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Tails From the Vienna Woods

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Ukraine

Kiev, The Postscript

Over the course of three short days I shot more than 500 snaps; fleeting, charming, beautiful scenes that are meaningless to others, but make me smile when I see them. A few moments were best experienced rather than captured on film, though. Like the Babushka who shooed Jack away when I was trying to measure table linens and proceeded to assist me, but nodded approvingly when he reached for the wrapped parcel. And the gentleman sitting at the adjacent table in the French bistro, clearly boring his escort to tears but amusing us greatly as we enjoyed our dinner.

While on our day trip to Chernobyl we detoured to the recently opened-to-the-public Radar Duga-1, a 6 billion Russian Ruble folly intended to detect ICBMs, except, well, it didn’t really work. Television and radio signals were intercepted, but that was about it. The radar is massive, spanning almost a half-kilometer, and the military base associated with it employing hundreds of people at the time.
Since 2013 the entrance to the former military base is not so foreboding; the rusted “Stop, or You Will be Shot” and other signs just toothless reminders of another era.

Further Afield from Kiev: The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Being married to a nuclear engineer, related topics arise occasionally at the dinner table; and Tony’s involvement in the post-Fukushima Daiichi disaster is reason, in part, why we are now living in Vienna. That aside, the proximity of Kiev to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the opportunity to participate in one of the official tours of the zone to learn more about the social and cultural aspects of the event is likely not an opportunity we will ever have in the future, so Jack and I decided to devote a day of our holiday to the tour.
Bright and early one morning we met our group; one can not walk up and join, however; advance registration (and passport information) is required for this official tour. There were 15 of us, some Ukrainians, some Aussies, a couple of Brits, and the two of us plus the driver and guide. The drive from Kiev to the 30km exclusion zone checkpoint is a little under two hours. That is, unless the tour van breaks down in rural Ukraine. 
After about a 45 minute delay until a new van rescued us we arrived at the first checkpoint. There is a 700km fence around the zone; the zone is approximately the size of Luxembourg!  Let’s just say that if America took border security as seriously as is done at the exclusion zone, there would be nothing for the current slate of presidential candidates to dicker about. 

All in all, 96 villages were evacuated in the days and weeks following the disaster at the power plant. The villages had been largely intact until the end of the Cold War; in the difficult economic period for all of the former Soviet states that followed, looters stole any and everything of value from most of the villages, sadly.  We toured two villages within the 30km exclusion zone, both appearing like movie sets of abandoned cities. (This is a former grocery market.)

This is an abandoned primary school; most evacuees were given just two hours’ notice to gather one bag of personal belongings before leaving.  Just off the worn paths are dozens of radiation hot spots; those on the tour who had rented Geiger counters seemed to derive weird enjoyment from taking photos of the devices showing the radiation levels. At least no one took selfies.

The second village we visited was occupied by a lone resident, an 87-year old woman who was among the first “resettlers” following the accident. A spinster teacher at the time, she demanded to return to the house her family had built and where her parents were buried, and to live and farm as before. (Tony knew about her, as well!)  There are a few hundred “resettlers” scattered across the zone; the government allowed their return if they signed a waiver to never sue the government for health problems.  Their families are allowed to visit, with special permission.

Rather camera shy, she did however make a big fuss over preparing a bag of apples for our group to snack.  For the last 29 years she has lived without running water or electricity, and has turned the farm into her home.  She is also writing a book that she hopes will be published posthumously.

Our next destination was the village of Chernobyl itself, inside the 10km exclusion zone and requiring a second ID and first radiation check.  Approximately 5.000 people live and work in Chernobyl in 15 day shifts (to manage radiation dosages), undertaking various clean-up and security procedures involved with building the sarcophagus that will entomb Reactor #4 by 2017.

In the village square there is a memorial path listing the 96 villages that were evacuated.

At the firehouse from where the first responders (or, “liquidators,” a rather disturbing term) departed there is a memorial that the Soviet government to this day refuses to acknowledge.  None of the first responders survived more than a couple of weeks.

Transportation around the village is both antiquated and modern, if a 1970’s bus can be considered modern.

We stopped at a small “memorial” park to the robotic devices employed during the accident to measure radiation levels in areas where personnel simply could not venture.

Nearing the site of Reactor #4 we paused at the cooling pond to feed the carp that have lived in these waters since before 1986. Scientists had been conducting research with fish in the pond, but for obvious reasons the fish could not be moved after the accident. 

