Sneaking past security, hiking sixty kilometres at night and sleeping in an abandoned apartment: my five day stay within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
My fascination with Chernobyl developed at a young age. The idea of exploring a post-apocalyptic world, devoid of human activity, captivated me. I knew it was possible to enter as part of a tour group. But the tours are strict, visiting only a few places for a brief amount of time. That wasn’t what I wanted. I sought the freedom to explore without restrictions, to see sights deemed unsafe. The thought of being stuck in a guided group bored me; it didn’t involve any real adventure. I wanted to sneak in.
After months of researching I found a contact willing to help me achieve my goal. We brought in another adventurer, and the three of us organised our trip together and discussed our route. Climbing over barb wire, river crossing, and traversing through forest at night, it wasn’t going to be easy. A gruelling sixty kilometre journey with an abandoned city as our reward.
We sat in silence, my stomach twisting in nervous excitement, while our car sped toward the exclusion zone. My heart had been pounding with anxiety since arriving in Kiev earlier that day. The reality of the situation hit, I was about to enter one of the most radioactive places on earth. Our car stopped; we exited quietly and scrambled into the cover of nearby trees. Branches scratched my skin as we blindly made our way through the woods. A barbed wire fence appeared in front of us; it marked the border of Chernobyl. We crossed it and entered the exclusion zone.
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That night consisted of a lot of walking. We hiked through kilometres of overgrown trails, forest tracks and tar sealed roads. The roads were the hardest; police cars often patrolled at night hoping to catch illegal visitors. While trekking our way down a long straight road, headlights approached behind us. We scurried off and laid down amongst the trees. As the car passed by, we held our breath and prayed we wouldn’t get caught, staying motionless until the lights faded in the distance. Brushing ourselves off we resumed our journey.
Hours passed and eventually we approached a river. We removed our boots, stripped down to our underwear and waded into the fast flowing water. I felt relieved to reach the other side without getting soaked. Thorny bushes hindered our progress as we continued deeper in to the zone. After hours of walking the three of us grew weary and we knew it was time to sleep. We found a clearing, rolled out our sleeping mats and passed out under the bright, star filled sky.
The sun arose, bringing our surroundings to life with colour. A dense pine forest encompassed the sandy brown tussock where we had set up camp. We set off, heading towards a Soviet radar. Now abandoned, it had been used during the Cold War for detecting missiles. Upon arriving, I noticed how massive the structure was. It loomed above us; standing almost five-hundred metres tall. We decided to climb it. The steel beams creaked and moaned in the wind. A nerve-racking ascent followed, climbing the frail ladders, platform after platform. The effort proved worth it. A phenomenal view greeted us at the top; the sun setting over a sea of dark green.
That night we passed through abandoned farms and villages. Barns and farm vehicles had been left to rot in the fields. We cooked our dinner in an old boarded up bus. Our bellies full and spirits high we carried on toward the abandoned city: Pripyat. Walking through the forest I noticed tall dark shadows either side of me. My eyes focused and I realised the shadows were actually lifeless buildings; we had arrived. Our unofficial guide, Oleg, had an apartment set up for us. He led us through overgrown streets until we arrived at our home for the night. It was on the fourth floor of a nine storey block; a humble flat, filled only with a few beds, a cupboard stocked with supplies, and a small desk covered in books and magazines.
I awoke to the sun shining through a dusty, cracked window. It illuminated the peeling paint and indent covered walls of our room. After breakfast we emerged cautiously from our apartment and began to explore the city. First stop was a Soviet style nursery; a large square block with a central courtyard. Its rooms were littered with decaying dolls and child size gas masks: relics from a time where nuclear war was an imminent threat. It filled me with a sense of dread.
Following footpaths overgrown with leafy trees proved difficult. I felt like an explorer pushing through a jungle trail on route to a lost city. Upon approaching a road, Oleg would caution us to stop while he continued ahead. His head scanning side to side, he would beckon us forward when the coast was clear. From the undergrowth emerged an elevated set of stairs. They formed a decrepit stadium: incomplete. Climbing up the stairs was hot and sweaty with the sun beating down on our backs. I found a cool spot in the shade and placed myself on rotting bench seat. Peering down to the ground below, I imagined athletes running sprints and playing sports.
