A Journey Inside the Exclusion Zone
The windscreen wipers swept left and right in the heavy rain as a burly military guard stomped towards the packed minibus.
I was in Ukraine and at my first of three checkpoints in the radioactive zone of Chernobyl. As soon as you enter you notice one thing: security here is tight, and for good reason. On the 26th April, 1986 when the Soviet Union was still in control, this small area of Ukraine witnessed what has since been named as the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
While, ironically enough, following safety procedures, something went drastically wrong and Reactor Number Four exploded, firing colourful flames and toxic levels of radiation into the air, forcing an entire community out of their homes and resulting in the deaths of many others.
Twenty-nine years later, Chernobyl is deserted and buried in nature; with Geiger counter in hand, it was time to explore.
Stop one: The Secret Soviet camp
Taking a sharp right off a long road we headed into deeply forested territory. Here, we were informed by our guide that this overgrown land was once the secret location of a covert Soviet Military camp.
For those who studied the Cold War – ahem – seeing the infamous red stars planted on metal gates really brought home how untouched Chernobyl is.
The real reason we were here was to see what we had spotted some miles back: the unbelievably tall ‘over the horizon’ radar, which translates as ‘rainbow’ in English. On a map, this camp was hidden under the guise of a ‘Children’s Camp,’ and it wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that anyone, other than the thousands of people who worked here, even knew it existed.
Stop two: The nursery
A hurriedly abandoned nursery from 1986 is just as creepy as you’d imagine.
Through the thick forest, a forgotten, derelict house was barely visible. This was the first stop on our tour where the high radioactivity levels began to affect our Geiger counters, sending them into a screeching harmony. Because of this, we were under strict rules to stay on the pavement and not to wander through the woods. Our guide warned us of the consequences by moving a Geiger counter from a concrete slab to a patch of grass where it instantly began to sound the alarm as the numbers shot up on the device, reaching well over the advised dosage. He certainly didn’t need to tell me twice.
Lightly stepping up onto the rotting porch, the half-opened eyes of dust-covered dolls followed us as we crept through the empty doorway. In the dim light the sight ahead made it seem as though the reactor had exploded on this very ground; flaking wooden doors hung open, pages of children’s books littered the floor, and empty metal beds collected cobwebs as a hole in the ceiling dripped rain water into one of the classrooms.
Years of neglect, vandalisation, and the mad scramble to gather up valuable goods by those who once lived and worked here had turned this nursery into a place more suitable for the set of The Walking Dead than for children. Forgotten toys, disintegrating shoes and rusting bed pans echoed signs of life, and it was odd to think that the owners of these possessions would now be well into their thirties.
Stop three: Reactor Number Four
It was time to see the origin of the devastation, the route of the problem, the destructive catalyst. Or simply, Reactor Number Four.
Admittedly, this was the least exciting part of the tour. What had once caused so much destruction and took so many lives now stood in front of us looking, well, rather normal.
Despite what most people think when they imagine a dangerous radioactive plant, this part of Chernobyl is busy with workers. We were permitted to stand near the reactor for only ten minutes, while workers in masks and hazmat suits went about their day behind us.
Even though they looked like they were filming a ‘Chernobyl’ special of Breaking Bad, the workers were here to build something very important. The hastily erected steel dome which stands pointlessly next to the haphazardly covered reactor will soon be part of a double sarcophagus. By 2016, the iconic sight of the red and white reactor will no longer be visible as it’ll be protected by the steel coffin partially put in place before lack of money halted work on it. I was glad that I had managed to see the reactor before it is covered up – even if it was a bit dull.
Stop four: Welcome to Pripyat
Standing 10km away from the exclusion zone, the town of Pripyat, once filled with nearly 50,000 people, has become a ghost town. Since learning about Chernobyl, an image that had always stuck in my head was the sad, iconic sight of the rusting red and yellow Ferris wheel, and for any Soviet history buff a wander around the town of Pripyat is indeed like a day at the fair.
Out of the minibus and onto the cracked pavement, the town of Pripyat was like walking around a living time capsule. Empty buildings and overgrown trees dominated my peripheral vision as I followed the guide to the Cultural Centre, a building once dedicated to organised Soviet fun. Now the polar opposite of what this building was once intended for, a mosaic of glass crunched beneath our shoes as we walked across an empty dance hall and clambered over fallen beams as rain dripped onto the last few remaining cinema chairs, our footsteps echoing across the eroding gymnasium, where an entire wall had collapsed, giving me the first views of the unloved Ferris wheel.
Catching up with the group after getting distracted taking too many photos, I left the desolate building behind and moved onwards to the amusement park. Trees grew through the vandalised bumper cars, metal seats glowed orange with rust on a spinning ride, and the quiet wheel loomed overhead. Intended to open five days after the reactor blew, this small park has only ever served as a symbol of a time gone by.
Our next stop was the Olympic sized swimming pool, which oddly enough was in use up until 1996. Now drained, this deep pool is a fascinating sight. I was informed by my fellow group members that this particular swimming pool is known for its cameo in Call of Duty, and I can agree that it makes for the perfect setting for a hunt-or-be-hunted game.
Across a path was the place that has really stuck with me, a deserted school. Each window hung wide open and wooden desks lay on their sides. I passed posters of Lenin and Cosmonauts as I dodged tree branches reaching through the windows.
You’d be surprised by how quickly nature can reclaim land which once belonged to it. The most exciting, and eerie, room in the school is the canteen, a place that our guide had left until last.
A cash register sat decaying on a table, standing over a floor camouflaged by hundreds upon hundreds of gas masks. It wasn’t quite clear how the masks had got there, but in a time when a nuclear strike was a real threat you can see why the blown reactor may have instigated nuclear war protocol. Unfortunately, these gas masks wouldn’t have been much help.
Chernobyl was like no place I have ever been before. A rapidly evacuated town, told they’d only be leaving for three to five days at most, has now been seized by nature and Ukraine’s harsh seasons. My morbid curiosity has well and truly been satisfied and exploring Chernobyl proved as sombering as it was captivating.
About the Author
My name is Helen Winter and I’m addicted to travel. I love to explore new cities, hiking through National Parks, and hone my amateur-photography as I wander across the world. Follow my travels on Instagram and Twitter.