A city without people

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The checkpoint

A gentle summer wind brushes through the trees in the country side of Ukraine.  Fields glow in a gold tone like in any other country side. Looking at the traditional landscape from the window of our van, speeding along the bumpy road, it’s hard to believe we’re only few kilometers from the infamous power plant of Chernobyl. Few kilometers further from the plant is the city that housed the workers and their families, Pripyat.

A guard in camouflage gives back our passports and signs us to keep moving.  We’ve passed the first of three checkpoints. A pack of wild boars make their way into the bushed across the long road leading into the area. – The government doesn’t want people to return, says our guide Natasha. – That’s why most of the houses in the quarantine zone have been bulldozed. A group of couple of hundred has still returned to their home town. People didn’t want to leave, no matter what.

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The plant

A view like any other

Don’t step on the grass, don’t pick up anything from the ground, don’t sit down – Natasha goes over the safety regulations before we continue to the plant. We are joined by another guide, Sergei who knows the area and Pripyat, his former home town. We sign the release forms. From now on we eat fruits from the area at our own risk.

On the other side of the lake that holds the cooling water for the plant is a construction site left unfinished, surrounded by rusty cranes. Additional reactors were supposed to be built here.

Workers are mowing the lawn and trimming the bushes in the front yard of the plant. The view is something out of an old photo and stunningly normal. Only the statue erected in front of the plant reminds of the history.

As just to be sure we get enough radiation we move closer to the plant. Sergei checks the reading on the meter 400 meters from the reactor. Radiation is now dozens of times higher than in an average city.

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The bridge

Citizens: zero

We’re driving over a rusty bridge into Pripyat. Street lamp posts stand on the bridge, the lamps themselves have gone along with someone looking to make a profit.

Pripyat was an exclusive city of the future. It had the cutting edge of everything, only people who were thoroughly screened were given the privilege to live in the modern paradise of a working man. The city was to be showcased to the rest of the world as a sign of communist progress.

The run down swimming hall of Pripyat stands in the middle of a thick bush. Apparently the safety regulations were only for the grass because we follow Natasha and dive into the bush towards the entrance. There’s plastic carpet on the stairs and floors. – This carpet protected against the radiation so people could use this hall after the incident. – At least this is what they believed. The city wasn’t evacuated until two days after the accident, Natasha explains.

Once outside, Sergei sets the meter on a piece of moss – absorbent moss is one of the most polluted materials in the city, says Sergei.  – It really took in the radiation.

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The square

Hammer on the skyline

Plaster fallen from the walls crumbles beneath my feet as we make our way to the lobby of hotel Polissya. On one wall of the empty corridor is a graffiti of children playing. Everything imaginable has been stolen and there was plenty to steal as well. – They’ve left in a hurry says Natasha. Thieves took everything from sofas to window glasses after the evacuation, paying no attention to radiation. The banquet hall that once entertained the elite of the Soviet Union visiting the city of the future is covered in dust.

The elevator seems to be out of order so we head to the stairs.  From the roof terrace opens an amazing view over the city and to the main square. The culture center that upheld the city’s communist spirit stands on one side of the square. The rusty sign with a hammer and sickle on the roof of the building catches my eye. The line of concrete houses that were to be the future of practical and equal worker housing continues behind the trees. The sun does its best but the city stays grey and dead silent.

Distance from here to the plant is four kilometers. A silhouette of the plant can be seen in the horizon. Trees grow on the roofs and plants have taken over the main square. You could spend days exploring this city that once housed 50 000 citizens, but we have to move on.

Our driver hurries us to move along and we leave the ghost town. We make our way back from the city through radiation scanners. The old meter looks like something out of the original star trek series. The machine gives me an assuring green light, I get to keep my shoes that went slightly over the moss.

The former city of the future stays behind to live its life together with nature.

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