This page collects the first day of my Chernobyl Journal, chronicling a two-day trip through the Chernobyl zone of exclusion in March 2009.
Prologue: From Basel to Riga
Bored or in a hurry? Skip this and jump right into the zone!
Our first stop on our way to Chernobyl was Riga in Latvia. It was an unusual stopover, as Riga is not on the way between Switzerland and Kyiv, but the flight connection was much cheaper. It also gave us the chance to meet with our fellow travelers, René and Laura, both living in Riga. After introducing us to the city’s spirit (i.e. “Riga Balzams“, a local spice liqueur, which according to the bottle is “aristocratic, mysterious and forever young”), we first famliarized ourselves with the local distance measurement system (“just around the corner” = “at least 2 kilometers away”; “not very far” = “30 minutes, while running”) and applied it to the Riga nightlife. We checked out two places:
First, an Russian underground karaoke bar. As big as a living room (the biggest objects were the beer glasses), decorated with bear furs on the walls and a lonely balloon on the ceiling, it catered to roughly 8 guests – one of them the most hoarse man in the world. He sang two songs.
The second place was a small, cave-like club which on Tuesday features a popular lesbian night. Decoration-wise René rightly described it as a mix between Russian disco, H.R. Giger painting, and children’s birthday party. There were also frescoes of mermaids and sea horses in the toilet, and Russian pop on the dancefloor. Great place – strange thing I don’t remember how I got home.
On the next day, we left Riga behind us and traveled to Kyiv (that’s Kiev in Ukrainian). Instead of checking into a hotel, we rented a spacious apartment – three bedrooms, kitchen and high-speed internet included. It was located on the ninth floor of an old Soviet-style high-rise. The elevator was tiny, and every time we used it, the hidden mechanisms creaked and screamed in different noises. At times, I had the impression that there was someone sitting on top of the cabin, scratching it with a huge metal screw. But from what I’ve learned, it was one of the better ones.
In the afternoon, we walked around the city, marvelled at the beautiful views from a hill, witnessed two death-defying mountain bikers racing down a steep slope, and ended up in an Ukranian pan-transportation themed restaurant – it was situated on a boat, but looked like the Orient express from the inside. The food was amazing – marinated vegetables, salo (slices of meat… well, fat, really), borscht (stew), and pilmeni (Ukranian ravioli) – the only drawback was that my stomach didn’t agree with it, and I didn’t get much sleep that night.
The Road to Chernobyl
Our tour to Chernobyl was scheduled for Thursday and Friday.
Entry into the zone of exclusion is only allowed with proper authorizations and a tour guide. I was in contact with our guide Yuriy from the Chernobyl InterInform agency – that’s the official state authority – a couple of weeks before the trip and had arranged a 7:30 pickup from a street close to our apartment. I apparently woke him by a phone call at 7:15. “Yes, I will be there in 20 minutes”, he said, which our Riga colleagues translated as: “I will get out of bed now.”
We were finally picked up at 9:00; meanwhile we had eaten breakfast at a local eatery. Yuriy was accompanied by a driver whose name we never learned (the silent Slavic type) and a 22-year old girl, who he introduced as “Tanya, the best hacker in the zone”. She was, as we learned, in charge of web security on the Pripyat’s website, and came along for her fourth visit to the zone. After the friendly introductions, we drove off north, with a stop at a local supermarket. “We will get dinner at the hotel, but will need to bring our own food for lunch”, Yuriy said. “And drinks if you want, because in Chernobyl, everything is 10% more expensive”. Surprised that there were even shopping possibilities in Chernobyl, we bought food and drinks.
The drive was longer than expected, and most of us slept during the drive through the bland, brown landscapes. In March there is hardly any green grass around, and the only memorable aspects of the scenery are long stretches of skinny birch forests along the road. We passed “the egg”, a big white, egg-shaped memorial in the middle of a large roundabout put there by one of the former mayor of the zone. “It’s a time capsule”, Yuriy told us, “containing letters of former inhabitants”.
We followed the road branched off north. Around Kyiv the roads were flooded by cars, and we often had to slow down. But by now the number of cars we saw on the road had gone down to one every ten minutes: Traffic jams were obviously not a problem in the zone of exclusion.
After a short photo break at the Chernobyl district sign, we arrived at the first security checkpoint, where a soldier in blue camo gear checked our passports against Yuriy’s authorization documents. And after the gate was closed behind us, we suddenly were in the Chernobyl zone of exclusion.
Our first stop in the zone was “the hotel” in the town of Chernobyl – our base camp for the tour. The town was evacuated and abandoned after the accident, with the exception of a couple of inhabitants who didn’t want to leave or came back as re-settlers after some time. Chernobyl is a more lively place than you might imagine: Nowadays it is repopulated with 500 people, many of them scientists. It features two shops, a bar, the hotel and a couple of administrative buildings. We could see a lot of people walking around – mostly in uniforms, but not all of them. We also met some very friendly chernocats and chernodogs, who were living (well-fed and domesticated) by the research station next to the hotel.
“Hotel Chernobyl”, or just “the hotel” was a complex of yellow container barracks next to the Chernobyl InterInform agency (again, yellow container barracks). We each got our own room in the hotel, complete with a bathroom, a bedroom and a living room – it even had a fridge! While we dropped our bags, Yuriy changed into his uniform (camo gear), packed a couple of respirators into the trunk, and assembled his high-end Geiger counter. While waiting, I turned on the counter I had brought with me – which I kept beeping during the whole tour. At the hotel, it showed a radiation level of 0.1 uSv/h, which is the normal background radiation for Europe. That doesn’t mean that it’s safe to eat locally grown vegetables there.