Oleg answered his phone, speaking rapidly in Ukrainian. After a short exchange he hung up and turned to me with a smile, “I have a present for you.” He disappeared behind a derelict building. Moments later he returned with large, brown plastic bottle: one litre of lager. “Magic!” he proclaimed, with a sly grin on his face. I laughed in astonishment. Weaving through Pripyat, we found ourselves at a huge concrete square; the city centre. The scorching midday sun sent us in search of shade. Inside a dull, grey building we discovered a dark cinema. Resting our weary legs, we pulled down fold out seats and kicked up our feet. While staring at the blank projector screen, we discussed how grand the cinema would’ve been in its prime. I imagined the Soviet propaganda films that would have played there. Taking a moment to ponder, we took turns taking swigs of the fizzy beer. Despite being warm, the malty beverage tasted divine.
When the charm of the cinema faded we returned to our apartment, seizing the afternoon as an opportunity to rest. Oleg had a plan to meet his friends on the roof of a fourteen storey block. He decided to freshen up first, so he led us to the Pripyat River for a swim. I was initially hesitant to the idea, worrying that the water could be contaminated with radioactive particles. Thomas, our German companion, jumped straight in with no hesitation. I followed reluctantly at first, but eventually my anxiety ceased; I swam and enjoyed the crisp water. The scenery was gorgeous; fields filled with tall grass spanned far into the distance. Upstream a dilapidated, half sunken structure reflected in the water. Golden hues from the setting sun started to appear in the afternoon sky.
The city sat in silence, only broken occasionally by a chirp of birds. We arrived at the fourteen storey building and began ascending its seemingly never-ending flight of stairs. The sound of our boots treading on broken glass echoed through the levels with abrasive noise. When the upward climb finally ended we stepped outside and were greeted by a spectacular view. Blocks of high-rises struggled to poke through the treetops, succumbing to nature reclaiming the land. I heard footsteps far below. Looking down, I could see a couple entering the building: Oleg’s friends. They joined us on the roof and we ate traditional Ukrainian food: thick rye bread, pork fat and raw garlic. We washed it down with honey and chilli infused vodka and admired the serenity surrounding us.
The next morning we struggled to pull ourselves out of bed. The previous night had consisted of drinking and sharing stories into early hours of the morning. After a strong cup of coffee and a bowl of porridge, we departed for the Pripyat Hospital. Upon arrival we explored the ground and upper levels. Cabinets filled with syringes and medicine bottles were everywhere. Hospital beds with dirty linen looked as though they hadn’t been touched since they held their last patients around 30 years ago. We came across a desk with a dusty fire-fighters mask sitting on top. Oleg warned us to not get too close. He pulled out his Geiger counter and immediately it started screeching. The radiation emitted from the mask was extremely high. It had belonged to one of the fire-fighters that extinguished the blaze at the nuclear reactor. They were treated at the hospital afterward, but due to lethal radiation exposure they didn’t survive more than a few hours.
Evening arrived and we were eager to explore more. We passed through the ghost city and weaved our way through the now familiar trees and buildings. On the far side we arrived at a place known as the graveyard. It looked like a desert; sand stretched for hundreds of metres. Radioactive hazard signs cluttered the area, like red flags marking a mine field. “What is this place?” I asked. “Contaminated soil was dumped here” Oleg responded. I felt uneasy but he reassured me it was completely safe.
A lake appeared, glimmering like a mirage at the far end of the graveyard. Three massive, rusty cranes stood tall like giraffes on the far side of the bank. They had been sitting unused since the catastrophe. Their final task had been building a sarcophagus over the power plant; a process that had left them incredibly contaminated. “Let’s climb one,” Thomas urged eagerly. Excitement rushed through me at the idea. Oleg pondered for a moment before warning us of the danger. “The metal cranes still emit a large amount of beta radiation. It would be a bad idea to touch them with bare skin.” He decided to lend me his gloves while he waited at the base. Thomas and I began to climb. The ladders groaned with every step, each rung felt more fragile than the previous. Reaching the top I gazed out over the lake. The tranquil water was a mix of pink and blue; the sun a glowing orb gradually descending beneath the horizon.
