Leaving Chernobyl also means entering the 10-km Zone. It’s not that it looks or feels that different. It’s just something you know. And not even while it happens. At least, in our case only later did we learn when exactly we’d ‘crossed that line’ during our visit. What we did know, though, was that upon leaving Chernobyl we’d be getting closer and closer to the reactor.
We were not quite there yet. In fact, the first stop inside the 10-km area is the secret town Chernobyl 2.
The Chernobyl 2 Secret Town and Duga
Chernobyl 2 (Чорнобиль 2) is a super secret military facility within the Zone. The site, now uninhabited and deserted, was up and running in the Soviet era, when it obviously and predictably served espionage-related purposes. It was unmapped, nor were civilians allowed in or around the area.
Chernobyl 2 is also where the notorious Duga (Дуга) radar is located. Duga is an over-the-horizon (OTH) radar system used by the Soviets between 1976 and 1989 as part of their anti-ballistic missile system. Its main goal was in fact to locate and monitor ‘ballistic missile launches from the territory of the potential enemy’. Duga is also known as ‘Russian Woodpecker’, because the tapping noise it made was kind of similar to that produced by the bird by the same name.
A ‘Duga for Dummies’ book would probably describe the structure as a ‘gigantic double fence overlooking the pine forest inside the precinct of the secret town’. For the sake of a slightly more scientific explanation some additional details might be required, but I’m no radar scientist, so I will provide a few extra fun facts instead, both about Duga and about the secret town in general:
1. There is a corridor running all the way from one end to the other of the Duga array. It might sound like a pretty standard feature, I’m aware of that. Trust me, to even imagine that such a long corridor might exist in the first place is next to impossible unless you’re standing at one end of said corridor and you’re squinting in search for the weakest glint of light at the opposite end – obviously, to no avail. The corridor does really look like an endless rectangular tunnel disappearing into a black hole.
2. The future of the array is rather uncertain. There is an actual risk that the structure might collapse, and that would pose a very serious threat, as the vibrations caused by a potential fall would easily propagate and reach the reactor, and who knows what the impact would result in. So they should try and establish what the future of Duga might be, at some point.
3. On one of the ‘Do Not Enter! Danger Zone’ (Прохiд заборонено! Небезпечна зона) signs near the main road of the town someone has craftily noted the famous phrase from Canto III of Dante’s Hell from the Divine Comedy: ‘Оставь надежду, всяк сюда входящий’ (‘Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate’, i.e. ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’). In the Divine Comedy the quote appears on the very gate of Hell as Dante crosses its threshold. Oh the irony.
Fun facts and scientific info aside, nothing (not even the endless corridor) will blow your mind as much as standing on sandy ground by the stretch of pine forest and seeing Duga itself with your own eyes. (Yes, for some reason there is thin, yellow sand around there.)
For one thing, you won’t be able to see the structure in its entirety: it’s too massive for the human eye to embrace the whole of it in one glance. And seeing the top of the array is equally difficult: it’s impossibly tall, and the sunlight makes it hard to fix your eyes on it for too long.
So you just have to make do with throwing random glances upwards, stare at the lower, visible portions of the structure and shudder at the clanking sounds it makes when the wind blows through the metal wires.
‘The rest is silence’.
Kopachi Kindergarten (Копачи детский сад)
At some point, during the tour, we ended up visiting a kindergarten. I’m not sure I even remember how we ended up there. The kindergarten is in Kopachi (Копачи), a small village near Chernobyl heavily impacted by the explosion, so much so that after the disaster (almost) all of its buildings were bulldozed to the ground and the debris buried in holes specially dug for this purpose. Radioactive materials were thus ‘pushed’ deep underground, leaving the soil heavily contaminated. This area is still one of the most highly radioactive in the whole Zone. Place your dosimeter close to the earthy ground and hear it beep loudly like it’s about to explode.
The kindergarten (one of the very few Kopachi architectures still standing) is half hidden in the woods and looks vaguely similar to the House of Culture in Zalissya. As we walked down the footpath leading up to the entrance, we noticed a few scattered toys lying on the grass. The scene might have resembled the outside of any average kindergarten, where kids play outdoor and then, when told to go back inside, leave their toys behind: a doll here, a piece of kitchen set there, and so on. Except, the doll in the kindergarten playground had a couple of limbs missing, the kitchen piece was covered in dirt and, as Yulia told us, the toys had been artfully placed there a few days earlier by photographers during a photo shoot.
The interiors of the kindergarten are objectively among the spookiest and saddest sights you come across throughout the tour. The small room to the left of the entrance is where children would put their coats and shoes in the morning and collect them at the end of the day. The closets are now empty, their doors unhinged and half-open, as if their owners had to leave in a rush.
