Doftana Prison – Campina, Romania

This was my last stop on my Eastern European trip. After departing Odessa I had great plans of exploring locations in the break away state of Transnistria, Chisinau (Moldova) and Bucharest (Romania.) However the recent luck I had in Odessa was about to run out. I came down with some pretty bad food poisoning in Transnistria and ended up getting no exploring done in either Transnistria or Moldova. This was a major pity as both locations looked like they had huge potential.

Arriving in Bucharest (still as sick as a small hospital) I decided I had to visit at least one place here seeing as I was flying out the next day. I had been planning to meet up with Romanian explorer, Petre, who runs the Romanian Urban Exploration website “Locuri Uitate” but unfortunately the timing didn’t work out and so I was going solo again. From my research of locations around Bucharest, one place stuck in my mind. That was Doftana prison which lies an hour outside of Bucharest. Petre had visited this a few months previously and the photos intrigued me. I had never been to an abandoned prison before so I thought it’d be a good place to add to the list.

The prison is probably most well know for once housing the former Romanian president, Nicolae Ceaușescu among other famous political prisoners. Although the prison was built in 1895 it began to focus on the detention of political prisoners in 1921. For the next few decades most political prisoners of note were sent here. With the prison being such a hub of political dissent, the prisoners began networking throughout the prison. It was said that the prisoners knew of the events of the outside world even before the guards. There was even a prison newspaper written by the inmates that was passed around from prisoner to prisoner. Training and teaching were organised and conferences took place, all under the guards noses. The prison nearly doubled as a communist training centre according to some. I was unable to find any information on when exactly the prison closed doors but within the last decade it had been functioning as a museum. The footfall in such a remote location must not have been enough to keep the museum open and it has long closed. Since then the prison has remained abandoned, the only use being the occasional airsoft battle. There is a plan to transform the prison into a hotel and restaurant but it is hard to see this taking place any time in the near future. For now the prison lies abandoned and mostly forgotten in the Romanian countryside.

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The external wall surrounding the prison

After an hour long train ride I arrived in the sleepy village of Campina. The prison itself lies a couple of kilometres outside the village so the only way there without walking was by taxi. Not knowing any nearby locations I had no option but to tell the driver to take me to the prison itself and hope he wouldn’t care why I was going there. Unfortunately for me he did seem to care. On the way out of the village the taxi driver picked up his phone and rang someone. I heard him mention the prison in Romanian a couple of times but was hoping he was just looking for directions to it. Of course this wasn’t the case! When we rolled up near the prison a woman was standing behind the front gate waiting for me. I didn’t make the connection straight away and just paid the taxi driver.

The woman (who turned out to be the site caretaker/administrator) was looking at me getting out of the taxi so I couldn’t wander away and try another way in as she would just follow. I decided that my best option here was to try and switch on my charm to see if she would let me in…inevitably this failed! The fact she only spoke Romanian made things impossible. All I was met with were repeated shouts of “Non-Voyage!” I couldn’t do anything except turn back and walk back to the main road. Rather naively I only realised then that the taxi driver had ratted me out. Why else would she be waiting for me at the front gate. What a sneaky fecker!

Needless to say I didn’t want these two to get the better of me so I worked out another route to where I needed to go which would avoid the caretaker’s house. The route worked out pretty well and soon I was making my way to the entrance. Between the entrance and me however were two shepherds who obviously owned the land surrounding the prison. I’m not sure how Romanian shepherds would react to someone sneaking around on their land but I presumed they wouldn’t appreciate it. That meant I had to somehow get to the entrance without the two of them seeing me. What followed was a 15 minute game of hide and seek, hiding in one location before dashing to the next. Both shepherds passed within several metres of me at times but it all worked out in the end and I was able to make the final dash to the entrance point unseen.

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A scale model of the prison situated in the main entrance block, this was from the time period when the prison had functioned as a museum

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The main gates within the entrance block

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Standing in the middle of the main prison building

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The next hour was spent wandering around the different rooms of the main building. The prison had long been stripped of most things of interest. Although there wasn’t much detail to see, the architecture of the prison itself was quite impressive and along with the historical significance of the prison, meant it was well worth the visit out here.