It was dark upon arriving back at the apartment. Oleg suggested having a shower and tea on the rooftop. “We have some spare water bottles filled from the river, we can use them to bathe” he informed us. We brewed some tea and scaled the stairs. I found myself standing under the starry sky, overlooking the empty city. In the near distance a red light was shining, it glowed from the top of the power plant. Four days ago I couldn’t have imagined myself in this scenario, bathing naked on a rooftop in Chernobyl, so close to the worst radioactive disaster on earth. I warmed myself after the shower by drinking tea and then went downstairs to sleep.
I awoke to water bubbling above the blue flame of the gas cooker. We dug in to our final breakfast: porridge with meat and vegetables. After sipping down some hot coffee, we packed our bags and said final goodbyes to the apartment. We walked in silence as we made our way to our last destination: a boom box factory. That’s what it was known as during the Cold War. The plant only contained one room dedicated to producing stereos; the rest of the factory focused on top secret military technology.
Before we entered, we needed to refill our water bottles. Oleg stopped at a wooden crate covering a sewer manhole. He asked for our empty bottles before disappearing down the hole. “Stephen, catch!” he yelled as a water bottle came flying out of the darkness. It was filled with cool, clear water. Two more bottles followed. We rehydrated ourselves and then proceeded into the factory. Half of it had collapsed due to poor construction, unable to withstand the weight of snowfall in the harsh winters. Some of the rooms had been used more recently by engineers. Designs for radiation resistant robots lay scattered on tables.
We had a driver arranged to give us a ride out of the exclusion zone; a high ranking official who made extra cash by giving illegal visitors rides. Not long after leaving the factory, we reached the pick up destination. It felt like something out of a movie, a quarry filled with rusty machinery, surrounded by railway tracks and trees. We found several bushes and hid while we waited for our unconventional taxi.
A white van sped down the bumpy dirt road and into the quarry. A cloud of dust engulfed the vehicle as it came to a sudden stop. We held our breath and waited in anticipation. Could this be our ride, or were we going to be caught? Oleg slowly reached for his mobile and dialled a number. He spoke softly before giving us a nod. “I’ll go first but don’t follow too close,” he began. “If anyone else is in the van when the door opens, run!” After hearing Oleg’s distrust of our driver, I began to feel nervous. We hustled out of the bushes and approached the vehicle. A middle aged man wearing a baseball cap, shorts and sandals stepped out. He opened the back door. Empty, I thought to myself, and let out an audible sigh of relief. There were no seats in the back. We jumped in and attempted to make ourselves comfortable on the oily floor.
The van flew down the road and every pot hole slammed my body against the hard floor. An hour or so passed before Oleg turned and spoke to us. “Get ready, we’re almost there”. The van came to a stop. We grabbed our backpacks and rushed out the back door. Our driver looked nervous as he scanned the surrounding landscape. Oleg expressed his gratitude and shook his hand. We thanked him hurriedly and then scurried into nearby trees.
After hiking two kilometres, we arrived at a clearing, our final obstacle before we reached safety. The sun glared down intensely from the centre of the cloudless sky. Any police patrols nearby would see us for certain. Oleg proceeded into the open first; he ordered us to wait for his signal. Creeping forward, watching vigilantly with every step, he eventually reached the opposite end of the clearing. When he lifted his hand Thomas started to sprint and I tailed closely behind. We reached the safety of the other side and then triumphantly crossed the barb wire fence. We had made it! I felt extremely satisfied knowing I had escaped Chernobyl without getting caught. It had been everything I had hoped for and more. Rough at times, but ultimately rewarding, and I will remember the experience for the rest of my life.