The Zone

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While I was on the trip, I didn’t really get the chance to capture the experience on my blog or in the videos. At the end of the day I was either knackered, or without an internet connection reliable enough to sustain a 6+ hour upload to YouTube. So some things have gone unsaid.

Particularly, about Chernobyl.

I’m not sure exactly when my fascination began with Chernobyl, or what sparked my imagination. If I had to put my finger on it, I’d say it was the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. It’s pretty famous now in the circles that are interested in the history of Chernobyl, mostly because of its extremely faithful recreation of relics in the Zone and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP).

The game developers held a contest ahead of its release, probably back in 2002 or 2003. You had to write a short story about Chernobyl and the zone, and if you won, they’d include it in the game. I spent a good month or more researching the history of Chernobyl and creating a meticulous story that tried to use scientific reasoning to explain all the monsters and zombies portrayed by the game. I think I did a pretty good job. I should upload the story here. The game’s website also featured a rather chilling soundtrack, which I couldn’t find online so I uploaded to YouTube (click here). It makes for good listening while reading this. Or at least, it did while writing it.

They didn’t use my story (it was amazingly difficult to even submit; the website was designed by Ukrainians, and I’m pretty positive my submission was never even seen), but it was with these memories that I approached Chernobyl. After gestating for more than a decade in my mind, creating memories that created memories, the legend was finally before me.

The catalyst for the trip came earlier this year, when I learned the New Safe Confinement  (NSC) would be moved into place in November, effectively closing off and destroying “Chernobyl” forever. That’s both true and not true, in the sense that while the new sarcophagus would be rolled over top of Reactor 4–the reactor where it all went down–the rest of Chernobyl and Pripyat would remain unaffected. The NSC looks like a big aircraft hangar, and will cover up the old reactor that exploded, so that technicians and robots can dismantle it and remove and dismantle the radioactive debris inside. It’s a good idea, but part of me is sad that the monster will finally be contained. Chernobyl has a personality after all these years, and it’s kind of disappointing to see it locked away and taken apart. It’s not just a building anymore, it’s alive.

I planned the trip, finally bought the tickets, and arranged a guided tour around Chernobyl and the Zone. It’s illegal to visit without a guide, as there’s still a lot of radioactive material inside the plant, and I guess they’re afraid it could fall into terrorist hands. Not likely, but still a possibility I suppose. In simply acquiring the radioactive material, the terrorists would be as likely to die as anyone they intended to hurt with their dirty bomb.

After getting settled in my hotel, I cozied up with a book about the incident, trying to keep all the details fresh for when I finally met the legend face to face.

The morning finally arrived, and I went outside to join the group. I’d decided to take a group tour the first day–see all the major sights, get a feel for the place–and then take a private tour the second day. The private tour was about 10 times more expensive, so I thought it’d be best to know where I wanted to go before I dropped the money. Also, to actually go inside the plant, you had to take a private tour.

IMG_0674.JPGWe spent the next two hours driving from Kyiv to Chernobyl, watching videos in the van about the incident. It was interesting stuff, nothing I hadn’t seen or heard before, but still a cool backdrop to build the suspense. The Ukrainian countryside rolled by outside the tinted windows, bleak and dreary under a leaden autumn sky. Empty fields and pine forests stretched out and away on either side of the highway, interrupted by the occasional village or gas station.

Ukraine is a very rural country, and in a lot of places there really isn’t much to see. It’s been held back by communism and state corruption, with the Soviet Union trying to modernize areas that have lived a peasant lifestyle even until today. Horse-drawn wagons are still common, and many modern luxuries are found only in areas with significant tourist populations. The air is dirty, pollution is unchecked, and most people have a distant look in their eye as though they’re trying to escape the hardships of their daily life. That said, Ukrainians are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. But for many, life isn’t easy.

