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.


Mud, Mountains and Motels - Colombia by Motorbike

A previous version of this article was published in the November/December 2016 issue of Adventure Bike Rider

The road curved along a reservoir to one side, a steep rock face rose up the other. The bike’s engine hummed away beneath me, gently merging with the thrum of rubber rolling over tarmac. I was alone, just the open road, a gentle breeze and the warm afternoon sun. Then, in an instant, the peace was broken. Hurtling towards me from a blind apex was a wall of blue metal and glass. A coach overtaking a truck. I lunged over, my weight drawing the bike quickly across the road and off into the dusty run-off area. We came to a stop just as the wind displaced by twenty tonnes of steel collided with my face. Oh, Colombia.

Four months earlier I had arrived in Medellin, Colombia’s fashionable and progressive second city, with one goal: to explore the country by motorbike. Having passed my bike test in London the previous month, I was eager to hit the road and attain my status as an ‘adventure rider’.

My excitement was quickly overtaken by sheer panic as I caught a glimpse of Medellin’s dense and chaotic traffic. A quick Google search provided some terrifying stats; road accidents in Colombia are the second most common cause of unnatural death, after acts of violence. In 2014 there were 8,100 deaths on the roads, almost half of which involved motorbikes. When calculating deaths per vehicle, you are nearly 16 times more likely to die in an accident in Colombia than in the UK.

After some significant effort forcing my head into the sand and diverting my attention away from gruesome death-by-truck and onto the lure of my first bike, I set about touring the numerous moto-dealers in the city. I settled on a local brand, AKT. Their bikes were cheap and cheerful Chinese imports and the model in question was a 250cc ‘adventure bike’, which resembled a BMW bike popular in Europe, but at a tenth of the price. “It’s better than the BMW” the salesman assured me. It clearly wasn’t, but being British, I smiled and nodded to avoid causing offence.


I named my new bike “Ling”, meaning “delicate and dainty”

In the hope that flattery might lead to reliability, I named my new bike “Ling”, meaning “delicate and dainty” in Chinese. I was all set, now it was time to push past the aching fear that had returned to my belly and hit the road. First stop: Colombia’s Grand Canyon.

At 2,000m in depth, Chicamocha Canyon has been carved into the mountainous terrain over millions of years by the flow of the Chicamocha river. I entered the canyon along the bank of the river, and began the steep ascent to its crest. The freshly tarmaced road spun me through the epic natural wonder in ever more awe-inspiring ways, with little traffic to distract me. I don’t know if every biker has a day that will forever be the moment they knew motorbiking was special, but for me, it was that day riding through Chicamocha Canyon. The air ran across my face and I was surrounded by mountains reaching for the sky. The road ahead unravelled like a winding, tarmac red carpet. I was hooked. A car suddenly seemed like that ex you can’t understand why you were ever in love with.

The fun at Chicamocha did not end there, however. In true Colombian style, I was greeted at the summit by something rather unexpected: a theme park, complete with buggy racing, an aqua park, two restaurants, a zipline and an ostrich farm. Yes, you really can follow the ride of your life by chucking seeds at the world’s largest flightless bird.

A few days later, I found myself in another astonishing land of wanderlust, this time without the additional adventure park. I was in the foothills of the Los Nevados nature reserve, ascending from the village of Murillo. As I climbed, the road turned to dirt. Around me, the clouds drifted like giant airships, partially obscuring the views of the vast volcanic landscape. I was riding through the sky into a prehistoric vista of towering brutalist rock formations, decorated by alien plants and steep narrow waterfalls, cascading down through the clouds to the valley floor below.

As the road became rougher, crossing streams and negotiating deep ruts and troughs, I felt like a real ‘adventure biker’, with just me and my little Chinese girl bouncing and rattling around this jurassic world, far away from civilisation.

It was at this point that my Ling decided to demonstrate that she most certainly was not a BMW. I had stopped to take a photo and on returning to the bike, she refused to start. I turned the key in earnest until the battery gave its last jolt. I hadn’t seen another soul in hours and the sun was beginning to set. My only option: a push-start.

If there is a worst place to push-start a bike, a rough dirt track with a steep drop on one side has to be up there. I clasped the handle bars and groaned as my dainty girl revealed her true, grotesque mass. I picked up some speed, dropped the clutch and she lurched into life, giving me a brief moment to squeeze the brake before we both tumbled over the edge and into the gorgeous abyss, Thelma and Louise style. Crisis averted, I continued. Next stop: the ‘Zona Cafeteria’.

After fossil fuels (and cocaine), coffee is Colombia’s top export, accounting for 8% of the world’s total coffee production. The Zona Cafeteria (meaning ‘Coffee region’) is where the majority of that production takes place. So beautiful is this area, that in 2011, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site. The rolling hills of the plantations meet the cloud topped mountain ranges running along the horizon. Quaint gravel paths wind through lush green valleys where horses graze and crystal clear streams flow nearby. Villages of brightly coloured houses and public squares draped in flowers are centered around beautiful gothic churches. The Zona Cafeteria is Colombia at its best.

After a couple of days touring bustling coffee farms, visiting the world’s tallest palm trees, riding horses to waterfalls and, of course, drinking coffee, it was time to get back on the road.

Colombia’s heartlands provided an endless stream of sensory stimulation: Tatacoa Desert, a tropical dry forest full of incredible rusty red rock formations; “The Trampoline of Death”, Colombia’s most dangerous road, akin to the infamous Death Road in Bolivia; Las Lajas Sanctuary, a beautiful Church built into the side of a steep canyon; a horizon full of electrical storms in Mompos; the colorful colonial town of Cartagena; postcard beaches of Tayrona and Palomino. It was difficult to understand why the only things the world associated with Colombia were Pablo Escobar and cocaine.

