Traveling Tye

Tye Ebel is a travel enthusiast who has visited nearly 70 countries on six continents and lived in America, Canada, Japan, Mongolia and Italy. He has a Master’s Degree in Asia Policy with a focus on Sustainable tourism and currently works remotely as a consultant, traveling the world with his computer. This is a collection of stories, experiences and opinions from Tye's travels, starting with a 2012 trip to Central America.

Kosovo

I was a freshman in high school the first time that I heard mention of Kosovo on the national news. It was reported that an ongoing genocide was forcing Bill Clinton’s hand, and NATO was flying to the rescue of this small section of former Yugoslavia.

After the war, the attention of the American media swiftly shifted elsewhere and I all but forgot about Kosovo’s existence until 2008 when it again took center stage following its declaration of independence.  That’s when I made up my mind to check it out one day. You see, despite reading the articles and seeing the 30-second spots on the national news, I had almost no grasp of what Kosovo represented…it seemed thoroughly exotic.

A few months ago, as I boarded the overnight bus between Podgorica, Montenegro and Pristina, Kosovo, my expectations of exoticism appeared to be well founded. The bus reminded me more of something out of Mongolia than Europe. Not only was it way behind schedule, it was massively overcrowded, with a quarter of the passengers forced to sit on plastic buckets in the aisle. 

The capital itself was fascinating. The city center brought together beautiful new streets and unpaved alleys. Decrepit communist era housing blocks sat beside the flashy offices of various international agencies. Near the center, a foul smelling sewage pit sat between a futuristic library and the abandoned hull of an orthodox church. The library was built during communist times and is often criticized as one of the ugliest buildings on earth, though I found it thoroughly interesting. The church was begun in the 1990s but construction halted when war broke out. After the war, the orthodox Serb population fled the area so the church was never completed.

For me though, the most interesting thing about Pristina was the pro-American energy in the city. The futuristic library sits at the intersection of George Bush and Bill Clinton Avenues. Further down Bill Clinton Avenue stands a large bronze statue of the former president, while posters around the city congratulate him on his birthday. Meanwhile, one of the city’s now iconic sites is the “Newborn Monument” which is decorated with the flags of all the nations which have, to date, recognized Kosovo’s independence. 

Kotor: Dubrovnik in Miniature 

Just across the Croatian/Montenegrin boarder is the medieval town of Kotor. With an atmosphere and history similar to Dubrovnik, this smaller town proves to be a cheaper and less crowed alternative to its Croatian cousin. Kotor is situated in the Bay of Kotor, sandwiched between the water and the steep mountains that make up the interior of Montenegro.

So far as I was concerned, the primary attraction in the town was the city wall which climb almost vertically up the mountainside. I couldn’t really grasp how an army could possibly make its way through those mountains to set upon the city, so I can only assume the walls were the thrown up by some paranoid, madman. Although sections are no longer safe, the main walls were recently repaired with US aid money and are open to tourists.

In order to avoid the heat, crowds, and entrance fee, I chose to wake up just before dawn and make the climb. Despite a few faint spells (due in part to the steep climb and in part to the fact I began a solid two hours before any breakfast options were available) I reached the fortress at the top of the walls in under an hour. I was exhausted and drenched by that time and can only imagine how dreadful it must be after mid-morning when the mountainside is bathed in direct sunlight.  

The climb was one of the highlights of my trip though, and the timing was spot on. I had nearly half an hour at the fortress before any other tourists arrived and I managed to make it back to the hostel before an onslaught of rain and cruise ship tourists ruined all of the town’s magic. 

Dubrovnik: Worth the Crowds

Dubrovnik, Croatia, once stood as one of the greatest maritime city-states in the Mediterranean. Today it stands as the crown jewel in Croatia’s tourism portfolio. The unfortunate reality is that this means the city is plagued by sky-high prices and hoards of dreadful cruise ship tourists. It is not, however, a tourist trap. The old city is beautifully preserved behind some of the most impressive fortress walls I’ve ever seen. My advice, if you’re in the area you should definitely check the city out, just don’t linger too long. 

Bosnia: The heart of the Balkans. 

