There is a territory in the center of Ukrainian Polesie, in the north of the Kiev region, where the foot of an ordinary person has not stepped for quite a long time. A place, unique in its atmosphere, permeated by human pain, is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Not so long ago, in 2011, it was opened to travelers on the anniversary of the accident. Now, those wishing to see the consequences of the largest technological disaster in the entire history of mankind are being brought here for money. This happens according to the following scenario …
First impressions of the trip can be obtained long before the intersection of the 30-kilometer perimeter of the Zone. Guests arriving in Polesie from the steppe and forest-steppe parts of Ukraine are surprised by nature itself. Having driven a few tens of kilometers from Kiev towards the border with Belarus, over and over again small puddles come across the eyes right on the field along the road.
At first, it seems that it has recently rained here, but a large number of such puddles and vegetation characteristic of the wetlands reject this assumption – they are swamps. Another highlight for the steppe resident are forests. Coniferous trees predominantly come across the road. Narrow streams become a commonplace below them, again, the edge of the road – they stretch along the line of the route, or they run like a snake into the depths of the forest.
Two hours after leaving Kiev, a group of tourists approaches the main checkpoint in the Exclusion Zone, the Dityatki checkpoint. The village of the same name, and therefore, the checkpoint itself is located at the junction of the 30-kilometer perimeter, beyond which the territory controlled by only one owner, nature, lies.
Everyone who wants to get into the Zone will have passport control. Although it is allowed to carry tourists here, but until now, this territory is a sensitive facility. Individually, each excursionist had to go to the duty officer and check the passport data in the permits for entry.
Outwardly, little could tell about the further danger zone, and only two warning signs that are located at the entrance to the checkpoint warn of criminal liability for staying without permission from the exclusion zone administration in this place.
The abandoned city
When you have passed control at the checkpoint, the first destination on the route is the city of Chernobyl. The outskirts of the city are mostly private houses, densely overgrown with trees. It is difficult to see anything deeper than one house, only individual houses can boast of perfect condition, most of them are clearly in disrepair, with a roof that has fallen through and holes in it.
The city of Chernobyl is located outside the 10-kilometer exclusion zone, at a distance of about 12 km from the station itself. It had no serious relation to the Chernobyl tragedy, because basically, all the station workers lived in Pripyat, located 2 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Contrary to popular belief that there are only a few settlers in the Zone, it is objectively evident that Chernobyl is a full-fledged settlement, if I may say so. For the most part, this is a city of private houses and five-story buildings. The former are in a neglected state and abandoned, the latter are still used for life by the station staff and those who work in the surrounding administrative facilities.
People work on a rotational basis, so none of them is exposed to prolonged effect of radiation. There is no active traffic on the streets, the city in its activity is more like a village.
Ordinary people walk along the streets – everyone goes about their business, rare cars drive, and on ideal roads, compared to ours. The reality of life in Chernobyl can be observed in the evening – lights are lit in separate windows of high-rise buildings, and workers gradually converge to the local station after a hard day.
There are not many indigenous people in Chernobyl. In the period from 1986 to 1988, those people who categorically did not want to leave their homes found the opportunity to return home in various ways. Some of them got a job and thus, illegally resided here. And some, despite their beliefs and threats, simply returned to their homes. In 1988, illegal resettlement to the zone reached unprecedented proportions, almost 15.5 thousand people returned.
As a rule, these people hung inscriptions on the walls of their houses specially for the police so that they would not be confused with bandits and looters. One of these signs – “The owner of the house lives here”– is still hanging.
The first stop in Chernobyl is the Star of Wormwood memorial complex in the city center, which was equipped for the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. The central part of the park is occupied by the alley of abandoned villages, where signs are collected from all settlements of the Exclusion Zone. A monument of metal rods “Angel trumpets” stands near one of the entrances.
The building of the cinema “Ukraine” is nearby, the wall of which was restored and decorated with the image of storks who made a nest. According to the developers of the complex, this image should symbolize the tragedy of Polesie. Some monuments from abandoned settlements of the Exclusion Zone, which are located throughout the complex, are also collected and placed on the territory of the memory alley.
The next stop in Chernobyl is the exposition of robotic equipment that took part in the aftermath of the accident in 1986-1987. ZIL, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles are located here, and next to them are unique machines that were designed in single copies especially for work at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
An example of such a technique is the TR-1 (transport robot), designed specifically for work on the lunar surface and better known as a lunar rover.
Secret Object of the Soviet Union
The further route is deeper into the Zone, but before that, a no less interesting walk through the complex of one of the most secret military facilities of the former USSR is through the horizontal radar station Duga-1, the so-called Chernobyl-2 facility.
This place was designated as an abandoned pioneer camp on Soviet topographic maps, but in fact there was a military unit with the mentioned object. A concrete road stretches inland about 7 km from the main road. Artificially planted forest blocks the entire path to the complex.
This becomes clear when on the way back, you explicitly see straight rows of trees planted at an angle to the road. Perhaps, an additional masking of the complex was provided in this way. Now, this forest is completely covered with littered trees.
Soon, the top of the genius of engineering becomes visible from behind the trees. If you believe the signs faded from time to time, this complex is nothing more than a long-range radio center that should monitor the situation over the North American continent and detect early launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
There is another rather interesting version of its purpose, according to which both Chernobyl-2 and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant did not arise in the middle of Polesie accidentally. It is believed that the Chernobyl-2 facility was a new type of psychotropic weapon, and the station was supposed to provide it with energy. Determining the real purpose of the structure without documents, which are in the Moscow archives of the KGB, is impossible today.
