Touring a Poisoned Ghost Town with Mr. Giggles
“There is only one rule during the tour today. It is that you must respect all the rules.” So our little busload of foreigners were enigmatically instructed as we entered the Chernobyl radioactive Exclusion Zone, 35km from the devastated Reactor #4.
“Small radiation is not all bad,” our young guide told us in a flat Yakov Smirnoff tone. “I am 57, but I look 23, 24 because of small radiation. It’s a joke.”
The actual town of Chernobyl is within the 35km zone and far enough from the reactor that it’s host to the hundreds of people who still work at the plant. Although the remaining three reactors operated for several years after the 1986 disaster, now the primary employees are people figuring what the hell to do with the quickly decaying sarcophagus that was hurriedly piled on top of the meltdown. Concrete, metal, rocks, and the kitchen sink all seem to be components.
After passing through that first guard post at 35km, we passed by abandoned schools and apartment blocks toward the reactor. We reached the primary exclusion zone, 10km from the reactor. And this is where the land remains a bit nasty. Don’t walk in the grass. No open-toed shoes.
“Before giving Chernobyl tours, I only spoke about 200 words in my native language. Now I speak four languages. It’s a joke.”
According to our guide, it was well understood around the world at the time of the accident that Soviet nuclear power plants were the most advanced and safe in the world, so how could this happen? Nobody is really sure. I mean, wasn’t “Safety First” tje motto of Soviet industry after all?
We pulled into the famous jewel of the Chernobyl tour, the ghost town of Pripyat. The photo at top was taken from the roof of the town’s central hotel. In the background you can see Reactor #4 only a few kilometers away.
On first impression, I have to say it looks like a lot of other half-abandoned Soviet towns. Like the economy collapsed and everybody left. I’d been led to believe that the town was left preserved in the state it was in when everybody was evacuated. Chalkboards with half-written lessons. Plates set out on tables for an approaching meal. Calendars and clocks frozen at April 26, 1986 (which would’ve required everyone removing the batteries as soon as the leak happened, but it seems like a good Hollywood touch).
No such luck. The place looks looted, littered, and ravaged. And though there are many such scenes in the former USSR, the people of Pripyat weren’t supposed to be the ones who got hit. Not then. While people waited in long lines for bread throughout their country, these privileged few enjoyed a new amusement park, a school with an indoor swimming and diving pool, and full supermarkets. It was the nuclear-era dream town that filled the minds of both America and the Soviet Union.
Even more than the post-war appearance of the buildings, the most obvious impact of the long abandonment though is the trees. The city formerly of 52,000 residents has metamorphosed into a forest, with concrete ruins of an ancient civilization cracking through the canopy. Even inside the buildings, saplings have snuck up out of the floors of gymnasiums and classrooms. Building entrances are hidden, lamp posts and post boxes look like they got lost on an afternoon stroll and gave up on trying to find their paved worlds again.
An abandoned amusement park however just looks like any of the many Stephen King carnivals decaying in the former USSR. Still, it’s something.
At some point I realized that it’s actually more depressing that things aren’t frozen in time. If they were, that would indicate an emergency evacuation. But that’s not what happened. Instead, crews in hazmat suits came through the town and told me people to remain in their homes. People were slowly evacuated, told to take enough for a few weeks. Many were allowed to return later to fetch furniture after it had been irradiated.
Liquidators (that word always makes me think of a mattress sale) came through and smashed all the windows so they could jettison objects from buildings. Security forces patrolled the premises to stop people from sneaking into town to steal radioactive belongings.
After a cafeteria lunch, the tour concluded with a visit to Reactor #4. Our bus drove up to a memorial out front, maybe 100 yards from the decaying disaster. We were permitted to photograph the reactor, but not the gate below it or the buildings to the left or right. That includes the Chiclets, but not the erasers.
For me this was the creepiest part of the trip. Standing beside what was the scariest place on earth 25 years ago, I considered the fact that there’s still a toxic, invisible beast locked inside a faulty cage just in front of me.
And then we left, exiting an abandoned city where now boar and wolves nightly roam. According to our guide, his primary job is to be the first that gets eaten if we run into any wild animals. It’s a joke. Sort of.