For those who are not familiar with the tragedy that is Chernobyl, picture a place in which humans suddenly vanished from the face of the earth, be it by a natural disaster or a manmade catastrophe. Chernobyl and the seventeen mile exclusion zone around it is about as close as you can get to such a place anywhere in the world. Perhaps that in itself is a miracle of luck, that we have not managed to completely destroy ourselves, yet.
At 1:23 AM, April 26th, 1986, Reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine, exploded during a safety test, bringing untold devastation to the surrounding area, effects of which were even felt as far away as the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. Releasing four-hundred times the fallout of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the results of that fatal meltdown are still being felt today, with higher incidents of cancer, a massive five percent of Ukraine’s national budget still dedicated to dealing with the consequences and a great chunk of territory that will never be habitable again.
Worse still, was the cover-up that followed. It was not until the radiation levels released by the fallout set off the alarms in a nuclear power plant all the way over in Sweden that the Soviet Union finally admitted that there had been an accident. Eventually acknowledging the lethally high rates of radiation, the city of Pripyat, formerly home to almost 50,000, started to be evacuated at 2 PM on the 27th April. Already having received extremely high doses of radiation, its inhabitants were loaded onto trains and busses, headed for Kiev, having been told to take as little as possible and that they would be back in three days.
No one ever returned to Pripyat.
My Trip to the Zone of Alienation
The Zone of Alienation, also known as the Exclusion Zone, is an area of a seventeen mile radius around the destroyed reactor, which, formally home to some 120,000 people, is now almost entirely uninhabited. The area includes the city of Pripyat, the town of Chernobyl and dozens of villages which are now completely uninhabited, with the exception of Chernobyl town itself which still houses a number of workers still involved in the cleanup and monitoring of the area.
I visited the place on Sunday 14th March, 2010, 24 years after the catastrophe that ruined so many lives. It was a guided tour, since the only way to enter the exclusion zone is by going with one of the officially recognized tour companies. We departed from Kiev at 7 AM, returning at 9 PM, but still, there was far more to see had we had more time.
After leaving Kiev, we watched a documentary on the bus about the disaster and the times before it happened. Touted to be a pinnacle of Soviet engineering when it was built in 1970, it rapidly became a bitter irony when the power plant exploded in 1986. We saw videos and photos of Pripyat, a model Soviet city, also constructed in 1970 to house the workers of the power plant and their families. It was a pleasant city; modern, abundant with facilities, parks, gardens and wide, clean streets. The population was young and progressive, many young families moving there to enjoy a better life.
Arriving at the exclusion zone was a little like arriving in a new country. The first place we stopped was at the checkpoint, Dityatky, where we had to show our passports and other papers before being allowed to proceed. Up until that point, we had passed through a number of typical, rustic Ukrainian villages, but once we passed across the border into a land of post-Armageddon, it was quite a different story.
The road ran straight to Chernobyl, the way dotted with abandoned farmsteads, tumbling down barns and empty wooden houses, some of which had collapsed entirely. The first village we passed through was a place called Cherevach. There used to be many orchards in the area as well, but these had been bulldozed and now the area is scattered with young trees growing out of the highly radioactive soil. Continuing onwards to the town of Chernobyl, we passed through Zalesye, another abandoned village that was also thickly overgrown.
Arriving in Chernobyl town, I was quite surprised to see that there were quite a few people around. Most of these people work there for several months at a time, involved in monitoring the area and keeping it secure. While the town once had a population of around 14,000, it now has a couple of hundred permanent inhabitants, elderly people who insisted on returning. There is a shop there, a small hotel and even an ATM, but nonetheless, most of the town remains deserted, its houses overgrown and lying in ruins, roofs collapsing and walls crumbling. Another thing I noticed was that all the gas, sewage and water pipes were running above the ground, due to the heavy contamination of the soil.
Our tour bus took us straight to the Chernobyl Interinform office where we were to sign papers to take responsibility for any adverse consequences we could suffer from the trip. After that we had an introduction to the history of the place and an insight into the disaster.
Leaving Chernobyl, we headed just to the east, stopping on a bridge over the Pripyat river. It was a beautiful area, and the skies were blue, a fresh layer of snow over the land that has now become a major nature reserve. In the distance, the nuclear power plant can vaguely be seen. We did not go to the other side of the bridge, however, where there are several more abandoned villages, villages that had been inhabited for hundreds of years until the tragedy.
Afterwards we headed to the reactor itself. Here we had to pass through another checkpoint, marking the ten kilometre exclusion zone. This place is called Leily, another abandoned village. After going through the checkpoint, we drove through the village of Kopachi, nothing of which remains other than the village sign. Due to being the closest settlement to the power plant, it was so badly contaminated that the entire place was bulldozed and buried under the soil. The area is littered with warning signs with the radioactivity symbol.
Finally arriving at the reactor, standing no less than a few dozen yards away from it was something quite daunting indeed, looking at the crumbling concrete sarcophagus that was built to keep the lethal materials from the meltdown inside the destroyed reactor. We saw quite a bit of the area, the cooling towers, the reactors five and six, which were never completed. Rusting cranes still hang around the area, too contaminated to approach.
