The three of us are crouched, huddled on the icy roof of apartment block number 15, watching the sharp torch beams of the Ukrainian police department scan the buildings of Lenina Avenue, downtown Pripyat.
I’m not sure if they are looking for us, or are just beginning a routine patrol of the city but our earlier close call has me expecting the former.
A distant guard dogs bark bites through the frozen air as I light another cigarette and wait.
I don’t know why I wanted to go to Chernobyl. Having an abandoned city all to yourself sounds pretty cool; until you think about the decaying Cesium 137 and other atomic nuclei that litter it’s streets and fields. The very cause of it’s abandonment. Maybe it’s just a draw to some kind of adventure which has brought me here. That instinct to be alive; to see life and do all I can with it has brought me to a place that only breeds death.
The driver pulls up adjacent to an apartment block – one of the ubiquitous ‘Panelny Dom’ buildings, utilitarian, mass produced housing units built in the latter days of the Soviet Union that spill across the suburbs of Kiev. The car windscreen is cracked in two places and the brakes squeal like a dying cat as the car comes to a stop on the icy back road. The driver introduces himself in broken English and calls Alex, our Stalker contact who we will accompany on this trip.
Introductions are brief as Alex hauls his backpack into the tailgate of the car, my cigarette scatters red incendiaries across the tarmac like an asteroid hitting the earth’s crust as I push myself into the back of the silver sedan. It’s close to 10pm when we set off from the Ukrainian capital, through the window the dark edges of the city limits give way to bleak villages, Grechka fields and scattered shops with men drinking vodka outside for the rest of our two hour drive. Clint Mansell’s soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream ominously plays through the car stereo as we approach the small village of Cheremoshna at the edge of the exclusion zone.
From here the road patters out into a rough sandy track through pine forests. The exhaust scrapes the ground as we pass the last houses at close to midnight. I ask what the locals think of us. “If you are on foot they will call police, in a car we could be anyone, we could be the police” I doubt the logic of this statement as we grind along the track in a clapped out old Lada but before long we are parked up in the icy grass next to a derelict dairy farm.
It’s good to be moving after the nervous tension of the car journey, without lights and under a starless sky we make our way across the floodplain of the Uzh river. A bed of marsh grasses and weeds surrounds us as we quickly approach the first section of river. We remove our boots and strip down to boxer shorts in the sub zero temperatures and tentatively make our way across the first section of frozen river.Alex warns that the main body of water is yet to come – over the sandy island in front of us – and luckily the ice holds as we each carry our heavy backpacks over the frozen river. The next section of river is faster moving; only an island of ice, attached to some reeds, sits in the middle of the crossing.
Alex goes first and breaks the ice island brandishing a stick, but a few steps on the river deepens and he’s submerged almost to his chest – the bottom of his rucksack under the ice cold water.
He quickly crossed to the other side, looking miserable as Nick and I hitched our jackets up to our armpits and held our bags above our heads. I’m not sure how much he’s downplaying it but Alex says his bag isn’t too wet and we dry off as quickly as we can and move off along an old dirt track through the disused sluces and flood pans.
The ground is frozen with crystalline droplets of ice settled on the grasses as we march onward towards the first buildings of the exclusion zone. Huge warehouses and a water tower mark the end of a dirt track and the start of an old tarmac road. The buildings are the remains of one of the collective farms built in the reclaimed areas of the Polesie Marshes during the 1920’s when thousands of acres of marshland were drained to aid food production for the soviet people. From here the old maps I have show a shorter route through the woods to a small village; so we take that and head into the darkness.
It’s striking how slowly things grow here, I don’t think it’s due to the radiation but rather the intense cold and lack of rainfall. Back home an abandoned space is webbed with ivy and fast growing deciduous trees within a few years but here, especially in winter with the leaves stripped, the forlorn old branches spread slowly across the tracks and through the windows of the collapsing buildings.
Our first night is spent in an old farmhouse. A dusty old shell and it’s cold.. oh so cold. Alex hangs his wet fleece out to freeze and we offer him spare clothing but he says he’s OK. The cold here is different to back home, not such a bitter cold but a deep cold. A cold that gradually seeps into everything, freezing your boots solid overnight and your water bottles as you walk. There isn’t much left in the village. This close to the perimeter everything of value has been striped – copper wire or electronics are long gone and all that remains are shoes, posters or books. Belongings with no monetary value. Left in the dry buildings they don’t decay and fall apart to the touch but you are always aware of the dust collecting in every corner. One grain of the Cesium 137, Strontium 90 or Americium-241 which were expelled from the reactor 4 fire and spread across northern Europe could be lingering somewhere and the constant awareness is not conductive to sleep.
The next morning we set off early from the farm to head further into the exclusion zone.
During the day the roads are risky but by sticking to forests and frozen bog we could move through the zone with impunity. It’s a slightly longer hike today but the ground Is easy, the basin of the Pripyat river is incline free and the soil a soft sand. We cover ground quickly following the footprints of wolves through the pine forest. Although we don’t see much wildlife we see it’s presence everywhere we walk through the tracks of deer, Elk, Przewalski’s horse and grey wolf. At one point the wolf tracks condense around a few droplets of red blood in the white snow. A kill site.
