The abandoned city of Pripyat


When a nuclear accident destroyed much of Power plant number four at Chernobyl, the resulting radioactive cloud spread across much of western Europe, leading to restrictions on milk and farm animal consumption from affected areas, many of which have only been lifted in the last 5 years. Meanwhile, 5 km's from the reactor was a modern city called Pripyat, housing many of the plants workers and families. It remains uninhabitable for 20,000 years.

Pripyat was a small modern city surrounded by vast swathes of forest that stretch to nearby Belarus and almost reach the Ukraine's capital, Kiev, 130 km's away. With a population of just over 50,000 it had every amenity that its citizens could wish for. It boasted several schools, a hospital, two cinemas, an abundance of parks, and a sports centre with an Olympic sized swimming pool. 

A new stadium had recently opened for its successful Ukrainian Division Two soccer team, and an amusement park was less than a week away from its grand opening, exciting the younger inhabitants of the city with the promise of its attractions including rides, dodgem cars and a large Ferris wheel.

The events on the evening of April 26th, 1986 changed the city forever. With the explosion of the reactor at Chernobyl, it was evacuated 24 hours later. A long time for radiation to be dumped on its inhabitants and buildings, but it took that long before the authorities realised exactly how serious the situation was.

Told that they were only going to be gone for a few days, and only to pack the bare essentials, the citizens of Pripyat left their city on buses to Kiev, for eventual re-settlement, but unknowingly never to return to their homes. Today the city is enclosed within high metal fences and with a military checkpoint preventing unauthorised visitors from entering.

The tower blocks of Pripyat poke out from under the trees with Chernobyl in the distance
If you once were a resident of the city you may only enter once a year to visit the nearby graveyard, or alternatively you can join one of several tours run out of Kiev, sitting alongside that more unusual type of traveller, the 'Dark Tourist'.

Before boarding the mini-bus close to the main railway station, I overheard a couple of my fellow passengers engaged in a vocal discussion on which was the best Nazi death camp they had visited. 

Myself, I love abandoned sites, whether they be ghost towns like Kolmanskop in Namibia, abandoned mines in Papua New Guinea or ancient cities like Xanadu. And Pripyat was abandoned, and it had happened more recently, and more dramatically, than all of the others I have visited. 

Passing through three checkpoints in the 30 km exclusion zone we finally entered the city. Although now it was beginning more to resemble a forest, with the occasional concrete building sticking out amongst the greenery.

A junction with traffic lights and a pedestrian crossing, but where...
We climbed the tallest building, a 16-floor tower block, gaining access to the roof through a rusted open hatch. It was slow going climbing thirty two sets of steps, particularly with a respirator on.

Looking down from the top it was clear that the whole city had now become a nature reserve, many trees had grown as high as the smaller buildings around us, and most of their rooves had collapsed revealing the skeletons of the apartments inside.

In the distance the Chernobyl power station was visible, a rain shower had created a rainbow over the new mausoleum covering the still leaking reactor number four, which now resembled a massive aircraft hangar.

Leaving the apartment block we walked down the main two lane highway through Pripyat, which was now almost indistinguishable from the surrounding forest with only small patches of road visible, or, if you looked up, a lamp post intertwined with a tree.

The Olympic swimming pool
The sports hall has an Olympic pool, now the deep end is covered with rubble, rather than water, while the planks on the indoor football pitch had begun to lift, or disintegrate, as the rain entered through the broken windows.  

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the army retreated from Pripyat before the newly formed Ukrainian army took over. Vandals made use of the time to steal (highly radioactive) goods or just smash things, and in the hospital next door, they had left the main lobby ankle deep in broken glass and medicine bottles. 

In one room was a huge pile of sand, not for building works, or even to amuse waiting children, but to bury the highly radioactive clothes of the emergency services that first responded to the disaster before the evacuation.

The Ferris wheel in the amusement park
A short walk from the hospital, through what have been a small courtyard but had now become yet another patch of forest, was the amusement park. One of the most photographed and recognisable sights in the city. The Ferris wheel still stands bright yellow against the encroaching trees and looks as if a switch could still be flicked for the ride to start again.The park was only actually used for a few hours on the day after the explosion, to calm down the locals who, hearing rumours, had begun to get extremely concerned about what was occurring a few km's away. 

The parks grand  opening was planned for the following weekend, but the authorities decided to open it early, to focus the residents minds on something else, although also exposing those enjoying the rides to even higher doses of radiation. The Geiger counter I had with me was beeping wildly here, and I decided not to linger. 

It is a sad sight, the dodgem cars never to be ridden again, alongside the collapsed merry-go-rounds overgrown with vegetation, and the silent motionless Ferris wheel.

What would have been a place of joy and happiness was now just desolate and dangerous, much like the rest of the abandoned city of Pripyat.

A decaying globe on the floor of the school