This summer, I decided on an alternative vacation. Having spent the last many summer holidays on beaches in the mediterranean, I thought it was time for something else. And since it's been 8 years since I last visited my friend, Niels, in Vilnius, Lithuania I thought it would make for a good alternative to lamb chops (mmmhhh lamb chops), ancient pottery, and overtanned and oily beach buffs (and bufferines). So Niels and I started planning, and soon came up with the idea to go to Ukraine with the primary goal : Visit the Chernobyl/Pripyat nuclear disaster area.
Joining us was Tadas and Thomas - two friends of Niels.
On 26 April 1986 01:23:45 a.m reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, during an emergency test - and the consequences following were felt throughout most of europe, as well as many of the Soviet states, and are still felt in big regions of Ukraine and Belarus. 43.000 people were evacuated from their home in Pripyat, never to return again, and the amount of people who have died as a direct or indirect result of the accident, is still poorly documented - as are the number of children born with deformations and various other physical and psychological diseases. I'll post a few insightful links at the end of this post, rather than go over everything here.
Now why on earth would I wan't to go to a place like that? Well - I was 15 when the accident occured, and I remember once the news about the fallout over Europe reached us, I would look to the sky on cloudy days when I was out on my paper route, wondering if these clouds were radioactive. I've also had a big fear of anything nuclear powered since forever. I still don't understand why we insist on trying to harness something so potentially dangerous...
At the same time, it is strangely fascinating - especially the town of Pripyat. There are numerous ghost towns around the world, but most of them have been abandoned slowly for various economical reasons - like the gold diggers of the old west, who would move on once there was no more gold to harvest. Pripyat is different though. It was evacuated in a few days - and it wasn't just 500 or a couple of thousand people. 43.000 people - families... children. An entire community with schools, shops, public transportation and the works, which went dead almost overnight.
- so the answer to the question must be, a combination of fascination and a desire to face the fear.
The following pictures are shot during a daytrip to this area - I've tried to condense it a little, so "only" 80 pictures out of 250 made it to the blog. But they'll surely leave you with an impression of what it's like, although it can't really compare to actually being there. Not even closely.
Chernobyl city entrance
Having just passed the 30km Exclusion Zone control station, we soon arrived at the "city gates". Chernobyl town is actually quite far from the plant itself, and today about 3000 people live and work there - mainly keeping an eye on radiation levels, patrolling and maintaining systems. There's 3 bars in Chernobyl town as well as a convenient store that will accept credit cards - something you're not likely to find, even in a big city like Kiev.
After a short briefing at Chernobyl Interinform Agency, where we had to sign some legal documents, we started the trip.
Chernobyl city sign
Vehicle grave yard - A small collection of (still) highly radioactive equipment used for the the clean up after the disaster.
Tadas not looking too comfortable with the situation "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all..."
Nature eats its way into everything - this will become even more apparent once we enter Pripyat
Ship wrecks - like the vehicles above used in the clean up - and highly contaminated
Imagine if you were 10 years old, and came across this - what a fantastic playground... except it's deadly
I think I saw guards on the other side of the river near a building, and the boat in this picture looks operational. I wonder if they patrol the river too?
A monument in honour of the firemen who were the first to battle the fire at the reactor. Not knowing about the hazard, they entered and fought the flames in their regular equipment.
- they were all dead from the radiation within 6 days of the accident.
Closeup of the firemen
Road to disaster
This used to be a small village outside Chernobyl town. It was demolished with bulldozers, and buried several meters into the dirt, as part of the clean up. As were many other small villages.
Makes you wonder though, if and when the contaminated material will reach the groundwater... then what?
So quiet and deserted
First reading - 143 milliroentgen/hour. Nothing compared to some of the really hazardous areas.
After the accident, a 200 meter concrete wall was constructed to seperate the disaster area from the operational buildings. Work on the unfinished reactors 5 and 6 was stopped 3 years later, but the remaining 3 reactors were still in use after the accident. Not untill december 2000 was the last reactor shut down.
A bridge over the artificially created river from the cooling towers to the plant it selv. We're getting near.
Cooling tower - some 500 meters or so from the plant itself. The river is highly contaminated - I believe we were told about 6000 milliroentgen/hour.
This is it - Tadas with the plant in the background. This was about where it really hit me - "Damn! We're actually here - the biggest nuclear disaster site in history..."
Abandoned construction near the plant, and the cooling tower in the background.
Someone going to work...
... at the plant it seems...
Incredibly there's actually still some life in these parts. Though not as mutated as you hear from the scary books. Although... maybe this is no bird...
Fish lives in the contaminated river near the plant - har to imagine, but these 2. or 3. generation catfish were 1½ meters - and we fed them bread from the bridge over the river. They reach their full size in half the time it takes a catfish in a normal environment. I guess that's also some kind of mutation after all...
Look!! There it is. Reactor 4 encased in the sarcophagus, which "expires" in 2016. Looked like it had expired long ago. Construction of a new sarcophagus is scheduled to begin in 2010, and should be completed in 2012. If I'm not mistaken, it will be built "off site" and moved on tracks on top of the existing sarcophagus, making it the worlds largest moveable structure or something like that... Please do a good job.
A little closer. We were only allowed to take pictures from this angle, and only in this direction.
Pripyat - ghost town
The majority of my pictures are from the town of Pripyat - so scary and fascinating at the same time. Walking around in the buildings that 25 years ago were buzzing with activity, and now just sit there - waiting for nature to take it back - was an indescribeable experience.
