Into the Exclusion Zone – Part 2
· 26 min. read
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"The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water? the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.
"The fifth angel sounded his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from the sky to the earth. The star was given the key to the shaft of the Abyss. When he opened the Abyss, smoke rose from it like the smoke from a gigantic furnace. The sun and sky were darkened by the smoke from the Abyss. And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads."
Revelations 8:10 ? 11, Revelations 9: 1 - 4
The Biblical passages above mark the beginning of the end of the world. To most people, these passages are very cryptic but to the people of Ukraine, they make perfect sense. While in English the name of the star is "Wormword", when translated into Ukrainian the word becomes something much more familiar: "Chornobyl".
To the people of Ukraine, the events of Chernobyl were predicted over a millennium ago. The story gets even more convincing at the 16th Century St. Elijah Church, in Chernobyl City, which for some unknown reason was saved from the nuclear steam cloud. The radiation around the church is so low that it is considered a modern miracle, as there is no explanation to how this is possible.
Radiation is part of our everyday lives. Not only do things such as cellphones, microwaves and x-ray machines put out radiation, but so do things such as trees, bananas and your cat. In fact, the planet itself emits radiation. It varies from place to place around the world but the average is 0.27 microsieverts per hour (?Sv/h). For example, in my hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan the background radiation is 0.35 ?Sv/h, while in Kyiv, Ukraine it is 0.18 ?Sv/h. It would take 1,000,000 (one million) microsieverts one hour to make up a fatal dosage. If you do the math (and I did, so you don't have to) and you use the average amount of microsieverts per hour (0.27), you would reach the fatal amount of radiation after 370,000 hours, or at the age of 422. We will use this math later to discuss how dangerous certain areas of the city actually are.
Our tour began at an abandoned village somewhere inside the Exclusion Zone. Besides Chernobyl and Prypiat, over one hundred communities were abandoned. Sadly, I don't know the name of the village I visited.
Once inside Chernobyl City, we found several monuments memorializing the communities lost, similar tragedies around the world (such as Hiroshima and Fukishima) and a statue of
Joseph Stalin Vladimir Lenin, one of the last remaining statues of him in Ukraine.
Unlike Pripyat, Chernobyl City was spared the blunt of the radioactive cloud and is currently inhabited by 750 soldiers. Originally this city had a population of 14,000, so many of the buildings are still abandoned. This is where our hotel was, as well as the store where we could buy food, drinks and alcohol. All items from this store are imported from Kyiv.
Once we passed the checkpoint out of Chernobyl City and into Pripyat, the road deteriorated. We had entered the heart of the Exclusion Zone. The city had been completely overgrown, hiding houses, apartment buildings, cinemas and schools behind a forest of lush green leaves. If our guide wasn't there to tell me when we were close to a building, I would have probably walked right past it.
Our first stop was on the banks of the river Pripyat, which runs through the area. On the horizon were large, rusted sea vessels. Our guide told us these vessels were used to bring in supplies after the initial explosion. They were left to rot in the river once the clean-up was completed. It was here we found out first radioactive hotspot, near some kind of strange metal ship part.
The initial reading was 2.48 ?Sv/h, which was about ten times the average background radiation. Using the math above, I now know that if I was to stand on that spot, it would take 46 years before the radiation would kill me.
I turned to our guide and asked her what exactly this level of radiation meant. Was 2.48 ?Sv/h overly dangerous or was it relatively safe? She told me that if we find anything over 10 ?Sv/h, we should leave. After a few minutes somebody found a more contaminated spot just to the left of the first one. That spot was reading at 14.53 ?Sv/h, which would kill me in about 8 years. We left the area soon afterwards.
The first building we visited in Pripyat was the Kindergarten. Outside the building was a small contaminated spot near a tree. This spot was reading at 5.46 ?Sv/h, which would give me a lethal dosage in about 20 years.
This building was buried behind trees, and the once white picket fence that surrounded it was now brown, rotted and crooked. Paint was peeling off the walls, windows were smashed and leaves were blown across the floor. Inside were books, toys, dolls and beds for the children.
The next location we visited was the hospital. Our guide made us follow her into the hospital because she had something important to show us: the most radioactive spot inside Pripyat.
We followed her single file through the rotting, peeling, abandoned corridors of the hospital until we entered a large room. Here, she took out her Geiger counter and held it over a strange grey mass on a table. This mass, she explained, was scraps of clothing from the first victims of the accident. Once the reactor blew, some people came out onto the street to see what had happened, and were met head first with the newly spawned radioactive cloud. These victims were immediately taken to the hospital. They were given new clothing and their old clothing was put in the basement. Sometime during the past 30 years, somebody had brought some of this clothing up and put it on display.
