Our third day in the exclusion zone starts with the now familiar breakfast, blue skies, and bright sunshine. Conditions aren’t ideal for the brooding images I had hoped for as we planned this trip, only Darren is happy since the weather couldn’t be better for his infra-red work.
Our first location is the main square, flanked on one side by the enormous Hotel Polissa. As we stand there looking up at the trashed hulk we notice the buckled tarmac underfoot – you really have to watch your step if you don’t want to trip over the roots of the many trees which have grown unchallenged in what was once the busiest space in town. There’s some interesting stencil graffiti here and there, and a few less accomplished efforts too: Sacha points to some handwriting on one of the hotel’s pillars and explains that some of the many looters left their names and dates as they checked out.
The adjacent sports hall and cultural centre is in a similar state, and even features a mature silver birch growing in the basketball court. Again you have to wonder whether the perfectly placed sneaker is really authentic, or whether somebody has imported this photographic prop and left it for future generations to enjoy. We also check out the theatre but it’s too dangerous to wander about on stage, where many large holes await the careless tourist. No wonder this isn’t part of the normal tour.
A personal highlight for me is the Azure swimming pool with it’s iconic diving board, trashed tiles, and floor-to-ceiling broken windows. We’ve seen so many images from this location that of all Pripyat’s many wonders this would have been the most disappointing, had we failed to get permission to enter the building like some other tours we’d heard about. Sacha also tells us that the pool was a favourite spot for relaxation used by many of the clean-up workers for many years after the accident. A small blue plastic picnic table lying broken in the bottom was used to float vodka and snacks. It’s possible that workers using the pool at that time will have raised a toast to Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and Boris Baranov, three heroic workers who averted a massive steam explosion by releasing the sluice gates of two large coolant pools beneath the reactor as radioactive magma burned its way down. The only way to get to the gates was to dive into the unlit pools. Bezpalov only came along to hold the torch for Ananenko and Bezpalov, two engineers who knew where to find the levers. The torch failed and they had to work in the dark, emerging from their successful mission to rapturous applause. All three were volunteers. All three were dead soon after.
Adjacent to the pool is a junior school where the floor of one room is covered in children’s gas masks. Nothing to do with the accident, these were standard issue for any public building where children gathered regularly, in case the West attacked with chemical weapons. It’s said that the gas masks are lying around here because looters used this room to remove the filter elements, which contained traces of silver. The corridors of the school are heavily littered with books – mainly Soviet propaganda and communist literature from the likes of Lenin and Marx.
After visiting the school we drive across town to a hospital, which is even more trashed than the school and beginning to fall apart. Most rooms are losing plaster and very little furniture is left, although we do find an entire ward of very rusty children beds and cots. The only equipment remaining is a crumbling piano, which we find just before we have to move on – much to Darren’s disappointment as he as a fetish for these things.
Our last destination in Pripyat is the morgue where some of the first radiation victims ended up. It’s an unremarkable single storey building and both autopsy tables are filled with junk. According to our dosimeters the radiation levels fluctuate wildly depending on where we stood and our guide isn’t happy for us to spend too much time here. It’s chilling to think that most of the radiation present in these walls was brought here via the living tissue of the first liquidators.
Our last day in Pripyat over, we drive back to Chernobyl and collect our possessions from the base, declining one last meal before meeting a different driver for our final journey to Kiev. This new guy is quite, quite mad, and races along the roads as though he’s running from the apocalypse. The only time we stop is at a checkpoint marking the 30km exclusion zone, where everybody has to pass through a body scanner. With your feet and hands pressed against sensors linked to an electronic turnstile, I wait for what feels like eternity for the green light to come on. A red light means we’ve absorbed too much radiation to be allowed to leave, likely through our clothing or by taking a ‘souvenir’. We’re lucky; the green light illuminates, the turnstile clicks open, and we’re allowed to leave the zone. Now our only danger is the driver, who listens to Russian pop on his walkman while undertaking at speed on the hard shoulder.