Our second and final day in the Zone began at a more leisurely start of 10:45, when we were picked up from the lovely ‘Chernobyl Cottage’ by our driver for the day (who spoke more English than the bus driver from the previous day, and was a lovely chap), and set off for the 30km Zone checkpoint, arriving at 11:00 – ‘Visitors’ to the Zone (there are no ‘tourists’) are allowed to enter from this time.
At the checkpoint we went through the usual passport checks as we had the day before, and met our guide for our private tour for the day. Just in case, I won’t name him as we went to some places that are not strictly within the accepted areas! He was a very good guide, and had a really great knowledge of the Zone.
We started the drive towards the NPP and Pripyat, our first destination for the day.
I had a few places I wanted to visit in mind, and I mentioned them to our guide – top of the list, the Jupiter Factory on the outskirts of Pripyat.
The previous day, I had asked Misha (our public tour guide) about the places I wanted to visit, and he told me that the Jupiter Plant was out of bounds – I thought I may as well ask our private tour guide if we could go there just in case, and he responded with ‘Ah, a very interesting place’ – neither a yes or a no.
Upon passing the NPP and arriving at Pripyat, our first stop was the police station.
The station is four stories and quite large, but the most interesting part is the small jail at the back of the building. We passed an interrogation room prior to the jail, complete with chairs still bolted to the floor.
A holding cell starts the jail block off, with numerous multi-person cells on each side of the corridor, very dark and filled with all kinds of junk now. This place is very creepy, not somewhere you would want to spend the night.
Passing out the rear of the jail block, we entered the old recreation yard, complete with now-sagging metal wire roof to stop attempted escape by climbing. The rear door is now open, and the yard is filled with scrap left here during the liquidation process.
Leaving the back side of the police station, we entered an area filled with rusted and decomposing vehicles – mainly cars and trucks, including two military vehicles (water trucks for liquidation) used exclusively in the Zone after the disaster, as noted by their ‘3ONA’ – ‘Zone’ markings.
Passing through the vehicle graveyard we walked to the near-adjacent fire station.
Firefighters from this station would have attended the Power Plant fire and suffered radiation poisoning and possibly died. The firetrucks are no longer found here, instead they are likely buried or located in the Rossokha village vehicle graveyard.
Again, very little remains inside except junk, debris and some rotting furniture.
We returned to the car and proceeded deeper into the city, stopping next at one of the few sixteen-story buildings in the town – I had mentioned that we would like to climb to the top of one for the view, which would prove to be breathtaking.
Before we did this, we walked in the opposite direction up an overgrown road to find the old Pripyat town sign and one of the old guard checkpoints that was created immediately after the disaster and later abandoned.
Turning back towards the city, we entered the sixteen-story tower block. Our guide (understandably) didn’t fancy the huge stairwell and stayed at the bottom of the building, leaving Jo and I to make the long climb alone.
Every floor of the stairwell had something different, from abandoned clothing to boarded up doors, and even old sinks and toilets just left on the stairs.
Eventually we made it to the 16th floor, composed of the lift machinery room above the elevator shaft, and cavernous empty rooms on either side of the stairwell. Proceeding up some rickety metal steps, we traversed the tiny maintenance hatch out onto the roof.
As I’m sure you’ll agree, the view we found from that rooftop was one I’ll never forget.
Looking out for kilometers around the city on all sides, you could see just how much nature has reclaimed the world that humans abandoned – the 27-year old forest canopy covers everything but the taller buildings and tower blocks of the town.
From our vantage point we could easily see the CNPP on the horizon, only a few kilometers away. You can imagine people watching the disaster unfold in ignorance the night before their lives were turned upside down.
To the right, you can see the DUGA-3 radar installation towering above the forest, and all around the city sprawls beneath you.
With so much to see, we wished we could have spent much more time at the top of the building but eventually had to climb back through the hatch and into the ruined interior again.
Back in the car again, we headed a few hundred metres down the road again until we reached a path heading off into the forest to our right. We got out, and our guide told us ‘Now, we visit the Jupiter Plant’.
As you can imagine, I was very excited at this due to my earlier disappointment in expecting not to be able to visit the plant!
We walked into the forest along what will have originally been a concreted path to the factory from the city, but was now an overgrown nature trail with overturned rotting benches on the side of the pine-needle matted tarmac.
Eventually we broke through the other edge of the wood, and the edge of the plant loomed ahead. We walked through the main employee entrance past the old turnstiles and long-abandoned guard posts and into one of the main administrative buildings, eight stories tall.
