The day was finally here, the day myself and 39 other people had thought of and planned for many months, that day we had our first taste of The Zone. The day started off as usual with breakfast in the Slavutich restaurant, the usual traditional Ukranian fare, which in all honesty had grown on me somewhat over the first couple of days and I was really getting used to trying new things.
After breakfast we made a quick stop of at the local supermarket to pick up our supplies for the day as there are no shops in the zone for things like water, then a short ten minute walk up to the Slavutich train station to catch the Workers Train.
For those who are not familiar with the set up of the Chernobyl power plant, it still appears to be a large source of employment for people in the area, there must be several thousand people who work there each day who all catch the workers train, which is provided by the power plant free of charge and takes workers direct from Slavutich into the centre of the nuclear complex each day.
We arrived at the train station just as the train was arriving, I have never seen such a long train in my life, for about 30 seconds empty carriages kept going past where we were stood, looking at them it was hard to believe that the train would be full, but it soon was.
As was to be expected, the group got somewhat separated throughout the train and as a result we were mixed in with the ‘regular’ train users, for them this was just another day ‘at the office’, but they could all tell what we were there for, we were met with a mixture of looks ranging from intrigue from people who may never have seen that many people with cameras in one place before through to outright dirty looks from others, possibly those who may have been directly affected by the disaster who thought our visit was in some way disrespectful.
The thing that struck me about the trip on the workers train was how much different it was to train journeys in the UK, to me it seemed like some form of social gathering, people seemed to have designated areas on the train where they met their friends, seats were saved and if we tried to sit in one of those areas we were quickly dismissed with a stern look and a shake of the head. I also noted that a lot of the woman on the train seemed to have a small knitted ‘seat cover’ which they placed down on the bench before they sat down. They also all seemed to be very keen on their knitting, as soon as the train set off the bags were opened and the yarn and needles came out, the woman seemed to be chatting about how their creations was going, along with swapping tips on how to perform a certain stitch. No one seemed to be referring to any sort of pattern, so I guess that this was a skill which had been passed down through the generations.
The trip on the train took about fifty minutes, during which time we passed though some pretty bleak landscapes, which was to be expected as it was all caught up in the disaster twenty-five years previously. As we were approaching complex (which is made up of six nuclear reactor buildings, the auxiliary buildings associated with the reactors along with many other buildings, which cover a massive area) we started to see some of the familiar elements that we had all seen so many times on pictures, the red and white chimneys which stand a top of the power plants, the cooling towers and the reactors themselves.
We left the train and followed the crowds into the heart of the site, up to the first radiation checkpoint we would encounter.
This check point is situated at the main entrance to the site, the requirement is that every person who enters or exits the site has to be scanned in this machine; the result of this is quite a bottle-neck as there are only eight of these scanners, which take about five-ten seconds to scan. After a short delay whilst our paperwork and passports were checked we each approached the machine to be scanned. The process of being scanned is to step into the booth and place your feet in the markers on the floor of the booth, you then place your hands onto the panels on each site of the booth, there are two lights on the machine, green signals you are ok and the door at the other side unlocks for you to pass through and a red light. To be honest I am not sure what would happen if the light went red, if alarms would sound and if you would be wrestled away from the booth by the soldiers who are on patrol as we never saw anyone fail the test, but regardless it still feels much longer whilst you are waiting for that green light to appear!
We all successfully made it through the scanners and proceeded through the building and into a central court yard, as we exited the building, we were greeted with a site that seemed so familiar to us all, the view of the sarcophagus which entombs the stricken reactor 4. For me it was quite a surreal experience as I have wanted to visit Chernobyl for as long as I can remember and no matter how many pictures you see or videos you watch the feeling you get when you see it is indescribable.
We were then met by our ‘fixer’ for our time in the zone, again he was dressed in military clothing and did not speak a word of English, but he gave off a certain authoritative presence which made you understand that he was in charge and whatever he wanted you to do, you did without question. He also appeared to be the biggest chain smoker I have ever seen, he constantly had an unlit cigarette behind one ear and as soon as he had finished one cigarette, he lit up the one he was keeping behind his ear and replaced it with the next one, this was something he appeared to repeat each time we saw him.
