“Stay off the moss. Very radioactive.”
We were standing on another bridge outside the city of Pripyat, this time surveying the lush green landscape below, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rampaging packs of wild boar that were apparently proliferating throughout the exclusion zone – or so our guide claimed. We didn’t see any.
No boar, but lots of radioactive moss
The road to Pripyat
You are now entering Pripyat, Population: 0
Founded in 1970, Pripyat was a model Soviet city built for the Chernobyl plant workers and their families. It contained all the conveniences that a young Soviet family could desire: high-rise apartment buildings, schools, a cultural center, hospital, swimming pools, theatres, stores, restaurants, cafes, playgrounds, and a stadium. On the morning of April 26, the citizens of Pripyat awoke to the sound of helicopters buzzing overhead and a column of smoke rising from reactor four off in the distance. At noon on April 27, the Soviet government informed the citizens of Pripyat that they had two hours to gather their essential belongings and board a bus for mandatory evacuation. They were told that their evacuation was only temporary, for perhaps three days at the most, and so the residents left most of their clothing, photographs, toys, and family pets behind. The 50,000 citizens departed Pripyat on a line of Kiev-bound buses that stretched for miles, all of them expecting to see their hometown again in just a few days. They would never return.
Today, the entrance to the town is guarded by an officer who sits in a run-down shack for hours, waiting for the occasional town visitor. After exchanging a few words with our guide, and checking papers, he waved us into the “ghost city.” We entered the city on the main road, Prospekt Lenina, now lined with crumbling apartment buildings and overgrown trees, and stopped in the center of the city. Our guide was content to let us wander around on our own, with the caveat that we stay out of the buildings (“for your own safety”) and away from the apparently highly radioactive moss. It was hard to avoid the latter, as the stuff was growing in huge swaths throughout the city, so you would often see us hopping from concrete patch to concrete patch, employing a variety of run-and-jump tactics. I’m surprised I didn’t come back from Pripyat with a sprained ankle.
Apartment building in the city center
Decorations for the May Day parade that never was
Cultural Palace “Energetik”
Some of the things they left behind
Not even a nuclear ghost town is immune from graffiti
Apartment building and city center, pre-Chernobyl disaster (courtesy pripyat.com)
The same “All power to the Soviets” apartment building, now
Hotel Polissya, pre-Chernobyl disaster (courtesy pripyat.com)
Hotel Polissya, now
No more fruits and vegetables, just rusting refrigerators and shopping carts
Stay off the moss
At one point the group started to head toward the amusement park. Ryan and I had no idea where Laura went, so we backtracked to the cultural center and started shouting her name. I ran into our guide, who was looking quite bored with his surroundings. After doing this several times a week, it probably does get monotonous. He grinned at me and warned, “Stay with the group. We don’t want wild boars to find you alone.” My fear of stepping on a patch of radioactive moss was now replaced with that of being impaled by the radiation-coated tusks of an angry wild boar.
We eventually ran into Laura and continued past the cultural center until we arrived at the amusement park. Small and desolate, it is probably the most depressing amusement park you will ever come across. The park was scheduled to open on May 1, 1986, but fate intervened and the brand new rides were left to rust away, never once touched by the children of Pripyat.
We probably spent an hour in Pripyat, wandering around this deserted city of 50,000. It was eerily silent, the only noises coming from the flies that constantly buzzed around, the sound of digital cameras taking hundreds of photos, and, at one point, a loud crash that reverberated across the empty buildings. I will admit that walking through Pripyat was, at times, both unsettling and voyeuristic. I felt that I really had no right to be there, but on the other hand, if given the chance, I would have stayed there for hours.
Happier times – Pripyat Pioneer camp, 1985 (courtesy pripyat.com)
Read more about the tour:
1. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part I: Dude, where’s your Geiger counter?
2. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part II: Liquidators Memorial / Kopachi / Catfish / Reactor 4
4. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part IV: Chisto?