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Ukraine Part 2 - Chernobyl: Into the Heart of Apocalypse

A Day at the Site of the World's Most Catastrophic Nuclear Disaster

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NOTE TO READERS: This is Part 2 of my travel blog on Ukraine. Please read Part 1 first, beginning below this entry. The following entry contains graphic descriptions which may be disturbing to some readers. Please proceed with caution. Thank you.

One of the most fascinating guys I met in Kiev was Gabriel. Gabriel ran the E-commerce division of Reader's Digest before quitting his job to travel the world for a year. He has no idea what he will do at the end of this year, but he said the trip has been worth it and he is confident that another E-commerce job awaits. Gabriel told me that his solo travel was most difficult in Bangladesh, where he really stood out to the extremely curious people, and in West Africa, where the residents proved to be extremely aggressive towards him. He loved traveling solo India, Rajasthan, Morocco, and in the Kashmir region of northern India and Pakistan. Gabriel is going back to India in 2 weeks, and promised to keep in touch. Stay safe, and we will be looking forward to hearing your updates!

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The email confirming my Chernobyl visit came right after I finished talking to Gabriel about it. The trip was on! The last thing the confirmation message specified was that we were to wear no shorts, tank tops, or open-toed shoes or sandals. Hummm. This got me to thinking. What exactly was I getting myself into? Should I wear my baseball cap and line it with aluminum foil? Beware what you wish for, because you might just get it, I told myself. OK. Deep breath. This was it. I was going to the sight of the most toxic nuclear disaster of all time. On purpose. Needless to say, sleep did not come easily that night.

Our group for the tour of Chernobyl boarded the minibus for the trip early the next morning. We had to submit our passport numbers several days beforehand for special Visas issued by the Ukrainian Government to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, an area set up by governmental authorities after the disaster to cordon off the site permanently. The area is heavily guarded, and our passports were checked several times going through the multiple checkpoints.

The trip took about 90 minutes and on the minibus they played videos outlining the Chernobyl disaster. On April 26, 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor number 4, while undergoing a low power test, caught fire and an unstoppable chain reaction began which resulted in the radioactive core melting down. This caused a steam explosion, followed by a second explosion from the ignition of generated hydrogen mixed with air. The second explosion blew the top off of the reactor and its building, exposing the radioactive reactor core to the open air. A huge cloud of lethal radiation spewed forth into the atmosphere and was then blown by the prevailing winds across Europe. According to Wikipedia, "Four hundred times more fallout was released [at Chernobyl] than had been by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima." Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear accident in history, and is the only level 7 instance on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Wikipedia states that, due to the intense radiation released into the surrounding environment during the accident, "farming or any other type of agricultural industry would be dangerous and completely inappropriate for at least 200 years. It will be at least two centuries before there is any chance the situation can change within the 1.5-mile Exclusion Zone. As for the #4 reactor where the meltdown occurred, we estimate it will be 20,000 years before the real estate will be fully safe." How long is 20,000 years? To put it in perspective, the Last Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago.

From Wikipedia. "The reactor had many safety measures built-in, but they could easily be shut off or circumvented. The Chernobyl scientists had too much faith in the reactor and wanted to proceed with their experiment at all costs, so they disabled many security features, believing that a major incident would not occur. Among the systems that were disabled were: ECCS (Emergency Core Cooling System), LAR (Local Automatic control system), and AZ (emergency power reduction system). From the start, the experiment's parameters went beyond the normal safe conditions of the reactor. This was further compounded when the chiefs on duty while the experiment was being carried out ordered that the safety systems be further circumvented."

We also saw promotional movies from the 1970's and early 1980's showing life as normal in Pripyat, a town of 45,000 people created 2 km away from the Chernobyl plant for the workers to live in with their families. We saw people shopping, swimming in meets, and spending sunny days on the town square. They even showed families in Pripyat having fun snowball fights in the woods. The films obviously were made to draw new workers from around the Soviet Union to the massive Chernobyl nuclear complex. Pripyat is a ghost town now, however. Everyone was evacuated by bus within 48 hours of the accident, never to return.