Bosnia is a beautiful country with a tragic and ever present past. In the early 1990s, as the countries that made up Yugoslavia began to breakaway from Belgrade, war blossomed. Slovenia’s war lasted days, Croatia’s months, and Bosnia’s years. The reason why Bosnia was engulfed in such a long civil war lay in part in the ethic/religious makeup of the country, and in part in Slobodan Milosevic’s military support for the Bosnian-Serb minority, which quickly began expanding across the country, dislocating and occasionally purging the Bosniak and Croatian populations that had lived in the area for centuries.

Although peace was reestablished in 1996, it has been a temperamental one. Throughout the country, war survivors now must stand in lines at the market intermixed with men they know to have massacred their family and friends. The population remains tensely divided between Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks, and Orthodox Serbs, each, more or less, with its own government. As a result, the civil war seems to have simply shifted from the battlefield to the political field. The recent spread of partisanship in US politics has nothing on these guys.

The cities remain scared by signs of war. In Sarajevo, many buildings are potchmarked, a legacy of the four year siege in which the Serbs surrounded the city, cut off its access to water and food, and rained death in the form of mortar shells and sniper bullets on the civilian population. Around the city are the “Sarajevo Roses”, which mark places where a mortar shell resulted in the death of a resident.

Perhaps because of this recent and lingering history of death and destruction, everything seems more intense and alive in Bosnia. The cities of Sarajevo and Mostar are stunningly beautiful and attest to a long and fascinating history of Ottoman and Austrian rule. In Sarajevo there is a sharp dividing line. Face one direction and it feels as if you’re in Vienna, face the other and you’re in Istanbul. Whats more, the food is amazing, the best in the Balkans. And the country feels surprisingly safe. I was able to wander the streets of Sarajevo at 4AM alone without feeling threatened, and on my final night I climbed into the mountains to watch the sunset. Try doing that around a major South American city. I couldn’t recommend a country more. 

Transylvania: Chasing Dracula

As a child, I assumed Transylvania was just the make-believe realm of vampires and monsters. I was in high school before I learned that it was an actual place, buried in the mountains of Romania. When I laid out the rough plan for this trip, I budgeted several days for the region. It was time to meet Dracula.

When Bram Stoker sought out a historical figure upon which to model his now famous vampire, he chose the medieval Romanian prince Vlad III, son of Vlad II Dracul (“The Dragon”). Despite having never set foot in the region himself, Stoker managed to catapult Transylvania into the limelight.

In many ways, the younger Vlad was an ideal candidate for the vampire given his reputation for brutality. His nickname is Vlad Tepes (“The Impalor”) after his custom of torturing his captives and then mounting them on steaks. At the same time, however, he is regarded as a national folk hero in Romania because he successfully defended the region against Ottoman occupation in the mid 15th century. 

When vampire mania, fueled by books such as Bram Stokers, began to spread across the western world, many travelers started to make their way to Transylvania in search of the legend. This presented a problem for the Romanian government, which preferred to view Vlad III as a national hero. For decades they worked to obscure the connection between the real prince and the fictional count, but in recent years the almighty dollar has finally broken down the government’s resistance and parts of Transylvania have begun to embrace the legend to an almost tacky degree.

During my time in Transelvania, I spent several days in the cultural capital of Brasov (also the home of Vlad’s favored mistress) before visiting the nearby Bran Castel (a fortress that has recently been nicknamed “Castle Dracula” despite no strong connection to Vlad) and then Sigisoara, the beautiful UNESCO protected medieval town where Vlad the Impaler was born. Despite my best attempts though, the vampires eluded me.

Transnistria: My visit to a country that doesn’t exist

In 1990, as the Soviet Union began to fall apart, a small sliver of modern day Moldova declared independence from greater Moldova. Two years later the Moldovan government attempted to bring the would-be country back into the fold and sparked the War of Transnistria. The Russians stepped into restore order and then things just kind of froze. Today the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, also known as Transnistria, remains a post-Soviet frozen conflict zone. As far as the Transnistrians are concerned, they are in independent country; they have their own government, military, and currency. As far as the world is concerned, Transnistria doesn’t exist. It is only recognized by three other unofficial states: Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

Although Transnistria is no longer a communist country, it has continued to embrace its soviet past, leading some to refer to it as a soviet Disneyland. I was naturally keen to check the place out, so I headed to the central bus station in Chisinau and, after a few failed attempts, caught a bus across the boarder. The following photos were taken around the unrecognized state.  Aside from a bunch of semi-hidden  military equipment around the border and mess of Lenin statues though, the place was pretty sterile. 

