Chernobyl, Pripyat and Kiev…

At a lack of anything particularly interesting to write today, I’m going to post an account of my trip when I visited Chernobyl a year or two ago. Warning: it’s long. But there are pretty pictures at the end, so it’s worth it.

So I’m sitting in the kitchen of the hostel I’m staying at, on the first evening of my three day trip to Kiev and surrounding points of interest. When I was researching hostels to stay in and reading a few reviews of various different ones, a comment left by a past patron of the one I eventually chose described the place as being more like staying in a room in someone’s apartment, rather than a hostel. Well, it’s not like that, I am staying in a room in someone’s apartment. It’s just an apartment that has been very slightly modified to include a few more beds in one of the rooms and a kitchen that’s usable by all the guests. It’s an apartment in the middle of a really old building full of similar abodes, though one has the impression that the rest of them are truly residential rather than used for travelling accommodation.

Getting to the front door of said apartment building, however, is no mean feat. As I’ve noticed an awful lot on my brief wander around Kiev (more later), many of the buildings, shops and residences are located back from the streets, accessed by driving under huge arches built into the front of seemingly every structure. I would swear blind the taxi I took from the airport had to have broken several, if not all the laws of physics to get itself around some of the corners in the alley leading from the street to the door. There is no way a decent, universally law abiding car could have made those turns without some pretty serious physical damage.

But it would appear I’ve been chronologically deficient when starting this story. Let us backtrack to the beginning.

I like taking photographs – a particular area of interest for me is dereliction in all its different guises and forms. I was out a-walking around one day trying to kill time on a lunch break and came across a photography magazine with a special all about said subject, so of course I bought it and read with much enthusiasm. Within the spread was an interview with a photographer in which he indicated a sort of Holy Grail for dereliction photography – the abandoned city of Pripyat, in the exclusion zone of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that blew up some two decades ago. A city once containing 5oooo people, deserted within 24 hours after the reactor at the nearby plant blew up. A city that has, ever since, remained empty and unused because of the latent radiation, and now acts as a snapshot into communist Russia and also as an entire city full of ideal dereliction-based photographic subjects. I was sold.

Having booked my time off work and my flights, I arrive at the airport with a bag that weighs more than most small humans. It does contain my camera, five lenses, a tripod, my laptop and three days worth of clothes and other necessary travel supplements, but still. I pick up my boarding pass, wander around Heathrow for a time looking for somewhere that might sell food at even mildly reasonable prices (with no luck), then head to my gate. The flight boards, and my previous night’s careful planning when choosing which seat to have during online check-in goes all to hell as I’m sat in front of a couple of children, and behind a highly inconsiderate man with a most alarming bout of baldness creeping down his cranium in an assault on his remaining few follicles. I say he was inconsiderate because, at one point a little way into the flight he suddenly, and with no regard for anyone sitting behind him (me…), decided to jut his chair back as far as it would go in an attack upon my face I can only describe as malicious and premeditated. Had my laptop been out on the seat tray, the screen surely would have snapped off.

Once free of the constraints of the flight and through passport control, I wandered out into the incredibly crowded and hectic arrivals hall of Kiev airport. Glancing around I see many, many men holding cards with names scrawled upon them, and begin to make my way down the gauntlet that is the crowd of taxi touting tourist trap cab drivers. My name, however, is nowhere to be seen, quite in contradiction to my prior arrangement with the hostel. This situation continued for a few minutes more before I am approached by a kindly gentleman enquiring as to whether I require a taxi – obviously I looked lost and forlorn. I was. After a very brief and broken discussion, we agreed upon a price to get me where I needed to go, and start walking out into the car park. It is at this point that I get a call from a rather distressed girl at the hostel, telling me my taxi driver is now waiting for me. When told I had found myself a new one I was greeted with a wonderfully accented “Oh my god. I’m going to have to pay him if you don’t come with him.” I apologised profusely, though I have my doubts as to whether he understood, to my impromptu driver and made my way back inside to find my prearranged one. Other than this, and the aforementioned physical impossibilities of the alley leading up to the door, the journey there was mostly uneventful.