A few hours into the woods we cross an area of grassland and approach a road. One of the main thoroughfares between a 30km checkpoint and and town of Chernobyl, where most of the zones working inhabitants live. We wait in the bushes as a car passes and listen for a few minutes until we are sure we are alone.
A quick dash up the embankment and across the road, all I can hear now is my heart beating at a thousand miles an hour so we run for another hundred meters into long grass and well out of sight of the road.
We joined a raised track above the frozen bog and stop to rest next to a small village so explored a few houses. Exploring in the zone is still possible; beyond the photo perfect setups of gas masks and rusty ferris wheels the villages on the periphery of the zone provide a real frozen in time snapshot of village life in the CCCP – We’re probably in the most traveled section but looking at the maps i’m drawn to return to see villages hidden deeper within the zone.
As we explored the dull thud of a car door broke the silence of the overgrown buildings and after a hushed discussion we set off across a barren area towards the deep pine forests.
Our aim for the day was to reach a remote group of buildings which functioned as a pig farm. Not far from the farm is the large Duga radar array built by the Soviet military to detect missile launches from the west. The huge construction built of rusty metal stands approximately 150 meters high and is one and a half kilometers long. We wanted to climb to the top at sunrise the next day, to sit on this colossal relic of the cold war and see the zone from above.
After miles of hiking through the snow blanketed forest we reached the farm and sat around a table outside the main barn. The small cluster of buildings are used by other intruders to the zone and a few benches and a roof have been erected. We boiled water and ate our dehydrated ration packs with bars of chocolate and a bottle of brandy.
Just a few hundred meters from the barn lie the remains of a Krug antenna circle. A few years ago the steel obelisk like antennas were chopped from their bases and when the buildings were abandoned they were torched but we spend a while exploring the remains. We are starting to run short of water and the basement levels of the building hold many gallons of rainwater so we collect a few bottles and return to our new home to filter the water.
One of the derelict rooms of the farm had been commandeered with black plastic sheeting on the floor and a dangerous looking wood burner sat in the center. We decided to forgo the potentially radioactive warmth of a fire inside the building, although Alex did make a small fire outside to dry his remaining damp clothes, and bedded down in subzero temperatures.. the rotten door a hopeful barricade to any wolves.
At 5 am we awoke, packed and headed towards the Duga array. At one end is a guardhouse with Ukrainian police and dogs but we figured with our alpine start we could ascend from the far end and be down before they noticed. With a bit of luck it worked.
Stashing our bags behind a fence near a guard tower we pulled on work gloves and nervously set off as the sky began to brighten. Breaking through the last of the trees the rusting metal mesh towered above us like a patagonian cliff face. Free climbing the first few meters of ice cold steel wire got us to the start of some rusty ladders that went up, and up, and up, and up. Not looking at the welds, not thinking about the distance we climb and climb and climb and climb. The first few take forever but the last line of ladders are quickly passed and we are on top of the ‘Russian Woodpecker’ the radar that sent an incessant chirp across european radio airwaves.
I spent a few minutes just sitting there taking in the vast expanse of contaminated land around us and looking across to the containment structures of the power plant and tower blocks of Pripyat – but quickly time is passing and we climb down, hands clasping the frozen iron rungs, until we reach the base and quickly dash into the cover of the forest.
The start of our day had been incredible and there was lots more to come. Our aim by the evening is to reach the city of Pripyat, passing by the power plant and red forest.
The red forest is an area of pine plantation directly adjacent to the reactor which became so contaminated that the pine trees turned red from the radiation. Hiking through the forest is far from advisable so we had to walk the busiest stretch of road in the zone to reach our destination.
A contact of ours had left a food package for us near the Duga guard hut so we quietly walk through the forest and Alex retrieves the cache. From there we follow the power lines, walking in the cleared areas below them, until at midday we reach an abandoned missile base.
The missile base was built to protect the radar installations. Situated far from any passable roads few visitors to the zone manage to see it. The S-75 Volkhov was a surface to air missile launch site and has sat unused for many years. We had to wait until dark to walk on the road to Pripyat so had plenty of time to explore the old missile base. The large barrack block had an impressive mural in the mess hall and we found diagrams of the missiles used and old posters explaining the duties of the guards. A large buried hanger is surrounded by concrete launch pads with earth embankments.
There were loading bays for the missiles with tracks and the trolleys used to carry the S-75 missiles.
Around the base there were a lot of abandoned vehicles, far too radioactive to be used again we had some fun with the geiger counter measuring the trucks and aircraft parts.
After exploring the base in its entirety we head back to the barracks to begin packing up our kit.
Nick goes for a shit in the woods. I’m sat in the stillness and am sure I can feel a bass thud.
“I’m sure I heard a fucking radio” Is all I need to hear when he returns – quickly our bags are packed and we’re off.
After walking through miles of grasslands, seeing the hoof prints from wild horses, we reach the ‘Stalker Bus’ a derelict tram carriage on some farmland daubed with graffiti with a guestbook to sign. ‘Stalker’ is the name illegal entrants to the zone have given themselves inspired by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s ‘Roadside Picnic’ and Tarkovskys film adaptation ‘Stalker’. The stark depiction of an area forbidden to enter but with an ethereal draw has become synonymous with the Chernobyl exclusion zone and many parallels can be seen.