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Some of the old statues which once occupied the prison now lie forgotten and out of view

With everything covered I made my way back to my entry point. Luckily I only had one shepherd to get past this time and getting by him was much easier. Back on the main road again I called my taxi driver friend. He was my only way back to the train station so I had to share a nice long uncomfortable journey with him back to the village before finally escaping Campina for good!

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Opera House Rooftop – Odessa, Ukraine

With most of my time being spent underground over the last week I thought it was time to try something a bit different, a rooftop attempt. The rooftop that held the most interest was that of the famous Odessa Opera House. Constructed in 1887, the Opera House is widely recognised as being one of the most ornate and beautiful buildings in all of Ukraine. Stunning statues surround the roof of the building looking down on the city below, statues which the public do not get to see up close.

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This seems to be one of the more popular roofs in the city for climbing and judging from the photos online a good few other explorers have made it up here. In my last few days I had also heard two accounts from people who had climbed it previously. General Kosmosa from Kyiv had recommended the roof to me a few days before and had said it was dead easy and should be no problem to climb. The other person who had climbed it previously was a friend of Egor and Vanya’s. This friend had been caught climbing it and was arrested by the notorious Berkut Riot Police! So, I knew this could go one of two ways! Luckily for me, the Berkut Riot Police had been disbanded during the revolution a month before my visit so it would only be the regular Police I would have to deal with if I was caught.

I arrived at the Opera House at 5am hoping to get up onto the roof before the city awoke. The only sign of life near my access point was a homeless man wandering around. I had to hide for a few minutes until he finally cleared out of sight. When he was far enough away I quickly sprung into action making my way to the entry point and navigated to the roof. The 5am start had paid off and I made it to the top unseen.

I wandered around on the roof taking photos for the next half an hour as the sun started to rise and the city below me slowly started coming to life. It was great to see the statues up close and in detail, something which the general public are most likely never going to see.

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As the city started to awake I decided I should probably make my way back down before I was seen. In no time at all I was back to the surface unseen and was able to slip back into the streets of Odessa as the sun slowly rose above the city. This was my last day in Odessa so this climb was a great send off to one of the most interesting cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

Odessa Catacombs: Day 2 – Odessa, Ukraine

I decided that my 6 hours underground the day before were not enough and that Odessa still had more to offer. I had remembered reading before I left that some areas of the catacombs contained old Cold War nuclear bunkers built into them. So, after arriving back in the centre of Odessa the previous evening I had got talking to Egor and Vanya about the possibility of there being accessible nuclear bunkers underneath the city. Egor had a vague recollection of visiting a bunker last year and knew the general area where he had accessed it. Vanya was interested so he agreed to meet me in his free time the next morning so we could check out the lead.

The next morning we took the bus to a location in the suburbs, still pretty close to the city centre. I don’t want to give too much information about the access details so all I’ll say is that after 10 minutes of wandering around the area Egor had mentioned looking for clues of underground access we eventually found what we were looking for and were soon heading down a long set of stairs that led deep underground.

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These went down surprisingly far and we ended up in a series of empty underground rooms. We wandered through these and then down a long corridor that stretched into the distance. It was clear that this had all been dug out manually a lot more recently than the mines that made up the majority of the catacombs. It didn’t look like a nuclear bunker due to the lack of blast doors and concrete which would have blocked any exterior air leaking through. But it looked like it definitely served some sort of military purpose in the past.

Due to this I expected this to be a standalone bunker with no access into the city centre portion of the catacombs. I was proved very wrong however when I reached the end of this long corridor. There was a bricked up wall that had been long torn down. This led out of the more manicured tunnels I was in out into the old mines that made up the catacombs themselves. It looked like we were in!