20161004_103155.jpgWe reached the first checkpoint, after our guide Konstantine–a stoic but friendly young man who seemed tired of putting up with ignorant tourists. His English was excellent, and his humor was subtle, but dark, and I grew to like him more and more as the day progressed. He helped us through the checkpoint, which wasn’t difficult. A little guard station was situated across the road, and we were taken through one at a time as bored men in old army fatigues checked our passports.

We made it through in a couple of minutes, and were on our way again. We were officially in “the Zone.”

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Konstantine narrated the scenery for us, explaining what had happened and why the Zone looked the way it did. Trees grew up thick on both sides of the road, but Konstantine pointed out that we were now in the midst of a village, and it was true–if you looked closely, you could see the ghosts of buildings gazing hauntingly out from behind the yellowing aspens and pines. We stopped at one village, and were lead down a tree-lined pathway, flanked by crumbling, decaying buildings and homes on either side. I peeked inside one. Rotting timbers had collapsed in places, and the floorboards were fallen through, exposing the bare earth below. Leaves littered the hallways, and the open sky shone down through a massive hole in the roof. I found a single leather shoe in one bedroom.

IMG_20161004_224323.jpgWe kept going, finally coming to a small “Palace of Culture.” These were centers for communist propaganda, and every town had one. They were the focal point of the village life, where the politburo made sure Ukrainians were living up to the Soviet standard, and each had a dance hall and stage, places where every day people could be made to feel like they were being represented, and that the Soviet Union was a great supporter of the arts.

It was in much the same condition as the house I explored, with wooden floorboards having rotted through, revealing the brick foundations below. Stirring Soviet propaganda adorned the walls, faded and peeling. We moved on.

IMG_20161004_224634.jpgFurther down the road we stopped at a little cafe for some lunch, and then walked down a path lined with sign posts from towns that were abandoned after the disaster. There were more than I could count. At the end of the path was a noble statue of Lenin, one of the few originals that wasn’t torn down after the Soviet Union fell.

Then it was back in the car, and we continued on, arriving at a nondescript utility road nearly hidden by overgrown trees. We were going to see the Woodpecker.

The Woodpecker, or “Duga-1”, was built in the ’70s as an over-the-horizon radar, to detect incoming missiles. It was a massive structure, hundreds of meters high and weighing thousands of tons. It first became known to the world when it was activated in 1976, and began emitting a series of “tik-tik-tik” noises that could be heard on radios around the world, giving it the name “woodpecker”. Moscow wouldn’t acknowledge it at the time–it was super top secret–but the noise was so obnoxious that radios around the world started coming with built-in Duga-jammers to cancel out the ticking sound. It was finally shut down in 1989 when it was outdated, but Moscow wouldn’t admit to it until after the collapse in 1991.

IMG_0683.JPGI was a bit disappointed by Duga, not because it wasn’t impressive, but because we didn’t get to get a good look. We weren’t allowed very close, and even after a ten minute drive through the forest to get there, we were only able to get within two hundred yards. Not nearly good enough for me–I wanted to climb to the top. That was out of the question for the tour though, since the guards were apparently on the lookout for people climbing the structure. I’ll have to go back again and do it on my own. Hopefully they don’t tear it down before I get the chance.

IMG_20161004_224937.jpgIt was part of a military base, complete with barracks and scientific buildings, and I also didn’t get nearly enough time to explore it all. The area was sprawling, and with the group moving right along, I only had time enough to wander off on my own and briefly explore a little brick building with a brightly-colored Soviet mural on the side. There was an interesting poster featuring the various insects of the area, as well as a backroom with a row of concrete cisterns fading away into the dark. So much to see! So little time. What was it all for? Probably nothing very sinister, but it provoked my imagination to new heights. Darkened rooms with discarded uniforms and vanishing hallways leading into who-knows-where… I wanted to see it all. I wanted all the secrets.

