A couple of months ago, I headed out to Ukraine with my friend Al for a trip. You can read about the time we spent in Kiev in this post.
As part of the trip, we decided to take a day ‘tour’ to Chernobyl, and the nearby abandoned town of Pripyat. Yes… the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster.
Visiting such a place seems like a strange thing to do, and I was a bit hesitant at first, as I don’t really want to be a gawping tourist of tragedy. However, there are two different ‘exclusion zones’ around the plant, and you need to pass through military checkpoints where your passport is checked before you are allowed to enter. While there are some people who stay on the outskirts, it is estimated that nobody will ever be able to live inside the 30km exclusion zone again. It’s simply too contaminated.
The only real way for foreigners to see the area is to go with a registered guide, but as we were told, we weren’t tourists, we were ‘visitors who were interested in the impact of radiation on the local wildlife’. An interesting disinction presumably made by the Ukranian government somewhere to justify letting people in. Sadly Al wasn’t able to come, as he felt ill, so I braved the radiation on my own.
So there’s a thing. The radiation level was fairly minimal in the air itself, but we were warned not to touch the ground or any plants… etc. They said that we wouldn’t be allowed back out of the exclusion zone without being decontaminated if we got particles on our clothes… but the machines they used to check our exposure on the way out seemed more for show than anything, so I’m not really sure how much truth was in those warnings, or whether it was just security theatre.
What was interesting was that there were a number of ‘hot spots’ throughout the exclusion zone where they believe that radioactive material had been buried at some point, and we were able to see the numbers on our geiger counters shoot up as we got closer to them. The signs apparently marked out where these were, but they did say that tresspassers liked to sneak in and move these around for a joke. (!)
One particular story that struck me was how after the initial meltdown, radiation blew into a nearby forest, turning the leaves of the trees red. Not knowing what to do with them, the Soviets cut down the trees and buried them – which irradiated the entire area and water table. Normally in the minibus we had, radiation levels were pretty low, but when we drove over where the red forest used to be, it shot through the roof. It’s apparently one of the most heavily radioactive areas in the world.
Another interesting thing was seeing the wildlife in the exclusion zone. For whatever reason, the animals seem to have been unaffected by the high levels of radiation, and have flourished in the absence of human development. It was really interesting to see how they interacted with people given this… There were a lot of stray dogs for example, who wanted to come say hello.
and a bunch of foxes, who were incredibly curious and at peace with humans. It was a very surreal experience.
I have to admit to not knowing a whole lot about the Chernobyl disaster before I visited Ukraine, and it all kind of took me aback. The USSR kept the meltdown a secret from the rest of the world until unusually high levels of radiation were discovered at plants in Sweden, which is pretty mind blowing.
What was even more crazy was discovering just how ill-equipped the Soviets were for something of this magnitude. It took them a long time to work out what was happening, and when they did, their initial actions risked a second and third explosion that could have wiped out most of Europe. That was only averted by the actions of some incredibly brave firefighters and divers who went deep into the heart of the affected area, ultimately sacraficing themselves to horrible deaths to – literally – save the world. It was a pretty humbling thing to be in that place and learn about.
As part of the trip we were able to get pretty close to Reactor 4 which was the epicentre of the disaster, which is now covered with a specially designed sarcophagus. They’re not really sure what to do with such an enormous amount of radiation, and so it remains in place, sealed up.
What is perhaps craziest of all is that the plant’s other reactors were still functioning even up until recently – and people still work there, though they are limited by how long they can stay nearby in a month.
On a lighter note, there was one remaining statue of Lenin, just outside of where the workers would stay. The rest of them have been torn down, but this one was left… because, hey… who cares about a statute left standing in a place nobody can live?
We visited a bunch of small villages and towns in the lead up to the plant. It was pretty crazy to see just how much nature had taken over in such a short space of time. In the picture below, this ‘path’ used to be a town’s main road.
Technically you are not supposed to go inside the buildings, out of health and safety concerns (if you’ve read my Kiev blog you might find this ironic), but clearly this wasn’t enforced too strictly. That said, apparently if a guide was caught inside a building, they would lose their license – and if a regular person is caught without a guide nearby, even outside, then they are treated as a ‘stalker’, and immediately put in jail for 15 days (!).
Of course, we took a look inside some buildings.
There were some things inside these places that had clearly been placed in a certain way for visual effect. Knowing that didn’t make it any less creepy… in fact it probably made it even creepier, thinking of other people being in the same, isolated place. From reviews online, it had been made out like the guides were the ones who had set this stuff up, but it seemed more likely from spending time with ours that it was actually unauthorised visitors to the area before they clamped down on things a bit.
Either way, it made for some interesting scenes. This was legitimately a nursery at the time the disaster happened.
Whilst the outlying towns were pretty fascinating, Pripyat itself was on another level. A proper city with all the amenities you would expect, it was largely home to workers from the plant and their families. It had a population of just over 49,000 at the time of the disaster. To give you an idea of size, that is about 13,000 more people than the city of Stirling.
There was a fair amount of distance to be explored, as you can imagine, and our guide said that even if you spent ten years here you’d never quite be able to see it all. It was pretty difficult to navigate at times, as everything had been overtaken by nature again. Our guide had photographs showing what certain areas looked like, which was pretty mindblowing to see. The stadium, for example… which was now completely covered in trees:
It was an utterly surreal experience, and it felt like we had been dropped into the set of a video game. It turns out that Pripyat actually is used as a level in Call of Duty, which I’m not surprised about at all.
We opted to veer off the scheduled plan, and headed up to the roof of one of the flats, to get a view over the city – something that groups don’t usually do.
We climbed up about ten floors of old concrete steps, probably inhaling asbestos and all sorts as we went, to pull ourselves through an old hatch on the roof.
The view was worth it though, even if it did start to piss it down with rain.
There were a few other main sights to see, like the school and leisure centre.
The school is probably one of the most famous scenes, thanks to the presence of the gas masks that are lying all over the floor, and hanging from the roof.
Our guide explained that this whole thing was totally set up by a French journalist who came in the 90s or early 2000s to document Pripyat. They found boxes of gas masks that were kept in the school to use to teach children how to put them on properly during the cold war, and spread them all over the place for added effect – which is where they’ve stayed to this day.
One of the most impressive sights though was the swimming pool, with its diving board, and huge windows that were blown out (or panned in?) long ago.
Finally, possibly the most infamous of all of the sights in Pripyat – the fun fair.
As the story goes, this Ferris Wheel was set to open the day after the disaster, and so children ever got to go on it. Pretty eery.
Before we headed back to Kiev, we took one final stop at a structure so large that the scale was utterly impossible to capture, even with a wide angle lens.
This mammoth construction legitimately looks like something a James Bond villian would have erected. In reality, it was apparently a top secret missile detection system built during the cold war. Even on military maps, it remained unmarked, and it was only discovered as a result of the disaster. If Chernobyl hadn’t happened, then it is believed that the Soviets would have torn it down before anybody knew about it. It remains a mystery, as nobody knows how long it took to build, when it was built, or much else about it at all. It goes on for about as far as the eye can see, and is pretty unbelievably striking. I can’t really describe just how massive and intimidating it is in person.
And that was that. I left more fascinated by Chernobyl and the surrounding areas that I was when I arrived. If I ever got the chance to go back, I definitely would.
Here’s a short video with some more pictures: