Chernobyl Part 2: Pripyat

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.

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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.

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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!

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One of the old hotels in the city, Hotel Polissya

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The Cyrillic writing here translates to Restaurant in English

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!

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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.

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Making our way through the overgrowth from the amusement park to the old stadium

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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.

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The room with hundreds of gas masks inexplicably scattered across the floor

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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

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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.

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The lift mechanism at the top of the apartment block

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You can make out the Ferris wheel from the amusement park behind the centre tower block in this photo

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The view back into the top floor of the tower block

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One of the few personal possessions I came across during my quick look through the apartments

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One of the typical apartment rooms

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.

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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!

Chernobyl Part 1: Chernobyl Town and Kopachi Village

The Chernobyl Disaster

My visit to Chernobyl is going to be very hard to put into words. The magnitude of the devastation which this disaster has left behind is hard to comprehend. As I’m sure everyone knows, Chernobyl’s Nuclear Power Plant’s Reactor #4 exploded catastrophically on the 26th April 1986 causing one of the worst disasters of the modern age. Radioactive fallout spread outwards from the plant at a rapid rate contaminating everything in its path. The radioactive particles would go on to spread out as far as western Europe. Clearly though the radioactive fallout would have the biggest effect on the nearby villages and of course the city of Pripyat only a short distance from the reactor itself.

When the reactor exploded many people from Pripyat rushed to get a better view of the spectacular rainbow coloured flames being spewed from the core of the reactor reaching high into the sky. Rather poignantly one bridge which many people rushed towards to see the flames is now nicknamed the “Bridge of Death”. Anyone who watched the flames from this point was exposed to a fatal dose of radiation. In one documentary a survivor who was living in Pripyat at the time gives a description of what he remembers from the day. He had seen the flames from a safer distance and described them as the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Soon after the explosion at 1am on the 26th April, local firefighters were sent straight in to tackle the blaze, exposing themselves to fatal doses of radiation. Ultimately, they gave their lives for the protection of their town. After 5 hours of fire fighting all blazes were put out apart from the fire in the core of reactor 4 which continued to burn for several more days.

Despite the clear consequences of the disaster, the city of Pripyat was not evacuated until a day and a half after the explosion. Some people had seen the explosion and flames coming from reactor #4 in the early hours of the 26th of April but there had been no official reports about it, only hearsay. Most people continued on with their lives completely unaware of the heavy doses of radiation they were being subjected to. Many people fell sick of radiation poisoning during this time but still nothing was arranged until 2pm on April 27th, a day and a half after the initial explosion. Buses were lined up outside apartment blocks and residents were told to collect only their necessary personal belongings. They were then transported out of the 30km exclusion zone which had now been set up around the plant into a contamination free area. For many however, the damage had already been done.

The city of Pripyat and the surrounding villages were now mostly empty of residents. All that remained were police, military personnel and the men in charge of limiting the damage. In the days following the explosion, various methods were employed in order to halt the spread of the radiation. Helicopters dropped bags of sand, lead and boric acid on the reactor in order to shield the radiation being emitted. Both humans and robots were used to clear radioactive debris from the roof of the reactor. The robots were barely able to function in such an environment and many ended up shutting down. During this time water started to build up under the reactor and in order to avoid a further explosion, three volunteer engineers had to dive underwater to open the necessary sluice gates by hand in order to release this water. They died soon after from radiation sickness, adding to the toll of casualties this disaster had already claimed. All of these methods helped stop the spread of radiation slightly but it was by no means a permanent solution.

Over the next eight months a concrete sarcophagus was built to encase reactor #4. This would reduce the amount of radiation being emitted from the reactor. The construction of the sarcophagus involved a quarter of a million construction workers who all reached their lifetime limits of radiation. This sarcophagus is still in place to this day however a newer one is currently being constructed and will soon be moved into place to cover the entire building unlike the current sarcophagus which just surrounds the core of the reactor itself.

Today, there is still a 30 kilometre (this has been expanded even further in some areas) exclusion zone set up around the reactor #4 to limit public access to these areas of highest radioactive contamination. Within this zone lie the forgotten abandoned villages and also the sprawling city of Pripyat. This city, once thriving with nearly 50,000 people now lies isolated and abandoned within the exclusion zone, completely uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years.

