Don's diary: Loesses and gains

April 12, 2002

I set off for Kiev - the worst bit is getting from Leicester to Gatwick! I am met at Borispol by Academy of Sciences representatives and driven to Vorzel, where our conference is being held. I had not realised how far from Kiev the main airport was located, or how far away Vorzel was on the other side.

The conference is in a sanatorium, so we share our accommodation with heart patients. It is a meeting of the Sub-commission for European Quaternary Stratigraphy, part of the International Union for Quaternary Research - dedicated to a close study of the climates and environments of the past 2 million years. The flat plain of Ukraine, composed largely of airfall loess soils, preserves a great record of the recent geological past.

Today is a day of short papers. Tomorrow the field tour begins.

We fill two buses and make straight for the loess exposure at Stari Bezradychy. This is a high cliff-like section. We struggle to the top, admiring the revealed deposition patterns and buried soils along the way.

The afternoon is spent examining seemingly endless numbers of windmills in the national country park Museum of Traditional Building.

We are off in our buses again on the long leg of the field tour. Today's first place of interest is a mammoth bone site where we are able to look at the remains of a mammoth bone house.

In the afternoon we move on to another large loess section at Vyazivok, where the Ukrainians have made a marvellous job of preparing the sections with steps cut and faces cleaned; there is much discussion and sample taking. We stay the night in Lubny.

I wake feeling very refreshed as we head south to the Pivikha section. This is beside the Dnepr River, which has cut down through the deposits and left marvellous exposures. It has also provided a beach for us to stand on. The river is impounded and the reservoir is wide. The sun is shining brightly and it is just like being at the seaside. We cross the dam and head for a more exclusive hotel in Cherkassy.

Heading north and west now. We come to Mezhirich and another mammoth house.

A shelter has been erected over the main mammoth discovery and we descend perhaps 2m into a pit for closer examination. There is a considerable thickness of loess under the site. These creatures were true denizens of the loess world, as were the humans who hunted them.

Our final destination is another amazing bankside exposure. Here this whistlestop tour ends. We drive back to Kiev, and I settle into the hotel Druzhba, where the meeting disperses. The Lithuanians and Italians stay in my hotel; the others head for the academy hotel, Carbon, or the airport or railway station. The SEQS meeting has been a great success.

I, however, am not finished here. There is a dual reason for my visit, and today part two of the Ukrainian operation begins: an investigation into construction problems in loess soils. My Academy of Sciences guide turns up early and we head for the Lavra monastery - the monastery of the caves.

This is built on loess overlooking the Dnepr but it includes an extraordinary subterranean section, constructed over many years by the monks digging into the loess.

The caves and tunnels have resisted collapse for hundreds of years. They provided refuge from the Tartars - and the Nazis.

I spend my final day in the city, experiencing the subway system; more tunnels in the loess, but on a rather larger scale. It is a classic Soviet-style subway construction with impressive stations.

The city looks very attractive in the sunshine. After a quick visit to the St Sophia cathedral, I head for Borispol and catch the flight back to Gatwick.

Ian Smalley is professor of quaternary engineering geomorphology at Nottingham Trent University and president of the INQUA Loess Commission.

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