Since the final checkpoint, all I had seen was endless cedar trees. The long, straight road seemed to lead nowhere. Eventually, it divided around a central reservation, a narrow wooded island in the middle of a forest. Amongst the trees I spotted a crooked, moss-covered street lamp. Then came white concrete, erupting from the forest floor 20 storeys into the air; a decrepit tower block, unmistakably Communist-era.

It was the evening of April 25th 1986 when a botched safety test at the Chernobyl nuclear power station lead to an explosion which deposited highly radioactive material onto the surrounding areas. Pripyat, a city of 48,000 built to house the station staff and their families, lay just three kilometers away.

People walk the streets of Pripyat before the Nuclear disaster
A photo of life in Pripyat before the disaster. Photo by Reaper2112: CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Brightly coloured flames lit up the night sky as local firefighters were dispatched.
The men doused the flames with water from their trucks, in the process receiving many times the lethal dose of radiation. Nearby, hundreds of residents gathered on a railway bridge with a clear view of the fire, as a breeze carrying deadly radioactive material washed over them.

The next day, as the fire at the reactor continued to burn, life in the city went on as normal; children played in the parks, workers arrived at their jobs, and parents carried out their daily chores. There was little indication of the tragedy developing in the air around them. It was not until the following day, on April 27th, that the call to evacuate finally arrived.

Residents were given just two hours to gather essential belongings before boarding waiting buses. They were told they could return in a few days. In fact, they would never return. Pripyat became a city frozen in a moment.

It was this idea of Pripyat – of a snapshot of 1980’s Soviet life – that had led me to book a tour of the abandoned city. I had seen the haunting photos that regularly did the rounds online: gas masks strewn across a classroom floor; an operating theater with implements neatly laid out; lonely toys left by a child’s bedside. It was morbid, but darkly alluring.

The minibus carrying our group of twelve eager tourists, came to a stop. Tanya, our Ukrainian guide, began the safety briefing: “It is very important to avoid touching the ground. If you drop something, do not pick it up.” The Geiger counter in her hand clicked away erratically. The group shuffled and murmured in trepidation.

It was at this point that the first questions of authenticity arrived. This place was not dangerous; I had done my homework, I knew it was safe. So why the dramatic warnings?


“...avoid touching the ground. If you drop something, do not pick it up.”

For those whose nuclear physics is a little rusty, here’s a quick recap: Radiation is measured in micro-sieverts (µSv) and 2 million of them, all at once, will kill you. Background radiation is around 2 µSv per hour, meaning over the course of a year, you receive approximately 2,000 µSv naturally.

There are things we do routinely which expose us to additional radiation; a dental x-ray adds 3,000 µSv; a CT scan delivers 7,000 µSv; an astronaut visiting the space station gets 80,000 µSv. Highest of all, believe it or not, is a 20-a-day smoker who adds 160,000 µSv for each year they smoke.

By comparison, radiation around Pripyat is low, between 2 µSv and 10 µSv per hour. Picking up the sunglasses you just dropped would be as likely to jeopardise your health as smoking a single cigarette. Even the most radioactive place in Pripyat – the basement of the hospital where the firemen’s boots and clothes were dumped – only reaches 1,500 µSv per hour. You would have to spend 2 hours down there to match a visit to the dentist.

The warnings were exaggerated then, but perhaps injecting a little drama was all part of the experience.

Leaving the minibus, we strolled along an eerily quiet city street, surrounded only by tall, evergreen trees. The pavement was cracked and broken by many harsh winters and the weight of plant life flexing beneath it. Shoots of fresh grass emerged triumphantly from between the tarmac’s crumbled wounds. Slowly but surely, what was once a carefully pruned boulevard, was now succumbing to the forest floor it had fought so hard to contain.

We stood silently in the large central square, gently turning to take in the surroundings. A thousand broken windows looked down at us. Behind them no curtains waived, no silhouettes stirred. There was no sign of human life at all.

No sign, that is, until another tour group entered the square, chatting and laughing. Among them, two guys in full hazmat protective suits with respirators strapped to their faces. What, I wondered, had their safety briefing included?

In front of us stood the tallest building in the square: The Polissya hotel. I stepped through the empty doorframe and into the lobby. The crunch of crumbled plaster and broken glass resonated through my feet. Only rusting pipes and patches of peeling paint interrupted the cold emptiness of the bare concrete walls. “It used to house delegations visiting the plant,” Tanya explained, “it was very luxurious”.

Members of another tour group had decided to dress in full hazmat protective gear.

The only evidence of luxury amongst the rubble was the crosshatched pattern of parquet wood flooring, visible in small areas, where it hadn’t been torn up. To one side, large empty window frames through which the forest outside reached in. In this vast open space, only one recognisable object remained; resting in an empty window was the hollow casing of an old television. “When the Soviet Union fell, people came and looted” Tanya conceded, “they took everything”.


"people came and looted, they took everything"

So extensive was the looting of Pripyat, that the biggest danger to visitors is not cancer-inducing radiation, but open drains and manholes. Every last steel cover has been taken, making falling into a deep, dark hole a constant threat. It was not just metal, anything of any value has been taken and sold. Radioactive trinkets have been recovered throughout the former USSR.

Yet, it is not just looting that has robbed this city of its character and authenticity; “Photographers and filmmakers move things around.” Tanya confessed regretfully, as we made our way through the hospital building. Some rooms were so obviously arranged that they looked like sets from a horror movie. I watched on as a member of our group organised empty medicine bottles on a table, before raising his camera.

It seemed that my expectations of exploring a city preserved in time, had been wildly unrealistic.

Access to the hospital basement was unfortunately forbidden. Luckily, the thrill of high radiation readings could be had without venturing far. On a large desk in the reception area sat a scrap of thick material. “This is a piece of firemans clothing” Tanya announced, raising her Geiger counter. The clicking immediately raced up before the screech of the alarm echoed through the silent corridors. There were gasps as a few members of the group lurched back. I stared at the faded yellow rag. How fortunate that during the evacuation, hospital staff had felt compelled to leave a sample of radioactive clothing in such a convenient location for future tours.

Later that day, we reached the school classroom whose photo had inspired my visit. Hundreds of gas masks covered the floor, amongst them a disheveled doll sat on a chair. A haunting scene that made a great photo. I raised my camera and immediately felt ashamed. This was pure theatre, performed on the site of an historic tragedy and here I was, the willing audience, collecting ammunition for Instagram likes.

There is no denying that Pripyat is a fascinating place: the brutalist architecture, the urban planning, and the fact that nature’s reclamation is well under way. But beneath the hollow structures, the tourists clambering for photographic souvenirs, and the dramatic exaggerations of danger, the story of a real city, where real people lived, has been lost.

Ironically, Pripyat is now what a post apocalyptic town would probably look like; looted, vandalised, and toyed with. It doesn’t feel like a place void of all human life, but rather a place where human life – complete with its dark, twisted imagination – hides in the shadows. Perhaps that is why, despite its ramshackle state, it still feels so eerie.

That evening, we made our way out of the zone. Cedar trees rushed past the window once more. “Every year there are more and more tourists coming to the zone.” Tanya was telling me, “They have all seen the pictures”.

 

Special thanks to the guys over at Veritasium for help with the science of radiation. If you fancy a visit to Chernobyl, you can do a lot worse than Chernobyl Welcome, where tours start from £109.