Innumerable lives were lost due to the disaster however the official death toll from the Soviet Union still remains at 31 deaths. It is thought that over 5,000 people lost their lives in the long term due to cancer brought on by the exposure to radiation. In reality the death toll is most likely even higher than this but it is impossible to measure.

There are some very informative documentaries out there which I would recommend watching if you want to get a better idea of the scale of what happened. We watched this particular documentary on the minibus on our way from Kiev to the exclusion zone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dS3WvKKSpKI It is a very poignant documentary but it gives a great insight into exactly what happened.



Entering the Exclusion Zone

28 years after the Chernobyl disaster, tours now run regularly into the exclusion zone visiting Chernobyl Town, Pripyat and even the exterior of Reactor #4 itself. One of my main reasons for coming to Ukraine was to visit Pripyat. For years I’ve been fascinated by photos from within the ghost city showing an abandoned amusement park, huge tower blocks stretching into the distance, empty buildings left to the elements and rather hauntingly, toys left behind in schools. long forgotten and discarded.

Finally after years of waiting I found myself on a minibus making my way from Kiev towards the 30 kilometre exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl. The only way into this zone is through official tours these days. I would love to have free reign of a place like this but unfortunately the area is heavily restricted and well secured so the only option is to go with a tour group. (There are other riskier ways in but without the proper contacts you are at a loss.) Luckily there were only 6 of us in the tour group though (due to the unrest in Ukraine at the time of visiting, there weren’t a huge amount of tourists in the country) which would hopefully mean that we would be able to get through the earlier parts of the tour quicker and spend more time in Pripyat. Each tour group is assigned a government tour guide who joins the group at the entry to the exclusion zone. Officially you are not allowed inside any of the abandoned buildings in the exclusion zone any more. This directive was issued in 2008 and unfortunately makes things slightly difficult for curious explorers like myself. In effect however the tour guides will show you around a few of the buildings which they believe are structurally safe, unfortunately though this is quite limited.

We arrived at the exclusion zone after a long drive from Kiev city centre. After a quick check of our passports we were through the military checkpoint and joined by our government guide for the day. First up was Chernobyl town itself which lies far enough away from Reactor #4 that it is a mostly functioning town. There are shops here, some small hotels, a canteen, factories and various other buildings. As far as I understand workers here work on a 15 day shift so that they are not exposed to too much radiation but I cannot recall the exact details. We stopped in Chernobyl Town itself to have a quick look at some of the monuments which have been set up in remembrance of the people who lost their lives in the disaster.

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The sign signifying the start of Chernobyl Town

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The rarely busy road leading back towards the exclusion zone

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One of the monuments built in Chernobyl Town in remembrance of the lives lost in the disaster

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After this quick stop in Chernobyl Town we continued on and visited another monument on the outskirts of the town, this monument was built in memory of the firefighters who gave their lives to tackle the blazes in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. It is titled “To those who saved the world”. We also made a quick stop to see some of the robots that were used in the clean up of the radioactive material before continuing onward towards our next destination, the kindergarten at Kopachi Village.

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There were countless empty house like this overtaken by nature lining the side of the road

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“To those who saved the world”

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Some of the robots used to clean up the radioactive material in the aftermath of the explosion



Kopachi Village Kindergarten

Our next stop on the tour was the Kindergarten in Kopachi Village. Kopachi lies very close to Reactor #4 and therefore was quite badly contaminated by the radioactive fallout. The majority of the village ended up being bulldozed and buried beneath the earth due to the high radioactivity here. One of the only buildings to survive is the old Kindergarten.

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A memorial in front of the pathway leading up to the Kindergarten

It’s amazing what still remained in the Kindergarten 28 years after the original evacuation. There were various toys in most rooms, children’s books were scattered across the floor and the children’s original bunk beds were still in place. It’s obvious that a few of the items have been moved around for the staging of photos but other than this it’s amazing what was still left here after all these years. Overall it made for a very haunting atmosphere. We spent a good while here exploring the different rooms of the building and looking through the items left behind by the kids and teachers all those long years ago.

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Chernobyl Power Plant Reactors

After too short a time spent in the Kindergarten we got back in the minibus for the journey along the canal towards Reactor #4 itself. Along the way we passed an old cooling tower and also Reactors #5 and #6 which were never fully finished. These were under construction at the time of the disaster and therefore were never completed. They now lie half finished with the original construction cranes still in place surrounding them.

