When people think of forgotten or abandoned cities they think of Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and perhaps Hashima Island in Japan. Few would think of Pripyat, but then why would they? Built in 1970 by the Soviets and granted city status in 1978, just eight years later it was abandoned, making it a far-too-recent phenomenon to travel half way round the world for.
It also happens to be 3km from Reactor 4 in Chernobyl, the nuclear power station that was the source of the worst nuclear accident in history. Two explosions at the reactor on Apr. 26, 1986 killed 31 people directly, with an additional 4,000 people estimated to have died due to radiation-related diseases, while another 200,000 people in Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus had to be evacuated and resettled. In some estimates this figure rises to half a million.
Meaning that with all that radiation — 400 times the amount released in the Hiroshima bomb — visiting Pripyat and Chernobyl is madness, right?
Wrong. Although as the long-haired Austrian gardener said to me of his travel companion: “He was the only friend who would come with me. The rest of them told me to f*!k off.”
His fascination about Pripyat and Chernobyl has been as long founded as mine. About 10 years ago he watched a documentary on the area and has wanted to visit ever since. A decade later, armed with a Nikon and the desire to take 1,500 photos over the two-day trip, his dream is reality.
My own fascination started with the novel Wolves Eat Dogs, an episode in the Arkady Renko detective series by Martin Cruz Smith, half of which was set in Chernobyl and Pripyat. Visiting the area felt like having a cameo role in a movie, or a “walk-on part in the war”, as Pink Floyd put it. As I discovered, the locations and background were accurate. Throughout my visit, Wolves Eat Dogs acted as my personal soundtrack.
If you want the apocalypse, that is what almost happened at Chernobyl. After the initial explosions, thousands of people risked their lives to clean up the radioactive mess and make the reactor safe. So intense
was the radiation, that the maximum exposure each worker was able to take was 40 seconds at a time; the pressure and logistics were immense. Yet by building a sarcophagus around the reactor and blocking in the nuclear materials, the clean-up effort prevented the reactor exploding with a force equivalent to a nuclear bomb, a force that would have destroyed half of Europe.
To avoid the wider public from getting radiation poisoning, a 4,800 km2 exclusion zone was created around Chernobyl, which encompassed nearby villages, the purpose-built city of Pripyat and large swathes of southern Belarus. Home to the majority of the workers serving the nuclear power plant, Pripyat also housed employees working on the then secretive Duga radar system,
the largest radar structure in the world. Designed to detect missiles within three minutes of their launch, in the aftermath of Chernobyl and the end of the Cold War, the so-called Russian Woodpecker was abandoned.
A small number of people — or ‘self settlers’ — have resettled in Pripyat and the surrounding villages in recent years. But besides their presence and some work carried out in the city after the explosions in 1986, the metropolis has been left to the elements.
Twelve Monkeys, 28 Days After, Robocop. Movie after movie has tried to picture a world in the aftermath of a disaster.
Pripyat is a vision of what that world may be like. Peeling paint, rotten floorboards, crumbling walls, looted buildings, smashed glass, shattered tiles — 30 years of devastation. With the departure of man, nature has thrived. In just three decades Pripyat and the close by town of Chernobyl-2 have been reclaimed by the forest.
Animals have made a comeback, too. Wolves and wild boar now roam the forests while an indigenous species of wild horse that was introduced to the area as an experiment has flourished — we saw one from a distance. Populations of wild dogs and cats have exploded; although bred to live in the vicinity of humans, the dogs tend to stay close to their best friend.
As for the radiation, that has declined considerably. When we entered the exclusion zone we checked it on our Geiger counters — around 0.15 to 0.2 millisievert (mSv), less than the standard radiation in nearby Kiev. The safe level is below 0.3 on the Geiger counter. In most of the zone it kept to this level. It was only in certain hotspots that it rose higher, but still not to levels that are anything near dangerous. In these areas our visit lasted no longer than 10 or 15 minutes.
However, we did have one shock. When we visited the abandoned hospital in Pripyat we were shown a piece of cloth that had been the lining of a helmet worn by one of the firefighters on the day of the explosion. It had originally been buried in the hospital basement along with other pieces of fireman's apparel worn on that fatal day.
“Don’t touch,” said our guide. She was right. Placing our Geiger counters nearby the reading went off the scale — 900mSv, 1,000 and even up to 1,600mSV. The firefighter along with all his colleagues at the scene died a horrendous death.
It was a sacrifice that has not been forgotten.
Chernobyl and Pripyat are about a 90-minute drive north of Kiev. You can fly to Kiev direct from most cities in Western and Eastern Europe and through places like Istanbul, Doha and Dubai.
Entrance to the exclusion zone is strictly controlled and at various stages during the trip you will be screened for radiation. Since tourists stick to areas where radiation is back to pre-disaster levels, rarely if ever is there an issue.
I took my two-day trip with Chernobyl Welcome (chernobylwel.com). It was well-organised and our guide, Tanya, was knowledgeable, fun and a good leader. Not one person on the tour had a grudge, even with the only ‘international’ hotel in Chernobyl. But then, you’re not coming to such a place for creature comforts. By the end of the two days a camaraderie had developed between people in our group.
Prices for one-day trips start at £100 (VND2.5 million) and rise to £300 for the two-day version. As they say, you get what you pay for. Where possible I veer away from organised tours, but the one provided by Chernobyl Welcome comes highly recommended. It was excellent.
Photos by Nick Ross // July 2016