July 20, 2016

Chernobyl tour

I don’t remember for how I have been thinking about visiting Chernobyl. Probably for a very long time. All I really wanted is to go and show that nuclear power plant my finger and leave it a sarcastic remark “thanks for the cancer gift”.
Lots of issues came up: the political situation in Ukraine. Malaysian Airlines aircraft was shot down in Ukraine. Is Ukraine Airlines safe? Is Kiev safe? Then I just decided I have to go: I got into the bus and thought this is just one of the many world’s extreme tourist attractions. People, who knew I was going, said I’m a fool. Whatever. Even Ukraine was a bit too much for them to handle.
When we reached the first checkpoint for the Exclusion Zone, I thought this is the real thing. 
The roads were quiet, no cars in sight. The road was bumpy and not well maintained. There was a lot of forest, but it didn’t look like a healthy forest. Imagine being concerned about a forest, but it freaked me out. I had seen some “normal” forests earlier during the drive from Kiev, but this was nowhere near normal. Pine trees had just broken some in half, some just fell and they were all dry and sick looking.
I had a Geiger counter and thought I would have it on constantly, but the beeping sound was annoying. I just took it out whenever we left the bus and kept it beeping inside my pocket. The first stop, where the beeping got really loud was in the kindergarten in a village. There were spots on the ground where the radioactivity was really high. Inside the kindergarten it was quiet, kind of damp and dark. Lots of mosquitoes. I took photos because there was nothing else to do. Seeing all the kids’ books, dolls there was really sad. Same feeling was repeated at the school in Pripyat later that day. All I can do is stand there and feel useless.
I didn’t really feel scared. Not even when the Geiger counter showed some astronomical figures. Not when the Ukrainian military chap checked my passport. Not when I entered some of the dark buildings in Pripyat. Some place definitely made me feel uncomfortable such as the Duga-3 radar site. The forest was in a particularly bad shape near the radar. The radar made constant ticking sounds, which some people thought were just sounds of “raindrops”. Raindrops! Yeah right. Imagine having that constant clicking sound and no other sounds. The forest is deadly quiet. You hear the sound of your breath and footsteps. I felt like I needed to talk to myself to make sure I’m not the last person on the earth.
The sleeping dog outside a building in Chernobyl made me very sad. I don’t know if the dog even had a home. Normally I would go and pet the dog and this one seemed friendly, but no one was allowed to touch animals. There were several loose dogs and no one knows if they have rabies.
The whole Pripyat town made me wonder why they didn’t demolish the whole place at the beginning. Now the buildings fall into pieces one by one, but Soviet made concrete jungle crap might be there still for a very long time.
That stillness and silence. When humans leave, the nature and animals take over. If neither I or the other people were not talking then there were no sounds at all. Pripyat was the quietest place of all. We visited several buildings- the public swimming pool, school, amusement park etc. I realized I just want the photos, a quick look around and then out of there. The guide made jokes about zombies. There was a horror movie about zombies and mutated things in Chernobyl and I saw the movie, which was ok, but not the best I've seen.
There was a lot of walking and we stayed in Pripyat for an hour. It was hot, no wind, just sun and finally I had to drink water from the bottle. Until then I was thinking about radiation somehow getting into the bottle. I guess it didn’t, but I had to drink remembering the radiation is everywhere and no one can escape it.
When I finally saw the reactor, I thought that’s it: give it my finger and take a photo. Instead I felt myself getting really confused. Is this the place that caused my cancer and not just mine, but thousands of other people’s too? Or is it the people, who worked in there that night? But wait, those people saved the world. If there had been another explosion, things would have been much much worse and many Europeans wouldn't be living in Europe anymore.
I don’t really have anyone to blame. I thought I’ll never know for sure who or what caused my cancer, but the nuclear power plant surely is a good one to blame. I felt bad for the people who had to move out of Pripyat and leave everything behind and then fall ill on top of everything else. 

At the time we were on the bridge across the river near the reactor. It was quite frightening to think about an unplanned swim in that pond. There were lots of fish, including the big catfish. I saw it through the wooden beams of the bridge and then I couldn’t walk any further. My camera was in my pocket, I took it out, took a couple of photos of the pond. It was quiet around the plant too. The area is so huge and you’d expect people, cars everywhere, but we only saw a couple of employees’ cars and the bus that came to collect the previous shift workers. Those people looked very normal. I don’t know what I was expecting? I don’t think I expected to see any people there at all.
I didn’t expect the silence. If I spent longer time in the area, I would think there were no people left on the earth. The nature; trees, plants and flowers look right, but something- the people are missing. Pripyat is a place that time forgot. No matter how well I thought I had done my research before the trip, there is nothing that can prepare you for the post apocalyptical scene in front of you: at the same time it’s fascinating and you want to explore everything, go inside the reactor and talk to the few people.  At the same time all you want is to get out, have a shower, because you feel contaminated. You don’t want to breathe. You want to throw all your clothes into the trashbin when you return to the hotel and then throw up. That’s how I felt. Taking photos and hoping to be able to tell something to the world about this made it also worthwhile. It didn’t feel unsafe mentally or physically. There were no animals or zombies, and the radioactivity didn’t frighten me that much, but at the same time it didn’t feel right. The way the whole thing was handled wasn’t right, but at the same time those people who worked there that night saved our lives. The whole thing isn’t right. 

So; the scariest and the most uncomfortable things were: the abandoned school in Pripyat. Gas masks, books on the floor. The swimming pool. I hate water anyway so I would have had issues with it. I hated swimming and that heavily chlorinated water at school. The catfish and the fear of falling into the cooling pond. Duga-3 radar and the clicking sounds it made, and the silence of the sick forest. The fear of suddenly being transported into an era 30 years while walking around in Pripyat. Time travel you know. Some ground level radioactive spots, which were totally unexpected. The Geiger counter high readings whilst driving past the ChNPP.
What I liked about this visit? Met new people, found out how scary a total silence can be. Almost found out the truth about the cause of my cancer. Learned that the world hasn’t ended yet, because those people 30 years ago worked hard and saved our lives in Europe. That my problems are nothing compared to what happened in Chernobyl… and that I probably will never go back there. 

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