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Cooling Tower

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Reactors #5 and #6

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Reactor #4 is the building under the left most chimney stack in this photo

After this short drive along the canal we pulled up into a carpark outside Reactor #4. Here it was, the place where this entire disaster had originated from back on the 26th April 1986, now one of the most radioactive places on the planet. The concrete sarcophagus could clearly be seen on the side nearest to us. Apparently it has weakened considerably since it’s construction and so a new sarcophagus has nearly been fully constructed to replace it.

This place should have been quite eerie but there were workers around going about their business and there were cars coming and going so it all felt strangely normal. Apparently the workers here work in 5 day shifts so as not to pick up too much radiation.

The new sarcophagus was being constructed right beside us. It was very near completion at the time of visiting. Once finished it is going to be rolled on rails over Reactor #4 hiding it from view completely for the foreseeable future. This should reduce the amount of radiation coming from the reactor even more.

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Reactor #4 with some of the current workers here on the right hand side of the photo

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The new sarcophagus nearing completion

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Close up of Reactor #4 and the current concrete sarcophagus which was constructed in December 1986

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One of the Geiger counters used to monitor radiation levels. The radiation level here decreased on being placed behind the stone memorial

At the time of visiting the radiation picked up by the Geiger counter was reasonably high (nothing of any major concern but still noticeably higher than elsewhere) so we didn’t hang around for that long. We made our way back onto the minibus for the short drive to the part of the trip I was most looking forward to, a place I had been waiting years to get to, the ghost city of Pripyat.

Glubochitsa Underground River – Kiev, Ukraine

Before arriving in Kiev I had arranged to meet up with Kiev explorer, General Kosmosa. It being a weekday, the plan was to meet him after work. I spent the day attempting a couple of explores solo which ultimately ended in failure (due to good security and the areas around entry points being too busy at that time of day.) One of these places in particular (the old Atek plant) would have been spectacular on the inside but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.

I met up with General Kosmosa that evening not too far from the city centre. We met up with another Kiev explorer and his girlfriend, bought some beer and then headed towards a manhole in the centre of a small pedestrian area. The road beside us was pretty busy but the guys just popped the manhole and we all made our way down without any hassle, closing the manhole behind us.

As an aside, In Ireland people panic when they hear about someone going underground in a city: http://www.rte.ie/news/2012/0804/332070-dublin-castle-alert/ But in Ukraine no passerby seemed to be worried that we were heading down a manhole. Ireland really annoys me sometimes.

On reaching the bottom of the ladder we were in a wide vaulted tunnel built entirely of brick. This was very different to the Poltva which I had walked only two days earlier in Lviv. The Poltva was of a more modern construction, encased mostly in concrete while the Glubochitsa brickwork was obviously from a much older time period.

After a very short walk we reached the intersection of another river. At this point of the tunnel there was a large wide chamber which we could relax and chat in. We popped open some Ukrainian beer and chatted away for a good while mainly about the huge differences in exploring between Ireland and Ukraine.

After a good while hanging around underground at the intersection we made our way back towards the ladder and made our way back to the surface and out of the manhole we had earlier descended. Being a weeknight and not having any gear we couldn’t do too much more so we just got some tea and relaxed in a nearby park until late. Kiev has some fantastic locations to visit which I missed out on due to the lack of time and also some bad luck with the locations I did try! Hopefully I’ll get back at some stage to have another crack at it 🙂

I owe a major thanks to General Kosmosa who met up despite some very short notice! His website is below if anyone is interested in seeing some Ukrainian urban exploration. The quality of photos and locations is incredible and gives a great insight into exploring in this part of the world: http://general-kosmosa.livejournal.com/

Glubochitsa Underground River

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The four of us underground at the intersection of the two rivers
(Sorry for the awful attempt at blurring my face here but I like my anonymity!)

Active Train Maintenance Depot – Lviv, Ukraine

On my second evening in Lviv I met up with another 8 explorers and after a bit of wandering and climbing around some interesting ruins we retired to a city centre pub. What followed was some great drinking in some great company. After an unhealthy amount of honey vodka shots we finally headed to the train station before my train to Kiev! Beforehand though we decided to do some proper exploration of the station itself.

