Exploring Chernobyl: Cafe Pripyat

On the shores of a lake just off the Pripyat river is the Cafe Pripyat.

This is the one place I saw in the exclusion zone where the architecture was more ‘stylish’ than ‘Soviet’.

Walking around the outside of the cafe we found these rusted vending machines.

At the back of the cafe is the remains of the dock that boats used to tie up so.

In the distance, one of the boats lies sunken.

In this wider angle shot, you can see some of the cranes from the cargo port. This lake is enclosed now but we presume it used to be connected to the Pripyat river at its north-eastern end.

From the inside of the cafe, you can guess how good the view must have been before the disaster.

At the other end of the cafe are these stained glass windows. Lots of the coloured glass lies shattered on the floor but this woman is mostly in one piece.

Exploring Chernobyl: Walking through Pripyat

The main focus on my second day in Chernobyl is the city of Pripyat.

The walk in

We’re leaving the bus on the outskirts and walking in, the roads here haven’t been maintained for 30 years.

There are over 150 apartment blocks here, supporting a population of almost 50,000 people. After the disaster, the city was evacuated in two days.

One of the buildings we passed is a shop, inside we found this room filled with shoes.

Schools

After a quick stop to visit the Cafe Pripyat we visited some of the schools, Pripyat had 20 in total – catering for over 10,000 students

With entire sections collapsing due to neglect, this school is starting to look like a giant dollhouse.

In this telephoto shot, you can see writing on one of the chalkboards, though I don’t know if it’s original or put there by a more recent explorer.

We went inside one of the more ‘stable’ schools and found this piano still on stage.

Looking at the condition of the floor, none of us went anywhere near it though.

City center

Finally we made it to the city center, this overgrown concrete park is actually the city’s central square.

This building was the city administration building, used by the executive committee and party administration.

Interestingly it wasn’t totally abandoned after the disaster, it was kept in use for a time as part of the clean-up efforts.

The Polissya hotel is one of the tallest buildings here.

In the corner of the square is the supermarket, we were told that it’s very unstable and we shouldn’t try to go inside.

Supermarket

So obviously I snuck inside.

Unsurprisingly it’s in pretty bad shape, everything here is cracked and broken and we can hear water dripping from the floors above.

The first floor is in even worse shape, all the fixtures have gone and the floor feels really soft. I decided not to venture too far from the stairs but just grab a few photos.

Stadium

After the supermarket, we visited the amusement park and then walked out the back through a small woods.

And we came across this.

The stand from the Avanhard Stadium, home ground of the FC Stroitel Pripyat football team.

The team was mostly formed of power plant employees, Stroitel literally means ‘builder’ in Russian.

Those woods that we walked through? That was the remains of the football pitch. Meaning all of these trees have sprouted and grown in the last 30 years.

Walking around the ‘athletics track’ (another trail through the woods) we reached the entrance turnstiles.

Just outside the stadium gates, we met up with our bus.

Exploring Chernobyl: Amusement Park

The amusement park in Pripyat is probably the most well-known part of the exclusion zone.

The park was never completed, it was due to be opened for May Day on May 1st but the disaster caused this to be canceled, Pripyat had been evacuated a few days before.

Nobody seems to know for sure, but the park might have actually opened temporarily after the disaster, to help keep the population of Pripyat distracted.

It’s striking how quiet it is here, there’s nobody around apart from our group. And absolutely no wildlife, even the dogs we’ve been playing with have gone.

Shooting gallery

According to the guide, the white building with the deer on the left of this shot is the shooting gallery.

I didn’t actually go and explore it…honestly, I got distracted by the bumper cars 🙈

Bumper cars

I’m not going to pretend the cars have been left untouched for 30 years. We passed one a few hundred meters back as we walked in – someone has clearly dragged it there.

They do make for a pretty haunted scene though, being one of the few things around here not covered in rust makes them a nice splash of colour.

Swing boats

Next up are the four swing boats, all the mechanisms have rusted away by now so they just lie crumpled on the floor.

And of course, there’s an obligatory tree growing through the middle.

Paratrooper

Apparently I don’t have any photos of the paratrooper ride by itself (so ignore the Ferris wheel for now 👀).

After seeing the condition of the swing boats, I’m surprised that most of the seats are still hanging in there.

Ferris wheel

Finally the most iconic ride in this amusement park: the 26m Ferris wheel.

Every piece of metal is coated in rust, so it probably won’t turn anymore. Rather impressively it still stands upright with all the passenger cars attached.

A quick stop here to take the photograph that’ll grace my phone screen for the next couple of years.

Media

With only 5 attractions, it was never in danger of being the world’s biggest amusement parks, but in a perverse way: it’s now possibly one of the most famous.

The park features in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the movie Chernobyl Diaries (which I still haven’t seen).

Exploring Chernobyl: Power Station

Next up we’re going to see the nuclear power station itself. There were actually 4 reactors here, with more under construction. 

Reactor number four caused the disaster but the plant continued generating electricity until the year 2000.

We’re following a road alongside one of the massive cooling ponds. It’s about 12km from the city of Chernobyl so this is the first time I’ve seen the power station.

