Day two, part 2: Pripyat

One of the more famous quotes about Pripyat in recent popular culture: ‘Fifty thousand people used to live here. Now it’s a ghost town.’

It’s true, but slightly off the mark. Pripyat is more than just a ghost town; it’s an alien relic. It’s of another time, where nuclear matters were muttered under the breaths of civil servants and revolutionaries. The shattering of reactor 4 was a sharp wake-up call, a dry run of what could have been. One misunderstood threat or diplomatic tipping point, and Pripyat wouldn’t be so unique.

We pulled up in a large, crumbling plaza. Before us loomed a large, concrete, modernist structure with smashed-in steps. On its outside walls were shreds of eerie graffiti; the twisted silhouettes of children. Their black profiles stared out at us, the trespassers. The guide gestured toward the building ahead. “Come, the hotel.”

The floor was scattered with every imaginable piece of junk. Tiles, plaster, plastic and glass, bricks, concrete slabs, warped bits of metal – bunched up in crumpled piles or spread out underfoot, it was like walking through the old pictures of the Bosnian conflict. The smashed-in doors and naked markings of missing radiators were not just caused by the natural deterioration of the site but also by looters, seeing what pickings could be stripped from the grounds. There’s no way of knowing who they sold the still-radioactive metal to.

The damp was everywhere. Feet crunching on junk, we ascended a stairwell. I peeped into some of the rooms lying off the way. These would have been corridors, utility rooms, and bedrooms.

I’m not sure what was at the top, but my guess would be that it was a bar. People would have stood here with their drinks, looking out over the city and the achievements of men.

It would be unfair to say there isn’t a breathtaking asthetic to all this defunct construction. But it’s worth remembering that people lived and died here. Since I left, I’ve learnt that there are some who still do. They returned to Pripyat for various reasons – mostly when they have been left without any other place to call home. They’d rather take their chances in the irradiated, windy corridors of this place. Recently, a child was born. Somewhere here, apart from us, they were growing up.

Next, we visited the Palace of Culture, a building seemingly with a mishmash of purposes. A large mural occupied one wall, but there were also gym facilities, lecture halls and studies. Outside was the famous playground, with its paralysed ferris wheel tall among the trees.

Outside, the grasses grow thick around the empty paths. In the concrete forecourt of the amusement park, the guide kneeled over a daisy with the geiger counter. The vegetation has soaked in the contaminated soil, making each white-headed flower a sort of nuclear radar dish.

Our last stop was the school, which is probably not a place to go if you have young children or teach them. We had to gingerly pick our way through the undergrowth to reach the entrance, taking care to avoid the patches of gritty mud. The school was by far the strangest and most haunting of all the places we visited. This was, in part, because the use of the place was still so obvious – it was no great leap of imagination to fill the classrooms with children at desks, hands in the air, or the blackboards with chalk equations.  Something about the place seemed even more run-down than the other areas, as well. It was definitely darker in there, and strange whiteish mounds of plaster clung to the floor, the beginnings of stalagmites. I think what was perhaps the most affecting, though, were the keepsakes and items that had been left behind – and that would stay there.

There comes a point at which words start to be redundant, and I think that point is the gasmasks above. There were hundreds of them, piled thick on the floor, lying glaze-eyed in crates, tossed across the room. There must have been a moment in between fetching them and leaving them where it was realized that there would be of no use and that evacuation was more important. In that moment, these masks were pushed aside and left behind, like so much else.

Chernobyl and Pripyat are incredible in the literal sense. They are difficult to believe. They seem fundamentally apart from the world that we know, with our shopping centres and council tax. It’s our own real-life science fiction story, the one where humanity is left reeling by one of its own inventions. We in Europe were lucky, as I said before, to have suffered only the loss of this small town, overgrown and made strange in its inertia now. But how strange this place is, and what a reminder of a period in our history that already seems almost ancient, but that still holds important messages for us now.

Pripyat won’t last much longer – perhaps a few more decades. Ruins that are already cracking at the edges through weathering and disrepair are becoming more unstable. Some buildings have already undergone controlled demolition to lessen the risk. Not too far from now, the last of the people on site will be shepherded away and the area will be sealed off to all but the most intrepid or foolhardy. It will be left as one of the most profoundly empty places on earth, more lifeless for the life that was once there.