But alas, I had to keep moving. I made it to the sign post warning trespassers to turn back, and saw Duga towering grey and silent through the trees above me, but that was as close as I ever got. I don’t think the two overweight, lethargic guards at the guard post–smoking and drinking–would have minded if I climbed the Duga. I don’t think they would have cared if I fell off and plunged to my death, so long as it didn’t involve paperwork for them. Next time.

We were back in the van, and now it was on to Chernobyl itself. We passed through another checkpoint, this time more serious, with the guards inspecting the van as we went through. Moving right along, Konstantine was explaining some detail about the area, when suddenly, there it was: the half-finished cooling tower for the reactors that were also never built. It just appeared, out of nowhere, without any warning. And a second later, the other cooling tower, also unfinished but much bigger, appeared next to it. I was stunned. This wasn’t real. I wasn’t actually here.

IMG_20161004_225919.jpgBut we just kept driving, like it was any other road, on any other day, in any other car. Everything was so normal. Then reactors 5 and 6 appeared–a red, squat building that was rather ugly. It was unfinished as well, as construction on all graphite reactors was halted after the meltdown at Chernobyl. The cooling channel ran alongside it, and then, there in the distance, sprung Chernobyl itself.

I didn’t know what to think. There was too much going on. The people were talking, Konstantine was narrating, the van kept driving, and we kept getting closer. It was all happening to fast. It’s like meeting a celebrity, but you’re thrown into the room with them and suddenly they’re just standing right there talking and shaking your hand and there’s no time to prepare. What do you say? What do you think? It was all happening so fast, I couldn’t process it.

The legend was getting bigger by the second–the square superstructure butted up against the smaller 1 and 2 reactors in a long beige building, planted before a sprawling lot of electrical transformers and power lines. We were asked not to take pictures of one side of the building, I managed to snap a quick shot. Terrorism fears again.

We parked next to the cooling channel and got out, walking over to a bridge. I was kind of in disbelief at this point. None of it felt real. Not in a “larger than life” kind of way, but in a subdued, “this isn’t that big a deal” kind of way. It was almost like we were just on a trip to the grocery store, or something. I guess it lacked ceremony. It all just happened without any drama. In my mind, seeing Chernobyl for the first time was accompanied by an epic orchestral score, something by Hans Zimmer, building and crescendoing right as I reached the plant. But no, nothing like that happened. The handful of other passengers jabbered away, and we arrived. It was just there. I didn’t feel like I’d earned the visit, it was all too easy. I’m not sure what I was expecting–maybe fighting my way through armed guards in a hazmat suit, to stand awestruck before the towering grey monolith?

IMG_0770.JPGBy the bridge, we fed some wels catfish. They may appear mutated, but they’re really just this giant species of catfish that, because no one wants to eat them for fear of radioactivity, have been allowed to grow naturally for the last 30 years without human interference. Now they’re simply enormous, and a rather charming addition to the Chernobyl experience. After tossing in some cookies and watching them wrestle for them, we got back in the vans and drove around Chernobyl to the famous plaza where everyone takes their pictures. It’s on the north side of the plant, and offers an excellent view of Reactor 4 and the decaying sarcophagus.

IMG_20161004_230158.jpgI got out and surveyed the memorial briefly, but my chief focus was that immense, silent, solemn reactor building. I’m not often at a loss for words, but there were so many conflicting emotions that ran through me as I tried to grasp the enormity of what I was looking at. Not just in sheer size, but in scope. The disaster at Chernobyl changed world history, killed thousands of people (although only 38 people are officially confirmed dead as a result of the accident), and created an enduring legacy that has haunted and attracted and riveted imaginations for the last 30 years. How do you just show up in a van and look at something like that?

I could have spent all day standing there just soaking it in, absorbing the titanic ripples of grim history exuded by that ominous building, but sadly, we had only a couple of minutes there. It’s hard to appreciate something of that magnitude when you’re being ushered along on a tour. I think that might have been my main complaint. And honestly, it’s the number one reason I’m considering sneaking in next time. I don’t like to be rushed. And Chernobyl is not something you just show up and see and go home.

