This is where my best friend Will was “retained” by the military all day because he did not have his passport. He told me a little of his detainment. Part of it was in a bunker where he was allowed to watch a bit of Colombo dubbed in Ukrainian.
I don’t make any of this stuff up.
As for me, I got to go into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This was the first security gate of many that I have recently processed. I posted a full story from the Chernobyl Adventure here — there are two parts… they should make for a good Sunday read if you have not seen them before!
I recently had some spare time. Well, not really. But I did insert into my schedule something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time – go back and re-examine some of my Chernobyl shots. I wasn’t ever happy with the way this one turned out, so I went back to give it a fresh pass.
I wrote up a long story about my trip to Chernobyl, which you might enjoy. This photo was taken just a uranium rod’s throw from Chernobyl in the little town that all the workers lived in called “Pripyat”. It was abandoned immediately when the meltdown happened. It was a perfect little Soviet master-planned community from the 80’s. During the emergency evacuation, kids left their schoolbooks on desks, families left clothes unpacked, and cafeteria workers left food unfinished. This particular picture was taken by the playground where creepy toys creaked in the wind.
Because nothing is maintained, every roof of every building in Pripyat has leaks, causing swampy conditions inside all the rooms. This has resulted in all sorts of fauna, trees, roots, weeds, and other strange things to flourish in these Planet-of-the-Apes conditions. I am sure a botanist would have a field day there, seeing as there is still ample Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 that is slowly decaying there and probably causing all sorts of random mutations. I pictured Venus fly traps that eat humans and the like.
Another place I visited was the big hotel here was the shining star of the city in its Russian splendor, now an empty, cold, and radiated husk. Part of me wanted to go inside and explore all the floors… explore everywhere! But, the snow was waist-deep in most places and I was having enough trouble just getting from place to place.
After that, I visited a giant apartment building that is slowly collapsing from the harsh winters and rainy springs. A lot of windows have been broken and desperate daredevils sneak in to loot on occasion. It wasn’t exactly the homiest place in the world, and I am not sure everyone got the damage deposits back. Then again, I don’t know if mid-eighties Soviet policy had a robust apartment deposit system in place.
The enormity of the abandonment felt heavy here. If I stayed around longer, i feel like I could have heard it breaking apart, like a great glacier.
Schoolhouse and Beyond
And then it was time for the schoolhouse. Creepy dot com.
As children evacuated, schoolbooks, papers, drawings and coloring books were left scattered behind. It is as if everyone just suddenly disappeared and time froze in a Soviet educational stasis of 1986. However, that educational system was clearly amazing. I know a ton of brilliant Ukrainian and Russian programmers. It’s interesting that these ex-Soviets come from the same system that enabled their brains to launch rockets with slide rules. They are absolutely some of the smartest and sharpest math/comp-sci minds in the world. The US public education system is as socialist and government-operated as the Soviet system, but the general populace of the US does not have close to the scientific prowess of the typical cold-war child. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that I have digressed.
My geiger counter started clicking away, so I took quick photos while speed-walking. Below is a photo of a phone booth outside the entrance. You can clearly see the amount of disintegration in the past 20 years. The paint colors have stayed bright. Nothing galvanizes paint like a sealant of unstable elements.
This takes urban decay to a whole new level
Caesium-137 and Halflife
We checked the Geiger counter because this area was supposed to still have a significant amount of caesium-137, which takes a good 300 years to dissipate to safe levels. It was around 0.054, so we decided to keep moving. Now we started heading for the main power plant complex. Slogging it through the snow was slow and tough. We stopped to commune with nature a little bit and add to the exotic cocktail around the trees. While doing this, the Geiger counter started clicking in a very scary way. *0.290* on the screen. He looked at me, “We should leave quickly.”
Getting back in the truck, we took another way. Yuri looked at the readout a little too much, and then he stepped on the accelerator. When Yuri was worried, I was worried. I grabbed a look at the monster under the bed (the highest number I had seen yet) and grabbed this photo.
This number was the highest I saw. It was clicking rapidly, and it made me a bit unsteady while I took the photo.
Heading over to the reactors themselves was another matter. The snow was thick and the roads were difficult to see. We swerved around and Yuri looked nervous. I don’t like my Russian military die-hards to look nervous. It is a bad sign. He mentioned we should not get off the road because we end up in areas that have not yet been “scrubbed.” Okay, sounds like a good plan to me too, Yuri.
Approaching the main reactor, we stopped and found one that had not yet been completed. It was a hollow husk of a structure, left to fall apart in the radioactive fallout. You can see that another one was just in the beginning stages to the right.
Some partially completed cooling units, crumbling apart.
Stuck in Time
We came across another area of interest – a new Chernobyl reactor that was abandoned in the chaos of the fallout. The cranes remain there, frozen in motion for 30 years. There was no activity at all. It is the closest I’ve come to that superhero power we’ve always wanted, where we can freeze time and run around while everything else stays still.
