For many landscape photographers, whether they are in to urban exploration or not, Chernobyl is a bit of a hot spot on the list of places to go. The image that always seems to spring to mind when you think of Chernobyl is the abandoned ferris wheel. It’s not actually in Chernobyl though. The ferris wheel, the dodgems, the abandoned hotel and supermarkets, the school, the swimming pool… are all actually in the neighbouring town of Pripyat, or Prypiat, depending on your persuasion.
That was the first surprise when I visited here in 2016; just how many people are still living within the exclusion zone. Not thousands, granted, but approximately 600-700 people reside in Chernobyl, including workers at the plant (3000 people still work there and many of them commute in from Slavutych, by train). Our tour didn’t extend out to many of the other villages but I understand that a number of people returned to their homes after the disaster, ignoring or refusing the advice given.
Another surprising, but pleasant, fact, is the way that nature and wildlife have fought back since the disaster in 1986. At one point during the tour we were taking a walk through Pripyat and crossed a small wall in to what can only really be described as woodland. There was an odd path running through the trees in an oval shape, and a few artefacts that didn’t quite look right, and then a grandstand appeared out of nowhere. A seated grandstand. We were in a sports stadium and that weird curved path was indeed the running track, or at least it used to be. If you want to see how it used to look, search online for Avanhard Stadium. This is how it looks now:
I mentioned the wildlife, and although my experience on the day was limited to 1 cat and a pack of wild but friendly dogs, it’s believed that there are now more mammals living in the area than before the disaster. Scientists have spotted wild boar, deer, wolves, moose, european bison, brown bears, and lynx in the zone. There are actually believed to be up to 400 wolves roaming the abandoned villages, all surviving by consuming highly toxic prey. Just in case you missed that – there are 400 highly radioactive grey wolves roaming freely. Touching their carcass would be would be toxic to humans.
So back to the tour, and it started at a checkpoint on the edge of the exclusion zone which covers just over 1000 square miles. Passports had to be shown when entering the zone, and names checked by a very strict looking uniformed man who looked like an extra from Goldeneye. On exit, later that day, there were buildings on the side of the road where you were screened for levels of radiation. No one failed, thankfully.
The main road to Chernobyl is long and straight and one of those places where you feel that if you scream no one will hear you. We made a number of stops early on, at signs, at a kindergarten, a memorial, and a diversion off the main road to Duga Radar – an old soviet over-the-horizon radar system to warn of ballistic missiles. The size of this thing was overwhelming. My camera couldn’t fit it all in. Here are some pics from the early stages of the tour:
We pushed onwards to Chernobyl town, then to the nuclear power plant and on in to Pripyat:
Now, the town of Pripyat is where it all happens. I’ll state right now that the whole thing felt a bit stage managed, and you’ll see why in the photos, especially the ones from inside the school. You might have already thought it from the earlier pictures of the kindergarten, but this is Dark Tourism, and you gotta give the public what they want to see. Fans of S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Call of Duty will probably recognise some of the locations here:
Stage managed? What are your thoughts? Let me know below:
Abandoned leisure centre and swimming pool. As with some of the other stuff I’ve posted, I thoroughly recommend searching online for how it used to look. The pool was called Azure, in Pripyat. There’s even a video of the place on youtube:
So after taking all of these the sun quickly set and the light dropped. The city of Pripyat plunged in to an eerie darkness and it was time to get out of there. It was the most incredible pink and orange sunset I’ve ever seen but no photos of that unfortunately as we were already on the transport back to Kiev to get some grub and cheap local beer and rest ready for the flight home the next morning.
That about covers the day. A huge thanks to Josh, Shane, Lee and Tony that came along with me for the day.
Dark Tourism certainly isn’t for everyone, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable day, most definitely educational, and heartbreaking.
There’s a few more pics on my instagram page, currently using the hangle @dndvdsn but by the time you read this I’ll probably have changed it again.
Don’t forget to follow on facebook if you’re still on that old place – Dan Davidson Photography in the search field will find it. Like the page before you leave.
Til the next time…