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Trip Report A Short Holiday Kiev and Chernobyl

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Travelers. I and DS (19)

We flew Ukraine International Airlines from Vienna, 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 surprisingly spacious; the flight attendants friendly; and the flights punctual. In my book, that’s pretty good!

Not having access to an English-language library (or desiring a Kindle), and not interested in purchasing a book on the whole of Ukraine, I cobbled together our “briefing notes” to read at breakfast from the Internet, a downloaded Rough Guide chapter on Kiev, and a few trip reports and ex-pat blogs I could unearth. By good fortune I also found a German-language guidebook for Kiev at a charity store containing an incredible street map that saved us on more than one occasion.

Imagine a Post-Cold-War-Meets-Grand-Budapest-Hotel four-star hotel, and that was our suite with balcony at the Hotel Ukraine, overlooking Independence Square. The promised views did not disappoint. Nothing with the hotel disappointed, really; the quirks added to our overall favorable experience.

Though a massive reception desk greeted us when we exited the lift on the 9th floor, at no point during our stay did anyone seem to be staffing the desk, though the hotel was filled with veterans and news reporters as our stay coincided with Ukraine Independence Day. In fact, the only items at the desk were guest books dating back to the early 1990's.

Speaking of the early 1990’s, our suite was like time travel, brocade and brass everywhere, and a lovely tea set in one of the cabinets. We arrived after midnight to find the sofa bed without linens for DS. By this point we were so tired we could have slept on the floor, so that was a small matter. In the morning we went for breakfast that began, at least according to the information, at 07:00. By 07:10 a small crowd of hungry Ukrainians had gathered outside the still-closed breakfast room, banging on the door. All we wanted was a cup of coffee to take back to the room until such time as we had properly showered. Eventually the breakfast room opened, and we eagerly poured coffees and returned to the suite, to savor our ice cold coffee, likely leftover from the previous day.

The coffee-and-morning-news time in our room a bust, we collected ourselves and returned for a more formal meal a little later. The breakfast was five-star (and with fresh, hot coffee)! All of my morning favorites on two plates--sausages, dumplings, salads, dark bread and salted butter, kashi, and dry cottage cheese (oh, how I abhor soupy cottage cheese). And a fabulous pastry table to balance out the "good" foods.

Returning each day to our suite was its own little treat, too. While the sofa bed had been prepared with linens (all the linens were sumptuous), we would return to find that the number of towels in the bath ranged from 2 to 6 on any given day; sometimes there would be toiletries, and sometimes, not. The water bottles were always replenished; clean glasses and tableware, not so much. Again, all of these quirks just added to our favorable experience.

Churches and Monasteries
Kiev is a city built on hills, and over the course of our three-day holiday we walked a little more than 43 kilometers (~28 miles), all of which I am convinced were uphill. The reward for the uphill climbs was worth it, though, to view the city’s churches and monasteries that seemed to come in every color of the rainbow. Among our favorite was Saint Sophia, the UNESCO-protected cathedral at the site where it is believed the Kievan Rus’ (the collection of local tribes) first formed what is now Ukraine. The interior beauty defies description. As with most churches, cathedrals, and monasteries, photo-taking was prohibited and strictly enforced.

Perchersk Lavra is the Kievan cave monastery that stretches over a series of hills to the south of Kiev proper. Like Saint Sophia, it was established over a millennia ago and is the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church for Eastern Europe. An 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 did not tour the caves, as we had reached the monastery in early afternoon; walking around the grounds and some of the churches was a visual feast by itself, though. We were also fortunate to have beautiful, blue sky weather against which the gold onion domes could sparkle.

We visited Pechersk Lavra on a Sunday afternoon, the surrounding park and lanes filled with worshipers moving between churches and families picnicking on the grounds. Happening at the same time was an annual flower festival and a folk festival, so crowds were dense and lively. 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!

Besarbsky Market was the grande dame of farmer’s markets in Kiev once upon a time. Our visit was in an afternoon, after some of the vendors had gone home, though our experience was still rather old world and quite photogenic—raw beef, chicken, and poultry sitting atop counters, open to the elements and not cooled; and whole skinned rabbits (except for the feet—the lucky rabbit’s foot, perhaps?) waiting to become stew. The fruits and vegetable displays were bright and bountiful, but unlike our day trips from Vienna to small markets in our neighboring countries, I could not bring home every luscious item I spied. I only have the photos, alas.

The proximity of Kiev to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the opportunity to tour the zone is likely not one we will ever have in the future, so DS and I decided to devote a day of our short holiday to the tour, and we both concluded it was well worth our time.