Some of the fish are over two-meters in length, having no predators and a daily supply of bread from workers and the tour groups. Did you know carp can live up to 80 years?

Shortly thereafter, Reactors #3 and (the remainder of) #4 came into view. 
Security and photo-taking near the site is heavily restricted, understandably. One member of another group decided to “go rogue” and leave the boundaries to capture a snap, and was made to delete the photos by the authorities.  The radiation levels at this spot were high, though only about the same as the dosage we received on our two-hour flight from Vienna to Kiev.  

After Chernobyl we drove to the nearby town of Pripyat, constructed to house and serve the families of the men working at the plant. The average age of its citizens was 26; the town boasted top-rate housing and facilities, and the employees at the plant earned wages more than triple the average Ukrainian. Life was good.

Shortly after 13:20 on 26 April, 1986, all of that changed.

This is the former Lenin Avenue leading into Pripyat’s main square.

Lingering bits of the “Social Times” awkwardly pose above empty buildings.

Pripyat was a young, and still developing town, when authorities set celebrations on 1 May 1986 (May Day) as the perfect setting to launch the city’s new amusement park.

Communist propaganda kiosks tilt awkwardly throughout the town.

The town boasted a sports complex including a basketball court and a half-sized Olympic pool. The pool was used by responders until 1990, then left to the looters.

A cold war leftover, the stockpile of gas masks for the elementary school children in Pripyat.

At the end of the tour we were permitted to walk up the 16 flights to one of the apartment complex roofs for a view of the surrounds. In the background, the sarcophagus and reactors can be seen.

Roughly 25km to the north, just beyond the body of water, lies Belarus. The largest radiation cloud following the accident floated across that border toward Minsk, to where thousands of evacuees were being relocated.

The day was long and mentally exhausting, but before we returned to Kiev we were treated to dinner at the Chernobyl Canteen. All of the food prepared is brought in from outside the exclusion zone.

Jack and I shared a table with the two Brits, funny guys who were surprised to meet Americans who had traveled “so far afield.”  Just as we started to share what we thought was supper, the first of two additional courses appeared. Ukrainian Borscht, naturally, followed by roast pork and vegetables. Dinner, and our dinner mates, rounded out a memorable day.

But there was one final and unexpected treat. Between the 10km and 30km checkpoints a small herd of Przewalski’s horses bounded along the road. I recognized them from the many, many, many horse books that have graced our home, though it was Anna Grace who told me that this breed is believed to be the very first horses ever to walk the Earth. Nature has a way of healing itself.

One more ID and radiation checkpoint to clear, then back to Kiev. An incredible tour, but certainly not one for the average “Bucket List” tourist. 

Kievan Culture

Jack and I felt completely at home in Kiev, our Eastern Slavic heritage helping us to blend in nicely. Though the Ukrainian language uses a Cyrillic alphabet, I impressed Jack (and myself!) with how quickly I could translate a fair number of Cyrillic words, my only formal training being a year of Russian in university three decades ago. That, combined with having grown up in a Polish-speaking household and now navigating the menus and stores of my Slavic neighbors, meant that not everything was an indecipherable blur during our holiday.  This was a useful skill set to discover in a city where pretty much the only English was on the Metro signs.
A flower and folk festival was underway at the park near Perchersk Lavra. Who can resist Ukrainian Djadjas enjoying their day out?
The tickets to enter the festival were but 25Hryvnia each (€1), but leave the alcohol, weed, weapons, and grenades at home. 
More national costumes on display.
Embroidered works and pottery could be had for very few Hryvnias. Our dining table is a bit cheerier now with a woven cloth in reds and blues.
Honey stands numbered in the dozens at the festival, with visitors swarming (pun intended) to sample and purchase. We later learned that Ukraine produces the greatest amount of honey per capita in the world!
Babushkas are everywhere, naturally, and their presence commanded considerable respect from young and old alike. That was nice to see.
Singing Babushkas!
Honor Bars for Beer. This could work in Austria, and not just for the convenience to the morning commuter of grabbing a Radler (or two) before catching the U-Bahn. 
Burgers are the new Schnitzel across Central Europe. Vienna alone has had at least a half-dozen burger joints pop up since we arrived. Looks like Ukraine has jumped on the bandwagon as well. 
 Yes, that is the restaurant you think it is. Must be for the ex-pats.

