As I stepped into the dark room, the damp wood floor creaked under my feet. Chills shot down my back. My eyes adjusted, I scanned the room -- had I walked into the Overlook Hotel from The Shining? Peeled paint, shattered windows, rusted beds strewn with old clothes and toys, we had stumbled into a nursery school. Once alive with the laughter of kids playing, it had been abandoned -- left untouched, stark, creepy -- 29 years ago after panicked residents fled the greatest nuclear catastrophe in world history. I was standing in the heart of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
What was I doing here? Vacation, of course. Well, something like that. For two full days, I was playing tourist inside this 1,000-square-mile forbidden zone that remains cordoned off by military checkpoints. Definitely not your typical holiday. Although around 12,000 tourists visit Chernobyl a year (by comparison, Disney World sees 12,000 visitors in just two days!), 75% opt for the day trip (less exposure to radiation, right?). I wanted more time to explore this seemingly haunted world.
What began as an early morning test of Reactor Four on April 26, 1986 at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl nuclear plant resulted in an atomic fiasco, a Level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Events Scale. Four hundred times more radioactive material was released in the Chernobyl explosion than at Hiroshima, and it took over 600,000 people (known as liquidators) to contain the fire. Thirty-one people died within the first three months. Four thousand would eventually perish. It was a disaster of epic proportions.
The tour: day one
Questioning my sanity for even signing up for this excursion, I stood anxiously waiting for my guide in front of the Kiev Passenger Railway Train Station. It's not often that your tour guide is armed with a dosimeter, a device that measures radiation, but my fears allayed when she arrived; I reasoned she was too cute to represent danger.
The small group piled into a minivan, and we watched a chilling 90-minute documentary, The Battle of Chernobyl, that showed ill-prepared and ill-informed Soviet proletarians battling the conflagration; some of whom were felled by Acute Radiation Syndrome. Yes... that's where we were going.
After the two-hour drive from Kiev, a camouflaged solder lifted the gate at the Dytakti 30 km Military Checkpoint and our group was officially inside the Exclusion Zone. We passed a makeshift shrine to the victims, a chapel, deserted buildings. I noticed the creeping wilderness, and within moments I felt the remoteness and isolation of the area. Time, for the most part, has been frozen since 1986.
After parking the van, we explored. The aforementioned nursery school stood back from the street, hidden down a short dirt path behind some overgrown trees. A small plaque with the Soviet sickle and hammer welcomed guests into the building. Sunlight peered through the broken windows. As I wandered through the rooms, I imagined the school being evacuated during the Chernobyl disaster. Empty children’s beds filled one of the rooms.
Shoes and dolls lay scattered in others.
From there I stood in the shadow of Chernobyl. Crazy, right? I mean, during the accident, the radiation in the nearby control room was potent enough to kill someone within TWO minutes. It has to still be dangerous, I assumed.
Turns out, Reactor Four is actually covered in a cement sarcophagus constructed with over 14,000,000 million cubic feet of concrete. It covers nearly 250 million tons of radioactive materials and has a lifespan of only 20-30 years. Which is why in 1998, authorities began construction of the New Safe Containment (pictured above). Today, this 360-foot tall, silver monstrosity is still unfinished, but upon completion, its frame will be slid over the reactor on a set of rails to prevent further radiation from leaking.
The city of Pripyat was built to house the people who manned Chernobyl's reactors, and fifty thousand people once called it home. Today, it's a ghost town. Reactor Four exploded at 1:23am when the majority of residents were asleep, but citizens were kept in the dark with regard to the severity of the calamity. It wasn't until two days later that 1,000 buses were commandeered from Kiev to evacuate Pripyat's residents.
Throughout my exploration of the Zone, it was amazing to witness nature’s victory over man. Over a thirty-year period, overgrown trees and shrubs simply swallowed the homes and buildings. We traversed through a large square in the heart of the city, but the surrounding buildings were concealed by mother nature.
Upon entering into the Palace of Culture, I was greeted by an expansive but fading mural depicting the glories of the Soviet Union. A carpet of thick, broken glass crunched under our steps -- I was glad I wore heavy boots. We investigated a theater and a gym. Either could have been used as a set for The Walking Dead. I was hoping no communist zombies would encircle my group.
