Sunrise in Pripyat? Why not! I’ve been to Pripyat so many times, in different seasons, day and night. It’s finally time to greet the city at the break of day. I get up before 4 in the morning and at 5 I’m already standing on the roof of a 16 storey building which has an excellent view of the town centre and nearby power plant.
Sleepy Pripyat slowly emerges from the shadows and comes to life. A strange feeling. As if any moment now people will appear, hurrying on their way to work. Or mothers taking kids to kindergarten. Soon there will be hustle and bustle, the noise of cars, and shouts of children playing. But that’s just my imagination at work. In the abandoned city, nature is the only thing springing to life. Everything else died 28 years ago.
But Pripyat isn’t the main reason I returned to the zone. For some time I’ve been coming here less often and for shorter times. There is just one reason. Pripyat is systematically falling apart. Plaster is falling off of buildings, concrete and bricks are crumbling, then the floors rot and collapse. In the end whole walls and ceilings collapse. The books, newspapers and posters left inside them turn into a pile of damp mush. The city is disappearing.
Tourists who come for the first time and often only visit the zone generally aren’t able to notice the changes, the progress of the destruction, the ever decreasing number of objects. It looks to them like time stopped here. That’s just an illusion.
In my search for traces of the past, I’ve been leaving Pripyat more often and getting farther and farther away from it. I venture into unknown regions of the zone. I know from experience that the farther away, the more chance there is of finding something truly exceptional.
That’s why I decide to visit more far-flung places in the northern corners of the zone. Villages located right by the border with Belarus. 40 km in one direction, two hours drive. Regular tourists don’t make it here. Initially asphalt, the potholed roads soon give way to narrow, overgrown dirt roads. Eventually there are no roads at all. It’s only possible to go farther with an off-road vehicle. Scattered trees, dense foliage, no sign of any human presence. And animals are appearing more and more often. The marshy terrain, uninhabited by people, is the ideal place for deer, moose, wild boars and a multitude of birds.
I’m looking for interesting places, objects, traces of the bygone system. It’s easiest to find them in abandoned schools, kindergartens and clubs. In places that tourists haven’t discovered, only known by former residents. Some of them still visit the places they used to live. They regularly stick calendars with the passing years up in empty homes. They leave inscriptions on school desks as souvenirs.
All the larger villages have a school. You just have to spot them through the dense vegetation. Experience comes in handy: the school is most often located on Lenin street – the main street of every village. You can spot schools more easily if you know that they’re usually made of brick rather than wood. Then it’s just a matter of luck – if the school has stood the test of time, the roof hasn’t caved in or the glass hasn’t been broken you can still find real gems from the bygone era.
Getting to the northernmost village, Denisovitchi (Rus. Денисовичи), takes several hours. Despite a GPS system and satellite maps that are more detailed than those generally available on Google Maps or Google Earth, finding the right road is no walk in the park. While the satellite images show a narrow inlet among the trees, right after reaching it the dirt road is suddenly cut off by a wall of trees. You can try to move individual, smaller or collapsed trees, but not a whole forest. You have to go back a dozen or so kilometres and try to get there from another side. In the end, I manage.
CROSSING THE BORDER
From the border towns, it’s just a short jump over to the Polesky Radiation and Ecology Reserve. This is the Belarusian equivalent of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Both are similar sizes, both closed and both contaminated, but Belarus is much more so. I’ve been trying to get permission to visit the Belarusian reserve for over a year now. First with the reserve authorities, then at the Ministry of Emergency Situations. With no luck, so far. So maybe in the meantime I could try to get there like a true stalker?
But it’s not that simple. The terrain on the Pripyat basin, divided between Belarus and Ukraine, is one of the most wild and unknown corners of Europe. The numerous tributaries create a land of bogs, wetlands and swamps which are reminiscent of the northern tundra, with their dwarfed birches, willows and pines. Crossing the final 2 kilometre stretch from the Ukrainian Masheva (Rus. Машево) to the Belarusian Chemkov (Rus. Чемков) takes an hour. Unspoiled views and encounters with animals – moose, deer and a multitude of birds make up for the difficulties of the road. I happened to find a moose horn.Another much easier task, though not without a hit of adrenaline, is reaching the Belarusian village Posudovo (Rus. Посудово). The most difficult stretch and the border itself could be conquered by going along the train tracks. The rush of adrenaline comes from the sudden sight of Belarusian border patrollers emerging from behind trees. Luckily, immediately dropping to the ground and hiding in the tall grass protects from being detected.