The last place we visited was the school’s swimming pool. There was only one entrance and exit, and as we made our way back through to the van outside, I saw something painted on a pillar. I didn’t know if it was official, or graffiti, but it seemed fitting enough.

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Day two, part 1: Chernobyl

The rain in Kiev is still, on some days, radioactive.

Much of Europe doesn’t know how lucky it was in Chernobyl, nor how much they owe to the Soviet authorities. It goes like this: after US and Swedish intelligence informed the Kremlin that their instruments had picked up traces of a disaster, the first fire immediately after the explosion at the reactor was fought, fruitlessly, with water. That water then collected in the basement of the facility, a reservoir that was to become a powder keg.

As officials and scientists sweated over the best way to neutralize the radioactive waste, the molten slag (burning at over 1000 degrees kelvin) was eating through the concrete floor to the still waters below. Just a handful of the material would have been needed to hit the water to set off a second, cataclysmic explosion that could have irradiated almost half of the entire European continent. Thanks to the efforts of the emergency teams and army, however, crisis was averted – just. It’s a story that demands a full explanation, and I would urge you to read up on it.

We drove out of Kiev, through the suburbs with their curbside markets into the ragged woods beyond. About two hours later, we arrived at the army checkpoint.

It was a fairly nondescript area, with a map, guardhouse, and small chapel. We were instructed not to take photos of the guards – that is, if we wanted to keep our cameras. The geiger counter crackled.

Back on the bare concrete road, we started to pass signs of past life: houses boarded up with corrugated iron; farm tools rusting gently in the fields. Some of the trees had grown at strange angles as a result of mutation. The casual jokes and exchanges that had characterised the drive up faltered, became muted, then dropped off altogether. The world was silent but for the rumbling of the engine.

Before I left, my parents (anxiously) and friends (amusedly) had asked me what the risk was. In truth – and with care – the level of radiation exposure is not too great. A weekend in the affected areas can be compared to an x-ray. With that said, there are strict rules on eating and drinking, as even one particle of radioactivity in your system will do some serious damage. Similarly, you are scanned twice as you leave, and if there is radiation present that cannot be easy brushed off or hosed away, you can expect to forfeit the unfortunate item of clothing.

We stopped off at Chernobyl town, 20 kilometers or so from the plant. It’s staffed by a skeleton army crew, mostly middle aged and aging – goodness knows what you have to do to be posted to the place. Strolling around in military fatigues, I heard one of them humming under his breath. They’re not particularly at risk, as the radiation levels are still within reasonable bounds, but I can’t imagine many people choosing to work here. Some buildings like the modernist Post Office have been appropriated by the authorities for new purposes, but most are still abandoned, and there are many instances of stonework wrenched apart by roots and creepers. Small battalions of stray cats and dogs slink around the occupied spaces. A large, totemic mural squats in the forecourt of a junction, celebrating notable CCCP dates. We got some supplies from the small shop that seems to serve the entire station, and left the area behind.

As we pressed on from Chernobyl town, so the landscape changed. The villagey houses with peeling whitewash and generous windows gave way to industrial towers, smoke-stacks and creaking iron warehouses. A railway line snaked through the tall grasses, flung itself out over a concrete riverbed and rippled away through a field of young saplings. We passed a stadium knotted with grass, where old APCs had been parked in a squadron, stowed and turned off.

As we neared the plant itself, we saw the projects that were abandoned: crushed concrete hollows and half-built cooling towers, red mesh scaffolding jutting out around the edges. Another one of the reactors – there were several – was similarly left incomplete, geometric and surrounded by bewildered cranes.

We rolled on, closer to the reactor.  On our right lay a concrete riverbed, self-contained within the grounds and therefore home to a regular zoo of fish. With no natural predators, the ponderous catfish had grown to gargantuan size – some close to two meters. For a while, our exploration became a mini safari.

Next, we came upon the Red Forest. This is where the bulk of the radiation landed, and we were not allowed outside the vehicle. The geiger counters’ twittering had been becoming more and more urgent, and as the guide stepped outside of the bus, they broke into a shriek.

