Chernobyl Journal: Day Two
This page collects the second day of my Chernobyl Journal, chronicling a two-day trip through the Chernobyl zone of exclusion in March 2009. Day one is here.
On the next day we got up at about 07:30, got dressed and had breakfast at the agency. The meal consisted of two courses: First, a plate full of pickled vegetables (along with the same meat from the day before). Second, a big chicken leg with a huge serving of tasteless, overcooked rice, which made me feel like the protagonist in “Everything Is Illuminated”. Half an hour later, we drove off north again.
The first few hours of the day were reserved for the area around the nuclear reactor. The Chernobyl power plant consisted of 6 reactors, two of which were never finished building. Those two (reactors 5 and 6) were located on an artificial island east of the power plant.
The dozen abandoned construction cranes around the reactors gave the red structures a paradox aura of permanent incompleteness. We stopped at a distance from them and got a couple of great shots of both the reactors as well as the huge concrete turbine exhausts on the east side of the island. We also met two guards with their black-and-white border collie Misha, who dutifully barked at us intruders.
One of our biggest disappointments of the trip was that we weren’t allowed to see reactors 5 and 6 up close – even though we had seen pictures on the internet of people standing right in the middle of them. Instead, we drove non-stop to the entrance of the main area, where the colossus of disaster reactor #4 stood brooding in its concrete sarcophagus. The entrance was very well taken care of, flowers, green grass, two monuments to honor the victims – all of which felt artificial in the light of the decay around us.
The reactor itself didn’t look like you would imagine a nuclear reactor, as there were no dome-shaped concrete structures that are associated with nuclear power. Instead, it was an unspectacular, long, rectangular building, its only two outstanding features being the chimney and the bluish-gray sarcophagus. For me it was a strange experience realizing that I stood just 500 meters from the site of one of the
world’s worst environmental disaster and the most radioactive place on earth.
The vast area around the power plant was surprisingly lively; of the original four reactors, the three surviving the accident remained operating until the year 2000. Since then, the reactors are slowly being decommissioned, which will take at least until 2020. For this reason, a lot nuclear workers are still employed in Chernobyl; considering the number of blue hard hats we saw, the area can hardly be called abandoned (nor easily accessible for urban explorers)
Shortly after our arrival at the plant, a bus filled with officials and reporters stopped; it was the delegation of the ministry of internal affairs, whose surprise visit had almost caused the cancellation of our trip during the planning stage. We saw some giant hats, shook some hands, got back into the van, and drove off towards Pripyat.
We spent most of the rest of the day in Pripyat’s north-east. The old Pripyat hospital was one of the biggest and most rewarding locations we visited. It consisted of five large buildings, about 6 stories high, all interconnected. The layout was rectangular so that one large corridor with rooms to each side lead through the whole length, flanked by two staircases at the side. In the middle of the buildings were open entrance areas, which seemed to have been used as common rooms or receptions. Almost every room was filled with medical equipment, from beds, cupboards, medicine bottles, autoclaves to whole operation rooms.
Visiting abandoned hospitals, hotels, schools or office complexes is very different from visiting abandoned factories. While factories’ layouts are vast and irregular, hospitals, schools, and such have similar layouts on every floor. Every floor however has certain differences – some subtle, such as different shades of corridor colors – some extreme, such as one floor being clean and empty while the one above is flooded or burned. Moving from floor to floor feels like moving through alternate realities, histories or personalities of the same space. There is also something unsettling, remotely nightmarish about the repetitiveness and drawn-out perspective of long corridors, which speaks a strange dialect of claustrophobia.
One of the areas in the hospital I spent a lot of time in was the maternity ward. The rusty-white baby cribs standing in a paint-shedding room under observation of two lonely chairs were a sight both sad and peaceful, as opposed to the twisted ob/gyn chair in the room next to them (somebody had even put one of the chairs outside in front of the entrance, which felt artificial and unnecessary). Other floors were largely flooded and still icy from the cold temperatures. Another interesting hospital area was the clinic behind the main building. Each window bore a different symbol related to science – physics, chemistry, biology, botanics, through which the sun shone and cast interesting shadows on the floor.
After a while of wandering around the hospital, René called me and offered me a great view from the roof. I went up to the top floor, climbed up the rusty ladder, and found René and Laura at the other end of the roof – celebrating the zone with a champagne bottle. During their stay, the two must have climbed on eight or more Pripyat roofs – a record possibly broken only by looters. I couldn’t refuse a sip, and drinking champagne on an abandoned hospital roof with the Chernobyl reactor visible on the horizon became one of the bizarre highlights of the trip.
