Unquiet Dreams in a Nightmare Man Made Real
07/18/2015 - 07/18/2015 79 °F
This was supposed to be Day 3 of my trip, but with the cancelled flight, my day trip to Chernobyl would be the very next morning after I arrived. I'd arranged it ahead of time using New Logic Tours, who were recommended by my Lonely Planet guidebook. It was the single most expensive item planned on my trip other than airfare, at just under $150. It was slated to last almost all day, though, and was the only option I found to do the tour. Most agencies booked only groups, and New Logic let me join an existing group as an individual.
The bus would leave from the Maydan Square, so I left early to make sure I got there I time. The only thing I don't like about my hotel is the 20 minute walk to the center. I did two round trips yesterday, and would likely do the same, today. I showed the guide my passport and he gave me a cautionary statement to read when I got on the bus. It was actually kind of unintentionally humorous. No drinking the water. No eating any plants from Chernobyl. There are three sets of checkpoints we have to pass through in the "Exclusion Zone" -- called that because no one is supposed to live there except for people working there. It is only in the final zone that there are levels of radiation considered "unsafe." Your time is limited there. So, in the end, they say you are exposed to less radiation than you would be flying here from America.
We learned more about that in the documentary they played on the bus AV system as we got underway. Actually, it was a series of different video clips, beginning with a U.S. network news summary of the Chernobyl incident. The videos were fascinating, and I learned a lot that I had never known about Chernobyl and radiation. For example, There are strict rules for how many years an airline pilot can fly intercontinental routes. After five years of doing it, pilots may not donate blood. After 10 years, they cannot donate any organs. The most shocking and sobering part of the videos was how close Chernobyl was to becoming an even more severe disaster. When Reactor #4 overheated, and it's fuel was turned into magma, the super hot material began to eat away at the flooring. Had it reached the unspent fuel deposits underneath, it would have ignited a catastrophic explosion. The blast would have been 10 times as destructive as the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in WW II. The resulting radiation would have made the entire continent of Europe unlivable, it said. Imagine that! One of our wealthiest and most populous continents was almost wiped out in 1986. The effects on our world had that happened would have been staggering.
Equally shocking was the way the Soviets handled the disaster. I think no one was surprised that they denied it at first, and went to great lengths to conceal Chernobyl's magnitude. However, the callousness in the way they sacrificed their citizens' lives to put out out the reactor fire was appalling. Yes, they had to do it quickly to avoid an even greater disaster. But rather than ask the world for help, they ordered wave after wave of helicopter pilots, soldiers, miners, and firefighters in unprotected. They did engineer robots to try to use them to do the most dangerous work. The radiation played havoc on their circuits, though and they broke down. People -- or Bio Robots, as the documentary called them -- were ordered back in to toss sand bags on the fire, shovel highly radioactive debris, and more. The film interviewed some of the heroic survivors, and to a man, almost all admitted they had no idea how deadly the radiation levels were at the site.
Some of my fellow travellers on the tour had rented Geiger counters to measure the radiation. At each stop, the guide brought out his and showed us the readings. At each check point we got off the bus and the guards checked our passports against their list. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take pictures of the guards or the checkpoint. So, Soviet paranoia lives on in Ukraine! One of my fellow passengers was from Oklahoma City, and we hit it off really well. We shared travel stories on the ride and reflections after each stop. One of our first stops was at a formerly-secret, Soviet radio listening base. It's huge antenna array stretched on for more than 100 yards. It's task was to spy on Western radio transmissions. The base was abandoned during the Chernobyl disaster, and it is slowly crumbling and being overtaken by nature. We checked out a couple rooms, then walked through the woods to the antenna array. Each tower stretched skyward, and the patterns created by lining up identical tower after tower were cool. I snapped lots of photos, of course!
Our first abandoned village we stopped at had the requisite creepy doll lying abandoned in the grass. By the end of the day, I suspected these were being planted there by someone for atmospheric effect. I probably saw a dozen or so abandoned dolls during our visit. The first building was an abandoned school, and it was simultaneously spooky, sobering, and fascinating to see the detritus of a village full of people who had to pack up and evacuate, never to return. Broken glass crunched underfoot and rotting floorboards creaked ominously as we explored the school. Tiny metal frames of beds sat rusting in rows in two of the rooms. Schoolbooks lay open and yellowed, and everywhere was the dust of crumbling walls.
As we neared the reactor, we passed our final checkpoint. Simultaneously, all the Geiger counters on the bus started beeping insistently. The guide pointed out each of the six reactors as we drove into view of the facility. I was surprised to hear that, after the accident, the Soviets fired up two of the older reactors and used them to generate electricity. Two additional reactors under construction (#5 & #6) were never completed, though. Behind all six rust-streaked buildings was the gleaming, metallic structure that is being built now to enclose reactor #4. Cracks have begun to appear in the concrete and steel sarcophagus that has enclosed the reactor for decades. Once the new structure is completed in a few years, it will be slid on rails over the top of the existing structure, that was built at the cost of so many lives after the accident. This final entombment is supposed to seal off any leaking radiation forever.
