60. Chernobyl Life

Last year I was luckily enough to fulfil my persistently reoccurring dreams of living in a post apocalyptic wasteland, devoid of human life. My original report is here: http://www.urbanxphotography.co.uk/pripyat

I was in the radioactive exclusion zone for just 4 hours. But… it fundamentally changed the way I lived, the way I thought.

It was a once a lifetime trip, which I’d never repeat.

Then, 8 months later I’m offered an opportunity: to go to the zone again, but to spend a decent amount of time there.

I’d be living with the military personnel who guard the damaged reactor. They work a ‘3-4’ Shift pattern to limit their exposure time in the zone. I’d be staying long enough to span two shifts of workers…Eating with them, sleeping with them, and drinking a lot with them!

I began saving every penny I could. I spent my evenings packing, unpacking and repacking.

Checking every battery charged, every memory card blank, every lens spotless. I took two of everything; I’ve learnt “to have one of something is to have none of something. To have two of something is to have one of something”. You don’t want to be in this once-in-a- lifetime situation when your camera decides not to work, with your spare SLR body 1,700 miles away.

I spent my evenings researching the zone and Pripyat. It became apparent that there has never been produced a single map, showing every point of interest. So I set about making one. I pooled several sources of knowledge, anecdotal evidence, and aerial photography, taking nearly 100 hours I produced this:

Months before the visit, I submitted my passport details to the Ukrainian Government, along with all my personal details, including work address, so they could thoroughly investigate me and my life; making sure I wasn’t Bin Laden’s long lost brother. Many people think this is over-paranoia, or exaggeration on my part, yet they forget there is still 190 tonnes of radioactive material in Reactor 4 - the authorities need to vet who is allowed near it.

I had concerns about the length of time I would be spending in the zone, 16 time the normal ’extreme’ trip; so I visited Dr Buscombe at the department of Nuclear medicine. He has lectured in over 40 countries on the effects of radiation, and has spent lengthy periods in the zone. He gave me tips on living in the zone and how to avoid ingesting ‘hot’ radioactive particles. Not as easy as you think when you have to eat, drink, clean your teeth, and shower whilst breathing in the hot steam of Chernobyl water! He allays my fears, and tells me to drink plenty of the local alcohol.

This trip did have a different feel to it.
A lot more serious than before.
Previously I had gone with a couple of mates, the journet to the airport involved stopping at the services for a fry up, all joking around, y’know…

This year I soberly kissed my loved ones goodbye on my door step, then started walking alone…
Bound for the most radioactive place on Earth.

Due to a last minute change I landed in an airport which had seemingly been set up at someone’s house. It was in the middle of a residential street, and even had a door number. They had set the ‘baggage reclaim’ up in a tent in the garden.

You think I’m joking don’t you?

As fun as this scenario seems, I was being picked up at the airport by a government official: who was to take me straight to the zone.

Running a full 2 hours late he wasn’t happy. We sped off through Kiev into the night. After an hour of driving through the dimly lit villages surrounding Kiev, the houses stopped.
The streetlights ran out, and it was pitch black. Another full hour driving through the darkness without seeing another vehicle, another hour later we pulled up at the 30Km Checkpoint and I was allowed out to stretch my legs while they checked my paperwork.

As soon as I began to unzip my camera bag I heard that familiar bark of “NO FOTOGRAFF! NO FOTOGRAFF!” I managed to reel off a couple of dirty shots from the hip.

The road into the zone:

As we drove further into the zone I reminded myself that even though we were only doing around 30mph, I was probably still the fastest thing for at least 130Km in any direction.

My guide showed me where I would be sleeping, actually in Chernobyl itself; I was surprised how plush it was.

I couldn’t sleep though.
I could feel the blood coursing through my veins, spiked with adrenaline. I couldn’t believe I was here, having a sleepover, in bloody Chernobyl.