Ascending the exterior stairwell, now invaded by a beautiful red creeper, we entered the first floor offices.
Officially, the Jupiter Plant manufactured small electronic components for cassette players, but unofficially, it was used for production of military equipment and after the disaster, dosimeter manufacture and research, as well as radioactive sample storage and testing.
There were definitely small electronic components in the plant, as every room on this floor was overflowing with dosimeter parts and assorted electronics.
Our guide told us that some of this equipment was still very valuable even today – small, very sensitive geiger counter detector components we found can still fetch eighty euros on eBay in working condition. All the parts we saw were broken however, and anything valuable was likely looted long ago.
One of the rooms we entered through a thick steel door – this room was used for the safe containment of radioactive elements used by SpetzAtom technicians after the disaster, and their (now empty) containers still remain here.
Exploring the floor further we found much, much more electronic equipment, piles and boxes of administrative documents, military containers, and more heavy metal doors.
Moving back to the ground floor, we walked along it towards the end of the building, where we found a staircase several floors deep leading to a bomb shelter. What kind of normal electronics factory needs a bomb shelter, even in the USSR? Our guide told us that this basement is the most radioactively contaminated place in the Zone after the power plant itself, as the SpetzAtom workers at the factory used it as a radioactive specimen storage, and left their samples down there. He said that readings in the bunker reach forty millisieverts – thousands of times higher than most places in the Zone. He said that this place creeps even him out – a man that ten minutes later ate an apple off a tree by the edge of the plant.
We left the bunker entrance and the admin building and walked through the overgrown plant complex towards a side entrance of the main factory building.
Wrecked electrical boxes hanging from the walls greeted us as we entered, along with twisted metal and industrial tools and machinery lying strewn on the floor of all the cavernous factory halls.
Passing through a couple of open corridors and smaller factory halls, we reached the main factory floor – an absolutely massive open hall filled with machinery and all manner of junk and debris you could imagine.
Part of the roof here collapsed in the spring of 2013, after waist-deep snowfall in the area. Several other buildings collapsed in Pripyat including School No.1 and the grocery store. The debris of the roof collapse lies scattered unceremoniously around, with pillars, light fittings and and roof struts perched or hanging precariously.
The main hall is divided down the middle by smaller compartmentalised rooms (that don’t reach the ceiling), so we proceeded through the hall towards the back of the factory complex.
On the floor on this side of the hall we found two blocks of graphite – these are the same graphite blocks that would hold the nuclear fuel rods within the reactor of the power plant and contain the fission reaction.
Passing through the back of the main factory building we emerged back into the plant complex, facing the rear factory building. More debris is strewn around here amongst the overgrown bushes and trees, and as we moved around to the front of this building we discovered numerous rusted vehicles including a bus on its side, much of its interior stripped out. All kinds of metallic junk, machinery and piping lay out on the concrete, rusting away.
We briefly entered the building, filled with yet more machinery, as well as sunken cabling conduits and an open excavated pit.
We started back towards the entrance of the plant complex after this, passing a massive vehicle, with all kinds of ‘attachments’ nearby, including a bulldozer blade and a drill. Our guide told us this vehicle could even operate remotely underwater.
We passed by the other factory buildings as we moved towards the compound’s exit, dipping into their entrances only to snap photos quickly as we were running out of time and had much more to see.
This is the point at which our guide picked a fresh green apple off a tree and ate it as we walked back towards the car, lighting up a cigarette (one of many!) as he finished! Either he’s ignorant of the dangers of these activities, or he just doesn’t care too much!
After a little more driving we arrived at our next spot, the Kindergarten ‘Golden Key’.
This was a very eerie place, similar to the Kopachi kindergarten we’d visited the day before but much more ‘urban’, and much larger due to its location in the middle of Pripyat.
Children’s toys lie strewn around, including numerous tank models/toys – I guess the USSR was trying to instill a sense of military duty as early as possible.
The children’s individual lockers still had their cute little pictures on the front, cribs and small beds lie rusting clumped in one room, and dolls stare up at you, their ‘skin’ sometimes clear/white from the elements.
Moving through the various classrooms we found children’s books and literature, works of art made by the children and even some kind of ‘reward board’.
Outside were some stairs leading down into a deep basement, possibly another bomb shelter.
