Sorry, I couldn’t resist the shit joke headline!
This is probably quite an overdue post really – since I’ve written in the past about exploring and abandoned places – as in honour of my 40th birthday last year my brother Rich organised a trip to probably one of the ultimate abandoned places which we went on in October last year.
In 1986 a spot of testing at reactor 4 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power station resulted in a catastrophic explosion, exposing the graphite core – now on fire – to the elements, lofting fumes of plumes of fission products into the atmosphere over Ukraine and Belarus in particular, but also Western Russia and the rest of Europe.
Nearby Soviet ‘model city’ Prypiat – built to attract talented workers to the facility – was evacuated, albeit not immediately as the very secretive Soviet Union attempted to contain the disaster and not publically acknowledge it. Eventually though the inhabitants were bussed out, many never to return, and a 30km exclusion zone around the plant was put into effect – encompassing other towns and villages in the area.
Unbeknownst to me whilst not officially a tourist attraction – you can organise trips into the zone with authorised agencies – which Rich had gotten wind of and organised us flights to Kiev and a day’s excursion into the zone. The pressure is on this year as he turns 40 to try to find something on this level of epicness to reciprocate!
We landed in Kiev and considered a taxi to get to where we were staying, but instead braved the local bus – we had no idea where it went, but after a meandering journey it deposited us near the central railway station.
Upon reviewing Google Maps we found our apartment was quite a way from there – we’d texted and phoned the proprieters to let them know we were running late after a delayed flight and braved the underground (after managing to not find the terminal at the station and walked about a mile to find the next one!).
A haughty Ukrainian lady behind the counter understood us well enough to help us find the right train to get on in the grandioise underground station – and we did a really good job of changing at the right times to get to where we needed to be. A bit of wandering and we found the building we needed, only to find no response from calling the number we’d been given. Bugger.
Whilst Rich continued to try to get in touch with the apartment owner I perused where we needed to be the following morning for our trip into the zone. Right outside the main railway station – where we’d just been, and quite early in the morning! Recalling there was a giant Ibis hotel right there, and that we were paying for the apartment on arrival, I suggested we go back to where we’d started and get a room there.
So we reversed our underground journey successfully – both legs cost us about 40p each – and quickly checked to see if booking online would beat the room rates advertised outside the Ibis hotel. No such luck, they were the same so we availed ourself of a room – happier in the knowledge we just hand to stumble outside to find our transport for the next day.
That morning we headed down to the street which was lined with minibuses bearing radiation signage – Chernobyl Tour were our trip organisers and soon enough we were checked in and sat on our minibus with a group of people from all over Europe. We had an excellent English-speaking guide (shamefully my delaying writing this means I’ve forgotten her name – I’m so sorry if you ever see this!) and we were underway!
The first obstacle was getting into the zone – it’s guarded by the military who had advance notice and check-lists of visitors, there was a stumbling block for me – my passport doesn’t have my middle name on it, but their list did – this seemed to cause a considerable amount of consternation from the officious Ukrainian soldier checking us in – I thought we were going to fail at the first hurdle but luckily our guide interceded and smoothed things over! That was just the first check-point!
Before entering the exclusion-zone proper there’s another check-point complete with souvenir shops. Officially we were not tourists but ‘visitors’ to the zone – but clearly there’s recognition that there’s a commercial opportunity here. Mercifully we were able to traverse the check-point without issue this time and drive on. Once in the zone there are a number of sites we visited, our guide cunningly planning an order to try to limit our exposure to the number of other groups touring the area.
Our first stop was the village of Zalissya – overgrown and long-abandoned we were able to wander around what were presumably paths at one time, now reclaimed by nature. A fair few buildings were still standing (many were bulldozed in the zone after the disaster before the realisation that disturbing contaminated earth was probably a bad idea). We’d been each equipped with dosimeters which enabled us to both identify radioactive ‘hotspots’ as well as cumulatively measure our exposure during our visit.
There’s something I find both harrowing and strangely comforting about abandoned places – comfort that nature moves back in, that human endeavours ultimately don’t count for much, but also sadness – music cards, newspapers, clothing – things that were once cherished left behind in the wake of an epic human folly. It was a great way to become acclimatised to this fascinating place.