“800… 1000… 1200…” our guide murmured as he stretched his arm out over the long grasses. For context, a normal level is about 10-50. The alarm, indicating the point at which prolonged exposure would cause severe damage, is set to go off at 500. At 1200, he reached the limit of his stretch, and took a small step into the grass. “1600!”

Two meters further, and the reading would have been 10,000 times that. The eerie thing about the red forest is how normal it looks. There’s no trick giveaway or telltale sign. The long grasses are perfectly inocuous – and yet to have stayed here past the minute or two that we did would have been a terrible mistake. The driver accelerated away.

On through patches of weed-smashed concrete and listing chainlink, we arrived at the reactor. It was quiet, except for the distant sound of machinery working on the new sarcophagus, ready to replace the current one as it eroded away. ‘Sarcophagus’, I thought, was the right term. Not only did the angles of the shield lie hulked over the exploded building like a shell, but the idea of something being contained within, some kind of powerful force…

Many of the people who faced Chernobyl died. The firefighters, the scientists, the soldiers. The engineers and builders who sealed up the top and the miners who filled out the bottom. There were accounts of the hospital workers who treated the irradiated servicemen, and how as soon as they saw them they knew there was nothing that could be done.

“We were like kamikaze,” said one of the miners in an interview. “It was a duty.” They are all frozen in the timelessness of Chernobyl, the deadly reactor low and brooding, trussed in its straightjacket. They are ingrained in the place. They live on.

The skies grew strange and overcast. We headed to Pripyat.

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Day one: “Goodbye, and Good Luck”

It’s the usual detritus made so meaningless from the air. Forests and forestry; telegraph wires lancing criss-cross over the landscape with their metal legs. Vast black patches are lakes or seas, and the canals and reservoirs are stunned with duckweed. There are squares of brown earth, scratched wheatfields, and tracts of swampy-looking ground. In specks and spots, thin spirals of smoke curl up into the sky.

And there are houses, of course: here regimented, here scattered in small villages, colourful rooftops sunning themselves in the mid-afternoon haze. Greens, reds, blues. In the urban areas, the old Soviet tower blocks thrust themselves upwards, their long shadows licking at the buildings below.

With a familiar lurch of the stomach, we begin our descent, banking sideways and low to see the blotched geography rising to meet us. In the final stretch, a flurry of military buildings pass us by, empty and derelict, windowless, shoved behind long banks of poplar trees.

We land to a few discrete smatterings of applause, taxiing past the sleek little jets and snub-nosed carriers. Kiev is nowhere to be seen. As we step off the aircraft onto the mobile steps the hostesses send us off one by one: “Goodbye, and good luck!”

On the airport tarmac, the wind is brisk. A burgeoning of begonias ruffle beneath a sign written in foreign characters, a riot of lilac and pink. There is a faint smell of creosote in the air. We’re driven in two buses to the terminal, where we wait for an hour to be stamped through the barriers.

We’re picked up – it is about 6:00pm – and driven along uneven highways through thick rain, passing misted-up residential juggernauts and roadside adverts. The thin, persistant drizzle and the broad-leafed trees brings to mind the view from my hotel room in Moscow: a tight canopy of dark green disappearing into the distance.

We slosh into Kiev through the puddles and make our way to our rooms. The one I am staying in must be approached through an unlit alley with a barred iron gate, and one of my soles is caked in thick black mud as I try to make out where I’m going. We pass through the metal door at the back into a concrete stairwell with high ceilings, and make our way up past the dim terrace lights to the third floor.

The flat is surprisingly capacious; I was expecting something small and basic – after all, capital cities are not known for their excess of space. But no, this was larger than my flat in London, with two large bedrooms each with double beds, and a luxurious bathroom.

Our group met up later for dinner. I confess I had reservations about food – again, a hangover from my trip to Russia – and I suggested we might try to find a menu where we could at least know what we were ordering, instead of pointing at the indecipherable cyrillic at random. We found a place that catered to English-speakers, who actually served excellent food. Though we did find out later that a shot of vodka there cost more than buying an entire bottle…

We explored a little further before heading back, but I’ll touch on that later. Returning home, I ran myself a bath of orangey-green water and turned in. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.

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