We then boarded our transport whilst travelling around the zone, it was an oldschool looking red and white coach, which appeared to be straight out of the 1940’s and made ‘the coach of death’ look positively 5-star! Retro does not even come into it, this looked like something which belonged in a museum, not something that would be transporting a group of ‘tourists’ around a nuclear exclusion zone.
The coach took us on to reactor 4, to the Monument to the first 59 responders to the accident, as we stepped off the coach, the first thing that struck us was the sound, there was an almost musical sounding constant ‘thud…ting…thud’ sound in the area, it was quite an eerie sound at first, but we were informed this that this is the pile driving work which is the first stage of the construction of the new sarcophagus which will replace the now very dilapidated structure. We were advised not to put anything on the floor here as this is still one of the most contaminated places in the Zone. After ten-fifteen minutes photo taking, we headed off into a building which overlooks the power plant, this building is a sort of visitor centre which is used to show what happened on the night of the disaster along with providing detailed information about the latest work in the plan to re-secure the reactor.
The ‘curator’ of the museum spoke very good English and was very passionate about the disaster and the efforts (and struggles) which have gone on over the past 20 or so years to try to rectify this disaster, although it was a very interesting talk, I was a bit distracted with all the photos on the wall which seemed to document the nights events and with the wall board which was monitoring the radiation levels around that area, which seemed to be hovering between 4.5Sv and 5.5Sv, with the occasional peak up to 6.5Sv (the equivalent of 3 head CT scans – initial dose in this area at the time of the accident was 6,000Sv).
Throughout the day we made a number of mini stop-offs at various ‘well known’ places in and around the zone, the first of these places was the Chernobyl Svyato-Illinskiy Church, we did not see inside the church, but the outside was stunning, it was a beacon of colour in an otherwise drab area as the church is painted in striking blue, green and purple colours and has a little pagoda to the side with a large bell which I can only assume was used to call people to services. After about ten or so minutes we heard the first (of many) long honks of the horn on the bus, which was used to signal that time was up and we had to return to the bus for the next leg of the trip.
Next stop was (unsurprisingly) the highlight of the day, our first taste of Pripyat. Its hard to actually spot that you are approaching Pripyat as at the time we went all the trees were still holding onto their leaves and as you would expect, there is quite a lot of out of control trees around which seem to have thrived since human life moved out.
The coach stopped at a clearing, which at one time would have probably been quite a busy intersection of roads and we all got off the coach and received some advice from our guides of what we could and could not do. One piece of advice given to us by one of the guides, which really sticks out was “do not lick the moose”, he actually meant moss, but too us, it sounded like moose and became a source of amusement for the group for the remainder of the trip. We were then told to be back to the coach 3 hours later and so began the roam around Pripyat.
Again, its really hard to describe the feeling of actually being stood in Pripyat, arguably one of the most famous towns in the world, a place most people will have heard about, but few will have visited. The first thing you notice is the silence of the place, with the only sound to be heard being the wind whistling through the trees (along with the occasional click-click of peoples cameras).
After a moment or so to get over the initial ‘wow, I’m actually stood in Pripyat’ feeling, it was time to make some serious decisions, where we were going to go during our brief stop in the ghost town which formally housed 35’000+ people, many of us had paper maps which we had printed and had intended to use to get around the town, but these were quickly forgotten as it was hard to get our bearings so a group of us just set off walking up the road taking photos of everything in site, from dilapidated tower blocks to rusting street signs and street lights.
After a bit of a wander round we found ourselves in one of the most photographed places in Pripyat, Swimming Pool ‘Azure’, a place which will also be familiar to people as it was featured as a level in the video game ‘Call of Duty 4’. I think this has to be one of my favourite places in Pripyat and was one of the ‘must see’ places as part of my trip. Although it is now very trashed, with every window broken, its still one of the most photogenic places, possibly because you can still tell what the place was once used for and you can sit there and just imagine the fun which people once had in this building. Twenty-five years ago, it was probably one of the places everyone in the town went to and the views out of the windows would have been very spectacular.
We probably spent a good hour taking photos in this building as it was not just the main swimming pool, there was also a smaller ‘teaching’ pool and also a gymnasium.