Diary from the Zone

How do you prepare for such a trip? Mentally, I've been prepared for a very long time, but physically I hope to be stronger than I think I am. I'm not scared. Not even nervous, nor filled with expectations. A lot is at stake here but I'm not quite sure of what. One thing I do know is that what will come will make a big difference and maybe, afterwards, nothing will ever be the same again. 

This is my journal for our four days in the zone. The original report was seven A4 pages, but I've edited and de-personalized it, to keep down the amount of text. It's still a lot, so I hope you'll have the patience to read through everything. Also I've kept down the amount of photos. If you're more interested in looking at my photos, you can see them all here.

The first control station.
We have to pass through a control station where they check our passports and documents of permission before we are allowed to proceed. This means we're close.

There is only one hotel in the town of Chernobyl, and that's where we'll be staying. A brief teaming up in rooms, two by two, and unloading of luggage later, we're on our way again.

The reactor blocks stand tall over the flat landscape and most attention-catching of them all is the infamous Reactor 4. Whatever I had expected to feel, I didn't.  It's already too familiar. But what truly strikes me as we get out of the van, is the silence. This place isn't abandoned, nor empty, but it lacks of all the sounds we're so used to.The first living creature I see is a man moving the lawn by the memorial place where the names of all of people who were killed in the accident of 1986 are engraved in gold on metal plaques.

The lawn mowing man is not the only one alive here. Standing on the bridge over this concrete framed branch of the river Pripyat, running through this plant, and looking down, we see enourmous fish close to the surface on the sunny side of the bridge. There's one, or more, unidentified, kind of fish, measuring estimatedly 80-100 cm, but the catfish are much bigger and I approximate some of them to be perhaps 2 meters long. How did they become this large here? Is it due to radiation or just the lack of humans interfering with their existance? No one knows.

We come closer to Reactor 4. Taking photos of the Sarcophagus is permitted, but not of any of the other
buildings. People still work here with different things - amongst other, the important task of monitoring the active fuel in the 4th reactor. A large group of personnel, some of them wearing uniforms, some of them wearing lab coats, exit the only building that stands between us and the reactor. They're watching us, but we're not the reason why they're there. They're expecting other visitors.
Reactor 4.

This close to the reactor, the levels of radiation have considerably raised. People who work here, work in 14 day shifts to minimize exposure, but it's still of my opinion that in thelong run this can't be without side effects. Every year the CHNPP employees  have to go through a mandatory health control. If they show signs of contamination, illness related to exposure to radiation or other abnormalities, the will get fired and have to leave the zone. It might seem strange to many people, that anyone would want to work here at all, but the truth is that the wages here are very high, which makes is possibly for the employees to lead a decent life outside the zone. If fired, they will be facing a state of poverty and almost certain unemployment.

Next stop is the cranes by the lake, and I'm not talking about birds, but about the large metal monsters that guards the cargo port of lake Pripyat. The tallest one measures 50 meters and I'm going up there. The iron is old and rusty and there's no knowing how much it can take anymore, but two persons at the time should be safe, so I go up there, joining another. There will be only the two of us.

The top offers a magnificient view. The landscape is dominated by trees, but I can see Pripyat and the arrays of the once top secret military site known as Chernobyl 2. Before this expedition is over, we will have visited both of these places.

I look down at the water and realize that something in missing. There used to be ships here. Wrecked and rusty, but still ships. They're not there anymore, and the reason why is the value of metal. During winter, when the lake is frozen, people enter the ice with equipment to remove all metal peaking above the ice. This is only one of the many subtle signs that the zone is changing.

The cooling towers for reactors 5 and 6.
We're running out of time, but one there is thing remaining before we must return to Chernobyl - What was meant to become the cooling towers of the never finished Reactor 5 and Reactor 6, which was never even begun in construction. Only one of there towers has its exoskeleton finished; the other will remain a concrete circle showing a hint of a cylinder. I don't know what to do here, other than playing with the acoustics of the larger tower. If my mp3-player would have been in my pocket instead of in the hotel, I would have made recordings, because the echo and distortion of sounds here, are truly fascinating. I divert from the group in order to explore the area on my own. This is the first, of many occasions to come, when I leave the group.
During the walk, I find some underground level concrete constructions, but they're almost completely overgrown and of no interest, so having seen this, and charted some roads, I return to the gathering point.

Dinner in Chernobyl is solid, to say the least. As the six of us enter out private dining room, a set table awaits, already full of starters like salad, meat, eggs, sausages, bread, cheese and whatnot. For me, that's quite enough, but this is only the beginning. After, follows borscht. And then fried chicken with fried potatoes. It's food that'll keep you full for days.