Bright and early one morning we met our group; one can not walk up and join, however; advance registration (and passport information) was 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. Everyone on the tour seemed genuinely interested in the subject matter and not just taking the tour for “fun.”

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 (at least there were cows in the field to watch), we headed to the first checkpoint. There is a 700km fence around the zone; the zone is approximately the size of Luxembourg! Security was strict at the checkpoint; DS and I laughed to think that if America had border security on the level of that at the exclusion zone, the current crop of presidential candidates would have nothing 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—a little eerie but compellingly beautiful at the same time.

Just off the worn paths in the villages 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 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. 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 and 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.

At the firehouse from where the first responders (or, "liquidators," a rather disturbing term, I thought) 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.

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 carp were more than two-meters in length! Eerie, we thought. Security and photo-taking near the site is heavily restricted, understandably. The radiation levels at this spot were equal to the dosage we received on our two-hour flight from Vienna to Kiev in just the fifteen minutes we were permitted to visit.

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.

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. 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. That never happened, and now the amusement park sits forlornly under vines and trees.

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, including, in the distance, Belarus, where the largest radiation cloud drifted in the days after the accident. Looking out over the treetops, with the highrises of Pripyat peeking out makes the whole scene look normal; at the ground level the view is very different.

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, and our group enjoyed a bountiful meal of a meat and cheese plate, salad, Borscht, roast pork and vegetables, and more delicious pastries before the return drive commenced.

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 (for DD), and it was DD who shared with me that this breed is believed to be the very first horses ever to walk the Earth. Nature has a way of healing itself.

Cold War and Independence Day Sightseeing
Since 2013 the entrance to the former military base housing the recently opened-to-the-public Radar Duga-1, a 6 billion Russian Ruble folly intended to detect ICBMs, is not so foreboding; the rusted "Stop, or You Will be Shot" and other signs just toothless reminders of another era. As for the radar, 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 in width, and 15 levels in height; the radar can also be climbed, which pretty much every male in our tour group opted to do for a level or two (DS included.)

Our visit to Kiev coincided with the weekend leading up to the Ukraine Independence Day. National pride was infectious; everyone was a little bit Ukrainian, from the teams completing the Ukraine puzzle map on the main stage (Crimea included!)... to the street performers wearing American flag t-shirts.

Earlier on Independence Day eve we joined hundreds of Kievans for a walkabout the Memorial Park. In the square of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) there were tanks to be climbed, and so of course DS climbed (along with dads and their little boys!) The museum itself was extremely well done, offering informative, if somewhat depressing, doses of the struggles of the Ukrainian peoples.

What We Ate.
Being of Polish descent, and having access in Vienna to Russian and Ukrainian grocers, we did not focus exclusively on Ukrainian foods, though we rarely passed them up, either.

"Puzata Hata," Ukraine's version of fast food. 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 savored a stack of potato pancakes, a plate of varencyky, a bowl of pickles, sausages, and two beverages. Epicurean satisfaction for hours.

A beautifully decorated restaurant offering Ukrainian fare called to us for lunch one day—more Varencyky, homemade sausage with tongue-eviscerating horseradish, braised rabbit stew, and smoked salmon in a mushroom cream sauce provided the delicious sustenance to walk all those kilometers, too.

We walked past one of the beautiful streets that radiate from Independence Square, and just as I remarked to DS that it reminded me of Montmartre in Paris, we spied the Tres Francais Cafe. Ha! We made dinner reservations and returned later that evening for an Alsatian pork dish and Canard Confit with sour cherry sauce. The meal was very good; Kiev does French food well, we declared.

Okay, maybe its origins are Russian, maybe French, maybe even Ukrainian, but we couldn't resist trying Kotleta po-Kyivsky at a small café near Pechersk Lavra. Whatever the origins, our Chicken Kiev was darned good.

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 DS away when I was trying to measure table linens at the folk festival and proceeded to assist me, but nodded approvingly when he reached to carry 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.

Kiev presented itself well as a vibrant city, and welcoming its guests. WiFi is practically everywhere, and so too is the surprise of “squatter” toilets in the WC, even in modern malls. The main shopping streets were lively at night (a wonderful treat for us, as Vienna’s stores close around 18:00 and all day Sunday.); the Metro clean, efficient, and absurdly inexpensive (~€0,16 per ride!). We transited through Zoloti Vorota station, one of Kiev’s most beautiful; as well as Arsenalna, one of the deepest stations in the world.

As with most holidays, all good things must come to an end; and with our visit being so abbreviated, the end came much sooner than we would have liked. So, much love, Kiev. Until we meet again! ❤️

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