Throughout my journey, finding places to sleep was easy; cheap local hotels were everywhere, littering the roads into and out of towns and cities. Yet one vital piece of information had somehow escaped me as I rode through the inviting pebble-dashed arch of Motel Flores, a few parched roses either side.

Perhaps I should have noticed something was amiss from the start. The owner – a middle-aged man with meandering eyes, dark greasy stubble, and a grubby white t-shirt that strained to contain his belly – appeared confused at my request of a bed for the night. “40,000 pesos?” he said after a pause, as though it was the first time he had had to consider such a thing.

He led me to a series of garages with rooms above. I rode in and he yanked the shutter behind me. “Call the phone if you want to come out”, was all I heard over the sound of metal crashing into concrete. Just visible in the gloom ahead of me was a concrete staircase.

The room was illuminated by the hard glow of a naked bulb. A gigantic ornate mirror hung opposite the weathered, walnut bed. Dull flowery wallpaper peeled at the corners while the fluorescent linen lit up the bed in a carnival of kitsch. Overhead, a tired ceiling fan clicked and whirred. Laying in bed, I noticed an industrial toilet roll dispenser hanging on the wall beside me. Next to it, a torn, poorly printed sign was taped to the wall; it was hourly prices for the room. There was no price for the night.


I was thankful for just one thing: I didn't have a UV light.

I leapt up and peeled back the sheet I had been lying on, exposing a plastic mattress so blotchy it resembled a Jackson Pollock painting. It all made skin-crawling sense, but it was too late to leave. I lay every item of clothing I had over the bed to provide a sterile buffer to the horrors below, and was thankful for just one thing: I didn’t have a UV light.

As soon as dawn broke, I picked up the phone and asked to be released. It was later that I heard the term “Motel de Amor”. Designed for lovers, truckers and cheaters, apparently, all Colombian motels are the same. Not that I can confirm that of course, I never stayed in one again.

My final stop was La Guajira: the most northern tip of South America. Desolate and isolated, it is one of the few places in the world where a desert meets an ocean. It also rains a lot, which turns the ‘road’ into a muddy slide. Thanks to a lack of mud-riding experience and my smooth road tyres, a journey that should have taken two hours, took six. At one point 8km took me an hour, which included three messy falls and a lot of cursing. As the sunlight disappeared over the horizon, the straight road became a winding desert track, with only my headlights to illuminate the sandy path that continually split and converged. All I had to go on was an approximate line on an empty Google map and to make matters worse, I was low on fuel.

As though dropped from the sky just for me, out of the darkness emerged a wooden shelter with a dim light illuminating bottles of gasoline. A young girl came jogging towards the light, apparently the gas attendant. I had stopped in the dark, so I slowly rode towards the space under the shelter. Unfortunately, I failed to notice that the roof was lower than the top of my helmet. The collision startled me and sent Ling tumbling into the sand, followed by my failing body, narrowly missing the table of highly flammable liquids. I clambered to my feet, in shock at my own stupidity as the girl keeled over laughing. Luckily, only my ego had suffered any damage.

I was sent on my way with a “que lindo”, meaning “how cute”. Pitied by a ten-year-old girl in the middle of a dark, empty desert – it was one of those days.

The next day began by nursing my still bruised ego over breakfast. I was exhausted and tiring of the challenges that riding a cheap bike in harsh conditions presented. I sat and fantasized about my return to a comfortable bed in Medellin. Yet, my inbound journey to La Guajira had shown me nothing of where I was, so I mustered up the energy for one last adventure.

It quickly became clear that I had arrived in a place beyond imagination. Almost untouched by the world outside, vast plains of barren golden sand were halted only by ragged coastal rocks and pristine beaches flowing into the deep turquoise of the Atlantic Ocean. Pelicans flew overhead, periodically diving for a catch, while swarms of tiny crabs scuttled around the unspoiled sands. It was hard to be anything other than awe-inspired in a place like this and seemed a fitting end to 7,000km journey.

The final 1000kms back to Medellin took two long and uneventful days of riding that gave me the opportunity to reflect the previous six weeks. In the hit TV series ‘Narcos’, which tells the violent history of Colombia in Pablo Escobar’s time, president Gaviria says “God made our land so beautiful it was unfair to the rest of the world. So to even the score, God populated the land with a race of evil men.” He wasn’t wrong, God (or perhaps more accurately plate tectonics) had made Colombia unimaginably beautiful in such a vast array of climates, landscapes and vistas that it almost felt like a whole continent unto itself. As for the evil men? I must have missed them.


Screws vanished, bodywork bent and broke and the starting issues returned

Back in Medellin, I sold my rattling mistress for less than half what had I paid. I didn’t mind though, as towards the end it felt like every time I got on her, another piece had fallen off. She had looked up to the job, but it was all show. Screws vanished, bodywork bent and broke and the starting issues returned on several occasions. At one point the exhaust was a few turns of a screw away from throwing itself onto the road. But to be fair, when I did need repairs, they were ridiculously cheap. And, for the most part she had taken me where ever I had asked her, with little complaint. They say you get what you pay for, but in this case, perhaps she had given me more than I deserved.

I left Colombia feeling I had discovered the perfect place to experience the wonders of two wheels and attain my rite of passage into the world of motorbike adventures. But, more than that, I had discovered an absolute gem of a country that the rest of the world seems to have overlooked.