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The long corridor which ran the length of the initial bunker

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One of the many side rooms which led off from the long corridor

It soon became apparent that this bunker and section of mines are regularly visited. Hanging upon the wall of the first junction we reached was a paper map showing the section of tunnels we were in and also exactly where we were on the map. From what we could gather this place was used for airsoft and orienteering challenges and these maps were to help people get around without becoming lost. This made everything pretty convenient for us and also took a bit of the adventure out of the explore but nonetheless the whole aspect of where we were exploring meant that it didn’t take away from the experience too much. Looking at the map in detail the bunker we had already been in was just marked a normal tunnels. However, there were two bunkers clearly marked on the map not too far from us. These looked pretty promising so we set off in search of them.

Arriving at the first bunker it was clear that this was what we were looking for, one of the original nuclear bunkers. Once inside the main entrance way of the bunker the walls were concreted over, the various rooms were separated by blast doors and there were obvious signs of previous occupation. From what Vanya told me, these bunkers were built during the Cold War in case of nuclear attack. Numerous similar bunkers exist throughout the cities that were once part of the old Soviet Union. However the fact these ones were built into the catacombs themselves made them all the more intriguing.

We wandered from room to room, passing through the room that was used to control the power being fed around the bunker, the original toilets, the old conference room which would have been used for briefings and a room that was used to house the air filtering machinery. There were plenty more rooms but most of these have long since been stripped of all items so it’s impossible to know their previous uses. While wandering through this bunker we came across the original stairway which provided access from the surface. We climbed it all the way to the surface where access above ground was barred. We counted the sets of stairs on the way up and were surprised with the result (16), which meant the bunker lay about 8 stories underground.

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One of the old pieces of machinery used to control the power in the bunker

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The old conference room, this room was pretty big but it is hard to get a scale of it in the above photo

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One of the old blast doors still in situ

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A close up of one of the blast doors, the Cyrllic writing here, дом, means home or house but it’s possible that it could also be an acronym for the name of the organisation stationed here. Again, it’s hard to know as there seems to be very little written online about these bunkers

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One of the old air filtration systems

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We consulted the maps hanging from the junctions again and made our way from this bunker back into the catacombs and traveled the short distance to the second bunker. The rooms in this bunker were less clearly marked out. I was unable to find any history on these bunkers but there were large open spaces in this one which made it seem like it might have been used mainly as either an ammo store or a shelter for civilians in the past, although this is just complete speculation on my part. There were some pretty cool pieces of machinery left behind in this bunker but apart from this and another 8 story staircase, the bunker had been stripped slightly more than the first.

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The entrance at the base of the staircase

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Some of the rusting machinery left behind in the second bunker

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One of the original fire extinguishers left at the entrance to the second bunker

After finishing exploring the second bunker we made our way back out into the catacombs. We were still in the area where the airsoft battles take place as we were coming across paper signs warning of pits of water, obstacles and also prohibited areas. Looking at the maps on the wall we noticed that there was a way from this area into a much wider area of the catacombs. When we reached the passage in question, it lay behind an access prohibited sign so we knew we were going in the right direction.

We were surprised to find another map upon coming to our first junction in this section of the catacombs. This entire section of the catacombs had been mapped out pretty well. There was graffiti at each of the large junctions which had a letter and a number. Each of these junctions were marked clearly on the map with the letters and numbers also so you would always know where you were. From what we could gather this was to help with the orienteering challenges which must be run in this part of the system as well as the bunkers and their connecting passages. Again, this took a bit of the adventure out of our explore but nonetheless we decided to trek to the furthest edges of the map and visit the most interesting things we could find.

We spent the next 2 and a half hours following the map to anything that seemed of interest. It was clear this part of the catacombs were under one of the more heavily built up areas of the city. There were old triangular foundation pillars put into several of the large chambers to stop collapse and every passage had a slightly newer concrete arch support put in it every 10 metres or so. It was obvious that there has been a clear worry about the collapse of these tunnels since the city above ground expanded to this area.

As we wandered through passage after passage I again found my eyes drawn to the graffiti. There was even more of a mix here than in the countryside catacombs. Here we could clearly see calculations on the wall drawn by the original miners and also drawings that were most likely done by them. Among this older graffiti there were also more recent spray painted slogans from pro Russian groups, most of them referring to the fact that Crimea should belong to Russia. Just before my visit to Ukraine, Crimea had been annexed by Russia so it was strange to see all this graffiti from years ago being so relative to the current situation. Other than this graffiti there was the usual mix of names of other explorers of the catacombs from the 1950s onwards. It seemed this was one of the more popular locations in the catacombs before the government started trying to seal off the city centre entrances in 2007.

