This is the second post in a three part series covering our visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine. The first post explained the reasons why we decided to visit Chernobyl, what it was like to explore the various sites, such as the Duga radar station and understanding how radiation exposure is measured. This post will focus on exploring the abandoned city of Pripyat.
If a visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is on your Bucket List then this post is for you. Enjoy.
Day two inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Our second day of exploring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was dedicated to the abandoned city of Pripyat, once the most prestigious city in the Soviet Union. Today, the crumbling city is slowly being consumed by nature and will, on a long enough timeline, eventually become a distant memory.
The decision by our tour guide to spend our second day at Pripyat was based on a couple of factors. The first was due to the number of other tour groups visiting on Day 1 which meant that the main locations would be very busy likely impact the overall experience. The second was that an early morning visit to Pripyat would minimise the chance of running into guards who would prevent us from entering the buildings.
Is it illegal to visit Pripyat?
No, it’s not illegal to visit Pripyat and you can visit with your tour without issues. However, from 2012 it’s been forbidden to enter the buildings due to safety concerns which is why an increased guard presence may occur with larger groups visiting at the same time.
I asked our guide what would happen if we entered a building and were stopped by guards. She replied that even though it’s never happened to her personally, she did know of another guide who was asked to vacate the abandoned building with their group and face consequences from their employer.
The decision to visit early on Day 2 turned out to the best decision because we saw no one else for the entire day. It was just our small group exploring an abandoned city that once inhabited 43,000 people.
The custom-built city of Pripyat was constructed in 1970 for the sole purpose of housing the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant workers and their young families. For 16 years, from 1970 to 1986, it was the most expensive city in the entire Soviet Union, indicating the importance of the newly constructed nuclear power plant (which was originally called the V.I Lenin Nuclear Power Plant during Soviet times).
Pripyat was a prestigious place to live because it was brand new with all the modern conveniences a young family could want and it was conveniently located a mere 3km from the nuclear power plant. The modern city was representative of the importance placed upon those who worked at the power plant.
In the early hours of April 26th 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s Reactor No 4 overheated and exploded resulting in enormous quantities of radioactive material being released into the atmosphere impacting not only the immediate area but, over the course of a week, the majority of Europe.
The close proximity of Pripyat meant that the town was immediately exposed to high levels of radiation but residents weren’t made aware of this. They were aware that something had taken place but did not know the specifics. In fact, life continued as normal for the next 48 hours while investigations were taken place. In something that you would expect see in a horror film, images exist of government officials wearing radiation suits taking exposure levels in the middle of Pripyat whilst residents walk casually through the streets wearing their normal clothes.
The 43,000 residents were eventually evacuated by bus two days after the initial explosion. They were informed it was only a temporary measure and that they would return in a few days. This was the last time they would ever see their homes.
Abandoned Apartment Building
As we approached the town of Pripyat, we passed through another security checkpoint, and then made our way through the empty streets until we arrived at our first stop, a large 16 storey apartment complex.
We were advised to put on our white protective masks before entering the building. This wasn’t to protect us from radiation exposure (it was something that we did wonder about…) but rather to protect us from inhaling dust and any potential asbestos. I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of asbestos but it made sense, the buildings were created in 1970 when the use of asbestos was at its height.
We secured the masks and headed inside the abandoned building and headed to the exposed stairwell and started our ascent to the top. We took care not to slip on the loose rubble and shards of glass from broken windows. As we passed by empty floor after empty floor, it became a little haunting to look at the crumbling remains of what once was a brand new apartment building.
I don’t think either of us realised just how many stairs were involved in climbing to the top of a 16 storey apartment building! It just seemed to go on and on and on… We passed by the open elevator shaft and took a quick look inside. It still operated but only in one direction, straight down.
We arrived at the 16th floor and climbed up a small ladder to the open rooftop. Once our legs stopped burning and the air had returned to our lungs, we looked around and were dumbstruck by the sheer scale of Pripyat, it was enormous.
I couldn’t believe how large Pripyat was, it was so much bigger than I ever thought it would be. I guess it made sense, the city once had a population of 43,000 people and they all had to live somewhere. There were dozens of buildings, some apartments and some offices, but all were still standing, a stark reminder of the life that once existed there.