After some waiting time, the tour continued: We drove past the firefighter monument (of which we had seen too many pictures to stop) and arrived at the second checkpoint – the guards were taking the controls very seriously. Continuing on a straight road, the ominous shape of destroyed reactor #4’s cooling tower appeared on the horizon: There it was – ground zero of the 1986 accident.
Video: The Road to Chernobyl
Red Forest and Pripyat Center
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
The Buildings on Lenin Square
After letting us get a first impression and pictures of the square, Yuriy showed us the way into one of the old apartment blocks. I must have accidentally wandered into the wrong building, because most of the rooms were empty – almost no furniture and no personal belongings apart from occasional books and papers on the ground. He also warned us not to spend too much time in these blocks, “not for physical danger, but for emotional danger”; as opposed to other areas in the city, I didn’t find the blocks especially depressing or unsettling, as they consisted of mostly empty rooms with similar layouts.
Underneath the apartment block was a former supermarket, which was used as a storage for a lot of furniture. About the size of a gym hall, it was well-lit and contained an immense number of cupboards and shelves, as well as more interesting items such as cash registers, sewing machines and musical instruments (including a smashed bass).
After the shop, I spent some time wandering around the central square with Yuriy, while discussing the causes of the accident. The sidewalks and streets were all covered with moss, off-white grass, wild trees and thorny bushes full of wrinkled rosehips that Pripyat’s mayor wanted to have planted before the accident (“one rose for every citizen”). Yuriy showed me the entrance to the Hotel Polyssia, its main attraction being the spectacular view from the top floor: A surprisingly clean, covered terrasse, layed out with large white tiles. A beautiful, peaceful detail: a small birch tree, growing out of the middle of the room.
Our group reunited at the Palace of Culture, a building that was dedicated to sports, education and culture. It featured a stage (with rather loose floorboards), a gymnasium, a library (its contents now mostly floor-based) and several large meeting rooms. It must have been a beautiful place before the accident. Visiting it was a strange experience, not only because of the urban exploration aspect, but because I had played the Pripyat level in the Call of Duty 4 game shortly before the trip. The Palace of Culture is one of the buildings featured in the game, so I was visiting a place that I knew virtually.
The Amusement Park, or Why You Shouldn’t Wander Off Alone
Because of our group member’s different paces and interests, we were rarely at the same spot at the same time (which helped to keep people out of your pictures). At the Palace of Culture however, we all got together again. And while René and Laura were busy rising a new FC Pripyat from the ashes of the gym, and Beat was still looking for good spots to shoot, I got into a conversation with our guide who was standing in front of the van, waiting for us.
I asked Yuriy about the higher level of radiation I had measured on patches of moss. He offered to show me some, and led me around the Palace of Culture, where he first showed me a room full of Communist party member portraits. It was also the back entrance to a huge theater stage, which unfortunately was too dark to shoot. We then moved on to the Pripyat amusement park where the big ferris wheel, the bumper car and two other rides stood lonely on a large, flat field of asphalt. Yuriy showed me some radioactive moss while Beat, who had joined us, and I took some of the obvious shots around the area.
Half an hour later my phone was ringing. It was Laura, asking me where we were. Tanya had assumed that Yuriy had already driven us to the next location, and had led Laura and René west. I was worried, because the zone is not a place you want your friends to wander around without an expert on radiation. After telling Yuriy that the others where the others were waiting, he shook his head in disbelief: “I’ll be back in 10 minutes…”, he muttered and drove off, leaving Beat, myself, and the joyrides alone.
The amusement park was an unsettling place. The ferris wheel loomed underneath a cloud-scattered sky and every few minutes gave off guttural creaking noises. The radiation levels were about 40 times as high as normal (4 uSv/h) – not extreme, but elevated, especially if you stood on the patches moss or got close to the bumper cars. Some of the trees looked strangely deformed, spreading sideways instead of skywards. The constantly beeping sound of the Geiger counter slowly got under my skin as I started to realize how constant and inevitable the radiation and all its associated risks around me were. According to René’s translation of Tanya’s theory, there are two kinds of people in the zone: “radiophobes” and “radioenthusiasts”. And while Yuriy and Tanya both were obvious radioenthusiasts, I was starting to feel signs of an emerging radiophobia.
When the van came back, René, Laura and Tanya got out. Then the van drove off again. René explained to us that they had walked west shooting pictures, waiting for us. After our phone call, they were picked up by a visibly worried Yuriy. And just after they had climbed in the van, a group of 5 big, unfriendly-looking guys were turning the corner – apparently looters on the lookout for valuables. René quoted Yuriy’s scolding: “Can you stab? Can you shoot? No? Then why the hell do you go there alone?”.
They were lucky. Apparently, the zone is a dangerous place for other reasons than just radiation.
Video: Lenin Square and Amusement Park
Pool & School
We waited for half an hour for Yuriy to come back – he had gone to the security perimeter to report the looters – until we took up Tanya’s offer of quickly going to “school #2”. The school, one of Pripyat’s seven schools, was supposed to be south of Lenin square. We followed her through the woods around old apartment blocks, came across an old electronics store with lots of old TVs, but didn’t find the school.
The driver picked us up on Lenin square (Yuriy was still gone) and drove us north to the old public swimming pool. It was a fantastic location featuring a great, multilayered pool hall with a big jump tower. Its roof was angled upwards, and the evening sun tinted the hall in a warm yellow through the enormous windows, which contrasted its otherwise blue hue. The pool itself was about 5 meters deep, its floor full of rubble, insulation material and remains of plastic chairs. The building also contained a gym hall with wooden floors.