Here is a shot or us approaching the first checkpoint at the 30 KM Outer Ring of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The authorities do not allow photos of the actual checkpoints or of certain areas of the site close to the reactor itself for security reasons. Here we are driving under service pipes elevated over the road, added after the accident.

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Inside the 30 KM checkpoint but outside the deadly 10 KM Inner Ring is this building, used as a headquarters for the area. We were led inside the building and were debriefed.

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This is a blast map of the Chernobyl incident. The explosion in reactor 4 took place at 1:23:45 a.m. The wind was blowing towards the west that day, so the areas west of the reactor got the worst contamination. On the second day the wind shifted towards the north, spreading the radioactivity in that direction. If the wind had been blowing to the south or southeast that April 26, all of Kiev with its beautiful golden churches very well could be nothing but a ghost town now.

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We boarded the minivan again after the debriefing and drove through the town of Chernobyl itself. Reactor 4 got its name from the town of Chernobyl, but Chernobyl is much further from the reactor than Pripyat. Some former residents, displaced by the accident, actually petitioned the Ukrainian government to return to their former homes after "decontamination," and this has been allowed in recent years. Only about 200 former residents have been allowed to return to the Exclusion Zone, and their average age is 76 years old. When they pass away, no new settlers will ever be allowed to return. Doctors and deliveries from a grocery store come to them once a week - twice a week during the harsh winter. Many residents have said that they do not feel at home anywhere else, and that they just want to live out the rest of their days in their own homes working their own land. Our guide told us that "they have the same lives as people in other Ukrainian villages; they just don't have as many neighbors."

In addition to these 200 residents, the Exclusion Zone is also home to about 4000 workers responsible for the environment in the area. The workers have staggered 15 days on, 15 days off schedules to lower their overall radiation risk. Their families are not allowed to stay in the zone.

We passed this small church in Chernobyl that is 250 years old. The returned residents still use it to perform their own services and pray. It actually was being used while we were there. We paused and listened as prayerful voices behind the gate lifted their song to God.

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A glimpse of two of the current Chernobyl residents.

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Our next stop was at what is left of the "Liquidated Vehicles," vehicles used during the disaster evacuation and decontamination. These vehicles carried such a high level of radioactivity that they were put out of service and dumped into this graveyard. Something remarkable about the vehicles is that there used to be many more. We were told that most of them now have been sold by the government as scrap metal. We were to keep off the grass here, as the radiation in the vegetation is much higher than that on the asphalt.

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As if we needed to be reminded.

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This is the Graveyard of Ships. During the decontamination process, several ships containing supplies were brought up the Pripyat River. Due to radioactive contamination they were junked here, left to rust away. We saw a decontaminated building nearby that used to be a ship repair facility, but is now used by the commission which handles the Exclusion Zone forests. Grass and forest fires can make the radioactivity mobile again and burning is tightly controlled.

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We then passed agricultural areas where thousands of infected cattle and pigs had to be shot and where their bodies were disposed. I had not thought about farm animals being victims of the radiation too. The Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, which I did not have a chance to visit, displays photos of deformities in animals as well as humans that the radiation caused. Specimens of animals born with deformities after the accident can also be seen, including an eight-legged baby pig.

Many small villages that used to be located around Chernobyl have almost disappeared, reclaimed by nature during the past 23 years. Forests are flourishing in the Zone and many wild animals have returned, including hares, horses, foxes, wild boars, and even rare species such as the lynx and eagle owl. The reproductive and survival rates among these animals is much lower than normal, however, and research is continuing. The Ukrainian government even designated the Zone as a wildlife sanctuary in 2000.

