When the Easter break comes round some people like to holiday in Spain or Italy. Not so Portsmouth-based writer and planetary modeller David Angus. He plumped for Chernobyl…
Good question. It’s not that easy to answer, but I also couldn’t resist the title.
Although the main reason for going to Kiev was the science fiction convention and Chernobyl was close. About as far from Kiev as London is from Portsmouth. Within easy reach. I’m not only into science fiction but have a lust for adventure fuelled partially by natural curiosity and by my inability to lead a ‘normal’ life. I’ve always felt I might as well make the most of the adventurous side of my nature while I’m still able. Chernobyl poses an obvious adventure; but it’s also a unique environment appealing to those into sci-fi.
In 1986 I’d just begun working on an atlas in which all the maps were the same scale, when there was a science fiction doomsday scenario for real at Chernobyl. The maps helped me understand the scale of what was happening there: had it occurred in England half the country would have been rendered uninhabitable! Russia or the Ukraine had more of the kind of space needed to cope with that kind of event; though those living there could hardly have thought so.
Despite all that it was now, in 2013, feasible to travel there, even if still dangerous; people in organised groups had been going for some time.
My friend Jocelyn and I got up early for breakfast and arrived in Kiev city centre ahead of schedule thanks to the subway shortcut I’d found last night and my reconnoitring of the route yesterday. One advantage of old age is that, although one’s not so physically able, one’s organisational skills improve.
We sat on a bench by the defunct tourist information kiosk, holding a notice with my name on it. Now was it going to be a no show?
The girl I’d been corresponding with by email appeared. We had the link up!
‘Why is the kiosk closed?’ Jocelyn asked. The answer was that all tourist information points in Kiev were closed and not because it was a public holiday. A strange situation brought about probably by budgetary reasons or maybe because it was that time of year.
I was expecting a minibus or a four-wheel-drive but transport, to my surprise, turned out to be a private car, because our party was small. Jocelyn and I sat in the back while the only other participant sat with the young driver. He was a young Canadian, had a Korean girlfriend and had turned up at the last moment from Moscow.
We drove north through outlying muddy villages and into open country with more forest the further one went. The skies were cloudy with an occasional lighter patch allowing weak sunlight. It looked more like November than Spring. The car had to avoid the odd flood from melting snow and occasional potholes in the road. Moscow was worse, apparently.
Adventurous as I am, I took what precautions I could while in Ukraine. I followed the advice about wearing substantial clothing by donning not just my boots, parka and woolly hat but even mittens, which I wasn’t going to remove even for photography. Airborne radiation wasn’t a problem, there being less of it where we were going than there is at 30,000 feet in an aircraft, unless one was sticking around for much longer than a day in some parts.
No, the danger came from ground particles. For that reason it was not a good idea to walk through vegetation or put anything on the ground and pick it up again. ‘This is a hazardous operation,’ I’d told Jocelyn. Maybe it really was and anyway it sounded good! It hadn’t put her off, though, and she was fatalistic about it saying that when her number was up it was up. She was the median between my caution and the Canadian who was turning out to be the group nutter. He jabbered away to the driver on the journey up there, ignoring the driver’s warning about flourishing his camera at a checkpoint. I’d learned as long ago as Africa that to do snap anything or anyone official was courting trouble. I was afraid that the Canadian was about to f*** up the expedition before it had really started.
Luckily none of the army or police here took offence and we met the guide: a bald headed guy with earrings and camouflaged trousers.
The danger zone is and has been known variously as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 30 Kilometre Zone and just the Zone. The most reliable guide was a map I found on the internet which looks like the same one used in the university lecture back in the UK I had attended on the subject.
It’s a map of radioactivity mirroring the fallout I saw at the lecture. It displays the distribution of the most deadly particles – Cesium-137 – in four zones: red patches on the map being closed or lethal zones, dark pink permanent control zones, light pink the periodic control zone, and light brown the ‘unnamed zone,’ which extended a broad tongue south down the Dneiper River to just ten miles north of Kiev.
