I can only apologise for not posting this up sooner, and considering that my first Chernobyl post was my most successful one to date, you'd think I'd have had my act together. However this day (26th April) is the 32nd anniversary of the disaster. Therefore, it felt right I post this up today.
The first post was focusing more on how it felt to visit such a place, the story about what exactly happened at the site and the beginning stages of the tour. (First post here) This post will be about what Pripyat was like and at the end some useful tips if you yourself want to visit or endure questions like "What, you're visiting Chernobyl!?"
Entering the exclusion zone...
After our traditional Ukrainian lunch we were back on the coach and approached the 10km exclusion zone. We were taken into a small room near the border and were made to read and sign a consent form that if something happened it was entirely our responsibility...
After reading and signing our lives away on the chilling consent form we were on our way to the main city of Pripyat.
The city is around 3km from the power plant and was home to around 50,000 people. What struck me the most was just how big Pripyat actually is, and just how many amenities and leisure facilities the residents had. There was a large cinema, sports arenas, swimming pool, a five star hotel, supermarkets and many schools most of which are in relatively good condition.
Pripyat really was the Soviet model city.
We were all under strict instructions not to wander off willy nilly once we'd arrived in Pripyat and to listen carefully to our Geiger counter sounds. The main concern of wandering off is that the buildings are beginning to crumble and are unstable. Just a few days before our visit one visitor died in one of the abandoned buildings as it had collapsed on them... having heard this story, I was very vigilant on where I was walking.
The car drove up to an opening in the overgrown forest and we walked down a small path to a lake area, with a terrace over the water. We were told by our guide that this lake area had a popular cafe where you could hire boats and enjoy a beverage on a hot day. Inside there are still beautiful stained glass windows all around the property (none of them bearing religious references of course - this was banned in the Soviet Union). On the outside of "Cafe Pripyat" there is a line of disused vending machines which garnered quite a bit of attention from our group.
As we ventured further into the city centre we came across a large central square, which was home to a collection of administration buildings, a hotel for diplomats and other empty buildings. Old posters and commemorative artworks of Soviet politicians and past presidents were kept in some of these buildings. We were told that some of the relics were stolen and looted soon after the disaster, so for these pieces of art to still be there was quite something.
On the corner of the main square was a supermarket, which still had detailed murals painted on the outside walls. I've mentioned this in the first post, but the supermarket really brought it home to me that people were happily living in this area before the disaster struck. The front of the supermarket is completely destroyed, probably because it was glass fronted. But you can see right into the shop front. There are rusting shopping trolleys, promotional signs and freezers from the frozen aisle still stand. Above on the ceiling are those classic supermarket strip lights hanging off precariously. I realised once I'd looked back at my camera roll that I didn't take too many pictures of the supermarket and perhaps that is because I was in a state of shock of what I'd just seen. I have also began to realise that I need to see more of these sights through my own eyes first and foremost and not just through the eyes of a camera lens or screen.
I know for sure that there is probably a better use of words for what I am about to say but Chernobyl and Pripyat are a photographer's ideal location for abandoned, hauntingly eerie shots. I've only shown a handful of photographs here in these blog posts but in reality I did fill up memory cards from my visit. I went in with three cameras (my polaroid shots were not good, the bright white snow over exposed them too much). I knew I would get the "classic" shots of the Ferris wheel and the amusement park, however what struck me the most was the amount of nature and surrounding foliage in the city. Because the snow was heavily falling in the thick dense forest I managed to capture a few winter shots and in a sense the place was beautiful. Ironically some of the shots did look like a winter wonderland.
After wandering the empty streets we were approaching the main "highlight" of the tour - the amusement park. The park was initially to be opened for May day celebrations, however those plans were quickly changed once the reactor burst exposing the city with radiation on April 26th. The government wanted to avoid panic and well....actual knowledge of what happened over in Chernobyl so they opted to open the amusement park early, as a distraction technique.
The first sight of the amusement park is the Ferris Wheel which stands out, overshadowing the rest of the area. Underneath the Ferris wheel there are a set of dodgem cars quite literally frozen in time. In another corner of the park there is a swing ride which has mostly eroded and the base is made of wooden slats which are rotting away. The closer you walk up to the yellow coloured ferris wheel the louder and louder your geiger counter will sound. The metal structure has maintained a high dose of the radiation (safe enough for us to be there though) but we couldn't stay in the area too long. Soon enough we were hurried into the car and on to the next stop.