Before we visited Reactor #4, our guide said he wanted to take us fishing off Catfish Bridge. He chuckled at our quizzical looks, but we duly followed him off the bus out onto a railroad bridge in the shadow of the reactors. He pulled out a bag of bread and tore off chunks and tossed them into the water. Monstrous catfish rose lazily to the surface and sucked them down. Were these nuclear, mutated monsters? No, simply a fish with no natural predator growing to its size -- or at least that is what he assured us. Some were easily three to four feet long. I would not want to go swimming in there! I took pictures of a memorial park nearby, too, and then we boarded the bus for the reactor.
Our guide warned us again to stay in the allotted area, and not to do anything foolish to antagonize the guards. We followed him to a monument to those who lost their lives to seal up the reactor. He pointed out the radiation levels on his Geiger counter, which were "beyond safety level." Workers rotate through the site, he explained, with those in the most deadly areas being able to work only a few minutes a day to avoid overexposure to radiation. The sealed up reactor itself looked no more dangerous or ominous than any other large industrial building. It was hard to believe that inside was a pile of deadly plutonium which would kill you if you got too close. We stayed for the allotted time, then reboarded the bus.
Our next stop was the town of Pripyat the "company town" the Soviets built for the workers of Chernobyl. For three days after the reactor explosion, life went on as normal in town. No one was informed that most residents were receiving lethal doses of radiation. No scientist or technician hurriedly abandoned the town, or even sent his family away to safety. To me, that is the most unconscionable part of the Chernobyl disaster. How could a scientist or technician working there NOT send his family to safety? How could he come home every night, kiss his wife and his children, and act as if all were normal? Knowing your family was going to die? It boggles my mind how servile and afraid of the government you would have to be to do that. How easy would it have been to say, "Honey, you need to go visit your mother out of town -- now!"...?
If a Hollywood set designer ever needs idea for what a post-Apocalyptic town should look like, Pripyat is where they should go. Trees and bushes randomly sprouted from concrete and even buildings as far as you could see. Patches of woods had overtaken neighborhoods so that they looked like forests instead of streets. Streetlights arched alongside the trunks of trees as if they were trying to revert to nature, too. Signs leaned drunkenly and broken windows gaped like the hollow eye sockets of skulls. And just to make sure everyone understood this wasn't make-believe, our group's Geiger counters measured their highest readings of the day. Although life and nature was attempting to reclaim Pripyat, it was a life with poison in its veins. I recalled the pamphlet's warnings about eating fruit from Chernobyl as I passed apple trees tempting us with golden apples.
One of the most atmospheric spots is the town's amusement park. A dozen bumper cars, are frozen in place as if the ride were stopped abruptly. Their bright yellow paint is scarred with rust and buckled with dents. Their steering columns lay broken across split vinyl seats. The Ferris wheel immediately catches your eye. It sits, in perfect shape, as if waiting for some ghostly operator to return and crank the lever to make it spin once again. The cars look inviting. What better way to survey Pripyat's state then to glide high above? A tilt-a-wheel is a leering skeleton next to the Ferris wheel, though, it's rusting bones mocking its hopeful and patient neighbor.
We explored the town's movie theater, where dust rose in clouds as we creaked along sagging, wooden floors. We climbed to the second story of the recreation center, walking across the warped and ruined basketball court to enter the town swimming pool. It's vast walls were peeling flakes of paint that were coming loose in Palm-sized sheets. The deep end of the pool, with its shells of diving platforms, was littered with garbage. Even more ruinous was the secondary school. Books lay strewn about the floors and were ankle deep in some rooms. Everything seemed to be aged with a layer of gray from the dust. A lump rose in my throat as I imagined my own 7th grade History room transformed into a ruined shell like this. What would survive? What of my things that decorate the walls and room would be crumbled and hidden in a blanket of plaster dust? Who were these teachers and their students that learned in these rooms before the disaster? Did they all die of radiation poisoning, or are some alive today, experiencing their invisible nightmare over and over again in their dreams?
We filed back on board the bus, some silent, some talking excitingly about what they had witnessed. From there, we drove past the first checkpoint, and each of us had to go through a radiation check. It was a device that you stepped up on, placed your hands and feet in the appropriate place, and a light would tell you in Cyrillic whether you were safe. No one failed the check at this spot, or at the five times more sensitive checkpoint as we exited the Exclusion Zone. It had been a full, but fascinating, day. Everyone seemed worn out by our explorations or perhaps the magnitude of what we'd experienced. I had fully intended to spend the two hour bus ride checking out my pictures, cropping them, and maybe even beginning this blog. My eye kept drooping shut, though, and I gave up. I sat back, let the gorgeous sunshine streaming in through the window bathe my face, and surrendered to unquiet slumbers of Chernobyl.