In our 2 and a half hours we got to some pretty interesting locations and features, I won’t go into detail as they were a bit of a blur. Soon enough it was time to head back as we had arranged a call out time with Egor so we had to get above ground before he made the call. Telling someone where you are going before you go underground and asking them to contact a rescue team if you do not contact them within a specified time is usual practice when caving but it isn’t usually adopted by explorers. However in this case it was definitely beneficial to follow such a procedure considering the number of people who have disappeared in these catacombs.

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Some of the calculations written by the miners can be seen on the left of this wall. The drawing of the horse carrying stone out of the mines seems to be from the same time period

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This passage seemed to be cut in a rougher more natural way to the rest of the tunnels and led to a large chamber at the end. It’s possible that this was a later addition to the original mines

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Above this ladder lay another 7 ladders which led all the way to surface at the top of a large circular silo which had been placed underground. A large tank of water lay beneath the rusted floor here which was accessible through the hole beside the ladder.

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Here you can see some of the older graffiti in this area and also one of the old wooden pillars used to support the ceiling. The grey concrete wall on the right with the arch in it is one of the walls you see approximately every 10 metres in the majority of the passages down here which were built to prevent collapse.

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This was one of the cooler features we came across. This wasn’t marked on the map at all so we were lucky to find it at one of the furthest out areas we visited. It is one of the natural caves that have lain here for thousands and thousands of years. With all the mining under Odessa it was inevitable that the mines would sometimes cross back and forth with these natural caves. We were lucky to find such a good example here which intersected with one of the catacomb passages.

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This section of tunnel lay at the top of a long set of stairs and looks like it was originally an elaborate entrance down into the catacombs which has since been blocked at the entrance

After a total of 4 hours underground we arrived back at our entrance. Making sure the coast was clear we dashed out and sealed the exit behind us before trying to blend back into city streets covered in mud and dust. The catacombs had again provided another great experience. I wish I had more time to spend down there as there was a lot more to see but again I only had limited time in Odessa so I was delighted to see so much in that time, especially the two nuclear bunkers hidden 8 stories below the ground, something you wouldn’t dream of seeing back home.

Odessa Catacombs: Day 1 – Odessa, Ukraine

One of my main reasons for visiting Ukraine was to take a trip down into the famous Odessa catacombs. There are no exact figures available but it’s estimated that there are 2,500km of passages running below Odessa and its neighbouring villages, making the Odessa catacombs the longest system of man made tunnels in the world.

The title of the Odessa catacombs is slightly misleading as the vast majority of the tunnels are actually limestone mines which have been spreading out further and further under the city since at least the late 18th century. Back in this era, as Odessa was rapidly expanding, building materials had to be sourced from mines far away from Odessa. It was found during this time that there was a huge limestone base beneath the city and its surrounding villages. And so the digging began and hasn’t stopped since. Nowadays nearly the entirety of the huge system of mines lies completely abandoned apart from several still operational mines in the villages surrounding Odessa.

Since the catacombs came into being in the 18th century they have had many different occupants and uses. Smugglers and pirates realised the value of the labyrinth and began to use the tunnels to transport and hide stolen goods. In 1941 during World War 2, Soviet soldiers hid in the catacombs upon the Nazi invasion of the city where they could launch surprise attacks from. During the Cold War, the Soviets utilised the catacombs by building several nuclear bunkers deep down in the system. And in more modern times gangs have used the catacombs as a hiding place to store drug caches.