A short drive later took us to the kindergarten – sinister dolls and childrens toys and cots set an eerie scene. Whilst I’m sure explorers both official and otherwise (those that sneak in without permission are referred to as Stalkers by the guides in honour of a computer game that features the zone as one of its settings).
It was Prypiat that was really exciting for me though – built as a showcase Soviet city to demonstrate their affluence, desirability in a cold-war era when propaganda was really important. Deliberately placed close to the power plant to demonstrate how safe it was, it was designed to be a flagship settlement with fantastic facilities to attract skilled workers needed to work at the power plant, and of course the ameneties they would want to mean their families moved in too.
Trees close in on the roads and between all the buildings – tower blocks looming overhead it’s hard to picture what it must have looked like before. In the bus we’d been watching a DVD which included footage of the city before the disaster, and at various points whilst walking around the area our guide had pictures from the same points – it’s awe-inspiring to see how much its changed in not such a long time.
We saw the famous fairground, the swimming pool (which amazing was in use well beyond the disaster for people still working at the power plant, which was still generating power until December 2000 and countless other sites. Our guide was knowledgable and answered all our questions – it’s a difficult subject for Ukranians to tackle, ultimately it was a disaster done to them under Soviet rule – but they’re left with the consequences at the need to clear up the mess.
Having said that, the disaster was probably a big contributory factor to the fall of the Soviet Union too. The clean-up operation is still underway, as robots work under the new metal sarcophagus entombing reactor 4 (which was originally contained by a concrete covering). It’s a political and practical minefield which I can only really scratch the surface of with my limited understanding.
Much like I’ve really only scratched the surface of our visit with this post – it would be impossible to do it justice, if this sort of thing interests you though I’d heartily recommend a visit, it’s fairly inexpensive by our typical tourist fee standards and absolutely fascinating.
Unbelievably our trip included a hearty lunch in the cafeteria a mere stones throw from the reactor itself. We were warned not to take photos of the surly babushka’s serving us – the food was really good! I also got to make friends with some dogs outside, presumably descendants of abandoned pets who escaped the death squads who pursued them in the aftermath of the disaster. Life finds away – indeed, the Chernobyl exclusion zone is an incredibly successful accidental nature reserve.
On the way out of the zone we visited the Duga 1 radar installment – once a top secret and fundamentally flawed missle detection system, now abandoned and unable to be demolished due to the contamination of the land, it’s a monument to the levels of paranoia that era had. Clearly it wasn’t deemed too secretive by the time of the 1970’s when it would’ve been visible from the tower blocks of Prypiat – although our guide suggested it would’ve probably been described to curious locals as a TV aerial or similar – certainly evidence of old check-points suggest that any intrepid inhabitants wouldn’t have been allowed too close to it.
Our last stop was in the actual town of Chernobyl, quite distant from the reactor that it named it’s actually inhabited. People can only live there for 3 months at a time before leaving – there’s a cafe, there’s even a hotel which caters for folk undertake multiple day excursions. The population there are involved in the clean up operation – and storage of other nuclear waste which takes place within the exclusion zone.
I know that there are pockets of people who have returned to their homes in the villages of the zone – we didn’t encroach on any of them, whilst it would undoubtedly have been a really interesting experience – instead heading back out of the zone and back to Kiev via a final chance to stop for souvenirs and a radiation scan to ensure we’d not picked up any nasty particles. One of our party did set off something, but he didn’t look too perturbed after returning from whereever he was whisked away to.
Checking our dosimeters upon exiting the zone showed that we’d been exposed to less radiation than we had received on our flight from London to Kiev, so all in all, a pretty safe endeavour!
We spent the next day exploring Kiev which is a massive and beautiful city – we witnessed the Ukrainian ministry of silly walks, I resisted the urge to bungee jump off a bridge, but amazingly we found a bit of beach by the river and it was warm enough to sit and bask whilst munching on snacks we’d found at a nearby shop. If you fancy a city break with a difference then I could heartily recommend this!
In the meantime, if you have any ideas for an epic 40th birthday idea for Rich then I’m all ears!