The unfinished reactor number 5, construction was cancelled after the disaster. Just visible behind the trees (right of centre) is one of the half-built cooling towers.

Driving past the New Safe Containment sarcophagus, it was moved into position almost a year before I visited. The bus driver helpfully slowed down for us to shoot because you’re not supposed to stop.

There’s a railway line that runs through here (notice the raised pipes). Workers at the plant still commute to the site by train, and there’s a whole network of tracks still in use.

This is the closest I’m able to get, standing less than 200m away from the sarcophagus, behind me is a monument to its builders.

This is the security building, you mustn’t take photos of it.

My guide, shortly before this became the most photographed building in Chernobyl

Recovery work is still ongoing more than 30 years later. The workers in the blue coats (and even my guide) can only work for a limited time before leaving the Exclusion Zone.

Considering this is the reason I’m here, we don’t stop for long. Just a few minutes to take photos and then it’s time to move on.

Exploring Chernobyl: Kopachi Kindergarten

It’s day two of my time in Chernobyl and the first stop today is the village of Kopachi.

Most of the village was buried as part of the cleanup, but one of the few remaining buildings is the remarkably well preserved kindergarten.

We found this World War II memorial outside the kindergarten. It’s clear someone is still looking after it, 30 years after the village was evacuated.

Once again the building and its gardens have been completely overgrown, in the spring or summertime you wouldn’t even be able to see it from the road.

Has this scene been clearly posed by one of the hundreds of people who’ve walked through here? Yup

Am I going to take a photo of it anyway? Yup!

There are a few bedrooms here, they still have the original beds and children’s toys.

At some point the furniture has rotted and now paperwork and bits of paint cover the floors.

I only stopped in Kopachi for about 15 minutes, there’s a busy day planned and I’m moving on to the cooling ponds.

Exploring Chernobyl: Military Base

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.

Duga

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.

Control centre

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.

Town buildings

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.


Exploring Chernobyl: Chernobyl City

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.

Cleanup robots

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’.

Chernobyl Port

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.

Hotel

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!

Dogs

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.

Exploring Chernobyl: Zalesye

Our first stop in Chernobyl is the village of Zalesye, about 20km from the power plant. Once home to 3,000 people, it’s now heavily overgrown.

The guide told us to stay on the path and not to get too close to any buildings…this lasted for about five minutes before the 13 of us decided to scatter and went exploring.

Nature has been quick to reclaim the village, trees are growing inside some of the buildings and very few windows remain intact.

clinic

The guide told us this building was a clinic, every floor is covered with hundreds of documents.

Thousands of people have been to Chernobyl over the years, so I’m not under the illusion that this has been untouched for 30 years. Still makes for a pretty dramatic photograph though 😜

Zalesye shop

This shop sign is still doing its job after many years. The splash of yellow colour in the drab forest is what drew us to it.

houses

Its safe to assume a lot of these artifacts have been planted like that (those bottles look suspiciously new). I was surprised to see some wallpaper still on the walls.

The buildings have been absolutely gutted. Partly by nature and partly by the liquidators who cleaned up the aftermath of the entire village leaving.

The road through the center of Zalesye. If it wasn’t for the building on the left it would look like a footpath through a regular forest.

I’m glad I came here in the Autumn, the bare trees and leaves on the ground make it a lot more dramatic. Also, it allows me to see things that would be hidden by forest in the summer months.

I spent about half an hour in Zalesye before moving on to my next stop: the city of Chernobyl.


Exploring Chernobyl

On a freezing November morning in 2017, I jumped on a bus and travelled a couple of hours north of Kiev to the Zone of Alienation, the restricted area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Over 1,000 square miles of territory was evacuated in 1986 after one of the power plant reactors exploded. 30 years later the clean up is ongoing and the area is still under military control.

Since 2011 escorted groups have been allowed into the zone, I’ve decided to join one.

Motivation

One question I get asked a lot is why I chose to come here, my answer is always the same:

It’s an abandoned Soviet nuclear wasteland…why wouldn’t I want to go?

Entering the zone

You can only enter the exclusion zone as part of an organised tour (I’m part of a group with 12 others), and entrance starts mid-morning so there’s a bit of a wait.

I’m at the main gate and there’s a queue of mini-buses and vans here. Most visitors are coming on day trips but some (like me) will be staying in the zone overnight.

Eventually we’re called forward and present ourselves to the armed military guards. They’re taking this seriously, every digit on my passport is being checked against a list of permitted visitors.

While this happens the vehicles are being searched by more guards to make sure nobody sneaks in (or brings anything they’re not supposed to).

The rules

I had to sign a waiver at this point, basically just:

  • Radiation is dangerous
  • No seriously, radiation is dangerous

The risks aren’t as bad as most people probably think, I got more additional radiation on the flight from London to Ukraine than I will from the reactor in the next 32 hours.

We’re also given a list of rules that we have to obey. I can’t remember all of them but they’re mostly along the lines of:

  • Don’t touch anything
  • Don’t eat anything while in the zone
  • Don’t go into buildings
  • Don’t go mushrooming, (yup – this confused me too)

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.