The Pripyat Amusement Park was scheduled to open on May 1, 1986 in celebration of the May Day holiday. The park was prematurely opened after the explosion for several hours to entertain residents as the Soviets debated their fate. I navigated through the traffic jam of bumper cars. The nearby Ferris Wheel dotted with banana-yellow cabins rose over the deserted park.
I marched through the woods and arrived at a soccer field that was completely covered by trees. The wooden stands sat decomposing.
After investigating the stadium, I arrived at the athletic center and this swimming pool.
At the end of the day, our group proceeded (no elevators, of course!) up 17 floors to the roof of an apartment building, where we were treated to an eagle-eye view of desolate Pripyat. In the distance, you could see Reactor Four and the adjacent New Safe Containment. The panorama from the roof provided yet another example of nature’s tenacity, trees hiding the town’s buildings. We toured several apartments to glimpse the lives of the former residents.
Before arriving at the hostel, the group was required to pass a radioactive test. Obviously, nobody was glowing, but were we contaminated? Individually, we each entered the odd, antiquated contraption that measured radioactivity levels. And look at that, we all passed with flying colors. What was I worried about?
The Exclusion Zone’s small restaurant also included a bar, and the Russian/Ukrainian stereotype proved true -- a bottle of vodka was quickly produced. I felt a warm buzz after a flurry of vodka toasts. The adjacent table populated with locals (yes, people do still live here!) adorned in camouflage and overalls broke out into song. While I imagined I'd see many incredible things on my trip, I did not anticipate a festive night of swilling vodka and singing Ukrainian folk songs.
After shaking off the previous night's revelry, the first stop was Duga-3, an over-the-horizon Soviet radar station. During the Cold War, this giant installation had been blamed for disrupting aviation, amateur radio, utility, and TV transmissions, and Duga-3’s powerful signals started worldwide rumors of Soviet weather- and mind-control experiments. In fact, official confirmation that the structure even existed wasn't confirmed until the Soviet Union’s fall. As we passed these green-colored gates adorned with Soviet stars, we caught our first glimpse.
But it wasn't until we arrived at the base that I could fully comprehend its colossal size. The monstrosity stretches nearly 500 feet tall and extends 2,500 feet long (over eight football fields) -- it lords over the neighboring forest. A ghostly humming sound still emanates from Duga-3, despite the fact that it stopped operating in 1989.
Adjacent to the tower was the control facility, a radar station manned by 1,000 people (!!), 24-hours-a-day during the height of Cold War. The dilapidated building was still dotted with Soviet-era propaganda. I envisaged young soldiers standing watch in anticipation of a U.S. ballistic missile attack.
Some concepts defy logic, and this is one of them. Approximately two hundred people still live in the Exclusion Zone. Let me repeat that: two hundred settlers have continued to live in Chernobyl’s realm. By choice. Prior to the disaster, over 120,000 people lived within the Zone in two cities and 187 villages. Today, these 200 people are known as Samosely, and are an elderly lot averaging 63 years of age.
And we were able to meet some of them, like octogenarian couple Ivan and Maria Ivankovich. They are the only residents of their village, Parishiv, which once numbered 900. Despite the isolation and threats to their health, they've insisted on living out their lives in the Zone. And difficult lives they've had, surviving the Stalin-fabricated famines of the 1930s, the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R, and the calamity at Chernobyl.
Ivan said he wasn't fearful of living in the Zone and that “hard working people will always have a good healthy life and a happy marriage.” They've been married for nearly 60 years and are still farming the land today. Ivan also recalled that after the explosion at Chernobyl, incredulously, a government truck patrolled the streets providing free vodka as a health elixir to the residents. Cats and roosters prowled his yard as the animated Ivan shared his stories. He enjoyed the attention. A sedate Maria looked on.
Our last visit in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was a car graveyard. Hundreds of vehicles were used to battle the Chernobyl explosion/fire, and many of them ended up too radioactive to be driven again. Rusted skeletons lay piled upon each other. Thick tires randomly rested on the ground. A vivid green circle of trees surrounded the graveyard.
We had one final checkpoint to cross before we could depart to Kiev. I wiggled my body into the last radiation detector. I held my breath for a moment until the machine gave me the all clear signal. I smiled slyly. I was safely leaving the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, free of radiation and with one more check mark on my bucket list.