exploration | The Drains of Kiev, Ukraine

Torch and camera stowed safely inside a waterproof bag, I followed my guide up the ladder – the water quickly soaking me to the skin, and making for a slow and treacherous climb.

On this next level the ribbed concrete tunnels gave way to rough-hewn rock, and more than once I cracked my head on low-hanging stalactites. Another five minutes upstream however the tunnel finally opened up above us, and we entered into a vast, vaulted chamber. Fractured light spilled in from the slatted roof, illuminating the deep, round shaft – lined with concrete roundels and hung with rusted gantries – in which we now stood.

Far above our heads, beyond the iron grating, lay the heart of Kiev's financial district. Many of these tunnels were installed as a back-up water supply by Stalin, during the Soviet era. However, these newer sections were merely extensions to a much older network of tunnels, which riddle the ground beneath the city – as we were to find out by delving deeper into the warren of pipes and passages.

Initially we tried following the other main passage feeding into this central chamber, but we didn't get far before finding our path blocked by fallen rubble. Seemingly unperturbed, our guide led us back to the last chamber; choosing instead a smaller, rocky shaft that led off at a tangent. I found myself wondering (and not for the last time) how he had managed to commit to memory such a complex network of tunnels.

Urban Exploration | The Drains of Kiev, Ukraine

The next excitement came as our path opened up onto a large vertical shaft; here the slow stream we had been following trickled out along an extended lip, high above the floor below, before cascading down a drainage funnel. We were granted no such conduit however, and so upon reaching the slippery overhang we had to climb across onto a rusted metal gantry fastened to the wall nearby. From here it was possible to make one's way down a series of iron ladders, suspended at varying angles in a haphazard zigzag pattern... a precarious climb indeed, down four flights of slippery, rust-encrusted rungs.

From here we trekked through a long concrete tube, resembling a scaled-down train tunnel. After perhaps ten minutes, the end not even nearly in sight, General Kosmosa stopped us by a side turning. Here the tunnels were much smaller, older, and cut in two by the newer installation. The General told us that these were the remains of a system of mine shafts, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century; and as we crawled along the narrow shaft, I found myself imagining what it must have been like to work these mines, so far removed from the light of day. The air tasted thin, and fungus grew from the damp walls. Occasionally we found traces of life – alcoves set into the walls held spaces for bowls and flasks, places where miners would stop to rest or refresh themselves.

Urban Exploration | The Drains of Kiev, Ukraine

At times the progress was almost unbearable. The passages were so small that movement was severely limited; the ceiling often pressing low enough that we were forced to pull ourselves forward on our elbows. As the cold water continued to splash around my forearms, sometimes reaching as high as my chin, I prayed we wouldn't encounter a flash flood – it would have been near impossible to reverse out of such a confined space.

Not only did the tunnel seem to be without an end, but it was also noticeably decreasing in size. I had almost reached the point of questioning our guide's sanity, when finally we came across a junction, and dragged ourselves out of the rocky shaft and into one of the newer concrete tunnels.

Urban Exploration | The Drains of Kiev, Ukraine

From here it was an easy walk to our exit... we emerged much as we had entered the drains, through a nondescript hatch set in a patch of rough ground. Fresh air has never tasted so sweet as it did at that moment! We dried ourselves as best we could, changed our clothes, and I threw my ruined shoes in the nearest bin. After that we bought a few bottles of strong Ukrainian beer and sat on a wall in the park, watching the sun go down over the city.

All in all a fantastic day out, and a great first foray into the underside of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Thanks once again to General Kosmosa for making this expedition possible… and if you’re interested in keeping up to date with his adventures, then you can pay a visit to his own urban exploration blog here.


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Sunday, 1 July 2012

Urban Exploration: Climbing a Shard of Concrete, Ukraine

Rising up over the hectic skyline of Kiev, there stand a cluster of concrete shells; the largest of these six towers reaches a height of thirty-six floors, making them some of the tallest buildings this side of the river. They remain mostly unfinished however; many locals have branded them an eyesore, but they nevertheless pose a prime target for anybody looking for urbex in Ukraine.

Urban Exploration | Climbing a Shard of Concrete, Ukraine

It was a recent post on another urban exploration blog – Climbing a Shard of Glass – that got me looking upwards to the skies. I’m normally far more interested in tunnels, bunkers and the other forgotten spaces sleeping deep beneath the earth, but the report had piqued my interest. I couldn’t find much to compare to London’s Shard of Glass here in Kiev, though… and so instead I set my sights on the tallest disused building I could find, and headed out to explore.

Construction started on this particular site in 2001, but funding ran out before four of the skyscrapers could be finished. As a result the work was abandoned in 2004, and sealed off behind a high metal fence. In 2011 a local girl committed suicide by jumping from the top of one of the buildings, after which security was tightened, with the posting of several site guards – the wages of the guards apparently being a far more affordable outlay than the cost of finishing the job.

Urban Exploration | Climbing a Shard of Concrete, Ukraine

I visited the site with a Ukrainian friend, and we managed to find our way in by crossing a fast food drive-thru, and then following the fence along the riverbank until reaching a point that could be climbed without too much trouble.

Once inside the compound – and taking every care to stay out of sight from the makeshift guard’s hut, position closed to the road entrance – we made straight for the closest of the buildings.

The ground floor was bare; except for the occasional cement mixer, or stack of unused concrete blocks. In some places gaps opened up onto the unfinished basement car park, and we were forced to watch our steps carefully.

Urban Exploration | Climbing a Shard of Concrete, Ukraine

Needless to say the elevator shafts were sealed shut, and perhaps the most risky part of the whole expedition came as we tried to gain access to the flight of steps which spiralled slowly up to the higher floors; the entrance to the stairwell faced forward, and was in direct view of the security building. In the distance we could see four figures in black fatigues, hunched over a table, as though a game of cards were in progress. We had no other choice but to make a quick break for it: across the forecourt, onto the stairs, and ducking quickly into the first turn of the stairs.

From here we entered into a somewhat repetitive climb, and my calves were soon aching from floor after floor after floor of barren concrete spaces. The building was in such a formless state, that it was very hard to tell what the architects had had in mind – either open-plan offices, or perhaps the divisions that were to form apartments and corridors were simply yet to appear. It soon became clear that it was not the building’s interior which would stand to make this a memorable exploration, but rather the vantage point that it offered.

Urban Exploration | Climbing a Shard of Concrete, Ukraine

Reaching the higher floors, those enclosed spaces suddenly opened up into a large rooftop terrace – bare, rusted girders poking up out of the cement here and there, where construction had been halted abruptly.

The other buildings in the cluster felt close enough to touch, their bare floors and rooftops forming a series of mirror images to our own. We also passed a large industrial crane on the way up… I found myself reflecting on the novelty of being able to admire the topside of such a device.

Urban Exploration | Climbing a Shard of Concrete, Ukraine

One more climb brought us out onto the very highest point of the building – on top of the block that housed the elevators and stairs. The steps to this final level were yet to materialise, and so instead we were forced to clamber up a plank of wood, positioned precariously through an opening in the roof.

Kiev is undeniably a very beautiful city. Mighty monuments, gold-domed churches, modern skyscrapers bursting up from green parks... and, in the centre, the meandering Dnieper River cutting this ancient metropolis in two.

Urban Exploration | Climbing a Shard of Concrete, Ukraine

Imagine then, the feeling of standing on top of one of the tallest buildings in sight; the wind tearing at your clothes as you gaze down on Kiev from above; the city sprawl fading into the distance beneath your feet.

It was magnificent.


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