My return trip to the Zone was no less exciting than the first day.
Konstantine arrived outside my hotel promptly at 8, and we began the long return journey back to Chernobyl. We even made the customary stop at the same gas station (did you know most cars in Ukraine run on propane? And that a special attendant has to be there to fill up your car because if the average muppet gave it a go he’d blast his damn face off), followed by a quick trip to a tire store to top off the air in his front tire, after a kind passing stranger flagged him down to let him know it was low.
But I digress.
It took roughly two hours again to get there, even though it was just the two of us. The Ukrainian government requires an officially sanctioned guide, as I’ve mentioned, so going it alone really isn’t an option unless you’re willing to trek through many, many (30, approximately) kilometers of practically virgin forest. I’m sure there’s a way in. I should really research this for next time.
Point being, we still had to stop at all the checkpoints and register with the guard posts. We arrived at the first checkpoint ahead of all the other tourists, who showed up about five minutes after we did. The security guards wouldn’t let us pass until 10:00, so we just had to wait around, finally getting the go ahead and speeding along on our way. We passed all the places and little villages we’d stopped at along the way the first day, and it was cool seeing them go by, knowing that I’d been there now, and knew their secrets.
You can watch the video of my second day in the zone here: klicken sie hier.
Our first stop was back to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP). I was so stoked. This was it, the whole reason I’d come.
It was much the same as the day before, no pictures outside the plant on one side, very hush-hush security. We pulled up to the front of the plant, with the leaden skies overhead pregnant with impending rain.
I thought it was just going to be me and Konstantin, since it was a “private tour”. However, I quickly found I’d be joined by a dozen other people from various other tours, most of them from Poland. Eh. Whatever. Not what I’d had in mind, but come on, it’s Chernobyl. There’s room for a few more.
A furtive little man with dark hair met us outside, and we were forced to wait half an hour because some of the other visitors didn’t have their papers in order. Again, whatever.
Standing in front of the plant, waiting in the parking lot, watching workers go in and out of the building was a bit surreal. I mean, the whole experience was, but seeing people treat Chernobyl like it was any other job seemed… well, incongruent with the ghostly, ethereal, haunted place I’d imagined all these years.
Workers hung from a scaffold near the front, chipping away panels on the walls, doing restoration work I guess. Much of the exterior was pretty run-down. The building is a typical ’70s brutalist design: low, flat, with sharp edges and an abundance of concrete. It’s inhuman, in many ways, which reflects the history of the place and the people who built it.
I don’t mean the poor Ukrainians who toiled under Soviet rule, I mean the politburo in Moscow who crushed the lives of so many under their unforgiving rule. But that’s a topic for another time. The ChNPP is an unsuspecting building, which I think gives it a lot of power. Behind the unassuming grey walls lurks a monster, ready to spew invisible death on anyone who comes too close.
Looking down to the left, I could see the whole length of the building. It wasn’t as big as I’d imagined. It was still huge, by any reckoning. But your imagination has no limits, and real life, sadly, does. The reactors were on the far side of the building; from this angle (the front), you could only see the expanse of the control rooms. The original red and white smoke stack was torn down a few years ago, and a new yellow and white stack was put up in its place. Essentially the same.
That is to say, I felt like I was getting an authentic experience, and seeing Chernobyl much as it appeared the day of the disaster. We were finally ushered inside. Walking up the steps I was giddy. This was it! I was going inside Chernobyl. How many times in your life do you get to say that?
I mean, I guess if you’re one of the 3,000 people who works there, then… like, every day. But forgetting them, it felt like quite an achievement.
The entrance was a lot like an airport lobby, or a metro station. There were turnstiles and a big television on the wall with the current forecast, and rotating videos in Ukrainian that I assume covered plant safety and the history since the event. It all seemed very unreal. This was not the worn down, crumbling, dilapidated plant I had somewhat expected to find. Security guards with automatic rifles stood in the lobby, and an open hole in the floor drew my attention. When I peered inside, a man with a headlamp looked curiously up at me. What was this place?