It also felt somewhat familiar. Having played the computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. which is loosely based on the accident and another later fictive accident, I've walked some of these streets and buildings several times. Now THAT was eerie.
- luckily it had been raining pretty much up untill the point where we entered Pripyat, which actually settles the dust on the ground, preventing us from inhaling it... much.
Pripyat Hotel where we stayed.... for 20 minutes or so. We interpreted the big radioactive sign at tne entrance as "No vacancies"
All over Pripyat, you'd find paintings like this on the walls - even in places you'd think noone would be able to access. I don't know how many (if any) of these were here originally, but rumour has it that graffitti artists has been at play more than once in recent years.
Everything was torn to pieces. Maybe looters - maybe from the clean up - maybe nature - maybe a combination. But all buildings were washed down once the fallout had settled.
Supergreen... A room on the first floor
Maybe a janitors closet of some kind? Or someone else collecting toilet seats
60 year something anniversary poster?
Bathroom falling to pieces - severely.
I imagine this was for fire control. There was several of them placed at strategic places throughout the hotel.
A socket - with spider web in it.
Just look at what 23 years of neglect will do to a building
View from 5. or 6. floor. Reminds me of a place I used to live - concrete ghetto with lots of green.
A room with a view - and also living carpet
Niels and Tadas with the Pripyat skyline in the background
Me looking out over the deserted town. In the background you can spot the ferris wheel at the amusement park.
Nature takes back what was taken from it - slowly but surely.
Decay of all sorts
More Pripyat skyline
Main square? I've fought some nasty battles here in STALKER...
Another overgrown room
"Tall and tan and young and lovely, The girl from ipanema goes walking, And when she passes, each one she passes goes - ah" - maybe not in the Soviet - but you get the picture. It's been many years though, since any music played in these elevators.
Imagine what this room will look like in another 20 years
Appartment block I think. We didn't go into any of the private homes - which would have been really cool, but also a little like rocking someone's grave.
Tadas changing battery pack outside the hotel
It's actually kinda pretty with the all the green invading. It was easy to find beauty in this place, and sometimes you'd have to remind yourself that beneath the beauty lies deadly radiation. I can understand why the inhabitants were hesitant to get evacuated, when there was no visible danger to be seen. No fire - no smoke - no flood or gaping holes in the ground. An invisible danger? Sounds like government propaganda.
Once someones home?
Another piece of graffiti - running man on stairs.
And another one - is it Gorbatjov behind the doors?
Pripyat amusement park
Scheduled to open on may 1. 1986 - only five days after the disaster - nobody ever got to try the rides. Today they look like they've been overused and abandoned - but no children have ever enjoyed the view from the top of the ferris wheel, or crashed into eachother in the bumper cars.
The geiger counter would measure up to 2500 milliroentgen/hour - 1. means it has peaked. No reason to PLAY toxic earth - it really IS.
Bumper car gate decoration
Bumper car - slightly dismantled
Bumper car arena
Merry-go-round - with Niels doing a close-up
Seat of the merry-go-round
Ferris wheel once again, with Tadas in front of it
Like huge bottle caps floating in mid air was the gondolas
Bucket from the big swing
Looks like some kind of official building
Indoor sports center
The last place we visited in Pripyat, was a big indoor sports centre - with a big court and swimming pool with tower. Just as deserted as the rest of the town.
Basket/indoor soccer court
Pool with tower
All sorts of decay - all over.
Thomas climbed the tower for a better perspective on things
23 years ago, someone had a great view to the pool activities from the neighbouring buildings
Another nature attack
Somone smoked their last cigarette here - and made a mess. Damned tourists!
Staircase to the upper floor, from where you could observe the pool area.
Office door or something. The glass looks strangely crumbled or melted
Exit - notice how the exit sign looks more like someone hanging in a gallow. Morbid.
Last reading - passing the Red Forest, which was cut down 90% and buried in the soil, much like the smaller villages. It still reads about 1300 milliroentgen/hour just from holding it out of the window going at 70 km/h
State Enterprise Agency of Information, International Co-operation, and development. Or just Chernobyl Interinform Agency. First measuring of how much radiation we each had absorbed, and also where we enjoyed a nice, traditional, ukranian meal.
Personal radiation measuring device... thingy. Luckily we all got green lights.
Atomic Kitten... for real.
In conclusion, I have to say that this was one of the most exciting things I've ever done - and I won't hesitate recommending it to others - if you have a fascination for ghost towns and nuclear power. You really have to be there to get the full effect. The sights - the smells - the sounds (or more precicely, the lack of). The cost of the trip is about 250$ pr. person - cheaper if you go in bigger numbers. And that's all included. Of course - you need to get to Kiev first. It's well worth it though - and Kiev is a great city, with many wonderful things to see. But we'll get back to that in another post.
Some informative links about the Chernobyl Disaster :
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyHvDhILYl8 - part one of six of a BBC documentary (starring Adrian Edmundson) about the disaster
http://www.discoverychannel.co.uk/battle_of_chernobyl/index.shtml - Discovery Channel has a really insightful documentary. Don't miss it if you get the chance.
http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-battle-of-chernobyl/ - Another great documentary (watch it online at this site) - I believe it was the one we saw in the bus trip to Chernobyl - but I can't say, since the DVD player was rather disfunctional...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkmZBuidJVY - Boring music, but some nice video footage from Pripyat (thanks Anders)
http://www.tourkiev.com/chernobyl.php - if you wan't to take the tour. I think the 3-day trip sounds interresting. Maybe next time.