We walked to one side of the rooftop and could see in the distance over the treetops, the Pripyat amusement park. The yellow-topped ferris wheel carriages have become an instantly recognisable symbol of the Chernobyl disaster.
On the other side, we could see the silhouette of the new sarcophagus being fitted into place over the destroyed reactor no 4. The new safe confinement was being completed on the weekend during our visit so this was as close as we were going to get on this trip.
However, there was something to be said about viewing it from the top of an abandoned building in the centre of Pripyat.
Our next stop was the abandoned fitness centre which remained in operation until 1998, 12 years after the explosion. The swimming pool and equipment continued to be used by the workers of the nuclear plant, reactors no 1, 2, and 3 continued to operate until the entire plant was completely closed in 2000.
Photographer Traps: The clock at the swimming pool has been set to display 1:23, the time of the explosion. However, the swimming pool remained in use and state of the fitness centre isn’t as a result of the disaster but rather from years of neglect and looting.
One of the most photographed places in all of Pripyat and it doesn’t take long to see why; the decaying walls, disused school desks covered in dust, hundreds of textbooks strewn across the halls, and broken science equipment all serve as a reminder of the loss of innocence and education.
Photographer Traps: The school is the location where there are dozens of photographer traps! In almost every room there are manufactured photo opportunities;
- The mountain of gas masks surrounding a child’s doll placed on a chair
- The broken TV frame which served as a frame to a disused child’s doll – which you can see on Roma’s Instagram
- The open school books surrounded by parts of a gas mask
- The complete gas book laying at an angle on a children’s book
- A gas mask hanging near an open window
- A disused globe positioned with a gas mask in the background
Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking these photos but just don’t be fooled into thinking that the rooms were left in those picture perfect positions.
Our next stop was the hospital which remains one of the most highly contaminated places in Pripyat because this is where the original firefighters were brought for treatment following their attempts to extinguish the nuclear fire.
The radiation levels today are not anywhere near the levels they were 30 years ago due to the fact that radioactive particles are heavy and are absorbed into the ground and also that Pripyat was cleaned by the liquidators following the explosion (which is how certain parts of Pripyat remained in use in the years following the disaster). As the hospital had higher radiation levels than most other sites we visited we had a timeframe of 25 min before we would need to leave.
This was probably one of the saddest places we visited because of its connection with the brave individuals who sacrificed their lives trying to protect others.
Cafe & River
Our next stop was along the banks of the Pripyat River where we visited the remains of a small family cafe which was opened a mere two months before the explosion.
As we stood on the edge of the Pripyat River, our guide informed us that the river had been tested and confirmed as clean.
Yes, that’s right. Apparently the river is clean enough that fish live in there now, isn’t that just mind-blowing?! The reason why the river receives a clean test is that radioactive particles are very heavy and soak into the soil beneath the water.
Main Square & Hotel Polissya
We spent some time walking through the town centre and arrived at the main square. It was here, surrounded by a collection of former government buildings, that we were informed of the history of Chernobyl and the events of what would become known as the worst nuclear disaster in history. Details of the history of Chernobyl will be covered in the third and final post in this series.
Once we entered Hotel Polissya, we took the stairs and headed towards the roof to capture photos of Pripyat town centre.
It was also the final place we’d visit where we could capture one last look at the new safe confinement being put in place over the old sarcophagus.
A moment in time that we’ll never forget.
Palace of Culture
The next stop on our walk through the town centre was the former Palace of Culture which was the location for the Chernobyl disaster trial.
Six individuals were tried and subsequently sentenced for various crimes associated with their handling of the Chernobyl disaster.
Pripyat Amusement Park
As we moved away from the town centre, we arrived at the most well known area of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; the abandoned amusement park.
If you’ve ever Googled Chernobyl then you would have seen many images of the decaying ferris wheel and dodgem cars from a variety of angles in all seasons. The amusement park has become a symbol of the Chernobyl disaster and it felt a little surreal to see it in person.