The Belarusian villages are surprisingly small, and don’t have very many houses. I think some of them were knocked down and buried soon after the catastrophe. This was a common practice to be sure that the residents had nothing to come back to.
The surviving houses are no different from the Ukrainian ones. Maybe just a bit more colourful, but just as empty inside. I had hoped that the large distance from human habitats would mean that the villages would be less damaged and looted. Unfortunately, they confirm the opinions of my Belarusian friends – there’s nothing special in the villages, not even houses. And I start to wonder whether it’s worth continuing to try to get permission to visit legally.
THE RED FOREST
I’ve already written about the Red Forest while looking for radioactive remains of the power plant disaster. To recap – as a result of the catastrophe, radioactive isotopes entered the atmosphere from the reactor and were distributed by the air stream over a significant portion of Europe. Most of these fell near the power plant, contaminating tens of thousands of nearby trees. Most of these are located directly next to the power plant. All the coniferous trees (trunks) in this area died and their needles turned red. Hence the name Red Forest. Shortly after the catastrophe, the decision was made to cut down and bury all the dead trees. Leaving them posed a risk of re-distributing the radiation, for example, as a result of a fire or high traffic of cars passing by the forest. Cutting down and burying the trees also significantly decreased the background radiation which is currently around 20-30 uSv/h.
Despite the fact that almost 30 years have passed since the catastrophe, the Red Forest is still one of the most radioactive places in the zone. The last time I was here I found a highly radioactive fragment (around 100 mSv/h) pretty easily, which was probably a fragment of graphite from reactor 4.
This time I’m checking the place where the radioactive trees were buried. It’s easy to identify the burial place – the long, brown ditches and the mounds sticking up above ground level are clearly visible on satellite pictures.
As I get closer to the burial location of the trees, the background radiation increases, reaching a level of around 100 uSv/h. It reaches its maximum, around 200 uSv/h, several metres away, where rainwater flowing from the mounds and washing radioactive isotopes with it gathers in the troughs.
In the Red Forest I happen to come across a building where there are several well-preserved objects.
I’ve visited the Chernobyl-2 military complex, where the DUGA over-the-horizon radar is located, many times. This time I’m visiting two places that are inextricably linked to it. Overgrown roads that are now impossible to see and can only be navigated by off-road vehicle or on foot lead to them.
The first of these is the auxiliary DUGA radar system, known as Krug. It consists of 240 antennae (each 12 metres high), laid out in two circles with a diameter of 300 metres. In the centre of the construction there is a one-storey building which serves as control centre, on the roof of which is the main antenna. Despite the fact that there is no longer any equipment in the building that would make it possible to tell what the complex is for, it’s generally known that its task was to optimise the angular frequency modes of the over-the-horizon radar’s operation. Supposedly the equipment used was so sensitive that it could detect a signal that had already been around the world twice.
After approaching the antennae, it turns out that 120 antennae, in one circle, have already been dismantled and are lying beside the concrete foundations they once stood on. Some of them have already been cut up for scrap. The majority of the 120 antennae, making up the second – outer – circle and the net serving as wave reflectors, are still in very good condition.
Over the significant amount of time that has passed, all the antennae have been almost completely hidden by trees, making it hard to see more than one at a time. You can only see all of them at once from the air, best in the autumn when the leaves have fallen off the trees.
ANTI-AIRCRAFT DEFENSE SYSTEM
The second object near Chernobyl-2 is the firing position of the defence missile squadron, built for anti-aircraft defence of the DUGA radar complex. The system consisted of 6 SM-90 rocket launchers which were disguised and surrounded by earthen ramparts, equipped with Volkhov S-75M missile sets placed in a circle around a centrally located missile homing station.
Inside the reinforced concrete construction there were rooms containing specific elements of the system; command cabin, cabins with blocks calculating target and missile coordinates, control cabin and power plant. The whole construction was covered in earth and at its peak was the antenna cabin with flight detector systems of the target and missile tracking station and command transmitter for guiding the missile to the target. Depending on the model, a missile of over ten metres had a range of 30 to 50 km, weighed close to 2.5 tonnes and could bear a conventional or nuclear load (the division was only equipped with conventional warheads).
