Continuing deeper into Eastern Europe after our Moldova/Transnistria stint, we wound up in the Ukraine. While the country may be at war along its eastern front, we situated ourselves in Odessa, a cosmopolitan and generally peaceful city ringed on its southern end by the Black Sea. As Ukraine’s fourth largest urban area, Odessa is famous for its parks, architecture, artistic contributions, and port. However, the city is also home to the largest series of underground tunnels in the world, estimated to be at 2,500km (though it hasn’t been fully mapped), known as the Odessa Catacombs. So Nick, Christine, and I were ostensibly going to be spending a lot of time underground.
The catacombs are so vast that every year people get lost down there, never to return. We heard stories of New Year’s parties where each time one unfortunate soul would not make it back to ground level on January 1st (or ever). Sneaking in and getting lost in the catacombs of Ukraine appealed to me none in the least, so shunning prejudices against acquiring paid information, a guide in this case would be necessary.
We hit up the main tourist information center (really a stall run by one of today’s energetic youth) to inquire about catacombs tours. It was a Monday afternoon, approximately around 1:00pm. He said he didn’t really know about them but would call someone we could talk to for more information, and asked us to return in twenty minutes.
We followed the provided instructions and came back to his stall a few minutes before half past one. At around 1:30pm, a young Ukrainian women in her early twenties ran up to us and said in English “ok, let’s go!” A little perplexed, we tried to figure out who she was and where exactly she wanted us to go. Somewhat taken aback by our inquisitive nature, she explained that there was simply little time to explain. This standoff continued for a few moments until it was made clear that this was the person the guy manning the tourist information had called, who apparently during the call also relayed that we foreigners were in desperate need to go on a catacombs tour today, without delay. This was unbeknownst to us, as we understood we were merely obtaining information for a potential future tour.
The girl, who for lack of an easy name to remember, will be referred to as Tanya, explained that she had just abruptly left work to take us on the tour, and we had to leave immediately as the tour would begin at 2pm. Feeling rushed into this, the three of us dithered, inquiring more about costs and potential times for tomorrow. She was clearly in a hurry and becoming agitated by our lethargic approach, repeating the urgent need to get on the move, and reminding us that she left work for this. After a few minutes we consented, considering that we had little else to do that afternoon, despite the fact that trying to get an exact price out of her proved to be impossible, and that she was to take us to a different catacombs entrance than the one we had originally inquired about.
We quickly set off walking, as Tanya explained the catacombs would only be opened at 2:00pm sharp and was 30 minutes away. It was 1:45pm by the time we left, so all of that already seemed impossible, but we kept our mouths shut. We literally walked across the entire city of Odessa for 45 minutes, arriving at the catacombs entrance at 2:30pm, well past our 2pm target. At times during the walk we murmured to ourselves that little about this made sense – why were we walking if it was so far away and we were already so late? Many buses and taxis had passed us – and why were the catacombs only opened at 2pm? Tanya said there was one guy with the key she had called to go there ahead of us – if it was just one guy with a key, couldn’t he adjust his timing somewhat? However, we decided while none of this made sense, it was better not to dive into it – a theme that would become readily present throughout our time underground in Odessa.
We were greeted by a cheery mid-40s male, henceforth referred to as Anton, who handed us a hardhat with flashlights and opened the door. We realized we hadn’t eaten much of anything that day and were about to go 60 meters underground for three hours – but Tanya assured us we’d be fed tea and cookies.
The tour was, to put mildly, utterly ridiculous. Not in the sense that it was poorly run, uninteresting, or of bad financial value, but simply because nothing, literally nothing, made an iota of sense. For three hours in underground darkness, Anton guided us through the catacombs explaining things in Ukrainian, while Tanya attempted to translate into English (a service is accompanied by an extra fee, as translation into Russian comes at no extra cost).
I say ‘attempted’ because that is the nicest way to describe it – Tanya spoke in English at a pace rapid enough to be considered fluent, not struggling with basics such as putting a sentence together or conjugation a verb, as many of us do when still not comfortable with a foreign language. In addition, she had a vast vocabulary of English words at her disposal, beyond what I would expect from myself in any foreign language I dabble in. Unfortunately, however, while she could string together a bunch of English words together in a rapid fashion, none of them were coherent. Individually they were legitimate words you could find in a dictionary – strung together in the manner she did, they were reduced to utter incomprehension. Combined with the oddities of the tour itself given the diverse array of activities which have taken place in the catacombs, the enhanced confusion brought about by our translator who had rushed us here in the first place, only seemed fitting.
As far as we could tell, the Odessa Catacombs are part science fiction fantasy setting, part planned potential refuge in the case of nuclear bombardment during the Cold War, and part hideout for revolutionary subversives, criminals, and World War II soldiers alike. That overarching explanation, however, was neglected, and rather we walked directly into a dark and perplexing place, relying on our own wits to piece little bit of information together into a coherent narrative. The following occurred during our three hours underground, either aided by no explanation at all, or one that rendered us more confused than had we been in silence.
- After walking down several flights of stairs, we were deep in the heart of the catacombs, and immediately walked into a bunker. We were unaware there were even bunkers down here and walked past them without explanation, so I asked what the catacombs were used for. Tanya quickly dismissed the question, saying “everything will become clear in the tour.” That did not prove to be an accurate statement.
- We walked past a room where a generator used to be. It had apparently been stolen. To this day I am unsure of who put the generator down there, what purposes it was used for, and how someone managed to steal a two-ton piece of machinery nearly four stories underground.
