(part 1 of the story is here)
I could tell something was awry with Yuriâ€™s left eye.
As we talked, the eye seemed to wander further off to the left, like a Cesium electron leaving its nuclei buddy. Yuri didnâ€™t seem to notice or make any kind of head tilting compensation.
Shaking the Geiger counter, he shook his head. â€œThings not look good here.â€
We moved on to the next stop.
It all started just outside the Exclusion Zone, also known as the Fourth Zone or the â€œhotâ€ zone. This 30km radius was abandoned in 1986 just after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and subsequent evacuation. People are still allowed inside certain areas of the Exclusion Zone, but only for a few hours or a number of days, based on the location and the type of activity.
As an American that thought it was wrong the way Ivan Drago used steroids versus pure barn-trained Rocky, it was bit strange going into a Soviet structure, a once top-secret nuclear military encampment. I felt the full weight of the cold war on me at the checkpoint-Charlie-like security gates where a bulky enforcer came out to check over my passport. He squinted and grunted a lot, looking me over, and going through it page by page. Iâ€™ve only got two blank pages at the end of my passport, so I am sure he thought I fit the travel profile of a spy. Although, if he brought it up, I would argue that spies would not use passports and they would just sneak in. He would then argue that spies that did not want to appear like spies would use regular passports. After that, I would have no argument, so I am glad we did not go down that path. I donâ€™t think he spoke English anyway.
He handed the passport back to me and sent me on to the town of Slavutych, where I was to meet with Yuri. There was not much English spoken at all during this time. There was a lot of grunting and gesturing, all of which seemed to get me down the one road that led deeper into the hot zone.
This road was especially lonely. Skeletal trees lined its sides with occasional abandoned buildings, crumbling into the ice and snow. The day was crystal clear and even though I could see to infinity down this slide rule of a road, I could see nothing at the end.
I passed by several strange structures, including one I suspected to be the infamous Steel Yard â€œOver-The-Horizonâ€ radar that was used to monitor ICBM launches to the east using ionospheric reflection.
When I got to the Slavutych, a few kilometers away from the security gates, I saw something I did not expect â€“ several people walking around a concrete city. They strode with somewhat of an abandoned gait, and looked in different directions with glassy eyes, almost as if they had resigned themselves to living within this area. I didnâ€™t see any children or women, just severe-looking men in heavy clothes, slogging from one place to another. I donâ€™t know where they came from or where they were going. They simply moved from one blocky concrete structure to the next.
The town of Slavutych was built just after the nuclear disaster in 1986. The town supposedly had several thousand inhabitants, mostly formed by the children that evacuated Pripyat during the meltdown. Before the town was built, they covered the land with two meters of uncontaminated soil. â€œMove to the panacea of Slavutych, now with two meters of soil over the radiated Earthâ€. I can see the promotional pamphlets now.
I understand that there are many children in the town and even things like restaurants and swimming pools, but I did not see any of that. I went straight to a military building.
It was concrete, like most everything else. The floor was had a water-warped laminate that looked like a wood texture. The walls looked thin and cold inside and there was not decoration besides old maps on the walls and the only furnishings were tired chairs and conference tables.
Then I met Yuri. He looked like he might have been young and robust at one point, but now he was a bit upset to see me, because it meant another trip to the heart of the meltdown. We shook hands and he was perfectly nice. It had been a while since I had spoken English, so I was happy to see he spoke it clearly and well.
He put on his military jacket and fur hat and we headed into another cold room with a large map of the area. He motioned loosely at it, then squinted into the middle of the map â€“ a large red circle, then shrugged it off and motioned for us to leave.
We got into the van and started driving to the ghost town of Pripyat. Yuri told me he was from Moscow and his curious job choice was a shade of indentured servitude that brought him into the hot zone for many weeks on end. He said it in a matter-of-fact way, as if that is just the way things are expected to be.
Very soon outside of Slavutych, we stopped at Rudyi Lis, the Red Forest, so-called because of the heavy fallout cloud that dumped radioactive dust all over the pine forest. It caused cases of albinism in swallows and undocumented damage to other wildlife. I donâ€™t know if it affected squirrels or not, but since they are already insane, there is no reliable control group.