Here is a shot of one of the buildings currently being reclaimed by nature. I was surprised at how quickly nature can wipe out signs of man, and began to realize that the Exclusion Zone is very probably our best indication of what the earth would look like 23 years after a nuclear war.

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"Decontamination" of the area was done by scooping up layers of the radioactive soil and moving it 1-2 kilometers from the city, where it was dumped into one concentrated super toxic area. Some of the contaminated houses and buildings were destroyed and some were decontaminated and left to be reclaimed by nature or are still in use today by those who live and work in the zone. The buildings and homes still standing were decontaminated by spraying fire hoses on them until the measurable radiation on them was reduced to "acceptable levels."

When the accident happened, radiation had to be dealt with and fires had to be put out. Many unimaginably brave people, knowing they faced certain death, entered the reactor to do what had to be done. These people knowingly gave their lives so that others would live. Many others, including pilots called to fly relief into the accident area, were not told of the radiation risk until it was too late. This is a monument to those disaster workers who fell at Chernobyl. It was placed on the 10th anniversary of the accident. The monument was created not by professional sculptors, but by surviving members of the fire department that took part.

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Here are two close-ups of the monument. The terrified yet determined looks in the firefighters' faces tell the story in a way that I cannot.

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We drove closer to get our first glimpse of the reactor itself. 5 Km out we passed a field that formerly was the site of a village. The accident so contaminated the village that every building in it had to be destroyed and turned under in the soil. The Chernobyl complex actually had 4 reactors online the day reactor number 4 melted down. Here I am standing in front of the four reactors with a drainage ditch leading to the cooling pond. From left to right in the picture you can see reactors 4, 3, 2, and 1. Reactor 4 is to the left of the first striped smokestack.

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I was very surprised to learn that after the concrete sarcophagus was put over reactor 4 and the area was decontaminated, reactors 1, 2, and 3 were put back online to produce power. Our guide explained that Ukraine at the time relied on the Chernobyl facility for around 10% of its electrical needs, and simply could not afford to scrap the remaining 3 operational plants. The last operating reactor, number 3, was finally shut down in the year 2000. Reactors 1, 2, and 3 are still in the process of being decommissioned.

Two more reactors were under construction the day number 4 melted down. Here I am in front of reactors 5 and 6. Number 5 was almost ready to come online. They still stand today exactly as they did on April 26, 1986, looking as if the workers have just gone to lunch.

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Normal background radiation in a large city like Kiev runs anywhere from 12 to 20 micro-roentgens on a Geiger counter. The radiation readings at the 30 Km checkpoint read about 18. Inside the 10 Km Inner Ring levels began to go up dramatically. In the above pictures the readings on the asphalt were about 60, and the readings on the grass, just steps away, ran to about 120.

We again boarded the van and drove even closer. I started to get worried. Exactly how close were we going to get? We finally stopped and got out for a few minutes at this point, a mere 200 yards from reactor 4. We had to be careful taking pictures here because we were closely monitored and the guards would not allow pictures of the fence, right below the frame of the photo. The yellow scaffolding is part of reinforcement efforts in recent years to shore up the concrete sarcophagus, put in place to entomb the reactor, but which is now beginning to collapse. It has been estimated that the sarcophagus still contains enough radioactive material to destroy Europe. A new sarcophagus currently is being built and is scheduled to be ready by 2012. Here I am standing 200 yards in front of Chernobyl reactor number 4 and the sarcophagus. What you cannot see is my heart beating wildly while the picture was being taken.

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The Geiger counter reading where I was standing, right in front of the sarcophagus - 256 micros! The reading inside the sarcophagus? 3000 - not micros, but full roentgens!!!! Everyone get back into the van! Quickly!!

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We next drove to the other side of the reactor buildings. Cameras absolutely were not allowed due to security concerns. Intense decontamination of the remaining reactors in the building have brought the readings immediately around the rest of the plant to around 30 - 60. Looters have hit the exclusion zone many times over the years for things like scrap metal, and intense security is needed at the facility itself even today to combat the possibility of terrorists gaining access to the large amount of remaining radioactive material. Here we visited a memorial to 30 firefighters and plant workers who died battling the initial tragedy. Each was named individually with their own plaque in an outdoor garden setting with a sign above all reading, "Life for life."

