After we had finished photographing the Swimming pool ‘Azure’ we headed back outside and went over to see the Centre of Culture which at one point would have been the main ‘hub’ for the community of Pripyat. The building itself was used for many different activities with facilities that included a swimming pool, a multi-screen cinema, a concert hall, dance studios, a boxing ring and many conference based rooms.
We initially entered the building through one of the rear entrances behind the stage of one of the theaters, this particular room appeared to be some form storage room which was packed with propaganda material from the former USSR era, there were big paintings of former leaders and generals, pamphlets and wall boards full of photos, along with props which would have been used at one stage to put shows on for the residents, it was quite strange to see all this still intact as there has been a lot of vandalism and a lot of items have either been taken or destroyed over the past ten or so years of the zone being open to tourists, apparently there used to be a lot more in this room which must have really been something else to see.
We moved onto the main entrance hall for the center, which again was used in the video game Call of Duty 4, to be greeted with one of the biggest murals I have ever seen, the main wall next to the (once) grand staircase was decorated with various symbols of Ukranian life including woman in traditional dress, Soviet symbols, horses to name but a few, once again, all painted in very vivid colours.
The saddest thing about being in the center of culture is seeing the amount of destruction which has happened since people moved out and looters & tourists visited, I don’t thing there is one window in the building left intact, which is a shame because the entire front of the building at one time would have been a wall of glass, sadly now all that remains of this is the crunching sound the glass makes as you walk over it to get into the building.
The main areas of interest in the capital of culture these days are to be found upstairs, as you head off the main stair case you walk into a room where the floor is literally covered in books, a ‘sea of books’ if you will, I am not sure how the books got there as there is no logical room around which may have once been a library and I don’t understand the reasoning behind dumping them all in this particular location. Heading in further through the building you find yourself in the former boxing room, which still houses a boxing room, although this has seen better days and is now not much more than a raised platform.
The last room I found was a large hall, which looked like it was once used for 5-a-side indoor football as the goals are still set up at each end, again the western wall in this huge hall was once a wall of glass (long since broken), but through this big window is a view which I will never forget, it is one of my ‘iconic’ views from my trip because as you looked through this window your eyes fell upon another well known site from Pripyat, the huge Ferris –wheel which dominates the skyline of the former amusement park .
As we were leaving the Centre of Culture, I noticed a discarded doll lying on the stairs, more than likely it was placed there by one of the many people to visit the zone, but its things like this, that you don’t expect to run into outside a building like this which make you stop and think for a moment what this area may have been like when the decision was made to evacuate the town, where decisions had to be made in a very short period of time as to what people would be taking and what they would be leaving behind, which at the time people thought would only be for a few days at the most, not the rest of their lives.
Last stop on our first day in Pripyat was to visit the amusement park & ferris wheel, there are various stories about if the wheel and dodgems in the area were ever used, but the consensus seems to point towards the amusement park opening the day before the evacuation, so very few people would have been on the rides.
The site of the rides is still one of the places in the zone with the highest radiation readings, the reason being this site was chosen for the landing/refuelling point for the helicopters due to it being a vast open space with very few surrounding buildings.
As you approach the area, your eyes are naturally drawn to the dominant feature in the area – the ferris wheel, it looks like a huge structure on all the pictures, but when you are stood close by it seems so much more bigger. Its possibly because it is basically stood alone with nothing round it, but even so, it still seems to dwarf even the trees which grow close to the area. If for some reason the ferris wheel was still working to this day I am sure there would be a fantastic view over the slowly crumbling city.
All the time we were stood taking photos of the amusement park there was a constant drizzle falling, which seemed to add to the general sad and desolate feeling in this particular area, your mind can’t help but think back to the days leading up to the opening of the amusement park, no doubt there was an ongoing publicity campaign counting down to the big day, along with people watching this giant structure grow out of the ground, only for it to be in use for the briefest of times.
After taking photos of the ferris wheel I moved onto the other main attraction at the amusement park, the dodgems. Considering how trashed much of Pripyat now appears to be, it was quite a surprise to see the dodgem cars in almost perfect state (aside from the natural damage caused by nature over the past twenty-five years), there does not seem to be any graffiti on any of the cars and they all seem to be intact, over the past few years there has been quite a lot of metal recycled for scrap, the levels of radiation in this area must have made even the liquidators think twice about taking these.
