Before heading to breakfast this morning there was time to pet the hotel cat while waiting for our guide and minibus to arrive from outside the zone. He seemed to love the company so I guess there aren’t many visitors to the hotel although from the feel of various cuts and lumps that we noticed while petting him he didn’t seem too well which was a shame.
Breakfast was two courses and you’ll never guess what the first one consisted of. That’s right… cucumber! The second course was just as unusual and consisted of cold pasta, a cold fried egg and a lukewarm burger but I guess it’s part of the whole Chernobyl experience even though I hate cucumber. There was some paperwork that needed taking care of so we relaxed for a bit outside the canteen before making our way further into the zone.
There are several checkpoints within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The first is at the outer perimeter which is 30km away from the plant itself and is where you have all your permits checked before being allowed on to Chernobyl town where our hotel is. The outer perimeter is also where the most sensitive scanners are that make sure you aren’t radioactive upon leaving the zone. The next checkpoint is 10km away from the plant and while the scanners aren’t as sensitive on the way out you need extra permission to enter this part of the zone and resettlement is totally prohibited. There is one final checkpoint that you must pass before entering the abandoned city of Pripyat and it was here where we spent most of today.
Our first stop was in what was one of the squares within Pripyat which is now completely overgrown to the point that you can’t even see the road or lamp posts around the edge until you’re right next to them. Around the square were military dorms and you couldn’t see those until you were right next to them either but when we arrived at the main door we were surprised by our guide by being told that we would be allowed inside the buildings at Pripyat if we wanted to. Of course we all accepted but I’m guessing as we signed papers to say we weren’t allowed in, and we were told yesterday that entry into the buildings of Pripyat was prohibited, then while officially it’s only discouraged to enter the buildings if anything did happen and we got injured then it would be our own fault.
We spent some time walking around the first floor of the military dorms and it was a very eerie sensation considering we were the only people there but 30 years ago there would have been hundreds of people at any one time. All of the bedrooms were empty, except for a few small items such as brushes and a chair, although the shower rooms still had baths and all of the fixtures. The highlight of this particular building was finding a room which had a portrait of Lenin on the wall which was at one point a meeting room. There wasn’t as much to see here compared to other buildings later in the day but all of us on this trip are keen photographers so we still spent quite a lot of time taking photos – not so much of the ruined state of the buildings but about how life just stopped and moved on one day.
Walking down the road from the dorms we passed a few apartment buildings and stores before arriving at the Pripyat Hospital. We weren’t allowed too far into the building as it was fairly dangerous according to our guide but we were able to walk around long enough to find the doctor on call list, a couple of ward rooms and an examination suite that had the remains of X-ray machines among other things. I got the feeling very early on that one day exploring Pripyat would not be enough as I could easily have spent an hour or so exploring the hospital.
After the hospital we spent some time exploring the Pripyat River Port before walking down the road to another square which was hardly recognisable with all of the trees that have taken hold since the disaster. Pripyat was a planned city and was made up of several districts all around the main parade ground – each district had a square, stores, recreation areas, a school and a square but as we found out while walking around the city only the bigger buildings have survived so far and some of them are in bad shape as we found out in this square. One of the buildings that we saw was a concert hall and we were able to enter as far as the main auditorium where there were seats, or what was left of them, and a stage which still had the original piano on it. The stage itself was in very bad shape and we were a little foolish to walk across it but we got some great photos.
We walked past a secondary school that had collapsed in the middle, allowing us to see into the classrooms on the top floor, before making our way around to the main parade ground in Pripyat. This is an area that you see in many photos and contains a hotel, the offices of the atomic energy department, a theatre, supermarket, restaurant and more. It was the only square that was still recognisable as it was so big in its day that trees haven’t had a chance to reclaim it yet. While in the square our guide showed us a photo of the main road leaving the square, Lenin Street, which was once four lanes wide and is now unrecognisable as a road.
The hotel was the first place we explored around the square. It had been stripped pretty completely but you could still make out the reception area, restaurant and store rooms. We didn’t spend much time here as there wasn’t much to see so we headed straight along the square to the supermarket. It wasn’t safe to go upstairs but we spent some time exploring the ground floor of the building which still contained all of the original refrigeration units along with shopping trolleys. At the far side of the ground floor loads of beds had been set out which looked confusing but our guide explained these were available on the first floor of the supermarket but that after the disaster looters had moved them downstairs to use the area as a base for stealing what they could find.
We entered the backstage area of the theatre and saw some materials which were being prepared for the May Day parade that year. One of the most striking stories to come from the disaster is how while the area near Chernobyl was being evacuated the rest of the Soviet Union just got in with their business. It was 36 hours after the disaster before the Soviets admitted there was a problem and started evacuating citizens near the zone but even while they were doing this they denied the disaster was serious – it was only when the radiation was detected in Sweden that they even acknowledged to the outside world anything had happened. During the time the citizens were being evacuated, and being exposed to huge levels of radiation, just up the road in Kiev the May Day parade happened as planned even though they were close enough to get exposed to unsafe levels of radiation.
After leaving the square we had a chance to explore the famous theme park which was due to open the day after Pripyat was evacuated. Most of the articles about Pripyat that I have read featured photos of the theme park and I was excited to finally see it. In the park there were several rides, a Ferris Wheel and a dodgem arena. We spent maybe 20 minutes exploring the area and it was great to wander around in a nice open space which was still clear of trees… although by now the temperature had risen above comfortable temperatures so while the main photo savvy people in our group finished taking photos of the Ferris Wheel I hid in the shade of the ticket office. I was very impressed with the time we spent in the theme park, however, but we would soon be lead to another entertainment facility that was even grander.