We made it through the fairly informal metal detectors, and were ushered up several flights of stairs by the peevish little plant technician. The building felt like an old high school from. Ceiling tiles and linoleum floors. Cheap. People working there walked past us as if we weren’t there, just another day at the ChNPP.
We finally came to a sort of locker room, where we took off our coats and hats and put on some funny white lab coats, a silly little hat, and some disposable booties. Stepping through a radiation detector, we were told it was finally alright to take pictures. I had been filming through out, and taking pictures randomly. I’m not a terrorist. I know I’m not going to sell the pictures on the black market to a madman from Iran. I wanted the memories.
We filed through a long, sky-bridge corridor with windows on either side. The inner yard of Chernobyl was finally visible. There were lots of old vehicles and more run down buildings. Now this was what I had pictured. I followed the peevish man down a series of passageways, like through the workings of some kind of Communist labyrinth, until we passed through a security door and into a pitch-black room. I turned my phone on for light, and followed the technician around a few more black hallways until we got to a lighted area again. I never got a satisfactory explanation why that area was in darkness.
Then we were through the Golden Corridor. Which, as you can tell from the pictures, is aptly named. This is where the control rooms for the reactors are located. The control rooms are on the left side, the reactors they control are on the right. I had thought we’d get to go to Control Room 4, where the operators were working the night of the disaster. No such luck. That was off limits. Now, I’ve read enough and watched enough videos to know it’s not actually off limits. But this time, for whatever reason, they didn’t want us going in there. I imagine the peevish man was just lazy.
But we did get to see Control Room 3, which is identical to Room 4. Identical, but still: it’s not the same room. I wanted to be in the same room. Again, whatever. The room was intact and looked the same as it had back when it was built. Antiquated dials and gauges lined the walls, a bewildering array of knobs and switches and endless panels of buttons. There were also enormous diagrams of the reactor on the wall, with lights corresponding to the individual fuel assemblies. At least, that’s what I understand them to be.
The peevish man was giving a talk, narrating the functions of the room and a bit of back story. It was at this point that I asked him a question that had been really bugging me: if the reactor used graphite to make the nuclear reaction more efficient, then wasn’t it kind of stupid to use emergency rods (used to stop the reactor) that were also tipped with graphite?
He said he couldn’t see how that was a problem, and that adding graphite to more graphite made no difference. I argued that, if having 5 graphite (an example) helps the reactor, then adding 5 more would help the reactor even more. He thought this was nonsense and dismissed me out of hand. We managed to have a lengthy argument about it, during which time I think the Polish people became quite bored. But I was ok with that.
His English wasn’t great, and my Ukrainian is terrible, so I’m sure there was something lost in the translation. But ultimately, I wasn’t convinced by his explanation. When I finish editing the (very) lengthy conversation we had, I’ll post a link here.
Arguments with peevish Ukrainian nuclear technicians aside, we carried on with the tour. From there we walked down a few more obscure hallways, ending up in the pump room for Reactor 3. That was as close to Reactor 4 as we ever got. According to the peevish man, we were about 100 feet away from the site of the disaster. Just 100 feet. He pointed up through the wall, and said we were just a little below it, since the hall built to house the enormous reactor was so huge. Never having seen it in person, I understand it’s rather like a cavern. Someday, maybe. I fully know and understand it’s foolhardy, but there’s something indescribably tantalizing about seeing the Elephant’s Foot.
Briefly, the Elephant’s Foot was created when the intense heat from nuclear fission literally melted the reactor. Initial efforts to cool the reactor down and stop the raging hell fires by dumping sand into the inferno actually made the problem worse–essentially insulating the reactor and increasing the temperatures inside. The reactor was molten lava at this point, and it mixed with the tons of sand being dumped on top of it, creating a slushie of death. That molten mixture dripped down through the sub-basement and the pipes, pouring out like lava, and solidifying into what appeared to be a giant, radioactive elephant’s foot. It’s currently (as far as I know) the most toxic, dangerous object on earth. When it first formed, standing beside it for mere seconds would be enough to kill you on the spot.