I had first heard of the catacombs years ago on one of the original UE forums that sprang up in the mid 2000s, UER.ca. A thread popped up in 2009 from a Ukrainian explorer who was exploring various sections of the catacombs. The scale of the place fascinated me and ever since then I’ve been meaning to visit the catacombs at some stage in my life. The following thread is the one which piqued my interest. Please note that the thread is NSFW as it contains a graphic image of the body of a girl who was lost in the catacombs so only click on the link if you are prepared to see that: http://www.uer.ca/forum_showthread.asp?fid=1&threadid=68818

The story behind the photo is that back in 2005, several teenagers went into a section of the catacombs for an underground party. Needless to say plenty of drink was had and in the aftermath of the party when everyone was leaving they didn’t realise that one of their group was missing. The person who had been left behind was a 19 year old girl called Mariya. According to the thread her body lay in the catacombs for two years before it was removed. The police weren’t interested as it lay too far from the entrance of the catacombs, it was only after a journalist published a story detailing the situation, that the police finally acted and removed her body from the catacombs. Explorers seem to go missing here nearly every year and search and rescue parties are often sent into the catacombs to try and locate the missing explorers. Unfortunately in many cases the lost explorers are never found and end up perishing in the vast labyrinth of passages.

With 2,500km of passages (the vast majority of which remain unmapped), clearly I wasn’t going to venture into this labyrinth by myself. The digger/urban exploration community in Odessa didn’t have much of an online presence and seemed hard to get in contact with. I put this down to perhaps a lot of tourists visiting the city that are hoping to visit the catacombs. Countless people visiting is sure to get annoying so I can see why this may be the case. Due to this, my only option was to hire an unofficial guide. Darmon Richter (http://www.thebohemianblog.com/), who is one of the most well traveled explorers out there had paid a visit to the catacombs a few months previously and mentioned hiring an unofficial guide to get around. After getting in contact with Darmon he recommended a guide called Egor. So I traded a few emails with Egor before leaving for Ukraine and we arranged to meet a week later upon my arrival in Odessa.

After spending two days in Kiev/Chernobyl I made the long trip to the city of Odessa in the south west of the country. I met up with Egor and his friend Vanya the morning of my arrival and we were soon boarding a bus out to one of the villages on the edge of the city. The two guys have been exploring the catacombs for years and had a pretty good knowledge of the main areas of the system. There is one particular area of the system which they bring all tourists to. This is the area around Nerubayskoye village. Some of the largest and most interesting areas of the catacombs are underneath this village. It is also here that the only section of the catacombs officially open to the public is based, at the Museum of Partisan Glory. As far as I understand there’s not much more than a kilometre of tunnels open to the public here. This section of the catacombs had been used in the past as a Partisan base during World War 2. The Soviet soldiers hid down here in the catacombs when the Nazis invaded Odessa, many of them somehow surviving until the city was retaken by the Soviets again in April 1944. The museum has recreated it to show what it would have been like back in the day. This would have been an interesting visit I’m sure but I hadn’t come here for the museum, I had come to Odessa to properly experience the depths of the catacombs.

Similarly to Darmon Richter who had visited the catacombs with Egor and Vanya, I asked for a more extended tour, something a bit more adventurous than the usual tours they bring other tourists on. The plan was to spend 5-6 hours underground all going well. The area where they bring most tourists is labelled “The Excursion Route” by the other explorers of the catacombs. This is due to it being easy to access, very well traveled and easy to get around with the majority of the tunnels being large enough to easily navigate standing up. In addition to this though it contains some of the more interesting features of the catacombs which is why I didn’t want to miss this section. So, it was decided that we would spend the first 2 and a half hours exploring this main “Excursion Route” section of the catacombs along with a few trips down some side tunnels to other interesting features.

Arriving in the village of Nerubayskoye, the three of us quickly made our way to our entry point, got our torches and head lamps ready and took our first steps into the dark labyrinth. The first section of the catacombs were surprisingly large, there was plenty of headroom and the corridors were quite wide. As we made our way through passage after passage Egor and Vanya explained the history of the catacombs and pointed out various features along the way. The wide corridors I were in at the moment were once used by horses to drag the cut limestone to the surface from deep within the mine. The grooves their harnesses made from years of dragging along the wall could still be seen in places. Also, in this section Egor explained the cutting method that was used in this section of catacombs. The limestone was so soft down here that large saws could actually be used to manually cut the blocks out of the wall one by one. Any blocks that were not of regulation size at the time were tossed to the side. Piles of these could still be seen in many of the sections we visited.

