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.

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