The first thing that catches your eye is the size of the antenna, which rises 150 meters in height. Some of its parts, such as support rods and technical parts, stairs, elevators, have rusted over 30 years, but the “radars” themselves look like new. If you look closely, you can see that the entire antenna is densely penetrated by horizontal thin wires that stretch through each radar throughout the structure from the bottom to the top.
In addition to the antenna itself, tourists are offered to visit the technical buildings of the complex. One of these buildings is a three-story information and computing center, from which the control of the Duga-1 OTHR was once conducted. In fact, this is the first building along the route that tourists can view from the inside.
What you saw makes a great impression. If the exterior of the building seems more or less habitable, except for broken windows, shabby paint and abandoned house adjoining territory, then interior is a complete mess: scattered racks, broken glass, which creates a loud echo in a half-empty room when walking, walls and ceilings “decorate” shabby pieces panels, plasters and paints. Dark rooms due to small narrow windows, which, quite possibly, were created specifically for a military facility.
Kindergarten in the wilds
There is another monument in the direction to the nuclear plant itself — a monument to those killed in World War II. Behind him, among the trees, a lonely building in the entire visible district is an abandoned kindergarten.
Bunk beds, cabinets, dolls and books are preserved inside. Almost the main feature of this place, except, of course, forcing fear of emptiness, the grimy doll on the bed, which is photographed by most visitors, not even suspecting that this very doll is just the result of a photographers search for a good shot.
Having taken a picture, things are not returned to their places, leaving them for the filming of the next guests. A picture of a typical Soviet kindergarten, except perhaps completely abandoned, is inside the building. Two rows of bunk beds, the remains of mattresses, dust-covered toys and books, separate lockers – that’s all that remains in it today. As it turned out later, there was still a settlement around the kindergarten, however, it was literally buried under the ground with bulldozers after evacuation.
300 meters to the epicenter of the tragedy
The infamous fourth power unit and the Shelter object are visible even near the kindergarten, but before visiting it, guests are shown several more objects, without which the normal and safe operation of the nuclear power plant would be impossible.
The first such facility is a cooling pond, which was specially equipped to service the power units of the station. It’s a huge reservoir with an area of 22 km2. In the 80s, the water level in it was 7 meters higher than the water level in the Pripyat River, where the water came from. To maintain the required water level, 6 pumping stations pumped water around the clock.
A dam was built for the same purpose. Today, these pumps do not work, and therefore, the water gradually leaves the reservoir. Significantly shallow, small islands of washed sand began to appear on the cooling pond, and the shape of the dam became even clearer. One can only imagine what kind of pond was at its peak.
A beautiful picture of the movement of migratory birds opens for those who enter the area in the spring. A pond is an excellent food supply for them. Before the disaster, a fish breeding point operated at the same place, which, in addition to direct specialization, was involved in water quality control. Technical species of fish were bred here, which, eating algae, maximally purified water for its use in the Chernobyl cooling systems.
An ichthyology research laboratory was placed here after the accident, which is engaged in the study of mutations at the level of all amphibians. Of course, no one caught fish from the pond, and therefore, its population went up. So, returning to the present, a large number of swan couples, which have found a wonderful place far away from the human eye, have chosen the pond today.
The capacity of the reservoir-cooler would not be enough for more power units – the construction of the 5th power unit was completed and the construction of the 6th was planned at the time of the accident, therefore, for their maintenance, special cooling systems began to be built. They were cooling towers, which remained unfinished.
Following the route, bypassing the unfinished cooling towers and administrative buildings, tourists approach the accident site as close as possible: it’s close to the fourth power unit, about 300 meters.
The station is a sensitive facility today, photographing which is prohibited from close range. The only exception is the observation deck, where tourists are taken to demonstrate the memorial, built on the 20th anniversary of the construction of the Shelter.
That is why most station photos are taken from this angle. Power units and the nearest territory are surrounded by a high concrete fence with rows of barbed wire. The whole territory has been carefully cleaned and if it had not been for the realization of where you are, it might have seemed that it is still a working plant or the same station.
Pripyat is a ghost town
The final chord of traveling around the Zone is a visit to the abandoned city of power engineers. Pripyat, which was once young and beautiful, is ringed by a barbed wire fence today, and there is another checkpoint at the entrance. Sightseeing of the city begins from the central square, on which the Energetik Culture House, the Polesie Hotel, and the restaurant are located.
The main square of the city is heavily overgrown with bushes and small trees, covered with last year’s fallen leaves and moss. The amusement park also looks completely abandoned. The Ferris wheel did not have just a few days to become the most popular place in the city. The official opening of the recreation park was planned for May 1, 1986. The area of the park looks clean and less covered with vegetation.
In addition, tourists are invited to visit the Lazurny pool and the local school, city hospital, dock and Pripyat café. Scattered books on school corridors, inscriptions on blackboards are witnesses of the unfinished lessons of Pripyat schoolchildren. Surprisingly, the stained-glass windows in the café, which are the most beautiful thing that can be seen in the Zone, were not destroyed by looters, nor time, nor weather.
Nothing can be compared with the beauty of woodland landscapes. The landscape, which opens from the roof of a 16-story building, is remembered for a lifetime – the aforementioned Chernobyl-2 object, which is 11 km from the city, the power units of the station, the northern forests of Polesie and the river with a long bridge.
On the way back, it is allowed to inspect abandoned houses from the inside. The only thing left in the apartments untouched is the gas stove. In general, the atmosphere in the city is extraordinary. Dozens of buildings that look at the city guests with their empty eyes and windows cause pain from the memories of events that people not only from Ukraine, but also the whole world, had to endure. To comprehend the scale of this tragedy, to realize the consequences, you can only feel them, and for this you need to walk along the streets of an abandoned city and look into the secrets of abandoned houses.