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Some of the incorrectly sized blocks piled up at the side of the tunnel

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An example of the size of this first section of the catacombs

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As we ventured deeper and deeper into the catacombs I began to take more notice of the graffiti that surrounded me. You could tell from the amount of it here that this was a heavily visited area. Inspecting it more closely it was interesting how the old mingled with the new. Graffiti from the 60s up until the current day could be seen scratched on the wall. There were even elaborate drawings which were possibly from even further back.

Along with the graffiti another thing caused by the foot traffic that this area gets is the number of “bases” that are set up here. Bases are essentially small chambers, usually dead ends that are set up for taking a break in. In most of these there are large slabs of rock set up as tables and seats in the centre of the room. We visited a couple of these bases during our journey through this section of the catacombs. Some of them would even have their own dedicated name and accompanying graffiti. Rather than being used by passing explorers though, the bases here are mostly used by kids throwing parties down here. Despite the rubbish and large amounts of graffiti in these bases, they were still pretty interesting to visit and added a bit of variety.

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A table and set of chairs set up at the start of a long tunnel

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база Натали / Base Natalie

Continuing on we reached a large chamber of the mines which was used as a place to access different levels. The mines in this section were built 3 levels deep in order to access the largest amount of limestone possible. The chamber we were in now allowed us access up to the upper level. There has previously been a ladder here from the original days of the mine but this had recently been torn apart by other explorers of the catacombs. They had also decided to scatter broken glass at the top of the climb so that if someone tried to climb up they would cut themselves. From what Egor and Vanya told me this was done by a bunch of explorers that are unhappy with tourists visiting the catacombs. Due to this, they tore down the ladder so that the less agile tourists couldn’t get up there anymore. But I have to say the laying of the broken glass was pretty messed up. No matter though, it was a simple little climb even without the ladder so they’ll have to try harder next time.

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This looked like an old gas mask but to be honest, I’m not sure it is. If anyone has any ideas, let me know!

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The chamber used to access the upper level of the mines

We spent another hour or so exploring a few different areas shooting off the “Excursion route”. We came across a strange shrine to a ghost that apparently roams the catacombs, lots of strange graffiti and interesting chambers. Down one passage we came across the Russian poetry which this area is most well known for. Two Russian poems using the old script which is no longer in use were scratched into the walls here. As far as I remember, the guys told me that they reference an old Tsar from over 100 years ago. It is hard to know whether these are genuine or whether they are a forgery reproduced more recently but if they are genuine they are quite incredible. One of the poems was hidden behind some blocks which had since been torn down. Also, the rock at the edge looked like it had been eroding away, taking some of the most right hand letters of the poetry with it. So, this would give some hope that they are genuine but it is impossible to know for sure.

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The longer of the two poems

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The poem that had been uncovered form behind the piled up blocks

After seeing the Russian poetry, there was not too much else to see in this section of the catacombs. Egor and Vanya had already shown me the areas where they usually bring everyone (along with a few extra bits added on.) So, we got down to the discussion of what to do next. Vanya mentioned a rarely taken underground route to the next village, Usatove. It was supposed to be a 2 hour journey and he had done it 3 times before, 2 of those times he had to retrace his entire route as himself and his colleagues could not find an exit out into the village. Apparently the route was pretty tough going and went through some rarely visited areas of the catacombs. This sounded perfect. Egor decided to opt out of this crossing so we walked back to the nearest exit and agreed to meet up with him again in a couple of hours.

Vanya and I turned our backs on the daylight and made our way back into the darkness. We quickly retraced our route through sections we had passed through earlier and soon reached the turn off we were looking for. I decided to put the camera away for the majority of this journey as it was going to take us over 2 hours to get under the next village. Stopping for long exposures and light painting would extend this quite a bit. We spent the next 10-15 minutes making our way through this area until we got to a flooded passage. Vanya explained that this passage led from the older section of catacombs which we were in to a slightly newer section.