Video: Pripyat Hospital
The Other School
After wandering around the hospital for two hours, I went back to the van, where our InterInform colleagues were waiting (the driver was busy playing handheld video games). I discovered some radioactive hot spots in the moss before the clinic which Yuriy confirmed with his Geiger counter. He then offered to show us “school #1″, another large complex just opposite of the hospital.
School #1 was falling apart; its west wing had succumbed to the elements and reduced to a pile of rubble a couple of years ago. This meant we had to be extra careful which rooms to enter and which floors to walk on.
We entered through a large dining hall leading into the main entrance hall. Old posters and bulletin boards hung on the walls. A long corridor used to be the school’s wardrobe, a maze of teal-colored metal skeletons; on the muddy floor, boxes full of children’s gas masks. As René, Laura and I walked through the corridor, we heard a piece of rock falling down from the wall, and shortly after that, another one. Not a safe place to stay.
Communist Sports, Arts and Crafts
I ventured off into another corner of the school and found the gym, which was littered with deflated sports balls. Out through the door, I walked across the schoolyard, entered another building and began exploring the upper floors. I came across a couple of well-preserved classrooms, some of which must have featured in Robert Polidori‘s amazing “Zones of Exclusion” photo book. In some rooms, the floor was littered with books and almost impassible.
There were a lot of class projects, such as a collage of historical figures, and a huge number of communist illustrations (some of them obviously arranged by previous visitors). A very sad detail I found in one of the classrooms was a class wall, where black-and-white 1980s passport pictures of schoolchildren were arranged in circles. Many of the pictures had fallen off or were in very bad shape.
While the rest of the crew was still exploring the school, I walked around it. The floor was overgrown with moss and yellow grass, and the whole area around the school felt incomplete, as if the place hadn’t found its peace. In front of the school, I found an small glass building which turned out to be the school’s greenhouse. I managed to enter it, but couldn’t cross it, so dense were the plants inside.
Video: School Number One
After seeing the school, I decided to go explore Pripyat port to the east. The port must have been a beautiful spot back in 1986. Located at the River Pripyat, a café with a round outside terrace overlooked the passenger dock, accessible via a wide stairway [that's how it looked in 1986]. From a ship passenger’s point of view, the city entrance had been through a gate flanked by the café on the left side and the dock’s tower to the right side, and V-shaped columns in the middle. A bus stop and ticket office used to be right after the gate.
The growth of plants was stronger around the dock, and the radiation was also higher. My Geiger counter told me not to sit on the stairs, its values being about the same level as at the amusement park (4 uSv/h). Nevertheless, the view from the dock was breathtaking: The river was still frozen and stretched out like a wide field of ice to the southeast. In the distance, I could see a crooked red wooden house which had slid into the river and stuck out of the ice like a overstocked steamboat. To the north, the river ended in a bay, which used to be a beach. A couple of steps and a railing led from the dock into the ice. On the other edge of the river: A long stretch of grassy land towards Belarus. It was so peaceful.
I walked around in the café (which apparently had a lot of customers even after the accident, considering the many bottles of beer standing around the tables on the terrace). The large windows featured colorful stained glass pictures. Apart from shooting pictures and video, I also recorded an interesting sound from a loose piece of glass vibrating in the wind.
In the lower floor of the dock tower I found an old leather chair standing in a room overgrown with moss. From this room, I saw a large crow or predatory bird, flying from the dock towards the city center. While I had read that the zone has unexpectedly become home to many of wild animals, it was the only animal I had seen in Pripyat. No birds, no insects, not even spiderwebs.
Music & Mirrors
Leaving the docks, I went on to the cinema/theater complex to the north. In front of it must have been a large gathering area, probably with fountains, which was now a collection of concrete plates with yellow grass between them. On the side of the cinema, there was a large red-and-blue Soviet mosaic on the wall. Unfortunately, the lighting inside the cinema was almost absent, and I couldn’t get a good shot of the projection room (Beat has a picture of the room, I don’t know how long he had to expose in there!). Not surprisingly, its closed nature made the cinema one of the spots in Pripyat with the lowest radiation levels I had measured (<0.1 uSv/h, lower than my living room).
More rewarding was the theatre at the back end of the cinema, featuring another grand entrance. It was a two-story building with an unusual amount of rooms in it. I assumed that parts of it also featured as a restaurant or café, but we found out later that it was also used as a musical school. On the ground floor was a medium-sized theater stage – not as big as the one behind the Palace of Culture, but it had a grand piano standing on it. I had to cross the (unstable) stage because the floor in front of it was impassible, and found out that only 4 of its keys still worked – enough for some scary audio recordings. Another grand piano was lying open on its side in a white, dusty room on the second floor.
