December 10th 2019 was my 40th Birthday. Around a year before the day I realised it wasn’t going to be a great day to have a 40th birthday, a Tuesday in December, wife at work all day, kids at school. So I decided I would do something interesting rather than just spend it on my todd. I’ve always been interested in the accident at The Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine. I started my professional life as a science teacher so with a natural interest in science – the whole fallout of the explosion of a nuclear reactor and the efforts needed to contain such an event held a lot of interest to me.
I’ve also always been fascinated by the idea of ghost towns, places in our world that are frozen in time. I’ve never been to Eastern Europe before and to visit a country that had a history of communism in the old Soviet Union was another factor that held a lot of interest for me. So I decided back then I would visit Pripyat for my 40th birthday and booked a private tour of the exclusion zone for myself and a friend.
Below is a selection of photographs telling the story of my trip to the Exclusion Zone.
The Exclusion Zone
The exclusion zone is made up of two zones. A 10km zone outside the actual power plant which contains the town of Pripyat and a 30km zone which encompasses the town of Chernobyl. There are checkpoints into each zone where you need to have a ticket to enter and be in possession of a dosimeter which they provide – for you to register the amount of radiation that you are exposed to over the time you are in the zone. During our 2 days in the zone we received 5 micro sieverts of background radiation. To put that into context, that’s equivalent to 2 hours in a plane. We received more background radiation on the trip to the Ukraine than 2 days in the exclusion zone.
Tourism to the zone has doubled since the HBO series Chernobyl has aired and in the summer the number of visitors is between 800-1500 a day. Thankfully we visited in the off season and there were only 103 people in the zone whilst we were there. This meant we hardly saw anybody which made the trip even more special.
There are two stands full of ridiculous souvenirs at the first checkpoint. You can even buy yourself a white protective suit and a gas mask to wear if you are a brain dead moron. I saw two of these in my time there. Everyone living and working in the zone look at tourists like this with a shake of the head and a chuckle.
Once inside the 30km zone we stopped at the village of Zalissya. Most people don’t realise that it wasn’t just Pripyat and Chernobyl that were evacuated after the accident. There were over 200 villages that people had to leave. Zalissya was a fairly large town with over 700 homes abandoned. They also had a war memorial from the second world war which had the names of the lost soldiers on. I was surprised in a town of that size how many names were on the memorial.
The leftover bones of a pig located within the village of Zalissya
Many of the inhabitants of the exclusion zone had their own cars. This car had its engine stripped out of it, after the fall of the Soviet Union the country was in economic chaos and so people regularly came into the zone to take valuable metals and other materials from vehicles and houses.
The remains of a shop that served the village of Zalissya. Paint peeling off the walls, a rusted counter and a whole lot of broken glass.
Some details from within one of the houses we explored in the village. Clearly owned by an educated person. There were pages and pages of books all over the floor as if the place had been ransacked, including lots of sheet music.
The Wildlife of Chernobyl
If you’ve seen the HBO series you’ll recall a quite powerful episode where the military are tasked with destroying the pets from the exclusion zone. Many of the pets were destroyed after the accident but it was in fact by the people, not soldiers. Many of the dogs were not destroyed, but left in the zone. Everywhere you go you see the offspring of the pets that were left.
The dogs live wild but they are so friendly and so well taken care of. The re-settlers and workers of the zone take good care of these dogs and they aren’t at all what you would expect. They are groomed and healthy and they are considered to be owned by everyone who lives and works in the zone.
There are also wild horses, foxes and moose that live in the exclusion zone. Wildlife has really taken over the place now, it’s fascinating to see how natures re-inhabits an area that humans have vacated. We were so lucky to see a young moose crossing the road and scampering off into the woods to its mother.
Easily the most interesting place we visited during our trip was to the DUGA radar. The story behind this place was fascinating and I would recommend you read about it. The road shown below was actually built after the accident to help with the clean up effort. The original roads built around the power plant and Pripyat were all built with no visible view of the Radar. This was a secret instalment built during the Cold War to detect missiles sent from USA to the Soviet Union.
The workers manning the checkpoint at DUGA Radar had constructed this from fallen propaganda letters off the buildings. It made me chuckle.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union all the statues of Lenin around Ukraine were destroyed, apart from inside the exclusion zone. The exclusion zone has been given a status of what we would call a ”historical place of interest so still has a large statue of Lenin in the town of Chernobyl and all of the street names are still named after Soviet places and people. Whereas the rest of the country has had all the street names changed.
The gates into the DUGA Radar
The DUGA Radar had its own settlement. The workers lived there in secret and had a small village with their own hospital, fire station, shops and large accommodation buildings. There were parks for the kids and by all accounts seemed a very nice place to live.
Inside one of the apartment buildings – the remnants of a life left behind. Every apartment had the exact same layout and even the same cooker in each kitchen. A complete copy and paste exercise in true communist manner.
The Radar was HUGE. It took 15 mins or so just to walk from one end of it to the other. It’s 770 metres long including the smaller section and 150 metres high. The whole point of it was to detect missiles being sent from the USA but it never worked. All that time, all that money, all those resources. It was doomed to fail because the scientists building it misunderstood radio wave, technology.