My thoughts instinctively turned to alcohol, however due to the time of our arrival (and there being no 24 hour Tescos in Chernobyl) I was concerned that I’d have to try and sleep without a single drop of liquor. I had packed extremely light (photographic gear aside)

This was somewhat contrasted by my ’UK Fixer’ “Simon” who had a massive suitcase, which the airport had angrily stuck a ‘heavy’ sticker on. He called me into his room to show my why…

He had packed 15 litres of UK Scrumpy! (and a toilet roll, and 60 documentaries on Chernobyl…)

I’m not a religious man, but if Gods walk among men, this is it. He properly saved that night, and I still thank him for it.

However there was something with even more alcohol in - this guy:

I fulfilled another dream that night. Getting drunk with the Chernobyl guards.
I had bought a hipflask of Southern Comfort, which was quickly downed by the locals who had never tasted anything like it. Equally, I got hooked on this guys Ukrainian wine which was 17.5%. We drank beyond the silent Chernobyl night, to the silent Chernobyl morning.

Everything in the Ukraine works on bribes.
I always tip my guides, its only courtesy; however my ‘top tip’ for the zone is to give your guide a large tip - BEFORE he shows you round, you might just get to see some stuff you didn’t expect to…

Following the giving of the tip I’m led into a room to sign “The Contract”. The rules of the zone:

“During your Chernobyl tour it is totally prohibited to:

Carry any kind of weapons;
Drink liquors or take drugs;
Have meal and smoke in the open air;
Touch any structures or vegetation;
Sit or place photo and video equipment on the ground;
Take any items outside the zone;
Violate the dress code (open-type shoes, shorts, trousers, skirts);
Stay in the exclusion zone without the officer responsible for the envoy.

…Foreign and Ukrainian nationals, who visit the exclusion zone voluntarily with any purpose, shall be aware of the fact that, while staying in the exclusion zone, they will be subject to external and internal exposure as a result of radioactive contamination of the environment (air, soil, water objects, and also buildings, transportation facilities, equipment, etc.).”

There are eight fundamental rules, we only managed to break seven of them on our first day. Must try harder.

It was time for breakfast, I realised I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours, yet hadn’t been hungry, just riding on adrenaline. In Chernobyl they have functioning buildings such as the café. Except they tend to put them in buildings which are 90% abandoned.

Here’s the canteen:

Oh sorry it’s at the other end of the room:

The food is fantastic. They start the day with a 3 course breakfast including sausages and mash, in mascarpone sauce. Note my Ukrainian driver (Stig) in the background, more about him later…

I find out that there are actually FOUR shops in Chernobyl. Which is a lot considering the population of workers in the zone. They are however well paid, and these shops thrive on them; selling everything from washing powder to radios, dodgy looking meats to Chernobyl themed mugs.

101 Ways to make yourself ill in Chernobyl:

I stock up on sugary drinks ready for a good days exploring. While my guide stops for a cigarette I wander into me middle of the main highway during morning rush hour:

Near by is the Chernobyl fire fighters memorial. It’s outside the fully functioning Chernobyl Fire station. As I shoot this a fireman in military fatigues is proudly polishing his sign, I give him a solemn nod of respect.

One side has firefighters, one side has liquidators with Geiger’s, but hidden round the back is a man, sick from radiation, with a doctor rushing to save him. It could be seen as an obvious metaphor for the government hiding away anything relating to the effects of the radiation, but it is there if you look for it.

As I’m about to leave, I’m shocked by the presence of another vehicle. This van screams by, ferrying in another small group of workers from Kiev.

The first place on my to-do list is the unfinished cooling tower of Chernobyl Reactor 5.

I’d never seen any photos of it before, only a fleeting view of it whilst driving to Reactor 4. My guide agrees to take me…that tip has already paid for itself.

It was unfinished when Reactor 4 went up, so the upper levels are still clad in scaffolding, which still occasionally sends the odd pole crashing hundreds of meters to the ground. The acoustics in there were mental, and birds of prey circled around inside, riding the thermals. It was also the most (consistently) radioactive place I visited.