As we left Kiev that morning, the guide stopped at a store to pick up several large round loaves of brown bread. I had assumed that it was going to provide the driver and himself lunch during the tour. As we walked away from the memorial garden I saw that he was carrying the big loaves in his arms. "Follow me," he said as he led us to a railroad bridge near the reactor building which spanned a section of the Chernobyl nuclear facility cooling pond. We carefully stepped from tie to tie on the bridge until we were out in the middle. Our guide then broke off and handed us each large fistfuls of the bread. "Watch this," he said, and he tossed a piece as big as his hand down into the water. We all watched as the bread splashed and floated about 20 feet below. Suddenly there was a boiling in the water and a huge mouth appeared from below, vacuuming the bread down like a grain of rice. The creature headed back for the bottom and we stared in disbelief as its long, dark body slid past. I could not believe it when the great fish's tail finally smacked the water's surface. "What the hell was that?" I gasped in horror. "Catfish," the guide replied, tossing in more giant chunks. "Catfish live here in the cooling pond. They have done well in the warm water from the plant, and the radiation does not seem to have affected them adversely. In fact, the conditions here actually seem to favor them." My eyes were glued an epic battle below between three of the behemoths for more food. "How big are they?" I asked. "The catfish? Some here are maybe 3 meters. There used to be one here that was really big - huge. They have very large mouths, no?" My mind quickly did the math. 3 meters - what was that, 8 feet? 9 feet! A little OVER 9 feet! And they do have very large mouths, yes. They looked like they could suck down a toilet. "Do they grow that big because of the radiation?" I asked. "No no, they grow to that size normally." I wasn't buying it. My mind flashed to the Simpsons TV show where the fish in Springfield's nuclear cooling pond routinely appear with 3 eyes. I wondered exactly how tough a catfish had to be to become king of the Chernobyl cooling pond? This thought lingered in my mind as the guide threw another chunk up onto the bank of the pond and we watched as one of the monsters leapt out with an audible smack onto the sloped concrete. A full four feet of his slick body was exposed before he grabbed the morsel and rolled back into the toxic pond's dark depths.

We then drove from the reactor to the town of Pripyat, founded in 1970 to house the workers of Chernobyl and their families, 2 KM away. Here I am at the Pripyat sign. I don't think I'll be putting this picture on this year's Christmas cards.

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When the accident happened, there was no siren or warning for the people of Pripyat. A small explosion could be heard, but that was not unusual and no one took any notice of it at the time. Word began to get around town, though, that something was wrong. Radiation is silent, odorless, and colorless, and the people had no idea they were already being dosed. Curious people from town began to walk to this bridge to get a look at the plant smokestacks to the right in the distance. They could see small fires in the plant's smokestacks and stood to watch. They barely noticed the cool breeze blowing in their faces. They did not know that the breeze was blowing the lethal radiation from the plant directly over this bridge and through their bodies. When we drove over this bridge the alarm on the Geiger counter emitted a shrill whine for a few seconds. Our heads jerked around. The meter read 1600. This after extensive decontamination and the passage of 23 years.

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It took 2 days to evacuate everyone in the Zone on buses. Over 120,000 people were removed from the affected area, which now stretched to 3000 square kilometers in the Ukraine and 2000 square kilometers in Belarus and Russia. The Soviet government, then in power, tried at first to cover up the incident. Radiation then began to drift over areas of Western Europe, and the Soviets finally had to come clean. Due to this cover up there are no official numbers as to how many people died from the radiation at the time or years later. We were told that doctors were forbidden by the Soviet government to list "radiation" as a cause of death. Our guide said that unofficial estimates count the dead, either directly or indirectly related to the accident, "in the hundreds of thousands." People are still dying from radiation-related illnesses today, 23 years later, and this trend will undoubtedly continue into the foreseeable future. Pripyat became a ghost town literally overnight. Here is Pripyat's once bustling town square today.