 This is Besarabsky Market, the grande dame of farmer’s markets in Kiev once upon a time. We dropped by in the afternoon, after some of the vendors had gone home, though our experience was still rather old world.  In the months after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, vendors were provided Geiger counters in order that customers be able to check the radiation levels of incoming produce. Imagine.

Will it be roast pork for dinner?

 Bones for soup stock, perhaps?

 How about braised rabbit?

 Or, maybe just chicken?

 Kiosks throughout the city are beautiful, whether the offer is a gourmet hot dog or a smoke.

 “Puzata Hata,” Ukraine’s version of McDonald’s, sort of. One passes through a cafeteria line offering all the Ukrainian comfort foods that can be imagined, served by smiling staff. We dropped in, and for just €10 in total we lunched on a stack of potato pancakes, a plate of varencyky, a bowl of pickles, sausages, and two beverages. Epicurean satisfaction for hours.

We sat for one formal meal, I feeling brave enough to navigate the menu.

 Varencyky and Pivo to start. Soft, billowy dumplings filled with minced meat and topped with fried bacon crumbles. That’s all there is to write.

 Sausage and horseradish up next. The mild sausage and the tongue-eviscerating heat of the horseradish made me want to order two more plates.

 Smoked salmon with mushrooms and tomatoes in cream sauce for me; braised rabbit stew for Jack. We were pleased with our translations.

We walked past this street one day, and just as I remarked to Jack that it reminded me of Montmartre in Paris, we spied the Tres Francais Cafe. Ha! We made dinner reservations and returned later that evening.

 The small cheese plate to start.

Canard Confit with stewed fruits and sour cherry sauce for me; an Alsatian pork chop (that seemed larger than his head!) for Jack. Kiev does French bistro food extremely well.

Okay, maybe its origins are Russian, maybe French, maybe even Ukrainian, but we couldn’t resist trying Kotleta po-Kyivsky.  Whatever the origins, our Chicken Kiev was darned good.

Finally, it goes without saying that we loved Kiev for a number of reasons. Ice cubes and civilized store hours are just two of them.

Kiev’s Colorful Churches

Inspired for a short holiday, I scoured my travel notes and played airfare/lodging costs games, a favorite sport for me. The winner? Kiev, Ukraine’s capital and a destination that has piqued my curiosities for some time. School has begun for Anna Grace, and Tony is of course in the office, so I and my favorite son set off for a three-day city break.
We flew Ukraine International Airlines, a respectable carrier save for not offering any complementary in-flight services except for water (that is, unless the flight attendant skips your row with the water cart).  Listening to every message in three languages (Ukrainian, English, Russian) got a little tedious perhaps, but the planes were new; the Economy seats comfortable and spacious; the flight attendants friendly; and the flights punctual. Really, can anything more be hoped for with modern cattle-class air travel?
Our flight arrived near midnight, so we were not treated to this view over Independence Square from our hotel balcony until morning. More on the Ukrainian definition of “Five-Star Hotel” in a later post.
With a do-it-yourself walking tour guide, a street map in both English and Ukrainian and full tummies from the traditional Ukraine breakfast at the hotel, we were out the door.  Now, Kiev is a city built on hills, and over the course of our holiday we walked a little more than 43 kilometers (~28 miles or 53.000 steps), all of which I am convinced were uphill.  The reward for the uphill climbs was worth it, though.
Saint Andrew’s Church.  Photo-taking inside all but one church was absolutely forbidden. The Babushkas hired as patrol made certain of that.

Saint Michael’s Monastery.

Saint Sophia Cathedral complex is believed to be where the Kievan Rus’ was first established, the loose tribal units from which all Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Russian peoples can trace their cultural lineage, more than 1.000 years ago. The mosaics and painted walls on the interior defy description.

 Saint Volodomyr Cathedral, an active house of worship, was the only church to permit interior photos.

Perchersk Lavra is a Kievan monastery that stretches over a series of hills to the south of Kiev proper. Like Saint Sophia, it was established over a millennia and is the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church for Eastern Europe. And entire day could be devoted to exploring the myriad of churches and the extensive cave system (where important Kievan Orthodox priests are entombed) that comprise the complex.  We walked the grounds, in awe of the beauty.

 We visited Pechersk Lavra on a Sunday afternoon, the park and lanes filled with worshipers moving between churches and families picnicking on the grounds. Hard to believe this country is at war with Russia.

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