For years now visiting Chernobyl and the post apocalyptic abandoned soviet town of Pripyat had been a dream. There is something eerily alluring about the idea of a town trapped in time, as the world has moved on this time capsule of the soviet era has been slowly crumbing. Twisting this once idealistic Utopian dream into something from a dystopian nightmare. As we grew more interested in both soviet history and Urban Exploring we looked to the horrific and spine tingling events of Chernobyl and the ghost town of Pripyat as the epitome of exploration. Finally we had the chance to step into this still radiated waste land to make this strange dream a reality!
A background to Chernobyl
On 26 April 1986, at 01:23, reactor four at the Chernobyl power plant suffered a catastrophic power increase, leading to explosions in its core. Technicians at the plant had begun tests earlier in the evening which got catastrophically got out of hand. It was later found that the plant lacked many of the safety features which would have avoided the accident. Ironically the experiment scheduled was to test a potential safety emergency core cooling feature!
The Chernobyl plant and the reactor exploded in dramatic fashion. The roof of the building was completely blow off and radioactive material was burning at unimaginable temperature. Those materials were pumped high in the atmosphere through the poisonous cloud of smoke billowing out without any kind of containment. The cloud left a trail of fallout all over Europe and its effects were felt as far away as Wales and Iceland. However, the immediate areas such as the town of Pripyat and southern Belarus were most greatly effected.
Learning more about the moving and heroic events of that terrible day
After the initial incident the Soviet Union kept quiet about the events of that fateful evening. In a move that feels typical of such a secretive regime I wonder how they thought no one would notice! 31 people were killed in the initial blast and clean up efforts, but the death tole from the fall out has estimated to have killed between 10,000–200,000 people mostly as a result of cancer.
As the clean up crews of over 500,000 people from all over the Soviet Union and Europe descended on the stricken Chernobyl power plant there were two main tasks at hand. To smother and contain the escaping radioactive materials inside a hastily constructed sarcophagus and to secure the melting floor from caving into the river below and causing a second much larger explosion that would have rendered most of Europe uninhabitable for tens of thousands of years.
So called liquidators were brought in to do the tasks the ailing machinery and helicopters couldn’t. This included shovelling lumps of highly poisonous material off the roof and into the hole, each man was allowed only a few minutes on the roof before receiving thousands of times the safe does of radiation.
Below the Chernobyl plant molten hot lava was burning through the layers of the floor and inching ever closer to the river below. Miners were drafted in from small towns to dig in extreme temperatures and at high levels of radiation towards the centre of the plant. Their efforts effectively saved Europe from an unimaginable fate.
Exploring the outskirts of the city
Firstly we ventured to the many memorials set up for those who died here and also the heroes who gave their lives saving even more people. Walking down an alley way which names all the towns and villages that once stood in this area makes you realise just how many people lived in the exclusion zone of Chernobyl. Most of these villages were flattened and only these signs remain as evidence of their existence.
Entering into the forest for the first time down an over grown track our Geiger counters first began to chirp louder and louder. Our guide, Olexandr, told us to carefully point them towards the patches of moss either side of the track.
A chorus of beeps began as our readers shot up from the base levels of around 0.15 to well over 10.00. These hot spots were all around us but still nowhere near the levels of the inner exclusion zone!
Our first stops that gave us a taste of what was to come included a small wooden medical centre strewn with medication and lenin inscribed booklets. A real sign of the time warp we had entered into. The next was a children’s nursery that provided us with the first real eerie reminders of the innocent lives effected by this tragedy and how everyday life just came to a stand still. Rusting cots and moulding dolls provided a creepy insight into this lost world!
Discovering the secret soviet nuclear detector in the woods
Another stop be made was the DUGA radar system, otherwise known as “The Russian Woodpecker” or Chernobyl 2. Hidden in a heavily forested area of the exclusion zone and even to this day patrolled by military units it was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the soviet union. Marked off as a children’s camp to deflect any outside interest much speculation to its purpose has arisen over the years.