Today, owing to radioactive half-lives, the Foot is slightly less radioactive, and you can spend a whopping 30 seconds next to it before you’ve had it. I don’t have a death wish or anything, I just want to… I don’t know. See it? Be that close to something so infamous and dangerous.
Honestly, what is wrong with the male brain?
We then turned around and headed back the way we came. I was a little disappointed, because there were other places I wanted to see. Like the turbine hall, and the memorial for Valery Khodemchuk, who was inside the reactor hall, and probably died instantly when it exploded. His body was never recovered, and he is forever entombed with the remains of the reactor. As another aside, it’s worth mentioning that the radiation was so intense, one fire fighter who helped battle the flames from the roof suffered such intense exposure, the radiation turned his eyes from brown to blue. Before he died, of course.
These were pretty big locations in Chernobyl, and I’m still bummed I didn’t get to see them. On the list for next time.
By the time we got back outside, it had begun to rain. That’s not the right word for it though. The angry skies overhead opened up and released a deluge on us. It felt fitting though, and I didn’t begrudge the weather for so perfectly complimenting the somber atmosphere. We drove around to the other side of the ChNPP, meeting back where the New Safe Confinement was under construction. Walking through more security, and past a truly astonishing array of stray dogs who all looked like black and white clones of each other, we arrived in the main office. A large and very detailed model of Chernobyl was inside, and was actually very useful in helping to understand where everything was located.
A very knowledgeable lady explained the project to us, and answered a ton of questions before we were taken back outside to stand at the gate leading into Chernobyl. This was as close as I got to the outside of the iconic Sarcophagus. I took a few pictures and recorded some video, but it was pretty difficult in the downpour. Konstantin and I walked down the length of the New Safe Confinement (NSC) and it was… huge. If Chernobyl itself is gigantic, you can imagine how much bigger the NSC was, since it’s designed to fit Chernobyl inside of it.
To be honest though, it wasn’t as interesting as the ChNPP, and I really actually resented it a little bit. This was the muzzle they were putting on the beast of Chernobyl, the cage they were trapping it inside. Of course it is a good thing, of course the radiation and nuclear fuel must be disposed of, and the area has to be cleaned. But, it’s so much less romantic that way. There’s something majestic about a place so wild and untamed. It’s beyond our control, and that gives it a kind of dignity that I hate to see despoiled. I fully understand that probably doesn’t make much sense, but it’s the best explanation I can offer.
Leaving all that behind us, I told Konstantin I wanted to go back to Pripyat. The tour of ChNPP had taken 4 hours–much longer than I had anticipated. There are really only 8 hours a day you’re allowed to be inside Chernobyl, and so we had just 4 hours left to go exploring in Pripyat. We headed immediately back to the high school. It was one of the highlights of the tour, and I certainly wasn’t done there.
Why do we like abandoned things? Why are we fascinated with decay? Is it the Imp of the Perverse? Our self-destructive habits brought to life? I think it has to do with the eeriness of being in a place that should be full of people, but isn’t. Something that once housed a city, but is suddenly empty. I suppose if places like Chernobyl were everywhere, they wouldn’t be as interesting. But a town like Pripyat is so rare, that in itself gives it an essentially alluring aspect.
As I walked through the halls, I wished I spoke Russian, because some of the images were so captivating. Tattered posters about the Soviet military, and how dangerous America was. They were expecting an invasion that never came. But I suppose, so were we.
Konstantin pointed out a particular poster for the school’s athletic department. Along with wrestling, archery, and swimming, “hand grenade throwing” was listed as a sport.