The passage was flooded with stagnant water up to between a metre and a metre and a half in places. For good measure there was a nice collection of white mold or some type of larvae floating on it. And, to make it more interesting there were also thousands of flies covering nearly every inch of the wall on either side. We had to cross the whole thing on stepping stones, it was very like something out of Indiana Jones. We carefully made our way across on the stepping stones being careful not to slip. Every so often you would have to touch the wall for balance and you would feel the flies crunching beneath your palm. The water continued on for a surprisingly long section of the passage but nonetheless we kept our balance and made it across safely. We were now in a smaller, slightly newer section of the catacombs.

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Still in the mines under Nerubayskoye

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The water crossing between the two sections of the catacombs. The black specks you see on the wall are the thousands of flies which we were trying not to disturb

This newer section of a catacombs had a much lower ceiling which meant we would be stooping for the rest of the journey. The ground used to be lower but with the continued erosion of the ceiling and walls over the last 100+ years the ground was rising higher and higher. In one area we came across two large chambers which once housed the horses that worked down here. The darkened colour of the ground in these chambers was the only clue to their past purpose.

There were plenty of twists and turns in this section of the tunnels. There was nothing straightforward and so Vanya had to consult a map which he had drawn the last time he had been through this way. We followed this with the use of a compass I had brought along and were able to trace our way along the path he had taken previously. At one stage we came to an area which he didn’t recall and wasn’t marked clearly on the map. There were three different routes here and each route inevitably split off into even more offshoots so there was plenty of room for error. We were careful to memorise where we had come from in each junction and tried several different route options, turning back if they seemed wrong. After 15 minutes of repeatedly going into the unknown and then retracing our steps we finally found a path that looked familiar to Vanya. We kept going and soon enough we were back on the map again. It’s quite easy to see how someone could get lost down here. If we had incorrectly remembered our route back from any of the dead ends we reached it would have taken a while to get back on track.

We must have spent another 30 minutes navigating various rockfalls, more flooded sections and confusing junctions. Along the way, it was clear that these tunnels aren’t visited very often. There was barely any graffiti on the walls. The only that we did see were at the junctions where someone had scratched in arrows and a two letter code to the village each route headed. How long ago these were put there I don’t know but they seemed pretty old. The routes these followed could have been blocked by rockfalls or had their exits sealed off so we couldn’t put all our faith in these. Along with the lack of graffiti, the other noticeable thing was the amount of rusted equipment left behind. Sometimes we would come across heavily rusted saw blades, other bits of indistinguishable machinery and old cans which were all from the times in which the mines were still operational, presumably over one hundred years ago.

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One of the many dodgy looking offshoots from our route. You can just about make out the route marking with its two letter code here to the left of the wooden beam which looks like a “Th” although it seems some of it has worn off

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This was a typical area of the newer section of catacombs which we had to stoop the whole way through

As we continued through here the ceiling started getting lower and lower. Soon enough we reached the passage which was one of the reasons why Egor had decided not to come with us. I should probably explain one thing about the catacombs before I continue…

Due to the cost of plumbing for villagers in Ukraine, some of them choose to find other alternatives for their human waste. Conveniently for the people of Nerubayskoye and Usatove, there is a vast network of tunnels underneath their village. Some enterprising people have taken advantage of this and have driven boreholes from underneath their homes down into the tunnels below. They then run a metal pipe down this borehole directly from their toilet down into the ceiling of the tunnel. What this means is that every time they flush, their waste is dropped straight down into the tunnels below where it piles up higher and higher into a lovely collection of waste with a fine smell to accompany it.

Anyway, back to my journey… As we came up to the passage in question, the smell greeted us first, soon the number of rat droppings along the ground increased and soon the ground completely changed colour. What lay in front of us was a large pile of sewage which must have been building up for years. It went the complete width of the passage and must have continued on for 15 metres of passage lengthwise. Needless to say I didn’t check how deep it was. Luckily for us there were stepping stones sticking out of the sludge which were the only way across. To make things even more interesting, the ceiling was pretty low here so the only option was to stoop down low when crossing the stepping stones with your face tilted right down into the dark pit of misery!