But we did. We got back in the car, and carried on down the road to go see Pripyat.

If you’re not aware, Pripyat is the neighboring town, and was created to be a model Soviet city. It’s about 2 miles from Chernobyl, and was home to nearly 50,000 people the day of the disaster in 1986. Most of them had jobs related to the plant, but there was also a factory in town, and it was meant to be a shining beacon as to the luxurious lifestyle afforded under communist rule. Irony hit the town hard.

IMG_0800.JPGWe stopped by the famous sign outside the town, and then carried on down the road past the “bridge of death”. Supposedly, people went to stand on the bridge on the night of the accident, and received lethal doses of radiation. It’s not clear if it’s just an urban legend or not, but certainly many people were killed that night.

My main experience with Pripyat is from the game STALKER, and watching subsequent videos. However, after crossing an absurdly indifferent guard station, I realized those all must have been made many, many years ago, because Pripyat today is almost completely overgrown with trees. Trees are everywhere, the streets and old plazas are full of them. Courtyards around schools are choked with trees and undergrowth, and you have to really look hard to see many of the buildings.

Driving past them down roads that have been reduced to a single lane because of the encroaching trees, you can’t see anything more than ten feet to either side, the foliage is so dense. You’d think you were in a pristine forest, except that when you look up, occasionally you see an old apartment complex looming mournfully into the misty sky.

IMG_20161004_232051.jpgWe stopped at the infamous Pripyat Ferris wheel. That, too, just suddenly appeared. There was no great hike or journey to get there, we just came around a stand of yellowing poplar trees and there it was. The old wheel is thoroughly rusted over, with only the yellow cars to remind you it was ever anything else. It stands there, sadly neglected, and will one day soon topple over and collapse, I have no doubt. I wanted to climb on it, to sit in one of the cars. But there was no time, and too many other people.

Too many other damn people.

I say that, but there were really only five or six. But when you’re wandering through a literal nuclear wasteland, that’s still too many. I just want the rustling leaves, the howling wind, the pattering rain, and the cawing of brooding crows in the barren branches. Can’t a guy get some atmosphere?

IMG_20161004_233036.jpgWe pressed on, reaching the Palace of Culture. That was something else. We entered through a back door, coming in behind a stage into a large hall, whose ceiling stretched high above me into blackness. The flooring was rotted and collapsed in many places, and you had to watch your step lest you fall through to your waist. Eerie shafts of light penetrated the darkness, casting weird shadows in the gloom. We came through to the other side, the front of the stage, where there was a large picture of Gorbachev with his eyes and mouth cut out, reminding me of a Muppet for some reason. The auditorium stretched up and away, with many of the seats missing or fallen over.

Climbing up to the back, we came to a set of stairs that I instantly recognized from pictures. Walking up them slowly, I arrived at the main hall of the Palace of Culture. There I was, in that place where so many pictures are taken, and so much history happened. Or, rather, was intended to happen. The palace was barely a decade old when its brief life was cut short by a terrible, shining moment in Soviet history.

IMG_20161004_233315.jpgThere was the beautifully colored mural depicting the archetypes of Soviet living. Farmers, workers, scientists, all coming together for the greater good of Mother Russia. It was unbelievable. The artwork was surprisingly vivid, a remarkable contrast to the dull greys and lifeless browns everywhere else. The front of the hall stretched up forty or fifty feet–an impressive facade designed to inspire awe and loyalty to the party. It’s a large, open room, whose front featured floor to ceiling windows which have since been shattered to prevent toxic, radioactive gases from building up and lingering inside.

I wandered off to go exploring, but just moments later we had to move on. Insufferable. Leave me behind! I’ll walk back! I promise not to destroy anything or steal nuclear fuel to make bombs! I merely want to gaze upon the ruination of an entire city brought on by the insensitive and monstrous wheels of an unforgiving and crushingly oppressive regime that would ultimately be brought down by its own towering hubris. Is that too much to ask?