It taught me how important wind direction and rain can be in any sort of nuclear disaster. The country at Chernobyl Power Station and to the north was uninhabitable but further north was a semi-liveable area. Then there was another dumping ground of radioactive contamination in the Gomel region further north still, rendering land around that town uninhabitable too.
Kiev in fact was very lucky for it is slightly closer to Chernobyl power station than Gomel. So had weather conditions been different, what had been the Soviet Union’s third city might have been rendered a citywide version of Pripyat, the closest town to the power station. Pripyat is a dead, abandoned ghost town to this day.
A white brick erection with a bas relief of the power station and blue Cyrillic lettering topped by an atom announced Chernobyl itself. The thing to remember about the geography of the Chernobyl region is that the town of Chernobyl is south of the southern end of a man-made lake whereas the power station of Chernobyl is about ten miles away at the northern end, with Pripyat a few miles further. I had my doubts about the habitability of Chernobyl town because the map showed radiation seriously increasing here, marked by checkpoints in and around the town where roads crossed into the zones mentioned. There were some people still around though, implying that, despite the town having been evacuated at the time of the disaster, it might just about be habitable now.
Chernobyl looked a little strange with pipes here and there constructed gantry fashion up and over the road. That was because ground radiation was already serious enough to make laying them underground or drinking water from them a dodgy proposition. The place was predictably quiet and unkempt too, with plenty of bare trees showing little evidence of spring surrounding detached buildings, residential and otherwise, spacious but none of the more substantial sort usually forming town centres. At least this was true of where we went. It turned out there was plenty to see here.
A building with a symbolic mural on two adjoining walls: an exploding view of red reactor cores, fuel rods and – surprisingly – birds. A favourite spot to have one’s photo taken.
A graveyard of crosses bearing names of villages abandoned in the nuclear disaster. More a field of them actually.
A memorial where I promptly removed my hat when I learned what it and the sculpted statues in the throes of action below were about: those emergency firemen and workers who sacrificed their lives through lethal doses of radiation while bringing the catastrophe under control. Had they not done so, places like Kiev might have suffered the same fate as Pripyat. Life over much of Europe might have become more problematical too. The thought of firemen being involved made me think of 9/11. Totally different circumstances: same result for the firemen.
A vehicle park of irradiated armoured personnel carriers and remote control vehicles. Safe enough to view from a distance. The remote control vehicles sported red and yellow colouring that reminded me of Tonka Toys. Even the remote control robotic vehicles though were affected by radiation where it was high enough; their electronics were fried by it.
A dog wandering around aimlessly without any apparent control. Notable because we saw various solitary dogs doing likewise throughout the day. It was a clue as to the state of the wildlife in this region. Animals seemed to flourish here; radioactive dogs or otherwise.
In Chernobyl town we were scanned in a large bare room with a contraption that looked like several metallic phone booths lined end to end without doors. You stepped up into one of them, put your hands on pads and readings were taken.
Just before this adventure I’d come across a book in Gosport listing places in the world one would never visit. Chernobyl and its ‘zone’ was one and now we were heading into ‘The Zone’ up a broad empty road straight into dangerous pine forest and wilderness. There’s a Russian SF novel called Roadside Picnic in which there’s an abandoned zone of dereliction and unseen dangers created by aliens leaving artefacts: some beneficial, some deadly, but all incomprehensible. It captured imagination to the extent that a film called Stalker was derived from it, computer games too. This was the closest we would get on this planet to that fantasy: an abandoned ambit of unseen dangers left by some awesome force hard to comprehend.
Now we were playing the roles of the adventurers, guides and outlaws in Roadside Picnic who entered the zone at their own risk. The guide tried to point out a deserted village. I found it difficult to make out the shapes of what had been small buildings; people’s former homes amidst deciduous thickets by the road. The place was completely overgrown. There were tales of criminals choosing the zone as a refuge and probably living in places like that since few if any would dare follow them in.
Photography copyright David Angus.