Getting the veggie option in Chernobyl

IMG_4502
The tour bus.

Yes, you can get a vegetarian lunch on the Chernobyl tour. And yes, it might seem strange to be asking for a meat-free meal while you’re visiting a place that is well-known for its high radiation levels. Who has time to worry about health in a radiation zone? But it’s been more than 30 years since the nuclear reactor disaster there, and a few adventurous companies offer guided tours of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine.

I went with chernobyl-tour.com, and if you’re looking for an English-speaking tour, I would highly recommend them. The guides were super knowledgeable and very nice. Despite there being about 50 people on the tour, it never felt too big, as the guides were very patient with explaining everything and answering questions. They didn’t have enough Geiger counters for everyone, but as we got closer to the reactor itself, I realized I didn’t mind not having one. Everyone else’s Geiger counters kept going off, like a weird version of a cell phone.

And yes, it’s safe. They screen people quite thoroughly leaving the area— there are three radiation checkpoints one has to pass on your way out. One unfortunate woman in our group had to leave her shoes behind after she set off the detector.

17757168_10155230363636528_438090564064138104_n
The radiation checkpoint. Photo by Starfox.

The entire area around the Chernobyl reactor, for a 30 kilometer radius, is called the Exclusion Zone. Within the Exclusion Zone is the 10-kilometer zone, which includes the remains of the reactor. However, in the outer zone are the remains of several small villages.

house
House in the village of Zalissya.

Our first stop is the village of Zalissya, just inside the Exclusion Zone. This was the beginning of the surreal: a deserted, overgrown village, but near a highway with cars driving by. While few people live in the Exclusion Zone, there were a few stubborn holdouts who refused to leave. Also, there are still people who work in the area, though they generally don’t live there. The village we went to is deserted, however, and very haunting. Here, you could clearly see the ordinary stuff that people left behind– clothes, books– that made the place seem very melancholy.

left hurry
House in the village of Zalissya.
calander
Calendar Inside a home in the village. note the date.

shoe

I hadn’t realized that the village of Chernobyl itself still had people living in it. It doesn’t look that bustling, but there’s still a few cars on the roads and a post office— one that has a sign giving the daily radiation reading. Honestly, though, there are more empty buildings than occupied ones, and for some reason, the village was exempt from the de-USSR’ing of the Ukraine. Unlike the rest of the country, which yanked down its Lenin statues, hammer and sickles and renamed all their streets back to Ukrainian names.

Next was the mostly-buried village of Kopachi. As most of the structures were made out of wood, and were radioactive, the village was mostly torn down— except for a kindergarten full of abandoned toys.

creepy doll
Village of Kopachi.
kids cabinet
Inside the kindergarten in Kopachi.

Next stop is this enormous, bizarre metal structure: the DUGA radar, a giant contraption built to track missiles and communicate. It was huge, and a little strange. Pictures don’t do this thing justice, as it’s too big to be photographed properly.

ray
The radar.
grafitti
Soviet-era paintings, near the radar.

Before we went to Pripyat was a canteen style lunch– all food brought in from off-site, of course. The veggie option is pretty simple: potato and cabbage soup, rice and beans, shredded carrot and cabbage salad, with sliced apples and oranges for dessert. I would recommend the plain juice over the compote, as my compote tasted funny (and I noticed a few other people sniffing their glasses.)

food
Canteen-style lunch on the Chernobyl tour.

Finally, we went to the town of Pripyat, which is where the now-iconic photos of abandoned buildings are taken. Home to almost 50,000 before the accident, it was evacuated shortly after and has not been lived in since.

The sign outside Pripyat.

It’s incredible, eerie, and more than a little haunting. Abandoned buildings are one thing— I’ve seen plenty of those in Detroit. Even the ghost towns of the southwest don’t quite compare to how recent this is. How abrupt. Clothes are left strewn on floors, writing in chalk not erased from the school chalkboards. A vending machine still has a glass cup, waiting for the next person to come along and order a drink.

vending machine
A trio of vending machines in Pripyat. The middle still has a glass…

The friend I was traveling with, who’s Polish, remembers being called out of class and given some sort of medicine that was supposed to help with radiation. I don’t have any concrete memories of Chernobyl— I was really young when it happened— but I do remember, vaguely, that the name evoked a sense of dread. Something bad was happening on the other side of the world. Also, the Chernobyl disaster and the Challenger explosion are inexplicably linked in my mind. I do remember being shown the Challanger launch— I must have been in preschool or kindergarten— and when the teachers realized what was happening, hurriedly switching the TV off.

atom
Sad irony: the letter atop this building mentions the atomic age. In Pripyat.

I think that’s why so many people are fascinated by it: here is where we came very close to wiping ourselves out. With so many decades between the disaster and now, I think it’s easier to both realize how catastrophic it could have been, yet how distant it’s become in our memory. Time has become something like the concrete used to insulate the ruined reactor.

ferriswheel

Tucked away in the back of our imaginations is the unused ferris wheel of Pripyat’s amusement park.

bumper cars

classroom2
Propaganda posters from the inside of a school, Pripyat.

What was far more poignant about Pripyat was how familiar, yet how ruined and overgrown, it was. The main square was hopelessly overgrown with trees and some of the school buildings had collapsed. But underneath the desolation and faded, peeling paint was the remains of a once-normal town.

mailbox
Postbox, Pripyat.

