Exploring Pripyat - Chernobyl's Apocalyptic Playground

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.

Guns & Noodles - Trekking Myanmar’s Golden Triangle

The sound of automatic gunfire rang out, reverberating around the hills like firecrackers. Everyone looked at Jojo, our young, happy-go-lucky guide. His unshakable grin had disappeared, replaced by a hard, pale stare. The trip had been advertised as ‘seeing the real Myanmar’. Things had just got very real.

This was a three day trek through Myanmar’s eastern Shan state. Located in the opium producing ‘Golden Triangle’, Shan is famous for three things: rice noodles, tea and civil war. “You will get lots of noodles” the organiser had promised, without mention of the conflict that has ravaged the region since independence, over half a century ago.

Two days earlier our group of five travellers had assembled for breakfast with Jojo, in the town of Hsipaw. Phil, a gentle giant with a thick red beard and northern English accent, was suffering from a terrible hangover. Concerned he might pull out, Katie, a tall, light-hearted north American, offered him a small glass bottle with the letters M150 on the label. “This will help” she said with a wry smile; it was a super strength energy drink, Myanmar style. We set off shortly after with Phil powering ahead. An hour later he felt worse than ever, but it was too late to go back. The rest of us exchanged smiles. It hadn’t taken long for the group to gel.

A short time later we entered the first village. Wooden shacks, topped with corrugated iron sat either side of a dirt road. A stream ran parallel, serving as both the village laundry and bathing grounds for the local water buffalo. Bouncing and tumbling in the dust was a young puppy. “Bye bye” came a soft voice. Then another. A short distance away a group of children jostled, their bare feet kicking up clouds of orange haze. “Bye bye”, their hands were waving. Did they want us to leave? We hurried on to the village shop.

Open rice paddies became mountain paths carved from rusty red soil

Brightly colored packets of processed snacks hung densely around the window, an enticing contrast to the drab, weathered timber frame. As we rested, Jojo offered an explanation to the children’s welcome, “‘bye bye’ is easy for them to remember, they just say it because they know it’s English.”

As the day wore on, open rice paddies became mountain paths carved from rusty red soil. The hillsides shimmered in the midday sun as the waxy leaves of the Camellia Sinensis bush – the shoulder height plant grown to produce tea – reflected the course light. In the distance bright green hilltops layered themselves out to the horizon, each row losing a little more definition to the milky haze.

In these isolated parts of Myanmar, meat is an expensive luxury reserved for special occasions. Thankfully, our arrival at the first nights homestay, in the village of Pankham, was one such special occasion; dinner would be chicken stew. So fresh was the bird in question, that it was able to witness the lighting of the stove that would go on to cook it. Collectively, our hosts slaughtered, plucked, gutted and butchered it, without a single calorie going to waste. As dinner was served, I politely turned down a foot to accompany my noodles.

The following day took us through villages that were visibly poorer. Again, Jojo explained: “The wealth depends on how easily they can get water. If it is hard, they don’t have time to grow crops to trade”. He had suggested we bring toys to give to children we met. “Give them to these kids” he said at the entrance to one village.

The kids beamed at the brightly coloured toys emerging from my bag. While we kicked a shiny blue football around, there were still a few kids playing with old rubber bands. I disappeared to the local shop and returned a moment later with a bag containing hundreds. Rich and I began distributing handfuls, but quickly became swamped in screaming children, grabbing, pushing and fighting. In the melee the bands fell to the ground. The children jumped on them like rugby players in a scrum. “We’ve just created a currency among these kids,” Rich said in dismay. That thought lingered for the next few hours, until it was replaced with a more immediate concern: not getting shot.

We had almost reached our home for the night when the gunfire rang out. It took a moment to recognise the crackling as that of bullets exploding with deadly power. Our tired eyes burned bright as the adrenaline kicked in. “Come on, we need to arrive” Jojo said. We followed, glancing at each other, a mix of fear, confusion and excitement on our faces.

It was replaced with a more immediate concern: not getting shot

The region has seen varying levels of violence since Aung San, the country’s founding father, was assassinated. He had vowed to give the people of Shan the opportunity to form their own nation, but that promise died with him. In 1958 the Shan State Army – South (SSAS) was formed to fight for independence. Support came from the opium trade; the region’s fertile poppy fields meant money and weapons flowed from China. Despite a 2011 ceasefire, skirmishes continue.

We strode into the village from a point high up on the hillside. As we entered we passed the monastery, conspicuous for its lack life; a handful of maroon gowns could be seen in the windows, but none in the large open courtyard. Below us rows of homes sat high on stilts, descending the hillside like stepping stones into the fields below. There were no puppies rolling in the dust, nor children offering bye-bye. The few people we saw seemed reluctant to even look in our direction. Then came the clusters of green camouflage. Soldiers. They were scattered around the village, standing in groups of varying civility, armed with an array of rifles and ordnance.

That night’s homestay was a wooden building raised on a meter of red bricks; we were told to wait on the terrace while Jojo investigated. Soldiers marched past in both directions. “I guess our evening stroll is cancelled” I joked. Nobody laughed. Katie was staring at something behind me: a bowl of broccoli on a small table, above which rested a huge rifle.

The soldier emerged onto the terrace carrying a bag of eggs. His green trousers were contrasted by a bright multi-coloured shirt. He was young enough to be denied cigarettes in a British corner-shop. “Ming-gla-ba” we said in unison, the standard Burmese greeting. He smiled. Around his shoulder was a satchel with the letters USA. Katie pointed to it and softly chanted “U.S.A”. He frowned and reached for the rifle. We drew a collective breath. “Photo” he said, pointing at my camera. He was smiling again, the rifle resting on his shoulder. I stood slowly with my camera, releasing the shutter and turning the screen towards him. He raised his thumb, turned and left.

A young soldier poses for a photo at our second night's homestay.

Jojo returned to inform us that SSAS had been in the village that morning. The army was pursuing them and the gunfire we had heard was an exercise. He grinned and casually added “The rebels fled in the direction we came from”. It took a moment for the significance of his words to sink in.

Phil finally broke the silence. “You know what they say about rebels?”. Perhaps he was going to reassure us. “You don’t see them, but they see you.” Not reassuring. Had heavily armed eyes been watching us that day, as we strode past completely oblivious, teaching Jojo crude jokes in English?

That evening we sat in a large open room, a fire burning in the corner. Smoke filled the air before escaping through an open section in the roof. Brightly coloured posters – Buddha, a Ferrari, a fish pond – leaped out from the blackened walls. My mind whirred as I tried to make sense of everything that had happened. “It’s the way of the Shan!” Jojo said, as though he had heard me thinking.

Early the following morning, the long descent back to Hsipaw began. It was hard not to imagine silent eyes watching from every tree, behind every shrub, and over every hill crest. But, soon enough we were striding through rice paddies and

Eventually, we reached our final stop: a hot spring bath on the outskirts of Hsipaw. As I descended the rough concrete steps of the male bath, three days of sweat and grime dissolved into the warm soothing water around me. “Hello” came a voice from the corner, where a group of tourists were relaxing. I smiled and gave them a nod. My body had returned to familiar surroundings. It would take a little longer for my mind to do the same.

Washing away three days of sweat and grime, at the hot spring baths in Hsipaw.