There are two dorm rooms, one with normal beds and the other with tiny bunk beds, where little kids would take their afternoon nap. Eyeless dolls and cuddly toys with missing limbs are sitting on some of the beds, which are otherwise bare and whose iron structure makes them vaguely similar to whitish skeletons.
What struck me most about the kindergarten, though, is the ‘carpet’ of papers covering the floors. Aside from the two dorms, other rooms in the building (e.g. the teachers’ room and the playroom) look like the result of a throw-sheets-in-the-air mass operation. A thick layer of book pages, loose sheets and papers lies all over the wooden floorboards, while an equally thick layer of dust from the past thirty years tinges everything with the same colourless shade of grey.
We only stayed there a short while, but felt that the deafening silence of the kindergarten would stay with us a little longer. As of now, it still is one of the most vivid Chernobyl memories I have.
Reactor No. 4 (and catfish feeding)
If I had to describe how it felt to see the reactor, both from a distance and at close range, I could only think of one term of comparison: the Basilisk. True, the comparison doesn’t sound as solemn as it should be, especially if you juxtapose the Basilisk from the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets book and the catastrophe symbolised by the plant. On second thought, though, it really is a fitting comparison.
Ancient bestiaries described the Basilisk as a legendary creature ‘reputed to be King of serpents and said to have the power to cause death with a single glance… so venomous, it leaves a wide trail of deadly venom in its wake’. And the Harry-Potter Basilisk, the gigantic snake-like monster inhabiting the Chamber of Secrets, is equally dangerous, capable of killing and/or petrifying those who look at it.
Well, the reactor has a very Basilisk-like feel to it. It just sits there, surrounded by an aura of eerie silence. Standing in front of it, I almost tried not to speak too loudly so as not to ‘wake it up’. It’s as if you could feel that something unprecedented and terrible happened there at some point.
You do see the plant, but not the reactor itself. What you see, instead, is the steel-and-concrete cover that envelops it like a bright silver shell. The current ‘sarcophagus’ (as the shell is known) was put into place in November 2016. It replaced a previous structure, which dated back to the aftermath of the explosion and had long been declared ‘irreparable’.
First, we glimpsed the whole complex from afar. We were driving along a canal, which turned out to be the cooling canal of the plant. The sun was out, and there was no one in sight: no buses, no groups. Our driver pulled over in what looked like the most nondescript spot in the whole Zone. As we got out of the car, my gaze followed the canal bed into the distance, where it bent to the right, and… The plant was just there. We could see the whole complex from there, sarcophagus included. We soon got back into the car and drove to the plant, where we were able to have a good look around.
The fact that you don’t see the reactor itself doesn’t make the experience any less powerful. In fact, the complex does exude a kind of unique energy (metaphorically speaking), and has an extraordinarily evocative power. Standing there, staring at it, it’s easy to ask yourself what it must have been like to just stand in exactly the same spot on that fateful April day some thirty years before.
Outside the plant there is also a monument: a pair of cupped hands holding a miniature of the plant and, above it, a bell that rings the alarm.
Photographing is allowed, as long as you don’t get too close (obviously), and as long as your shots do not feature the greyish building next to the plant, where the security staff is headquartered. But no fear: every time you turn around or walk a few steps outside the plant, your guide will readily remind you what you can or can’t photograph.
Around 100 metres from the plant (maybe less) there’s an iron bridge crossing over the canal. It used to be a railway bridge, back in the old days when trains ran to and from the plant on a regular basis. In fact, as you cross the bridge to stand over the canal, you’re basically walking on the old rail tracks. As we stood on the bridge, Yulia pulled out a loaf of bread from her bag. She tore open its plastic bag, and started throwing pieces into the water.
We looked down at the water, and that’s when we noticed the large amount of fish populating the canal. Across the surface floated dozens of small, black fish plus, amongst them, two huge catfish. The catfish looked too used to being fed by curious visitors to even be hungry in the first place. While the average catfish is 1.80-metre long, Yulia told us that some time after the explosion up to 3-metre-long catfish were spotted in the canal.
Upon leaving the area of the reactor, our guide ‘warned’ us that we’d be driving through what is known as Red Forest (Рудий лiс in Ukrainian). The label ‘Red Forest’ is used to describe the area immediately surrounding the plant, mainly consisting of pine forest. As a result of the absorption of high levels of radiation after the disaster, the trees turned reddish-brown, hence the name ‘Red Forest’. The area became (and still remains) one of the most highly contaminated in the Zone and in the world. In spite of that, and thanks to the low human impact in the area, it has also become a haven for the flora and fauna of the area, whose biodiversity has dramatically increased over the years, also ‘causing’ a number of endangered or extinct species to reappear.
As we sat in the back of the van for the thirtieth time in a few hours, we knew that after the Red Forest we only had one stop left on our schedule, still on foot, still inside the 10-km Zone.
Next stop: Pripyat (Припять).