- We continued walking down the hallway when Anton told us to wait a minute. He went into the next room, and then said he was ready for us. We walked in and saw neon paint all over the wall, with a bunch of fake plastic mutant-type mannequins. Tanya then immediately points over and says this was the attack scene, and to look around the corner to see who won. There stood a lonesome, plastic midget mutant. This is all apparently a recreation of a scene from a famous Russian science fiction book that took place in a catacomb (it was unclear if it had actually been set in the Odessa catacombs, or the scene was just adopted for here), but the book was not mentioned until we had left the room in our stunned confusion.
- We then saw a room with a ton of machines, which apparently even had an air machine for people. We started asking some questions to ground our experience, as we had transitioned from some science fiction fantasy tale into a room with machines seemingly designed to allow people to live in the bunker. Christine thankfully asked a clarifying question, and we discovered that the bunker was set up to house 2,000 people during the Cold War, in case they needed it. There was no set list of the chosen people, it was more on a first come, first served basis. Christine also said if there was any food provisions, which elicited the obvious reply “Food? No, of course there was no food here.”
- We proceeded to walk into another room that had a desk. Anton stopped us and asked us what we thought the purpose of this room was. We meekly threw out some unbefitting answers, which clearly revealed our continued confusion about all these catacombs. Anton gave up listening to us and stated it was “an office for the head guy,” before promptly walking out of the room. We were let to speculate what head guy was lucky enough to get such an office with a view.
- Anton and Tanya showed us a hole in the catacomb which was used to bring cement from the surface down. Belatedly it was realized that this hole also allowed air from the surface to come underground, likely rendering this whole ‘escape from the contamination of Cold War bombs’ project useless.
- We walked past a room, when Tanya exclaimed something to Anton along the lines of “what about the thing in the room?” She then turned to us and asked “who is the volunteer?” Somehow I got picked/shoved to the front for this plucky assignment. She made me turn off my flashlight and took me into the dark room. In the corner was a bucket, which she demanded I put my hand into without looking. After protesting a bit, I halfway did, feeling cold water. She insisted I put my hand further in the bucket to which I did, and pulled up something slimy but plastic. I held it out and looked at it, asking if it was a snake. I quickly dropped it but peered into the bucket with my light, seeing an array of floating plastic snakes and centipedes. We exited the room and Tanya asked Nick and Christine to also go in, which they refused. She then told us a four-year-old girl had even done it, and that we were scared of everything. We left, with the logical transition from head office guy’s desk to random bucket of wet plastic centipedes in the corner left to the imagination.
- Finally we entered the mining area. This was the one part that made sense, as the catacombs originally had developed when Odessa residents used the limestone found underground to build their houses in the 1800s. This of course was not explained to us on the tour, but was something Christine had read prior.
- We continued past hallways with all sorts of random posters that were ignored, to an area that was a replica of a tunnel further down. Here a famous criminal had escaped to, but when the police came down here to find him he had fled, leaving only a pile of old bones. The police took the bones to the surface, where they were examined and discovered to be ancient animal bones of a glyptodont. Apparently the main police officer who had been chasing the criminal for so many years was so enthralled by the bones that he left the police force and became an archaeologist. Naturally.
- Then we went to the ‘Partisan’ room, a group of people who at some point also stayed down here. I saw a printing press and asked if they made a newspaper, which elicited the astounded reply “Yes, of course they made a newspaper!,” apparently common knowledge to anyone who sets foot in Odessa aside from yours truly. I then asked who exactly the Partisans were and what they were doing here – Tanya replied “you won’t understand.” Thus we exited the partisan room without further discussion.
- We then came to a room with World War II paraphernalia, including an enigma machine (a la the movie The Imitation Game). Many bullets, helmets, guns, and grenades were laid out on a table, some of which seemed like they may be functional.
- Afterwards we walked to a room that had a lightly-clothed female mannequin on a bed. We were told “criminals also came here to hide their stuff,” which apparently included basically naked plastic females.
- We walked past a pond in which Anton and Tanya asked us to drink from, which we promptly refused. That again brought up the fact that we were scared of everything. There was also a black spot on the ground where “someone had tried to keep a fish, but he died, and now this is black.”
- Afterwards we came to another lake with a table and chairs set up. We sat down and were told to be quiet and listen. Nothing happened for a few minutes, which caused Tanya again to say something about our fear levels, and we left, never knowing what fearless humans would’ve heard there.
- At that point, Anton and Tanya decided I should lead us back out of the underground maze that was the catacombs. I did for a while, until they laughed and showed us the ‘right’ way.
- That apparently led us to the party room. There was a long table with chairs – we sat down and Anton gave us tea prepared from the herbs of his garden (he had been carrying a thermos the whole time). Who knew this middle aged miner-type also home brewed his own tea? With the tea came a cookie each. It was at this spot that Anton noted a Ukrainian TV show featuring extreme wedding proposals had been filmed here recently, in which the groom proposed to his bride on an inflatable raft in one of the lakes we had just passed. You see, Anton explained, “In America you guys go to abandoned factories and fight – here in Ukraine we do extreme weddings.” I couldn’t have summed up the contrasts between our two divergent cultures better myself.
- It was at this table that Anton decided to pass around some old, out of circulation, money, and that we also found out he wasn’t from Odessa at all, but actually Crimea. Left unexplained, however, was why he was one of four people in all of Odessa entrusted with keys to the catacombs.
And that ended our excursion. We walked back to the surface after three hours of perplexing underground tourism. Never rude, our guides either were little versed in the art of explanation, or assumed a deep level of prior knowledge to allow us to immediately partake in the advanced catacombs tour. Or perhaps the Odessa Catacombs are simply beyond explanation to the human mind.
In all, the catacombs were apparently many things to many people at many different times, which partly had been transformed into an eclectic museum still in the process of figuring out who it really is. We literally left more confused than when we had entered, and if you found this blog post rambling and incomprehensible, well then now you know how we felt.