A full report can be found here:

Leaving the reactor, our vehicle was chased by a pack of wild dogs; it was scary how long they stayed with us, obviously starving for a nice meaty tourist. My guide asked where I would like to visit next. I had never seen any photographs of the actual fire station in Pripyat, which was used before during and after the disaster, so we began heading there.

There was a strange feel to the place as some rooms had only been abandoned for a decade, where others had lain derelict for a quarter of a century. What was consistent though is the amount of empty vodka bottles. The figertfighters were infamously given copious amounts of vodka before going to ‘liquidate’.

I also found a route up the side of their tower, so had to go for a quick climb, and spectacular view of Reactor 4.

The full firestation report can be found here:

Opposite the firestation was a garage / rooftop scrap yard: Full report here: www.urbanxphotography.co.uk/scrap

Pripyat was a young city, with the average age being just 26. This figure is aided by the number of children that lived there. They were served by 15 kindergartens, and 5 high schools. I knew the kindergarten would be emotional so I decided to have a ‘warm up’ in the local high school.
And emotional it was; I spent ages leafing through ‘topic books’ just like I used to make at school.

I was surprised to find crate upon crate of gas masks in the roof space:

But nothing prepared me for a carpet of 50,000 gasmasks in the canteen:

Read the full report here:

I’d heard a rumour that in downtown Pripyat was a creepy laboratory, used for storing and testing radioactive samples. Not only that but also that it was set in an old abandoned kindergarten…Well, that’s all the folkloric encouragement I need! So we set off to find it.

I wasn’t disappointed. Signs of it’s previous incarnation were everywhere, giving it a creepy feel.

The building was chosen for the study, and storage of radioactive soil samples following the disaster, because of its size and proximity to the massive Pripyat greenhouses.

Samples were everywhere. One couldn’t help but have to walk across them, occasionally popping underfoot, spilling their black radioactive powdery contents onto the floor.

Samples were everywhere, ranging from soil to straw, to flesh. Some were labelled, most were not. They dated up until around 1996, a full decade after the disaster.



Full report can be read here:

It was a beautiful Saturday night in Chernobyl town. The sun was shining, but not too hot, and I’ve managed to buy myself a crate of the 17.5% wine that the guard was previously drinking. After a fantastic dinner with the workers (meaty pancakes) Whilst sat in the car park of the workers accommodation with a half pint tumbler of wine. It became apparent how abundant wildlife is in the zone; I was joined by radioactive hedgehogs, lizards, and of course loads of cats, which flock to still be around the few humans that inhabit the zone for food, and affection.

If you think of the longevity of cats, it is entirely possible that it would have been these cats’ parents that were caught up in the disaster. It would have certainly have been within his grandparents generation.

I believe you can genuinely see the sadness in his eyes.

Not all of the wildlife is as pleasant. Large beetles swarm across the floor, and massive mosquitoes buzz loudly around my ears. I’m wearing the strongest replant available, and yet I suffer no less than 14 caesium-tastic stings from this fella before I give in, and take the drinking indoors.

There was no music, no TV: that suited us just fine. We just sat around drinking, and exchanging old explorers tales. Charlie had bought a coffee table book of luxury bunkers, and we had a good old fashioned story time.

The strong wine was hitting the spot, and with only half pint tumblers available I was soon halfway down my second bottle.

It’s so surreal having a sleepover in Chernobyl.
You have to pinch yourself to reassure yourself that it’s not all a weird dream.
I’m a seasoned traveller and have got drunk in weird places all over the world, but non as weird as this: sat on the floor of the most infamous, radioactive place on Earth.

The surrealism was shattered by one of our number who was determined to provide himself that British home comfort of a hot cup of tea. So much so that even here, he’d managed to haggle himself a kettle element and a Chernobyl branded mug and tea bag. Proudly boiling a mug of Chernobyl’s finest Caesium 137 enriched tap water into a cup of steaming Yorkshire Tea.

Continue Reading Part II:
Part II