Built completely in secret and not visible from any road around Pripyat and Chernobyl Town, this radar was never spoken about. The people who worked at it were never allowed to discuss their work with others. When the accident happened they had to evacuate the radar and when the world was made aware the radar was discovered.
The long corridor that runs underneath the radar, the entire length of it carrying the wires to the control building and providing an indoor pathway for the winter.
This shows the building that was used to control the radar. It was HUGE. Every room full of computing equipment designed to process the data collected by the radar. There were smashed up computers and computer tape everywhere you looked.
This was the training room for the workers. The walls peppered with propaganda and fact sheets about the different kinds of missiles the USA might send. Paranoia intensified.
Every building in the exclusion zone had stacks of gas masks. Preparing for a chemical attack from the West.
Soviet imagery painted on the outside of all the buildings to constantly remind the workers of their allegiance to the State.
Just away from the power plant is the village of Kopachi. The majority of the village was buried as the buildings were made of wood. But there are a couple of buildings still standing. We visited a kindergarten school there which had some spooky dolls and toys.
Chernobyl Power Plant
There are only certain parts of the power plant that you are allowed to stop at and take photos. 2500 people still work in and around the plant every day. Though the reactors are no longer in use, the power plant still has electricity running through it to Belarus so the work is still needed to maintain this feed, as well as carrying out the disposal of spent fuel from the old reactors.
We stopped at the canteen inside the power plant for our lunch. A completely utilitarian establishment where the choice of food was limited to whatever they decided you were going to eat that day.
A comparison of the destroyed reactor 4 and the new arc containment. A massively impressive structure that houses the older sarcophagus inside it. Over the next 100 years robots will breakdown the sarcophagus inside the arc and begin disposal of the spent fuel.
Chernobyl town is located in the 30km zone and still houses a large number of people who live and work there.
Our hotel in Chernobyl town. It’s the only place in the town where you can get a meal out and have a beer. Alcohol is served only between 7pm and 9pm. It was a very quiet time in the zone so we were the only people staying that night. This was good for me because after putting up with my travel partners snoring for 2 nights I managed to sneak into a separate room and grab some decent sleep!
A sobering memorial in Chernobyl town that has a sign for every village in the 30km exclusion zone that was evacuated. There were over 200 villages that were evacuated. Many people re-inhabited these villages illegally.
The last remaining statue of Lenin in Chernobyl town. All of the other statues across the country were destroyed.
The court where the Power Plant workers were found guilty of negligence. It was an open court that day. Anyone could attend from across the world. But there was just one problem. The zone was closed. So whilst you were welcome in court you couldn’t actually get there.
Our second day was spent in Pripyat. 50,000 people used to live here before the accident and it was growing. Not only was it the home for the workers of the power plant but it was a destination for many Ukranians. A luxurious town for a communist era – it had some culture and shops that people would come to visit from Kiev.
The swimming pool then and now.
A school in Pripyat. The children were taught how to use gas masks from a young age, measures to protect in case of a chemical attack from the west.
The housing in Pripyat was apartment buildings. By building 10-16 story buildings they were able to house 50,000 people in a town only 8km long. We scaled the top of the building to get an overview. 16 floors when you are 40 years old is not an easy task!
The hospital was not equipped to treat the patients that were brought in due to acute radiation poisoning. Which seems mad considering its proximity to the power plant. The fireman that were first at the scene were all treated here before being helicoptered to Moscow. Their clothes are still in the basement which has now been filled with sand to stop people exploring it and putting themselves at risk.
The River Port Cafe
Pripyat was located right next to a large river that went all the way to Kiev. People would come to Pripyat by boat for a day out and enjoy food and drink in the cafe’s and restaurants.
Nature has completely taken over the exclusion zone. Trees are growing through buildings and pushing up concrete.
The hotel in Pripyat
Electrical Store and rumoured Piano shop
It isn’t clear if this building really was a piano shop or if it’s just where pianos found in the apartments of the abandoned buildings have been stored. Owning a piano was an expression of status in that era.
There were a number of schools in Pripyat, both kindergarten and secondary. It was super eery walking around and seeing teaching materials and broken desks. 30% of the population of Pripyat were children.
Probably the most iconic location in Pripyat is the Fairground. You’ll recognise the ferris wheel if you ever played Call of Duty Modern Warfare. The fairground never officially opened. It was due to open a week after the accident.
Chernobyl Re-settler visit
The best experience we had on our trip was having the opportunity to visit with a lady who had lived through the accident. We were invited into her home and given a chance to ask her questions with our guide interpreting.
She was a wonderful host and gave us some of her own homemade vodka which was delicious. It was so interesting hearing some of her stories. The most surprising of which was how she felt about the fall of the Soviet Union. You would expect everyone living under that regime would be delighted to be free of the communist rule but it seems it’s not as simple as that. She preferred living under communism, she said that back then she never had to worry about having a place to live and a job. It was all provided. She worries for her children now that they have to find their own way.
All drinking water in Chernobyl is brought in bottled.
A Totally Unique Experience
Overall I can’t put into words how unique an experience it was to visit and explore the exclusion zone. I would highly recommend if you have an interest in abandonment, science or historical interest in the Cold War or even just human stories, to visit the exclusion zone before it gets too busy.
Note for photographers
All photos apart from of the ferris wheel were taken with a 25mm f2 lens in natural light. The ferris wheel photographs were taken with a 50mm lens.