Leaving the Kindergarten, we walked over towards the river Pripyat and the town’s ‘river port’ and cafe ‘Pripyat’. This amazing place was actually the first time we really felt that people lived here – the atmosphere was thick, and you could just imagine people coming down to the river on a summer’s day for a drink at the cafe, to watch the pleasure boats picking up and dropping off people.
Inside the cafe, the windows on the side opposite to the river were of an incredible stained glass, made up of hundreds of very thin ‘strands’ of glass arranged together to create beautiful pictures. The glass is dirty and stained now, but its beauty still shines through – it must have looked amazing when the cafe was bustling with life.
Moving on from the cafe we visited our second-last stop in Pripyat – the hospital.
It was this hospital to which the first firemen on the scene of the disaster were brought, before being moved to Kiev and then Moscow.
At the side entrance to the hospital through which we entered, our guide noticed something in the woods (which used to be the hospital lawns/gardens), which turned out to be extremely bizarre looking mushrooms.
He said he had never seen anything like these mushrooms before, and I’m sure you’ll agree just how alien they look.
It’s possible that these mushrooms are the result of rapid evolution stemming from their radioactive contamination in the years after the accident, and mutations like these have been seen before in other flora in the Zone.
Entering and exploring the hospital, we looked through countless ward-rooms, examination rooms and even a pediatric clinic where two rows of rusted cots stood empty. Everywhere we found glass jars and medicine containers with weird-looking liquids and medicines, many with labels and many more without. Old syringes and vials, doctor’s equipment and examination charts/books were strewn throughout the rooms, and we found an old operating theatre as well as gynaecology rooms.
Obviously the hospital is massive and we barely explored any of it – only two floors, and only a few corridors. This still took us about 45 minutes, and we discovered a huge amount of amazing things.
The hospital library still contained thousands of books, mostly piled on the floor but many still on shelves, including communist literature.
We also found hospital record cards and books containing patient records, in the library and document rooms near the entrance/reception.
Leaving the hospital, we returned to the car and drove on.
We arrived next at the Pripyat bookstore, opposite the ‘Monument to the Friendship of the Peoples’ – this iconic statue is now being reclaimed by the forest and is only barely visible from the road not even fifteen feet away. This monument was part of the Soviet effort to promote co-operation and friendship between the people of the different Soviet Socialist Republics – over seventeen republics were represented by the inhabitants of Pripyat.
Opposite the monument is the Pripyat bookstore, still home to thousands and thousands of Soviet-approved books and pieces of literature. Sadly, they are now mostly rotting into the floor, providing a squishy carpet to walk on as you explore the ruined building.
The book store roof partially collapsed at some point, letting nature into the building.
Our guide told us this was somewhere almost no one goes now, probably because of the danger! Regardless, we’re fearless adventurers so we explored carefully and found the place very interesting, but sad.
This place is still a record of the literature authorised and read at the time, and with the time to go through it all would prove even more interesting I’m sure.
With our time in Pripyat up, we were beginning to move back towards Chernobyl-town for lunch. On our way, we stopped at the local train station, Yanov.
This place is home to old abandoned Soviet trains, and even trains that were still used until years after the disaster.
It is very strange to stand in the middle of railway tracks with no fear of oncoming trains, only that back-of-the-mind worry of radiation exposure.
Over sixty kilometers of track was abandoned and is no longer in use along this stretch of the line, which used to ferry workers from the plant to various other towns, as well as all the way to Minsk.
The old locomotives and carriages are also very interesting, rusting away on the tracks (or as above, in various states of decay strewn by the side of the tracks).
The grass is long and growing through the tracks here, and these lines may never see another train pass over them again.
Finally, our last stop on our private tour was the old ship graveyard, just outside Chernobyl-town on the banks of the river Pripyat.
Here, old ships of all kinds that had been used to ferry equipment to and from the power plant after the disaster were just abandoned and left to rust on the side of the river, either because of their radioactive contamination or general state of disrepair.
A fitting end to the day, the ship graveyard was a good summation of the Zone in general – humankind abandoning their creations to decay and degrade.
Humans may never re-inhabit the area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, but what they’ve left behind there will still be around in hundreds of years. The buildings in Pripyat are decaying and collapsing as time passes, the trains at Yanov rust away on their tracks, but the radioactive particles still buried in the soil and mingling in the waters will remain for thousands of years.
This blog was written on the 25th of September 2013 and posted on the 27th.
All the photos taken on this trip will be uploaded once they’ve been watermarked and I get back to Uni for internet capable of actually doing so.
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