With its mind numbing taps the Russian Woodpecker produced a noise from behind the iron curtain many thought could be related to mind control tactics, wire tapping or even weather experiments. The frequency would interrupt mainstream broadcasts, radio and commercial aviation communications worldwide but remained unclaimed. However after the fall of the Soviet Union it was revealed the true purpose of this gargantuan steel framed construction was as an early warning system for nuclear attacks.
Seeing something so enormous and so connected to the cold war was quite incredible. To think how closely guarded this would have been during the height of the soviet union, and to be stood right below it, was quite mind blowing!
Venturing into the post apocalyptic abandoned soviet city of Pripyat
This was the main event for us, heading through the third checkpoint and into the city of Pripyat itself, the ghost town that has been frozen in time since its residents were forced to flee 30 years ago! Left to rot, over grown and for nature to slowly take this once bustling city back for itself.
It is shocking even to see what were once main roads and boulevards running through a major city now engulfed by huge trees and undergrowth as well as being inhabited by wild animals such as wolves, boars and horses. Truly surreal and it can’t help but remind us of those scenes in the film “I am Legend”.
The gym and swimming pool
One of our first stops once inside the city was the gym and the well known swimming pool. This was one of the first sights that we had on our Chernobyl list and seeing in it person made this already special visit even more amazing. Our first port of call was the old gym, basketball nets still hung above the twisted and warped once polished wooden floor. The large widows that would have contained this place of energy and life now frame the thick over grown forest blurring the lines between inside and outside.
Next it was into the huge cavernous swimming pool, an area of soviet sporting achievements and an imposingly large and crumbling building. This is one of the most well known sites in the city having been featured in a number of video games. Interestingly the Azure Swimming Pool was still used until 1998, mostly by the liquidators, but still shows the same spine chilling level of decay.
The school and gas masks
Heading over to the school we knew this would be one of the most eerie locations on the tour. What is a school, with books, toys and desks without children. The wind whistling down the empty corridors, projects and chalk marks still remaining on the desks and boards, books piled in the corners and soviet propaganda on the walls was so haunting.
Seeing the room with the pile of gas masks was also a chilling sight in itself. Discarded as children left this poisoned environment they once called home. It brings into focus the lives of those who once inhabited this place, the energy and noise that once used to light up this now silent and decaying remnant of a time gone by.
But also it is an opportunity to peer into the secret lives of those beyond the iron curtain, especially the impressionably minds of these young people.
One of the most radioactive sites in the old city it is not actually officially listed as a location on the tours. Our guide Olexander took us over to this creepy and poignant site on the way out of the city when no guards were present. The reason for the high levels of radiation here are a result of the liquidators being brought here straight from working on the stricken plant.
As we ventured in through the backdoor of the hospital we passed a what seemed like a rag on a counter, non of our group even seemed to notice it. But our guide pointed his geiger counter closer towards it and it shot up to almost 30.00 CPM, this was quite shocking and scary to say the least! This piece of cloth was one part of the Chernobyl liquidators clothing, all of which has been buried in the basement of the hospital!
Wandering around the abandoned hospital, decaying medicines, rusting theatre equipment and rotting beds really adds to that post apocalyptic feel. Many of these rooms appear as though people have just stopped in their places and left, their ghostly presence some how still remaining in the eerie walls of this place that would have seen all the true horrors of that day. Check out this video on Youtube of someone exploring the basement before it was filled with sand, crazy!
The amusement park and ferris wheel
Now came what we had been waiting for, the most recognisable remnant of this city of children: The amusement park. What a stark reminder of the everyday lives of those who lived here, the thousands of children that characterised this young working city. Famously the amusement park was due to open the day after the catastrophic events at Chernobyl, but instead has forever stood silent, decorations still waiting for an opening day that never came.
A symbol of the Chernobyl disaster it has also featured prominently in video games and media which has added to its legend. Abandoned amusement parks also seem to be amongst the most chilling and eerie. Places intended to be the centre of life and fun swing and creak with the lingering spirits of the ghosty presence of what might have been. This site is also one of the most highly radioactive if you wander off the concrete and onto the irradiated moss that surrounds this strange and unwilling monument.
