Pripyat (Припять) was the final stop of our Chernobyl tour, which somehow made for an uncanny, ‘save-the-best-for-last’ coincidence. In fact, Pripyat is one of the key spots of any Chernobyl visit, and also one of the most familiar names when it comes to the Exclusion Zone.
We drove on through the Red Forest for some 10-15 minutes, after which our driver stopped on the side of the road. What at first sight looked like another nondescript spot in the Zone soon turned out to be the spot that marked the very entrance to Pripyat, as the dedicated monument-sign wisely suggested. The sign looked white-greyish, monochrome, kind of solemn but very essential, nothing like the ‘baroque’ look of its Chernobyl counterpart.
‘Too bad the fox isn’t here today. Too many of us around, probably’, said Yulia. There seems to be a fox roaming that area of the Red Forest. In fact, if you check websites that organise Chernobyl tours, you will easily come across photos of the fox on some of them.
As we stood there, I took a good look around. There was nothing but the road, the forest and a group of visitors huddled in front of their guide, intent on providing them with preliminary info on Pripyat and the super sad story that befell it.
We got back into the car and entered Pripyat. We drove down what remained of a paved road through the trees. The road was abnormally bumpy, so much so that our driver had to drive incredibly slowly all the way. He dropped us off somewhere along the road. We were standing in the semi-darkness, which you could partly blame on the overcast sky and partly on the thick trees that had grown all around. You could only glimpse the tops of a couple of dilapidated buildings in the distance.
‘Okay, we have 45 minutes, let’s go’, Yulia told us. She started walking through the bushes, and our driver zoomed away toward what was to be our final meeting point.
Before the explosion, Yulia explained, Pripyat was the place to be: it was a model city, and you were a privileged if you lived there. Fancy houses embellished the city, as well as a large café overlooking the river, a small port, and a number of shops, such as the Радуга (Rainbow) store, opened on the ground floor of an especially exclusive block of flats that went by the name of Белый дом (White House).
Pripyat could also boast other unique shops, amongst them an actual торговый центр (shopping centre) selling items you couldn’t easily find in regular shops elsewhere. Sports and culture events were also held on a regular basis: the old cinema and the sports centre are still standing as if to prove it.
Now, all the places and items mentioned above you do get to see with your own eyes as you visit. It’s easier to list them after you have seen them. though. As you explore Pripyat, you come across them one at a time, mostly unexpectedly, so building up a proper portrait of the ghost city is a kind of ongoing work in progress.
What they say about nature taking over is astoundingly true. Bushes cover most of the road surface, and trees sprout out of the asphalt and on the rooftops. It does look like nature and wilderness have taken repossession of something man once claimed ownership of.
It’s rather eerie, spooky and stunningly surreal, yet exceptionally real at one time.
The Pripyat Café, the river port and the cinema
We headed straight to the café. It takes a while to make out the remains of the building silhouette through the trees. At first, only the ‘Pripyat’’ sign sticks out on top of them.
The building is in ruins by now, yet it exudes a melancholic sense of nostalgia of the old times. We got close and peeked inside. The glass walls are completely shattered, so stepping in would be the easiest thing. What you see is a one-room space, completely empty but for an overthrown couch, debris and floorboards covering the floor.
How spacious, bright and lively it must have been in the old days. You know when, toward the very end of the ‘Titanic’ film, you see images of the wrecked ship underwater and flashes of what its interiors looked like back when the ship sailed? And you actually see its colours and hear the music played, the widespread chatter hovering like white noise in the background. That is the kind of feeling I got.
The stone staircase next to the café takes you down to the river port, which there’s no way you could possibly glimpse from there, as the view is completely blocked by the trees and bushes surrounding it.
The river port was very popular amongst the Pripyat people. It takes a great deal of imagination to ‘see’ what the spot looked like in 1986. All that’s left now is the red railing of the pier, a wooden boardwalk disappearing into the water and, in the distance, a few cranes and a rusty shipwreck.
Sadly, there was no time to linger about for as long as we wanted to. That is also the main (if not only) downside of one-day tours: there is a lot to see, and as a result you can’t afford to spend that much time in one spot or inside a building.
To reach the old cinema we walked along a pile of rubble. What was there before it crumbled down, no one could have guessed. As it turned out, there stood a monument now placed outside the power plant. We had seen it just an hour earlier or so, but couldn’t photograph it, as it would have meant photographing also something forbidden. That’s the thing with the Zone: with every thing and every place, what you see now is what remains of something that was whole and now looks irreparably broken.
The old cinema (кинотеатр) is a one-storey cube that looks gutted by fire or a bomb. What strikes the eye here is the contrast between the utter decay of the interiors and the brightly coloured mosaic decoration on the façade. I peeked inside through the doorframe (the glass panes are long gone), and all I could glimpse were rubble and debris. It was all monochrome, as if time, going by, had drained the colour from all things around, only to make the mosaic outside stand out even more. Which it does: the mosaic is far from intact, but you have to take a close look to spot the missing pieces or notice the patches where the decoration has fallen off.