"Katja, Katja, Katja, wake up!" I remain in bed till 7:50 because the only deadline I have to keep is that of breakfast at 8:00 and I'm only interested in coffee. Blisters have developed on my heels, in spite of taping, and they're starting to hurt. I add new tape and limp to the mess-building. I had been so sure of that the leader of this expedition had only been only joking when he told us that breakfast would be similar to dinner, but apparently he meant every word: We have the same starters followed by meat, rice and wareniki. I t's all good food, but for me it's not breakfast. I'd rather have two cups of coffee, instead of only one.

We're going to Pripyat, starting out with its most dangerous building; the basement of the hospital, where the firefighters were first brought for treatment. The radioactive dust of their suits still settle all over the place and there is a room where their old clothes still lay in piles, making the geiger counter go insane. In order to enter the basement, respiratory masks are required. Mine was insufficient, but I get to borrow one from another in the group.

Having seen images of the above mentioned room before, I don't realize I've found it but then it becomes clear to me, that a lot of clothes, boots, and a partiular helmet have been removed. I wonder who could be stupid enough to do something like that - risking contamination for old, wet, radioactive clothes. There's no way this could have been done by any liquidator. It's happened too recently. Whomever is responsible, he's likely to pay a high price. 

Inside the hospital.
The rest of the hospital is barely contaminated at all, and even though it's horribly trashed and looted, it's not difficult for me to determine what the different rooms were for, and imagine what it once must have been like in this place. I feel the atmosphere and there's nothing fearsome about it - nothing like in the basement where the ghosts of those days still seem to replay the scene. Here, it's rather about the the silent remains of and old, long sigh of relieve. Imagine holding your breath for a very long time.

The first school building and the kindergarden hold almost the same feeling. I will not tell much about the buildings here, but suggest that you look at the photos and read the descriptions.

We're supposed to move in pairs wherever we go, in order not to be alone in case something would happen, but again, I choose my own points of interest. When directed to this second school, I immediately head for the basement. I get accompanied by another group member and  together we find something previously undiscovered: A hidden class room with a shooting range next to it. Curious, I think, considering that the oldest pupils of this school were no older than 16, perhaps 17, but I'm not surprised and I think I know what they were doing in here. Still, this is another one of the unveiled mysteries of the Soviet era.

When we exit the school premises, we cannot spot the van anywhere, and thus we decide to use the extra time
given reaching the top floor of a nearby high building. This is the tallest building of Pripyat and as we reach the roof we not only see our van, but also another one nearby. It now becomes known that there's another group inside this building - a film team, and we're obviously not supposed to be there. Our comrades on the ground  waves at us to come down.  The local guide is annoyed because we were not allowed to enter that building. But no one told us we couldn't. Now I'm a Swedish terrorist who will be left behind. ...But obviously not until I've seen my new room, at the police station; a holding cell.

I don't expect the crime level in Pripyat to have been very high, and get it confirmed that if for anything, people may have been held for being drunk and disorderdly. 

"Would you take souvenirs?" I had asked been asked during the previous night, and I had said no, because I dislike all kinds of stealing and looting -I would like to see places like this as museums; watch but dont touch- but my morals come to a test and fail, as I find a book made by a student in October 1977. It's silly how it resembles this trip to Ukraine. It starts in Kiev, goes out west to the Zakarpattyan area and ends up in Pripyat. It's intact and perfectly clean. In a matter of months, maybe less, it will be ruined by weather and other visitors. I stand frowning by this book for 20 minutes before I decide to take it along.  

Every class had book projects like this back then. Yesterday, we found another item like this, but that book was moldy and decaying. Now I'm trying to hide this book from the guide, because I'm sure that he won't let me keep it. It's too large to keep behind me, so I try to cruise between and hide behind the guys with their camera equipment, but fail. As a "thief", I can at least act naturally and show the book, and the insteresting parts. The guide asks if I want to keep it. I do.  Our expedition leader later tells me that I'm the only one having been permitted by this guide to officially bring an item from the zone.

The fire station.
Last of all today, we visit the Fire Station. Something pinches my heart. The building looks very modest, even small. Maybe they had space for three or four fire trucks. There's nothing there, but outside one of the gates, someone has spread roses. Now they're dried up and black. Next time I will bring new flowers.

After dinner, we hang out in what is sarcastically referred to as "the lounge", slacking with beer whilst pondering a nightly excursion. The town closes up at 20:00 and after that, rules the formality of a curfew. If you don't work in the zone and are caught at the wrong time in the wrong place, you may end up having serious problems. We'll have to wait until it's completely dark.