The likelihood of destroying a target with one missile was estimated at 60%, but this value varied depending on the model of missile and the combat tactics of the opponent, mainly measures distorting the missile homing system and transponders.
Some archival photos showing an S-75 missile.
While nearby the over-the-horizon radar, I decide to also check its height. Different sources give different results. With this purpose in mind, I climb up the side mast which the net serving as wave reflector is attached to. It’s the same height as the mast supporting the antenna. The official height reading is 156 metres (including the top mast).
I happened to find interesting little paintings on the wooden walls around the playground.
Even though I finished working on the second part of Alone in the Zone, I didn’t leave my camera behind. I had it with me the whole time and filmed all the new places I visited. Even the most interesting photoreport couldn’t recreate the atmosphere of these places, and so there’s also a film from the last trip. You can see a 2 minute sample below.
The full, 17 minute version is only available for everyone who owns Alone 2. To see it you just have to enter your unique code below, which was also the order number you received when buying Alone 2. Don’t lose it, and don’t give it to anyone – this isn’t the only surprise in store for you!
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The new film fulfils the promise I made to everyone who bought Alone 2. I promised that all subsequent materials from Chernobyl, updating the places shown in the film, would be available for free. As thanks for your trust and co-financing further projects. This film is for you.
If you still don’t have Alone 2 (or Alone 1), you can buy it by clicking on the banner below. After purchasing the film, you’ll receive a unique code which will enable you to immediately watch all additional materials, including the above-mentioned film and everything that comes out in the future. With no additional fees. The principle is simple – you should always have full and up-to-date materials from the zone.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT TIME
As I mentioned at the beginning of the report, the zone is disappearing. These are not empty words. The zone is disappearing increasingly quickly. Which is why I’m coming back to the zone this year with a professional camera to film the most important places again.
The low sensitivity and resolution of the camera I’m currently using, the fact that it constantly moves because it’s being worn on a helmet and the wide angle lens with limited possibility to change the focus effectively limit its scope of use and image quality.A small helmet-mounted camera is best in dynamic scenes – climbs, searches for new places and objects – when I would need to have both hands free. In such cases the uniqueness of the images is more important than the image quality. This time it will be the other way around.
Which is why I’m going back with a professional camera recording in 4K format, with lenses and tripods. To preserve the images of the zone in the best quality – resolution, details and colours – as possible. With greater vividness, depth of colour and focus range.
Having visited practically every place in the zone, I know where I would like to go back to and film again. The abandoned Orthodox church in Krasne, block 4 of the nuclear power plant, DUGA and selected places in Pripyat are just a few of the places I’ll be visiting soon. And I won’t forget interviews with the ageing re-settlers.
What’s all this for? Don’t think you’ll be seeing Alone in the Zone in 4K any time soon. The collected material will have to wait for 4K technology to become more widespread – especially availability of affordable high resolution televisions. But collecting the material in 4K can’t wait any longer. It has to be done right now, because by the time this image format is widely available the zone no longer will be.
Don’t worry, if you search well in Pripyat you can still find something interesting. This is my latest discovery.
If you’re a photographer or filmmaker (over 25 years of age) and you want to join one of the coming trips to the zone, send a few words about yourself to arek (at) podniesinski (dot) pl.
PREVIOUS REPORTS FROM THE ZONE:
2013 – OFF THE BEATEN TRACK 1
2013 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 2 – BEHIND THE SCENES
2013 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 2 – PREMIERE
2013 – LONG WEEKEND IN THE ZONE
2012 – HEROES OF A NON-EXISTANT COUNTRY
2011 – REACTOR 4
2011 – LITTLE REACTORS
2011 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1 BEHIND THE SCENES
2011 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1 – FILM
2010 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1
2010 – VICTORY DAY
2010 – CHERNOBYL 3RD EXPEDITION
2009 – CHERNOBYL 2ND EXPEDITION
2008 – CHERNOBYL 1ST EXPEDITION
Great shots as always. The buildings are really suffering now.