The (remains of the) city centre
As we left the cinema, we resumed walking down what is now a narrow, half-paved half grassy alley. Formerly it was the high street. At its very end we stepped onto a broad clearing, half surrounded by dilapidated buildings, trees randomly sprouting out of the asphalt. ‘Okay, so this is the main square’, Yulia said.
Whoa. The main square. Okay, focus. Try and remove the trees, wipe the cracks and holes off the asphalt, erase the rust and polish the buildings, and you kind of sort of start to make sense of things, but really, it’s not the easiest job. I was stunned beyond words.
One side of the square is lined up by the former administrative building. After the catastrophe, new offices were opened in the building so as to monitor the situation and manage the impact of the explosion.
Next to it is the Polissya Hotel (готель Полiсся), one of the tallest buildings in Pripyat.
Next to it is the Palace of Culture (Дворец культуры), whose name, Energetik (Энергетик), entails a twofold meaning, as it evokes both the dynamic drive fuelled by culture and the energy production that propelled the growth of the city itself.
Fun fact: the buildings are all connected with one another by means of corridors, balconies or terraces. In the old days, when it was dark, the whole block was lit up by a thin line of lights that outlined their silhouettes in the darkness.
After seeing and walking across the square, we visited the sports centre, where we got to see the swimming pool and the boxing ring. The swimming pool has long lost is swimming-related purposes, and all that’s left is a pool of greyish water in a sea of plaster flakes. Staring at it felt like looking at an old photo where the black-and-white toning has turned into grey, and no extra vintage filters are needed to convey the message. As for the boxing ring, it is strikingly similar to a giant Mikado game gone bad.
The amusement park
The amusement park is the very final post you reach during the tour and, again, how coincidental. Yes, because regardless of whether you’re familiar with or interested in the Chernobyl site or not, chances are you have seen or glimpsed at least one photo of the carrousel from Pripyat’ amusement park.
There’s more than the carrousel itself in the park, namely a swing ride (or what remains of it), bumper cars and another ‘thing’ whose purpose I could not quite figure out. The park was scheduled to open on 1 May 1986. Rumour has it that they opened in on the very morning of 26 April to draw people’s attention away from what had just happened. Pripyat was then evacuated on the afternoon of 27 April.
The amusement park area is still one of the most radioactive of the whole site. There’s this one spot on the carrousel, by one of the yellow cabins near the ground, where, if you place a dosimeter right underneath it, the warning alarm goes off and a super high number appears instantly on the display. If you then withdraw it, the number plummets back down.
The very last buildings we walked past on the way back to our car were a once exclusive restaurant (pесторан) and, next to it, the shopping centre and the ‘White House’ block of flats I mentioned above.
And that was it. We found our driver waiting for us not far from the restaurant. We got back into the car and drove to the Chernobyl hotel where lunch had been prepared specially for us. It was around four o’clock. We had been around the Exclusion Zone for a good six hours nonstop. It could have been six days or six minutes. Time has a funny way of going by inside the Zone.
Derelict, empty and still as it might feel, Pripyat is actually less lifeless than it looks. Nature is incessantly reshaping the face of the city, and traces of human presence are recurrent here and there throughout the site. After all, there are no fences marking the borders of the Zone, so it does ‘happen’ that, when you cross the site of the amusement park, your guide points to a dozen tiny white statues aligned on the swing ride, which tiny statues ‘were not there a few days ago’.
‘Illegal visitors’ break into the Zone on a regular basis, and spend time around the area. They are known as stalkers and, while some only go for walks down the streets of Pripyat (or elsewhere in the Zone), others go as far as removing contaminated objects of all sorts. Whichever the purpose of the ‘visit’, intruders are prosecuted as trespassers. In fact, an extra article has been specially added to the Ukrainian Criminal Code.
I have to say, before I visited the Zone I wasn’t familiar with the ‘stalkers’ label at all. As I learned, the name derives from a 1979 film by the same title by Russian director Andrey Tarkovskiy. Interestingly, the film portrays a setting that turns out to be eerily similar to the way the Chernobyl disaster unfolded seven years later. That, and the fact that Pripyat appeared in a couple of popular videogames contributed to the rise in the number of people illegally entering the Zone (and especially Pripyat).
Walking down the ‘streets’ of Pripyat and seeing it with my own eyes remains one of the most intense, unique and bewildering experiences I’ve had so far in my life. You see photos online, you read about how nature took over and green is now everywhere, but nothing, nothing prepares you for what you see when you’re there.
I don’t think I can possibly have any more thoughts to describe what the Chernobyl visit entails and the extent to which what you get exceeds, if not overturns, any expectations you could possibly have before.
For one thing, what is not there anymore, because swept away by years and decades of abandonment, is at least as relevant and visible as what is still there. And what is more, it does take a while to appreciate the full extent of the events that took place there, and to process the amount of info and sights you get to respectively hear and see. So maybe this whole four-post ramble is just my own way of processing all the info and sights I heard and saw on my day inside the Zone.
It’s Julian Barnes’s book title that best sums up the whole ‘Chernobyl feeling’ you get to experience around the Exclusion Zone. The Noise of Time lingers everywhere.