Yuri got out of the van near a â€œWelcome to Chernobylâ€ sign at the edge of the Red Forest. He pulled out the Geiger counter, which was clicking away faster than Jack Bauer during a typical hour, and it read 0.293. Ouch. He squinted at it and clicked the glass, a universal move of technology readout desperation, and began hustling back to the van. I flipped off the Nikon and followed without question.
Along the way, I didnâ€™t see any animals even though I was going through what has come to be known as the â€œRadiological Reserveâ€. Yuri told me that many Polesian native animals have flourished since the area was abandoned by humans. I didnâ€™t see any, but then again, since I was putting my life in Yuriâ€™s hands, I accepted his claims without question. If he says there are lots of animals, there are lots of animals. If he says this area has a lot of radiation and we need to leave, then we need to leave.
We eventually four-wheeled our way through the snow to deserted Pripyat. Iâ€™ve already written a bit about that ghost town in part one, but I am now posting a few more pictures and things I noticed.
Because nothing is maintained, every roof of every building in Pripyat has leaks, causing swampy conditions inside all the rooms. This has resulted in all sorts of fauna, trees, roots, weeds, and other strange things to flourish in these Planet-of-the-Apes conditions. I am sure a botanist would have a field day there, seeing as there is still ample Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 that is slowly decaying there and probably causing all sorts of random mutations. I pictured Venus fly traps that eat humans and the like.
Below is a picture of the schoolhouse. As children evacuated, schoolbooks, papers, drawings and coloring books were left scattered behind. It is as if everyone just suddenly disappeared and time froze in a Soviet educational stasis of 1986. However, that educational system was clearly amazing. We are doing a lot of programming work in the Ukraine with our game company, and these ex-Soviets come from the same system that enabled their brains to launch rockets with slide rules. They are absolutely some of the smartest and sharpest math/comp-sci minds in the world. The US public education system is as socialist and government-operated as the Soviet system, but the general populace of the US does not have close to the scientific prowess of the typical cold-war child. I donâ€™t know why this is, but I do know that I have digressed.
I have also included another picture of the abandoned and crumbling amusement park that was just completed prior to the meltdown. Now, the ferris-wheel carts are rusted and falling off the perimeter, sitting askew in the snow. I wanted to go over and get into them, but my spidey-sense told me there was a light coating of radioactive isotopes that might stain my A&F pants.
Next, here is a giant apartment building that was abandoned and is slowly collapsing due to the harsh winters and rainy springs. A lot of windows have been broken and desperate daredevils sneak in to loot on occasion. It wasnâ€™t exactly the homiest place in the world, and I am not sure everyone got the damage deposits back. Then again, I donâ€™t know if mid-eighties Soviet policy had a robust apartment deposit system in place.
Below that picture is a phone booth outside the entrance to another apartment building. You can clearly see the amount of disintegration in the past 20 years. The paint colors have stayed brightâ€¦ Nothing galvanizes paint like a sealant of unstable elements.
Heading over the reactors themselves was another matter. The snow was thick and the roads were difficult to see. We swerved around and Yuri looked nervous. I donâ€™t like my Russian military die-hards to look nervous. It is a bad sign. He mentioned we should not get off the road because we end up in areas that have not yet been â€œscrubbedâ€.
Approaching the main reactor, we stopped and found one that had not yet been completed. It was a hollow husk of a structure, left to fall apart in the radioactive fallout. You can see that another one was just in the beginning stages to the right.
We came across a small power station that looked partially destroyed. It was not some place I felt comfy walking into, so I just zoomed in for a quick shot and continued on.
Last, here is a picture of another Chernobyl reactor that was abandoned in the chaos of the fallout. The cranes remain there, and I did not see a lot of activity, to say the least. Interestingly, even though I was with Yuri, who knew this place inside out, whenever I would ask question, he would just shake his head. He didnâ€™t want to talk about it.
We decided it was time to go, so I headed for the exit of the Exclusion Zone faster than Trotsky heading the Politburo.
Upon leaving the compound, I spent a short period inside the decontamination center. You can see me below, jammed into a 10,000 kilo metallic device used to check the amount of rads all over my body. Often times, people end up with a â€œlight dustingâ€, as they so brochurely described, of radiation.
This Soviet-era decontamination center that is nothing like the decontamination center used by Trip and Tâ€™Pol. I can assure you of that.
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Filed under the categories: Chernobyl, Pripiat, Travel, Ukraine