Grudgingly, I followed, and we drove on to see the high school. Yeah, that one. The one with the basketball court. And the empty swimming pool. It’s pretty renown, because it’s just so bizarre to see a place that usually is, and should be, full of life just sitting there–vacant and crumbling. The high school was surrounded by trees, and was really difficult to actually see. The shape of the building still eludes me, it was almost as though we simply walked into a portal in the forest, and were transported to another location, because the exterior of the school was totally masked by the trees.

IMG_20161004_230546.jpgWalking inside, I was enveloped by the emptiness. Yawning hallways stretched off into darkness, as dripping water pattered noisily against the concrete, quickly eroding the building and bringing on its eventual and inevitable dissolution. One day soon, the forest will take back what we arrogantly built, and nothing will remain. I walked through haunted corridors, passing by mementos of an era that scarred so many lives. Soviet posters extolling the virtues of healthy living lined the hallways, tattered and falling apart. Books, diagrams, projects, all lay discarded. One day long ago, someone touched them, looked at them, put thought into them. Once, they were important.

But no more. I saw a poster about the solar system, showing the planets all aligned. Of course, everything was in Russian, so I could only guess at its meaning from the pictures. Konstantine pointed out another poster, which listed the school sports program. Along with wrestling, swimming, and soccer, there was also competitions for archery, and–my favorite–grenade throwing.

IMG_20161004_231107.jpgI came across a room filled with books. I’m not sure if it had been a library at one time, but books were scattered on the floor at least two feet deep. I waded through them, feeling guilty for standing on books. Of course, they would never be read again, and could never even be taken from this place. But that didn’t stop me. One of my primary goals coming to Chernobyl was to take back a souvenir. I didn’t consider this vandalism, or some juvenile fancy. Chernobyl is immensely important to me, and has made a permanent mark in my life. I expect I’ll be fascinated by it until the day I die.

Bringing home a keepsake was for me an important step to help me be closer to the event, closer to that time; closer to Chernobyl. It’s difficult to explain, but I couldn’t simply visit and leave it all behind. I had to bring something back with me to see, to touch, to keep the experience real. I rummaged through the books, settling on a page from a story book, a picture of Lenin, and a page from what appeared to be a book glamorizing the Soviet military. There’s more to the story, but in case anyone who matters ever sees this, I don’t want to reveal everything and get anyone in trouble. Suffice it to say, those three pictures are now framed on my wall, and are treasured reminders of my journey.

img_20161004_231503I also stopped by the “gas mask” room. I learned from Konstantine that it’s not a “real” room, in the sense that the gas masks were never used, and were put there much later, after some explorer discovered an unopened box of them in the school’s attic. So, while the masks are authentic, they weren’t part of the disaster, and were never worn by the school children, and are sort of a fake display that has since become one of the most iconic parts of the Pripyat and Chernobyl experience. I can dig it, but I still think anything staged is just a cheap trick. Chernobyl is deep enough.

And that was it. I got back in the van with the five other visitors, and we drove off down the tree lined street. That was my first day in Chernobyl.

img_20161004_231002As we passed first the sign of Pripyat, and then Chernobyl, the weight of the day still hadn’t come home. Had I really been to Chernobyl? Had I really been to the site of the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind? It didn’t feel like it. I’m still not sure what it was supposed to feel like, but it didn’t really feel much more profound than if I had watched a movie about it. It was just too… simple. Maybe if I’d been left to wander and explore and contemplate on my own, the gravity would have sunk in. Chernobyl needs to be savored, it’s too rich to gobble down in one afternoon. But that’s how it went down.

It was still impressive, more than I can ever say. It’s something you need to see, to feel for yourself. And, having met my hero, I wasn’t done yet. I still needed to see more. I needed to go inside. And the next day, that’s exactly what I did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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