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Storefronts and former restaurants lining the town square off Lenin Street. I thought back to the films of Pripyat we had seen on the bus. Women were grocery shopping right here. This was a very busy place, especially on the days of the evacuation. Imagine having just a few hours to get your family and your most valuable possessions together and onto a waiting bus, never to return to your home again. There were still hot spots on the square reading 500-600.

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An abandoned apartment complex near the square.

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For some reason moss seems to absorb the radiation even more than the other vegetation. The readings on the asphalt here were around 130. The readings on the moss growing through the asphalt, however, were over 1300, more than 10 times higher. Wikipedia says that a robot sent into the reactor itself has returned with samples of black, melanin-rich fungi that are growing on the reactor's walls. We were instructed to stay off the moss, and we did our best to jump over it where we could.

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One of the spookiest areas of Pripyat was the abandoned amusement park. This area is one of the most contaminated in town because the open area of asphalt here was used as a landing area for emergency helicopters flying over the reactor site. Choppers picked up radiation from the air and deposited it here when they landed. There was something about a place of so much innocent family fun and recreation standing vacant at ground zero that made my blood run cold.

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Abandoned bumper cars in the park.

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Blue eyes that have seen it all.

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The remains of the rusting swing ride.

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Pripyat's Flying Boat ride.

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The ghostly Ferris Wheel dangles its empty cars in the wind like extinguished lanterns against an overcast sky.

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Yellow flowers growing through the radioactive asphalt.

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A building fire escape with a ghostly apparition painted on the side.

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Exterior of the Pripyat swimming facility.

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It looks as though looters have gotten here too. Where is this radioactive material being sold, and, more importantly, for what is it being used?

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The building's gymnasium. Notice that the metal basketball goal has been stripped.

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The abandoned swimming pool. We saw films of swim meets taking place here in happier times.

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The swimming pool's high board. The pool is approximately 18 feet deep.

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Graffiti on the swimming pool tiles.

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The abandoned swim timer made me think of a similar one I saw at the pool of my alma mater Emory University in Atlanta.

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We were able to visit an abandoned apartment block, a time capsule of the days of Soviet urban planning.

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An abandoned apartment bedroom.

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An apartment living room, its shelving units stripped bare and floor slowly rotting away.

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In one of the apartments I found a fading calendar on the wall forever stuck on April, 1986. It actually took me a minute to grasp the gravity of this display, and when I did a cold chill ran down my spine. The calendar reminded me of one in my own kitchen at home, only the family living in this apartment was never able to attend the dentist appointments, birthday parties, or school picnics that most families keep track of here.

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Our last stop in Pripyat was a school attended by the children of the city. We walked quickly through the overgrowth and in through the front door.

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In the school's hallways I could almost hear ghostly echoes of laughter from children long ago.

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The gymnasium's floor is now unstable, so we were not allowed to walk inside.

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The sight of a clock without hands on a deserted schoolroom floor was a bit disturbing somehow.

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The last room I entered was the school cafeteria. I volunteer in the lunchroom and in the library of my daughter's school in the Athens, Georgia area, and this part of the Pripyat school affected me the most of all.

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Lowered sinks along one wall of the cafeteria where small children would wash their hands before meals.

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On the floor of the left hand side of the cafeteria was a dark pile of what I initially thought was trash (see large cafeteria shot above). I moved closer to the pile as I walked around the room taking photographs. Backing up for one shot I glanced down to make sure I was not stepping on anything and something about the pile caught my eye. I turned around and seconds later jumped back involuntarily. The pile did not contain trash at all. The pile contained hundreds of small gas masks, apparently adjusted to fit children.