The main part of our trip was to follow; a visit to the abandoned city of Pripyat. We stopped at the city entry sign and then again on the bridge over the railway lines, looking down the street to the city up ahead. Entering the city was a truly chilling experience.
Picture a once thriving, busy town of 50,000 inhabitants, empty for 24 years. Looters, marauders, vandals and others without honour or respect have taken virtually everything of value, but many things remain from books to children’s toys to furniture. In addition, 24 years of nature having a free run of the place has caused cracks in the walls, roofs to collapse and trees to reclaim the streets, parks, squares and buildings. Slowly, the city is disappearing and some buildings have already completely collapsed.
When we reached the edge of the city proper, there was another checkpoint – it felt like walking into an open air museum once the barrier was lifted for our bus. We proceeded down the main street, stopping at Pripyat’s town square a short way ahead. Getting off the bus, I looked around to see the town square, scattered with trees and covered in snow. There was the Palace of Culture, the Hotel Polissya and a restaurant around the square along with dozens of apartment buildings amongst shops and kiosks.
After leaving the bus, we walked through the heavy snow across the city square, to the Palace of Culture. A Palace of Culture can be found in virtually every town and city in former communist countries. They are major club houses with all kinds of entertainment on offer from sports to dance halls, cinema and theatre. In Pripyat, the Palace of Culture is perhaps the most visited building in town, a place trapped in time where relics of the Soviet Era can still be found everywhere from the colourful murals on the walls to propaganda posters and hammer and sickle emblems abound.
Today, Pripyat’s Palace of Culture is a concrete shell, the floors covered in broken glass from the windows, the frames of which were scavenged for scrap metal. I walked around the building for quite some time, exploring the lobby area, conference rooms and sports halls.
A short way from that was the famous Pripyat Ferris wheel and amusement park, which was scheduled to open for the May Day celebrations of 1st May, five days after the disaster. It never opened, and today the dodgem cars, wheel and other rides remain rusting, surrounded by trees and shrubs that have grown up over nearly two and a half decades.
Perhaps most shattering was the school we looked at, School Number 2, where eerie shadows were painted on the walls by graffiti artists representing the ghosts of Pripyat’s lost population. Amongst the rubble of broken glass, wood and concrete were broken chairs and tables, old exercise books and notice boards. We looked through the classrooms, the library and the school canteen and kitchens, all of which were completely ruined.
We also visited a kindergarten where children’s toys littered the floors amongst colouring books and broken beds. After that we went into one of the many apartment buildings. Much of the furniture was still inside, the wallpaper peeling off the walls and the rotting carpets covered in ice and snow that had intruded through the broken windows. This apartment building was one of the highest in the city, about fifteen stories in total. I remember the lift still hanging at the top of the shaft, one day to plunge all the way to the bottom when the cables finally rusted away.
Walking around Pripyat for about four hours only revealed a small part of the city. Its streets are only vaguely obvious in some places, as nature reclaims the territory and the thick layer of snow covers everything in sight. We also visited a police station, a shop and the main swimming pool before returning to the city square and climbing to the top of the Hotel Polissya.
A large hotel, the Polissya is of typical late Soviet design, with basic accommodation and facilities. Reaching the top of it was particularly treacherous due to the broken banisters on the stairs and the icy floor closer to the top, but the view from the balcony was simply breathtaking. A tree grows from the floor of the balcony. It is here that you can get an idea of the scale of this place, the scale of the destruction. The nuclear power plant looms up over the apartment blocks a mile or so away, like a curse upon the land.
Finally returning to our bus, we went back to Chernobyl to see the graveyard of ships, several rusted hulks of recreational and commercial ships half buried in the ice that covered the river. Where the bus stopped was on a small street on the edge of town, lined by old houses that were all abandoned and falling down. I went inside a few. Much of the furniture was still there along with the stoves in the kitchen. The gardens were overgrown, barely distinguishable from the surrounding forest.
I imagine that this town would have once been a rather pleasant place in the middle of the heavily forested countryside of central northern Ukraine. Chernobyl is certainly not a new town like Pripyat; in fact, it is over eight-hundred years old, beginning life as a crown village of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
After a full day of touring the area, we concluded our visit with a rather impressive and very generous dinner back at the Chernobyl Interinform office before heading back to Kiev. We had to stop again at Dityatky to go through the radiation scanners. Nobody was over-contaminated, so we made our way back to Kiev, trying to take in what we had just seen.
After years of travelling and having seen many different places, some of them very unusual, I know that this experience will live with me for the rest of my life, unrivalled by any other on my travels. It reminded me of just how easy it is for us as a race of people to wipe ourselves out. After seeing this place, I can imagine how Kiev, a city of 4 million people, would look right now had the power plant been built closer to it as was originally planned. I can see a world without people, a world destroyed by our own technology that was invented to serve us. There are some things that I wish could be un-invented, and, in my opinion nuclear power has to be one of them.
For more photos, see http://www.flickr.com/photos/25516644@N03/sets/72157623514646687/