One year ago this weekend, i took a tour of the Zone of Alienation around Pripyat, Chernobyl. It was a unique, humbling, and at times unsettling experience. To mark the occasion, ive re-posted my original tour diary here. So if you’ll allow me at least one serious post on this blog, take a few minutes and have a read. (Be warned this is quite bandwidth intensive)
(WordPress also squashes alot of the pictures in thumbnail view and makes the look distorted, so best to view them in full size.)
First off, a youtube video of the experience made by myself
First off we need to give props to our guide, Yuri. Yuri has worked in the zone for about 8 years now, i doubt there’s many people who know the zone as well as he does. If you’ve ever watched any videos on youtube of people in the zone, you’ll more than likely see Yuri in the background, geiger counter in hand.
The tour kicks off with him telling us about the zone, how polluted it still is (or isn’t, in some areas)
Just outside Yuris headquarters is the monument to the firemen who died after the explosion. After the explosion, firemen raced to the plant within 2 minutes of hearing the alarm, unknowingly exposing themselves to lethal doses of radiation. The monument was erected by the firemen themselves, they were heroes who risked their lives to save the The Ukraine, and Europe, from Nuclear disaster, yet no official government monuments were ever erected in their honour.
We stop not far from the firemans memorial, at the remains of a tiny village. The village was destroyed, and then buried under orders from the soviets for being too radiactive. The geiger counter here doesnt show much radiation, Yuri believes it was buried out of the soviets desire to cover up the accident more than anything else. Ironically, the name of the village translated to English is called ‘diggers’, kinda prophetic really.
The sign for the ‘diggers’ village. It was so peaceful here it was hard to believe you were standing in the middle of a post-nuclear wasteland. It could have been a summers day in the country, the warm sun, the cool breeze, insects buzzing around your head, the only reminder that you’re not supposed to be here was the eerie silence.
Just across the road from the ex-village, Yuri points out a radar station just past the treeline. Its an abandoned military base that was used to detect incoming missiles, and for general spying on America. Apparently, it shows up on old maps as ‘pioneers camp’. We move on, closer to the plant now.
A mile or two down the road, and we get our first glimpse of the plant. Reactor 4 (left) is the one that blew up, the reactor on the right was under construction at the time, and was never finished. The Geiger counter is beeping stronger here.
Its reading 0.139 Roentgens, and by the time we picked it up out of the grass, it had gone up to .2, and was climbing. Its still nowhere near being lethal, but put it this way, you wouldn’t want to stretch out on the grass for the afternoon. The grass is deadly around here, the asphalt was fine however! It doesn’t absorb radiation like the soil did.
Further down the road, and we get our first proper view of the reactor. Its a pretty awe (or fear) inspiring sight, and the people on the tour are getting alot quieter, and maybe a bit more nervous now. The only sound you can hear is the Geiger counter beeping faster & faster. We scramble back into the van and head off, directly to the plant.
This is just outside the plant. Everyone was wondering what in gods name this is supposed to be til Yuri told us…go on, guess what it is is. Got it yet?
Its a dove with an atom in its mouth! Yeah, we couldn’t guess either.
This is a memorial to the first people to die from the explosion. Most of them died shortly afterward, but 3rd right from the center (i think) was the first guy to die, who’s body is still in the plant, under the sarcophagus somewhere.
Were directly in front of the sarcophagus now. The geiger counter is going mental. Its getting unnerving at this stage. Stand here for too long, and you’ll be going home with a healthy green glow. Some dumbass takes off his hat and puts it on the ground while he poses for a picture, Yuri almost kills him. ‘DON’T PUT STUFF ON THE GROUND!!!’. Dumbass.
People have often commented that if you’re not supposed to leave stuff on the ground, how come the geiger counter is on the ground for a few photos? The answer is, i haven’t a clue. I’m not a radiation expert, i just did whatever the hell Yuri told us.
We move on, now were at the Red Forest. So called because on the night of the accident, the whole forest glowed red. The forest was cut down, and buried under 6 meters (or feet, im not sure) of earth. The only problem being, the trees they planted on top of them, are now dragging the radiation up through their roots, meaning radiation here is going UP instead of down. This is one of the most radioactive places on earth.
And behind us is a roadsign that fills me with both excitement, and dread:
Rush hour traffic on the road to Pripyat.
Were standing on the ‘bridge of death’ here. So called because on the day of the explosion, people gathered on this bridge to see the beautiful rainbow coloured flames of the burning graphite nuclear core, whose flames were higher than the smoke stack itself. They were all exposed to levels of over 500 roentgens, a fatal dose.
We drive on, and enter Pripyat town.
And here it is! The finest hotel in all of Pripyat. At least it was, back in 1986.
Were going right to the top of it. This was the hotel where the Soviet & Ukranian scientists and government authorities held an emergency meeting shortly after the accident took place.
Graffiti in pripyat is probably the most bone chilling graffiti ive ever seen.
Check in desk. business is a little slow, noones checked in in almost 23 years.
Someone forgot their newspaper.
I ducked away from the tour for a minute to check out some of the hotel rooms. One room still had its bed, and wardrobe, and someone left their slippers behind.
Almost at the top..
The view from the top of the hotel. There’s broken glass everywhere in Pripyat, not just cause of vandalism, but also down to the fact that all the windows had to be left open in the town, to stop pockets of radiation collecting indoors.
Another view from the hotel roof. The building on the right is the palace of culture. Were heading there shortly.
On our way to the palace of culture now. Its not advisable to sit on these chairs for too long, if you value having working balls.
Inside the palace of culture.
The sun shining through a hole in the roof makes an excellent spotlight, on a stage that hasnt seen a performance in almost 23 years.
I think this was possibly the best part of the tour for me. It was like everything came together at that one moment, the sun suddenly started streaming in through the hole in the roof, illuminating the stage, you could almost hear the cheerin of a long dead crowd echoing in the hall. It was scary, exciting, and genuinely moving. I couldnt have planned a better photo if i’d tried.
We quite literally exit stage right, and head around the back of the palace of culture. Apartment blocks in Pripyat still bear all the signs of being a former soviet state, the hammer and sickle is everywhere.
Yuri tells us were moving on to the amusement park, i can literally feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Yuri puts the geiger counter down on a patch of moss in front of the amusement park, and it goes absolutely ballistic. I think it went up to a full 2 roentgens. 500 roentgens is fatal, 200 would put you int he hospital for a long time, 2 isnt going to kill you, but you sure as hell dont want to go walking on this patch of moss, put it that way. Youd beep so much going through decontamination theyd probably take you for a chemical shower.
The amusement park was setup for the kids for the may day parade (i think it was may day, i could be wrong tho). But for Pripyat, time stopped on April 26th, and may day never came.
Pripyat was a real jewel in the crown for the soviets. And seeing the swimming pool here its easy to see why, its not hard to imagine olympic athletes training here, for the 70’s/80’s, this place must’ve been the best around. The pool is HUGE.
Were moving on to the final part of the tour, and probably the part that brings home just what a tragedy this really was. Suddenly im feeling like i really shouldnt be enjoying this. I feel like one of those rubberneckers who slows down at the scene of an accident to get a good gawp in. We’re going back to school.
Thanks for reading!