Vanya went first and I followed. I had to hold my backpack by my side as there was no room for it on my back due to the low ceiling. This put me a bit off balance so I went extra slowly making sure to place my feet carefully on each of the stones. At one stage I looked down into the pit and saw an earthworm wriggling through the filth below my face and a large millipede dashing in the other direction. If the water crossing with all the flies earlier had been like a scene from Indiana Jones, this was something similar except seriously, seriously messed up. We ended up getting across fine in the end and were soon on our way again.

Soon after this we reached the halfway point. We had covered the more difficult to navigate sections already however which meant the second half would be quicker. The majority of the route left on the maps was a long winding section of tunnel with very few turnoffs. The entrance to this section was spray painted with the title “ход Днепр месть” which was the name given to this passage. We sped along this passage making up for lost time, we had to stoop the whole way but due to the lack of turns and the even ground we flew through this section pretty quickly.

The end of this passage dropped us out into some chambers with low ceilings and connecting passages. We knew we were getting closer to the centre of the village as the number of pipes in the ceiling were increasing. We heard voices coming from one of these so Vanya stopped at one side of it and I stopped at the other and we listened. Vanya said that this meant we must be near the centre of the village. While we were chatting, the talking above stopped and we heard a flush. Vanya and I gave one quick look at each other and as quick as we could we scattered in opposite directions as a huge pile of water and waste came flying down the pipe and splashed onto the floor of the tunnel. I walloped my head off the ceiling in my scramble for safety but I managed to escape getting covered in shit which was a fair trade off!

Continuing on we reached the area of the tunnels where Vanya’s map had run out. He knew there was an exit somewhere nearby but couldn’t remember where so he went off trying various side tunnels in the hope that something would look familiar while I waited. Unfortunately on his return he couldn’t find anything that looked familiar or anything that resembled a possible exit. If we wanted to find our way out it looked like we would have to go off the map. Our only other option was to retrace our route which had taken us over two hours already. Not wanting to go back the way we came we went exploring the tunnels around us. We tried various different tunnels looking for signs of increased activity. The more graffiti and rubbish there was, the more likely a route was well traveled and would lead to an exit. We found some graffiti on the wall with the code “Tb” and a number after it. We noticed that these were counting down. We started at Tb 31 and decided to see if we could follow them all the way down to 0 in the hope that this would lead to somewhere more regularly visited than the section we were in.

We went through chamber after chamber until finally we worked our way down to Tb 0. It was around this area that we noticed spray paint saying “выход” (exit) with arrows. It seemed however that the exits which these were pointing to had either been all sealed off or blocked by rockfalls. With this being the case we continued on ourselves following the passages which looked the most promising. The rubbish was increasing in this section which was a good sign. We were starting to see left behind tape from video cassettes which kids use to keep track of their route through the tunnels. Going through some more passages we noticed it was starting to get colder. The nearer an exit you are the colder it is which gave us some hope at least. Finally we found daylight but it was only a small hole in the ceiling. We must have spent another 10 minutes following various bits of graffiti and trails of video cassettes. At one stage we came across an old well which we had to jump over to get to the next passage. Finally we rounded a corner into a chamber and saw daylight in the distance. We scrambled up a slope of earth hoping that the exit wouldn’t be barred and that it would be large enough to get out of. We needn’t have worried though and we were soon standing at a large opening in middle of some grassland with houses all around us. We were out!

In the end it took us nearly 3 and a half hours since leaving Egor at the entrance in Nerubayskoye to reaching our exit in the centre of Usatove. What is only a 3km journey as the crow flies was much longer in the weaving tunnels underground but it’s hard to say what distance we covered overall. In the end I was pretty glad I had taken this route. There was a true sense of adventure down there, we weren’t 100% sure where we were going at times and we weren’t sure if we would manage to find an exit or not. It was anything but straightforward down there which is exactly what I was looking for. I’d love to just stay in Odessa and explore the catacombs for a month non stop but when you only have two days to explore the catacombs you have to make the most of your time and that was definitely one of the best ways to spend the limited time I had.

If anyone is thinking of visiting Odessa (and I highly recommend it) and wants a tour of the catacombs feel free to let me know and I’ll put you in contact with Egor who can arrange a trip to the catacombs.