FALLOUTTHE DAY I TOURED CHERNOBYL
You must not walk on the moss, OK?’ A thick Ukrainian accent echoing throughout our rusty soviet made minivan. We all sit in silence nodding our heads furiously. ‘I repeat to you, do not step on the moss when we reach reactor four, OK?’. ‘What happens if we do?’ pipes up the smug, overweight, America dad who is sandwiched between his pretty daughter and my roommate, Guy. “You might not be allowed to leave” says our guide smirking. Apparently moss does a good job of absorbing radioactive particles up. I can’t tell if he’s playing games or being deadly serious. He takes another long drag of his cigarette, and exhales in a impenetrable cloud of thick smoke before carrying on talking in Ukrainian at our driver who does not say a word back, he just listens and stares blankly at the long road ahead. Something tells me he has been shipping *dark tourists* out here for many years.
“Whole communities lost forever.“
We’ve been in the exclusion zone for well over an hour, eleven miles behind us we left the town of Chernobyl and countless security checkpoints. There’s an air of silence, as I gaze out of the window pondering what the next couple of hours have in store. I notice not far back from the road, barely visible buildings camouflaged by nature, looking closer and I start to see shapes of whole villages which now have been reclaimed by the overgrown forest. Twisted dark trees and angry untamed bushes find themselves escaping from inside the buildings, punching through roofs, windows and cracks in the walls. Whole communities lost forever. Further along the road the small villages start to fade only to be replaced by heavy industries. Abandon cargo ships lie rusting and half submerged in once bustling docks. My roadside viewing is interrupted by our guide ‘Reactor 4’ his hand raised, pointing directly in front. The red and white exhaust chimneys adding a splash of color in what would be a sea of soviet grey buildings. We pass reactor one, two, and three which are still operational today. Beside them, five and six which lay half built and abandoned, never to be switched on after 26 April 1986.
Our minivan trundles into the car park two hundred meters away from the blast site. “Remember, do not step on the moss” our guide says, before jumping out and immediately sparking up another cigarette. Slight paranoia sets in as I start scanning the area for the mutant glowing green moss from the safety of my seat. I see nothing slightly luminous green, or glowing, just more soviet grey. What the hell am I doing in this place? I exhale a deep breath and decide it’s safe enough to slide the door open and jump out. Stretching feels good after being cooped up in the minivan for hours. The morning air is fresh, it has that cold crisp autumn breeze I love. I look up, and up, and up. In front of me, not more than 1000 meters away is reactor four, the site of the worlds worst nuclear disaster. I stand there not saying anything, trying to comprehend the dark history this massive building.
We watched the American Dad have his photo taken in front of the reactor. He starts pretending that he’s melting from the radiation in a bizarre impromptu performance. He jerks his body around the car park pretending to have convulsions whilst making weird sounding animal noises. This delighted his daughter as she erupted in laughter and applause which in turn made him even more animated. The rest of us just stood there watching in disbelief at this embarrassing display of international bad taste. Our guide says nothing.
“No one ever returned to Pripyat and the rest of their belongings remain there.“
It was time to move on to the city of Pripyat. We drove pass the remains of the so called Red Forest where the trees in this area turned a ginger-brown colour after absorbing high levels of radiation, before dying a few weeks later. Today the forest is back to a ‘healthier’ shade of green.
Pripyat was built for the workers of the power station, built in the early 1970 it has everything a communist could ever want in a modern city. Straight roads, statues of Lenin and yet more grey soulless soviet architecture. When the town was evacuated the residents were told that they were only going to be away for a maximum of three days and to only pack a few belongings. No one ever returned to Pripyat and the rest of their belongings remain there.
The city doesn’t look real, it looks fake, like a movie set, built to mimic the end of the world or a zombie movie. I turn towards the rest of the group to find them with their jaws on the floor whilst taking photos of just about ever thing. It’s true, it’s impossible to take a bad photo of this place. I thought I was taken photos of trees turn out to be old street lamps which have been engulfed by 22 years of vines and ivy growing around them, you could only tell these were man made objects by the plastic lamp fixtures poking out of the top.
We came to rest in the main square, parking in front of the old KGB building. Spending the next few hours wondering in and out of different buildings of the city. Our first stop was the main hotel of the city, we carefully climb over the rotting furniture and squeeze through the half closed rusted doors to climb the stairwell to the presidential suite which was located on the top floor. The panoramic view shows the full horror of 1986, a city decaying, slowly being dissolved over the years by mother nature. In the distance, 2 miles away, reactor 4 looms over the town like an unfriendly neighbor.
From the hotel we walked a few minutes down a road to an old school, It’s was hard to imagine the classrooms full of happy young faces. Now, mountains of books, rotting in piles four or five feet deep, the place had been ransacked by looters. Our guide explained that many people brave the radiative forests around Chernobyl to smuggle artifacts and metals such as the copper pipes and the lead from around the window frames. The black market for Chernobyl souvenirs is thriving.
We wondered around the grounds, inside the classrooms, gymnasium and the library. “Are we allowed to go up there?” pointing to a staircase above the library. “You can” our guide said sparking up yet another cigarette “But you might die”. With those words, Guy cautiously climbed the creaking rotten staircase only to come down a minute later with his camera in his hand and a freaked out face expression. Showing the camera screen to me, a huge empty room with a single chair in the middle of it. As he zooms into the chair I notice a small figure like person sitting on it. “What the hell is that?” Squinting at the small digital screen. As I looked again it came clear to me that this was a small doll in a white over flowing dress but with one freaky feature, the eyes had been removed. Some joker was obviously playing a prank on us unsuspecting tourists. They did a good job of freaking us the fuck out.
Exiting a back door of a classroom I find myself, Guy and our guide surrounded by a field of green moss. I start to backup into the building. “Come” says our guide beckoning us to have a closer look, carefully stepping on small patches of concrete we made it over to his side. “You see my friends” he slowly pulls out a small electronic device not to dissimilar from the original Gameboy and switched it on. As soon as I heard the recognizable click, click, click emitting from the device I knew it was a handheld Geiger Counter, a device to measure ionizing radiation. As he knelt down the clicks drew closer together, hovering it centimeters away from the moss the clicks turned into one continuous buzz. “If you want to get out of Chernobyl without a chemical scrub I suggest you watch your step”. Guy turns to me with a look of shock “Mate, I really don’t think nuclear power is such a good idea”.