Monday, 23 July 2018


Mary and I are back in Ukraine for our seventh tour. This is our first time to be here in mid-summer.  We were warned that it could be very hot.  It is hot but not as bad as we had expected. We are slowly getting adjusted to the time zone.

We arrived Friday July 13 after an uneventful flight from Winnipeg.  We were forced to fly via Chicago as the cost of the air fares was considerably lower.  It is always interesting as to what one notices and remembers from a flight.  I remember our pilots for the United Airlines flight boarding ahead of us in Winnipeg.  I pointed them out to Mary and commented that they did not inspire confidence.  They were rather unkempt and slovenly dressed.  However they were quite competent as pilots as we had a good take-off in Winnipeg and a smooth landing in Chicago.  On the other hand, the pilot of our Austrian Airlines flight banged the plane down very hard on our landing in Vienna.  It was a real lid closer.  I got this expression from a former neighbour who flew large aircraft for the military.  He told me that you can always tell if an aircraft has had a heavy landing as all the toilet lids will be closed. The last leg of our flight into Dnipro was uneventful or else I was too tired to notice anything.

About 26 hours after leaving Winnipeg, we were in our apartment in Molochansk (formerly called Halbstadt). We had a quick bowl of beautiful cabbage borscht prepared by Ira, our cook at the Mennonite Centre and then were off to bed. I fell asleep immediately and Mary being a caring and professional nurse had to wake me to give me my sleeping pill. We had planned on taking a melatonin tablet, which I call my sleeping pill, as we had heard that it helps your body adapt to the change in time zones.  We slept for more than 12 hours that first night. After 4 subsequent nights of tossing, I am not so sure that the pills really help.

What strikes us as we walk through town is the abundance of fruit.  The cherry season is finished but apricot season is in full swing. You can spot the apricot trees by the carpet of apricots lying around them on the ground.  The apricots are being canned, dried and made into jam but they cannot keep up with the production of fruit from the trees.  This is the first time in 5 years that there has been a good apricot crop and people are storing them up in anticipation of some lean years ahead.
Apricots on Trees

Carpet of Apricots

There is a mulberry bush growing on the Mennonite Centre property.  According to my information, mulberries were introduced to the region by Mennonites in the early part of the 19th century as there was a large cottage industry for the production of silk. The mulberry leaf is the only food on which a silk worm can survive. The mulberry fruit is dark blue in colour and stains your fingers when you pick it.  I like the unique taste.  We hope some of our mulberries are still available when the expected tourists start to arrive on July 25. 
Mulberry Bush at the Mennonite Centre

A significant focus of our first 2 weeks has been in preparing for the arrival of the Mennonite Heritage Cruise passengers.  There are 200 passengers on the ship and most of them will be coming to the Mennonite Centre for a lunch and to explore Halbstadt.  We have been getting the tunnels ready for them.  This required extensive clean-up of rubble and the installation of some lighting.  One of the tunnel entrances is under the Central Schule (former boys’ school).  The town’s people have noticed the increased activity at the place and observed our coming and going.  The rumour in town is that the Mennonite Centre is taking over that building. It is probably wishful thinking on their part as they would see it as a way of getting the building fully restored.

While cleaning out the access to tunnels under the former Mennonite Credit Union, two of the workmen decided to do some exploring themselves.  They crawled through a place where the tunnel entrance had been sealed by Soviet authorities in the 1980’s.  The tunnel had also been filled with sand at that point. They crawled through a small opening and over the sand. They were gone for close to 30 minutes and emerged with pictures and stories of tunnels going in three directions.  The tunnels were quite wide and they had to walk a bit stooped but managed to get around quite well.  They even came across an underground well in the tunnel.  I am sure they will share their stories with other people in town and I will get to hear more tunnel stories from the town folk.

This last Friday, we received an invitation to visit the priest at the local Russian Orthodox Church.  We had always heard that he was hostile toward the Mennonite Centre.  We were very warmly received by an elderly man in a robe who liked to joke.  He even had some basic English to help our communications.  He had a small request to help the church buy some tile for a new chapel.  He gave us a full tour of the place with a detailed description of each icon.  He then led us up into their new bell tower.  His instructions for the steep ascent were quite simple – men had to go first.  This was not based on any chauvinistic rules but was simply to insure that the men did not see anything “inappropriate” on the steep ascent.  At the top I was allowed to ring every bell and make as much noise as I wanted.  There was a beautiful view from the bell tower of the seven story Willms flour mill located in Alt-Halbstadt.
View of Priest with Willms mill in background

The priest informed us that the church had honoured a special anniversary this week.  It was on July 17, 1918 that the Tzar and his family were executed. In honour of this event a special icon was brought in from Moscow.  When the official carrying the icon was stopped at the Ukrainian border and asked what he had to declare, he told them that he was bringing in the Tzar.  He was allowed to proceed.  There is a plaque honouring Nicholas II in their chapel.
Plaque at Orthodox Church

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