We were able to slip out of sight and down to the area where the trains are stored and the train maintenance takes place. Somehow one of the Lviv guys managed to blag myself and him into the active train maintenance depot. Here we were able to hop into the drivers cab of one of the ancient Soviet trains that are still in service here and also have a look around the inner workings.

It would have been great to see more but unfortunately I had to leave after only getting a look at the driver’s carriage. I had to drunkenly sprint to catch the train in time but it all worked out in the end. I was soon drifting off to sleep in an uncomfortable bunk bed as the train sped onward through the night towards my next destination, Kiev!

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Looking back towards Lviv Train Station

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The driver’s view

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The interior of the train maintenance depot

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Some of the incredibly friendly Lviv explorers who made my day and a half in Lviv a fantastic experience

“The Underground” (Urban Exploration/Digger Pub) – Lviv, Ukraine

This pub isn’t abandoned but I thought it might be of interest! As far as I know this is the only urban exploration pub in the world. Technically it’s a “digger” pub (digger, being a Ukrainian term roughly meaning underground explorers.) Seeing as it’s one of a kind I thought it deserved its own post here.

The pub is decorated to the hilt with different artifacts. One room is decorated with a vaulted ceiling that wouldn’t look out of place in one of the older city drains, another room has a wall size painting of the underground Poltva river and another has the walls decorated with old informational leaflets from the Cold War. Also, the lighting system has been hooked up to some old Soviet radio tuners. What makes the pub even more awesome is that it serves mainly local Ukrainian craft beers.

Coolest pub I’ve ever been to without a doubt, hopefully I’ll get back here at some stage.

The UE/Digger Pub (5)

The UE/Digger Pub (6)

The UE/Digger Pub (2)

The UE/Digger Pub (1)

The UE/Digger Pub (4)

The UE/Digger Pub (3)

The Poltva – Lviv, Ukraine

After a successful explore of the Лощина nuclear bunker we made our way back to the city centre for our second nighttime venture underground. This time the target was the most well known underground location in Lviv, the Poltva river.

It is curious that Lviv is one of the few large inland Eastern European cities without a river running through its centre. The reason for this is that in the early 19th century it was decided to cover over the river which ran through the centre of the city and divert it underground. Today, thousands of people walk the streets of Lviv not knowing that there is a large fast flowing river right beneath their feet. Unfortunately the city council of the time reworked Lviv’s sewer system so that it fed straight into the Poltva. This taints the water as it passes from the countryside and makes its journey through the city. Nowadays the river which was once central to the creation of Lviv lies encased in concrete, built over and forgotten.

We arrived at our entry point a bit after 11pm meaning it was nice and quiet around. We still had to be quick though as our entry was quite visible. Two of the explorer’s lifted the manhole and the rest of us piled underground as quick as we could followed by the other two. We descended underground through a short tunnel which deposited us in the much larger tunnel which encased the Poltva. The river was flowing surprisingly fast considering there hadn’t been much rain lately.

There was a narrow pathway either side of the river stretching into the distance. One of the Lviv explorers took the lead and we made our way upstream. We had to tread carefully as the path was very narrow and very slippy, especially where we had to step over drains feeding out of the wall. Falling into the fast flowing river here would have some serious consequences so we had to make sure not to lose our concentration at any time. We continued upstream for a good distance passing some different types of tunnel construction before the path started to widen out a bit. Here it was made of fresher concrete with square grooves for grip. It was still slippy as hell though! A short bit after this we made it to our destination, a point where one of the smaller tributaries joined the Poltva and where a bridge was built above the water connecting the footpaths on both sides of the river. What was cool was that this point was directly below the Opera house right in the city centre of Lviv.

After taking a few photos here we decided to turn back, the footpath ahead was even slipper than what we had previously been over possibly due to the water level recently having been above that path’s level. Also, it was around midnight at this stage. So we carefully walked all the way back to our entry point and made our exit back above ground into the streets of Lviv. I only got 3 photos in the end due to not having much time. It’s a pity that I didn’t have a stronger torch as the photos just aren’t lit up enough. Still though, the experience itself was well worth the journey down there and I owe a major thanks to the Explorer Lviv crew for showing me around.

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