Her Geiger counter read 1,307 ?Sv/h, which is 10,000 times more than normal background radiation. Wearing these scraps of clothing would kill me in 32 days. If I had put this clothing on the day I took this tour, I would have exactly seven days left to live.
We then had free reign of the hospital, and could explore its many rooms and levels. We weren't told not to go in the basement, but without a Geiger counter I didn't want to risk it. Instead, I distanced myself from the group and walked down a corridor by myself.
I felt fine walking through the abandoned hospital until I turned a corner and realized just how alone I was. While there were about 20 people in the group, they were so far away I couldn't hear them. For the first time since arriving in Pripyat I was alone, and I just listened. I heard the buzzing of bugs, the singing of birds and the blowing of the wind. Here I was in the heart of a city and there was no noise. It was peaceful and quiet.
As I turned another corner, however, I began to feel uncomfortable. Before me was a long, dark hallway and although this wasn't the first hallway like this in the hospital, this one felt strange. Although I knew I was alone, looking down this hallway I felt like there should be somebody standing there. I took some pictures and reviewed them and saw nothing. Although I was completely alone, I didn't feel that way.
I have never had a paranormal experience before so I can't say if they are real or not, but if there was ever a restless spirit, an abandoned hospital in the heart of the Exclusion Zone would be the right place for it. At this point I turned around and went back to the group.
Our next destination was a marina. The marina had another hotspot near it, but I didn't take a picture of the Geiger counters this time. I believe it was around 3.5 ?Sv/h, which would give off a fatal dose of radiation in 32 years.
The marina had been trashed. Windows had been smashed, graffiti was on the walls, counters had been flipped over and floor boards had been torn up. In its day the marina would have been used as a beautiful lakeside café. Today, however, it stood in ruin.
We had about ten minutes to explore the area and then carried on through the abandoned city.
As we walked past a theatre, our guide stopped and showed us a photograph of the theater when it was still in operation. In the photograph there was a statue of a shirtless man holding something above him in the air. That statue wasn't there today; instead it was moved to a memorial near Reactor 4. The statue is that of the mythological Greek deity Prometheus, who is known for stealing fire from the Gods and giving it to humanity. Prometheus' actions gave humanity the ability to destroy, something the Gods felt humanity wouldn't be able to control. It is poetic that his statue is in this city.
We were told there was nothing interesting to see in the theatre, so we kept walking.
When we arrived at the Arts Centre, we didn't have much time left to explore as we had to be out of the city by 6 PM, so we quickly entered the building and then left.
Down from the Arts Centre was the main plaza of the city. Several famous shots of the city were taken from the rooftops surrounding this area, so we asked if we could go up and take some pictures too. Our guide said we couldn't as one of the military checkpoints were directly across from these buildings and they would be able to see us if we were on the roof ? something that is forbidden.
After exploring the plaza for a while, we entered one of the buildings and walked to the second floor. We passed through a few hallways and ended up in a large gymnasium. Twenty foot high windows lined one of the walls of the gym, but they had long been smashed and trees had begun to grow through them. It was here we got our first glimpse of the famous Ferris wheel.
It was also here that my camera died.
Thankfully I had my phone with me, but it too was almost dead. Fortunately, earlier in the day I discovered one of the guys on my tour had a portable charger. I hunted him down and asked if I could borrow it. He said yes, and I was able to charge my phone. The charge was slow and I didn't have enough battery power to open my camera, so I had to use the Facebook Messanger app instead. This greatly reduced the quality of the images, but it was the best I could do.
After that, we left the area and returned to our hotel in Chernobyl City. Throughout our trip in Pripyat we saw a couple dogs, but that night I woke up to the sound of many dogs howling out in the distance. I don't know how many there were, but I learned the next day that after 9:30 PM, they not only lock the doors of the hotel but also the gates around the building. I'm not sure if this is to keep people inside, or to keep the dogs out.
The next morning, with my cameras fully charged, we reentered Pripyat and visited Cooling Tower 5. Reactor 1 through 4 were built on one side of the river, while Reactor 5 and 6 were to be built on the other. While the first four reactors didn't need cooling towers, the next two would. However, the explosion at Reactor 4 stopped construction and now the cooling towers stand as massive, incomplete monoliths.
Outside the cooling tower was another hotspot. Our guide believes a piece of the roof flew from Reactor 4 and landed here. She slid a concrete slab out of the way and took out her Geiger counter. The ground was reading at 74.93 ?Sv/h, which is enough radiation to kill somebody in one year and six months.