Pripyat: The Radioactive City (Part 2 of 2)

On April 29th, 1986, three days after the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the government decided to evacuate the nearby city of Pripyat. At the time, Pripyat, which had only been founded 16 years earlier for workers at the plant, was home to nearly 50,000 people. The residents were told they would only be evacuated for a short time, however, despite efforts to clean up the radiation, it has remained unsuitable for human life.

Today, Pripyat stands as a modern day Pompeii, frozen in time by a catastrophic disaster. It is a city of radioactive ruins, slowly being reclaimed by the forest it had displaced. Cold war era posters still adorn the walls of public buildings while children’s’ notebooks remain on their school desks. The Ukrainian government has forbade visitors from entering any of the buildings due to their structural instability, but as my friend and I booked a private tour, our guide was willing to take us into several structures, including two schools, a kindergarten, the palace of culture, the gymnasium, a 16 story apartment building, and the city hospital.

Because the buildings were sealed following the disaster, radiation levels inside the buildings are negligible. Outside, however, countless hotspots remain. At one point, armed with a Geiger counter, I came across beta radiation 220X the level considered suitable for human life. It was exciting…until I considered the implications. Shortly thereafter, we left the ruins and returned to the modern world. 

Pripyat: A City Frozen In Time (1 of 2)

On April 29th, 1986, three days after the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the government decided to evacuate the nearby city of Pripyat. At the time, Pripyat, which had only been founded 16 years earlier for workers at the plant, was home to nearly 50,000 people. The residents were told they would only be evacuated for a short time, however, despite efforts to clean up the radiation, it has remained unsuitable for human life.

Today, Pripyat stands as a modern day Pompeii, frozen in time by a catastrophic disaster. It is a city of radioactive ruins, slowly being reclaimed by the forest it had displaced. Cold war era posters still adorn the walls of public buildings while children’s’ notebooks remain on their school desks. The Ukrainian government has forbade visitors from entering any of the buildings due to their structural instability, but as my friend and I booked a private tour, our guide was willing to take us into several structures, including two schools, a kindergarten, the palace of culture, the gymnasium, a 16 story apartment building, and the city hospital.

Because the buildings were sealed following the disaster, radiation levels inside the buildings are negligible. Outside, however, countless hotspots remain. At one point, armed with a Geiger counter, I came across beta radiation 220X the level considered suitable for human life. It was exciting…until I considered the implications. Shortly thereafter, we left the ruins and returned to the modern world. 

kralion asked: Question if you don't mind. How did you get inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone? Did you go on a tour planned tour or something like that?

Yes, to enter Chernobyl you have to go through a tour agency, and in general, you need to make the arrangements 2 weeks in advance as it takes up to 10 business days to push all the permits through. At the moment, there seem to be several companies that offer group and private tours. Group tours are running around $150 for the day and private tours are close to double that. I’d recommend the private tours though, as the groups seemed rather large. With a private guide, there is a lot higher chance you’ll get to bend the rules and enter some of the buildings/go further afield. 

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Early on the morning of April 26th, 1986, one of the worst disasters in human history occurred when a power surge caused a series of explosions at Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The resulting nuclear plumb spread radiation across much of Europe and the western USSR and all settlements within a 30KM radius of the plant were evacuated. Most of these settlements have since fallen to ruin and been overtaken by the forest.

While parts of the exclusion zone are still highly radioactive, the Ukrainian government has begun to allow visitors to enter for limited periods of time. In order to be allowed into the zone, visitors need to make arrangements through an intermediary 10-14 days in advance and must be accompanied by a guide/caretaker at all times. In order to be allowed out of the zone, visitors must pass through two radiation checkpoints.

The photos in this album were taken around Chernobyl City (which is 18 KM from the plant and still houses workers for limited stretches of time), and at the power plant itself. It includes photos of Reactor 4, which has been covered by a rapidly deteriorating concrete sarcophagus, and of the new sarcophagus, which is being built as a replacement. Tomorrow I’ll post photos taken in the ruins of Pripyat City, the former home of the power plant’s workers.