After the city, we drove into the 10km Zone and arrived at the gates of the secret military town of Chernobyl-2.
During the Soviet era this base didn’t officially exist, on maps it was marked as a children’s summer camp. Even now as we approach there’s an armed guard near the gates where we park the bus.
In 1976 radio operators started hearing a powerful clicking sound interfering with their signals, it was triangulated to somewhere within Ukraine, and given the nickname the Russian Woodpecker.
At the time little was known about the reason for the signals, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was revealed to be an over-the-horizon radar system known as Duga.
The main purpose of Chernobyl-2 was to house the massive receiving array of a Duga radar system. It was part of a long-range ballistic missile warning system to give notice of an American attack.
In order to get near the radar itself we walk through the base and explore some of the buildings. Over 1,000 people lived and worked here, with apartment buildings and even a school.
Up close you can see the sheer size of the array, there are actually two antenna. This larger one is 500m long, at the far left is the smaller one at 250m.
Looking up through the larger antenna, its about 150m high (over 40 storeys). I’m cautious that this is 40 years old, unmaintained, and Soviet engineering; so I’m not standing around under here for long.
On the other side looking down the length of the array, the radiation signs have started to lose their meaning to me at this point.
At this point the guide decided to take us on a less than ‘official’ tour of the Duga control room. We’re not supposed to be here so we’re trying to be quiet.
My photos aren’t the clearest because I’m shooting by torchlight, obviously there’s no lighting and the flash would give away that we’re here.
This part of the Exclusion Zone is a bit more ‘off the trail’, the reactor and Pripyat ghost town are a lot more popular. It’s only the last 5 years or so that this base has been open to visitors.
There’s still a nighttime curfew in place here so we’ve got to get back to the hotel before it gets too dark. To do that we’ll walk through the civilian parts of the town to the bus.
One of the apartment buildings.
Finally, we walk through what used to be a children’s playground. Obviously it’s all overgrown now but the roundabout and planes are still there.
It’s interesting to see how quickly the forest has taken over. Some of the park benches have trees growing through them.
The city of Chernobyl was the administrative center of the region. Smaller than the more famous Pripyat, it had a population of about 14,000 people.
It’s about 9 miles from the reactor itself so it’s in the outer exclusion zone. Although it was evacuated, its since been pressed back into use again as accommodation for the people who look after the reactor and exclusion zone.
It’s also the location of my hotel for tonight.
In the center of Chernobyl I found this statue of Lenin. It’s actually one of the few left in Ukraine, the government has led a big drive to remove communist monuments.
Incidentally I’m wearing gloves because it’s frigging freezing, not because of radiation.
This is where it hit home how big the exclusion zone actually is.
Each sign represents a town, village, or city that was abandoned after the disaster. 120,000 people were evacuated from an area covering 1,000 sq miles.
Trumpeting Angel of Chernobyl. A reference to the Book of Revelation, it was erected here in 2011 to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster.
Specifically, it’s a reference to Revelations 8:10-11:
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.
It’s worth noting that Chornobyl (the Ukranian spelling of the city) means ‘wormwood’ in Ukranian.
The main road through Chernobyl. It’s not often I get to put my camera on the surface of a highway to take a photo. Might have broken a rule here.
Next up I get to see some of the robots that were used in the cleanup.
This is an STR-1, it’s based on a lunar rover from the Soviet Lunokhod programme.
As one of two built for the cleanup, it was put on top of the Chernobyl plant to clear tonnes of radioactive debris from the rooftops. It had a bulldozer blade attached to the front and was operated remotely via live camera feeds.
Notice how it’s missing a front wheel, according to our guide it was considered too irradiated to be decontaminated.
A short distance from the robots is the Chernobyl fire stations and the Monument to the Liquidators. After the reactor explosion, the firefighters were some of the first on the scene and several later died of radiation sickness.
The inscription here reads: ‘to those who saved the world’.
Just off the Pripyat River is the port of Chernobyl, the ships and barges here are now nothing more than sunken wrecks.
I couldn’t get any closer to the wrecks. The guide wouldn’t let us cross the (admittedly rusty and dilapidated) bridge to the other side of the river.
Also this second bridge…doesn’t really exist anymore. On the bright side, it does look like its come straight out of a horror movie.
As part of my trip here, I got to stay overnight in the Desiatka Hotel. It’s a pretty simple hotel with typical Ukranian food, it has a bar – but it only opens for two hours a night.
It’s the first hotel I’ve stayed in where the guests get locked in at night!
I didn’t see any real wildlife when I visited Chernobyl, even the birds didn’t sing. One animal I did see: dogs.
When the area was evacuated the residents had to leave their pets behind, a lot were culled but a few dogs managed to escape. 30 years later several hundred of their descendants populate the exclusion zone.
These five have learned that hanging around outside the hotel is a good way to get fed 😉
Officially you’re not supposed to pet them, but there are some really cute (and friendly) puppies running around.
Predictably this very quickly became a todo list and by the time I left, I think my group had broken almost all of the rules. We’d have completed it but we couldn’t find any mushrooms 🤷♂️
The exclusion zone
There are actually two exclusion zones here, the outer perimeter at 30km from the reactor and the inner cordon at 10km. Both are guarded by military checkpoints, and we’re screened for radiation when leaving either zone.
The inner cordon seems to be the most enforced, there are soldiers present in the radiation check room.
When we’re screened at the outer 30km checkpoint, the room is empty – only our guide is there to make sure we’re clean.
This gave us the chance to take some photographs of the radiation machines. Each metal pad checks for radiation, if you’re clean then the metal barrier unlocks.
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