I made my way back to the “books” room. It’s an old classroom where the floor is literally strewn with books, reaching a foot deep in places. I felt guilty walking on the books–it felt like blasphemy. But, they’ll never be read again, and they’re just slowly rotting anyways. I found a few interesting pages scattered about and stuffed them in my jacket. I wasn’t leaving without some memento, and a picture of Lenin and a Soviet propaganda poster made for excellent specimens.
If you’re wondering, they weren’t radioactive. I scanned them with my Geiger counter, and they came up negative. Could it have missed something? Sure. But inside the schools was pretty well protected from the radioactive fallout, they aren’t likely dangerous. Subsequent scans through several radiation detectors revealed nothing.
We were running short on time, so we moved on to the famous apartment building at the edge of town that everyone climbs. Not the one with the star though–we didn’t have time to go there. I believe the building is 16 floors, but fortunately the elevator was still working. (That’s not true. It wasn’t working.)
I stopped halfway up and explored one of the floors. There wasn’t much to see. The rooms were very tiny, despite this being the height of communist extravagance. Living rooms were maybe ten by ten, with bedrooms somewhat smaller. Tiny bathrooms were tucked away behind even tinier kitchens. I’m very curious about what they would have looked like in their prime.
Continuing on up the stairs, Konstantin stopped to show me what appeared to be an utilities access room below the roof. Large vents were separated by air ducts and concrete pillars. He took me to the far corner, and showed me “the dog”.
If you search for “Chernobyl dog”, it’ll be one of the first images you see: an emaciated, mummified corpse of a dog that somehow ended up at the top of this abandoned apartment building. I don’t know how it got there, or how it died. I hope it was a quick death. I know dogs, and all animals really, die all the time. But we so seldom see it, it’s difficult to deal with the aftermath when confronted with it face to face. If not difficult, it’s at least unusual, and in a place like Pripyat, gives you pause. This dog has become famous now, among those who know about Chernobyl, and as long as his little doggy corpse remains there, will be a relic of the disaster.
Finally I climbed up through a small ladder and walked out onto the roof. It was a pretty breathtaking scene. As far as I could see to the north, west, and east, was nothing but forest. Green, red, yellow, swaying hills of aspen, poplar, and pines. To the northwest, just through a haze of low clouds, I barely made out the shape of the Woodpecker. The real spectacle lay to the south.
Looking south toward the river Pripyat, the mighty Soviet city lay crumbling before me. Rotting apartment blocks reared their greasy, grey heads above the carpet of green. Sections were beginning to collapse, the forest and underbrush quickly recovering the lost ground. Thirty years on, there isn’t much to see. Of course the buildings are still there, and they aren’t hard to see. But compared with pictures from when the disaster first happened, it’s simply astounding how much has been reclaimed.
But above and beyond Pripyat, looming in the distance, foreboding and grim under the threatening black tumult of clouds, lay Chernobyl. The NSC was the most prominent, but it wasn’t hard to see the Sarcophagus and smoke stack just to the left.
I took a moment to just stand there and soak it in. The wind moaned around the rooftop, and the trees murmured quietly below. There’s something utterly captivating about this alien place. The Cold War had an enormous impact on the entire world, and left its stamp on both the United States and the Soviet-bloc countries. However, time has moved on in America. But in former Soviet states, much of the history of the last 100 years is still around, being lived in, breathed in, walked through and around and is very real for millions of people. Chernobyl, for me, is the embodiment of that time period, and it’s wonderful and tragic to have this snapshot in time.
I could have stood up there for hours, but sadly the clock was ticking. With one last look over the entire city of Pripyat, we headed back down the 16 flights of stairs.
We drove through a shadowed avenue of trees, coming at last to the Jupiter Factory. The factory was the second biggest employer in Chernobyl after the ChNPP, and was opened in 1980, employing nearly four-thousand people at its peak. It was supposedly making tape and electronic components for home appliances. But the plant was really being used to build semiconductors and electronic parts for military and robotics research. Jupiter kept on running after the 1986 disaster, but it was converted into a laboratory for measuring radiation and testing decontamination equipment.
