In the Shadow of Chernobyl: Notes From The Ukraine

3 03 2010

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I can’t help but stare at his gun; I’ve always had a lust for weaponry. I feel a mischievous urge: it’s the same urge that makes me want to shout in libraries or throw things at actors at the theatre; something in me just wants to see what would happen. I rarely act on these urges, but they do fill me with a kind of perverse glee. I want to grab the gun and fire it; to hear the crack of the bullet leaving the chamber; to smell the exquisite odour of spent gunpowder; to feel the power of life and death in my hands.

I daydream a little. Surely grabbing the service weapon of the military-fatigued, ultra-stern, permanently frowning, Ukrainian Border Guard at the outer edge of the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone would not end well. I contemplate the likely sequence of events and conclude that making a grab for the gun would almost certainly result in me getting riddled with bullets and having my bleeding corpse tossed in to the pristine snow like a bag of old rubbish. I decide against it.

While I’m pondering this, there is a torrent of Russian going on between our tour driver and the border guard. Neither of them speak a word of English, nor can we converse in their native tongue, so Nathan, Ben and I are having a hard time keeping up with the unfolding situation. They’ve pulled the three of us off our tour bus and the guard is comparing our passports to a piece of paper scrawled with Cyrillic letters and symbols we can’t even begin to decipher.

After some deliberation, “Nyet!” barks the guard, “Hotel. Kiev.” He waves his hand and abruptly walks back to the small building, slamming the door closed loudly behind him. We’re mystified: what’s happening here? Do they want to speak to our hostel? Were we supposed to follow him? While we’re scratching our heads, our tour bus suddenly also departs and disappears off down the road leaving the three of us standing alone and confused in the snow and ice thirty kilometres from the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history and a million miles from anywhere else. It starts snowing again; we look at each other. Fuck.


Abandoned at the Border

The weekend had started well; upon arriving at our hostel they’d immediately given us a beer and a large glass of vodka served from a bottle with a pump-nozzle attached (Note: this is one of my favourite ways to be welcomed). We confirmed our Chernobyl tour for the following day, paid our money, and set out for a night on the town.

Walking the streets of Kiev is like stumbling in to a city-wide fashion show; some combination of Soviet genetics, nuclear fallout, and the second-world scarcity of Kentucky Fried Chicken has resulted in a nation of supermodels. Not only that, there seems to be a serious shortage of men; everywhere we went it seemed to just be us and a room full of stunning women stealing glances in our direction. Regretfully, through some cruel twist of fate, none of them spoke even the tiniest amount of English, so our attempts to start conversations were met only with big smiles and general confusion. So much for the language of love being universal.

After many pints of Ukrainian beer, several shots of Nemiroff vodka, and some ice-cream we’d found while on a drunken midnight mission for cream doughnuts, we found ourselves sharing a table with two Russian girls visiting from Moscow who seemed delighted to be talking to three strapping young men. After several more unnecessary vodka shots with the womenfolk, a paper dart throwing competition, and a brusque telling off from bar staff for flinging airborne projectiles in every direction, we staggered back to our hostel and set an early alarm for our tour in the morning.

I awaken sweating, with a thumping headache, and the urge to vomit; bad things happen when you start doing vodka shots in the mid-afternoon. I open the window and let the cold air blast against my face, but I already know it’s not going to be enough to stave off the forthcoming rebellion of my body. I dash to the bathroom. After purging my stomach of the remainder of last nights efforts the three of us go and stand outside and wait to be picked up for our tour. All I want to do on the bus is sleep or die, but the driver plays terrible pumping euro-pop at maximum volume for the whole three hour journey to the Chernobyl border which makes any kind of rest an impossible goal.

Now on top of what already a rather unpleasant journey, we’ve been abandoned in the middle of a frozen wasteland without any real idea of why or what to do now. I hope the woman at the hostel might be able to act as an interpreter and find some resolution to our predicament, so we rap on the window of the guard booth and make a phone gesture to the guards sitting inside. They look at us with unmasked loathing. One of the men reluctantly opens the window and I hand them a small piece of paper containing the hostel’s number. He fondles the paper for a moment then says something to his colleagues which causes an outbreak of raucous laughter, then he hands the scrap back and slams the window closed.


Warning: Radiation

We’re now a little panicked: it was -9°C in Kiev and is markedly colder out here, plus a biting wind has picked up which only serves to rob us of what little warmth our bodies are generating. We’re all shivering, the guards are openly hostile towards us, and none of us have mobile phone reception; we’re genuinely starting to fret about the unpleasant four or five hours that lie ahead until our tour bus comes back in the other direction and I’m already quietly thinking about hypothermia. We’re about as isolated from civilisation as it’s possible to be and the only living creature that wants anything to do with us is a lone Alsatian guard dog who is looking to get her belly rubbed. We oblige.

With few other options, we make our way to a small shelter half a mile down the road. It has an open face and contains only a small broken bench, which hardly makes it an improvement over standing on the open road, but at least we’re away from the menacing stares of Border Patrol and it does provide a little protection from the icy winds.

Nathan starts sprinting up and down the road to warm up. Ben is noticeably shaken and starts using language that is not typical of himself and far too profane to quote here. I get out my mp3 player and a small speaker and chuck on some Pearl Jam; if we’re going to freeze to death I figure we might as well die with a soundtrack.

