This is the second and final post about my trip to Chernobyl. This post focuses on the ghost city of Pripyat which has lain empty ever since the disaster.
The city of Pripyat was founded in 1970 in tandem with the start of construction of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Its purpose was to accommodate the workers of the nearby plant and their families. Due to the city being created from scratch its layout was planned out meticulously. Large wide boulevards and perfectly lined street grids were created and around these huge apartment tower blocks were built ensuring there would be enough accommodation for all the construction workers building the plants and the workers of the plants themselves. Schools, restaurants, hotels, department stores, specialist shops, a hospital, parks, factories, gyms, stadiums and swimming pools were all included in the construction plans. Everything that a worker of the plant and his family could possibly need was available to them here.
With the expansion of the Chernobyl Power Plant and the construction of new reactors, the town had grown to a population of nearly 50,000 people before the time of evacuation. Some photos and videos remain of the city before 1986 and these show a vibrant, thriving city full of life. What I would see today would be in very stark contrast to these images. After the evacuation the residents of Pripyat were not allowed back into the city until the level of radiation in the city had decreased enough to visit the city temporarily. The disaster meant that Pripyat would be uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years so when they were allowed back in, it was only for a few hours to collect their belongings. After this, they would never return to their homes again.
Since this last retrieval of belongings back in the late eighties, Pripyat has remained entirely abandoned. During this time looters raided the city for anything of value but other than this Pripyat has remained mostly untouched by anything apart from the elements.
Our minibus passed the entry sign of the town and started down the main boulevard. Huge apartment blocks and untamed vegetation lined either side of the road on our way into the city. I’ve been exploring abandoned places for nearly eight years now so I am very used to these places by now. So much so, that I am nearly desensitised to some of the places I visit. However, this city was something else, the scale of the abandonment here was incredible and I couldn’t help but be taken back by it all.
We arrived at the end of one of the long boulevards and one by one stepped out of the minibus onto the cracked pavement. Once we were out of the minibus, the driver sped off leaving the six of us alone with the government tour guide to walk through the remains of the city on foot. The exploring possibilities around where I was standing were endless. If I had free reign I would be exploring and climbing everything in sight. However it was not to be, the government have set strict rules which the government guides must abide by. Unfortunately you’re stuck with the guide on the tour and he will limit what you can see as officially you are not allowed inside any of the buildings. This rule seems to be ignored by all of the guides for the Kopachi kindergarten, one of the primary/secondary schools and the sports complex but unfortunately this is all you are limited to seeing on these official group tours.
Nonetheless I decided to keep my eyes open for any opportunities I could find. While we were hanging around the main boulevard taking photos I managed to dash inside one nearby building to take a couple of sneaky photos but I was soon caught out and told to move along by the guide!
We followed the tour guide down a side street from the boulevard we were standing in towards what is probably the most famous and well recognised location in Pripyat, the May Day Ferris wheel. The Ferris wheel was part of a small amusement park set up here for the May Day celebrations. Of course these celebrations never happened as the town was evacuated on the 28th of April. It seems a popular belief that the Ferris wheel and the other rides at the amusement park were never opened however they were used for a short period of time between the explosion of Reactor #4 and the evacuation of the city. It’s a very sobering thought that while the kids were enjoying themselves on the various amusements here some of them were taking in life threatening doses of radiation.
The whole yard which the amusement park was eerily quiet just like the rest of the city which made for a very brooding atmosphere. Our guide placed his Geiger counter in some of the moss on the ground in the centre of the yard. The level of radiation being given off this was far higher than what we wanted to be exposed to so we had to be careful to keep to the concrete here!
We spent a good while taking photos here before moving on through some more empty streets on our way towards an old stadium. The pitch had become heavily overgrown a long time ago and was now completely unrecognisable. The only giveaway was the large stand that lined one side of the original pitch.