I was greeted at my hostel by one of the women who run the place, and asked to pay the remainder of the cost for my stay and the taxi I’d just arrived in. Wonderful, just as I had expected. I had given the lady my card to take the balance, but apparently no, the hostel does not have a card machine, so I had to pay in cash, which cleaned out my entire fund of foreign currency. Not as I had expected. Thus created mission number one – find an ATM to get more cash. Mission number two, as it transpired, was to work out whether the ATM was giving me Euros, Dollars or Ukrainian currency, the exchange rates all of which differ massively, so I ran the risk of either emptying my account of all its money, or only taking out a few pence.

The hostel is run solely by two young ladies, in conjunction with another similar outfit close by in town. They have been over-booked for this current week, so along with their 24 hour working schedule, they’re now having to sleep on the couch in the communal kitchen area to make sure the place is staffed. I was shown around the place, and given a map of the city with a few touristy highlights pointed out, as well as the probable location of an ATM.

I settle on my bed and whip out the laptop for a while, catching up with a friend or two and sending emails home to let people know I’m not dead yet. The light starts to fade and I decide to head out into the city to track down an ATM, and try and find some food. Just as I’m putting on my coat, one of the women staying in the hostel with me starts pulling hers on as well. She is going out with her brother to get some dinner, so I follow them down the stairs and start chatting while we meander down the street. She is from Kiev originally, but hasn’t been to the city since she was fifteen. She’s back in town to visit her mother for her sixtieth birthday, and very kindly (if perhaps only out of politeness) invites me to join their birthday meal if I have no other plans. I very gratefully decline. We’re chatting and I mention the reason I’m in Kiev at all, to visit Chernobyl and Pripyat. A very surprised “oh” issues forth from her lips as she proceeds to tell me how she was in the Ukraine when the power plant originally blew up and the effects have plagued her health ever since, as she now has to take daily medication. I suddenly feel deeply guilty for wanting to take a tour around a place that has caused so many people serious and lasting health problems. But she seems fine with it, and we keep chatting, so everything remains pleasant.

Making my way into a sort of department store, I locate one of the fabled ATMs and insert my card and get asked how much I want to withdraw. The machine does not, however, inform me as to which particular currency I might be withdrawing. And the amounts do not offer any clues either, as they could just as easily be any of the options. I figure I’ll take a stab in the dark and go with the lowest amount in the highest currency so that if I get it wrong it won’t completely destroy my balance. Sadly, I guessed wrong and it gave me a few pounds worth of the local currency, so I had to incur another transaction fee to withdraw the rest of what I needed.

Walking around Kiev at night is beautiful. Almost all of the buildings are lit up in some way or other, and the autumn season has given the place a wonderfully atmospheric feel. If I was with a partner, this would be an incredibly romantic place to stroll hand in gloved hand. One of the many things I have noticed about Kiev is the open and frequent displays of affection between couples. Very much unlike any British city I’ve been to, there are many, many couples just sitting on benches along the main streets holding hands and kissing, or standing with arms wrapped around each other locked in an embrace. I really couldn’t count how many people I saw engaged in said activities, and I was only out walking for about half an hour.

Kiev seems to have much more… life about it than other places I have been. Or at least the people seem more actively a part of the city. There was, for instance, one woman simply sat upon a bench quite peacefully reading a book. Now bear in mind this is at about seven in the evening, in autumn, when the temperature outside is about ten degrees and the weather is somewhat blowy. It’s something one might expect in summer, but not this time of year. And there were lots of such groups of people just sitting around and chatting, or meandering slowly along the big, wide streets.

One of the disadvantages, however, is that in the Ukraine they not only speak a completely different language, but their alphabet and writing is entirely different as well. This means that I have sadly no chance of decoding any of the signs or writings on anything, let alone being able to do so well enough to comprehend any content. Sadly, this had the effect of somewhat hamstringing me as to where I could get some food for dinner, as I had no idea what any places even were from the outside, not even to mention what they might serve and what it would contain. Sadly this meant I had to opt for something I could trust, if only for a few minutes after eating – McDonalds. It was possibly the biggest McDonalds I’ve ever been into, and heavingly busy as I made my way to the counter. I ordered a Big Mac, ‘cause I reckon that’s pretty much the same in every language, then just nodded yes to everything the girl asked me afterward, so I’m pretty sure I got a meal, and a large one at that, purely by default.

I made my way swiftly back to the hostel to eat, not wanting to sit in among the crowds in the actual restaurant, and devoured my then slightly warm food. And thus, we return full circle to the beginning of the tale.