We’re at a loss for what to do. Ben thinks he might have had a single bar of mobile reception back toward the border, so he starts patrolling back and forth trying to capture an elusive signal. Nathan tries to wave down the occasional passing car with little success. I get out all my camera gear and start screwing around in the snow. Hell, there is nothing else to do.


Mother Motherland Statue A.K.A ‘Tin Tits’


Nathan finally has some success waving down a car; a beaten up old Lada with silver tinted windows rolls to a stop. The driver winds down the window letting a great cloud of thick smoke escape in to the frigid air. The man is wearing full camouflage gear, has greasy slicked back hair, and all gold teeth. “Americans?” he asks with a sinister smirk. We all look uneasily at each other, from the vibe he’s giving off he might as well have said “Would you like to get robbed and beaten?” We wave him on. He sneers at us and pulls away.

Meanwhile, Ben has finally had some success getting some mobile signal and manages to get through to the girl at the front desk of the hostel. “Oh, we’ll send someone to pick you up.” she says nonchalantly, “Wait where you are.” Um, sure. Where else would we go?

After a very chilly couple of hours waiting by the roadside and having each done numerous star-jumps, press-ups and furious sessions of jogging on the spot, a car finally rolls up and out pops what I can only describe as a Russian version of Bruce Willis. He looks all business: big leather boots, an animal skin jacket, a chest the size of a barrel, plus a few gold teeth of his own. “Come my friends!” he exclaims with a wide grin and shepherds us in to his car. The warmth makes us all a little giddy.

Our saviour puts Nathan on the phone with the owner of the tour company who apologises profusely for screwing up our entry permits and by way of making amends, offers to put us up in a hotel an hour or so from Chernobyl and will organise for us to have our own private tour the following morning. Furthermore, he says he will personally collect our belongings from our original hostel and then collect us from the Chernobyl border after our tour and will deliver us to the airport that afternoon. From seeming like an complete failure not a half-hour before, our visit to the Ukraine suddenly looks like it might work out all right after all.


Checking Our Radiation Levels (Chernobyl Reactor 4 In The Background)


Our evening’s accommodations appear to be some kind of hunting lodge set alone alongside a barren stretch of snow-covered road. The interior is all stone and wood and lined with all manner of taxidermied critters in an assortment of staged positions. Ginormous antlers hang from every wall and comprise the legs of most of the tables; a large stuffed beaver stares blankly at us next to a fake pond of stagnant green water; a giant eagle hangs from the ceiling; a wild boar stands outside the window.
We retire to our quarters for an afternoon nap before dinner only to find more dead animal decorations scattered around the rooms. It’s beyond me how anyone would come to the conclusion that a dead weasel filled with polystyrene and glued to a stick would make a nice ornament, but evidently it’s all the rage in these parts.

The following morning, as promised, we are collected by our own personal tour guide. He has a serious facial tic; his chin seems to move erratically as if of its own accord. He tells us he lives inside the nuclear exclusion zone, and suddenly the tic makes perfect sense. We collect a Geiger counter for measuring radiation levels and head towards the power plant.




We drive for a long time through the barren landscape. Snow covers everything, but you can see that nature long ago set about reclaiming the man-made structures. Buildings small and large are now eroded and crumbling and engulfed in weeds and foliage. Pripyat, the town built to house the workers of the Chernobyl reactor, has succumbed to rust which eats away at any exposed metal and the broken windows and devastation are absolute. In the rush to abandon the city much was left behind. We came across old 1980’s newspapers and decaying children’s toys while exploring through the desolate shell of what was once a jewel of the Soviet empire.
We park up a few hundred metres from the ill-fated reactor and the large metal and concrete sarcophagus that now entombs the once exposed core. Our Geiger counter starts beeping away furiously; we opt not to stay long. Even after 25 years the radiation levels are too high to spend any extended time in the area.
Trudging back to the car through the snow we I can’t help but think with the world’s energy demands continuing to grow, and nuclear one of the few strong candidates to meet these needs, Chernobyl is a stark reminder of what can potentially go wrong with nuclear energy. Geographical isolation prevented Chernobyl from being a bigger catastrophe than it already was, but more recent disasters like Fukushima show that even with scientific advances of the past two decades, nuclear still can pose a serious threat to human life and the environment. But the real question, in lieu of viable clean renewable energy, what other alternatives do we have?


Ukrainian Chic: Hotel Room Deluxe



Pripyat Amusement Park



Nathan at Pripyat




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5 responses

3 03 2010

Hey Mark,

Nice post – I am incredibly envious of your trip there – it looks incredible and sparse – particularly in the snow. fave shot of the bunch!

Where are you off to next?

3 03 2010

Thanks Ele! That’s my favourite shot of the bunch too!

Off to America next! Spending three months there starting in May. Wooo roadtrip! :D

3 03 2010

You’ve inspired me to read further into it after mention of the workers at the plant that volunteered for certain death to save thousands of other lives.
Nice read, poignant topic.
Chur, G

4 03 2010
Win Morice

Wow Mark…this needs to be submitted for publication…a truly gripping story. KEEP WRITING!

9 02 2012

Don’t know if you have ever read this, ‘THE NUCLEAR ENERGY OPTION’ Professor Emeritus, Bernard L. Cohen, University of Pittsburgh, Published by Plenum Press, 1990 It’s oninle. The chapters on the design of the Chernobyl plant and the details of the accident and aftermath are the most detailed I’ve read. In fact, the whole book is terrific.

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