Interestingly, some people have snuck back into Chernobyl to dot it with modern graffiti. The wildlife, such as the deer and bears, seemed quite fitting.

Modern graffiti.

The absolute final stop was the Sarcophagus and the newly-built “Arch” over the ruined reactor. Our guides told us we had to keep our distance, and honestly, she didn’t have to tell us twice.

sarcophogus
The “Arch,” built over the Sarcophagus, built to contain the radiation of the ruined reactor 4 in Chernobyl.

Which is probably why it still haunts us: it’s not full of three-headed animals, or devoid of songbirds, or full of poisonous green gas. It’s just a town that was abandoned for the scariest of reasons.

Memorial to the firefighters and liquidators who lost their lives in putting out the fire and securing the reactor.

Leaving the Exclusion Zone is a memorial statue to the firefighters and liquidators who gave their lives trying to secure the radioactive material.

Our guides showed us a video about the history of the disaster, and the first half we watched on the way in: the dramatic explosion, the radioactive cloud discovered drifting over Europe by Sweden, the frantic scrambling of Soviet politicians to both explain and cover up what had happened. The second half we watched was far more tragic, as it detailed the efforts to secure the reactor and stop the spread of radiation. There was a sad theme of older men, the few who had outlived their colleagues, explaining how they had helped stop the disaster: the firefighters, the miners tunnelling under the reactor, the countless engineers. They all repeated the same idea: that they’d be doing their duty, they had been doing what needed to be done.

Leaving the Exclusion Zone was an egg statue, Ovum II. It’s full of letters from around the world, it’s designed to outlast the reactor, and symbolizes how life will go on. As we went to Chernobyl on Easter, it seemed particularly fitting.

Pączki, vegan or gluten-free

Problem: it’s almost Pączki Day, but you have a dietary restriction. Solution: hit up one of the many vegan or gluten-free bakeries in the metro Detroit area.

For gluten-free: try Celiac Specialties in Rochester. The pączki come frozen, but warm up nicely.

2013-02-12-08-49-12.jpg
Gluten-free paczki from Celiac Specialties.

For vegan, try MI Little Sweet Tooth in Clinton Township.16684309_1338593846200458_4281783918365573950_n

Happy Pączki Day! Did I miss a bakery that supplies vegan or gluten-free pączkis?

Golden beet soup with lemongrass

Slices and cubes of golden beets.
Slices and cubes of golden beets.

“Do you want anything from the store?” Such a simple question, but when asked this with a bit of jet lag, I have a hard time answering.

When I return to the U.S. from Poland, I’m always dazzled by the sheer size and variety of produce and products in American grocery stores. Particularly in high-end places, such as Plum Market, Whole Foods and Sprouts Market, the volume of choices is pretty overwhelming.

Which is why I was drawn to these cool-looking beets: they’re both at once exotic and comforting, as they remind me of barszcz and beetroot salad, both popular dishes in Wroclaw.

Golden beets are similar in flavor to red beets, but they’re not as earthy, and so have a slightly richer, smoother flavor. While their juice is really vibrant, it doesn’t stain everything pink— bonus! For seasoning, I decided against using apple cider or dill, and went with lemongrass.

Roasting the beets before adding them to the soup is the best way to go, in my opinion. Beets are dense, tough root veggies, and to get them soft enough to eat, you either need to boil them or roast them. Boiling makes them watery, while roasting them retains their flavor and consistency.

I think the next time, I would add carrots to this soup— they would pair well with the sweet, slightly earth, flavor of beets.

Raw golden beets, before going in the oven.
Raw golden beets, before going in the oven.

Ingredients

2-3 large golden beets, diced

1 medium onion, minced

5-6 cups of vegetable broth

1 tablespoon lemongrass seasoning

olive oil

salt and pepper, to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C.)
  2. While the oven is preheating, scrub the beets and then wrap then in tinfoil.
  3. Roast the beets for 45 minutes to an hour, until tender.
  4. Let the beets cool, then peel the beets.
  5. Saute the onion in olive oil.
  6. When the onion is translucent, add the vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Add the lemongrass as well.
  7. When the broth is boiling, add the diced beets, reduce the heat and simmer on low until the beets are soft.
  8. Add some salt and pepper, and serve.
    Golden beet soup with Rumi's gluten-free challah bread.
    Golden beet soup with Rumi’s gluten-free challah bread.

     

    Golden beet Soup

    • Servings: 4-6
    • Difficulty: easy
    • Print

    2-3 large golden beets, diced

    1 medium onion, minced

    5-6 cups of vegetable broth

    1 tablespoon lemongrass seasoning

    olive oil

    salt and pepper, to taste

    Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C.)                                                                             While the oven is preheating, scrub the beets and then wrap then in tinfoil. Roast the beets for 45 minutes to an hour, until tender.                            Let the beets cool, then peel the beets.                                                                    Saute the onion in olive oil. When the onion is translucent, add the vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Add the lemongrass as well.                                                                                                                                       When the broth is boiling, add the diced beets, reduce the heat and simmer on low until the beets are soft.                                                                                          Add some salt and pepper, and serve.