Part two of the tale begins with me sitting again, but this time on the cold marble floor of a very crowded what can only be called departure lounge. I say that because it’s an area that serves at least eleven gates, each plane at each gate holding conservatively 2OO people, and yet there is seating enough for maybe fifty people. That, for the less mathematically inclined among us, is a deficit of two thousand one hundred and fifty seats. This should explain my choice of current perch, rather than the fact that I just enjoy looking a little bit travelly. That’s a word. It means people who travel a lot who’re therefore used to the regular discomforts of crowded places while waiting for transports to turn up.

As you can gather by my airport location, I’m on my way home. Sadly the check-out time from the hostel was midday, and my flight doesn’t leave until gone four in the afternoon, so this leaves me ample time to sit and let my fingers ramble.

Day two of my trip started very early. Well, not so much started early as just kind of bled in from day one, since I didn’t get any proper sleeping done the whole night. This being my first experience of staying in a hostel room with nine other sleeping people, I didn’t really know what to expect. The first notable thing is the very different types of snoring you get from nine separate sleeping people. Now, separately none of them alone would have been enough to keep me awake. Together, however, they joined forces to produce a Super Snore, which is somewhat an audio equivalent of a Power Ranger Megazoid, except less amusing. And it probably can’t fight crime. It could definitely do a decent job of keeping crime awake all night before a big job so it really can’t be bothered to go rob that bank, though. I digress. The snoring wasn’t really too much of an issue – after a while it kind of blends into the background once you get a bit sleepy. The main problem, however, was the girl in one of the beds with a truly awful chesty cough who, at sometime gone midnight decided it’d be a good idea to simply lie in bed and compose a new symphony using her throat as the only instrument. Needless to say, this did keep me awake. And every time I thought she’d stopped so I let myself start to doze, another great hacking concerto began.

Lack of sleep aside, I woke in the morning, got all my camera gear ready, and assembled myself in the kitchen of the hostel ready to journey to Chernobyl. Coincidentally, one of the other guys staying in the hostel was going with me, so we wandered down to meet our driver together. While waiting outside the hostel a third guy walked over and said he’d be joining us too. So a trip for one had suddenly become a trip for three. No problem, I enjoy company. Our car eventually turned up, just after it had stated to rain, and we started on our way. If I have not mentioned it previously, allow me to do so now – the driving in Europe is frightening. I’ve been to many different countries and many huge cities, I’ve even driven through LA at rush hour, but nothing scares me more than the driving in capital eastern European cities. Lanes are entirely optional, laws, traffic lights and road signs are completely fictional, hell, even pavements are only mild obstacles. You’d imagine you’d be safe from having to dodge or look out for cars while wandering along a pavement a few feet from a building, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong. Very. I digress again…

Chernobyl is only approximately one hundred kilometres from Kiev, and since a lot of the speed limits (while obviously not being observed) are around 130km/h, it still managed to take us two and a half hours to get there. From the moment we set foot in the car and for the rest of the journey rain fell from the skies in ever increasing amounts. Now, given that my entire purpose for this trip was to come to Chernobyl and Pripyat to take photos of it, and I really had no other interest in Kiev and the Ukraine, and I had paid a lot of money to do so, the prospect of trudging around in the rain not being able to get my camera out did not please me. And my feet were freezing. We drove for hours down identical looking roads surrounded by the spindly remnants of trees already having lost all their leaves to the autumn weather. It would have been quite beautiful, I’m sure, were it not spoiled by the rain and consequential glum weather. Before getting to Chernobyl itself we passed through several government security check points, having to present our passports and get glared at by border guards each time. One cannot imagine what their purpose is – who is going to want to venture into a radiation hot zone?

Finally we arrived at Chernobyl town itself, which is a few kilometres from the reactor. Inside we were treated to (I use the term loosely) a quick presentation about the accident, what happened, and where the fallout spread and its effects. While mildly interesting, in all honesty, I didn’t give a damn. I was there to take pictures, not hear stories, but alas. We then changed hands from the driver, Serge, to our actual ‘tour guide’ whose name I sadly cannot now remember. It was a generic Russian name, pick your own. He was military, and works in the area as a tour guide and also in the town of Chernobyl itself. Here all three of us were made to sign a set of rules and a disclaimer which read, paraphrased “I won’t do anything stupid, and I won’t sue the Ukrainian government if I grow extra legs,” which was a touch disconcerting, but we were assured the radiation levels were now safe, especially for the few hours we’d be in the area.

