For as long as I can remember I have always had a fascination (and unhealthy obsession) with ghost towns. There is something so unnerving yet intriguing about visiting a completely abandoned place where people once used to live before something happened to change their lives forever.
On the morning of 26 April 1986 at precisely 1:23am reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced an unexpectedly huge surge of power, which caused explosions in the core of the reactor. The fire which resulted from these events sent a large cloud of extremely radioactive particles into the atmosphere. This cloud was then blown over most of the western Soviet Union and Europe. The town known as Pripyat was affected substantially and now exists as a ghost town.
It has been estimated that around 985,000 premature cancer deaths have occurred since that day as a result of radioactive contamination received from the incident.
After seeing some pictures of Chernobyl online and learning that you could actually take a tour of Chernobyl and the ghost town of Pripyat, I knew that I wanted to work this experience into my time in Eastern Europe.
It was probably the thing I was most excited about on my entire trip.
After congregating in Independence Square a group of around 20 of us boarded a coach to begin the two hour trip to Chernobyl. The first checkpoint was the 30km exclusion zone checkpoint, marked by a barrier across the road. It was guarded by policemen who checked all of our passports before allowing us to continue on.
Throughout the drive a DVD was playing giving a history of Chernobyl and showing horrific photos and video of the aftermath, with unsettling interviews with the survivors.
Needless to say we were all starting to feel a little bit apprehensive by this point.
As we approached the 10km exclusion zone I began to notice more and more derelict buildings in the distance. No longer occupied, they had trees growing in and around them, and some were completely destroyed. We all grew silent as we imagined how the rooms looked now. On the DVD they showed one lady returning back to her old home for the first time 25 years later. Everything was just how she left it.
When she was evacuated she was told to take nothing and that she would return in a few weeks.
Before heading into Pripyat we were taken into a small room to sign a waiver stating that if any one of us were to contract cancer or any other health issue the tour company was not to be held liable.
As an extremely anxious hypochondriac, I was beginning to wonder if taking this tour was such a good idea after all…
But there was no going back now. I signed the form and we returned to the coach to drive to the town of Pripyat.
The town of Pripyat was founded in 1970 and its main purpose was to house the workmen of Chernobyl. At the time of the accident, almost 50,000 people were living there. In true Soviet Union fashion, the streets were typically named Lenin Avenue, International Friendship Street, Heroes of Stalingrad Street.
It’s hard to put into words exactly how it felt walking around Pripyat, and even now I don’t think I’ve completely managed to digest the experience.
Part of you just feels like you’re walking around a building site with smashed windows, books thrown everywhere, broken floors and ceilings. It’s impossible to understand the enormity of what happened.
Yet the other part of you starts to wonder how this town looked before the incident. You imagine the people going about their everyday lives, happy and completely unaware of the devastation that was about to occur.
This used to be their home, and now it’s just a graveyard of past lives and memories.
Our tour of Pripyat took us around apartment blocks, and hotels, to the community centre, the swimming pool, school and amusement park.
We stepped outside and went to visit Pripyat’s famous amusement park. I found it interesting to learn that the amusement park actually opened on the day of the incident. It was used to calm down and distract the residents of Pripyat whilst they were waited to be evacuated, so it was only ever used for one day.
I actually found visiting Pripyat’s swimming pool the most harrowing and unsettling experience of the tour. Just something about wandering around, looking in the changing rooms and seeing old swimming pool equipment lying around. For a moment I just stood there and closed my eyes and imagined what it must have been like 25 years ago – full of children laughing and playing without a care in the world.
We then got to explore one of the schools of Pripyat.
As a final stop we drove to the sarcophagus of reactor 4 – a massive concrete structure built around the reactor to prevent the radiation from being released into the atmosphere.
After a quick test to confirm that I was not radioactive, we were free to leave the exclusion zone and that concluded my tour of Chernobyl!
When I got back to my hostel at the end of the day, I wasn’t sure how I felt, and I’m struggling to put it into words now. It was an unsettling and uncomfortable day, and I felt strangely numb by the end of it.
Over the following weeks and months I definitely feel that it helped to put my life in perspective, and now whenever I’m feeling down and grumpy about something, I think back to the people of Pripyat who lost everything that day. Before I took the tour I read the following quote online “If you choose to visit these places you will never be the same person as you once were” and I think that sums it up perfectly.
A few days ago the Ukraine government cancelled all tours to Chernobyl, and it will no longer be possible for anyone to visit the site. I’m glad I got the opportunity to see it for myself and I hope my photos have given you an insight into what it’s like to wander around the ghost town of the worst nuclear fallout site in history.
What do you think? Given the opportunity would you have liked to have visited Chernobyl and Pripyat? Or am I completely insane for even wanting to go in the first place?!