I asked Yuri about this place. I was curious about the day-of and the day-after. Even though Yuri spoke great English, the conversations started to become more stilted. It’s the opposite of almost every interaction I’ve had. Usually I warm up to people, even strangers, as we spend the day together. But Yuri, who clearly knew this place inside out, would often just shake his head at my questions. He didn’t want to talk about it.
And then, I decided it was time to go. We headed for the exit of the Exclusion Zone faster than Trotsky heading the Politburo.
It was time to head for the radiation checks, cleaning, and scrubbing.
The entire construction scene on the new reactor sits still, frozen in time.
I was immediately put at ease by his avuncular smile, that is, until he pointed the radiation gun at me.
This was the first of three different radiation checks. This cheerful gentleman took me through the various stages. At the end of each one, he gave me one of those characteristic Russian frowns and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Eh, good enough.”
He didn’t speak any English. But, you know, there is sort of this international language. I’ve learned to get by in any country in almost every situation. Have you read this book, *”The Alchemist”*? There are many wonderful themes in there, but one of them is this idea that there is only one language. I’ve found this to be very true.
Not to go down a tangent, but why not. I read this book very late in life — I read it after I had already independently suffused the same themes into my own life. But, it was very nice to see all of these personal things described in a pleasant, allegorical manner. I do recommend it, obviously. The audiobook version is wonderful too – read by Jeremy Irons.
Okay, back on topic. There was one final stage of decontamination.
Upon final departure from the exclusion zone, I had to do a final rad check. You can see me below, jammed into a 10,000 kilo metallic device used to check the amount of rads all over my body. Often times, people end up with a “light dusting,” as they so brochurely described, of radiation.
This device was curious. It looked like stripped down telephone booth mated with a late seventies nautilus machine. I placed my hands and feet on special sensors. It flashed something in red cyrillic letters that may or may not have said I was clean. Either way, I found this whole Soviet-era scrubbing experience to be far cry from that decontamination scene with Trip and T’Pol. I can assure you of that.
The strange rad chamber where flashing red cyrillic letters are either good or bad.
What follows is my account and photos of an amazing trip to Chernobyl. I recently updated the whole story, as I had it in various pieces, spread across dozens of posts. Now, it’s all here together for you in one place. Enjoy! – Trey Ratcliff
Part 1: Arriving in the Exclusion Zone and Beyond
I could tell something was awry with Yuri’s left eye.
As we talked, the eye seemed to wander further off to the left, like a Cesium electron leaving its nuclei buddy. Yuri didn’t seem to notice or make any kind of head tilting compensation.
Shaking the Geiger counter, he shook his head. “Things not look good here.”
Here I am, standing in front of the man reactor at Chernobyl, holding a geiger counter. I'm only mildly worried.
The Abandoned Zone
It all started just outside the Exclusion Zone, also known as the Fourth Zone or the Четверта zone. This 30km radius was abandoned in 1986 just after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and subsequent evacuation. People are still allowed inside certain areas of the Exclusion Zone, but only for a few hours or a number of days, based on the location and the type of activity.
As far as this idea of “adventuring in Chernobyl” was concerned, every woman in my life told me this was a bad idea. Every man said it sounded awesome. It was awesome, although I really usually fare better when I listen to the women. For the guys, here is a picture of me holding a Geiger counter at the main reactor.
Anyway, the day could not have been colder, but it fit with the milieu of the trip to Chernobyl. In case you don’t know or can’t remember, this is the infamous nuclear power plant that melted down in 1986; I remember it in a special way because it was in the middle of the cold war, and any news out of the region was covered in a certain mystique.
I can't imagine anyone would "accidentally" drive into Chernobyl, but this sign is there, just in case.
As an American that thought it was wrong the way Ivan Drago used steroids versus pure barn-trained Rocky, it was bit strange going into a Soviet structure, a once top-secret nuclear military encampment. I felt the full weight of the cold war on me at the checkpoint-Charlie-like security gates where a bulky enforcer came out to check over my passport. He squinted and grunted a lot, looking me over, and going through it page by page. I’ve only got two blank pages at the end of my passport, so I am sure he thought I fit the travel profile of a spy. Although, if he brought it up, I would argue that spies would not use passports and they would just sneak in. He would then argue that spies that did not want to appear like spies would use regular passports. After that, I would have no argument, so I am glad we did not go down that path. I don’t think he spoke English anyway.
I went with my friend Will Kelly. But, he forgot his passport, so he was detained inside an old Russian bunker. It wasn’t pretty. He had to sit underground there all day long watching old episodes of Columbo dubbed into Ukrainian. But, this is the sort of thing that happens to Will all the time. I often take him with me on adventures, because he seems to absorb all the bad luck that might otherwise infect me.