Sitting in the bus waiting for dark. It’s so cold. Nick ran in circles around the bus to keep his circulation pumping and we are all eating nuts and drinking coffee to keep our energy levels up. The bass beat that we heard earlier has become more prominent and we are no longer questioning our ears. Somewhere there is a fucking rave. To begin with i’d thought the noise could be works at the power plant, industrial machines, and Nick’s mid shit radio clatter could have been from the Ukrainian armies border guards searching for intruders, but things were starting to make sense and Alex’s spot of internet access confirmed it – An ‘Art Rave’ was happening in Pripyat.
It was dark but still early – the cold was too much so we had to move. The sound stopped at 6pm and we started walking towards the road by 7. An advantage, for us, of the relatively flat, straight roads is that you can see a car’s headlights in the distance long before they see you, so walking in single file and constantly glancing behind we marched along the road that separates the power plants from the red forest for miles. A few times we saw lights ahead and dashed into the bushes beside the road. A few cars and a big truck. The roads were far busier than we had anticipated and the constant alerts are tiring, but eventually we reached the large concrete sign proclaiming the entrance to Pripyat.
Nick and I stop for photos and as we take them Alex shouts from the other side of the road – and we see headlights not too far away. We dive for cover in the grass beside the sign, and it’s barely cover at all. Covering camera lenses for fear of reflection a stream of cars and vans pass, 10, 12, and somehow no one notices the camouflaged lumps just meters away from the road.
Adrenaline glands are fully active and we are edgy as we cross the bridge and silently walk behind the main guards checkpoint for the city, but before long we reach buildings and take shelter in the cells of the police station. It’s been such a long day and we chat shit about other explores across Europe and Russia as we crunch on the last of our frozen water.
We discuss our objectives for the next few hours and days, we need water, and we need a place to stay. Of the livable apartments in the city center many are known to the guards but if we went to a safer apartment on the city limits we’d leave a trail of easily followable footprints in the snow. We decide on a good apartment in the city center and head there to make it our home for the next few days. Being careful not to leave obvious prints we find the flat and deposit our bags. The previous illegal occupiers have made it quite homely with furniture scavenged from around the city, the floors have been cleaned well and it’s relatively dust free.
Water in Pripyat is a rare commodity. The safest, and it’s far from safe, place to acquire it is from the tunnel system beneath the Jupiter Factory. Jupiter was built by the Soviets to construct equipment for the KGB and new city of Pripyat, deep in the forests of the western USSR was a perfect location. After the disaster the factory was thoroughly cleaned and the robots used in the clean up operations were built here. We walked to the derelict factory and found a manhole cover on a path. Beneath this cover was a rusty ladder and, surrounded by asbestos clad pipework, flooded tunnels of stagnant rain water. I did say it’s far from safe.
The next few days are a blur of rooftops, abandoned streets and frozen nights. We explore the tourist hotspots when it is dark and in the day avoid the roads to visit the more forgotten parts of the city.
We find an outbuilding in a contaminated wasteland that contains hundreds of plans from across the Chernobyl region – plans of a pioneer camp now left to rot a few miles away and many others. At 2AM we climb to the top of a 16 story tower block and clamber on rusty iron to touch the Soviet star. We test soil samples left in the Radek laboratory, where scientists researched contamination for years after the disaster. We make a quiet getaway when we hear voices late at night near the ferris wheel and quickly head back to our apartment for a few hours sleep. The nights are reaching -7 and we awake to frosty sleeping bags and rock hard boots. Near the school with its stage set gas masks and empty television sets we narrowly avoid a group of tourists in the day. They pass unaware, feet crunching in the snow, a few meters away from us.
The next night we spend a few hours in the hospital and the morgue before walking towards some unfinished surgery buildings close to the power plant boundary. Suddenly a torch beam reflects off the snow and points towards us along a road. We quickly turn and run a few hundred meters before stopping to listen. Hopefully we haven’t been spotted but it’s rare for the guards to leave their hut on cold winter nights – maybe they have seen our footprints or a stray torch beam earlier in the long evening. We silently cross through some woodland and run across another road before climbing a tower block for a better view. After half an hour of nervously waiting for the torch lights to disappear back towards the checkpoint we make our way back towards our apartment, hoping we won’t be discovered overnight.
The next morning we figure we’ve begun to outstay your welcome in the city and should leave before pushing our luck further. The prospect of being arrested after such a successful few days is not an appealing thought so Alex rings a contact, we pack our bags and walk as the sun rises through the radioactive dumping grounds that live at the edge of the city and along the railway lines to the end of a track near the station.
We are glad to be back in Kiev, traveling to our hotel on the busy metro covered in dust and filth, but even then I’m planning a return trip. We’d only scratched the surface of what is there, enough to get me hooked, a draw to return to the zone.
Amazing story photo and text credits to Ben Wilbee
If you guys after adventures we can help you to visit Chernobyl with real “stalker” contact us)