"In the Nuclear Fall-out Zone..."
Trip Start Jun 14, 2011
49Trip End Aug 21, 2011
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burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the
rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;
And the name of the
star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became
wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made
Evacuation notice for Pripyat:"For the attention of the residents of
Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive
conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its
officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat
this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as
possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily
evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast.
For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 p.m. each apartment
block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the
police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your
documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food,
just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial
facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to
stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order
All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation
("Comrades") leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you
have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water off and shut
the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this
I spent most of the day yesterday within the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl, visiting both the reactor itself and the abandoned city of Pripyat. It was a much more exhausting experience than I realized at the time, and I didn't have the energy to write about it when I returned. In fact, the moment we boarded the bus at the final checkpoint to leave, I fell asleep and didn't really wake up until we arrived back in Kyiv. I realize the following sounds a bit awkard in places, but I'm in a bit of a hurry to post, so please excuse me.
At that time that I was there, I was focusing more on poking around, listening to the guide and taking photographs, and it was only after I returned to the hostel that I started to process what I had experienced
We left Maidan Nezhalezhnosti (the main square in Kyiv) shortly after 9 am, and drove nearly two hours to the Exclusion Zone. At the 30 kilometre mark, we passed through the governmental checkpoint at Dytyatki, where our passports were examined and compared to the official list. We re-boarded our bus and drove to the actual town of Chernobyl, where we met our guide Yuri at the Chernobinform office.
Before I actually write about what happened yesterday, let me give you some background information. Some of this is common knowledge, and some not so much, having only been released in the last few years. On the night of April 25-26 1986, technicians at reactor number 4 in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were actually conducting a test of the system. At 1:23 am on April 26, an explosion rocked reactor number 4. The roof was blown off, and radioactive material spewed into the open. A fire raged - the initial firefighters on the scene were not equipped to deal with radioactive material, and many died before the next morning. The full details were not completely reported to Gorbachev until several days later. What frightening information has recently been released is that there was a possibility for a much larger, second explosion. They estimate that this explosion would have erased Minsk, the present-day capital of Belarus located 340 kilometres away from Chernobyl, from the map and rendered much of Europe uninhaitable. Just inside the town of Chernobyl is a monument to the firefighters who died trying to extinguish the blaze
There are no accurate death toll counts for the disaster. People are continuing to die as a result of their 1986 exposure to the material. Children are still affected by it - there's a Children of Chernobyl charity set up, and my host mother's niece (about my age I guess) was sent to Italy from Belarus in order to receive treatment.
With all that in mind, you might wonder why I wanted to go at all. I'm fascinated by it, and tours have been running there for 10 years. It's recognized by UNESCO, and I'm fairly confident that the international community wouldn't sanction something that was blatently unsafe. We had a number of dosimeters with us, and the background radiation in Chernobyl town is now almost normal. I probably received the same dosage of radiation that I would have from a trans-Atlantic flight or an x-ray.
Upon entering the Zone, you're struck by how empty it is. The road stretches out before you through gorgeous green and wooded countryside, and there are no other cars on it. You are alone. It's deathly quiet. When you reach the town of Chernobyl, over 10 kilometers away from the reactor, things are quite different. A few thousand workers still maintain Chernobyl, and live in the town for 15 days on, 15 days off.
The area around the town itself has been inhabited for over 1000 years. The name "Chernobyl" translates into a type of wormwood, hence the connection to the biblical citation
After being briefed and signing our waiver, we made our way back into the bus and drove to the reactor. It was strange to be standing only a few hundred meters from Reactor #4, the reactor that was to have such a profound impact on life as we know it. After stopping there, we drove to the abandoned city of Pripyat.
Pripyat is chilling. It was built as a city for the workers of the plant, and is only about 2 kilometres away from the reactor. It was home to nearly 50,000 people on April 25; they had a large Palace of Culture, the Hotel Polissya, and a swimming pool and school. There was a cafe, a restaurant a river port and a railway station with a link to Moscow. While life in the Soviet Union might not have been all peaches and cream, life here was good. There was an active social life, people had jobs, and the buildings were new. They had children, and an amuseument park was set to open on May 1, 1986 with a large Ferris wheel and bumper cars. The Palace of Culture was decorated with an inspiring Soviet mural of Ukrainian cultural life, and the mural is still there. When you walk inside, it's like walking into a time machine
The school isn't much better. Trees are growing through floor boards, gas masks are rotting in a room. Books are strewn about; in one room, a doll's stroller lies, broken and forgotten by the child who used to play with it. There's glass everywhere, and we have to be careful. I limit my exploring because I'm not keen on having an accident in one of the most radioactive places on earth.
We move on to the swimming pool
The amusement park has begun to fall apart; the boards on the swings and bumper cars have rotted away. The Ferris wheel with its yellow cars still stands tall, surrounded by highly radioactive moss. Yuri points the dosimeter at it, and it goes crazy. "Don't step here," he says. "It's dangerous." Pripyat was cleaned, but there are still pockets of radioactivity. He says it might technically be possible to live there, but you'd need to know where the problem spots are, and there are too many other logistical problems to make it a reality. When the city was evacuated, one man refused to leave. They found his body a few days later. Pripyat, however, fared better than other settlements. One was entirely buried because it was too radioactive - the people left and will never be able to return, not even to get their possessions.
We didn't go in any apartment blocks, perhaps because of a lack of time or perhaps because they are too unstable
Strolling through the overgrown and cracking streets, it's hard to believe this was a town and that these were real roads. It just seems so totally unihabited. One tour company that advertises trips to Chernobyl states that Pripyat is like a mummy - it has a body, but no soul. On the way into the Zone, the bus was initially full of chatty tourists, but then, as we watched the video they showed us and realized the full enormity of what we were going to see, everybody fell silent. On the return journey, most people seemed emotionally exhausted from the day.
The sheer destruction that was wrought upon this part of the world by mankind is incredible. It's hard to believe that this is all because of us, people, and that we can't blame it on some outside force. Chernobyl is almost a metaphor for the entire Soviet Union, I suppose. It claimed an untold number of lives, and when one little mistake was made, the entire thing blew up
It wasn't an easy trip. Am I glad I went? Yes. Would I recommend other people to go? Definitely. Would I go again? I don't know. It's not the radiation that worries me, it's what you see. To think that all this is because of mankind defies words. One friend who went a few years ago remarked on it being death incarnate. I would find myself agreeing with him. I'm fairly sure this will haunt me for along time.
UPDATE: I have uploaded most of my photos to the blog. I apologize for the quality of some of them; they were taken from a moving bus. Some may be grainy because I had to up the ISO because it was dark; others may be blurry because of the light. There are some duplicates; I didn't have time to cherry pick them so I just threw everything on here.
UPDATE ON THE UPDATE: If I label everything, I'll be here until next year, so I just gave them all the same name