If you’ve ever seen an abandoned factory, you can imagine what this looked like. It was nothing surprising really, but it was still thrilling. I walked up to the massive double doors and stepped inside a giant grotto of a factory. Skeletal support beams stretched into the distance like the ribs of a fallen giant, as rain water pattered noisily in growing puddles. The light outside was fading fast, and the gloom was beginning to grow in the recesses of the old building, creating fantastic and startling shapes. Bits of broken machinery lay strewn about, and I marveled that this was once the pinnacle of Soviet engineering. I tried to imagine all the secrets that were kept there over the years, the mysteries Russian scientists must have been working on for Moscow. And now, these long years later, none of it mattered at all.
With just half an hour left, we could only make one final stop. The old hospital.
I was super disappointed we couldn’t stay longer, since the hospital was one of the top places I wanted to visit. It looks like something out of a horror movie, and in a way, it very much is. In the hours and days after the explosion, thousands of brave but clueless fire and policemen, doctors, scientists, plant workers, and even soldiers who were exposed to the inhuman amounts of radiation from Chernobyl were taken to this hospital. Many died there, many more were simply treated and returned immediately to battle the roaring inferno. But the hospital quickly became a dumping ground for the insanely irradiated clothing worn by the brigades of hapless conscripts and volunteers.
The toxic clothing was dumped in the basement, which is now a hot zone for radioactive activity. It’s verboten to venture down into the basement, which of course meant I was dying to go. But, probably fortunately, we didn’t have enough time, and so we simply walked down a few of the deserted hallways. It looked a bit like an insane asylum, with tiny rooms branching off long corridors, looking like prison cells for the deranged. I don’t think it was, I think they were just tiny treatment rooms. We came to a main lobby at one end of the hospital, where Konstantin pointed out a nondescript rag sitting on a table. “Watch this,” he said grimly. “I’m not doing it twice.”
He got out his Geiger counter, holding it an inch above the rag. It went crazy. The normal background radiation for most of Chernobyl and Pripyat is around 3 or 4 microsieverts an hour. This immediately bounced all the way up to 90. For those of you counting, that’s a significant increase. He told me it was a face mask worn by the firemen who battled the blaze from the rooftop of Chernobyl. He held his hand there for a few seconds only, before quickly pulling it away.
With that dramatic finale, my visit to Chernobyl was over. We got back in the car, and I gazed sadly at the ghostly buildings and drooping trees whizzing by the window. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of regret that I hadn’t been able to see more, and that I hadn’t “connected” like I’d wanted to. I can spend hours in an old castle, just touching the walls, breathing in the musty air, imagining the sights and sounds of those long lost days. But I hadn’t had that chance here, and it’s still bothering me today. I felt rushed, and as a result, don’t feel like I got to revel in the history and truly savor the moment. But that’s all sort of beside the point. I will go back, someday. As I write this, the New Safe Confinement is being slowly rolled into place over Reactor 4. Soon, it will be gone forever. I got to see it.
We passed through the two checkpoints without incident. No alarms went off, and no one detected my illicit paraphernalia. The Soviet propaganda was safe, and now sits lovingly framed in my home. A peculiar reminder of a peculiar time.
There’s not much left for me to say about my trip there. I think I’ve said everything I can by now. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, and I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing that dreadful, beautiful building for the first time. Humans are fools. We do our best, but in the end, we are fools, and we are sometimes reminded of our foolishness in terrible ways. Chernobyl is one of those lessons, and for anyone who visits, the voices of the past are all too clear. I’m really grateful I got to go. It’s a sobering experience, but it was simultaneously a joyful one, and the fulfillment of a childhood dream. I will never forget what I saw there, or the lost lives that, in many ways, still haunt those moldering ruins.