You don't want to mess with this guy. I've never had anyone look at my passport so intensely.
He handed the passport back to me and sent me on to the town of Slavutych, where I was to meet with Yuri. There was not much English spoken at all during this time. There was a lot of grunting and gesturing, all of which seemed to get me down the one road that led deeper into the hot zone.
This road was especially lonely. Skeletal trees lined its sides with occasional abandoned buildings, crumbling into the ice and snow. The day was crystal clear and even though I could see to infinity down this slide rule of a road, I could see nothing at the end.
I passed by several strange structures, including one I suspected to be the infamous Steel Yard “Over-The-Horizon” radar that was used to monitor ICBM launches to the east using ionospheric reflection.
This was a long and lonely road. It led straight from the 30km exclusion zone into the heart of it all.
Zombies, slow Zombies
When I got to the Slavutych, a few kilometers away from the security gates, I saw something I did not expect to: several people walking around a concrete city. They strode with somewhat of an abandoned gait, and looked in different directions with glassy eyes, almost as if they had resigned themselves to living within this area. I didn’t see any children or women, just severe-looking men in heavy clothes, slogging from one place to another. I don’t know where they came from or where they were going. They simply moved from one blocky concrete structure to the next.
The town of Slavutych was built just after the nuclear disaster in 1986. The town supposedly had several thousand inhabitants, mostly formed by the children that evacuated Pripyat during the meltdown. Before the town was built, they covered the land with two meters of uncontaminated soil. “Move to the panacea of Slavutych, now with two meters of soil over the radiated Earth.” I can see the promotional pamphlets now.
I understand that there are many children in the town and even things like restaurants and swimming pools, but I did not see any of that. I went straight to a military building.
It was concrete, like most everything else. The floor was had a water-warped laminate that looked like a wood texture. The walls looked thin and cold inside and there was not decoration besides old maps on the walls and the only furnishings were tired chairs and conference tables.
Then I met Yuri. He looked like he might have been young and robust at one point, but now he was a bit upset to see me, because it meant another trip to the heart of the meltdown. We shook hands and he was perfectly nice. It had been a while since I had spoken English, so I was happy to see he spoke it clearly and well.
I also paid one of the military guys to borrow his Geiger counter so I could keep track of the RADs as we moved around. I only knew a little bit about this system. Big numbers: bad. Lots of scary clicking sounds: bad.
An old Soviet-style 80's hotel, now abandoned and desolate.
Heading to Pripyat
Yuri put on his military jacket and fur hat and we headed into another cold room with a large map of the area. He motioned loosely at it, then squinted into the middle of the map a large red circle, then shrugged it off and motioned for us to leave.
We got into the van and started driving to the ghost town of Pripyat. Yuri told me he was from Moscow and his curious job choice was a shade of indentured servitude that brought him into the hot zone for many weeks on end. He said it in a matter-of-fact way, as if that is just the way things are expected to be.
Once we entered the hot zone, the people disappeared entirely. Time-burned buildings stood alone with swinging metal doors revealing a gaping maw of blackness within...
The Red Forest and the Abandoned Amusement Park
Very soon outside of Slavutych, we stopped at Rudyi Lis, the Red Forest, so-called because of the heavy fallout cloud that dumped radioactive dust all over the pine forest. It caused cases of albinism in swallows and undocumented damage to other wildlife. I don’t know if it affected squirrels or not, but since they are already insane, there is no reliable control group.
Here is Yuri, my careful companion. He kept a second eye on things, so to speak.
Yuri got out of the van near an old “Welcome to Chernobyl” sign at the edge of the Red Forest. He pulled out the Geiger counter, which was clicking away faster than Jack Bauer during a typical hour, and it read 0.293. Ouch. He squinted at it and clicked the glass, a universal move of technology readout desperation, and began hustling back to the van. I flipped off the Nikon and followed without question.
The dark shadows of a girl blowing bubbles. It's one of many ghosted silhouettes that seem even more lonely out here.
Along the way, I didn’t see any animals even though I was going through what has come to be known as the “Radiological Reserve.” Yuri told me that many Polesian native animals have flourished since the area was abandoned by humans. I didn’t see any, but then again, since I was putting my life in Yuri’s hands, I accepted his claims without question. If he says there are lots of animals, there are lots of animals. If he says this area has a lot of radiation and we need to leave, then we need to leave.
We eventually four-wheeled our way through the snow to deserted Pripyat.
I started in perhaps the creepiest part of Pripyat: the playground and amusement park. This was recently completed just before the disaster. Bumper cars, swings, a ferris wheel, and other bits of abandoned toys now lay quiet and creaking in the snow. I am a pretty visual person, so it is a strange image I conjure up — Soviet children running around a perfect master-planned world before it gets wiped away while they are out for a play.
The amusement park crumbles with lonely decay. It's hard to imagine the children playing out here on the day-of or the day-after.