Jul. 13th, 2017

korintomichi: (Default)
We're just back from a long weekend in Ukraine. We recently discovered that the Chernobyl exclusion zone had been considered safe enough for tourists to visit and we thought that it would be fascinating to make the trip there. "Why on earth would you want to go there?" many people have asked. Before we visited, the answer was that it partly had a busman's holiday element for M, an interest in the power industry, but we thought it would be interesting to see a ghost town where nature has reclaimed the area in just 30 years and also to see Communism frozen in time. This event happened in our lifetime, during the Cold War, and it's something we remember very clearly.
The first day was spent on a walking tour of Kiev. It's a lovely city and one which we'd like to explore further. As part of the tour we visited the Chernobyl museum to learn more about the circumstances of the accident and the brave people who rushed in to deal with it as well as the thousands of people who lost everything when they were compulsorily relocated.
The museum's theme is that of 'fallen apples' - those who cannot return home.

The following two days were spent in the zone, a two hour drive from Kiev. We visited the reactor - noting the astonishing engineering involved in constructing the safe confinement shelter - as well as the surrounding area.
There are two exclusion zones, one more contaminated than the other.
As we went into the exclusion zone there were a number of rules we had to follow. We had to wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts. Closed shoes. (We wore really old shoes that we intended to chuck at the end of the trip.) We were not allowed to eat berries or drink water. We weren't allowed to pet any of the cats or dogs we encountered because we didn't know what they might have been rolling in. One cat really, really, really wanted a hug. (We chucked the trousers at the end of the trip.)

We were advised that we should only eat food and drink bottled water inside the bus. We should stay on the asphalt if possible and avoid mud. Every time we left the zone we would have to be tested for radioactive contamination by passing through a machine. The coach's wheels were also tested.

It has been noted that wildlife has returned to the area in significant numbers - wolves, bears and lynx have all been sighted. We saw a fox, known to the guides as Simeon.
He popped out to greet us (hoping for some food) on the empty road to Pripyat.
It was fascinating to explore the ghost town. We were allowed inside the buildings although many of them are not particularly safe. While we were okay entering public buildings we felt uncomfortable entering people's homes, despite the fact that they had already been looted by unscrupulous thieves (to the extent that even wiring had been ripped from the walls in order to reclaim the copper) many years previously.
The city had accommodation blocks,
a hotel
a council building

and schools

What struck us was that many of the public buildings were designed for leisure activities. Pripyat had the Soviet Union's first ever supermarket (left), next to the restaurant,
a music centre,

a cinema,
a sports stadium,
with running track and football pitch, now entirely overgrown,
3 - count 'em - swimming pools, unbelievably luxurious,
and, probably the most iconic image from the town, a fairground which was never used. It was due to open 3 days after the accident took place.
We made a comparison with Ta Prohm in Cambodia - a temple complex abandoned centuries ago and reclaimed by the jungle.

The difference was that at Ta Prohm we could only really speculate what the buildings were used for but with Pripyat everything was entirely recognisable.
Chernobyl is the city the power plant was named for (much like the UK). It was less contaminated than Pripyat. There are number of people who live and work there - largely at the power plant, keeping it safe. Most work 2 weeks in the zone then have 2 weeks off. Workers will be working on clearing up the plant until 2065.
Chernobyl has a shop (with beer and souvenirs) and a hotel which was basic, but comfortable and clean. It also has one of the few remaining statues of Lenin left in Ukraine.
Less well known is the Chernobyl-2 radar installation, a relic from the Cold War. We visited this on the second day. It was a duga radar - the transmitter end (the receiver was at Liubech) - an installation 800m long and 100m high. It was known as the Russian Woodpecker because of the radio interference it generated. Residents of on the top floors of the Pripyat apartment blocks could see it, despite the artificial forest the Soviets had grown to hide it, but they had no idea what it was for...
It was astonishingly huge, so big, it was impossible to take a photo of the whole installation.
We were allowed to climb 5 m to the first level.

We visited the abandoned control room as well as the training centre, which was fascinating. It was chilling to see pictures of "our" nukes as the Soviets learned how to identify and raise the alarm on a potential attack. 

We noted that the pictures of many missiles were set against a backdrop of sky or scenery.
Our return home to the UK was notable for how unremarkable it was. Fortunately we arrived back in the UK the day before the massive cyber attack which took out the airport and metro.
We reflected a lot about the trip both during and after. While Kiev was amazing and a place we would love to return to, it would be inappropriate to say that we enjoyed Chernobyl; it feels as though it would be belittling all the people who lost their lives or lost their homes. It was fascinating, educational and occasionally sobering. We know a little bit about having your life turned upside down but only on a very small, personal scale. What we've been through happened within a stable environment where we still had our house, my job and the support of family and friends, for which we are extremely grateful. This visit made us realise quite how lucky and privileged we are.

There are loads more photos here


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