The next stop was surprising for me when we came across an abandoned car lot. Essentially a graveyard for old school buses, military trucks and soviet era cars. At this point in the day the snow was pounding down hard and the pine tree forest was thick with snow cover. I'm not a "petrol head" in the slightest, but I did find it fascinating wandering around a radioactive junk yard. If you have a desire to seek out a classic Russian Trabant car then this is the place to find one. The vehicles are skeletons of their former selves and are buried deep under the forest and snow. This overgrown place made me think of the fact that under no circumstance could a human survive in this area for a long time. Humans are effectively responsible for what happened here and that's something that won't leave your thoughts for quite some time; that and the deathly silence which begins to get to you.
On another note, I must stress that if you want to visit then wear sturdy shoes; some of these places aren't safe under foot and funnily enough tourist trails haven't been made in this area.
As it was the height of winter, we had limited day light and had to move swiftly onto the next stop.
The final stop on our tour inside the exclusion zone was of the Soviet Duga radar. This enormous steel structure, also known as the "Russian Woodpecker", was used during the Cold War to detect possible ballistic missiles from other nations. One was placed in Ukraine and the other placed in the eastern most regions of Siberia. It wasn't until relatively recently that visitors were allowed access to this huge structure. It was closed off for many decades and well hidden deep inside the woodland. The sensitive nature of the military intelligence held there meant that it was still closed to visitors even after tourists were allowed into Chernobyl back in 2002.
The Duga was able to interfere with broadcasts, radio and commercial aviation communications. The nuisance noise sounded like a sharp repetitive tapping noise - hence lending the name "woodpecker". The structure was a source of much conspiracy on whether the Soviet Union was using the Duga to control the minds of the population or even trying to master control of the weather.
Nowadays the metal antenna lies silent and I've read that some fearless people choose to climb it. Again, just days previously, a visitor (one who had snuck in through the forest) had fallen to their death doing just that. Since we arrived as the nightfall began, that option wasn't available (thankfully).
Leaving the exclusion zone...
After visiting the Duga we jumped back in the car at nightfall and began our journey back to Kiev. Before we left the exclusion zone we drove over the "Bridge of death" - yeah sounds pretty scary huh? - Well, the name of the bridge was coined by journalists and storytellers suggesting that what happened on that bridge 32 years ago today was something from a real life horror story. On the day of the explosion the locals gathered on the bridge to see the rising flames and burning graphite from the nuclear plant. It is said that the people on that bridge were instantly exposed to fatal doses of radiation. However, this is apparently a fabrication and people on the bridge received similar doses to others in the area. That said, any dose of radiation is still a terrible thing.
The scary part for us visitors, after having been told that story, was that the moment our vehicle was crossing over the bridge everyone's geiger counters suddenly went off and they really went off. Alarms sounded, the geiger counters vibrated and then all of a sudden we were over the bridge and the commotion stopped. The guide reassured us that that was to be expected and we were travelling at a considerable speed and we shouldn't worry...
Approaching the end of the first exclusion zone we had to all disembark the vehicle and enter a room where we were all scanned for radiation. Considering that small particles can attach themselves to our shoes, hair and clothing I felt almost reassured that this process was happening. You do begin to worry that you've picked up something especially after crossing the "Bridge of death".
Thankfully we didn't need to strip off our clothing and we were free to go. Further along the road we had to go through another scanner device and then we were on our way back to Kiev.
On the journey back, there wasn't much chat even considering there were 8 other people on the mini bus. Whether that was a combination of an early morning followed by a long day or whether, like me they were deep in thought about what we'd just experienced.
Tips for visiting..
I wanted to write a small note for those who are genuinely interested in visiting this area of the world. The first piece of advice I'd give is to spend money on an official tour. Then do your research. It's worthwhile having at least some background knowledge of what happened on that night in 1986, the lead up and aftermath of the event is important to know and I'd recommend these documentaries:
"Surviving disaster" - BBC drama.
"Children of Chernobyl"
Another useful tip is to dress appropriately: wear long sleeves, sturdy shoes and don't wear your Sunday best. If you have radiation particles on you at the end, then they'll be left behind along with your best cardigan.
The main thing is to be respectful and listen to the guides, they've been doing these tours for a long time and have inside knowledge. If they say don't touch something - then listen to them.
I hope you've enjoyed reading my experiences during my time in Ukraine and if you have any questions I'd be happy to read them.