Day 2 in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – Visiting Pripyat City
The previous day’s tour of abandoned villages and the Duga Radar Station was excellent and I couldn’t have hoped for a more interesting experience, but today we were to be visiting the abandoned town of Pripyat and the reactor itself. To say I was excited would be an understatement!
Sergey picked us up at 8 and we had a quick breakfast at the now familiar Chernobyl restaurant (a tasty chicken curry type thing) and drove to the 10km checkpoint. A brief bit of paperwork and we drove the few km to the outskirts of Pripyat. We stopped at the famous concrete sign marking the town’s boundary and got out for photographs. Open grassland stretched in front with pine trees in the distance and a river running through the scene. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but every few hundred yards signs warning of radiation were placed ominously, giving the idyllic scene a surreal and foreboding edge. As we neared the signs the Geiger counter jumped into life and emitted its siren warning of the invisible enemy all around us!
As we were taking pictures another van turned up with a French contingency dressed in masks and hazmat suits. They were doing some sort of art project and we would occasionally see these ghostly figures in the corridors of abandoned hospitals and suchlike.
The Red Forest
We moved on and Sergey pointed to the forest either side of the road. He told us that this was the Red Forest; a highly radioactive zone that received huge amounts of fallout after the accident. All the trees and plants were taken away and destroyed and the ones here now are new, but the soil is highly radioactive and will continue to be for a very, very long time to come (thousands of years). Even in the van the Geiger counter was screeching away giving levels of 40+.
We entered the edge of Pripyat and stopped at a high rise apartment building. We would be climbing to the top for sweeping views of the decayed city, surrounding countryside and power plant in the distance. With a hangover and already hot sun, the climb up 20 stories was a little hard, but the reward at the end was well and truly worth it. The view was spectacular. We had to come early when there were no police or soldiers around as we weren’t really supposed to be up there, but thankfully our guide took us to all the best viewpoints regardless.
It was incredible to see the forest eating at the town from every direction. The trees stretched to the horizon whichever way you looked, punctuated by the crumbling soviet apartment blocks and huge silver sarcophagus covering reactor 4 in the distance.
We descended the hundreds of stairs and drove on to the main square where I would finally get to see the iconic Ferris-wheel that was the unofficial emblem of the city. The square itself was overgrown with trees sprouting through the roads; something I had seen and read about in National Geographic many years ago.
Palace of Culture
We made our way across the square into what was the Palace of Culture; a complex of entertainment for the residents of Pripyat which included a sports hall and cinema.
I was intrigued by all the destruction and couldn’t see how even after 30 years of neglect the buildings would look so derelict. Sergey informed us that in 1990 everything of value was ordered to be removed and the rest vandalised. At that time no one imagined tourists would be coming to the site and they assumed no one would ever set foot there again. Little did the authorities know that a decade or so later, “dark tourism” would be a thing!
As we entered the main sports hall, through the empty window frames the yellow cars of the ferris wheel sparkled in the early morning sun. I beamed from ear to ear as I stared at this monument to destruction that had haunted my dreams for so long. It looked strangely new under the perfect blue skies and didn’t show the same signs of age and neglect as with everything else. The paint seemed to be as yellow as the day they were painted, but maybe it was just my own rose tinted spectacles (or yellow tinted, but you get the gist)!
We exited the Palace of Culture and made our way to the rusting amusement park. Sergey mentioned that the park never actually opened to the public as it was only completed a few days before the accident; a fact I was not aware of until that moment!
Dodgems lay rusting under their metal roof with plants and weeds growing up through the floor and above everything the wheel stood eerily silent with the cars rocking slowly in the gentle breeze. There is something sad about an amusement park built never to be used, never to hear the cries of enjoyment from children as they make their way from this ride to that. Frozen in eternity and doomed to an infinity of un-use amid this radioactive wasteland.
We wound our way back to the square through the trees that had grown around the town and made our way to the next destination on this whirlwind tour of destruction; the town swimming pool. Sergey said we were free to walk around and then go into the school next door and meet with him back at the van afterwards.
Azure Swimming Pool
We made our way through the debris past changing rooms and to the poolside. It was large place with a huge whole in the floor and diving platforms high above. Walking around I could almost hear the sounds of a lively swimming pool fading on the wind. Even though it was destroyed, it wasn’t hard to imagine in its former glory.
The school next door was one of the places I was looking forward to seeing most, due to the thousands of gas masks littering the floors. Fighting off the mosquitos, we entered the crumbling building where old schoolbooks were scattered on the floor amongst the gas masks. It was a truly impressive site. A dusty white clock on the wall with no hands marked the absurdity and timelessness of the place.
Next up was a visit to the hospital, though we would just be visiting as outpatients… This really was the stuff of nightmares and horror films. Operating tables lay among smashed glass and cabinets with medicines lined the rotting walls. Rows of rusting metal beds could be seen in side rooms along the dark corridors. The maternity ward with its rusting cots in neat lines gave a chill down the spine. The undergrowth outside was clawing at the walls and making its way inside through the windows.
Reactor Number 4
We made a quick stop at the fire station with an old wheel-less Lada outside and then made our way out of Pripyat towards the reactor. The huge steel sarcophagus reared out from the trees and as we drove past Sergey pointed out reactor number 3 which was adjoined to the large protective structure. Incredibly, reactor number 3 was actually being used to produce power up until the year 2000.
Warning signs and barbed wire covered the buildings around the reactors and we pulled up to one which housed the canteen for the plant workers. We were to be having lunch with plant workers no more than a couple of hundred metres from the site of the accident. It’s the only canteen I’ve ever visited where you have to pass through a radiation checking device to get in and out!
Inside women in white aprons and hats busied themselves serving plates of meat and bowls of borsht. We were told not to take any photos inside the building. Lunch was pleasant enough but I wasn’t too hungry so just stuck to borsht and salad.
After lunch we drove right up to the reactor to take photos of the sarcophagus and monument. We were instructed not take pictures of anything except the front of the sarcophagus; all the other buildings and reactors were strictly off-limits (though I managed to snap a couple of pictures from the moving van).
The penultimate stop on the tour was to a place where you can see a panorama of the plant, but the view wasn’t particularly impressive. As I stood taking photos a large red fox appeared by the side of the road and went down to a puddle to drink. Most of the wildlife that stalks these haunted woods had so far remained hidden, so I was pleased to see my first mammal of the trip, aside from the friendly dogs.
The final stop was to a cooling tower next to the unfinished fifth reactor. We parked in a layby and walked along an old disused railway track towards the towering chimney. It was the first time I had been so close to one of these concrete leviathans and as we went inside the structure, Sergey told us to stick to the concrete areas and avoid the sandy bits with vegetation as this was highly radioactive; something confirmed to us by the wailing siren of my Geiger counter.
After walking the circumference of the cooling tower, we headed back down the railway track back to the van and out of the two exclusion zones, and thus ended the most intense, mesmerizing and enjoyable tour I have ever been on!
How you can visit Chernobyl:
I booked a private two day tour through Young Pioneer Tours who offer a variety of different packages from 1 to 5 days.
Although I recount my visit with awe, it’s important to remember there was and is a massive human and environmental cost. From the brave firefighters (the liquidators as they were known) to the children that suffered deformities and cancers, the effects of the nuclear disaster have taken a massive toll. As such I have made a donation to the survivors and would urge anyone visiting to do likewise as it’s not just a theme park for the morbidly obsessed. If you wish to donate, you can do so here: Chernobyl Children International