We then drove to the Chernobyl reactor where the accident itself happened. We were taken into a viewing station where you could look out over the sarcophagus – the metal and concrete structure they build over the remains of the reactor to hold back the radiation. We were given another brief talk by a woman who works at the site, and showed a model of what the inside of the reactor looked like. Again, my apathy was present, but some of the stories of what happened were a little more interesting this time. They actually had to order people to pick up chunks of irradiated material and throw them back inside the reactor with their bare hands because the robots used to do it had broken down due to the radiation levels.

After this, we were driven to Pripyat town, which was the main, no, sole purpose of my trip. The journey there was fascinating. Driving through neighbourhoods of apartment buildings left deserted and at the mercy of nature for two decades was thrilling. It’s strange to see plant life jutting out of a building ten stories from the floor. Windows were gone, the plaster and brickwork was crumbling. We arrived at the main town square in the centre of Pripyat for our first stop.

Grabbing all of my camera gear I jumped out of the car and immediately started taking pictures. Sadly we had limited time in each location, so I had no chance to really stop and look around the place to size up decent photo opportunities – it was more a case of run around, point and shoot at anything that looked interesting and see what comes out at the end. We were at the remains of what was a huge hotel, so I wandered inside and took some pictures of pealing paintwork, old bits of furniture left around the place, all the things you’d expect. One of the other guys I was with, also a photographer, pointed out an old gas mask just hanging on a chest in the main foyer, so I got a couple of pictures of that. I then realised where I was and ran up far too many flights of not-too-stable stairs to the very top of the hotel to grab a few shots looking out over the town square. Then we had to move on already, which was incredibly disappointing. I could’ve easily spent days there alone.

The next stop was the abandoned fairground, which I had been looking forward to the most. In Pripyat town before the accident, they had been building a brand new fairground, Ferris wheel, bumper cars, merry go rounds an’ all, due to open the very day after the reactor blew up. So sadly the brand new fairground never got used and was left to the ravages of time ever since. I’ve been in some fairly disconcerting places before, but there is nothing quite so creepy as seeing a child’s soft toy rabbit stuck in the seat of a merry go round, knowing it’s been unmoved for almost as long as you’ve been alive. I made my way to the bumper cars first, and took many photos of the scene. The five or six cars that were there all had the paint peeling off, plant life invading their bodywork, never having been driven.  Then there was the huge Ferris wheel, dominating the skyline, motionless save for the wind rocking a seat high in the air. Seeing that, gears and mechanics rusted, overgrown and decrepit was even more disconcerting than the bumper cars. I was impressed that it had not, and afraid that it might, fall down at any point, giving way to gravity and chemistry combined.

Finally we made our way to the entertainment and education area, which consisted of the old swimming pool and gym, and one of the five schools located in the town. I had really wanted to see the pool, as it’s featured in a computer game and I wanted to see how accurately they’d modelled it. When I finally found my way inside and fought my way to the pool itself, I was stunned. The game was a perfect, perfect representation of the place, from the diving boards, to the cracked tiles, to the blown out windows and glass covering the floor. I took a few pictures, but the angle I had wasn’t overly exciting and I couldn’t get down into the pool itself without breaking several of the rules on the disclaimer list. By this time I was in a rush, having only a few minutes left before needing to leave the area for our trip home, so I jogged over to the school. I barely made it inside and got a few pictures before I heard the honking of, let’s call him Ivan’s, car. Trudging back I packed up my things into the trunk of the car and we commenced our drive home.

Miraculously, for the whole time I’d been in Pripyat the rain had relented so I managed to stay dry, for which I was very thankful. I pondered, on the drive home, that I was incredibly glad I’d chosen this time of year to come. The autumn colours in all the leaves, as well as the fact that most of the trees were bare to their branches really added to the atmosphere and mood of the shots I got. After all, how boring does it look with trees full of colour and leaves in a zone full of radiation? Bare branches of sickly, thin trees, however, look amazing. I don’t remember much of the journey back – I think I fell asleep. But we eventually arrived back in Kiev and were dropped off a little way away from the hostel, so I wandered back with my companion.

And that’s where I stopped writing that piece because my plane arrived. As promised, pictures. These are low resolution versions. Higher res ones are viewable HERE.