The story of the amusement park is an interesting one because it was planned to open on May 1st 1986, in time for May Day celebrations but due to the explosion 5 days earlier, it was never opened to the public. However, there are claims (which are unsubstantiated) that the park did open for a few hours on April 27th but this has never been confirmed.
We learned that the amusement park is considered a radioactive hot spot because it was where the helicopters that dropped sand and boric acid on reactor no 4 were washed and cleaned. The geiger counters we had on us detected higher levels of radiation compared to other locations we visited.
Apparently during the warmer months when more people visit Chernobyl it’s not uncommon for tour groups to follow each other pretty closely. This can lead to one group being ahead of you and then another 3 more directly behind you and can result in the amusement park being pretty full of people taking photos. Fortunately for us, the benefit of travelling in the off season was that we were the only group in Pripyat during our visit.
A former stadium, home to the Stroitel Pripyat football club, located near the amusement park was our next stop and it was quite a sight to behold. The first thing that I noticed was the seating, it was typical football seating which you can see in most stadiums around the world. However, whilst I could see the seating, trying to find the football pitch was a little more difficult until I realised that the wooded forest we walked through WAS the pitch!
It was at this point that we decided to take a break for lunch so we piled back into the van and drove back to our hotel for a warm meal and we welcomed the chance to defrost for awhile.
Following lunch, our next stop was the former police station which continued in operation for five years after the explosion. It was interesting to learn that following the explosion, the police officers who continued to work in Pripyat didn’t come from the local area but were brought in from outside areas.
It was said that their focus and attention wasn’t at the same levels as their predecessors and it was during this time that the majority of looting took place in Pripyat, leading to the current state of decay.
One of the more unusual sights during the tour was visiting the car graveyard. Yes, you heard me right. These were cars which once belonged to residents who were forced to leave them during the mass evacuations from town.
Whilst there are many cars, trucks, military, and rescue vehicles, the graveyard used to be larger but has since shrunk over time due to ongoing looting and theft.
One thing which blew my mind was the large mechanical scoop which was located at the end of the car graveyard, near the fire station. Why was it so impressive?
This scoop was actually used during firefighting efforts to move radioactive materials from reactor no 4. Despite being cleaned by the liquidators, it is still contaminated. The geiger counters detected between 40-50 micro sieverts, higher than most places we visited. The scoop should have been disassembled and buried but for whatever reason it has remained in the forest as a tourist attraction.
Next on our tour was a short visit to the Jupiter Factory, the second main employer after the nuclear plant. The factory specialised in the creation of radio antennas and electrical components for home appliances. The factory remained in operation following the explosion and finally closed in 1996. Whilst we didn’t stay long, it was really impressive to see the sheer size and scale of the factory, it was huge!
On a side note, rumours persist that the Jupiter factory secretly created military semiconductor components. This wasn’t explained during our tour but given the high level of secrecy of the former Soviet Union, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if it turned out to be true.
Yaniv Train Station
The Yaniv train station, also referred to as Pripyat train station, was created in 1925. Following the explosion the station was closed for the most part however some sections remained operational and used to transport staff to and from Chernobyl. Most recently, the train line was used for the transportation of new safe confinement parts.
A visit to the Yaniv train station is definitely recommended because you can explore a series of abandoned trains.
As our day of exploring Pripyat drew to a close, we made a short stop at a robot memorial. We disembarked the van to find a series of machines on display behind a barrier with various radioactive warning signs on them.
These were ORIGINAL machines used during the radioactive clean up following the explosion. We stayed long enough to take a few photos but the sounds of the geiger counters indicated that it was time to go.
Our final stop was at the Firefighters Memorial, a moving monument dedicated to the bravery of those who responded within 3 min to the explosion without any regard to their own safety.
Writing in monument says FOR THOSE WHO SAVE THE WORLD.
Spending two days exploring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was unlike any other experience we’ve ever had and it is something that we’ll never forget. Whilst visiting Chernobyl may not be everyone’s idea of a travel destination, it still remains an important historical event which everyone should take the learn about it and its ongoing impacts on the world today.
If you’ve ever considered visiting Chernobyl then there is no time like right now to book it.
You won’t regret it.