There are about ten or so dodgem cars in this area, although they have probably been arranged like this over the years for peoples photographs, the way they are positioned make it appear as though people have just got off the ride and headed straight out of town, never to return. At one point there was probably a roof on the dodgem car ride, but this is long gone and now the cars sit on a bed of leaves and moss (remember the warning not to lick the moose..this could have been the perfect time to break this rule, but I decided against this).
All of a sudden the peace and tranquillity of Pripyat was broken by that familiar sound of our guide honking the coach horn to signal our return back to our drop off point to conclude the first day in the zone.
Once we were all back on the coach, there was a totally different atmosphere than as we were getting off the coach, people were a lot less vocal, everyone had spent the past few hours frantically trying to get as much of Pripyat seen as possible and now it was time to sit back and reflect on what we had just experienced and in a way to partly feel how so many thousands of people may have felt twenty five years ago when they made this journey from their homes to a new unknown life.
On the way back to the main power plant site we stopped off at a number of ‘famous’ locations along the way including a brief stop in Chernobyl town to see some of the rescue vehicles which have been placed in the centre of town as a memorial to the rescue effort which happened in the early days of the clean-up operation. I can’t remember the exact radiation levels, but they seemed rather low and there was no panic over staying by them too long.
The second stop-off point was a brief visit to the Chernobyl signs, these are not the well known signs that everyone seems to visit (the 1970 signs), these basically just look like standard road signs, but it feels like it has somehow completed the visit by stopping and taking photos of them.
Back on the coach we go onto the next stop off point, which was quite an unexpected little stop off. We found ourselves at a small-ish looking scrap yard, but directly opposite the yard stood the looming view of reactor 5. For those who do not know, reactors 5 & 6 were still under construction at the time of the accident and the building project was initially suspended, then cancelled fully.
The scrap yard is basically home to a group of salvage workers who are slowly stripping the reactors down, radiation levels in this area are some of the safest due to the reactors never being in use.
As we got off the coach, we were immediately greeted by a pack of puppies, there must have been 5 or 6 of them, all seemed very happy to see us – its quite amusing to see how quickly everyone’s attention turned from the huge reactor to the dogs. After a few minutes the dogs seemed to get bored of their new visitors and wandered off to carry on with whatever they do all day and we headed up the fire escape which ran up the side of the salvage yards main building to get some really close up shots of the reactor, so much closer than you ever would be able to at reactor 4.
The inside of the salvage building was rather bland and pretty much empty, aside from one room where all the walls appeared to be covered with vast amounts of pornographic images.
Before we knew it, there was the familiar sound of the coach’s horn summoning us back to head off towards our penultimate stop-off which was the interestingly named ‘fish bridge’.
The bridge is the old railway bridge which goes over one of the canals which connects to the river Pripyat, it gets its name from the huge numbers of catfish which now live in the water below, rumoured to be part of the knock on effect on wildlife after the disaster, but this may also be linked to the vast amounts of food which are thrown to the fish on a daily basis both from the workers at the plant and the zone tourists.
In this area, there is also a nice memorial type park where workers can sit and reflect in-between their shifts, the buildings in this area also feature some of the artwork which has been moved from the town of Pripyat.
We were soon called back to the coach to head on to our last stop off point of the day before returning to the power plant site and our ride home on the workers train. The last stop off point was the Yanov Train Station. The train station was a vital passenger pickup point in the days after the disaster at the power plant, people who arrived here during this time were moved straight off the trains and onto buses to be shipped back out of the area again for their safety.
These days the main station building is locked up as it is used for storage, but out on the tracks and what is left of the platform lies quite a variety of train engines and carriages, in various states of repair, after what had been at times quite an overcast day as we were exploring the train station the sun came out and made for some really nice pictures.
After half an hour or so we were called back to the bus and made the final journey of our first day in the zone back to the power plant. We were dropped off at our original pickup point and made our way inside, via two sets of radiation checking machines, which made for the most nervous part of the day for myself.
Throughout the day you tend to put the thoughts of radiation to the back of your mind and just concentrate on taking your photos, but when you are back at the power plant and faced with these machines you start to worry a bit, what happens if you have stepped in some area with high radiation, or you have picked up stuff on your clothes, will I end up stuck at the power plant whilst they decide what to do….in the end there was nothing to worry about and the whole group made it through the machines without any issue (we were later told that if for any reason the machine did go off, they would presume it was faulty and would let you pass then they would get someone out to fix the faulty machine.)
So, with that we were back on the workers train (faced with even more looks from the workers who saw 40 very grubby looking people with cameras who had obviously been into Pripyat), so they kept their distance even more than when we were heading into the zone that morning.