We took some more photos here but it was clear that the guide was just using up time here. There wasn’t too much to photograph here yet he left us waiting here for a good 15 minutes. Despite getting through the earlier parts of the tour quicker it was clear that we weren’t going to be allowed inside any extra buildings apart from the school and the sports complex. Due to this I tried to convince him to let me sneak way from the tour momentarily so I could climb one of the tower blocks and get a good view of the city. I didn’t want to have visited Pripyat and missed out on a proper view of the city. He didn’t want to let me out of sight but finally he agreed that he would let me slip away for 5 minutes towards the end of the tour.
After the stadium we continued on along another street lined with yet more apartment tower blocks. Towards the end of this street we arrived at the old school. This is another of the most photographed locations in Pripyat and for very good reason. The classrooms are left in surprisingly good condition with a lot of the original material is still in place. Just like the kindergarten in Kopachi Village, wandering around the different rooms of this building was especially eerie.
The ground floor of the building was the primary school while the upstairs was the secondary school. For some reason, one of the rooms in the primary school had hundreds of gas masks spread across its floor. Why they were there I’m not too sure but it was a very unusual sight and looked very out of place. The rest of the rooms were mainly classrooms but there was something interesting to see in nearly every room from different learning materials to large wall murals and even a decaying piano.
A lot of the gas masks had been hung from the ceiling by photographers sneakily trying to stage shots. A long line of them were hanging from the ceiling here which just added to the strangeness of the location
When I was about to head upstairs to have a look at the secondary school classrooms the guide told me to if I wanted my 5 minutes now was the chance. He didn’t want the others to join me so he told me to leave before they saw me. Taking the hint I sprinted out the door and made a beeline for the nearest tower block which the guide had told me had roof access. I ran around the side of the building in the door and sprinted up the stairs taking two at a time all the way to the top. 10 flights of stairs later I reached the small ladder leading to the roof. Without further hesitation I climbed this and popped out into the open air.
The view ahead of me was spectacular. I could see abandoned tower blocks stretching into the distance in every direction, this view was really needed to do the scale of the place some justice. After taking photos in nearly every direction I made my way back inside the building and started my descent back down to ground level. On the way down I popped into one or two of the apartments to see what condition they were in. Due to the residents coming back to collect the majority of their personal belongings after the evacuation these were mostly empty apart from the furniture. Nonetheless it was great to get a look at what the typical accommodation was at the time. After a bit more sprinting down the stairs and out across the street I was back at the school. Here I rejoined the tour after my brief 5-10 minutes of freedom.
Our last stop on the tour was the famous sports complex. A building located beside the school which contained an indoor gym and swimming pool.
After visiting the old swimming pool (which rather interestingly was used by people working within the exclusion zone until 1996: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:October_1996-Swimming_Pool.jpg ) we made our way back outside again and into the awaiting minibus. Before leaving the exclusion zone we stopped off in the canteen in Chernobyl town for lunch. After a quick meal here we were back on the minibus and making our way back through the 10km checkpoint followed by the 30km checkpoint. We had to pass through two radiation checks at these checkpoints. These checks were done by these ancient Soviet machines which you stood in front of while they took your reading. No one was really checking whether the light went red or green though so whether these machines actually give an accurate and reliable reading or not is very questionable! The whole thing is most likely just for show.
After making our way through the last checkpoint we had a long drive back to Kiev to reflect on the journey. Overall, the scale of the place is what struck me the most. An entire city which once housed nearly 50,000 people is just sitting there in silence, completely abandoned. It is a place which would take days to explore fully.
It’s a major pity that access these days is so limited through the official English speaking guides. One of the annoying things about the day was how rushed it had all been. In most of the buildings I was rushing around trying to get photos rather than just soaking up the experience. I usually put exploring first and photography second as exploring is what I get the biggest rush from. But seeing as getting to this part of the world is quite expensive/difficult I had to document it properly while I was here.
This is just a minor gripe though, overall it was fantastic to finally get here and soak up the atmosphere of this unique location. I was happy that I managed to get away from the tour guide to climb the tower block as the government guides really can be quite strict. Getting to see the expanse of Pripyat stretching out below me was a great experience. On top of this, the kindergarten, the school and the sports complex were absolutely fascinating as well so I can’t really complain.
Needless to say I hope to be back some day to experience the place properly and hopefully get access to a few more of those buildings which unfortunately were out of reach this time!