The Pripyat Stadium was just around the corner from the Theme Park but once again you couldn’t see it for trees. Our guide told us all about the stadium and how it was used to train athletes, in addition to holding meetings of its own, but it was only when we reached the stands that we realised we had walked through a collapsed section of the stands and across the field without noticing. Our guide said we would have 5-10 minutes to explore the area so I decided to walk into the building to get a sense of the original enormity of the site by walking up to the top level of the stands before emerging to look over the field. It took some time to find my way – I got lost a few times, found the toilets, motor room, several long corridors, the commentary boxes and then had to climb over a wall but eventually I found my way to the back of the seating area where at one point thousands of people would have sat to watch sports.
The sports field was so unrecognisable even when sitting down for a few minutes taking in the view but it was at this point when I realised how a trip to Pripyat isn’t about death it’s about life. We were visiting places that once thrived and were crawling with people and even though the human population has moved on the earth is still thriving. There are trees where 30 years ago there was a big open space and even though we didn’t see any wildlife there are loads of animals in the area including wild horses and wolves. I have witnessed the power of nature on several occasions – I have seen an avalanche, skied over the remains of another even larger avalanche, felt a magnitude 6 earthquake, seen a tornado and I also happened to fly over Iran a few years ago when they had those bad nationwide floods but all of those were about what the power of nature can do to us. A visit to Pripyat is the reverse and shows you that no matter what we try to do to the planet, and no matter how important you think human life is to the planet, things seem to work better without us. Of course I had known this for years but it’s very humbling when that reality hits you in a situation like this.
I was sad to leave the stadium as we met up with our minibus and I thought that the trip was over but we were told there were still a couple more sights to see. The first was one which I had looked forward to since seeing photos of the first Regent trip here a few years ago – the sports centre that included the main swimming pool. We spent some time exploring the area although we had to stick together and be quiet and I got the feeling that this was one building we definitely weren’t supposed to be in. In addition to the swimming pool area we saw a motor room, basketball court and gymnastics arena but the batteries in my camera ran out at this point so I wasn’t able to get too many photos.
After returning to the minibus and putting new batteries in my camera we were taken to what ended up being by far the highlight of my visit to Pripyat – the secondary school that you see in many photos of the area that has a huge pile of gas masks in one of the rooms. Our guide showed us up to the first floor before giving us 15 minutes to explore at our leisure as long as we stayed on that floor. What made it the highlight for me is how most things there had been left exactly as they were before the city was evacuated. The hotel had been stripped, the dorms had been completely emptied and the supermarket had been looted but the school was still full of items. The entire corridor was littered with books where they had been tipped off the shelves by the decontamination team but walking around the rooms I discovered geometry text books, paintings that students had created, postcards, a model of The Kremlin and even a science room still with experiments out on the table and test questions written up on the board. I genuinely believe that I could have spent half a day exploring this building so it’s a shame we didn’t have an extra day in the zone to be able to take in things at our own pace.
After meeting back up with the rest of the group again we were shown town to the ground floor where the kitchens still had plates in the sinks, there were bike wheels in vices where they were being repaired and even the huge pile of gas masks which I mentioned previously. We asked our guide about these and she said these were all made available for the children but they evacuated Pripyat in such a hurry once the order was given that they were never used.
Our final stop in Pripyat was the old Bus Station where workers at the plant, and residents at the city, would have been able to board buses to Kiev and other towns / cities in the region. We only spent 5 minutes here but we took some great photos, including the below photo of me in the ticket office, and I also now finally know what the mechanics of a locker look like due to one of them being broken open.
The time had finally come to leave Pripyat and head back towards Kiev. There would be a chance to stop for one final late lunch at the canteen first but unfortunately we were told that we would be unable to visit the resettlers houses inside the zone as we had taken too long in Pripyat. This was a shame as it would have been nice to see the residents who have come back to the exclusion zone to live but it would have been a set up meeting so I not sorry about missing that opportunity to be able to explore the building which, officially, are completely off limits. We would have missed so much by not exploring the buildings that seeing the resettlers would not have made up for.
After passing the first radiation checkpoint and making our way back to Chernobyl town we had lunch which consisted of two courses. The first one, you guessed it, had cucumber in it but this time not just one type of cucumber it had two – sliced cucumber with cucumber fritters. The second course was much more pleasant as you can see from the photos below, however it was soon time to leave the zone for good. We made our way back out the main road, were scanned again at the outer checkpoint, before saying goodbye to our guide. She was an amazing guide and showed us far more of Pripyat than I ever hoped to see so I’m incredibly pleased with her service.
When we arrived back in Kiev it was already early evening so after checking into our rooms and having a well-earned shower we met in the hotel bar to discuss dinner plans. The unanimous decision was to go back to the Bavarian restaurant from the other night as those of us that went had been talking about it so much the others wanted to try it.
Over dinner there was a little bit of a disagreement with one of the group in relation to missing the resetllers. I agree with that it would have been nice to have seen them but on any trip that’s into the unknown you can’t expect things to go exactly to plan. Our plan, according to the brochure, said that we weren’t going to be able to go into the buildings and even missing out the resettlers the trip still went more to plan than any trip to Africa that I have done. The disagreement didn’t spoil dinner, however, and I’m glad we came back here. I highly recommend the restaurant to anybody that visits Kiev. I can’t remember the name of the street but once again if you go along Khreshchatyk Street from the Lenin statue in the direction of Independence Square you’ll come across the political protest tents on the left. Go past those and it’s the first road on the left where the tents end, a few doors up just past the bar.
The night finished with watching a pyromaniac display with the group, before exploring on my own again for a little bit, but I’m now back in my room and completely exhausted. I have a feeling that I will sleep well tonight after what has been a very long and exhausting but extremely worthwhile couple of days visiting Chernobyl. We still have one more day left and have arranged to start it by visiting a shooting range which should prove very interesting!