Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is a city of hills.
And while you'd eventually figure that out just by walking around, climbing its many steps, crossing its bridges, and maybe even riding its funicular, city planners went so far as to name its various regions according to its topography—including Podil ("lower") and Pechersk ("caves").
There are even some steep roadways that aren't called "streets" or "roads" or "avenues" or even "alleys," but rather "descents" (a.k.a. uzviz).
That's mostly because the city was built upon the banks of the Dnieper River—the fourth-longest in Europe, which flows from Russia through Belarus and Ukraine out to the Black Sea.
But the problem with natural, earthen hills—as opposed to mountains made of rock—is the threat of landslides. If too much groundwater collects and begins to erode the high bank of the river, it could destabilize the entire hill and threaten the structures built upon it.
That's why in 1915-6, a series of tunnels—over 30 miles of them within the Nikolskaya system alone—were built to relieve the groundwater supply and drain the natural, clean water out to the river.
Since Ukraine separates its underground tunnels into three systems—one for groundwater drainage, one for storm water runoff, and one for sewer (a.k.a. toilet water)—we could go exploring down there without worry of any "shit."
Of course, since it is wet down there, it helped to wear some Russian military-grade wading boots.
While entering the system is relatively easy if you know which manhole to crack open and climb down through, it is, as the urbexers in Kiev say, "unlegal."
But the risk of discovery is really just at the points of entry and exit, since you're not likely to encounter anybody else down there, through the trapezoidal passageways of the underground city.
And it's true—Kiev is much bigger than you'd imagine, when you consider the sprawling metropolis underneath the city.
It's a favorite hangout of the local urbexers—at least, those who consider themselves tunnelers. (Others might prefer natural caves and caverns, while still others would rather climb to a roof rather than heading underground.)
They leave their mark down there at periodic points, making their treks not entirely anonymous.
As our group traversed the subterranean system—traveling only about a half mile at a snail's pace, at times on our hands and knees—we encountered seemingly ancient, Russian yellow bricks, some covered in concrete and others in limestone deposits.
Many of those brick passageways weren't tall enough to stand up in—only just over five feet in height, if we were lucky—so we spent much of the time hunched over, trying to walk with our legs and not our backs.
Occasionally, we'd hit a spot with a vertical shaft above us—and even if that meant standing directly under an indoor waterfall, it was a relief to stand up straight at all.
Although the slow drip of water through and down the walls is clean, it does feature enough mineral deposits to form speleothem like cave pearls and stalactites.
But sometimes, the water doesn't drip at all—it just collects onto the walls in sparkling droplets. They looked like diamonds shining by the light of our headlamps.
They were, in fact, so bewitching that I stayed behind to photograph them while most of the rest of our group proceeded to another, upper level for some more intense (and wetter) exploration.
As I contemplated the surface of the tunnels that surrounded me, singing into the abyss and listening to my voice echo back at me, a bat flew by—apparently having been disturbed by the rest of the group while it tried to sleep.
As we prepared to make our exit, we joked that this underground tour was not for claustrophobes—but, in truth, I consider myself claustrophobic. Strangely, the tight spaces down there didn't bother me, as long as I could squeeze through them and not get stuck like Winnie the Pooh in the rabbit hole. (The tour operators also advise that you not "have obesity.")
Special thanks to our charming and knowledgeable guide, Vladik (a.k.a. General Kosmosa), for getting us out alive and without any legal trouble.
I've Outdone Myself Again
Photo Essay: A Post-Soviet Playground Grows in Kiev
Photo Essay: Into the Abyss of Downtown LA's Underground Tunnels