Saturday, April 25th, 2009 | decay, project wormwood, travel journal, video
This is part three of my travel photo journal to the Chernobyl zone of exclusion. Check out the Chernobyl Journal page for the full story, all pictures, videos and sounds.
Before going to the ghost city of Pripyat, our guide had some additional stops planned: Right and left in the empty fields small warning signs appeared, bearing the yellow and red sign of radioactive contamination. We were passing the highly contaminated Red Forest area west of the reactor. In 1986, all the trees were set ablaze by the accident – hence the name, Red Forest – and have later been buried in plastic wrap at special sites to protect the ground water. Once full of trees, Red Forest it is now a brown, bumpy landscape full of uncut grass.
The average radiation level in the field is around 50 uSv/h (300-500 times higher than normal) with pockets of up to 10 000 (50 000 – 100 000 times higher than normal). That’s where we stopped and got out of the car.
Yuriy demonstrated the difference in radiation strength by measuring the levels on the asphalt versus the grass and cautioned us to stay on the road. In the distance, we could see the “flame” monument – a big torch – which had been placed there a couple of years before the accident. Right next to the road, an old railway track curved west towards Pripyat’s old train station. The beautiful weather and the wide landscapes stood in stark contrast to the knowledge of how poisonous the ground was. It reminded me of the scene Tarkovsky’s Stalker when the three friends arrive in the zone, looking at a lush green landscape, knowing it to be dangerous – but not where. We drove on.
The next stop was the famous “Pripyat 1970″ city sign, a fabulous white piece of retro design which underlined the total absence of life around it. Below it, fresh condolence flowers. The clouds in the background provided a dramatic backdrop against the blue March sky. We then drove further to the old railway bridge near the Pripyat train station, where we photographed the power plant in the far distance and some abandoned trains (unfortunately, we couldn’t get closer to the train station itself, as it is nowadays used to store contaminated material).
While standing on the narrow bridge, a big open truck passed us by, shaking the ground beneath our feet. During our stay in the zone, we saw a couple of those transporters, bearing contaminated material to burial sites, and dragging a cloud of unhealthy dust after them (we didn’t know that on the bridge). Later, when we saw them roaring through the city center, we started calling them “ghost trucks”, as we never saw the drivers. They were among the most spooky appearances in the zone.
At the city entrance, we passed the third and last security check, after which we were finally in Pripyat. Driving north, we passed the main road along old Soviet apartment blocks, hard to make out through the thicket, interspersed with occasional shops whose lightbulb-studded signs made them look like 1970s arcade saloons. The lack of knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet makes any kind of signage abstract; it’s like reading a text in a dream – you can almost make out what it means, but not enough to make sense. In the case of the Pripyat shops, the combination of not being able to read the letters and the strange graphic design made it impossible for me to put them into context – they looked as if aliens had built miniature versions of Las Vegas casinos.
A couple of minutes later we arrived in the heart of the city: Lenin square in the middle of Pripyat, where two of the main city axes cross. To the north, the Palace of Culture with the arched walkway and its white columns. To the west, the big restaurant and the market and the highrise of the Voskhod building with its hammer and sickle insignia on top. To the east, Pripyat’s Hotel Polissya. The four of us wandered off in different directions with strict instructions of not entering any buildings yet. I dared a little excursion behind the hotel, where I discovered an interesting round structure and a couple of Soviet posters. I also got the first exciting glimpses of the ferris wheel behind the Palace of Culture.
Video: Red Forest & Lenin Square
Another short video of the trip, covering the journal entry above:
Map of this Journal Entry
(Chernobyl Journal is continued in part 4)
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