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I can only imagine how frightening it must have been to be a child here on April 26, 1986, herded into a corner of the cafeteria and told to put on one of these masks. I wondered what it must have been like standing there, looking around at all of your friends and teachers wearing masks too, while a slow silence fell upon the room as everyone began to realize the gravity of the situation. The ensuing chaos must have been terrifying.

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I retreated through the hallway, visibly shaken. I turned a corner searching for the school's exit and saw a pair of children's reading books dropped on the floor next to broken windows. The illustrations in particular struck close to home. Besides the language of the stories, these books easily could have been found in my daughter's Lower School library. I have re-shelved books very similar to these many times myself.

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My last look of the school was down this hallway. I left with my hands shaking and my eyes full of tears. The school in Pripyat still stands there today, silently screaming while it gradually reduces to peeling paint, radioactive dust, and a host of disturbing memories which are best never forgotten.

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We were told that the radiation we received during our hours in the Exclusion Zone was the equivalent of two transatlantic flights. Still, as we left the zone each person in our party was scanned for lingering radioactivity. We put our shoes and hands in special receptacles in these machines at the 10 Km checkpoint. If anyone tested too high their clothes would have to be removed and burned, and their bodies subsequently put through the decontamination process. This actually happened to a Dutch photographer some time ago who spent too much time walking around the woods of the Exclusion Zone. It was a heart-stopping minute as our scans took place, but we all passed and were allowed to exit.

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The van returned us to the building inside the 30 Km ring where we were debriefed initially. Safe food brought in from the outside was cooked on site, and we ate lunch while speaking in subdued tones about the day.

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I slipped behind the scenes after lunch and got this picture of the Chernobyl kitchen. The food was actually pretty good.

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We had been told that no new settlers are allowed into the Exclusion Zone, but this statement is not exactly true. When we left the building after lunch we found that all around the grounds lived several families of very friendly cats, many with young babies. At least one was pregnant. They came up to us to play, but we backed away, hesitant to touch them.

Our van pulled away from the parking lot on the return trip to Kiev and I looked back one last time. The youngest residents of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone remained behind to enjoy the afternoon in the grass, completely oblivious that their home is in perhaps the most dangerously toxic place Planet Earth has ever known. I said a prayer, closed my eyes and turned around, unable to view more.

The sun and moon shine equally upon us all, I thought.

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Here is a link giving current information on Pripyat, its history, and its survivors. http://pripyat.com/en/

This link will take you to the Wikipedia article on the Chernobyl disaster. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster

Next: Budapest

Posted by sfoshee 15:00 Archived in Ukraine Tagged backpacking

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Comments

Wow! I think this qualifies as the most unusual trip ever. Very impressive. You gotta love a former communist country that takes a disaster and attracts tourist with it.

by Louise Freeman Davis

A very interesting trip indeed! Those photos of Pripyat, in particular the amusement fair, are chilling.

by Peter

Beautiful pictures and I really like your writing.

by lampe skjerm

absolutely brilliant mate. spot on, is all i can say, you've done exactly what i dream of doing someday. also well written

on another note
if you have not played or seen any footage of call of duty 4 (video game)
give it a look
its scary how similar your photos are
and how much detail is in the game
i didn't think any one would be brave enough to volunteer to go to such a place
top stuff mate
i would be so fortunate to bump into someone like you on my travels.
good luck

by Diego Vidal

I am forwarding this to the history teachers --- it must become a part of a course here at AA ---- I would hope that when in place you would come to a class!!
Not only do you have an artist's eye as a photographer, you are a gifted writer!

Caroline

by Caroline Ridlehuber

Very moving blog. There is a game called Call of Duty Modern Warfare, and it had a scenario set on Pripyat. Even in the game the children's playground, the apartment complex, the swimming pool produced a very moving and eerie impression on the mind.

by donjasjit

Woah. Thanks for sharing your trip with such great pictures! I've learned so much today.

by poopler

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