The inside of the cooling tower was covered in pipes, support columns, concrete pieces and moss. It was here one of the girls on the tour started playing Kraftwerk's Radioactivity from her phone. I took a picture of her doing it to try and capture the sheer size of the building we were in. You can see her in the below picture near the middle with her arm out. She's very small in comparison to the building so you might have trouble seeing her.
From Cooling Tower 5 we went down the road to Reactor 1 through 4. Our guide stopped on a nearby railway bridge and began throwing bread down into the water below. Out of the depths came scores of catfish. Without any local predators, the catfish can grow to astronomical sizes. We were lucky enough to see one of these giant catfish and I estimate it to be the size of a real cat or a small dog.
We then visited the memorial near Reactor 4. This memorial was built in honor of the firefighters who risked their lives to stop the flames from reaching Reactor 3. A few minutes later we saw the famous Reactor 4, with its near completed Sarcophagus. It is estimated to be completed this November and should last for 100 years.
From here we went back into Pripyat and arrived at one of the apartment buildings. It was the tallest building in the city and had over 18 floors. We then began the exhausting ascent up the crumbling building, through the broken doors, over the discarded furniture and around shattered glass. When I finally reached the top, I had an incredible view of the abandoned city, the overgrown trees, the rooftops and the four Reactors. To the right, far out in the distance was a near invisible structure known as Chernobyl-2, an early warning radar that scanned the skies for incoming American nuclear missiles.
After being on the roof for half an hour, our guide told us we had fifteen minutes to explore the building. I was still exhausted from the climb so I explored the top two floors and then carried down to the bottom floor.
We then went to another gymnasium where we found a basketball court and a swimming pool. Much like the first gym we had saw the day before, this one had large, twenty foot high glass windows that had been smashed.
After the gym we went to the Elementary School. Every school in the USSR was equipped with gas masks in case of a nuclear or chemical attack, and this school was no different. We were told the masks in this school were never worn by the children, and instead were placed here by the military. I'm not sure of the reason. Since then, however, this has become one of the most famous rooms in Pripyat.
Sometime since the evacuation, somebody had come back and set up a "scene" in this room. They took one of the forgotten dolls, and placed it on a chair surrounded by the gas masks. They then put one of these gas masks on the doll. Finally, they busted a nearby TV and used it to frame the haunting masterpiece they had created.
We then got back on the bus and rode it for half an hour to Chernobyl-2. This incredibly large radar system beamed across Europe and could be heard on radio channels throughout the continent, pecking away at regional broadcasts. This pecking sound gave it the nickname "The Woodpecker".
Chernobyl-2 used a third of the energy created by the plant and continued in operation three years after Reactor 4 blew. It was deemed obsolete near the end of the 1980s as it was discovered missiles could be launched over the Arctic much faster than over the Atlantic and Europe, and it was much too big to rotate. During its operation many believed the radar system was also used for mind control and weather manipulation.
Our guide told us the military discussed blowing the radar up at the end of its lifetime, but it was estimated that its collapse would trigger an earthquake around 7.0 on the Richter Scale ? which would be potentially hazardous around several active nuclear reactors.
Behind Chernobyl-2 is the control room, which had a massive server room full of records of what the radar system picked up. Instead of destroying the radar, the military just destroyed the servers and the control room. They smashed the computers, broke the hard drives and tossed them off the building into a pile below. All that remains now are holes in the walls, instructions to identify missiles and empty server racks.
Our tour ended in the junkyard. Cars that belong to the citizens of Pripyat were brought here, as well as the school buses used during the evacuation. This junkyard also holds the ruins of a downed helicopter and one of the evacuation tanks. This tank was the second most radioactive item we came across. Our guide showed us the Geiger counter and the tank was reading at 180 ?Sv/h. Standing next to this tank for six months would be enough radiation to kill any healthy person.
The last thing I took a picture of in Pripyat was the inside of a school bus, which was the last thing the citizens of Pripyat saw as well. On this bus sat families and friends who were being evacuated out of the city, believing they would one day return, only to become refugees in their own country.
It is important to remember when visiting Chernobyl and Pripyat that you are visiting somebody else's home. This city is where people were married, families were started and lives begun. It is where children went to school, adults worked and athletes trained. It was a model city, much like any other across the Soviet Union and throughout the West. If you plan to visit Chernobyl and Pripyat, be sure to act respectfully. While it might be an Urban Explorers dream come true, for others it's a thirty-year-old nightmare that has yet to end.
I would like to once again give a big thank you out to ChernobylWel.come for putting on this tour. Our guide was incredible, friendly and very knowledgeable. It was thanks to them that this trip was possible, and it will be something that I will never forget. If you're planning on visiting Chernobyl and Pripyat, I recommend going with ChernobylWel.come.
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Categories: Dark Tourism, Europe, Ukraine