Other additional locations
Alongside the more well known sites in the city we also called in at some lesser known locations. Supermarkets strewn with shopping trolleys and decaying stock, somehow seeing such everyday locations turning into these creepy dystopian scenes makes it all feel more real.
The once pristine and idyllic cafes by the dockside continue the nightmare theme, half sunken boats and poisonous apples grown like the forbidden fruit in this garden of eden for the urban explorer! Skeletal like high rise blocks peer above the forests that are reclaiming the once well kept city, cyrillic lettering, hammer and sickles and red stars precariously hang to these once proud buildings.
Seeing the fateful Chernobyl power plant itself
One of the most spine tingling visits was to the Chernobyl power plant itself and the famous sarcophagus of the destroyed reactor 4. We were only allowed to spend around 5 minutes so close to the epicentre of the contamination as the levels of radiation here were predictably higher than anywhere else. The original concrete sarcophagus built in haste 30 years ago is crumbling and has noticeable holes leaching out more radioactive materials.
To see the power plant that caused all this devastation up close was a surreal experience to say the least. The place that left this ground inhabitable for 25,000 years was here in front of our eyes. But even more strange was the amount of workers who should only be working 2 hours a day two week on and two off, instead they pull 12 hours shifts new sarcophagus due to cover the old one forever in 2017!
Nearby was another strange experience. We were directed over to the reactors cooling pools to see the catfish. I wasn’t sure what to expect heading over the old railway bridge and did wonder why we made this extra stop. But seeing these fish at over 6ft long just brought the effects of the radiation into perspective and was almost too insane to believe!
An unforgettable day in this urbex paradise
Whenever I come to realising such a huge dream I am always filled with mixed emotions, often nerves overcome my excitement in the initial phase because I am so keen for them to live up to my huge expectations! I was wondered if we would get to see all the locations we had dreamt of, would we be safe and would the paperwork come through to get us into the zone?
But I needn’t have worried! Despite the awful weather we had, which our guide told us actually made the radiation levels lower, the day has to be one of the most epic, moving and surreal we ever experienced! Seeing the swimming pool, the gas masks, the archaic soviet propaganda, empty school desks, eerie rusting hospital beds and of course the haunting ferris wheel that never operated. Then there was the strange experience of seeing the power plant itself and the surprises along the way such as the nursery as well as duga! What a day and what an exploration!
How to visit Chernobyl yourself
There are many companies offering different types of trip. We decided to go with the company Chernobyl.welcome, they offered the most intensive day trip which covered both the popular sites, the off the beaten track locations, the plant itself as well as providing 2 meals, transport and a souvenir t-shirt!
We opted for the one day trip given our now shorter timescale (see our passage through Warsaw!) but they do also offer 2 day tours as well as private tours. What we loved was how they took our safety seriously but yet they didn’t baby us. We were allowed to explore each location with quite a lot of freedom and even headed into places that were off the usual itinerary such as the hospital, they also made sure to point out areas of interest, told us stories and also steered us away from dangerous areas. Next time we will de doing the 2 day tour for sure!
Check them out here:
Just make sure to book at least a couple of weeks before you intend to visit as your name must be on the list to enter the site.
Is it safe to visit?
The question most people ask is usually surrounding safety. But after doing quite some research and speaking to the people at Chernobyl.Welcome all our fears were alleviated.
Most of the Chernobyl exclusion zone is actually not much higher than the levels in Kiev itself at around 0.15, bear in mind that 15.00 is considered dangerous over the course of a few hours. Most of the levels we saw were between 3.00 and 5.00 with hotspots up to 10.00. The government monitors the levels of radiation within the zone and there are clear areas where it is unsafe to visit. These are updated with the guides regularly and they make sure to keep you well away.
Spending a few hours in the chernobyl zone you are exposed to less radiation than on a transatlantic flight! Your levels are also measured upon leaving all the check points to make sure you are still at safe levels.
This is also why it is imperative to visit with a guide, even for the hardened urban explorers as there are many additional dangers, plus, they know were all the best sites are!!
Have you ever visited Chernobyl or dreamt of it?
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Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by Chernobyl Wel.come. As always, all opinions are our own!