In the town of Chernobyl, there are no street lights. Not in the streets and even less so on the roads leading through the areas of since long abandoned houses of which some are almost completely hidden behind the uncontrolled vegetation. I turn my eyes to the sky and see only stars. A dog barks in the distance and I hear music and people singing. Someone is having a party.
These houses have nothing to offer except the thrill of finding them. I have reduced the level of pain in my heels to "normal" as I scout through the untamed gardens, telling my comrades where the holes in the ground are.

Returning, is not as simple as we might have thought. All the time we need to avoid people and lights - it seems that the curfew isn't too seriously taken by the locals, at least. By the lake, frogs are holding a midnight concert and I introduce my company to the stars and constellations. It's all perfect. When the last of human kind is gone, the stars will still be there, just like the plutonium.

When we finally return to the hotel, I take off my boots. They're filled with blood.

The only monsters of Chernobyl existing, are the mosquitos, which is much complained about as we have breakfast on this 3rd day. This morning, the breakfast is possibly worse than the previous day but I steal some of the food to use for lunch later; cheese, bread and pickled cucumber.

There's no trace of the previous days' heat. The skies are grey and as we drive through the nuclear power plant, the rain starts pouring down. We return to Pripyat to finish what we had started and shortly after, a thunderstorm breaks out and it doesn't feel like an ordinary thunderstorm. Well, in the zone everything is different.

The Jupiter plant was once a factory where they produced tape recorders until the disaster in 1986. Afterwards, the activity at the Jupiter plant changed. You may read more about the Jupiter factory here. No one that wasn't involved in the new operations of Jupiter, knows for sure what really went on there, although there are many theories. I wish that I would have had more time to investigate this place, than just the 2,5 hours given. I spend all of this time carefully looking through the main building, where the wind blows through broken walls and windows and rusry pipes, making them breathe and sing. The rain causes dripping from the roof and ceilings, loudly falling onto decayed floors covered with moss and rotten wood. Perhaps Andrey Tarkovsky was clairvoyant, because it's almost 30 years since he made the movie Stalker, and this scene might as well be snatched directly from that movie.

The Jupiter plant ceased all activity in 1996. I find evidence from 1995, but I'm running out of time. I don't get to see the rest of the plant. At least not this time.

The city center with the never openend amusement park, leaves me unaffected, just like the old swimming pool
previously did. Again, these places seem just too familiar already, and enough people have visited particularly this amusement park to have deprived it of its atmosphere and here we go again: A large group of tourists arrive in a bus with a guide and add further to my aversion. They're intruding and strangely enough it feels like on my property. I decide to leave. After all, we have an hour. There's no way for me to keep track of the time, but I believe to have developed a good sense of it here.

I follow the asphalt roads, already knowing that they will lead me to buildings where people used to live. This will give me yet an opportunity to another view. Of course, I expect the places to be trashed and looted, but I'm not looking for treasures. I want to find out what it was like to stroll around in Pripyat, being on your way home. Some people who once lived here, still return to pay their former homes a visit and once a year, on the 9th of May, the zone is open for Ukrainian citizens. Once a year, Pripyat lives again.

What is it like to return to an interrupted memory and find that nothing remains? Shortly after the disaster, people
started to return to Pripyat in order to retrieve items of use and affection, having realized that the evacuation would extend to more than just a few days. The military set up alarms in the buildings to discover unauthorized entries (and still the wiring can be seen on the lower floors in some apartment buildings), but eventually also this system was left unattended to. Much has happened in 25 years, but I can assure you that the essential "looting" happened long before the first outsiders entered the ghost town.

As I walk down the main road of Pripyat, I hear the sound of an engine. Another bus full of tourists approaches from behind me and in order to avoid it, I divert from the road. Suddenly reminded of the rest of my group and that it should soon be time to gather up, I find my way back to the amusement part. It's completely empty. -I'm confused.

The sky is still grey, heavy with clouds; the sound of water is dripping from every leaf violently shaked by the wind makes it impossible to hear anything else. Fascinating. I'm alone, with no idea of where the others have gone to. I ponder what to do, make up an emergency plan and decide that if needed, I would be able to spend the night in one of the buildings. By now I know that inside all buildings, the readings are completely normal. But all that will have to wait till later, because right now it's only afternoon and I have places to explore.

It shows that I won't have to be MacGyver and rebuild one of the bumper cars to drive back to Chernobyl on my own. Soon enough I see people from my group on a distance, outside the Culture complex. I have a quick look at the Culture complex, which has an amazing interior with large spaces of and grandiose wall paintings. Broken glass and shattered tiles cover every inch of the floor. Once this was a center of happenings - now it's nothing. Just like the Pripyat Kafe.