The last building in Pripyat’s northeast I visited was a community center, which was a two-story building for Pripyat service providers (for example hairdressers or pharmacies). The top floor had a number of rooms with large (but mostly broken) mirrors. In one of the cupboards I found old holiday decorations – probably last used in December 1985.
Video: Port & Theater
Fire & Militia Station
Beat and I re-grouped at the van and took a break. A quick phone call to Laura and René revealed that they were still exploring Pripyat roofs, so we asked Yuriy if he could take us to the old fire station in the southwest for half an hour. The station was nothing special – a large hall for the (absent) fire trucks and some adjacent common rooms (one of them full of soft drink bottles).
On the other side of the road however was a much more interesting site: Pripyat’s old militia station, which was full of old vehicles: Cars, buses, trucks, dredgers, even a small tank. There were further vehicles on top of the militia building, and I still have no idea how they got up there. I was initially worried that the radiation around those vehicles would be very high, as metal absorbs radioactivity better, but it wasn’t. This meant that they hadn’t been used during the accident, and all of those vehicles had been moved to the old junkyard at the border of the zone.
End of the Rainbow
After that short excursion, it was five o’clock – time to leave. We went back to the bus, where Tanya had fun harassing Yuriy and the driver with feedback noises from the walkie-talkies:
We picked up Laura and René (who had lost their way in Pripyat, but found back to the main street), and drove back to Chernobyl. The last location we visited before returning to the research station was the old shipyard north of Chernobyl. The rusty boats looked beautiful in the evening sunlight. It was hard to find a good spot to shoot them without having tree branches in the way, but it was a worthwhile location to visit at the end.
At the InterInform station we settled the bill, and Yuriy showed us a couple of radiation maps on the walls. After that, we said goodbye to him and Tanya (they were staying in the zone), and drove off south.
The drive was very quiet, as most of us fell asleep from exhaustion. Half an hour later we arrived at the 30km checkpoint. All of us had to leave the van and walk through a door into a small building next to the gate. We entered a large, green painted room which was divided by what looked like subway security doors: It was the contamination checkpoint. To pass it, we had to put our feet on predefined spots, put our hands into metal boxes, and were scanned from head to toe. If you were clean, the light would turn green and the gate would open. If not, well… we were lucky we didn’t find out what would happen then. The process was fully automatic, impersonal, and looked like it was adopted straight from Half-Life‘s “City 17“.
My own radiation check consisted of statistics derived from my own Geiger counter. Here is what it showed:
|Day One||Day Two|
|Average||0.454 uSv/h||0.376 uSv/h|
|Maximum||19.6 uSv/h||3.1 uSv/h|
|Dosis||3.21 uSv||1.9 uSv|
My total radiation dosis was 3.21 + 1.9 = 5.11 uSv. That’s the equivalent of half a dosis you get from a dental x-ray. We received a multiple of that dosis from cosmic rays, travelling by plane. Of course, that’s Gamma radiation only; we don’t know what we breathed in, especially when the Pripyat ghost trucks were close.
Memories for a Lifetime
It was around eight o’clock when we arrived at the apartment. We got out of our dusty clothes, threw away our shoes, showered thoroughly, got some Italian food and spent the evening in a Kyiv live music club and at home with a bottle of Riga Balzams. It was four o’clock in the morning when we finally went to bed.
So ended our trip to Chernobyl and Pripyat. I have seen a couple of strange places in my 7 years of urban exploration: Abandoned psychiatric hospitals, coloring plants full of chemical residues, half-burnt schools and cathedral-like breweries; but nothing comes close to Pripyat. It is a truly abandoned city, the remaining memory of a place once called home by 50 000 Soviet citizens. I still have dreams about the place, its unsettling quiet and absence of life, the beeping of my Geiger counter, the passport pictures of Pripyat school children, and the ever-present radiation.
After the trip, René told me I looked like I had reached the end of my rainbow there. Maybe I did. It’s a lonely place, and the pot of gold is bitter. Maybe I will go back one day. But then, I will speak Russian.
:: The End ::
Looking for pictures from Chernobyl?
- Chernobyl Hospital « The Hyperarchival Parallax on About Me
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- Urban Decay « Uncategorized on Chernobyl Journal
- Abandoned places: Pripyat Hospital, Chernobyl | Under the Mountain Bunker on Chernobyl Journal
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