Pripyat cafe interior.
Here, about 50% of the original glass still remain. It's fine artwork that must have taken a long time to create. The glass tiles vary in length, but are only 3 millimeter thick. Pripyat kafe is close to the ferry port. No boats are around, but a fire fighter's helmet has been placed on a chair there. Maybe this is the one taken from the hospital's basement? No, the readings are not high enough, or perhaps the radioactivity has just rubbed off on the idiot who brought it there.

The old cinema with its torn white screen and removed chair is a more interesting place than the room with the famous grand piano. By the way - the legs of that one are rotten now and the whole thing has fallen over.The fasade of this building is another facinating piece of art; a mosaic image where the left side of every motive have tiles of metal instead of ceramic, "reflecting the sunlight in a beautiful way". This, I'm told. Too bad it's cloudy today. I make a note that the mosaic of this building and the glass of the café seem to decay slower than most other buildings.

Once Pripyat had a cemetary and it's still there. Some still come here to pay respect to their loved ones and maintain their graves. None of the highly radioactive soil could ever be removed here because every grave is surrounded by a fence which makes the ground difficult to access by any vehicle. We're only permitted to stay for 10 minutes.

Another day is over. Another trip to the shop and another dinner. -This one is our last.

I'm not going to buy new shoes!
Having caught me walking barefoot to dinner, two women from the kitchen staff are pointing out the radiation, which I know is almost normal here. Thus, I'm not worried, but they advice me to wear something on my feet. Breakfast, the last meal in the zone, awaits and I find that _two_ cups of coffee are waiting for me! Joy! Strengthened by this, I put on my boots, but today it will take several hours before the pain is to be considered as "normal". I can't care less. The guys want to buy souvenirs and again I get a reason to note how incredibly slowly
all kinds of shopping here seem to go. I guess that the shop staffs welcomes new company and try to make it last for as long as possible. Strangers may be relatively common, but not everyone stay this long.

In order to visit the unfinished reactor 5, we need yet another guide; someone working at the power plant. A middle aged man, wearing shades and slightly reminding of one ov Tarkovsky's actors, joins us in the van. However it shows that he's only there as a formality, because we get to enter the 5th reactor building without his supervision.

Inside reactor block 5.
Of all the places in the zone that we've visited, this might just as well be the most dangerous one, in an immediate sense (save for Reactor 4, but if you didn't figure out that, you shouldn't be reading this). The concrete outlines and the lack of light hide many traps: A 7 meters deep hole may be mistaken for being a shadow if you're not careful. It's obvious that a certain progress in research and technology was accomplished: The first reactor was completed and ready for operation in 1977, and the infamous number 4; six years later. The 5th reactor was scheduled to be up and running by the fall of '86, but for well known reasons, that never happened.

I start to feel worried. A sense of uncomfort spreads within me, because suddenly it becomes very clear that this is our last day in the zone, and I don't want to leave. May it be that some people find it strange that I wanted to go here in the first place - now what would they say about this?

Chernobyl 2 is the name of the former military site where two sets of 130-150 meters tall antennas reach for the sky. They're beautiful - perfectly symmetric and the sound made as the wind blows through the wires further add to the sensation of magnificense. The powerful construction was made to monitor the U.S, or rather in case said country would launch nuclear missiles. This is an OHR (Over Horizon Radar). Between 1976 and 1989 it would disrupt amateur radio as well as legitimate broadcasts with sharp repetative sounds which came to cause its nickname: The Russian Woodpecker.
Chernobyl-2 antennas.
I want to climb it like some of the others but I have barely reached the end of the first ladder when I realize that my feet may allow me to go up there, but likely not to get down again. I'm defeated and thus walk away to have a look at the slightly smaller, and more decayed neighbour of this antenna. It's rumored that the antennas have been sold for the value of their metal. I still don't know whether this is true, because this far I've received contradicting information, but as I approach this other one, I can see that the process of disassembling has begun.
In the lake of Pripyat rest wrecked ships. At the "cemetary" every vehicle is marked by a radioactivity sign, but the geiger counter shows readings that are far from alarming. Wondering where the radioactivity has gone, we quckly leave for the very last part of this expedition.

Most of the houses are abandoned, but people who still live here, points it out by painting their houses in strong colorus and simply putting up signs saying that the house is not abandoned to prevent break-ins and looting. One of us pays 20 hryvnas in order to take a photo of some of the inhabitants.

Before leaving the zone, we must go through radiation control. We're all clear, but the alert goes off first at a level of 150 microRoentgen, but 140 would be just as bad so I don't trust them completely.

I return to the big city as a dirty, radioactive bastard and I'm mightily annoyed having returned just in time for the Kiev Rush Hour. It's all gone - the zone is left behind and the vibrant life of the big city feels highly unnatural.  But  I already now know that I will return to Chernobyl.

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